Though Dr. Jay McDaniel, Professor of Religion, will retire from Hendrix College at the end of this fall semester, it may not be the last time his students see him around town. One might run into Dr. McDaniel at the Islamic Center of Little Rock, the Ecumenical Buddhist Society by the state capitol, or at Señor Tequila in Conway on Thursday nights, playing with his Fat Soul Band. Dr. McDaniel also plays with a second band called the Four J’s at assisted living centers in Conway, covering throwback hits like the Beatles in the hopes of bringing a moment of nostalgic joy to elderly residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“For the record, I’m really interested in electronic music too,” Dr. McDaniel added when explaining the musical stylings of the Four J’s, seemingly concerned that he’d painted his own music taste with too broad a brush. It would take quite a while to capture the complexities of Dr. McDaniel’s diverse interests, accomplishments, and beliefs, which aren’t contained by the parameters of Hendrix.
Still, Dr. McDaniel’s contributions to Hendrix are substantial, as he leaves the Religious Studies department at Hendrix much different and larger than he found it in 1979. At that time, few, if any, of the religious studies classes gave much attention to religious traditions or texts other than Christianity and the Bible. Dr. McDaniel took on a new role at Hendrix, teaching Asian religions and newer forms of theology. He developed courses such as Contemporary Islamic Thought, Leadership in a Multi-Faith World with Dr. Robert Williamson, Ecotheology, and Religion in Popular Music.
“On all those fronts—Islam, interreligious dialogue, ecology, and popular culture,” Dr. McDaniel said, “I’m personally convinced that there is a whole lot of religion that is now occurring outside the mindset of people that think only in institutional, tradition-centered terms.”
In Ecotheology, Dr. McDaniel helped students recognize that “that the earth itself is not simply an issue among issues, but a context for all issues which are part of a larger web of life.” And in Religion in Popular Music, Dr. McDaniel encourages students to value emotional intelligence and learn through an exploration of sound, dance, and film
“The divide between reason and feeling, the intellect and affect, I don’t accept,” Dr. McDaniel said. “When I look at what’s happening in film or music—you can’t divide those. People know something through film. They’re moved by the stories, characters, and music. They form their identity that way.”
In addition to diversifying the class offerings of the Religious Studies department, Dr. McDaniel also developed Hendrix’s first interchange with a university in China and helped demonstrate a need to start a Chinese language program. The motivation for these efforts stemmed from Dr. McDaniel’s own interest in China, Buddhism, and process theology, which is based on the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and a conception of a constantly-changing God. Dr. McDaniel has visited China over a dozen times in the past decade, most recently leading a workshop at an eco-village outside of Shanghai. And among the six books Dr. McDaniel has written or edited, the most recent is in Chinese—On Whitehead’s Process Philosophy, coauthored with Dr. Fubin Yang.
Dr. McDaniel conceptualizes his post-Hendrix plans in terms of four paths. He’ll continue to play music with his bands. He’ll also work with religious and interfaith organizations like Greater Arkansas Interfaith Network (GAIN). GAIN’s programs include Rumi Tuesdays, held in Ellis Hall, which explore the spiritual significance of music and poetry.
Retirement will allow Dr. McDaniel to devote more time to his website, OpenHorizons.org, which has a national and even international reach. This website provides a platform for atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim writers to explore religion, justice, ecology, music, art, and more under a loose framework of process theology. Dr. McDaniel will also continue his work with and in China through organizations such as the Institute for Postmodern Development of China and the China Project of the Center for Process Studies.
Dr. McDaniel’s retirement plans reflect a lateral rather than vertical trajectory, and he seems to reflect on his career in a similar way.
“Some people think you’re supposed to follow the call of the career, the call of prestige,” Dr. McDaniel said. “I don’t think that life is about upward mobility. I think it’s about integrity and soulfulness.”
To live with integrity is “to care for people and do good in your local setting as best you can,” Dr. McDaniel said. Despite a wide-reaching range of interests and projects, Dr. McDaniel stayed at Hendrix for 39 years to keep doing good things.
“I had opportunities to leave,” Dr. McDaniel said. “But I have a family. I have two sons, and they grew up here, and my wife’s from here. I think you need to understand where you’re nourished. I don’t think the so-called perfect places are always places to bloom. I think it’s the nitty-gritty of a concrete place, with real people, who have real struggles.”
While Dr. McDaniel felt his own life and career was nourished at Hendrix, he also did the same for students like Tristan Norman, ’20.
“His openness and authentic interest in students will be missed because he embodied these two elements in everything that he did,” Norman said. “Dr. McDaniel convinced me that I have the potential to do great good in the world and that, because of that potential, I am good. That has done wonders for my self-confidence and has propelled me in all the work that I do.”
A major part of every professor’s legacy lies with the students they’ve deeply impressed. Writing his own reflections on retirement for his website, Dr. McDaniel discusses a concept called “middance”— “the tranquil pleasure… of feeling blissfully invisible yet still fully included, safe in the knowledge that everyone is together and everyone is okay.” He writes that he leaves Hendrix with a feeling of “good middance.” For Dr. McDaniel, leaving his fellow faculty and students behind, is “like chatting outside a party while others dance inside.