Conscientious Objection, the War in Vietnam, and Jonathan Z. Smith

Richard Hecht, longtime faculty member at UC Santa Barbara, and onetime chair of their Department of Religious Studies, offers a reminiscence of the late Jonathan Z. Smith. Hecht is pictured above, introducing Smith’s 2003 Ninian Smart Memorial Lecture.

I met Jonathan and Elaine Smith shortly after they arrived in Santa Barbara in 1966 in one of the first courses he taught in the department. The war in Vietnam was heating up and President Johnson was guardedly increasing the number of American military personnel in the combat zone. The Selective Service or the Draft had not gone to its lottery system and used a system of classifications in the process of meeting the monthly national goals. A young man 18 years or older could be eligible for the draft and be 1-A; could be physically disqualified (my roommate took off the tip of his right index figure, his trigger finger, by sticking it under his lawn mower) and be 4-F; could be a full time student and be 2-S, as long as you maintained what your college or university considered a full course of study and were not in academic trouble; 1-D if a member of the military reserve like the National Guard or were a member of the ROTC; 3-A if military service would constitute a severe hardship to dependents, and several other categories, including for ministers and theological students. College and universities were required immediately to inform “your” draft board if there was any change in your student status. Continue reading

How to Make More from More? the Large Conference Loner Challenge

“Less is better” is a dictum that doesn’t just haunt Matt Sheedy. I feel as though that spectral proverb from J.Z. Smith may apply as much to conferences as the classroom. The phrase resonates with my cultural heritage, too.  There’s a cookbook title, famous among certain generations of Mennonites, that encapsulates the bent of that culture: “More-with-Less.”

Conferences come in a variety of sizes. Some are attended in the dozens to hundreds whereas others tip past the thousands. Each conference ranges between more and less in a variety of ways, but it seems to me that Smith’s pedagogy and my cultural heritage converge on the direct correlation between attendance and outcomes. The more the people, the less I appreciate the conference.

What follows is not theorizing that supports the claim, but anecdotal evidence accompanied by some ideas for action. Continue reading

Dissertation Ideas, #47

In the same spirit in which I welcome the study of the totalizing mythic endeavors, the univers imaginaires, of an Ogotemmêli or an Antonio Guzmán, I would hope, someday, to read a consonant treatment of the analogous enterprise of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics….*

So wrote Jonathan Z. Smith, in his essay “Are Theological and Religious Studies Compatible?” (originally published in The CSSR Bulletin 26 [1997]: 60-61 and then reprinted in Chris Lehrich’s edited collection On Teaching Religion [2013: 75]).

I quote it here as an intellectual provocation, to challenge us as to how we generally privilege the familiar. For whether one identifies as Christian or not, such widely-known insider technical terms as grace, sin, and salvation, along with such proper nouns as the Holy Spirit, God, or Jesus, are more than likely so familiar to most scholars of religion that they would be hard pressed to study, let’s just say, Karl Barth’s magnum opus as a work of epic mythmaking, akin to the oral or written products of cultures with which we are not so familiar.

So it’s rather improbable that we would approach Barth’s text by historicizing it, understanding it as highly coded commentary on the world of its author’s day, perhaps as practical charter for how he thought his world ought to be…. You know, the way we’d surely read comparable texts from other groups. (That some would’t see his text as comparable to those others is part of the problem, by the way….)

It would therefore be a challenge — one well worth the effort, I think — to take Smith’s brief line, above, seriously, and approach the massive Church Dogmatics as nothing more or less than a myth and to then read it accordingly.

It would be a great dissertation project.

* Ogotemmêli, an elder of the Dogon group in Mali/west Africa, provided Marcel Griaule with esoteric insider teachings for the latter’s Conversations With Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (Oxford Univ. Press, 1965); Antonio Guzmán was an enculturated Desana Indian, from the Amazon, who Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff met in the city of Bogota, Colombia; see the latter’s book, Amazonian Cosmos (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971).

In Search of…

Students in REL 490 are currently reading a couple of essays by Joseph Kitagawa (d. 1992), longtime (and influential) faculty member at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (from his 1987 collection), to help set the stage for our eventual reading of some of the works by the late Jonathan Z. Smith.

In Kitagawa’s essay, “The History of Religions in America” (1959 — originally published in that once influential set of essays on methodology), we find the following:

[O]ne must remember the admonition of Tor Andrae that the origin of religion is not a historical question; ultimately it is a metaphysical one.

It’s an interesting line, I think; given that the classic History of Religions approach was rather concerned with using the comparative method to identify the universal essence of religion, Kitagawa’s repetition of this warning has an ambivalent status in both his essay and in the field — not to mention how it could also serve to retain certain sorts of key inquiries for theology alone.

But without elaborating in detail here, I admit to being curious how people today read that advise… While for me discourses on origins are an effective rhetorical technique, employed in disputes among social actors in the present, I know plenty of people who still aim to figure out the origin of this or that religion (let alone a myth or a ritual) or who are set on explaining the pre-historic origins of religiosity in general.

So it seems that the admonition didn’t have much effect, unless there are more in our field than I realize who instead think of skin care products when they hear the word.

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. Continue reading

Coming Attractions: REL 490 Capstone Senior Seminar

REL 490 is the Department’s senior seminar, that’s offered each Spring. Required of all majors, its topic regularly changes as does the professor who offers it. The goal of the course is to offer some sort of test case or example that can provide an opportunity for students with wide interests to mull over the skills that were gained throughout the degree.

This Spring it’s Prof. McCutcheon who is teaching the course and the topic is the work of Jonathan Z. Smith.

But is it…? Continue reading

Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

Picture 7

National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically. Continue reading

Our Highest Ideals

Picture 6I recall a close friend, almost 30 years ago, to whom I asked the following often-heard question, when they’d just had their first child:

Is he a good baby?

His reply?

We don’t believe in making moral judgments about our child.

I admit that the answer came as a bit of a surprise, since I was simply interested in knowing if the baby was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok; but, sure, after I thought about it for a moment, it was pretty evident that the old “good baby” trope wraps up an awful lot of unstated things and I had asked it pretty unthinkingly. After all, I could have just inquired if he was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok.

I thought of that exchange yesterday when I first read through the American Academy of Religion’s draft statement on responsible research, posted online for member commentary. (Click the graphic to read it.) Continue reading

The Eternal Return All Over Again

Picture 8I wrote a post recently in which I critiqued a new book by Brent Plate, saying it (along with other developments in the field, such as the turn toward so-called embodied or lived religion) was evidence that the work of Eliade was still representative of the field, no matter how much distance some may claim separates us today from when he first wrote many of his now famous studies in the history of religions (that is, back in the 1950s). I was lucky enough to have Brent comment on the post and a brief back-and-forth resulted, during which he posted the following comment:

I may be an unwitting Eliadean. So be it.

Continue reading