2011 radio interview about the Norton Anthology of World Religions

Please note: This is an excerpt from a 2011 interview about the Norton Anthology of World Religions with Jack Miles on the ABC Australian radio show The Spirit of Things, hosted by Rachael Kohn. This was then an early work-in-progress interview, more than three years before the anthology finally came to completion, with much of the final stage in the work being a re-conceptualization of our treatment of religion in China. You may listen to it or read the full transcript here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/not-the-bible/2989780

Rachael Kohn: We're about to hear why the publishers of the Norton Anthology of English Literature decided to take on the world of religious writings.

Jack Miles: As a topic in book publishing, religion has had its ups and downs, it's come and gone. Finally they concluded that its most recent coming was permanent. It was once thought that progressive secularisation was inseparable from progressive modernisation and that the march of time eventually was going to make all countries permanently secular. That idea is now in considerable disrepair, partly because of the phenomenon of the United States itself, a country which seems resolutely to continue being religious without surrendering much of its technological edge or its modernity in other regards. And then of course the great impulse in considering all religions brought about by this unexpected disruption from the outside.

Rachael Kohn: So you're referring to 2001.

Jack Miles: That's right. So they came to me and they asked if I would serve as the general editor for a to-be-defined large anthology of world religious texts, and they gave me no more instruction than that at the start.

Rachael Kohn: Wow, that's wide open, a delightful invitation. How many traditions are represented?

Jack Miles: After some thought, I settled first on the decision to cover whatever traditions we did look at from origins to the present. So the rubric for inclusion I came up with was major living international religions, and we settled on these as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Judaism is actually too small for inclusion, but you simply cannot talk about Christianity without talking about Judaism or Islam either, so Judaism has to, as it were, be grandfathered in, being the classic grandfather of everything in the West.

Rachael Kohn: But Sikhism, for example...

Jack Miles: A close call. And we will have...Mormonism would be another one, Shinto is also not small but is confined to Japan. So we will have a website and there we will pay some of our debts to those who were not included in the large print anthology. There was also a sheer question of size. The comprehensive anthology, once it is all together, will be 3,400 pages long, 1,700 pages each in two volumes. More than that, it's just physically unwieldy.

Rachael Kohn: Like the size of two Bibles.

Jack Miles: At least, I would say, more than that even.

Rachael Kohn: I'm thinking for example of the task ahead, I don't know how far down the track you have gone with it, but Buddhism, for example, is such a huge tradition, beginning in India, stretching to Korea, China, Japan and of course to the West in the modern period. So how can you represent the subtlety of ideas that were represented just in China alone in the 8th century? One thinks of what happened there with the explosion of Chan which became Zen in Japan.

Jack Miles: As it happens, I had just received before I left for Australia all of the head notes of the Buddhism section. The head notes are beautifully done with a wonderful sense of poise and authority by Donald Lopez who is the editor of the Buddhism anthology within the overall anthology. So I have seven associate editors and he is one. We did face an interesting decision point as we pondered whether to cover Chinese Buddhism as a part of Chinese religion, when we still had a heading called 'Chinese Religion', or whether to put Chinese Buddhism with Buddhism. And we decided on the latter.

So Chinese Buddhism will be represented in the Buddhism anthology by texts written in every case originally in Chinese, even if they presented themselves as translations from Sanskrit. But scholars can tell when the work was originally written in Chinese. Doing this has the secondary effect, by the way, of considerably enlarging the number of people who may be counted as Buddhists in our world. One doesn't quite belong to Buddhism the way one belongs to the Christian Church.

The process of head counting becomes very different when the goal is not covenant with a divinity but enlightenment which may proceed as a private moment, or a transaction, as in Chan and Zen, from mind to mind, from master to apprentice. But if you allow for powerful influence to constitute a surrogate kind of membership, then the number of Chinese people who are marked by the Buddhist tradition grows very large. So the Buddhism section may be the longest in the book actually.

Rachael Kohn: That's interesting, and certainly it has produced contemporary modern Western writings, and I note you said that your collection goes from ancient to modern, and that comes to the question of how these texts are selected. Have you, for example, included modern Western Buddhist authors such as Alan Watts or Pema Chodron?

Jack Miles: I don't believe that Don has included anyone like...I know he hasn't included Alan Watts himself. I believe that the 20th-century exponents of Buddhism who are included are particularly the Japanese, like Daisetz Suzuki, and the Dalai Lama. I actually noticed in one of the selections that he just very quietly at the end of his note, he says that these selections were suggested by the Dalai Lama. So Don has collaborated with the Dalai Lama's principal translator into English on a couple of works and they are on good terms. It is really quite fascinating when you think about it, that Buddhism died in India, but now perhaps the world's most well-known and revered religious leader, the Dalai Lama, is back in India.

Rachael Kohn: Fortunately your text is not a history, that's a very complex and convoluted sort of story to tell. Yours is really a collection of texts. I want to ask you how controversial are any of the inclusions.

Jack Miles: We are not seeking controversy, we're seeking to provide a teaching collection of texts. But we do have an inclusion by Salman Rushdie and we have something by Philip Roth, and we have the last will and testament of a modern Christian martyr, we even have something from the Ayatollah Khomeini. So we're not trying to scant modernity. But the more modern the texts, the likelier it is that the modern reader would have easy access to it already. So our greatest service is going to be assembling and explaining texts which have been translated. There has really been a marvellous harvest of translations in the 20th century, I think we can be proud of Western scholarship for the hard work of translation that has taken place in the 20th century. But you don't find these translations in every library in the world.

Rachael Kohn: Well, in fact Brigham Young, the Mormon university, has undertaken a very major translation project of Muslim texts, and that brings me to the Muslim section or the Islamic section in this anthology. Who's editing that?

Jack Miles: The editor is a woman and not a Muslim, and this was the question also that we had to ask, were we going to have each tradition always necessarily represented by an adherent of that tradition. And no, we decided finally our anthology is located in the western academic tradition. In a sense, as you were just pointing out, we are offering a comparative literature approach alongside the usual comparative history approach. So this will be an attempt to redress the balance and give people a generous selection of literary texts. And that is our home base, rather than interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue will be assisted by this but it's not a proper task.

So the editor of the Muslim section is Jane Dammen McAuliffe who is a Christian, a Catholic, and is president of Bryn Mawr College, a prestigious private college in the USA, at the moment. She was previously the dean of Georgetown University which has an important Christian Muslim understanding centre, and she is the general editor of the first ever encyclopaedia of the Qur'an. So she knows Arabic well and she has studied the history of exegesis among Jews, Muslims and Christians over the centuries. A fascinating woman.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, but I wonder, controversial for the Muslim community in America?

Jack Miles: I think, surprising for and perhaps a bit of a shock for Muslims outside the West, but not for Muslims inside the West. You know, for them who are participating simultaneously in both cultures...I mean, I teach at the University of California, Irvine, where most classes have a few women in hijab and it is taken as a matter of course, and some of them are very intellectually ambitious and they wouldn't dream of trying to bar the path to a non-Muslim who is interested in Islam, on the contrary, they are excited to see that non-Muslims are taking an interest, almost on whatever grounds, in their tradition.

Rachael Kohn: Jack Miles is the Editor in Chief of the much awaited Norton Anthology of World Religions. If you're wondering how someone like the controversial Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan would respond to Jack's comments, do tune in next week, when I speak to him about his approach to the Qur'an.

Jack Miles, can you give me an idea of some of the major texts that are included?

Jack Miles: Let's see, from the Buddhist tradition I was just reading the explication of our selection from Nagarjuna. He was an Indian Buddhist who wrote in Sanskrit and who, you might say, was the philosophical mind that gave the fullest exposition to the Buddha's initial understanding that all things are interdependent. What would be a comparable Muslim example or perhaps in a different vein, more poetic than philosophical, the selections from Rumi.

In Hinduism it has been quite interesting to follow, the way that anthology is set up, the emergence over time of texts from South India, no longer written in the Sanskrit of the official Rig-Veda priesthood and the Brahmin caste in North India, and stressing the love of the gods rather than a kind of mental union with them. At the very end of the line there has been attention to Hinduism sometimes repudiated under that name by the Dalit untouchable caste in India. Where do they figure in Indian religious tradition? It turns out they have a polytheism of their own which if you wish to you can integrate with the broader Hindu tradition, but if you wish, and some of them do, to regard it as distinct and assert it autonomously now as a part of a presence in India much larger than people would have thought...one Dalit leader claims that if you gather together all of those in the scheduled castes, as they called, they are a numerical majority of all Indians.

Rachael Kohn: But the Dalit class is generally thought to be illiterate or not literate. Did they have texts?

Jack Miles: Well, no, but then remember that the Rig-Veda was preserved orally to centuries verbatim. In fact in all of Hinduism and much of Buddhism for centuries the written text was regarded as distinctly inferior to the memorised oral text. It was through hearing that one encountered true revelation and through exposition viva voce by a teacher, not from a written text under private study.

Rachael Kohn: This Norton Anthology of World Religions literature is of course for the West and will probably be largely used in Western contexts. So is Christian literature going to be apportioned the lion's share?

Jack Miles: No, Christianity has about a mathematically equal one-sixth of the whole, or something less than that because, as I mentioned to you before, where we have tilted away from mathematically equal divisions has been in favour of Buddhism as it turned out, and that was on the basis of allowing ourselves to recognise the large presence of Chinese Buddhism on the world religious map.

Rachael Kohn: Christian literature, when I think of the immense creativity over 2,000 years, it would be hard to know where to begin to choose. Obviously Thomas Aquinas would be there and Augustine, but what about the later English Romantics, the Enlightenment Christians?

Jack Miles: We've had to be very sparing as you get into the literature that was produced after the spread of printing and then mass printing, just enormous explosion of print production in the European countries. So there is a little of that, and not to pass over it entirely in silence, but it has to be sparing. Here I take the position, again, that it is in gathering together the less accessible texts that we will be doing our greatest service.

As it happens, also I did wish this anthology to bear a family resemblance to the Norton anthologies in general, all of which have a literary cast rather than a theoretical, theological or philosophical cast. So from Thomas Aquinas we have a passage in which he is giving his discussion of something in the book of Genesis, rather than his Christian realisation of Aristotelian philosophy. And I chose, as the general editor for the Christian portion, a man who though trained in theology is of a very artistic cast of mind so that he would make this kind of choice, it's what I wanted him to do.

Rachael Kohn: And who is he?

Jack Miles: His name is Lawrence Cunningham, he is, just within the last week, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Notre Dame University.

Rachael Kohn: I know you said this was not a project for the interfaith movement, but I know that you are involved to some extent in interfaith experiences and events in California. Is it possible that the Norton Anthology of World Religions will become something of an unofficial Bible for the interfaith movement, they'll be able to thumb through it whenever they're doing their interfaith services and say 'we'll take a reading from this and a reading from that'?

Jack Miles: I think that's quite possible, and that would be, I must say, something of a dream come true for me. The peril in modern religious discourse across religious traditions is always what Lord Acton called non-historical orthodoxy where you take practices that may go back only a few decades or only into the lifetime of your grandparents, and you reify them and claim that they came from the mouth of Muhammad or the mouth of Moses or the mouth of Jesus.

And if those who want a more pluriform understanding of religion open to various ideas, various practices and prepare to be refreshed from the variety of ideas and poetic expressions that have been carried forward over the centuries, then it will be welcome to be able to have such a work to which to turn. So if someone becomes very imperious with you, you can quote to him from his own tradition, from a corner of it that he has chosen to suppress but he can't deny its legitimacy.

Rachael Kohn: Tell me, has that pluriform religious outlook been descriptive of where you have come to? I know you started as a Jesuit seminarian and then left the seminary.

Jack Miles: Yes, very much so. I would say that I arrived in Italy...I saw the ocean for the first time at the age of 22, visited Europe for the first time as a student, kind of thrown in at the deep end in the Italian language and culture to live with Italians in Rome. This was in 1968. So suddenly I was getting the European perspective on America's war in Vietnam. I was crossing the Piazza Venezia every day on the way to school, seeing the anti-American posters and relativising my naive support for the war by seeing it through the eyes of a non-American, though European and allied, people.

And then the decision was made for me by my Jesuit superiors that I should train to be a scholar of the Old Testament, as we Christians call it, and the best way to do this, they thought, was for me to go and study Hebrew in Israel. So I took my first steps starting at the ulpan, a school for immigrants to Israel in the synagogue in Rome. So I arrived with a smattering of Hebrew at least in Haifa. The year I was there, 1966-67, was the year of the Six Days War, so I lived through the Six Days War, intensely identified with the Jewish side, and yet at Christmas and Easter I had crossed over and had met anguished Palestinian Christians who had been thrown out of their homes and could remember the day it happened as children by the Jewish insurgents in the war of 1948.

So I brought all this back with me to the United States and concluded my doctoral work at Harvard in the Hebrew Bible. My work then carried me out of academe altogether into book publishing and journalism, and I wasn't sure that I would ever really be able to return fully to this kind of study as a university professor or as the editor of this anthology. But the Norton people liked the tone of voice in God: A Biography and its literary cast of mind, and so they gave me an invitation which was more welcome really than they ever could have imagined because I had read about Hinduism and Buddhism and Confucianism in the intervening years. My main initial task was to choose experts to serve as associate editors, and I am very validated in those choices by what I'm seeing coming to me now.

So a year from now we will publish the first three sub-anthologies as separate volumes, these will cover: Judaism, edited by David Biale, an historian from the University of California; Hinduism, edited by Wendy Doniger, a very distinguished Hinduism scholar from the University of Chicago; and Buddhism, as we've been talking about, Donald Lopez, University of Michigan. And then in the fall of 2012 Islam and Christianity, as we've spoken of, and we will have Taoism and Confucianism by two other scholars.

After all that, though I will have a lengthy introduction to the omnibus grand anthology, a year after that we will do something called the Shorter Norton Anthology of World Religions which will be my favourite texts with the continuous exposition in which those texts will appear as generous length quotations, as in God: A Biography. So this will be my swansong, by that point I will be well into emeritus territory myself.

Rachael Kohn: We look forward to that, it sounds like a wonderful project, and congratulations for being made the Editor in Chief.

Jack Miles: Thank you Rachael, it is an honour and a challenge, but it's also been really quite a pleasure.

Rachael Kohn: I think the Norton Anthology of World Religions will be much sought after, but will it be available as a digital book? That's Jack Miles, he's currently the senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy. To find out about our guests Jack Miles and Jonar Nader and for more information about Kahlil Gibran and The Prophet, just go to our website where you can also download this program: abc.net.au/rn/spiritofthings.