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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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You've written that religion—and ultimately science too—is a kind of coping mechanism in the face of human ignorance and fear. Beyond the level of individual psychology, I take you to mean more broadly something like the deep traditions and historical resources upon which faith communities draw. In thinking about it in this way, I see two different approaches to the study of world religions in the anthology: one, more pluralistic and syncretistic, encourages readers to pick and choose from various religions to suit their needs; and the other, to be rooted in a particular tradition and even ecclesiology, as is the case perhaps with your own Episcopalianism. Is there a tension between those two approaches to the study of world religions? Or is there an alternative way of understanding all religions as already, in some sense, pluralistic and syncretistic that makes the previous question a false dichotomy?

What a smart question! One way to engage it is to stipulate for the sake of discussion that religion occupies a place in human evolution very like the place of language. We know of no people, however "primitive" or presumptively archaic its way of life, that is without language, and none, either, that is without religion. It is plausible to suppose that just as there was a pre-religious phase in hominid evolution, so also there was a pre-linguistic phase. But in any case, the result in both language and in religion is enormous variety in a human species spread to every continent except Antarctica (which even now has no permanent human inhabitants). Your question asks how we should cope with the religious variety. My answer is that we may cope with it, analogously, as we cope with linguistic variety.

And how do we cope with linguistic variety? One way is to ignore it, close your ears to it, and ignore anyone not speaking your language, or speaking your language with a challenging foreign accent. Another way is to accept it however reluctantly, willing at least to interact with people who speak one's own language badly or with an accent but not to go beyond that and learn a second or third language. A third way is to extend oneself to learn a second or third language, badly or well, and perhaps to begin occasionally importing phrases from it into one's native language. (In Southern California, "Spanglish" is spoken far and wide.) A fourth way is to become a true linguistic expatriate and begin speaking one's second language so much of the time that it begins to eclipse one's native language; this happens with actual, geographical expatriates but also, of course, with the children of immigrants, who may have spoken, e.g., Chinese at home in their earliest years but become native speakers of American English and then, sometimes, begin to lose their Chinese.

This last case provides a convenient transition to the religion side of the analogue. Just as it is difficult ever to leave one's native language behind entirely, so it is difficult ever to leave behind the form of religion or irreligion in which one has passed one's earlier and more formative years. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions/Buddhism regards Western Buddhism as, in effect, a new and distinct Buddhism within what he regards as a world family of Buddhisms rather than a single uniform religious tradition. What has made Western Buddhism what it is? What else can it be but the admixture of all that converts to it have ineluctably brought with them, including their selectivity within the accumulated, vast wealth of prior Buddhist tradition?

My general impression is that any religious tradition that has lasted for a long while and spread into various cultures is likely to harbor within itself a range of subtraditions such that a given Muslim may be a very Buddhist kind of Muslim, a given Hindu a very Muslim kind of Hindu, and so forth. This is what makes it possible to "migrate internally" within a single broad tradition. How do you describe yourself religiously, Tae? You've been a migrant in both the geographical and confessional senses of the word. I have called myself variously a "pious agnostic" and a man "Catholic as to history, Episcopal as to taste, and Quaker as to morality." But the best answer, and I intend this answer seriously, is, "God only knows."

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