By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Responding to my interview with television writer/producer and People for the American Way founder Norman Lear, Mollie at Get Religion unearths a 1987 profile of the spiritual Lear by none other than Martin Marty, dean of religious scholars. Marty frames his Lear portrait as a riposte to charges from the day's leading "pro-family" advocates—Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—that the anti-Christian right crusader is an atheist and anti-Christian. It's a colorful, sympathetic profile of a highly visible member of the "spiritual but not religious" tradition in American religion, which accounts for nearly 6 percent of the population.
The piece offers first-person glimpses into Lear's spiritually tinged dinner parties and weekends at his Vermont farm, including this one:
Suddenly our host broke the silence. He stopped to spread his arms—we kid him about that gesture's being his most spontaneous and consistent act of worship—as if to encompass the hills and sky. "Why do I deserve all this?" Why, Lear wondered, did he get to own this piece of Creation? He, the Jewish kid from New Haven who grew up not knowing where he fit in? He who made his living writing comedy? Why all this good in the midst of a world where ugliness and poverty, unfairness and misery abound? Why he, and we, and not others, to share the gold of the leaves and to look forward at evening to food and wine and conversation?
Just as suddenly—this being autumn and he being Norman Lear, and because he is also a comedy writer and thus someone who knows about the cramping limits of existence and the paradoxes of its joys—he went on: "Why also the bad things?" He mused about why my wife and I had both lost a spouse to cancer. "We all have known separations and alienations and failures. Why us?" he continued. My wife sensibly suggested that such questions evoke answers which always have to be edged in mystery. She allowed that there was, however, at least an old name for the zone in which we found ourselves at the moment: "Providence."
"Providence, then, that's it!" Lear can be almost boyish when he seizes a theme that is too big for us, for anyone. Providence—or fate—turned out to be the dinner topic later. As candles burned low in the faces of 14 amateur theodicians, we pondered the big questions. Our vocabularies were as puny as they had been for some of us when we tried to avoid those questions back in seminary. Some best sellers deal with such topics as Why Bad Things Happen to Good People—and, we volunteered to add, to Bad People too. Where does a "good God" fit into the reckoning? Horrors. Don't let me misconvey the mood: on such occasions there are always jokes and eruptions of laughter along with whispered thanks for undeserved grace.
Marty concludes with a warning to Lear's Christian right detractors:
The evangelists will most certainly hear from me, after they receive this account of a pilgrimage—as the ones named above soon will—if they keep on feeding the media charges that Lear is an atheist, with all that they want that epithet to connote. If they think that I think Lear is an orthodox theist, they have misread this. But if they henceforth portray him as an atheist who, in their terms, is beyond the bounds of civil discourse and moral inquiry, who does not respond to the stirrings we associate with Theos, I will know something about them. They may still have faith, but not good faith. They will then continue to bear false witness against their neighbor. That remains a sin as gross as any of which they accuse him.
Not too much has changed. Twenty years later, Lear is still battling charges of godlessness.