Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Networks and public religion

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Sightings should perhaps be called “Listenings” this week, as the idea for this column came to me as I listened to a variety of speakers and conversed with other listeners present at a historians’ conference at the University of Notre Dame on “Enduring Trends and New Directions.” There I kept noticing how frequently the words “networks” and “networking” were used. To make sense of this, I’ll tell a story.

Thanks to the conversation-enhanced chauffeuring with neighbor Kenneth Woodward (ex-Newsweek) and the hospitality of Notre Dame, I attended the conference in honor of honor-worthy Christian scholar Mark Noll (ex-Wheaton College, more recently at Notre Dame). I had stopped traveling to conferences two-and-a-half years ago, so this was exceptional. Since this was my only choice of conference-going these days I made sure it promised to be a good one. It was.

Now to the point of my hearing and learning and thinking about “networks.” I will get booted out of the company of emeriti historians if I naively suggest that this was all new to me and should be forwarded to you breathlessly, in a “stop the press” spirit. If and insofar as networks are a fad or “meme” to be promoted in awe, count me out as a peddler. But I could not get over how often historians of evangelical, Catholic, mainline, and “none” company referred creatively to what they observed about networks and what these conveyed to those of us who must be alert to what goes on in the world of public religion. Many “networkers” revealed disappointment about their inherited need to monitor “institutions” and “hierarchies.”

During the ride home and the chat with Woodward, I happened on a review, “Circling the Square,” by John Gray. He took on the prime book in the current round of ambitious attempts to explain what is going on, Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook. Gray does not favor Ferguson at all, seeing in that author’s passion for networks a tendency to convert network-talk into formal scientific (and, alas, jargon-filled) categories and lessons. Read the review—if you have access, whether online or to the print edition—for the background on the controversy over the book, which “claims to present ‘a new historical narrative, in which major changes—dating back to the Age of Discovery and the Reformation, if not earlier—can be understood, in essence, as disruptive challenges to established hierarchies by networks.’”

Given my background, I was roused, for example, by Ferguson’s illustration of the network generated by the printing press and its influence on the spread of Lutheranism, or Freemasonry in the context of the French and American Revolutions, et cetera. The Roman Catholic Church under the French and early American governments inherited, lived off, and transmitted motivations through such networks. Lots of luck to the unaware or befuddled hierarchs and establishmentarians!

Enough, for now: this is not history class, but a window for sighting “public religion.” Still, the trends Ferguson talks about are the background for much in today’s religious world. Thus denominations, councils, and federations, against which I have no special case, are often bypassed by the networks which now, as always, challenge hierarchies and institutions. In American religion, voluntary associations, ad hoc inventions, and evidencers of the Holy Spirit as experienced by so many visited by the Spirit—just listen to them—have long been enliveners, and are acquiring new impetus and support. For many of us at the Notre Dame conference and in numberless comparable gatherings and events, the network, not as a basis for Fergusonian theory and science but as a phenomenon to be observed and examined, bears “sighting.”

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

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