The Colgate Scene
November 2002

The sensitive crown of the human heart: A reading one year later

Martin E. Marty [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Theologian Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago emeritus professor and a leading expert on fundamentalist religions, delivered a speech titled "The Sensitive Crown of the Human Heart: A Reading One Year Later," in the Hall of Presidents on September 11. An ordained minister and frequent contributor on National Public Radio, Marty is past president of the American Academy of Religion, the American Society of Church History, and the American Catholic Historical Association. He has served on two U.S. Presidential Commissions and was director of both the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Public Religion Project at the University of Chicago.

The title of Marty's speech (excerpted here) was based on the following quotation by the author José Ortega y Gasset, "Decisive historical changes do not come from great wars, terrible cataclysms or ingenious inventions; it is enough that the heart of man incline its sensitive crown to one side or the other of the horizon, toward optimism or toward pessimism, toward heroism or toward utility, toward combat or toward peace."

The last of the human freedoms — the only one they can never take away from you — is that you have your choice of attitudes, no matter what the circumstance. And as you read the circumstances of the survivors of the events of a year ago today, when you see the kind of resolve that goes on when you've seen the ups and downs, you've seen that this plays an enormous part in it all. Just because José Ortega y Gasset said that about the human heart doesn't necessarily mean it's true — that the decisive changes come less from wars and the inventions and cataclysms than from people's attitude toward them and after them. But as a historian, I believe I can defend that. The Black Death in Europe may have taken a third of the population of Europe. A century later, we speak of the Renaissance in all the countries where it had been. Somebody picked up the pieces and resolved in the midst of it.

Fifty years ago the top Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote a book called The Irony of American History. It was at the time of the beginning of the Cold War, when he tried to put America in perspective and tried to give it resolve, tried to be sure Americans didn't think too much of themselves, but that they thought enough of themselves to say what we believe in is worth fighting for. And in one of his lines he described America as "a gadget-filled paradise of domestic security suspended in a hell of world insecurity."

For me, the most vivid way to think of 9/11 is, they cut the cord. We fell in and joined the rest of the human race. We'd had the innocence and the feeling of security [and] protection. Security, as it were, by two vast oceans and by [having] two friendly neighbors. World War I had an American Expeditionary Force. After World War II we had Veterans of Foreign Wars. It was distant. Now we have joined the human race, where insecurity marks life. Most people in history have been slaves and serfs, peons and indentured servants. Most people in the world still live under the threat of plague, the vast epidemic diseases. Most people in the world don't expect to live long and don't have anything like social security or health insurance or gated communities or military defenses. Many people within our own societies live constantly with these insecurities of no health insurance and no other protections. But now it means, in a certain sense, we are all there.


Lindsey Brandolini '05, of Clifton, Va., Molly Albano '04, of Southington, Conn., and Katelyn Macrae '05, of Saco, Maine, comfort each other following an interfaith service in Memorial Chapel in observance of the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

We should have lost [that sense of security], I suppose, earlier — on August 6, 1945. Buckminster Fuller says it was the day humanity started taking its final exam and a short time after said, "Madness has been stalking the earth ever since. There is no place to hide." We were always 30 minutes away from mutually assured destruction. And yet, life went on and we could forget. We could overcome some silly ways we thought we had of defending ourselves and so on. So, the alteration of our circumstance is not the only thing about life. All those people who have always lived with insecurity got here because somebody believed in love, made love, had babies and brought them up, and educated and fed them. People have lived, died, danced, done great works of art, laughed, cried, all in this face of that [insecurity] and sometimes have done better than the people in luxury who were never pressed to think deeply about these things. The sensitive crown of the human heart this time, then, takes the image of the cut cord as the suspension of security. Let me list just a few of the ways in which we are responding. First, insecurity of weaponry, arms budgets, airliners, nuclear power plants. It's all there; wars, changing tactics. We will get Bin Laden, but we haven't. We're used to wars between states and now we don't know how to measure, when you don't have that.

Marvin Zonis, a colleague of mine in Chicago and an expert in international economics, and I did a series of lectures to our alumni around the country. One of his themes was, for 50 years, life was so easily predictable. We got up in the morning, we looked east and we knew what the world was like. There was the enemy and that's who it was. We had hope that they were rational.

What do you do when you have the ambiguity of fighting Al-Qaida? Who? How many? Why? Who is the ally? Have we allies? With whom do we coalesce? What are the moral prices we pay in the middle of it? Will it be nation building? All of them are legitimate arguments and, by the way, the sensitive crown of the human heart that affects us all does not mean you stop arguing. One of the healthy things about our society is that we are a place who has the freedom to have a legitimate debate. Some people regret the return of politics, but I cheered. That's a sign of health, not of disease.

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