Magazine article The Christian Century

Trafficking in Ideas

Magazine article The Christian Century

Trafficking in Ideas

Article excerpt

WHEN ANTHONY C. YU died this spring, I realized that I'm still discovering the profound influence that this teacher has had on me.

When I arrived in Chicago fresh out of college, I had no idea that he was one of the most intellectually agile scholars in the University of Chicago Divinity School. But I soon learned that Mr. Yu worked in several languages, possessed a deep and intimate knowledge of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and was creating a body of work that has been described as not only comparative but contrapuntal. It moved across the boundaries of ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, explored the resonances among disparate works, and drew the field of religion and literature into a larger, more global conversation.

Mr. Yu, as we all called him, had high standards for scholarship and for life itself. His own life opened out in all directions. He was a gifted pianist, an accomplished poet, an admired cook, and an elegant dresser. He cherished excellence in all its forms. The kind of pleasure he took in following a well-wrought scholarly argument to a moment of illumination was akin to the pleasure he took in watching Michael Jordan drive to the basket. We all wanted to please him. A friend told me recently that when he wrote, "You write well," on her first paper, she suddenly believed she could do whatever our doctoral program would ask of her.

When I first met him, Mr. Yu had recently finished his masterful four-volume translation of the Chinese epic The Journey to the West, the story of a monk's pilgrimage to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. This 13-year labor of love had emerged from a lifelong relationship with that great work. As a little boy, Mr. Yu had fled across southern China with his family to escape the violence of the Sino-Japanese War. His grandfather had helped to mitigate the terror of those days by telling him stories of the adventures of the human and animal characters in Journey to the West. No doubt because of the context within which he learned it, Mr. Yu could always hear its comedy and satire, as well as the profound spiritual yearnings and religious questions that enlivened it.

In his classroom I often felt that I had not read enough to keep up with the swift movement of his thought. Mr. Yu seemed to have read everything; he could cite an impossibly wide range of literature. I took as many classes with him as I could. He was a great talker but also a patient listener. During my moments of vocational uncertainty, he talked with me about teaching and scholarship as forms of ministry. …

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