“Religion and the City” conference marks 10th anniversary of Marty Center

In honor of the 10th anniversary of its Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, the University of Chicago’s Divinity School will host a two-day conference on Feb. 5 and 6 which will bring together some of the world’s leading scholars to discuss the myriad relationships between religion and the city.

The “Religion and the City: Our Urban Humanity and the World Beyond”conference, which also celebrates the 80th birthday of Martin Marty, the Center’s namesake, and the Fairfax Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, will take place at the University’s Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza Drive, in downtown Chicago and will span a wide array of topics — from the role of religion in the architecture of cities, to the influence of gospel music in Chicago, to the impact of suburbanization` on young Muslims in Chicago, to the role which urban life has played in the moral thinking of philosophers and theologians.

The Marty Center has, from its inception, focused on the role of religion in public life – it has held nearly 30 scholarly conferences on everything from religion in India, to women and religion, to religion and the death penalty — but this is its first conference to focus specifically on the city.

The focus on the city, said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, is a direct outgrowth of the Center’s ongoing commitment. “Too often,”Rosengarten said, “religion in public life can be reduced to the political.”It’s certainly a crucial element, Rosengarten said, but the Center’s goal is to foment a broader conversation about the role of religion, and so to examine the other equally important dimensions of  the religions in public life — the rich and nuanced ways in which religion inflects the civic, the cultural, the economic as well as the  political. “And the city,”Rosengarten said, “is an ideal lens through which to  examine the these manifold dimensions.”

William Schweiker, the Martin Marty Center Director and the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics, said that cities are an appealing prism for scholars of religions because they are “wild and complex places in which religions are a social and cultural force.”He also added that that international cities, such as Chicago, have a particular appeal. “International cities enact the reality of global dynamics.”And, he said, “they allow for contemporary ethical reflection on global realities.”

The conference will begin at 2 p.m. with its first plenary address by Ray Suarez, senior correspondent of the The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Suarez, AM ’93, who studied religion at the Divinity School, and is the author of The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, will kick off the conference with “From Mega to the Storefront: Church and Community in the 21st Century,” a speech about the different, yet equally vital faces of religion in the city and suburbs.

Suarez’s speech, which has been recorded in advance, will be followed by a live question and answer session, with Suarez, via video conference.  Following this session, the conference will host three breakout sessions, beginning at 3:30 p.m.

In “Religious Architecture and the City,” Robert S. Nelson, the Robert Lehman professor of art history at Yale –a scholar who has studied the function of holy objects in society -- will use architectural examples from the city of Chicago to address the central question: What is or should be the message of church architecture?

In “Diaspora Religions in Chicago: The Case of Islam,” Malika Zeghal, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology of Religion,, will focus on the evolution of Chicago’s Islamic community, as Muslim communities have moved from inner-city neighborhoods to middle-class suburbs. Zeghal will discuss how a younger generation of Muslims is responding to this evolution toward suburban middle-class conservative Islam by trying to do social work and solve inner-city issues on the basis of their religious beliefs.

In the third Feb. 5 breakout session, “What Athens Has To Do with Jerusalem: Location and the Origins of Ethics,”Schweiker will show how the role of the city has been central to the moral thinking of theologians and ethicists throughout human history — from the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, and Jesus, to modern thinkers such as Rousseau and Thoreau. With this approach, the renowned theological ethicist said, “the city becomes a prism through which to think about how we reflect critically on beliefs about what is good and just and also assess the values and belief that orient social life.”

The day will conclude at 5 p.m. with “Chicago and the Traditions of Gospel Music,” which will includes a performance by The Sons and Daughter of Levi, of Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church, with narrative by Walter Owens. Jr., who is the church’s Minister of Music.

On its second day, the “Religion and the City”conference will resume with the 9 a.m. panel discussion “Immigration and Religion in the City,” led by James W. Lewis, Executive Director of the Louisville Institute, and featuring Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center; William J. Adelman, professor emeritus of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois; and Greg Wangerin, executive director of the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries.

Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor Law and Ethics in the Divinity School, and the Law School, will deliver the conference’s second plenary address “Religious Violence and the City,”at 11:00 a.m. Nussbaum’s lecture, which will start with analysis of the Gujarat riots in India in 2002, will discuss the general factors that seem to promote a climate of religious violence, as well as factors that seem to mitigate it. Nussbaum, who has studied Hindu religious violence extensively will then apply the analysis to the United States.

The conference will conclude with a summary discussion, “Humane and Cosmopolitan Religions in the 21st Century,”a panel discussion with Martin Marty.

The choice of February 5 as the conference’s kick off is not incidental, said Rosengarten, nor is the choice of the urban theme. 

A “Religion and the City”conference — held in Chicago, focusing heavily on the role of religion in Chicago, examining the many dimensions in which religion plays a role in public life — is a fitting tribute to Marty, said longtime colleague Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, and the first director of the Center.

Marty attended graduate school at Chicago, was a Lutheran minister in the Chicago suburbs, and taught at Chicago for more than three decades. “He’s a real Chicagoan,”said Gilpin, “whose long affiliation with the University is equaled by his cosmopolitan interests in the city’s religious and cultural institutions. Marty has a great appreciation both for the central role played by Chicago in the history of American religious pluralism and the many ways in which religions inform the contemporary life of metropolitan Chicago.”

For the conference program, and to register, please visit http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/conferences/city/