Tag Archives: AAR-WR

Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 2.

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!

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.