The Late Religious Scholar Jonathan Z. Smith

From an interview June 2, 2008:

* I despise the telephone. That’s probably why. I don’t like it. I’ll reveal my age, but I don’t like the notion [that] for a nickel…anyone could get a hold of me any time they want. I think the cell phone is an absolute abomination. I don’t understand people really needing to take a telephone with them. I have one in the kitchen, and it has an answering machine, and I pay no attention whatsoever.

SS: How about e-mail?

JS: I’ve never used a computer.

SS: What got you interested in the religions that you study?

JS: Because they’re funny. They’re interesting in and of themselves. They relate to the world in which I live, but it’s like a fun house mirror: Something’s off. It’s not quite the world I live in, yet it’s recognizable. So that gap interested me… I sometimes have to deal with religions that keep going. And they’re more problematic because then you deal with people who believe things. They also find their own beliefs puzzling or challenging or interesting—they’re almost synonyms. So they have not only their beliefs, but their interpretations of those beliefs. And I have my interpretations of their beliefs. Sometimes we can sit like this and negotiate it. Other times it’s in a book or transcript. And then in a third sense you have to run back and forth. You have to represent both sides of the conversation as you try to figure out what it’s all about.

* I went to another philosophy professor and I said where can I go to study Greek myths. He said, “Why don’t you go to Yale Divinity School and study the New Testament, it’s the biggest piece of Greek myth that’s still around.”

* In between is where you always are.

* And so, you’re always in the middle, because translation’s always in the middle. It can’t impose its language on someone else’s language. On the other hand, if it just repeats the other person’s language, it ain’t translated.

* There’s an example, of a great scholar, also named Smith—Wilfred Cantwell Smith, just died a couple years ago—that was his fundamental principle. His specialty was particularly in Islam, and he held that if he said something about Islam, they had to sign off on it. And I said “Wilfred, the difference between you and me is that I’m at Harvard and you’re at Chicago. You’re rich, I’m poor. Who are you calling up? My God, what a phone bill! I mean, you’re calling up the entire Muslim world, and asking what they think of your sentence? Because if not, I want to know how you picked out the person you asked. And I suspect you picked him out because he talks just like you!” And then you’re asking a mirror, “‘How do I look today?” I mean, it’s a crazy idea. Call up the whole world and ask them, “What do you think about what I was about to say? Every sentence?” I mean good lord, what a bill. I think even with the cell phones, I see all the ads say “unlimited”—I don’t think they had that in mind. So no. Now, there are some self-appointed loudmouths who say ‘unless I approve of what you say’—but who the hell appointed them?

SS: I know one of the people you’ve criticized is Joseph Campbell. What’s it like to take on big fish like that?

Joe makes it all easy! All myths are one! Well, see, I think that’s terrible. I really do. If that’s all it is, if all myths tell the story of a hero who at a certain stage in his life blah blah blah blah, why read more than one? For that matter, why not just read Joe Campbell? [That’s] exactly what he had in mind. Now his popularity does not depend on spirits. His popularity depends on his aura—legitimating the mysterious world of the East, legitimating the hunters and gatherers and their deep rapport with nature! “Oh, you like mushrooms? Mushrooms, too, let me tell you about mushrooms”—Joe would affirm anything. He was terrific!

* He had the gift of…oh, I don’t know…societies that still honor the storyteller. We don’t, but he had the gift of a storyteller. He had the gift, unbelievable. And then the Irish drawl would come out the more he drank, which made the stuff more lilting…. But this is a business—and I don’t think we show students enough of this—but this is a business that lives by high noons. It’s shoot-’em-ups and rewards. Your job, in part, is to take somebody down. Their reputation shouldn’t be a big deal, but obviously it is.

* We can’t experiment on our subject matter… But it’s really terribly important that if the human sciences are sciences at all, they have to have something analogous to experiment. So talk is one of those. Comparing is another one. Experiment interferes with whatever it’s looking at. It’s not watching a natural process just going along naturally. It sticks a pin in or drops some irritant on it or does something to it or smashes it in a multibillion dollar hole. But comparing is doing something—bringing two things that have no reason in creation to be in the same pond together—throw them in and see what happens… I look at the Book of Mormon in relationship to the Koran. I’m dropping one in the other’s pond to see what happens. So to me, if we’re a science, we have to have something analogous to an experiment.

* And one of things about religion is they take it all! They talk about everything! They’re not like most of who think they have a certain expertise so they pick their beliefs about this narrow range of things, and they’re doing pretty good.

* Martin Luther says, “What think you of Jesus Christ is the only question!” Well that’s the only question, but what hundreds of questions are wrapped up in that question? Religions will try to simplify themselves, strip off the things—they say, “Well, those are not so essential.” But nobody needs to leave any religion over a single issue. Because fortunately, unlike some of our political groups, there are no single-issue religions. There really aren’t. Part of the problem is they have no modesty. So they’ll talk about everything, and have a belief about it, and it makes them fun. It also makes them asses sometimes.

* a first-year will buy anything from anyone with authority. A second-year won’t buy anything from anybody, no matter how authoritative. Finally by the fourth year they learn what you call contextualization. Take some of it and leave some of it…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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