Let’s Get to Work

Mid-afternoon today, the last day of 2017, I received word that Professor Jonathan Z. Smith, of the University of Chicago, had passed away the day before (due to complications from lung cancer). You can read the obituary his family has written, which is posted on Prof. James Tabor’s blog.

In the coming days and months there’s sure to be a number of stories circulating about Jonathan — in fact, I’ve already seen many kind remembrances posted on social media. And, like others, I too have a few of my own. But one in particular stood out to me as I sat here, thinking about the sad news that I received earlier today.

Jonathan was the second annual lecturer invited to our Department, back in the very early 2000s — what was then a tiny little Department that had been on the brink of closure and which was then at the start of what would turn out to be a long road toward reinvention. When I contacted him with the invitation to come to Alabama to lecture, I broached the topic of a speaking fee, since I had recently learned just how finicky some academics could be about not just their fees but also the details of their trip. (Did I ever tell you the one about the scholar who would only do two things while visiting — not three and certainly not four — so it’s either a public lecture and a class visit or a meal with students….) So, to my question about whether he had a fee he offered a simple “No,” and then, to my query about what all he might do when he visited our university, he replied:

Use me as you wish; I’m there to work.

That’s exactly how I remember our conversation.

It says something tremendous about him, as a person and as a scholar, that he accepted whatever we offered and — despite his reliance on that tree-trunk of a cane for which he was known later in life — he worked non-stop while visiting with us. He lectured in the evening but visited classes during the day, met with faculty, and was whisked off to a lunch downtown by our undergrads. He even had dinner with our Dean and Associate Dean, the latter of whom was the son of Jonathan’s own first Department chair, whom he remembered as a little boy in Santa Barbara.

Like I said: like others, I’m lucky to have some anecdotes, largely revolving around either seeing him in action at our annual meetings or meeting with him in Chicago. But that memory of learning that the person I considered to be the preeminent scholar of religion in the world had no fee and had no expectations of special treatment when visiting our little Department in Alabama — he was there to work — well…, that spoke volumes to me about what a scholar ought to be.

And so, like others, I feel extremely lucky to have had a part of my career overlap with his.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Get to Work

  1. My wife has asked me for years why my experience of the Ph.D. process at the University of Chicago was so different from many other students she has met. My answer has always been the same: “Jonathan Z. Smith.” Smith made the experience an adventure instead of an ordeal. In the almost fifty years since I met him in 1968 he has been one of my most important intellectual fathers.

    The first lecture I heard when I came to Chicago in 1968, was the first, or one of the very first lectures Smith gave when he arrived that fall. I had never heard of him and chose the course because of the topic, Hellenestic Religions. My response to that lecture was instant and unreserved. I went up to him immediately afterward and asked if he would be my dissertation adviser. He said “Sure.”

    I knew immediately that he was just what I was looking for, namely, someone who came to the subject matter as an historian without any theological axe to grind, but also a historian not only equipped to talk about the factoids of history but to think historically, concretely, materially, as well as philosophically, imaginatively and scrupulously, about the whole range of human experience, cutting across all of the disciplinary boundaries that had turned biblical studies into a patchwork of isolated silos of expertise.

    A year later I went in to talk with him about selecting a dissertation topic. His response was clear and simple. The topic had to be something I was interested in, and I had to be able to handle the relevant materials. That was it. I felt something take hold inside, the beginnings of excitement. That moment set the tone for the rest of my program. He was a conscientious adviser from beginning to end. After I finished and left behind formal studies of religion I continued to read everything he published.

    Many years later, the week after the disastrous 2004 presidential election, I was reading what Smith called his biobibliographical essay, the first chapter in Relating Religion, his just-published collection of articles. One of the persistent “preoccupations” he traced through the essay was “thinking” and “thought.” Near the end of the essay I read a sentence that stopped me in my tracks, excited all over again: “Religion is the relentlessly human activity of thinking through a ‘situation.'” “That’s it,” I thought. “That’s the reason I had never stopped reading him.” Everything he wrote had some bearing, however minor, on thinking, its “liveliness,” fascination, exhilaration, vigor, playfulness, imaginativeness, humor and potentially far-reaching consequences. I was also thrilled by this notion of religion, so far removed from that being paraded at the time by the re-elected President’s “faith”-based decision-making. At that moment I realized that Smith’s work is important not just to students of religion, but to the wider public’s notions of religion and its notions of thought. We as a nation in 2018 are living at a time when the need for us to be able to think together about ourselves, our nation, and our world has rarely been more acute. We need all the help we can get.

  2. Thanks so much for these memories Russell. I will be posting some of my own after the “dust” and “tears” have cleared a bit. We knew this was coming but still, it leaves one with a sense that our world, our field, our little niche of the Academy, is diminished. I would love to hear your other memories. I just listened to his 2010 AAR Plenary…so quintessentially Smith!