Finding the Church: Post-Traditional Discipleship

by Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah is emeritus professor of sociology and comparative studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of many books, including The Broken Covenant (Seabury Press 1975) and, with others, Habits of the Heart (U. of California Press, 1996).

This article is one in a series from the Christian Century magazine: “How My Mind Has Changed.” Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Bellah holds that the initial shift in point of view that allowed him as an adult to consider religion as a viable option came from his exposure to Tillich and his confident assertion that Christianity is not “belief in the unbelievable.” His later turn to more active fellowship in the company of believers was motivated as much by a feeling that the church had need of him as it was by any private needs of his own.

In 1970 I published an intellectual autobiography that served as the introduction to my collection of essays titled Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. I want to make a first effort at bringing that essay up to date. I will, however, take two essays I published in the 1970s (both included in Beyond Belief) as intellectual benchmarks with respect to which I will measure changes, developments and continuities in the subsequent years. They are "Religious Evolution" and "Civil Religion in America," the two most influential essays I ever wrote. I want to trace the development of my thought with regard to discipleship and citizenship from the positions set forth in those essays and largely reiterated in the introduction to Beyond Belief.

The essay "Religious Evolution" was more Hegelian, more ethnocentric and more personal than I realized when I wrote it. The religious Weltgeist turned out to be the Geist of my own culture, as indicated by the special prominence of Protestantism -- virtually the only instance of the stage of "Early Modern Religion." It also turned out to be the Geist of myself in stage five, "Modern Religion," as is evident to me from the title, Beyond Belief with its subtitle alluding to the "post-traditional." What I was celebrating in what I called modern religion was a degree of freedom from traditional and institutional restraints which curiously prefigures several of the "post" movements of recent years (indeed, in 1970 I already referred to the contemporary situation as "postmodern"). In my description, modern religion focused on the individual, who had the task of largely making up his or her religion from whatever traditional or current materials lay at hand, finding like-minded individuals to cooperate in this effort if they were available. Radical voluntarism was the key, although I never failed to moderate it with statements to the effect that freedom could be exercised only "within [largely unspecified] limits."

Readers of Habits of the Heart will probably recognize that in the 1960s I was championing just the sort of religious individualism, strongly identified with "expressive individualism," that came in for rather severe treatment in the later book. Obviously by 1985 I had "changed my mind." It is difficult at this point to sort out the cultural, political and personal changes that can account for this difference in my position, but I will try.

As I recounted in Beyond Belief; I was reconverted to Christianity in the middle 1950s by Paul Tillich -- first by The Courage to Be, and then by his sermons and other books and by some degree of personal contact when we were both at Harvard in the late '50s and early '60s. But I was in a quandary as to how to give institutional expression to my new situation, and with my essentially individualistic position, in no hurry to do anything about it. Since Tillich's preaching was so incomparable, I felt that no form of worship that focused on the sermon was going to be satisfactory to me. Early on I felt my only options were silence or liturgy. I tried attending Episcopal morning prayer on several occasions but found it excessively dry.

During the mid-'60s I established a loose connection with the Cambridge Friends Meeting and even taught First Day School at the junior-high level for a while, something I found far more exhausting than my teaching at Harvard. Although I shared many of the social concerns of the Cambridge Friends and came to admire the spiritual depth of some of the members, the silence I was seeking was all too often broken, sometimes with anecdotes from the latest issue of Reader's Digest. After my move to Berkeley in 1967 I put the institutional question on hold and was, when I wrote the introduction, essentially a "private Christian," even though I knew at some level of consciousness that that was an oxymoron.

In the late '70s I made my second approach to the Episcopal Church, this time at Saint Mark's Church in Berkeley. By then the main Sunday service was no longer morning prayer, but the Eucharist. I think that was quite important to me, but also Saint Mark's was a wonderful parish, described pseudonymously as "Saint Stephen's" in Chapter 9 of Habits of the Heart.

I do not look happily on my 25 years of shopping for the right parish; I have been quite hard on consumer Christians who flit from church to church seeking the most convenient services. But it is unrealistic to assume that Christians today will stay where they were brought up, if they were religiously brought up at all. Both the Protestant principle of voluntarism and the modern respect for autonomous decision make it natural for adults to choose their own religious affiliation. Here I would adopt the analogy of Hegel's conception of marriage, namely, that it is a contract to enter a noncontractual relation. It is a contract in that it is entered into freely. It is noncontractual in that it is in intention indissoluble. Hegel, a devoted Lutheran, allowed for divorce on the grounds that we are sinners and may not be able to live up to our intention, but the intention is never to be taken lightly.

Even though my church identity did not finally clarify until the past ten or 12 years, I feel it is no longer an open question for me. I suppose there might be developments in my parish or my denomination or myself that might cause me to change, but they would have to be drastic indeed to undermine what I now consider a settled commitment. In any case I hope never again to be cut off from the body of Christ in the concrete sociological meaning of that term. A period of seeking, when one tries out various options, would seem normal in our kind of society, but I would not recommend my protracted process.

One of the things that brought me back to a more active churchmanship by the end of the '70s was the fact that what I had been writing and publishing gained for me a growing religious audience. Not only was I asked to speak to religious groups, from local congregations to denominational assemblies, but I was even asked to preach -- at a time when I had no church affiliation. This situation made me feel increasingly inauthentic. The church was calling me to be in fact what I was experimenting with in my writing. The point I want to underscore here is that I did not undergo an existential decision to "return to religion" out of the pure innerness of my personal situation. Even my initial shift in point of view that allowed me as an adult to consider religion as a viable option came from my exposure to Tillich and his confident assertion that Christianity is not "belief in the unbelievable." And my later turn to more active fellowship in the company of believers was motivated as much by a feeling that the church had need of me as it was by any private needs of my own.

Having said something as to the development of my discipleship, let me now take up the question of citizenship. From my adolescence to the late '50s I had been quite alienated, both culturally and politically, from American society. My decision as an undergraduate to major in social anthropology and as a graduate student to study East Asia, especially Japan, had to do with my desire to understand societies quite different from my own -- tribal societies like the Pueblos and the Navahos, or an exotic civilization like Japan -- where I could feel a degree of cultural authenticity that I did not experience at home. My Marxist political involvements as an undergraduate made me vulnerable, during the McCarthy period, to pressures that made me decide to go to Canada in 1955. For a while I did not know if I would ever return, but after the hysteria abated I was appointed to the Harvard faculty in 1957.

My year in Japan in 1960-61 had the effect of reminding me how American I was, even though I deeply appreciated the experience of Japan. As part of my Fulbright obligations I gave a series of lectures in Japanese universities on religion in American public life that formed the germ of the later essay on civil religion. The early '60s were also an optimistic time at home when it seemed that the civil rights movement was bringing about long overdue changes in our society and a new phase of democratization seemed possible.

My more positive attitude toward my own country was rather abruptly shocked by our involvement in Vietnam, which I knew at once was a terrible mistake. When I was induced in 1965 to write an essay for an issue of Daedalus on religion in America, I chose the theme of religion in American public life, concluding with a ringing condemnation of the Vietnam war. That was the essay published in 1967 as "Civil Religion in America," which in important respects changed my life. The response it generated was far greater than anything I had ever published before. In order to respond to the many invitations to write and speak stimulated by the essay, I had to give myself a quick course in American studies, something I had almost consciously avoided hitherto. Here, as in my work on the church -- and the audiences were to an extent overlapping -- my concerns were at the same time practical and intellectual. I felt that I could not withdraw from my new American audience and return to my chosen field of Japanese studies if my fellow citizens found what I had to say interesting and helpful at a time when my country's actions cried out for public involvement.

In 1973 I gave the lectures (at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati) that would be published as The Broken Covenant in 1975, and would in turn project me into an intensive year of public speaking during the 1976 Bicentennial. But when the subject of civil religion became a minor academic industry, I became increasingly concerned, as conferences, panels and symposia on the subject proliferated, that the whole issue was bogging down into arguments over definition and that substance was being overlooked. What was particularly distressing to me was the almost inveterate tendency in some quarters to identify what I called civil religion with the idolatrous worship of the state. Since I had, from my initial article, emphasized the element of divine judgment over the nation, quoting the great lines from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address as my central text, I could not but find such an interpretation abhorrent. It was not that I failed to recognize the existence of such idolatrous belief, though historically it was more commonly enunciated by preachers than by politicians, but that I believed it to be a perversion of the central and normative tradition. It was as if those who would be quite shocked if the essence of Christianity were judged by the faith's most perverse historical expressions had no qualms in doing just that to American civil religion.

In any case my own concerns were not definitional or even theoretical so much as they were practical. The Broken Covenant was indeed a jeremiad intended to change America, and of course it was widely received that way. But it did not put a stop to the definitional disputes, and by 1980 I was ready to drop the term. Varieties of Civil Religion, a collection of essays published in that year by Phillip Hammond and myself, turned out to be my swan song with respect to civil religion. In my introduction I suggested that the religio-political problem was endemic in all cultures whether something like the American civil religion existed or not. And though the book had several essays concerned with the U.S., it turned resolutely in a comparative direction as the most hopeful way of dealing with the larger issues.

In Habits of the Heart (1985) the term "civil religion" does not appear. Instead my four co-authors and I speak of "the biblical and republican traditions," which we do not claim to be identical but which we see as deeply interrelated. We support a contemporary reappropriation of them over against the radical individualism, in utilitarian and expressive form, that seemed in recent years to be driving the older traditions to the periphery of our culture. In retrospect this terminological decision seems wise, for in all the discussion which Habits generated, which was sometimes quite vituperative, the issues remained substantive and not definitional.

Habits is a political book. It is also, and only a little less obviously, a religious book. It was explicitly public philosophy; it was (largely) implicitly public theology. Barbara Ehrenreich picked up the cue, even if she misinterpreted it, when she questioned in her review in the Nation how "five atheistic social scientists" could counsel Americans to go to church. Of course we did not counsel people to go to church, though we did try to show why some of the people we interviewed do go to church and what the meaning of the biblical tradition is in America. What Ehrenreich could not imagine is that the five authors of Habits were all active members of their respective religious communities; she assumed -- and statistically she would be right in her assumption -- that we would be atheists.

Some readers have misread Habits as a Protestant book. Others, reading more carefully, noted its differences from The Broken Covenant and the degree to which Habits was not a jeremiad. Some even found it optimistic, though optimism and pessimism are in the eye of the beholder. Actually I was the only WASP in the Habits group; three of my co-authors were raised Catholic and one is Jewish. The difference is as much in tone as in content. Whereas The Broken Covenant was the voice of a prophet crying in the wilderness, alternately denouncing and lamenting for his people, Habits and its successor volume The Good Society, written by the same five authors and to be published in 1991, speak as one group of citizens to our fellow citizens, criticizing some things but also encouraging, offering examples of effective citizenship and church membership, and looking forward, if not with optimism, at least with hope. Instead of an individual voice, we speak from within a community (actually many communities, but first of all the community of the five authors) to others in overlapping communities that finally include the whole earth.

If The Broken Covenant is an expression of Tillich's Protestant principle, then the more recent work, with its emphasis on the common good and, if one reads just below the surface, the body of Christ, is an expression of what he called the catholic principle. I do not mean to imply that our emphasis is exclusive, for we intend, both politically and religiously, to be ecumenical. And on the whole we have been received as such.

To break down the boundaries: that was our hope, and with the great political changes of 1989 and 1990 the possibilities seem greater than we had imagined. Yet the barriers are numerous, and to encourage a genuinely synoptic discipleship and citizenship is a task that still faces many obstacles. With the publication of The Good Society the collaborative phase of my work will be over, and I hope to return again to the problems raised in my essay on religious evolution nearly three decades ago.

Discipleship and citizenship and the relation between them have been my enduring preoccupations. The problem of meaning is inextricably related to the problem of what must be done, but they are not identical problems and one must move back and forth between them.

The university is not the most comfortable place to carry out either of these kinds of inquiry in the present age. Specialization proliferates in the research university, and normative questions find no obvious disciplinary home. Even so, the spirit of the academic community as a moral community, or, as Josiah Royce put it, a community of interpreters, is not entirely dead. Indeed, here, too, there are some unexpectedly hopeful signs. In the border areas between philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences there are some significant openings. Books such as Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, Albert Borgmann's Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis, Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self and Theodore Von Laue's World Revolution of Westernization cannot be neatly pigeonholed in any discipline, and all of them are full of implications for theology. Perhaps not since the generation of the classic American philosophers -- Pierce, Royce, James, Dewey and Mead (none of them technical philosophers in the contemporary meaning of the term) -- has it been possible to range so broadly over the great intellectual issues of the day and break the taboo that would separate religion from secular culture. These developments are stimulated and encouraged by parallel developments in Europe -- as for instance in the great synthesizing intelligence of Jurgen Habermas.

It is apparent, even in these few lines, what I owe to Tillich, whose thought has so deeply penetrated my own that it would be very hard for me to specify all that I have learned from him. I was also fortunate to have as my principal teacher in sociology Talcott Parsons, a man of extraordinary intellectual range and openness. Although Talcott never wrote much about religion, sociology of religion was probably his greatest lecture course, one that we taught jointly for a while and one that I continue to teach in my own way up to the present. I have increasingly come to see H. Richard Niebuhr as an intellectual forebear, although I never met him and did not begin to study him seriously until after his death. Like Tillich and Parsons, Niebuhr ranged between religion, the social sciences and the humanities in a most fruitful way. It was Niebuhr who continued the tradition of Royce and Mead into the second half of the 20th century, when the philosophers had largely forgotten them.

These reflections on the major early influences on my thinking have an obvious bearing on where I am trying to go in my remaining years of intellectual inquiry. I do not mean, by the few references possible in this article, to suggest any kind of canon. I have been deeply influenced by East Asian classical culture, tribal societies and their myths, and feminists and liberationists among contemporary thinkers, all of whom I would include in the ongoing conversation. If it is to certain European and American thinkers of the past that I recur, it is not with their canonized texts that I am concerned, but with their aspirations, their willingness to deal with the largest questions of meaning and responsible action in a free society. Western theology has been accused of marginalizing and excluding too many voices, some of whom are now fortunately beginning to be heard. But theology itself has been marginalized and excluded from the research university, with damaging consequences for our intellectual life and the education of our young people. It will not be easy to change that situation, but I am happy to join those who are trying to do so.

So I move back and forth between fundamental questions of meaning and the problem of responsible action in a democratic society. The latter problem is particularly salient for Americans in a period when we have watched world democratic revolutions on TV. Given the resonance of world events, I will be surprised if Americans, too, are not before long swept up into the process of reconsidering our inherited institutions and their consequences for our life today. Nations, even very powerful nations, no longer have the power to control their own fate. They are affected not only by economic pressures but by cultural pressures. If the pressure toward globalization of our thinking in practical matters continues to increase, as it almost inevitably will, it can only intensify the spiritual questions that our common fate on this earth raises in new and urgent ways. It is, I believe, the primary task of the intellectual today, with all due modesty, to attempt to mediate these practical, intellectual and spiritual pressures so that we can hand on our material and moral endowment to future generations with some degree of hope.

In the end I am not sure whether I have "changed my mind" or not. The questions and the aspirations show a remarkable continuity. The answers and the dialogue partners have changed, sometimes drastically, but that is how a living tradition works. So I will end on a somewhat ironic note of contrast: in 1970 I wrote of a "post-traditional world"; today I believe that only living traditions make it possible to have a world at all.