Scholars’ Corner: A Conversation with Richard Madsen

Richard Madsen and Gary Adler

Dr. Gary Adler, the Institute’s Director of Research and the driving force behind the selection of Plumleigh Speakers, sat down recently with Dr. Richard Madsen following his presentation to talk about his work, his relationships with other sociologists, his faith, and more. 

It’s clear that your relationships with what we as sociologists would normally call our “research subjects” is more involved than is typical.  Is that important to the way you do your research, those relationships?

As a sociologist you want to kind of detach because that gives you some objectivity, and also you want to help not just the broad general public, but help people to understand themselves better. People ask you what you think and I’m happy to engage in dialogue. I see social science as a dialogical enterprise, not simply getting some data and then using it, but having a real interpersonal exchange.

You worked very closely with Prof. Robert Bellah, one of the most distinguished and admired sociologists of religion in our time. Bob died this summer– something I feel was a tragedy for the discipline and for American religion in a broad sense. Can you tell us about your relationship with him — both personal and professional? 

What can I say? You know, he could be very down to earth and very funny. One thing I wrote about in this little memorial I wrote for the Hedgehog Review, the coming issue, was, just before he died, he wrote us.  We were all going to meet together and he told us he had to have this operation and the doctor said it was probably going to be okay.  “But,” he said, “just in case I die, you know, I’m really ready for it, I’ve learned all this from my inward stoicism and my studies of Zen and so forth, and I’m quite good in the face of that.” So he was ready for it. Except, we weren’t! That was the problem.

He actually talked about dying a number of times. We had a number of meetings where he would bring this up. We had a very memorable meeting in Germany to discuss part of the drafts of his book [Religion and Human Evolution], around this issue of the so-called “Axial Age.” And he had this meeting in Erfurt, Germany, where Max Weber was born, and it was organized by Hans Joas, a social theorist from Germany. Charles Taylor was there, and Habermas and Eisenstadt.  It was really quite a big thing.

But then, too, Bellah talked about dying and about his work and how he’d had a very good life and how he made contributions and so forth. He’d like to have lived a few more years but he felt very fulfilled. And that meeting was really special [because] the level of conversation was very good. It was a very high level.

When we finished our books [Habits of the Heart, The Good Society], or when we would have our meetings, he would have these dinners – this was an important part of our academic enterprise – at least one very nice dinner. So we’d go to a place like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and there was a place over in San Francisco, run by the Pacific Zen Center, a place called Greens. Some of the very nice times were these very wonderful meals – not just the food but the conversations, people getting really worked up over stuff. That was really fun. They were these celebratory moments.

Bob was a very good listener, so when we had our meetings, it was really a dialogue. He allowed people to talk and didn’t try to impose his views on people. It was a really genuine, collective meeting of the minds. And in my experience in academia, people who really do that are kind of rare.

We met for all these years – 35 – and it was involving friendship and it was really good. So I’ve tried in my own modest way to learn from him and model myself a little bit after him.

During your talk you made a comment about being able to understand the Chinese Communist Party because you understood the Catholic hierarchy! That comment was intriguing to me because many scholars talk about the need to shed their identity.  Can you say anything about that?  

Some people have said that Habits of the Heart is a very Catholic book. And actually it was used a lot by Catholic bishops, when they wrote their 1986 document on the economy. And it was picked up by a lot of Catholics, because it has a kind of a corporate vision, that we’re not just these isolated individuals, that we’re part of a larger community a larger whole. And that’s a big part of Catholic teaching.

It kind of gets into your bones, versus the Protestant individualism, you know, “me, God,” that sort of thing. And there’s this Catholic code that Charles Taylor and Bellah wrote about. Bellah was actually Episcopalian, but he liked the Catholic vision because he was close enough to it. The issues of authority and sex–he couldn’t go there. I guess I can’t either! I guess I define myself as a bad Catholic.

George Orwell said you couldn’t be a religious person and a good novelist, except, if you were a bad Catholic you could be a good novelist. He was thinking of Graham Greene, actually. Well, the same is true for a sociologist. Maybe you can’t be a good Catholic and a good sociologist, but you can be a bad Catholic and a good sociologist.  Maybe that’s good.





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