I’ve Come a Long Way, But I’m No Longer a Baby

Robert B. Tapp

Highlands Institute for American Religion, Philosophy, and Theology,

Highlands NC

June 22, 2005


Committing an autobiography in public involves disrobing many memories. My title spoofs of an old sexist slogan. Since I was an initial member of NOW, this seemed permissible. Looking back at my past eighty years made clear that I was never a very good hedgehog. Maybe I come before you then as a fox, albeit a marginal fox. A lot of names will be dropped here, but this seems necessary if I am to describe the persons and forces that have shaped me.


Where to start? Consider the DNA—AND consider the contexts in which it expresses.


I was born in Hollywood BUT in an osteopathic hospital—context clue 1—family distrusted science and expertise. Father—shanty-Irish and Catholic background, mother—Lutheran daughter of the small-town luminary—German, furniture store owner, undertaker, 33rd-degree Mason. Married in Salina KS—in the Lutheran church, of course. I was baptized in First English Lutheran Church—more marginality.


To protect two boys, they moved to Glendale and built large house for themselves and smaller one just for rental income. This was during the Depression and my father, having been a successful chain-grocery pioneer, was in his second retirement. Glendale was chosen as a unique hotbed of whiteness (and was also, then, desirably Judenfrei)!


This 12-year suburban child went to a Boy Scout jamboree in Washington DC in 1936—by train and sleeping bags on folded seats. We went through the South en route (and of course Washington was then an even more Southern city. I saw segregated facilities for my first time.


My first ecumenism was in YMCA camp where I learned to sing “The old rugged cross” and other Methodist and Baptist favorites. Best of all, the Lutheran pastor in Glendale had been a college debate coach and started play-readings on occasional Sunday evenings (prayer sessions remained on Wednesdays). I remember, in junior high, being treated to Ibsen’s Ghosts. Ibsen may have avoided actually using the word “syphilis,” but he certainly widened my horizons!


Admiring this pastor, I thought hard about becoming a minister. He wisely told me to spend the coming summer reading all of Ibsen, all of O’Neill, and all of Shakespeare. By fall, I was cured.


How could one possibly rebel? I bought a low-priced zoot suit, spent lots of Saturday evenings at Club Alabam in the Los Angeles ghetto (Big Joe Turner was shouting his blues, and I was usually painfully underdressed), discovered Chinatown bars that were relaxed about carding, and somehow managed to get mostly A’s in school. My principal assured me that I would amount to nothing (drinking in our cars during lunch hour was, after all, discouraged). Since he was a Rotarian and former track coach, I brushed off his curse. I was luckier with my debate coach who had just finished his PhD on Robert Ingersoll (I can still recite most of the Colonel Bob’s oration at his brother’s grave).


Just as I was prepping for that lovely senior year in highschool, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Everything speeded up. I finished early and moved across town to the University of Southern California, thinking I might at least get a semester of college. I enlisted in the V-12 program intended to produce “90-day wonder” naval officers. But then the Navy decided that some of us should get degrees first (in 2 and 2/3 years, round the calendar!), and shifted us to the NROTC, with majors in Naval Science. This was 1943 and they must have expected a long war. I was a commerce major, and they let me shift this to a minor. Along the way, I joined a social fraternity, was elected president, and became president of the college of commerce and editor of the college yearbook.


Those were all somewhat “normal” activities. As I as finishing, I took courses from two professors known to some of you—Floyd Ross in comparative religion and Walter Muelder in psychology of religion. My alienation was now complete—I had learned about socialism and pacifism, met such folk as Kirby Page, and told a Lutheran bishop that I might be interested in seminary teaching IF there could be a focus on mysticism and social action. His NO was abrupt but at least honest!


One of my closest new university friends was heading for Methodist ministry. He and I had felt quit honored to have been initiated into a secret national fraternity that typically controlled local campus politics—not always ethically. We wrestled hard with this one, finally discussed it with Muelder who headed the ethics committee, and resigned—with the proviso that we would not reveal names of others. Student government was suspended, SC made TIME magazine, and for many we became personae non gratae. (Among the hundreds attending the 50th reunion, I suspect that he and I were the only two Democrats in the room!)


The European war ended just before our graduation, and Ensign Tapp was rushed to Miami to become a sonar officer. While there, Japan surrendered. I was assigned to a destroyer in San Diego. I was now an anti-submarine specialist—in a postwar world.


Our top two officers were both Annapolis men, quite traditional. But the captain did like to borrow books from me, and even discuss them some of the time. The Navy was just beginning to experiment with racial integration, and was about to send our crew of 350+ an African-American deckhand. The handful of African-Americans already aboard were all “mess-boys” (the Navy’s delicate racist phrasing for those who cooked and served officers’ food) and bunked together in the lowest and scruffiest part of the ship. The captain said casually one evening that of course the new man would sleep with them. I was rash enough to remind him that this would probably earn him a deserved court-martial. He relented and, I like to think, helped reduce that aspect of military life.


Eventually my ship transported one of the two atomic bombs tested at Bikini. We unloaded all our ammunition, received a large crate on the rear deck, and headed for delivery to Kwajalein. When the first air test went off, we were 30 miles away monitoring the waters coming out of a break in the atoll. They were indeed soon radioactive. That afternoon radar spotted a squall heading our way, and the rain peaked all the Geiger counters. As officer-of-the-deck I had the honor of getting everyone else under cover. I will never forget the admiral’s reply to my radio message: “Congratulations! You have made the first contact. Make a careful survey of the contaminated area.” Morning scanning led to all my clothes being tossed overboard. Years later, when a cancerous kidney was removed, the Navy quite reluctantly designated me as an atomic veteran and awarded me a minuscule pension.[1]


My service stint was more than over by late summer and I asked for transport back to make it in time for graduate school in the fall. The night before leaving (we were now anchored in the atoll amid the shattered target ships), several of us decided to give our captain a farewell gift. We headed off toward the admiral’s ship, swam some enormous distance, mostly underwater, and liberated a fancy speedboat. We towed it back, woke some of the crew to repaint it, and presented it at breakfast. Our safety officer, a Los Alamos physicist, was alarmed in view of the condition of the atoll’s waters.


It was more than two weeks on the transport to San Francisco and I was able to set up a seminar on Dostoevsky’s novels. During my 50th college reunion, to my surprise, one of my classmates (not knowing Ana) saw me in one of the poster-pictures and recalled for her this educative escape from boredom.


My older brother had been working on his PhD at Yale in German linguistics when the war came, and had spent some time helping with denazification. But release from service left him somewhat adrift and he spent a year running a trading post on the Navajo reservation for the Hubbell family. John, his Yale friend, had been born there and, in 1946 with him I was a guest at a Hopi Snake Dance, went down into a kiva (he was a tribal initiate and spoke Hopi and Navajo), and otherwise dipped into a new culture.


My B.S. had been  with honors (even if in naval science) and I probably should have gone east for graduate studies. But I had the GI Bill and SC offered me an assistantship in world history under the fabled T. Walter Wallbank. So I signed up in the School of Religion that was still there. They allowed me to skip an MA and head right for the PhD. I am quite certain that I was the first to do this without either seminary degree or blessing by some denomination. Muelder was in Boston by then, but Ross was active—and my introducer to Henry Wieman and D. T. Suzuki.


Before the semester started, a young philosophy professor buttonholed me to instead become Faculty Adviser to Religious Activities (i.e. umpire to all the sectarian religious foundations). He was Sterling McMurrin (my first Mormon!) and one who brilliantly guided my seminars on logical positivism and pragmatism. How things recycle! After an interlude as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Education, he returned to Brigham Young University, been a key figure in humanist-Mormon dialogues.


Free at last! My first year was spent balancing Marx, Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Most of the other students were shifting over into a theological liberalism, licking their respective wounds. I will never forget going to the first national Interseminary Conference where hundreds of us listened to a discussion of Gandhi between Muelder and the dean of Virginia’s Episcopal seminary (whose name I have mercifully not remembered). The latter said, drawing himself up in full piety, “Of course I admire Gandhi, but I could NEVER extend the right hand of fellowship to him.” Walter Muelder, I am happy to report, defended the alternative.


In the middle of my graduate years, I married June Louin, an undergraduate debater. Her childhood had been completely secular, but in highschool she had learned that her Polish grandfather had been a rabbi. My parents refused to come to the wedding, but a year later decided to hold a reception for us so that their similarly-prejudiced friends could inspect. When my brother later married a Catholic, my mother attempted suicide. That religious virus can be potent!


I joined a Congregational church. Partly because its minister, Allan Hunter, had been on of the two clerics in all of California to protest the racist Japanese relocations after Pearl Harbor. Through him I met Muriel Lester and Howard Thurman. I decided I could no longer serve state violence and resigned my naval commission. I also became active with the American Friends Service Committee and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation. When the draft act of 1948 was being debated, I was the Quaker lobbyist from southern California. It was fun to discuss this with then-Senator Richard Nixon who reminded me that he was a Quaker! Back on campus I was able to host A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer. One of my close friends was Glenn Smiley, regional FOR head. Years later, when Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a civil rights leader, Muste and John Swomley sent Smiley to help King learn non-violence.


The FOR had formed the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). We were trying to integrate a Los Angeles swimming pool and I learned firsthand of police force racism by being fore-hosed.


My politics kept moving leftward as the Cold War got underway, and ten of us created The Liberal Center, a school “to train middle-level leadership for the non-Communist left.” Several of our members had helped free the Los Angeles Central Labor Council of its Stalinist leadership that had emerged during the war. I was the young one, teaching civil liberties, with fellow board members Phil Selznick, Paul Jacobs, Frank Mankiewicz, and Sheldon Messinger. A real education! We flourished for 2 years and then folded in a Socialist-Democrat split.


In those days we created a Los Angeles Committee on Community Relations. The word “race” would have been too narrow in California since we have serious problems in terms of Anglo relations with returning Japanese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Jews—as well as African-Americans. As was the case in most large cities in that time, we had parallel committees working for fair employment and civil liberties (communist-led and anti-communist-led). We lobbied the City Council with some success, and I eventually became vice-president. On the political level there was also the ADA-PCA rivalry, and Henry Wallace was running for president. Conservatives loved these divisions on the left, but they were historically necessary.


Meanwhile, back at the university! I had finished my basic course work in comparative religion and was writing on “The Place of the Non-Christian Religions in American Protestant Theological Education.” Part of this was survey research (in the days of McBee Keysort and Hollerith cards). Results were depressing. I found only two professors were doing this area full-time (“non-Christian” was the term that NABI (National Association of Biblical Instructors, now the American Academy of Religion) then used).


The job market was bleak for someone in my marginal position. I agreed ideologically with the American Council for Judaism, and applied for a position as Midwest regional director. They were non-Zionist (as were Judah Magnes and Martin Buber) and felt that Judaism should compete for converts the same as other religions and abandon the racism implied in maternal descent practices. Apparently I was a finalist until founding Rabbi Elmer Berger learned that I wasn’t Jewish. He felt that only a Jew could stand up to the frequent Jewish critics who charged ACJ with anti-Semitism!


Finally I had a PhD but, without religious affiliation, no job! Having been a volunteer and vice-chair of the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations, I agreed to be a salaried assistant to the director. One of my dissertation committee came back with word that there might be an opening at the St. Lawrence University Theological School. I knew little of Universalists, but threw my mortarboard into the ring—and was hired. One small problem. Another faculty member taught “other” religions and I would be replacing the deceased dean as Dockstader Professor of Theology.


This academic position also gave me a chance to develop Universalist and Unitarian involvements and be part of their merger process. My most anxious moment came when the school received a large endowment and my chair was under consideration for renaming. The son of a Universalist minister graduate had become head of American Standard Radiator and wanted to honor his father. Had the name been attached to my chair, I would have been the Wooley Professor of Theology!


So 1952 found me bringing a young wife from the big city to a town of 1500 (not counting the students) on the Canadian border. It was so far north that Catholics were Republicans! I taught undergraduates as well, and the philosophy department welcomed me and the psychology department hired my wife. Many of my seminary students were humanists, and my colleagues were congenial. I even convinced Morton Scott Enslin to join our seminary (Crozer’s Northern Baptists had squeezed him too hard). I think the clincher was when he found that I knew the difference between “real” rye and blended bourbon—and had some in my cupboard. Those years were intellectually exciting since I was free to develop courses on social ethics, on science and religion, and even on religion and sexuality. I was also responsible for teaching the history of Christian thought, which is of course the best way to learn something. During my eight years there my two daughters were born.


In 1954 the World Council of Churches met in Evanston and I wangled a press card from the Universalist Leader. My host and new friend, who held a press card from the Unitarians, was Homer Jack. We learned a lot and wrote a joint article about the conference slogan “Jesus Christ as God and Savior.” I also wrote about Josef Hromadka, the fellow-traveling Czech theologian. The Greek Orthodox there were very upset about the activities of Baptist missionaries in their homeland. Homer and I concluded that “evangelism” was what the mainstream Protestants called their activities in Greece, while “proselytism” was how Greek Christians termed it.


In 1957 the legendary Unitarian president Frederick May Eliot brought me to Boston to see if I would take a year’s leave to inspect a small coeducational college he had helped found in Switzerland. I jumped at the chance. So we lived for a year in a former hotel in Churwalden, a German and Romantsch-speaking mountain village. And I was finally lecturing on world religions to 30 students from 15 countries! Albert Schweitzer had let the school use his name, and my car papers opened all doors crossed all borders with that address. Lecturing one day a week left time for lots of travel. By the time I left, I had met Fritz Buri, been invited to Karl Barth’s seminar, participated in some World Council of Churches events, and been mistaken for a Swiss by some old Nazi Bavarians in a Munich bar who were letting their metaphoric hair down about the war!


When I had returned to the US, Unitarian and Universalist merger was underway and I became heavily involved. The Unitarian president created six bi-denominational study commissions and I was lucky enough to chair the one on science and religion (“theology and the frontiers of learning”). Ralph Burhoe, then running the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was secretary. Those reports were published in 1963 as The Free Church in a Changing World.[2]


One of my intellectual heroes was Julian Huxley. While his humanism had doomed him as UNESCO’s first director general, he became in 1952 the first president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Once we have learned how evolution works, he would say, we become responsible for it. And evolution, for humans, becomes social as well as biological![3]


By 1960 it seemed time to make an academic shift. A faculty-student affair (not mine!) had damaged the school, and I was offered an appointment by Scripps College in Claremont. My status as a Universalist and some of the things that I had written raised some warning flags, but the dominant intellectual Theodore Meyer Greene had vetted me, as did the dean Richard Armour. So back to California and some great experiences.


Jack Hutchison came to Claremont Graduate school that same fall to build a PhD program with Danforth Foundation support, and Herbert Schneider had left Columbia to build the Blaisdell Center for the Study of World Religions. The three of us, with Floyd Ross from the School of Theology  (SC’s school had shifted to Claremont by then), offered an multi-college course in world religions. My then-wife, who had finished her PhD while we were in Switzerland, became the first woman on the Harvey Mudd School of Engineering faculty.


Considering any new job relocation in a dual-professional marriage is always problematic. The solution adopted was to try for equally-desirable new positions but, failing that, to alternate in accepting first preferences..


I spent 1963 in India as a fellow of the new American Institute of Indian Studies (I had been awarded a Fulbright, but Claremont was a charter member of this new organization so I shifted). My focus was on an emerging rightwing political party, and this gave me entry to Nehru and Radhakrishnan as well as Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani. Upon return to the States, I also began a long and happy membership in the American Society for the Study of Religion, a small invitational group of comparative religionists. Joseph Blau, Benjamin Nelson, and I upheld the left-wing.


One result of the Unitarian interest in the sciences was that the dean of Meadville Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago, traditionally a conservative outpost shaped to counter a humanistic Western Unitarian Conference, yielded to his board and offered full professorships to Ralph Burhoe and me to create a radical innovation by centering seminary education on the implications of the sciences.


When that offer came, I was in escrow for my Claremont dream house—complete with a swimming pool and an overview of snow-capped Mt. Baldy. After much agonizing and exploring, we moved in, only to shift to Chicago after a few months. As they said then, a Chicago offer only comes once. As I said then, I dragged a family “kicking and screaming” from Claremont to Chicago! Two houses were sold out from under us before we got there; Robert  Havighurst helped us buy into his highrise co-op, and the daughters were enrolled in the Lab School.


Meadville’s plan was to build liberal seminary education around the sciences. We created a Committee for the Advanced Study of Theology and the Sciences, and an impressive conference welcomed the pioneering. We then created Zygon, Journal of Religion and Science. Ralph Burhoe was editor, I was managing editor, and my academic background helped convince the University of Chicago Press to publish us. The first issue contained papers from that opening conference by a number of distinguished scientists and theologians.


Zygon survived—but the plan to reorganize the seminary curriculum around the understanding of the sciences never took hold. This was 1965, and many students were much more concerned with civil rights and ending the Viet Nam war. Others, with some administrative support, were not ready to radicalize their theologies.


Some of my developed thoughts on science and religion were in those early issues of Zygon. Burhoe and I differed on the place of the social sciences (his reductionism to physical sciences was much grater than mine) and on breadth. The climax came when my enthusiasm for some articles from Stanley Jaki was greeted with Ralph’s strong veto. My position then, and even now, appeared in a 1967 Journal of Liberal Ministry  article:


The religious liberalism we are describing is in no sense anti-intellectual. To be concerned for values is to be involved in a continuing process of weighing, choosing, and rejecting. Our values are not arbitrary or chosen by any kind of blind leaps. We choose them by exploring their outcomes and their relation to other values. Values are inseparably related to desired ends. This discovery is a moral discourse that will become most effective in the kind of church community we are commending.


Knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, is not directly related to these values. Quite obviously, science can only study reality ("whatever is"). But religion and human values, as they operate within our lives, are a real part of this reality which must be studied. Science is the way we know reality, religion is the way we expand it![4]


By this time I was learning to describe the sciences as enterprises that learned as much from their failures as from their successes. The UUA created a long-range planning committee with me as chair. We spent over 30 days together over the next 18 months, conducted a detailed survey of a sample of 12,000 UUs (the largest denominational survey of record as of that time), and made some revolutionary proposals. Just as the implementation process was to have begun, the UUs became involved in an angry and almost bankrupting Black-White struggle of integration versus separatism. Serendipitous failure again!


By 1967 I was using the label “post-traditional” and “liberal religion” to describe that large segment of UUs who were nontheistic and did not describe themselves as Christian.[5] Many of them used the “humanist” descriptor, other simply preferred “liberal.” While they clearly rejected any religious creeds, those groups in the study that were the most post-traditional were also the groups that had the greatest homogeneity on a wide range of social values. These were fresh findings of something new. Newsweek described UUs as “atheists who hadn’t shaken the church habit.”


The Committee on Goals report spoke of a “new religious liberalism” and adopted my phrase that this represented “a commitment to the expansion of the quality of life.” At that time, the phrase was innovative. But it was too radical for some of the conservative UUs. Apparently I remained a persona-slightly-grata and spent several subsequent years chairing one of three commission, on Dialogue of World Religions, for the International Association of Religious Freedom. After many meetings  of exploring possibilities, we called for a “dialogue of mutual search.” That still remains perhaps as too ambitious, and certainly has had no appeal to mainstream religions that, already possessing some alleged truth, would respond  by saying “What for?”


While on the Meadville faculty, I had the great pleasure of teaching psychology of religion in the University of Chicago while David Bakan was on leave. I also taught in the core social science program of the college. At Meadville I pioneered a course in Theology and Sexuality. Several priests from the new Catholic seminary enrolled, and said they wanted to learn “what will take place after monogamy?.” It became an exciting seminar.  Hugh Hefner was then publishing his serious essays in Playboy, but our librarian wanted a written order from me before subscribing.


Another plus of Meadville was having Mircea Eliade’s office across the hall from mine. We became good friends socially, along with Paul and Hannah Tillich. I had given them the article just quoted. At a dinner party one evening, Hannah announced that it was the first article by a theologian that she had understood and liked. Paulus responded “Well, I’m a heretic but he’s a pagan.” A labeling that I’ve always cherished! (Jack Hutchison claimed that the “god beyond god” phrase was Tillich’s attempt to include Hannah)


My colleague and friend Peter Rossi headed the National Opinion Research Center and became my mentor in survey research. My resultant book Religion among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfathers’ House was published in his series Studies in Quantitative Sociology.[6] His wife Alice was pioneering studies of the perceived morality of abortion, and the positions of this large sample helped refine what are still national questions. By the way, the primary reason that the Unitarian Universalists joined and stayed with their churches was “to be with like-minded persons.”


My own shifted focus to values in religions was greatly helped by getting to know Milton Rokeach. As far as I am concerned, his value-scales remain the freshest and best in social psychology. With his permission, I used them many times. One of the most revealing projects was comparing university students here and in Thailand. I found that the values of the “high Buddhists” and the “high Christians” were almost the same, despite very different theologies. I have been thus pleased that Martin Marty and Scott Appleby’s project on fundamentalism ended up speaking instead of “strong” religions.


After seven years, my then-wife and I both decided to explore other situations that would be more congenial to our interests and talents. We took a Cambridge break to look. I was a research fellow at Harvard Divinity School and she was a social scientist at Harvard Law School. After much searching, the University of Minnesota offered us both professorships.


My move to the Minneapolis in 1972 was a new challenge. An undergraduate religious studies program was getting underway, and the dean committed a full 50 percent of my time to the project. We borrowed scholars from a number of disciplines and eventually even created an MA program. Dubious deans resisted since one of this ad hoc faculty was a rabbi and another had grown up in a missionary family. Other deans realized that there really was an academic discipline here. Parenthetically, I upset a few colleagues with a public lecture “On not leaving religions to the religious” where I suggested that one response to critics would be met if each of us only taught about religions other than our own. Claude Welch’s ACLS report had just been published noting that the center of gravity in religious scholarship had shifted from the seminaries to universities and colleges. The Danforth Foundation at that time was encouraging Big Ten public universities to do more about teaching about religions.


I was also invited to the South Asian faculty, at that time one of twelve funded as a federal center. At last I could spend some time teaching Hinduism! A bonus was that a suburban highschool district had received federal funds to create courses on comparative religion. And I became the India consultant. We convinced the state board of education to create a teacher certification program and for a few years things went well. But understaffed programs languish when retirements are not met with new funds!


Another rewarding activity was the Minnesota Humanities Commission. I was a board member and vice-chair at the time when we became a national model, having gained considerable financial and intellectual support from our state legislature. We pioneered a number of programs, including Mother/Read where young women who had been shortchanged in their own educations could develop skills so this would not be repeated with their own children (now evolved into Family Literacy Initiatives). This was a wonderful opportunity to get the issues of a university out into the state whose funding supported it.


Minnesota is something of a paradox— a blue state with the a very high level of churchgoing. When I went there, the dean of the Graduate School,  May Brodbeck, described the population as made up of Lutheran Lutherans, Lutheran Catholics, and Lutheran Jews.  And during my time there, evangelicals have become more assertive as they have across the land. They now control the Republican party and the governor’s mansion.


I also eventually chaired the university’s humanities department. At that time, my 19th century course was the only place in the whole university where students read Darwin. Sad to say, that department eventually dissolved under the stresses of postmodernism. Most of my colleagues had decided that Western culture was simply racism and imperialism and therefore not worth teaching! Postmodernism had struck with a vengeance! I was able to create some fun courses in humanities. One was Comparative Soteriomorphism (Krishna, Buddha, Jesus through the ages—with slides and microfiche, no less). The other course was Counterfaiths in Contemporary Literature—Skinner, Clarke, Kazantzakis, Vonnegut and a few others,.


James Joyce was one of my favorites for his way of secularizing the experience of epiphany. I want to shift gears here momentarily to describe epiphanies of my own that have done much to shape me conceptually.


When I arrived in Poona India, one of my contacts was a Yale PhD who headed a Protestant  theological seminary there. Shortly into our acquaintanceship I discovered that Shivaratri was coming, a festival involving a moonlight pilgrimage up the hill to a major Shiva shrine. I invited him to join me only to learn that he could not do that because it would upset his students. I also discovered that much Indian religion goes on at night—when work is done and when it’s cool. Having always read that there was no congregational life in Hinduism, I had much to learn.  My guess now was that those observations were by people who either went to bed early or who couldn’t mingle with crowds of “natives.”


A somewhat parallel epiphany came when I arranged for my good friend Benjamin Nelson to teach for a quarter at Minnesota. We have all learned about usury and Protestantism from him. One of his graduates was head of St. John’s Abbey, the largest Benedictine monastery in the world. We had a tour, a grand private dinner, and lots of talk. In the morning, however, when I woke Ben to sit in back with me at the early Mass, he declined, saying that he never did that. Maybe I should have been an anthropologist given my curiosity about how religion really operates. After all Melford Spiro had discovered that not all of the Myanmar Buddhists (in what was then Burma) were nontheistic, and he described in great detail their nat-spirit houses mounted in their front yards.


An earlier epiphany came around 1950 when Billy Graham was starting his long succession of crusades in a big tent in Los Angeles. He explained to his largely white audience that even though life here was difficult, in heaven they would have servants. Said in his Southern accent, I suspect they understood that message the same way  I did.


I had another major epiphany in the hills above Mumbai when I was in India. A friend had gotten me invited to the major festival of a caste of fisher people. As I watched their dancing I began to see evidences of trance and then I began to hear glossolalia.  I’m sure that none of them would have ascribed this to the Holy Spirit of the Christians! Put more prosaically, motor experiences are often the source of psychological ones.


One more epiphany on a trip to Haiti. I was introduced to one of the leading urban houngans and our relationship clicked. It turned out that he had a master’s in pharmacology from the Sorbonne, and functioned much as a bishop to the regional vodoun community. One night he said would you like to come to a ceremony in the backwoods with me? Of course I jumped at the chance, and we set out about midnight for a hour-long drive down a dirt road to a gathering of several hundred people. For the next several hours there was a good deal of fire walking and then the climax came in a goat sacrifice. Before the animal can be sacrificed, a lot of spirit transfer has to take place. Spirits of gods moving into the goat and then moving into the mind of the young man kneeling eye to eye with that goat. Eventually the knife slashed the throat and there was blood everywhere. My  existential knowledge of ways that religions work was enormously deepened.


Experiences like this remind us of how necessary it is to become deeply involved in practices that may be strange to us. I’m reminded of a passage in a book on the Yucatan where the anthropologist living with a group of Pentecostals finds herself about to speak in tongues one night and realizes it’s time to take a break back to the States and her psychiatrist.[7]  


The Haiti venture, in the long run, was another academic failure for me. Upon return to Minnesota I put together a research proposal with a musicologist, other people in religious studies and in history. We applied for a seed money grant.  When the dean told me that we had been turned down, he explained that one of the professors from anthropology had said that since Vodoun was a secret religion, this would be a waste of money. Needless to say the doors that could have been open to Minnesota were open to colleagues from UCLA few years later. They put together a wonderful exhibit that traveled the country and an excellent catalog.[8]


My thirty-year old marriage came apart during these years, and I was fortunate enough to meet Ana Martinez, a biochemist in Minnesota’s medical school who had left her native El Salvador when the civil war decimated the university there. My previous interest in liberation theology was necessarily renewed, and we were able to visit that unhappy land after the truce and pay homage to Oscar Romero and meet Jon Sobrino. And our art collections and travel logs have happily continued to merge. My understandings of Latin and Spanish cultures has been opened, along with language facilities. New ideas and insights continue to emerge from our shared perspectives, and my writing and productivity flourishes with such a critical and careful editor. Our twenty-two years together have honed my people-skills. Her extended family has helped me understand the enormous range of Catholic religiosities within this major Christian group—from nominal to cafeteria to strong. Along with all of these graces, she models sensitive human relations as a grandmother to four.


When I officially retired in 1992, all three of my departments were gone. A dean had the effrontery to say that without my half salary there would no longer be enough faculty to maintain religious studies. Being one of the country’s largest universities, I had involved thirty colleagues from varied departments, some of whom actually had degrees in religious studies. The Classics department was allowed to take over a remnant of ancient religions, and they stretched the meaning of “ancient” to include Islam. I had earlier fought, unsuccessfully,  to retain an excellent Islamist. Another dean’s consoling word was that we didn’t cover Japanese religion either!


Just at the time of my retirement, the university created an Elder Learning Institute and I continue to offer something there every year. (I commend that future to all of you—it keeps your brains alive enough to stimulate your bodies, and does the same for others as well). I continue to alternate offering science and religion, science and values, new religions, fundamentalisms, world religious founders. Some of these I do as dialogues with a retired colleague from biochemistry


Let me turn from my woes and failures in this academic world, surrounded as it was with traditional worlds, to my post-traditional world. In 1982, a group of us gathered at the University of Chicago to reassess our humanist response to a rising fundamentalism and conservatism in our society. Our humanist groups were small and overly-competitive, and humanists were being elbowed aside in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Ethical Culture was small, as was Humanistic Judaism. We agreed that providing a serious and common education to our leaders might change matters, and the Humanist Institute was born—with a 3-times-a-year, 3-year curriculum. Our friend Howard Radest was its first dean, and Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism was president. Over 100 students have completed this curriculum, and the Institute’s adjunct faculty has produced 15 volumes of Humanism Today (volumes 1-13 are online at www.humanistinstitute.org). The new volume, The Fate of Democracy, will appear this summer from Prometheus Books.


I became dean in 1991 and have just retired from that position (can one retire from a pro bono job?). I will remain as Faculty Chair (Howard Radest, Mason Olds, and Bill Long are members of the Institute’s adjunct faculty) and that lets me continue to explore online education and to keep editing annual volumes. Our last two were on Multiculturalism and on Ecohumanism.


Ecohumanism is the study of human and nonhuman interactions when there is no design, no designer, and only Darwinians to describe that larger stage in which human values emerge—lots of innovations, almost as many non-surviving failures, lots of extinctions. One of my contributions to that volume was a somewhat-blasphemous suggested litany that includes the following:

Lord god of AIDS, we shall find aid

Lord god of dinosaurs, we are grateful for extinctions

Lord god of genetic defects, we can now alter the effects

Lord god of fecundity, partnered humans will plan their wanted children


This memoir so far has stressed structural and environmental changes. How about the resultant philosophical, theological, and ideological changes? I had become a post-traditional, no-longer Christian when I left high school, and this process has basically continued. But those of us who live marginally are well aware that our audiences, while precious, are often quite small. I take some comfort in the enormous impact on human history that small groups such as Quakers and Unitarians have had, despite their remaining small and pure.


But when I viewed the larger social scene of the United States, where I have spent most of my life, I had to admit that much of the past seemed brighter than much of the future. I could lecture about ways in which the Enlightenment became practical upon the soil of the colonies but I had to recognize that money and power have in recent years consistently trumped democracy. As my own children keep reminding me, I have almost never voted for winning candidates.


My main generalization as an aging and I hope maturing religion-watcher is that a kind of Gresham’s Law operates here whereby bad religion inevitably drives out good religion.  I remember an article by H.P. Van Dusen, then president of Union Theological Seminary entitled “The Invisible Religion.” He was referring to fundamentalism! Not only was it invisible from Morningside Heights but it was barely visible from most of our first-rate universities and seminaries. But that was three generations ago!


One of the films that we showed regularly in the Soc2 course at Chicago was Holy Ghost People, a documentary by Peter Adair released in 1967 (and now on the web at www.archive.org). In 53 minutes he captured many aspects of a Pentecostal service in an Appalachian village. Prayer, confession, thanks, singing, clapping, preaching, tongues, floor-rolling, snake handling. Most Chicago students had never seen most of these behaviors, and discussion always contained lots of Wows. I continued using this media field trip in Minnesota, typically encouraging discussion of “What was new to you.” Over the years, less and less—maybe bow only the snake handling. The American view of Christianity was rapidly becoming charismatized. With the advent of cable televangelism and Christian rock, the process may have become complete.


My most successful bit of writing, in terms of reaching a large audience, was a 1971 article that was the cover story of Christian Century entitled “On the Rise of Demotheology.” Reflecting particularly upon the influences of the civil rights struggle and the churches upon each other, I decided that laypeople had come to control those churches. Maybe I was just learning to look at religion “on the ground.” For us academics, it is all too easy to describe religion in terms of its texts, creeds, and theological/ministerial statements. Today we have the tools to poll and interview and analyze— and this makes us realize how naēve we were. When the book The churching of America, 1776-1990: winners and losers in our religious economy by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, appeared, for instance, indicating how strong evangelicalism had been from the very beginning, Martin Marty said that if they were correct he would have to revise everything he had written. Probably none of us want to be held to that, but I think the authors were indeed correct.


The Christian Century article concluded:


Almost every study made so far has indicated that church members as a group are less liberal, less tolerant, less democratic, less internationalistic than the nonchurchgoing population. From the standpoint of persons committed to such values, demotheologizing in matters of morality will only make the churches less palatable.


Within the horizon of present religious apologetic, then, the results of demotheologizing will be a disaster. On the theory level, the positions of the churches will rapidly converge with the dominant societal theory; and on the moral ethical-level, a similar convergence will end whatever salience the churches now have. The one positive result of demotheology—which may in the long run prove salutary—will be the recovery of a style of authenticity and integrity. These qualities are crucial to the morale of any group, and the bleak period ahead will at least have more united and more honest churches, even if they are less palatable to the present defenders of religion. Possibly a new group of apologists will emerge who can make a more positive case for this kind of church than can most of us.”[9]


My friend and colleague Sidney Mead teased me about my demotheology title, asking if I was trying to get the moths out of theology. But among historians, Sidney has been one who knows well how to look beneath the treetops to the ground and describe what is actually happening. I also owe a great debt to Wilfred Cantwell Smith who urged us just to drop substantive terms such as religion and Christianity and Hinduism and realize that these are all generalizations about the actions of people in times and places. The truth is that there are Christians, people who call themselves or are called Christians, and over a long period of time their tracks may loosely be called Christianity. Doing history in that more empirical way, it becomes very hard to ignore the zigs and zags and contradictions and speak with any assurance of some substantive, consistent, and coherent entity.


Another term that I coined during this period was “para-church.” This grew out of experiences with some of the many play reading groups that had been created in Chicago’s Hyde Park. As I found these groups embracing occasions of death, illness, marriage, celebration, and divorce, I realized that they provided small and intimate communities for mostly-secular people. The common focus on serious drama deepened the bonds and lessened any ideological and denominational gaps.[10]


Today the real religious growth seems to be with the megachurches. They certainly create community for their suburbs. The ethic lacks any distinctive challenge, theology is notable in its absence, and any professional education of this new clergy seems quite minimal. In addition, many have a gospel of success. Rick Warren even described his best-selling book as rooted in psychology. Demotheology and community for the masses!


My Minnesota students also taught me much. Over the years, in teaching Darwin as part of history, I would use the Gallup question’s triple sort—before and after a two-weeks of readings—creationism, theistic evolutionism, straightforward evolutionism. Reading made little change (I rationalized that their opinions had already been inscribed in mental stone). But I also found that denomination made little difference (even though Lutherans and Catholics officially were not opposed to evolution). My conclusion? That the televangelists were more effective educators/corrupters than were schools or ministers, priests, or rabbis.


My own saints and mentors? The usual Enlightenment figures—Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Madison, Adams. And more recently— Emerson, Parker, Whitman, and Darwin. Closer in time—Joseph Conrad, John Dewey, Julian Huxley, Sidney Hook, Wallace Stevens. Had I but world enough and time………………….


In my new life as an ex-dean, I expect to return to some earlier projects on religions in public education. Improving schools seems one of the most direct ways to get Americans aware of the ideals of the Enlightenment once more. The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion recently put me on its board, and that seems a worthwhile channel of competent and caring colleagues.


This seems like the right place for a string of ellipses……………


Certainly I am not ready to presume to conclude my autobiography!!



[1] A number of skin cancers and last year a melanoma, have followed. Along the way, prostate cancer, lung surgery for ‘benign’ tumors, knee replacement, emergency gall bladder removal have all been grist for theological reflection upon the nature of ‘design.’

[2] Unitarian Universalist Association,. 1963. The Free Church in a Changing World. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.

[3] Julian Huxley, "Presidential Address: Evolutionary Humanism," Proceedings of the First International Congress on Humanism and Ethical Culture (Utrecht: Humanistisch Verbond, 1953).

[4] Tapp, Robert B. 1967b. "Toward a New Liberal Theology." Journal of the Liberal Ministry 7:47-53.

[5] Tapp, Robert B. 1967a. "A look at Unitarian Universalists Goals." Christian Century LXXXIV:515-18.

[6] Tapp, Robert B. 1973. Religion among the Unitarian Universalists; converts in the stepfathers' house. New York: Seminar Press.

[7] Felicitas D. Goodman et al. Trance, Healing, & Hallucination: Three Field Studies in Religious Experience. New York: John Wiley, 1974.

[8] Cosentino, Donald and University of California Los Angeles. Fowler Museum of Cultural History. 1995. Sacred arts of Haitian vodou. Los Angeles, Calif.: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.}

[9] Tapp, Robert B. 1971. "On the Rise of Demotheology." Christian Century LXXXVIII:153-56.

[10] Tapp, Robert B. and June Louin Tapp. 1972. "Religious Systems as Sources of Control and Support." Pp. Pp. 107-26 in Handbook of community mental health, edited by S. E. Golann and C. Eisdorfer. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.