Swift Hall. (Photography by Zenobia Gonsalves, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Marty, media, and religion
Divinity School dean Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, looks ahead to an enhanced Martin Marty Center, needed now more than ever.

When I joined the Divinity School faculty in 1998, my new office in Swift Hall came with a phone number that had once been assigned to Martin E. Marty, PhD’56, the Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor of the history of modern Christianity in the Divinity School. The phone rang at least twice a day with journalists from CNN, the Chicago Tribune, NPR, and other major outlets anxiously seeking Marty’s pithy insights into the ways religion informed events unfolding around us. Once the call was rerouted, Marty obliged—and continues to oblige—with his concise, informative, nonideological, nondenominational, nonpartisan commentary.

But even the legendarily prolific Marty can satisfy only a fraction of the demand. Worse still, many journalists, politicians, pundits, and thought leaders fail even to realize they need a Marty-like guide to make sense of the issues that shape our world. From the health- care debate to the Sikh temple shooting near Milwaukee—and far beyond, to seemingly secular issues such as taxation, the future of a united Europe, the role of social media—our world has been defined by religious values and expectations that often go unacknowledged. Any hope of a thoughtful, effective response to the challenges we face requires an understanding of the history and philosophy that brought us here, and that inevitably requires some sophistication about religion.

The University of Chicago Divinity School is uniquely positioned to offer that insight. With an outstanding faculty of scholars of religion (56 at this counting) and doctoral students in 11 areas of study, as well as a network of alumni and friends across the country and around the globe, we offer a deep well of knowledge that could inform our social, political, and moral dialogue. The global scope of world religions in all their multifaceted complexity, even within traditions, demands that depth to support inquiry about religion that is accurate, nuanced, current, and intelligent.

In order to extend that knowledge beyond the walls of academia, we need to create new structures and forums. That work is already under way at the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. Under the direction of William Schweiker, PhD’85, the Edward L. Ryerson distinguished service professor of theological ethics, the Marty Center aims to further intelligent public conversation about the phenomena that comprise religion. The center carries out an ambitious schedule of conferences, online publications, and a dissertation seminar that helps advanced PhD students to reflect on their scholarship, develop the capacities for broader conversation beyond narrow subspecialties, and work to answer the “so what” question.

The Marty Center is rooted in the educational climate of the Divinity School, a place well known for having an outstanding faculty who are leaders in their fields and train the next generation of scholars who are deeply informed, uncompromisingly rigorous, and honestly engaged. Each fall I speak to our new master’s and doctoral students, who come to study all five of the world’s major religious traditions and many other topics in the study of religion. I tell them, “In the course of your research here you will continue to find yourself thinking, ‘It is much more complex than I had thought.’ But don’t stop there; ask yourself, ‘Who needs to know about this complexity, and why?’”

In 2013 the Marty Center is launching a new initiative to make the Marty Center the go-to place for reliable information and learned commentary about religion in American and global public life. This can fill a real lacuna in the current media environment; it has the potential to make the highest level of scholarly knowledge and research in religion available in accessible and interactive ways to wider interested publics. In fact, we believe that it must. It is at the heart of our responsibility as scholars and educators.