Jack Miles' return to religion: "There are questions that remain in the human mind even when science doesn’t address them"

Science is about learning, and religion about coping with life, says editor of new Norton Anthology of religion

By Sara Scribner

Published December 25, 2014 3:30PM (EST)

Pope Francis, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Dalai Lama        (Reuters/AP/Max Rossi/Richard Shotwell/Cathal McNaughton/Photo montage by Salon)
Pope Francis, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Dalai Lama (Reuters/AP/Max Rossi/Richard Shotwell/Cathal McNaughton/Photo montage by Salon)

Jack Miles is the religious writer of our time. An agnostic who dared to write the book "God: A Biography," which won the Pulitzer Prize, he has just completed another daunting work as the editor of the first Norton Anthology of World Religions. The result of nine years of research, it is an elegant and enormous collection -- 4,448 pages of carefully selected texts from the world’s six most prominent religions.

In his introductory essay, which has been adapted in The Atlantic’s December issue as “Why God Will Not Die,” Miles presents human mortality, scientific ambiguities and the eventual end of the human race as strong arguments for spiritual seeking and religious pluralism. This is not someone who shies away from uncertainty: he reasons with microscopic precision, teasing fragments of answers from some of life’s most slippery questions. From his home in Orange County, California, where he is a religious studies and English professor at the University of California, Irvine, Miles contemplates religion in the 21st century after years of studying the ancients.

Now that the book is finished, what were some surprises for you walking away from this project? What are some things you think you might carry with you for the rest of your life?

There is, of course, a sense of greater variety than one knew about. My favorite definition of education is “discovering what you didn’t know you didn’t know,” and though I began this project knowing a good deal about religion, at the end of it I had discovered quite a bit of what I didn’t know I didn’t know. I would say, for me, the greatest sense of discovery came in the Daoist anthology. The handling of Chinese religion gave me a good deal of difficulty because those were the religious traditions I thought I knew the least about and, among the Chinese religious traditions it was Daoism that was the greatest mystery to me. I had a general impression that though the "Dao De Jing" and the word Dao had a certain faddish currency in the West, Daoism as a religion was just about dead in China, and I learned from James Robson, my Daoism editor, that this was a widespread view in the West, even among scholars, but that the Daoist tradition, in fact, had survived underground despite more than a century of persecution.

In the last years of Imperial China, persecution was severe against Daoism because the state philosophy was Confucianism. After the Chinese Revolution under Sun Yat-sen, Daoism was regarded as a superstition in a period of rapid Westernization. But the most severe persecution of all came during the Red Guard period under Maoism, and then it really almost did disappear and its scriptures were almost suppressed entirely and would have been lost to the world of religious literature. Almost miraculously, one copy was printed and survived, and it has enabled Western scholars to appreciate better the continuing life of this religious tradition and to discover, to their real amazement, once they were able to get in touch with surviving practitioners, that the practices that were still in use did coincide with the scriptures that have been recovered. That particular part of this six-part anthology was my greatest surprise.

Christianity and Judaism I did know, I would say, fairly well; Buddhism I knew the way Americans know it, which I think is as a Zen-focused Buddhism, but that is Japanese and Japanese Buddhism is actually a later stage in this really complicated tradition. The first editor whom I recruited was Wendy Doniger; she’s the Hinduism editor, a very controversial person, but a joy to work with. I learned all kinds of things along the way from Wendy.

Going back to the Daoism section, isn’t RZA from Wu-Tang Clan in the book?

Yes, that’s right.

Was that a controversial decision for you?

[laughs] Well, of course. On my next birthday I’ll be 73, so Wu-Tang Clan is, you might say, not the music of my generation. I wasn’t much of a fan to begin with, but I’ve discovered what a following Wu-Tang Clan has, and James Robson — who is a younger man — appreciated the music and made the connection. What was more, you might say, in my groove, was that George Harrison’s "The Inner Light" is an almost exact translation of a phrase or two from the "Dao De Jing"; the German philosopher Heidegger attempted to translate the "Dao De Jing"; we’ve made many connections of that sort, but the one that gets all the attention, I’ve noticed, from younger people, is the Wu-Tang Clan.

You talk about the richness you encountered and the complexity of some of these religions. What were some ways that these religions address the same questions and dovetail in their answers? Did you see a lot of connections across religions?

I quote in my preface a line from a pioneering 17th-century work in comparative religion. The line is, “all religions overlap in something,” and our approach in this volume is not to drive to the essence of Hinduism or the essence of Judaism but to recognize that a variety of practices and beliefs can coexist. Just how they add up doesn’t even necessarily make them all versions of the same thing. This is, as it happens, quite a hot topic just now among scholars of religion: Are we talking about a genus in which each religion is a species or are we talking about something that varies much more greatly than that?

One is struck, yes, by rather stunning coincidences. I quote in the general introduction a wonderful passage from Proust’s "Remembrance of Things Past." A novelist has died and Proust’s character, reflecting on his passing, seems to invent the notion on his own of reincarnation of the soul and the carrying forward of either virtue or vice from a previous life. This is a core notion, the notion of karma, from Hinduism, and a similar notion is employed in Buddhism. Sometimes you meet a young person who seems to know so much and be so mature and so deep that it is as if he has many lifetimes of learning behind him. Other times, you meet someone who, though mature, is so infantile and so uncivilized that it is as if he was born an incorrigible criminal. How do we cope with that fact? Christianity has its notion of original sin; Buddhism and Hinduism begin with samsara, this cycle of rebirth with guilt or virtue carried forward from the previous lives. One can draw up comparisons of this sort.

I have to make clear that we don’t do that here in this anthology. At the start I thought perhaps we would. I brought my associate editors together and asked them if they wanted to function as a board seeking out such points of coincidence or congruence, and they didn’t want to do so. They each thought they had more than enough to do in bringing together primary texts from the origin of the religious tradition assigned to them. In effect, that search for what might bring them all together was left to me, to some extent, but is really left to the many users of this book, each of whom will be asking your kind of question.

Just talking to you makes me think about how distracted we are these days. I think technology, for a lot of people, has brought them away from these essential questions of finding meaning in life and our place in the world and dealing with the idea that we’re not going to be here forever. It seems like we don’t really address these issues very often, especially younger people, and it seems like something we’re really missing. The people you’re talking to deal with these questions all the time, probably, but there are also some who have not just stepped away from but turned against religion. What do you think that does to us? Do you see a problem with that? Do you think people are finding something else to fill that gap or not?

You’d have to ask each individual if anything is filling a gap or if a gap is even recognized. You, obviously, recognize that some kind of gap is there. Let me make a couple of comparisons to try to get closer to an answer to your question. I was talking recently to a young writer; I had just voted and I asked him if he was going to vote, and he said “No, I haven’t had time to familiarize myself with the interests of the candidates.” This is someone I would describe as quite political, but he doesn’t vote and he doesn’t entertain the question of whether he is a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent; he doesn't care about any of these things and yet it isn’t as if he doesn’t care about his country, that he doesn’t care about its leadership or its wars or demonstrations in Ferguson and the many other issues that constitute its politics. It would be difficult to say that politics is dead for him; it’s just that the available expressions of it seem not to work for him. Is there, then, a political gap in his life? Does he lack something? Probably so, but it’s not the kind of gap that’s very easily filled, is it?

Another comparison is to art, and here we come to the question of speed that you were talking about. I begin this entire anthology with a poem by a poet named Todd Boss, who compares entering a church to entering a museum. He says you can go into the church just to look at the art, but you can also go into a museum and feel a kind of holiness or solemnity there. To stick with the art side of that comparison, if you walk into a museum and begin looking at a picture and you don’t quite understand what it’s saying, you read the caption and that gives you a little something -- but there’s still something more in that picture than the caption could ever capture. So you keep looking at it, but that slows you down, doesn’t it? It’s not linguistic; it takes you out of the chatter of the buzz that fills our minds so loudly now. Well, looking at the texts in this anthology can be compared with going into a museum.

I also make the comparison that this book is 4,000 pages long. Someone could say, “Ugh, 4,000 pages; I’ll never read it!” Well, you can stand in front of a museum and say, “Ugh, hundreds of pictures; I’ll never look at all of them so I won’t go in!” but people don’t do that with museums. They do go in and look at the few pictures they select; they create their own museum within the museum, and that’s how a work like this can affect those who buy it. You can go into a museum, find the map, and go straight to a particular picture that attracts you. Here, you look at the table of contents, something strikes you by the title, you go to that page, you look at that, then you close the book and think about it. It can work in that way.

As for trying to sum it all up, what do all these religions finally come down to, if I were to stand in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and try to tell you what all the pictures and statues finally come down to by giving you the three elements that all art must have, you wouldn’t really know from what I told you what would await you once you walked into that museum, would you? The art itself does things that any summary, any analysis of the art cannot do; well, these texts, which come not from scholars of religion but from the lives of the religions themselves, talk in a different language than is spoken in the classroom. They have, at least, a chance to work upon the mind and heart the way a work of art does.

Do you know the writer Jeanette Winterson?

I don’t, no. A novelist?

Mostly a novelist, but she’s recently written a memoir called "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" She grew up in a very, very strictly religious household with a mother who was mentally ill and she has been searching a lot for something that comes close to religion. Even though the religion in her childhood kind of took over her life, she has very fond memories of having that. She describes her searching for something like that, that sense of community and commitment, and she says the Western world has done away with religion but not our religious impulses. [quoting from the book]: “We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning; it is not yet clear how this will happen.” If you’re looking at ancient religions now, how can these texts help us find meaning now that things are so different?

You know, the United States is remarkable in the way that it handles religion. We do not have a national religion but we do have a national way of dealing with religion. If the Founding Fathers had actually thought that religion was evil and should be suppressed — which is the point of view taken, for example, by Stalinism or Maoism — then the First Amendment wouldn’t say that Congress shall make no law abridging the free exercise of religion. What that constitutional establishment brought about was a situation in which, if all the religions available are unsatisfactory, if the one you were raised in doesn’t work for you you can begin a new religion yourself.

The history of religion strongly suggests that when people begin new religions they pick and choose from materials in available religions. If Jeanette is looking for something or, in her writing, perhaps, trying to invent something, then she could indeed take an enormous work like this one as raw material. She could prospect, she could mine, and find things that might work for her; it might be a bit from this one and a bit from that one and she might look for a long time before finding just what she wanted.

The task is not an easy one. One reason why the founders of the world religions — Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses — are honored as greatly as they are is that what they achieved is rarely achieved; it’s very difficult to do. That matter of gathering up the human condition in all its difficulty and facing the weakness of the human mind, we all come to the end of our mental tether. There are things we can’t understand, and that goes for science as well. Coming up with some way to cope with that, to live a satisfactory life despite all that, is rare. I would wish her well and I wish everyone well who’s coping with this — and many are — because it’s a difficult challenge.

All I would hope to have accomplished in "The Norton Anthology of World Religions" is providing a rich picture of how the six most populous or influential religions in the world have gone about doing it at various points in their history, from the beginning to the end, and by doing that to enable people to put something together that might work for them if nothing else does.

I want to talk a little bit about your own experience. I know you’ve very interested in science; a lot of atheists have become very vocal in saying that religion is irrational. You seem like a pretty rational person but I know that you went through a period in which you were deeply affected by existentialism. What was your own journey back to religion? What were some of the intellectual issues you had to grapple with when you started going to church again?

I would say that I had a kind of loss of faith in the possibility of human rationality. I accept as true, on the criteria provided, what science has discovered. Science has good, scientific answers to good, scientific questions, and if a question is judged as not a good scientific question then it simply is set aside as unanswerable. There are questions, however, that remain in the human mind even when science doesn’t address them, and it was thinking about that that pushed me not back toward any religion in particular but away from the sense that science was entirely rational or complete. There was an incompleteness about it that began to trouble me. It was that loss of faith in the secular alternative, you might say, that opened me to the reasonability of choosing a way of life — not so much a way of thought but a way of life — that was in accord with religious tradition.

I don’t think that religion is the same as philosophy; it’s not trying to do that. It’s not the same as science; it’s not trying to do that, either. They have to do with learning, and religion has to do with coping and with life. One may conclude that life is better lived as a member of a church; life is better lived when certain rituals fill the day or fill the year, when certain days of the week or periods of the year are just deeply different from other periods of the day or of the year; one may choose to join a community simply because it opens that possibility. One selection in our anthology is by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and theologian, and he talks about the Jewish sabbath as architecture in time, in which one day of the week becomes a kind of space that you enter as you might enter a building. You stay there until the sabbath is over, and then you come back out, so you have the experience of entry and exit. Even though you might be too poor to build a cathedral, you can have a cathedral in time in that way.

What does that have to do with scientific views about where matter originated? So many questions that science is asking are still unanswered, and I think there will be deep, radical questions unanswered at the time when the human species finally goes extinct — and I believe it will go extinct. You and I are mortal, but our species has a life expectancy as well. We don’t know what it is, and you and I don’t know what our own individual life expectancy is, actually, either, but eventually there will be no human species, and at the time when it’s gone some big questions of a scientific sort will remain unanswered. Meanwhile, we have to cope with our human condition personally in one way or another, and I finally concluded it was better not to do that alone but to do it in company, and to allow certain usages to structure that relationship.

Where is God in the middle of this, you might say? I’m agnostic on the existence of God. I think I can practice the usages of a religious community without claiming that God created the world in six days or lives up in Heaven or raises the dead or any of those particular features that are part of the scriptural stories. I know that others take them literally; I don’t, but I don’t think that rules out religious practice for me.

I’ve had that same feeling when I occasionally go to my own childhood church, and this is a realignment. I instantly fell out of my self-obsession, you know? There’s an opening-up and a connecting and a realizing that we’re all in this together; there’s a lot of things that happen that are so positive.

Yes, and my question to you would be… You have all these positive associations with that experience, and though God is a problem for you, when you go into the old church you still derive these various benefits from it that you mentioned. My question to you, as I put it to myself years ago, was why should I deny myself that simply because I have these intellectual difficulties with a very traditional formulation of a very complicated question? I couldn’t see why I should impoverish my life by stripping all those things out simply because, for example, I didn’t believe that God had created the world in six days.

I know for a lot of people this idea that you can accept and respect and maybe take from different religions… a lot of people think that that undermines faith. What’s your take on that?

I don’t see why that must be. Perhaps they’re right; perhaps that kind of syncretism or picking and choosing — with regard to Roman Catholicism, which is the religion I was born into, the phrase “cafeteria Catholicism” is sometimes referred to. You take a little of this, you skip that, you take a little of that other one, you skip the next two… Well, maybe that ends up as nothing, but I don’t see why that must be the case. If you look at the history of religion, beliefs and practices have always been bubbling up and subsiding; things have surfaced and things have disappeared. It seems, at least to me, an option that has a fighting chance -- perhaps that’s a mistake but it’s really rather too soon to say, I would think.

This situation, which has been brought about partly by a great mingling of populations, it’s been brought about partly by democracy itself, to take our own American history. We had no established religion but Protestantism was overwhelmingly dominant, then heavy Catholic immigration added Catholicism to the mix, but the notion that a Catholic could be president, for example, was unthinkable. Jews arrived in large numbers at the turn of the 20th century but there were Jewish quotas, there were country clubs that admitted no Jews, there were law firms and banks that would never hire a Jew, and so on and so forth; anti-Semitism was a fact of life. And then it began to be a faded-away fact of life, so Protestants, Catholics and Jews began to mingle and consider usages from one another’s religions; began to have a certain attraction, even, to one or another of the practices or beliefs from the other side of the border.

Then, starting in 1965, was the Immigration and Nationality Act; as we had heavy immigration for the first time from Asia, Asian religions began also to enter the mix here. This affected the academic study of religion, of course, quite strongly. We have Jewish Studies programs, Buddhist Studies programs, and so forth, so we now have a richer diet. It can make us sick, it can make us confused. You want to go to a restaurant to dine; can I go to an American restaurant? Nobody knows an American restaurant; American restaurants are fast food. Shall we have Chinese? How about Indian? We think we have to go somewhere else; well, we do! And then you have all these fusion cuisines, right? Asian fusion. I had Persian fusion recently. Well, we do that with religion too, and always have. Is that just another way of stating that religion has failed? Time will tell.

In the introduction to the anthology, you talk about “closure.” What does that mean to you? How does that apply to the book?

What closure means to me is the recognition that I have only a few years to live. I could have said this as easily at the age of 15 as I say it now over 70. We have only a short time in which to resolve the questions that need to be resolved for the living of our life. Science has something to say about that some of the time, but science has all the time in the world. “We now know” — how often have I read that in some article in Popular Science? I love reading Popular Science; I love reading Scientific American and new popular treatments of scientific discoveries. The march of scientific discovery is a grand and exciting tale but it goes on and on and on and on, and I myself do not.

I've got to wrap things up in some way so that I can come up with whatever I need to make my own life satisfactory and livable. Does that necessarily involve politics? Does it necessarily involve art? Does it necessarily involve music? Does it necessarily involve religion? That’s all up to me, and closure is the combination of things that I chose to make up a life. This is a kind of existentialism, I realize, but it is a sort of existentialism that makes room for the practice of religion, in those cases where the practice of religion is what makes your life livable. For other people who don’t choose to include religion in their mix, I would point out only that the principles that they use to make their decisions cannot be entirely rational either, because there isn't enough time. The fact that isn’t yet in view could always be the fact that makes all the difference, if you only had it. You don’t know whether you have it, but you have to go forward anyway. That’s what closure is.

Sara Scribner

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