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Interview by Tae Sung

The Study of World Religions in a Time of Crisis

A conversation with Jack Miles.

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.

Thus, my answer to your question about the relevance of comparative religion to the Republican presidential primaries is that a deeper acquaintance with intra-Islamic religious division might induce our leaders to seek peace by an unprecedented, forthright engagement with religious leaders on either side rather than with unrepresentative political "moderates," much less with elusive but supposedly tractable militias. That such efforts have failed after so many attempts certainly suggests that another kind of effort might be in order. Imagine the effect if an American president were to say, "When a Muslim kills another Muslim, the whole world grieves."

Another crisis that I know you care about deeply and that has come up in other interviews you gave about the anthology is the ecological crisis. In what way can that also be related to the study of world religions and international migration? I've heard some reports there is even a connection between the migration crisis and climate change. How does the study of world religions fit in our understanding and finally our response to these great challenges?

Tae, you offer me another opportunity to slip in a plug for The Norton Anthology of World Religions. In the NAWR Christianity anthology, in the section entitled "Late Middle Ages and Renaissance," we include a selection from the anonymous and perhaps originally Dutch morality play Everyman. This is a play about the classic "moment of truth" that must indeed come to every woman and every man face-to-face with mortality. The Dutch American artist Frederick Franck wrote and then published (in an illustrated, calligraphed edition) his own quasi-Buddhist version of Everyman, which he entitled EveryOne. Frederick's Buddhism was less of an intrusion into this Christian play than it might have been, given the fact that it is personified Knowledge—read, for Frederick, Buddhist Enlightenment—that first rescues Everyman in the play itself, though, of course, Knowledge then leads Everyman on to repentance and to trust in Christian redemption from his sins.

And just what has this to do with climate change? Simply this: it is knowledge, scientific knowledge, that has alerted us all to the possibility that the end of the human species, whose eventual extinction as an animal species on planet Earth has never been in doubt, may be coming much, much sooner than expected—which is to say, much, much sooner than the cooling of the Sun. I spoke once with awe to a physician friend of how many times he had shared the moment of truth with a dying patient. He quickly corrected me: the moment of truth in his experience was never the last breath, a moment when the mind is almost always already dark, but rather the moment when he first gave a patient the fatal diagnosis, the news that he had only a short time left to live. I have little doubt that on some occasions the news he brought conduced to some sort of repentance or the putting of a moral house in order. Perhaps scientific knowledge can conduce Christians, Buddhists, and many others to an analogous, collective change in our industrialized way of life. It is almost too late, but yet not quite. Our very scientific and technological progress has almost written our fatal diagnosis, but not quite. We still have a slender chance to extend our species life and in the process to build a kinder world for the generations coming after us.

With regard to climate change, religion, and migration, yes, there is a connection. Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a UC San Diego climatologist, Indian-born, whom UC President Janet Napolitano has put in charge of a university-wide "carbon neutrality initiative," has pointed out that rising sea levels will send millions of Muslim climate-change refugees streaming from low-lying Bangladesh into heavily Hindu India. The worst religious war seen in modern times was the Hindu-Muslim war that followed Indian independence and led to partition of India with the creation of Pakistan. We may hope that such violence will not recur, but those who remember cannot fail to fear that it may.

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."

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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