200 Days in the Life of the College

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A half-century of spirit

By Michael Harwick ’11

The Word and the Spirit begins when the professor casually clears his throat. He is at a conference table, surrounded by students, in the Molly Root House. “I’m Jay Williams,” he says, “and this is probably the last time you’ll see me in a coat and tie.” What the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies doesn’t offer is that it is also his last time teaching this course. He makes no reference to his 51-year tenure at Hamilton, nor to his impending retirement.

The Word and the Spirit exposes students to the spiritual and religious poetry of non-Western traditions, but Williams ’54 could not have taken the course he now teaches when he was a Hamilton student. “Intellectual life was limited to Europe and America,” Williams notes. “Sure, Japan was in the news, but you didn’t talk about its culture.”

Upon returning to teach at his alma mater, Williams committed himself to broadening the scope of Hamilton’s religious curriculum. He traveled to Japan, Korea, China, India and the Middle East because he believed religion ought to be witnessed rather than simply studied. “The world is too big for any of us to get our mind around,” Williams says. Yet his firsthand experience allowed him to raise awareness within Hamilton’s Religious Studies Department about non-Western belief systems. His teaching also reflects his commitment to the importance of personal exploration; academic instruction can take students only so far, and his goal is to further their curiosity. “Most of what I teach, anybody could learn on their own,” he explains, then shakes his head and mutters, “I shouldn’t tell you that!”

Williams opens the semester with discussion of a seventh-century Gaelic text, The Cauldron of Poesy, which professes a belief that poets can tap into a well, or “cauldron,” of innate wisdom. He lowers his voice to a whisper as the room leans in to listen: “This means there are secrets in you that you don’t even know yet.”