The late Robert Bellah’s work , like Philip Rieff’s, “revolves around a similar premise, and a similar problem,” wrote Wilfred McClay (a longtime member of our advisory council) in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2006, on the occasion of the publication of The Robert Bellah Reader . ( The article is unfortunately behind the newspaper’s paywall.)
The premise is that any culture worthy of the name is necessarily founded upon a moral order that is expressed in shared narratives, cosmologies, and interdictions. The problem is whether those moral foundations can survive the dominant outlook of modernity, an outlook characterized by what Bellah calls the “theoretic consciousness” and Rieff called “the analytic attitude.” Each man’s work began in a similar place, but arrived at very different conclusions.
Bellah’s answer was more hopeful than Rieff’s, he writes. He thought modernity “something less monolithic, and the therapeutic ethos less triumphant, precisely because they are not the whole of human experience. All the old stories, cosmologies, and interdictions still rattle about, even inside the most seemingly iron of cages. There is no escaping that mythic dimension” particularly religion, which is “culture’s most profoundly developed form of ‘socially charged narrative’.”
Bellah challenged the mainstream insistence on the fact/value distinction and its elimination of religion from public life and discourse, which were the usual conventions of his discipline. McClay notes that the book he is reviewing even included some of Bellah’s sermons and that he insists in his introduction to the book, “I don’t have two hats,” sociological and religious.
He did miss something, though, McClay argues. “For all his breadth, Bellah seems completely innocent of conservative writers such as Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Robert A. Nisbet, and José Ortega y Gasset, who do not appear in his pages, but whose works would buttress and improve many of his insights about cultural continuity and the sources of genuine community. Bellah often strains to reinvent wheels that such writers took for granted.” Which is still, I think McClay would be quick to say now, a great point in his favor: at least he saw the wheel that was needed. And more importantly:
There is a deep and keen moral sense in his work that deserves to be celebrated, especially in an era of postmodernist moral insouciance. One wants to stand up and cheer when reading, in his essay “The True Scholar,” of an exchange with one of his best graduate students, who argued that all human action is motivated by the struggle to increase one’s power and possessions. To which Bellah offered the perfect rejoinder. “Is that true of you?” he asked. “How could I ever trust you if that were true?” How much fashionable nonsense could be disposed of by teachers willing to pose those same simple questions, and thereby reassert the moral importance of their own work.