Extract from an interview with J. Z. Smith

SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?

JS: Oh, I don’t know. Well, first of all, given the range of religions I teach, the issue of where I stand in relation to them is moot. And most people who teach religion have a clear relationship with the religions. I cannot. Obviously, most of them are dead, I would get in trouble with the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] if I sacrificed a bull ox to Zeus. I have a friend who recently died, but he actually decided to show kids what a sacrifice looks like, so he sacrificed a lamb at Easter time. “We talk about it so much—here’s what it looks like!” Half the class puked, half the class had angry letters from mommy and daddy. But he did demonstrate that it’s not just a metaphor. It’s a messy and not altogether pleasant process. Since [then] we’ve converted it entirely into an economic question. I ask students the meaning of sacrifice, and they always start talking about “mommy and daddy sacrificing so I could go to college.” We’ve been at war for four years, and I haven’t heard one person yet say some soldier sacrificed themselves. That language is gone. It’s entirely economic. One kid whose name I sent to the Development Office said sacrifice was joining a golf club for the four years that he was here, so he would have money to go to Europe when he graduated. I thought Development ought to keep an eye on that kid. I rarely do that, but I turned him in. That’s just his notion, but it’s the same idea—it’s economic: “I give up something now to get a better thing in the future.” Well that’s a shitty theory of sacrifice. But that’s the kind of thing I try to do, I try to make students answer questions, and not in class, but in writing.

On the whole I don’t teach seminars. I used to teach a lot of seminars. It’s a young man’s game. Some people like [U of C Classics professor James] Redfield can keep it up. I can’t; it’s very tiring. To really keep track of what everybody’s saying is like a computer dating service—”You should really talk to him,” or “Come on, stop talking!”—it’s like conducting an orchestra. And I can’t do it any longer. So I mostly talk. And I let them talk back in writing basically. And sometimes I’ll identify who asked something—it depends on how many people are in the room. If there’s 20, I’ll identify them. If there’s 80, I won’t. I try, I suppose, very hard—someone once said religion is a topic you have to un-teach before you teach, because in some sense, everybody comes in with an idea in their head, so they’re obviously sure that they know something about it. Your job is to suggest, without being incredibly in their face, that they don’t. So you have to take it apart, respectfully, but nonetheless take it apart. And sometimes you try juxtaposing it to something, you sometimes try asking an awful long question about it, sometimes you play dumb. Sometimes you do some history, say, “You know, it wasn’t always like you just said,” and there’s a reason behind why you’re saying what you’re saying, because something happened that caused people to talk like that. No one until Charles Darwin ever knew the Bible had no errors. No one in the history of Christianity has ever claimed until Christianity that the Bible had no errors, so why suddenly did they have to announce the Bible had no errors, at the beginning of the 20th century? It’s not an internal religious movement, it’s what they perceive as an external threat. Of course after that you drop the second shoe, which is, the sentence continues: “It’s only an error in the original autograph.” Well, fat chance you and I are ever going to see that one! And fat chance there ever was one, incidentally. The whole damn thing, written down in the same handwriting, all at once? No way. So you ask questions. That’s what you do. And most religions that are interesting spend a lot of time asking questions.

The difference I think is when religion is left alone to ask questions, they can actually be far more daring than I can be in a classroom. And usually people who ask questions are fairly comfortable with their religion. They ask the craziest—I mean I wouldn’t dare ask some of these questions. But they’re never going to leave, because the answer to that question—that’s who they are, and they just want to find out more about it. And if it leads them to things that make them say, “My God, yuck,” they’re still not going to say, “So, tomorrow I’m going to join some other group.” Whereas when you deal with a mixed audience, when you deal with somebody else’s faith, it gets tricky.

I loved teaching Self, Culture, and Society. It was I think my favorite teaching I’ve done here. And I would come in the winter quarter when they did religion, with Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, all those good people. And one year we read a book about education by Derek Bok and another former president of another university, called something like The Shape of the River, and it was an argument basically for the educational requirement for diversity. It was the book the University of Michigan used before the Supreme Court to make its argument about what Republicans like to call quotas. They’re targets. A quota means you have to reach it. A target means you try, and there’s a big difference, and they know damn well there’s a big difference—anyway, that’s neither here nor there. It’s remarkable because since they were the president of Princeton and the president of Harvard, they got access to everybody in the business and they got access to everybody’s files. And so they were able to give us longitudinal surveys of attitudes over a 20-, 30-year period. Alumni associations have polls, Harvard has a continual poll that they bother people with until they die. Some other places do the same thing. And they tried to summarize—and I was fascinated by a discrepancy, it seemed to me, in two questions. They said, “Do you think it is important to go to school with people of other cultures?” And I don’t care what population you were looking at, the answer was always in the high nineties. Old, young, black, white, rich, poor—not so poor, for the surveys these places were doing—but still, everyone said, “Yes, it’s important educationally to go to school with someone from different cultures.”

But 150 pages later, they said, “Do you think it’s important to go to school with someone of different beliefs?” Thirty-eight percent was the highest “yes” on that one. I looked at that. I said, “You know, I don’t consider my classroom a zoo where I have to have a specimen of every animal. So clearly what I want is I want people from different places because they bring with them different beliefs. So what the hell is the difference between those two?” As interviewers sometimes do, they reword the same question and ask it. I asked Bok, who I know, and he said, “No, no, that wasn’t it at all.” He hadn’t noticed the discrepancy. Well I said, “You’re no God damn use, I’ll ask my students.” They’re the ones who presumably fill out things like this, so I asked them. And they thought I was crazy to think there was a contradiction. First of all for them the word belief means only religious. I’d never quite realized this before. They don’t have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say “what do you think about…” that’s not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn’t about thinking about, first of all; that’s the first thing I learned from my students.

Secondly, though we had read Clifford Geertz’s arguments, which tell you that culture, science, everything is a matter of belief, they obviously didn’t believe him. And that pissed me off, because I’d just given out some As for their reading of Clifford Geertz. And now they’re telling me religion is the only thing you could believe in. All right. Now I’m beginning to catch on, aha. Well if they all read it that way, yeah I guess I see, but still. Didn’t they know different beliefs were going to come with all these different cultures, even if it’s religion? I thought it was fascinating and horrifying—the students weren’t horrifying but it was…. If there was someone from some place else, if there was someone from India, I could go to their house, I could like their food, I could like the samosas and go home. Or I could go to an ethnic fair and enjoy all the different—and that’s a zoo!—all the different dances, foods, costumes, and all of that, and I go home. If I like someone else’s religion, I have to leave and convert. I can’t go home. And I listened to that, and I thought, “My God. Your choice is to be a tourist or to be a convert, there’s nothing in between.” There’s a whole world in between! You don’t have to run fast through a museum from Greek art through French impressionism, watching your clock because you have to go to a natural history museum in a couple hours. You don’t have to do that. There’s other things you could do. You could slow down a little bit. But you also don’t have to become an apostle—there’s a lot of room in between. And that really got me all reanimated about this business. I was quite struck—and I suspect they were telling me much the same things from the minds of the [surveyed] people, that explains the gap.

I thought that was quite amazing. So the question is, how can you look, like you look at a museum at something, look at it, without having to run to something else right away, but without saying—I’ve seen very few paintings where I’d like to live in what I see, but it doesn’t stop you from looking at them for a while, trying to figure out, “What the hell’s going on here, how did they do that?” You know, all the questions you ask yourself. The same kind of thing should somehow happen in the world of beliefs, even religious beliefs.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s