Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Spiritual classic

So how'd it go, my talk? Hard to say. I mean, it's always hard to say, but this time I really don't know. Chinese students don't do discussion, I've been told, and I was speaking in their second language (and not in a class usually taught in Chinese). The first question at the end came from a young scholar who did an elaborate song and dance routine on Geshichte/Historie/Dasein, and then had two more equally jargon-laden questions (and none particularly pertinent to my talk), so that could have discouraged others from sticking their necks out. And then there was the fact that I was talking about the Book of Job, which may well not be a concept for them. Or may be - I don't know!

And another thing. The course I was speaking in is a small new course - this, I believe, is only its second year running - on "Comparative Spirituality," a rubric unfamiliar to me and even more so, I gather, for the students. (One student, whom I had the opportunity to talk to about the class a fortnight ago, called it "Competitive Spirituality," admitted she didn't see the difference between "spirituality" and "psychology," and wondered if it was really a scholarly endeavor.) I believe there have been only two sessions so far this semester, and the instructor (a French Jesuit) wasn't there.

Still, I had fun, as I am wont to do, stepping into unfamiliar territory and seeing what it draws out ot me. I wasn't just speaking to Chinese students (who had, of course, supposedly read the Book of Job and a chapter of my book) but decided I should try to speak to the "spirituality" thing. So my argument moved from an account of the variety of readings of Job to the claim that Job's book is unusually universal and accessible as it poses abstract questions and does so not in terms of any particular historical religious tradition; it might also welcome such a variety of readings because of its own complicated history (polyphonic, historical outsider, etc.). Building on Robert Frost's line that Job was "the Emancipator of [his] God" I suggested that the Book of Job, especially when taken on its own, "liberates God" from human categories - but also "liberates man" as it vouches for a remarkable human self-sufficiency.

The bridge to the spirituality business came from this "taken on its own" stuff. I suggested that it's something radically new that people can and do talk about the Book of Job as its own thing, rather than as a chapter in a longer book (Jewish or Christian, and which book it's part of makes all the difference). But that's not all. Floating free from the salvation histories of Judaism and Christianity Job is available to be read in new contexts, and even to become part of new canons.

Inspired in part by Fudan professor Zhang Xingqiong's reflections on canon formation in China - China fashioned a new Buddhism as it eventually assembled its own Buddhist canon, and might be expected to do the same with Christianity - I mused about emerging global canons of "spiritual classics." Now Job won't be read with Ecclesiastes or Genesis or James (or Tobit!) but with the Bhagavad Gita, Rumi or the Vimalakirti Sutra, and will, inevitably, be read in new and different ways. I mention something like this in the conclusion of my book, but only in the context of American university reading lists; I hadn't really considered that people - like all those founders of new religions who gather interfaith canons of their own - might do this for "spiritual" reasons.

My final point was that which books find their way into these canons will be determined not just by scholars and religious experts but in part by readers. I even swooped back to the history of Job for a moment there, recalling Bruce Zuckerman's idea that Job ended up in the Hebrew canon not because the canonizers liked it but because it wouldn't go away. Which books will people in our globalized decentered world like so much they wind up in these new canons? The ones that speak to people outside or alienated from historical religious traditions, quite likely. And perhaps also the ones that "liberate God and man."

The right talk for this audience? Who knows! I'm not even sure what I think about the argument...! It might be worth thinking about some more, though, and perhaps with more people here in China. And I might as well: I've got the powerpoint now!

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