Continuing yesterday’s post on the AAR, Western Region, here I describe Sunday’s talks.
4. Religion in America: Interfaith work and Zen
The first talk on Sunday, “Interfaith Work in the Silicon Valley,” was given by three scholars engaged in different forms of interreligious dialogue locally: one from ING, a local Muslim outreach group, one from the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, and one professor from my religious studies department.
One issue they discussed was essentialism. Often when interfaith groups discuss religious literacy, for example, that means giving a very bland and simple overview of the beliefs and practices of a religion. But religions are diverse, and giving “just the basics” sends an essentialized message to others about what the religion is. The ING speaker said that because of this, his group has moved in recent years to also discuss the variety of ways a religion is lived out, moving from discussing Islam to discussing Muslims. The SIVIC speaker, Andrew Kille, described this shift as a move from representing abstract “traditions” to the lived realities of local people.
Another problem is appointing a representative in the first place. Some groups have a less clear authority structure, and picking one member of the group to represent them at interfaith gatherings brings an element of power that wasn’t there before. Sometimes those who show up claiming to represent a religious group might be on the margins; do we let a Roman Catholic womanpriest speak for Catholicism? This becomes more of an issue when groups of contested authenticity or orthodoxy come to the table. So do we group the Mormons with the other Christians? Do the Ahmadis get to sit on a group panel of Muslims?
As someone engaged in interreligious work myself, I really liked this panel, and I agreed with the ethos of engaging with people first and then their texts and traditions second to better understand the people — not the other way around as it so often happens.
The second talk in this session was “getting my #Zen on (@ TotalTan)”: A Discourse Analysis of #Zen on Twitter,” an amusing overview by Buddhist Studies PhD student Scott Craig on this ridiculously overused word. Apparently people use “Zen” to describe getting drunk, sitting at the beach, or finding a nice pair of shoes. It’s not hard for a group of religion scholars to laugh at the ridiculousness of how, as Craig argued, Zen in American popular culture means whatever one wants it to mean: peace and solitude, nature, tranquility, or just something that is really cool. This is all part of the cheap capitalist appropriation of Zen Buddhism. Yes, it is true that Zen is supposed to suffuse all of daily life, so perhaps Zen Golf makes some sense. But in fact few authors in the “Zen and the Art of ____” genre seem to be aware of what Zen actually teaches.
5. Interreligious Dialogue
What luck — my talk was slotted for the last session of the whole conference! The topic was Nostra Aetate. My talk, “Saint Francis and the Sultan: Critiquing the Christian-Muslim Past” covered the work I’ve been doing on St. Francis’ trip to the sultan during the fifth crusades. I argue that while Francis was not a prophet of interreligious dialogue or lover of Islam as many today paint him to be, his teachings on power and sacramentality provide a good example for how we can do dialogue today. Essentially I discuss the idea of a useable past in interreligious dialogue. I think my delivery went very well. I had a good powerpoint, and I even moved the table and podium before the talk because I don’t like anything between me and the audience. For some idea of what I presented on, I’ve uploaded my powerpoint.
The second presentation was by Daniel Moceri, a GTU doctoral student, who spoke on “The Slow Backlash of Creeping Conservatism: The Increasing Domestication And Decontamination Of Centering Prayer In The Postconciliar Period.” He analyzed both official church documents and presentations of centering prayer, arguing that this inherently “wild” mystical practice has been increasingly tamed by its public teachers to harmonize with the Vatican’s discomfort with it. Centering prayer has roots in medieval Catholic spirituality, but it also draws on and resonates with “Eastern” forms such as TM and Zen. Its original presentation has a radical statement on theosis — you become Christ — but this has been edited out as the decades have passed. Moceri’s talk, like mine, made me think about just how contested and political history can be.
The third presentation, “Nostra Aetate and the Question of Religious Identity,” was given by Paolo Gamberini, an Italian Jesuit teaching at the Jesuit School of Theology. Gamberini, a scholar on Abraham Heschel and Jewish-Chirstian dialogue, spoke on Heschel’s influence on Nostra Aetate. Heschel, a Holocaust survivor who later advocated for Jewish-Christian peace and African-American civil rights, worked to transcend both groups’ fear of one another. He urged Jews to see the role of Christianity in God’s plan, and urged Christians to see the value of understanding their Jewish roots. He also famously said “no religion is an island,” and this:
If asked in Auschwitz whether to convert to Christianity or die, I’d rather go to Auschwitz.
Not to be vain, but I thought my session was the best one I attended at the conference. Many sessions seemed to have no common thread, but this one had several: the political, contested nature of history, humility as a theme in dialogue, power as an issue in dialogue. So we had a very lively discussion afterward.
One issue we discussed was what would come next in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Gamberini noted the very different styles of JP II and Francis: the former more academic and theological (he did have a PhD), the latter more pastoral. He predicted that certain theological issues in dialogue might not be addressed, but Francis would take a different approach.
Another issue: Cardinal Walter Kasper said that mission to the Jews is meaningless, because Jews are already a covenanted people in relationship with God. I found this intriguing. If we open that door, then why not the Muslims? Zoroastrians? Buddhists? That’s a slippery slope to go down. Another attendee said the distinction is that Jews are part of a shared covenant, so dialogue with them is qualitatively different than with anyone else. I don’t think it’s as big a leap as she claimed it was though.
Perhaps the danger of opening is these doors is why we have what Moceri called the “creeping conservative backlash” post-Nostra Aetate. Ratzinger in particular tried to softpedal the openness of Vatican II to other religions. Two steps forward, one step back. Changing any institution is difficult work. But changing an institution as rooted in history and hierarchical as Catholicism? Very slow work.
This talk really rounded out well the conference. Next weekend I’ll be at the American Academy of Religion again, this time at the Pacific Northwest region conference presenting a different paper. That one has a concurrent meeting of the SBL, so expect a lot of bible stuff as I blog the conference!