The Statement

Monday, April 21, 2014

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Prof. Ralph Williams: A modern day Prospero

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published January 21, 2013

As he recalls those bleak days, his voice weakens and his eyes look, as they often do, into the distance as though he is narrating his own memory. In 1948, Bill, his brother suddenly died from what was thought at the time to be encephalitis.

“His last words were, ‘Give me a kiss goodbye, mother,’” Williams recalled, his expression pained.

The aftermath of his brother’s death was “real terror” for his mother. The family wasn’t sure of how communicable the disease was and whether or not any of the other children were afflicted. In the wake of the loss, she turned to the Bible for comfort, making each child memorize the Psalm 91:5-6.

“Thou shalt not be afraid of the terrors by night, or the arrow that flyeth by day, and of the pestilence that walketh in darkness …” he repeated from memory.

“(My early experiences) both made me acquainted with the resonance (of) those rolling phrases (and) of the comfort presented there, and started a lifelong dialogue in many ways with those texts because (they) made a promise that didn’t get fulfilled,” he said. “It said if you were a good guy, then God would keep a pestilence from you, and God didn’t keep pestilence from Bill. And so it started a long dialogue about the status of those promises and the relationship between their eloquent majesty and the root facts of life.”

His undergraduate years weren’t easy, either. He attended Andrews University in Berrien Springs, a 7th Day Adventist institution, where he found himself stifled by a conservative Christian worldview.

“It was an interesting experience. By the time I finished there, I decided I wasn’t ‘that,’” he said. “I actually may be one of the last to get myself called up in front of a university president on charges of atheism. It wasn’t true at the time, anyway, but there it is …”

He arrived at the University of Michigan as a doctoral student in the mid-1960’s, and apart from a brief teaching stint at Cornell — been here ever since.

Still, his many years of learning and growing at the University have not brought him unrequited happiness. Aside from his brother’s death, Williams said grappling with the implications of the Shoah — more commonly known as the Holocaust — challenged his most basic human assumptions.

“In a life that has known a number of challenges, it is the case that the answer needs to be related to what’s indicated in what I call an old ‘Williams-ism:’ that happiness is not a state into which you fall. It’s a choice of the will, and it’s always against odds.”

He looks down at his large hands and pauses as he ruminates over the implications of what he said.

“This means that I don’t know whether we’re going, as a species, to make it,” he said. “I can’t rely, you see, on notions that we are basically good ... The Shoah took care of that. I have no moral alternative but to try — do you know? That trying itself, as an individual and in relation to others, can be a source of enduring happiness.”

That famous grin reappeared, more hesitantly this time. For Williams, his drive to “try” comes from both the campus and his students.

“There are three trees (outside of Natural Science auditorium) that, as you go toward them, they have the most marvelous mottled bark,” he said. “The mottled-ness of the bark reminded me of the mottled-ness of our human nature. We are creatures of the motley. Shakespeare was intimately aware of this… And (the trees) became, if you will, my friends over the years. Sometimes I feel I want to do more for my students, I want to be worthy of my students, and some days I’d worry, ‘Am I worthy of them today? Can I be with and for them, as I want to be? Do I know enough?’ And I’d walk by (the trees), and I’d look at them, and I’d smile, and I’d go into the lecture hall strengthened by their very beauty and the reminder of the mottled-ness of us all.’”

His learning process isn’t over. I didn’t ask him if he ever intended to retire again. I didn’t feel I needed to.

“When I was a man of 20, I thought to be a man of unchanging principle was the best thing I could possibly be. I no longer think that. Over the years I’ve changed principles, I’ve jettisoned some, I hope in favor of larger, more capacious ones. What gives me the most joy right now is the experience in the astonishing variety of ways the human good can work itself out. That’s the texture of my life — it’s ongoing.”