Remembering David Martin

The great sociologist of religion David Martin has died: you may read an overview of his incredibly wide-ranging career, written by a former colleague, here. (I was fascinated to learn there that he wrote a so-far-unpublished book on “secularization through the lens of English poetry”!) Today I am giving thanks for his life and witness, and remembering in prayer his family: his wife Bernice and his daughter Jessica Martin — my friend, and a priest whose sermons I sometimes quote or post in toto here.

Much attention will be given, in reflections on Martin’s career, to his work on secularization, and rightly enough, given its influence. But it will be very hard for us to get our minds around the totality of that work, for what it did, above all, was complicate all previous work on secularization. And the primary way it complicated that work was by decentering the Western European account (WEA, I’ll call it) of secularization, which Western intellectuals have always had a tendency to see as the normal or expected path of change in religious practice and experience. But, as Martin wrote in his concise and accessible Forbidden Revolutions (1996), “We can observe at least four distinct trajectories in Christian cultures: Eastern Europe, Latin America, Western Europe and North America. If social differentiation is the working core of the theory of secularization, it takes at least four forms, which do not necessarily converge.”

That WEA model of secularization, Martin argues, “acts as an implicit guide and censor on what we permit ourselves to see” — and therefore obscures from us how secularization happens, if it happens at all, elsewhere. The influence of the WEA model led to it being imposed in Eastern Europe, “the guiding spirit [of] an explicit programme to enforce secularization.” To a somewhat lesser extent attempts at enforced secularization happened in certain Latin American countries as well, and Forbidden Revolutions describes how stubborn practitioners of the Christian faith were able to resist such imposition. Why that resistance took Catholic forms in Eastern Europe and Pentecostal forms in Latin America is the meat of Martin’s story.

Forbidden Revolutions is not generally thought of as one of Martin’s central works — it’s less academic and more Christian than his most celebrated texts — but I find myself thinking of it often these days, even though I only read it once, many years ago. I think perhaps it is time for me to return to it. In the meantime, thanks be to God for the life and work of David Martin. Rest eternal grant unto him, O LORD: and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.