Martin Marty and the soul of DC

A glance down from an incoming airplane is all it takes to see that Washington, D.C., is messed up.

Long ago, architect Pierre L'Enfant had of vision of grand plazas combined with a simple, logical grid of streets. But now visitors see politics all over the place. The Supreme Court sits in judgment across the street from the U.S. Capitol, which wrestles with the White House for symbolic supremacy on the map. Highways run into rivers and the National Mall, while cathedrals gaze down from distant hills at memorials to the secular saints.

Where is the heart of Washington? And if a city doesn't have a heart, where is its soul?

"We are in a society called 'pluralist,' "said historian Martin Marty, during a recent speech entitled "Building the Holy City on the Hill" for the College of Preachers at National Cathedral. "Our cities don't have that single axis. They don't have walls. They may have beltways, but they keep no one out. Commerce, industry, religion, academic life, media life, malls, all ... throw this off."

So Washington is not a New England village, in which all roads and energies converge on one marketplace, one government hall and one church, he said. People inside the Beltway worship all kinds of things in all kinds of places. Thus, it's hard to pinpoint the "soul" of America's complex and fragmented capital.

"It is a secular city," said Marty. "Believers may interpret it as God's gift, but it's not organized on those lines."

Nevertheless, he insisted that Washington does have a "soul," which he defined as: "The integrated vital power of any organic body that is full of awareness, openness to possibilities, expressive of freedom and having purpose." The good news for the city is that powerful displays of "soul" often follow moments of pain, conflict, sickness and anger. So he urged his listeners to keep their eyes open, right now.

During his 35-year career at the University of Chicago, Marty has been much more than a scholar whose 50 books and 40 years of Christian Century essays helped define an era of church history. His work has repeatedly bridged the wall between academia and the news. Any mention of his name is usually accompanied by the Time magazine quotation proclaiming him America's "most influential living interpreter of religion."

And Marty remains the master of finding grace in chaos -- such as the storms currently gathering over Washington. For starters, he said, it's safe to say that no one on Capitol Hill is talking about building utopia anytime soon, in this day of almost supernaturally thin voting margins, non-existent mandates and bitter 50-50 splits over virtually every moral, cultural and political issue in sight.

This is good, he said, since most attempts to build utopias lead to bloodshed and war. Often, people who are divided, and know it, manage to get more work done than the people plagued by delusions of unity and perfection. The most crucial, creative decisions are almost always made right after the best-laid plans fall apart, after the utopian quests go astray. That is when progress often takes place in a fallen world full of flawed people.

"I am assuming," said Marty, "that the search for the holy city of Washington is going to go wrong, because you have to work with the crooked timber of humanity -- conflicting interests, conflicting wills, conflicting visions of the good. ... We never say that we learn by trial and rightness, nor by trial and triumph. No, we learn by trial and error."

It's true that anyone searching for "soul" in Washington can look in churches. There are, he noted, 92 brands listed in the Yellow Pages -- between "chiropractors" and "cigars." But they also should search in schools, where a janitor may help a student through a troubled day. They should visit an unheralded recovery program for prostitutes. "Soul" may even show up in efforts to replace out-of-date voting machines. Angels live on many of the city's forgotten streets.

Washington isn't perfect. That's the good news. And don't worry, said Marty, about times of conflict. Never forget that " you can't get justice without argument."