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Interview by Tae Sung


The Study of World Religions in a Time of Crisis

A conversation with Jack Miles.

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Jack Miles is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions (2015). He received the Pulitzer Prize for God: A Biography (1996) and a MacArthur Fellowship for his sequel Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (2002). At the end of the 2015-16 academic year, he will be retiring from his position as Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies at UC Irvine, where I first met Jack and became his student. Just before my PhD qualifying exams, he came over to my home for dinner one night and left a gift that always makes me laugh. It was a copy of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read.

Thank you, Jack, for participating in this interview. While I hope this conversation will result in greater interest in each of the beautifully designed and stimulatingly curated volumes of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, I'd like to ask some questions specifically about your introduction to the anthology and tie that to other topics, including the current migration crisis that occasioned this special issue of Books & Culture.

You write, "Religiously, we live and in all likelihood will continue to live in a world of large and mingling minorities." Despite some decline in recent years, I believe the Pew Research Center still has the number of Americans who identify as Christians somewhere around 70 percent. From a global perspective, each of the world religions that have been anthologized may certainly be a kind of large mingling minority. But what would you say is the importance of thinking of all the world's great religions as minorities, especially in a nation where non-Christian religions combined make up less than 6 percent of the population?

At home in the United States, we Christians are the host religion, or at least as the majority religion we can scarcely escape that role, but in the world we are a guest religion. The classic good host is benign, deferential, and gracious, but it is always the guest who must be more careful about his behavior. My counsel, such as it is, is that even when we are the host, we should conduct ourselves as a guest. A gospel text to the purpose is Luke 18:9-13, the parable of the tax-collector and the Pharisee in the Temple, where the Pharisee acts like the lordly host and the tax-collector like a humble and abashed guest.

We are, of course, not the only "home majority" in the world. Hindus in India, Muslims in Turkey, and so forth occupy the same position, approximately, that Christians occupy in America, unaided by the long American tradition of government neutrality in matters religious. And, to be sure, a kind of superficial calm often obtains where such a clear and overwhelming religious majority is in place. Yet one can see the latent tensions that often live beneath the surface where two sharply different religions of equal size occupy a single place (consider Israel/Palestine) or, as sometimes happens (consider Bahrain), where a minority of one religion rules a majority of another religion.

If I invite you to imagine such a place as a temple, I think you can see that the temple will be a much safer, more hospitable, warmer, and more welcoming place if everyone there acts like the tax-collector of the parable rather than like the Pharisee.

I suppose that kind of hospitality can be a key precondition for the kind of comparative reflection emphasized throughout your introduction. Indeed, "All knowledge begins with comparison," you say, and the comparative study of religions in particular can yield "a uniquely deep and subtle form of cosmopolitan sophistication." Could you apply that to the current international migration crisis? What kind of knowledge and sophistication can we gain when we consider the crisis a religious one? And might that change the way we respond?

American leaders are not legally or politically required to abstain from any extended comments about religion, but culturally they are strongly constrained to do so. The official neutrality of the federal government with regard to religion has long had this secondary effect. At home, ecumenical gestures like iftar dinners in the White House or the lighting of the presidential Christmas tree are easily accepted, but anything beyond that, such as might have been a strong presidential statement in defense of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," is strenuously resisted.

As this cultural inhibition is extended into international relations, it constrains American diplomats from the president to the secretary of state and on down from offering any comment about the ongoing Sunni/Shia religious war that lies at the heart of the chaos that embroils the geographical quadrangle defined by Tehran, Istanbul, Tripoli (Libya), and Aden (Yemen). In Syria, at the center of this maelstrom, the derivatively Shia (Alawite) minority, the Christian minority, the Sunni but ethnically Kurdish minority, and a few other, smaller non-Sunni, non-Arab minorities clearly fear to live as they would under majority Sunni rule. In Iraq, the reverse fear obtains: the minority Sunni and Arab population fears life under majority rule by either Sunni (but Kurdish) or Arab (but Shia) rule—much less by those two in any kind of alliance. Undeniably, there is ethnic rivalry at play here, but more powerfully, in my opinion, there is intra-Islamic religious rivalry. Intra-religious disputes are those that American tradition most strongly counsels American political leadership to avoid. Now, however, when this particular intra-religious dispute is roiling all of Europe as well as all of the Middle East and even threatening the American tradition of religious neutrality itself, our American leaders and we ourselves as Americans are ill-served by this traditional inhibition.

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