The editors have commissioned fourteen essays in honor of Robert N. Bellah, exploring, as public intellectuals, questions in social theory and social philosophy that they first addressed in Habits of the Heart (1985) and The Good Society (1991). In the Introduction Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton present one enduring contradiction of modernity—the idea that morally autonomous individuals who pursue rational self-interest find their lives and choices constrained by an iron cage of structural determinations of the market economy and the bureaucratic state. What theoretical perspectives and guidelines for praxis can assist people in living a good life, in working towards the good society, and in understanding and living with this contradiction? The editors urge upon us Bellah's concept of symbolic realism, derived in part from the work of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Here, symbolic economies, especially religious symbols, constitute sui generis realities created by people to elaborate ultimate meanings. This symbolic reality becomes a nexus of transcendent meanings that imposes obligations of duty and constraint among members of groups and collectivities, and assists them in their search for moral self-understanding. In addition, the editors advocate an interpretive social science that will enable citizens to engage in a critical reflection of values and to debate in the public sphere the injustices and the persistent failures of capitalist modernity in America.
The fourteen disparate essays that follow build upon this general rubric. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Steven J. Sherwood examine the evolution of Bellah's scholarly career and cultural sociology from his comparative and historical sociology of Japan to his theoretical essay on religious evolution and the Durkheimian analysis of civil religion in America. S.N. Eisenstadt compares the paths to modernity in Japan and America while Philip S. Gorski revisits Calvinism, Reformation, and revolution in the West. Separate essays by Harvey Cox, and John A. Coleman examine the dilemma of institutional religion and the commodification of culture. Albert J. Raboteau presents the case study of Howard Thurman — religion and racial justice. Robert Wuthnow looks at the changing role of congregations in civil society. Stanley Hauerwas struggles with the dynamic tension of the world-rejecting claims of Christian faith of an authentic church and the accommodation with contemporary society. Ann Swidler's chapter assesses the how self and identity are embattled in America by depleted institutional supports. Nina Eliasoph questions how we can rear good citizens in a bad society. William M. Sullivan examines the religious roots of political debate in the public sphere.
Bellah provides a much-needed Epilogue ("Meaning and Modernity, American and the World") where he reflects upon his life and scholarship, and thematizes the fourteen essays using Andrew Delanco's categories of God, nation, and self from his recent work The Real American Dilemma. It is fitting to allow Bellah the last work. As a public intellectual and scholar deeply committed to the prospect of creating an engaged sociology and social philosophy, he concludes: