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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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Contemplating conversion, as we are blessedly free to do in our country, one faces a choice. As a cradle Catholic and, in fact, a recent former Jesuit, I was as a young man free to leave religion altogether behind (which I did, in effect, for some years) or to embrace a self-customized variety of Buddhism (which I also did). Finally, I concluded that the wisest compromise for me was the liturgically Catholic, ethically mainstream American Protestant Episcopal tradition, with certain elements added silently from a species of agnostic Buddhism. For years, I carried a Buddhist poem, in the form called waka, in my wallet, then lost it, and only recently recovered it with the help of Japanese friends. It is by Saigyo Hoshi (1118-1190), a poem he wrote after visiting the Shinto Grand Shrine at Ise. In my own adjusted translation-of-a-translation, now newly restored to my wallet, it reads:

Gods here?
Who can know?
Not I.
Yet I sigh
and tears flow
tear on tear.

What I value most in the religion/language analogue, however, is the inescapable truth that nobody speaks language in general. Everybody speaks some language in particular and then particularizes it further into what is called (a word that makes me smile) an idiolect. And one must speak one's religious idiolect with just the right phrase, a good faith effort. On the final pages of my general introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions, I quote Herbert Fingarette:

It is the special fact of modern man that he has a "choice" of spiritual visions. The paradox is that although each requires complete commitment for complete validity, we can today generate a context in which we see that no one of them is the sole vision. Thus we must learn to be naïve but undogmatic.

Which is to say, to follow through with the analogy, "I expect you, my Chinese friend, to keep speaking Chinese, though I welcome your attempts to learn English. I hope you won't mind, though, if I keep speaking English. It's where I live, linguistically speaking."

At the end of this school year, you will be retiring from your position as Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies at UC Irvine. In the many lives you have had prior to this position, you were a Jesuit seminarian, a successful journalist and editor, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author among many other accomplishments. But how has the teaching of religion at the university level changed your understanding of the importance of religious studies? And finally, what can we anticipate from a retired Jack Miles?

Notwithstanding the enormous respect I have for the exacting study of religion by linguistically and historically prepared scholars who devote lifetimes of work to developing the needed mastery, I am also increasingly aware of the value of a humbler kind of religious education that begins within strong religious communities and moves slowly outward from there. This is harder. Few within those communities are really very willing learners. But socially and spiritually, this is an invaluable kind of teaching and learning.

As for me after retirement, look for a brief burst of short books on several religious topics, and then something altogether unrelated to religion. No previews. Sorry.

Tae Sung is assistant professor of English in the Online and Professional Studies Division at California Baptist University.

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