Jay H. Williams ’54
Professor of Religious Studies (1960-2012)
Presented: Sept. 5, 2023, by Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, professor of religious studies emeritus
Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religion Emeritus Jay Williams ’54, P’83, GP’11,’19 died on June 21, 2023.
To the unpracticed eye, Jay was always a shape-shifter. During our first semester at Hamilton, Jay and Hermine invited Sharon and me to a concert by the Paul Winter Consort. As the consort began their final number, the audience was invited to join the performers in a wolf howl. Jay, the chair of my department, howled like a wolf. It was a significant moment in my professional development.
The study of religion has undergone almost seismic shifts during the past four decades. The hegemony of Christian religious history has given way to polycentric interpretive models in dialogue with careful investigations of a wide range of religious traditions. In his scholarship, Jay self-consciously challenges the historical-critical method as the final arbiter of meaning.
While never dispensing with historical awareness, Jay also used structuralism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis (Jung) and Eastern approaches, such as Zen. Jay was a comparativist who sought to build structures of meaning that open the text and reader to new questions rather than loss of the mystery of text by restricting its truth claims.
Jay was not really a shape-shifter. His work coheres despite disparate subjects. What might the text mean? By investigating the text as it stands and positing a variety of audiences, Jay avoids limiting interpretation. Instead, he allows the metaphorical and polyvalent quality of sacred text performance to continually generate new interpretations.
Like all comparativists, Jay’s scholarship will not always satisfy the hard-core expert — even when, Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliade provide intellectual grounding. His interpretations, however, challenge the reader to account for that which speaks beyond specific historical circumstance to universal questions of meaning. When confronted scholarship frequently forms schools of thought, it makes our research and publication more restrictive. It gives us the feeling of having, finally, exposed some truth or essence. Jay preferred to start with the text and see where it led.
Jay provides a definition of myth, and, implicitly, religion as well. “The myth is a projection of human life, if you will, upon the screen of the unknown so that the suchness of the unknown may emerge before the beholder. What one sees is in human form, but its substance is divine.” There was something out there that makes myth knowable. Not that this mystery is an object that can be exhausted by myth, but rather is a subject that asks for the relationship of story. Jay was interested in the inner struggle that brings transformation. Faith is not rooted in theological knowledge because the powers that call forth faith are unknowable.
I agree frequently with Jay’s conclusions. I might arrive at them by different paths, or tweak them in line with other information or personal taste. Sometimes I am not even sure as to how I have arrived at agreement. In this my reading is perfectly in line with Jay’s purposes, “Each reader will not so much agree with me as develop his or her own methods for bringing old texts alive.”
My own teacher, J. Louis Martyn liked to say that every morning the scholar should arise and say three times slowly, “I do not know, I do not know, I do not know.” Which is where Jay leaves us as well.