Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Bruce Woll

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by Bruce Woll

My wife has asked me for years why my experience of the Ph.D. process at the University of Chicago was so different from many other students she has met. My answer has always been the same: “Jonathan Z. Smith.” Smith made the experience an adventure instead of an ordeal. In the almost fifty years since I met him in 1968 he has been one of my most important intellectual fathers.

The first lecture I heard when I came to Chicago in 1968, was the first, or one of the first, lectures Smith gave when he arrived that fall. I had never heard of him and chose the course because of the topic, Hellenistic Religions. My response to that lecture was instant and unreserved. I went up to him immediately afterward and asked if he would be my dissertation adviser. “Sure,” he said.

He turned out to be just what I was looking for, namely, someone who came to the subject matter as an historian without any theological axe to grind, but passionately committed to what I have come to call the responsible exercise of cognitive power. He was also a historian not only equipped to talk about the factoids of history but to think historically, concretely, materially, as well as philosophically, imaginatively and scrupulously, about the whole range of human experience, cutting across all of the disciplinary boundaries that had turned biblical studies into a patchwork of isolated silos of expertise.

A year after that first conversation, I went in to talk with him about selecting a dissertation topic. His response was clear and simple. The topic had to be something I was interested in, and I had to be able to handle the relevant materials. That was it. I felt something take hold inside, the beginnings of excitement. That moment set the tone for the rest of my program. Jonathan was a conscientious adviser from beginning to end.  After I finished and left behind formal studies of religion I continued to read everything he published.

Looking back on that conversation about a dissertation topic in light of what I subsequently learned about how loaded the word “interest” is for Smith (“something in which one has a stake, … which places one at risk, … for which one is willing to pay some price”) I know that was the moment he was inviting me into the collaborative adventure of thinking for myself, with him, about something that really mattered. I poured myself into the effort to interpret the Gospel of John as writing that was a product of its complex time and place in that world of Hellenistic Religions. My dissertation, the outcome of that work, was later published by Scholars Press as Johannine Christianity in Conflict: Authority, Rank, and Succession in the First Farewell Discourse.

Many years later, the week after the disastrous 2004 presidential election, I was reading “When the Chips are Down,” the first chapter in Smith’s just-published collection of articles, Relating Religion. One of the persistent preoccupations he traces through this biobibliogaphical essay is “thinking” and its cognitive power. Near the end of the essay I read a sentence that stopped me in my tracks, excited all over again: “Religion is the relentlessly human activity of thinking through a ‘situation.'” “That’s it,” I thought. “That connection between thinking and religion is the reason I have never stopped reading him.”

I was thrilled with a notion of religion that was so precisely the opposite of the one being paraded at the time by the re-elected President’s “faith-based” decision-making. I was also thrilled with the implication that seemed clear to me, even though I wasn’t completely clear about what the sentence meant: everything he wrote about religion had some bearing, however minor, on thinking, its “liveliness,” fascination, exhilaration, vigor, playfulness, imaginativeness, humor and potentially far-reaching consequences.

I realized too, as I began rereading Smith’s writings with an eye to the notion of cognitive power, that his work is important not just to students of religion but to a wider public faced with widespread, powerful notions of religion as an alternative to thought and now faced with a politics that is bent on a war against thought. We are living at a time when the need for us to think/act together about ourselves, our nation, and our world has rarely been more urgent. What I have learned from Smith is the “iron law” of democratic citizen responsibility, as co-representatives of the body politic. I will always be grateful to Smith for the gift of trusting me to join him in that ultimately political work.

Bruce Woll was born, raised, and educated in a variety of American fundamentalisms, spent three years at Tubingen University (1965 to 1968), making his way through Rudolf Bultmann’s magnificent commentary on John, reading as much of his other work as he could, and attending lectures by Ernst Kasemann, before coming to Chicago. He spent twenty-five years working in the IT industry, during which time he was also studying and writing about the politics of the new digital world. Woll earned a D.Ed. from Northern Illinois University in 1997. His unpublished dissertation was a theoretical critique of technocratic myth based on the early writings of Bruno Latour. Woll retired in 2011 and continues with his intellectual pursuits.

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