Robert Bellah: A Personal Recollection
Robert Bellah began as my adviser, but became a friend. I think that I first met him around 1983, on the advice of my fellow history student Lionel Jensen, who recommended him whole-heartedly. I was a reticent, directionless graduate student at Berkeley, but I managed to draw upon my reservoirs of desperation and make an appointment.
Bellah proved to be the soul of courtesy, even the heart of friendliness, and agreed to serve on my doctoral committee as examiner in my outside field, sociology of religion, despite knowing little about me, though he revealed a spark of interest in learning that I came from the Arkansas Ozarks, for he was from Oklahoma, he said.
My doctoral oral exam proved somewhat disappointing for him, for I did not shine, but when I later explained that I had been going through a painful breakup, he was very understanding, perhaps because I also showed him a hundred-page preliminary draft on my interpretation of food in John's Gospel. As he told me after reading it, "I'll never look at the eucharist in John quite the same way from now on." He agreed to serve as a doctoral adviser.
He thus became a reader of my doctoral thesis on John's Gospel and gnosticism and grew into one of my strongest supporters, telling me that if he had the power in my proper field of studies, history, he would gladly secure me a position at a good university, but I was too far afield for him to help much. He did write letters of recommendation, which surely did not hurt my applications for academic positions.
My education through him went beyond religious studies, for I obtained from him much of what I know about sociology. I especially learned a great deal about the German sociologist Juergen Habermas under his direction, reading the scholar's books on communicative reason and thereby broadening my intellectual perspective. I thought Habermas's emphasis upon the Enlightenment's unfinished project in applying reason to social issues was a needed corrective to the Frankfurt School's radical distrust of Western rationality as exemplified in Horkeimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. My impression was that Bellah agreed, though he had his own critique of the Enlightenment for not taking religion seriously.
Bellah and I agreed on much, but not on everything, of course. He was a complex individual with a complicated life. As a young man, he had belonged to the Communist Party, and he remained a man of the Left, though he also shared certain values with conservatives, such as taking community and religion seriously. He and I had something of a disagreement over 9/11, and he criticized my paper on the religious sources of the attack against the World Trade Center. His critique struck a few weak points, and I rewrote, but didn't quite satisfy him. He was always more taken with Edward Said's Orientalism thesis than I was, and he considered my focus on Islamic ideology to fall under Said's critique. Bellah's criticisms did direct me to broaden my scope and think more in terms of Islamism, but our perspectives on 9/11 remained different.
Nevertheless, he sent me the chapters to his magnum opus, his book Religion in Human Evolution, and I proofed them when I had time. He was gracious in his thanks, but got more help from other scholars, for by the time he was writing that book, I was walking through rice paddies before dawn to reach my classrooms in the Korean countryside, or, as the years passed, was riding buses and subway trains for hours to reach Seoul, or, after moving to Seoul, was burdened with more teaching responsibilities, and therefore couldn't offer Bellah as much help as earlier.
But we stayed in contact, keeping each other informed on personal and scholarly developments. He was always interested in my research, whether on my investigations into theology in the New Testament, on my search for intellectual influences in Paradise Lost, or on my dabbling in issues concerning Northeast Asia. The last publication that I sent him was my novella. I don't know if he ever found time to read it, for he was a remarkably busy, intellectually engaged man at 86, still vigorous, and still learning and writing. I expected him to reach his own centenary, and I was therefore shocked to learn two days ago that he had died, apparently from complications following minor surgery. As others have already noted, this was surely a death out of season.
Others better situated than I will sort out his scholarly legacy, for he had enormous academic and intellectual breadth, and my tribute here to his memory concerns his personal influence upon me. All I can add is, "Requiescat in pace, Professor Bellah."