Interview by Tae Sung

The Study of World Religions in a Time of Crisis

A conversation with Jack Miles.

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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.

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