I just returned from the 2013 American Academy of Religion conference. Some 15, 000 academics or so descended upon Baltimore to discuss things religious. When I first attended AAR I didn’t know a soul. That was especially intimidating. As the years go by, this event becomes more like a homecoming. You might find four or five sessions you want to attend, and on the way to one or the other, you bump into an old friend and get chatting, and soon you have missed them all. For the last number of years, a kind of ritual has emerged that is increasingly important to me. On one evening, I have occasion to dine with a dear old friend, who is old in years of age rather than years of friendship.
I first met this octogenarian ten years ago. He contributed to a Festschrift for my advisor. At that time, T. was familiar to me only in name. He was an established scholar in my area – world renown in fact – yet had something of a teddy bear demeanor. Over the last few years the mutual friendship we had with my advisor became the bridge for our own friendship, and so I yearly look forward to his warmth and hospitality.
T. has so much to share, but is one of those gentle souls who have mastered the art of tricking his interlocutor into doing all the talking. He is genuinely interested in people, and draws out the best in everyone. This year, I managed to persuade him to tell me a bit about his experience in university life, and was astounded to discover that he spent his career in the Faculty of Education, where he taught on the topic of the philosophy of education. In fact, he published some 7 books in this area, even while he is famous among scholars of religion and theologians for translating and commenting on the work of a celebrated 19th Century theologian and philosopher.
It is always humbling to meet such people: brilliant yet warm – patient and down to the earth. Here is a stranger to pretension who invites those fortunate enough to be his fellow sojourners to join him in the art of deferring attention from the self to the subject matter. A little time with T. each year gifts me with curiousity, the very virtue that allows him to age without acerbity.
May his tribe increase.