Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 1.

After turning in my last final paper at 9 pm Friday night, I woke up at 7 the next morning to get to the American Academy of Religion, Western Region meeting — luckily about a mile from my apartment.  Away from all the stress of job searches and book contracts at the national meeting, the regional meeting is a good venue for graduate students to present new research.  Because it is small, it’s a great opportunity to listen to talks outside of your typical research area, and a more comfortable space to have a good Q&A afterward.

Oh, and not to mention I presented!  But that will be in a future post…

Anyway, some thoughts on talks.  These are not necessarily the best ones I heard all weekend, just the ones that interested me most.

1.  Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

The first panel was a Catholic Studies session with two papers.  The first, “The Jesuit ‘Reductions’ of Paraguay: a bridge between Catholicism and the new world,” was delivered by Maria Giulia Genghini.  The paper argued that the Jesuit missions in Paraguay were not just a European culture being imposed unilaterally on indigenous groups, but a real two-way dialogue in which the Guarani partially created new forms of worship and drama.  While I am sympathetic to the concept of inculturation in mission (something the Jesuits invented, AFAIK), it was unclear to me whether this was only a strategy to get more Guarani to convert, or if the Jesuits found these new forms personally meaningful.  Was there any role reversal in which those sent to teach the faith were themselves taught?  And what role did power play in mission?

My friend Brad Seligmann gave the second talk, “Seeking God in All Things: Jesuit Institutions of Higher Education in an Age of Religious Diversity.”  Brad described his Master’s research seeking to articulate a Jesuit praxis of interreligious engagement in higher education and examine how different Jesuit colleges around the country are creating interreligious engagement on campus.  He found that while there was broad support for these programs, there was little shared understanding of exactly what interreligious engagement is, or even about disentangling the differences between interreligious, interfaith, multifaith, ecumenical, etc.  Programs differed in size and funding too, ranging from campuses where there are multiple campus ministers/chaplains for particular religious traditions, to schools where “interfaith” is tacked onto the job description of an existing campus minister with no training in that area.  He echoed Eboo Patel (whom he used to work with at the IFYC) in his desire to get religion as another category of “-isms” higher education discusses alongside ethnicity, race, gender, etc.  I really liked one quote he had from the Jesuit General Congregation 34: “faith that does justice through interreligious dialogue.”

2.  Spiritual Experiences, East and West

The first talk in this session on Psychology, Culture, and Religion was given by Amy Hart, an MA student at Cal Poly SLO, on “Gods and Gurus in the City of Angels: Aimee Semple McPherson, Swami Paramananda, and Los Angeles in 1923.”  In 1923, both of these modern, charismatic, Hollywood-style religious leaders with very different messages set up their temples in LA.  Hart describes these complex figures and contextualized them in the religious experimentation of Southern California, an experimentation created by the many different immigrant groups who all arrived there at once.  I was very interested in how they both pushed the boundaries of traditional religion, McPherson by being a woman in religious authority, and Paramananda by presenting a non-Christian, non-Western faith to Americans long before the 1960s.

The second talk was by Robert Sears, a PhD student at Fuller Seminary studying psychology and religion.  His talk, “The Spiritual Dreams of Nepalese Christians and Hindus: An Exploration of Attribution Theory,” involved months of interviewing people in Kathmandu to understand the nature of spiritual experiences.  Using the lens of attribution theory, he tried to understand what features of an experience, its experiencer, and its context lead to any experience being deemed “spiritual” vs. “non-spiritual.”  For me his most interesting tidbit was how different people could have similar dreams with very different feelings about the dream.  He had one Christian participant who had a dream about he Buddha that actually stressed and terrified him immensely.  But for a Buddhist, perhaps the same dream content would have been pleasant.  I had vaguely heard of attribution theory before Sears’ talk, but once he explained it, it was actually a very intuitive and commonsense idea.

3.  Religions of Asia: Shintos and Hidden Christians

The first talk, by Hiroko Shiota of Holy Names University, was on “Ecological Reawakening Through the Space of Japanese Shrines.”  She discussed the practice of Shinto shrines and the belief in kami as a form of reverence for the earth, seeing it as a living thing to live in harmony with rather than a collection of inanimate things to be used.  Shiota argued that perhaps this practice should be exported to a world in need of ecological harmony.  An interesting if apologetic talk, but one of the audience members pointed out, Shinto is very bound to the land and culture of Japan, and might not be very exportable.

The third talk of this panel was one of the best I heard this whole conference.  Kirk Sandvig, a recent PhD in World Christianity from the University of Edinburgh, discussed “Current Hidden Christian Communities in Japan: The Impact of Modernity and Movement.”  Although I had read about hidden Christians in Shusaku Endo’s Silence, it had never occurred to me that hidden Christians might still be a presence in Japan.  Apparently when Japan opened itself to the West, some hidden Christians did not join the mainstream churches the missionaries brought in.  Sandvig did field research with those remaining, most of whom live in rural, remote islands.  Sadly, Japan’s general population decline and the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas has led to the near-death of the hidden Christian community.  Participants lamented that it was impossible to preserve the traditions when only 3-4 people are left in a group.  I saw many parallels with language death: the desire of those remaining to write down their traditions, the feeling of sadness and loss, the younger generations who don’t seem to care.

When asked how he found his topic, Sandvig described a study abroad trip to Japan as an undergraduate.  While in Japan he stumbled upon some hidden Christian communities and was fascinated by their stories.  When he got back to the states, he told his advisor, “I think I have a dissertation!”  I love how a decade’s work can be discovered so accidentally, with such serendipity.  Despite the stress and professionalism of a conference, sometimes we get reminded of the passion and personal stories that pull someone to research a particular topic.

That’s all for Saturday’s session.  Tomorrow I’ll describe Sunday’s talks, including mine.

2 thoughts on “Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 1.

  1. Pingback: Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 2. | Linguae Antiquitatum

  2. Pingback: Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 3. | Linguae Antiquitatum

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