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A Personal Diary from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago 2012

A Personal Diary from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago 2012

Jack Tsonis, Macquarie University

Religious Studies Project Conference Report, American Academy of Religion – 16-19 November, 2012 – Chicago, Illinois, USA

When the RSP editors asked if I would be willing to do a report on the annual AAR meeting in Chicago, I eagerly agreed. However, when I arrived and actually thought about how I was going to do such a report, I realized that a different strategy was called for than the one I had envisaged. The AAR is one of those massive events in which every session has at least twenty panels on offer, not to mention the diverse array of evening functions. Attempting a report that provided wide coverage of the event would have prevented me from doing what I was primarily there to do: connect with scholars in my specific field by going to the appropriate sessions. Thus, instead of a full report on the meeting, what follows is a day-by-day personal account of my own little slice of AAR activity.

Day 1 – Friday, November 16, 2012

Having arrived in Chicago the day before to get my bearings, I make an easy bus trip downtown to the McCormick Centre, the location of the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting (which runs concurrently with the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting). The venue is absolutely massive, and is where President Obama held his election-night convention less than a fortnight ago. It is the biggest conference centre in the United States. It even has a metro stop built into the main lobby. It has four precincts (North, South, East, West), each being huge, multi-story halls in their own right. It is truly something to behold. The complex sits right on the shore of Lake Michigan, of which the East wing has an amazing view. The “lake” is more like an ocean. It, too, is massive.

Most of the sessions take place Saturday through Monday, but I have a workshop to attend from 2-6pm on the Friday afternoon. After registering at the main desk and taking care of the administrivia, I locate Room 353 East (situated opposite the aforementioned expansive view of the lake). The meeting is “The SBL/AAR Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline Workshop”, co-hosted by the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion group and the SBL’s Ideological Criticism group. The theme for the workshop is “The Analytical Handling of Norms and Values in the Study of Religion”, a juicy topic that touches upon a lot of the methodological issues in my own work. I was very interested when I signed up. I am also hoping to meet a few new people, as that’s the best part of a conference, and the best way to have fun in the evenings.

The workshop is well attended, perhaps 30 people in total. There are four sessions, plus afternoon tea. The sessions are all interesting, though some more than others. The focus is upon both scholarly and pedagogical responsibilities in the study of religion. The following synopsis provided by the organizers is a good distillation of the workshop:

Analysis of academic norms for the study of religion focuses on construction of a secondary discourse that accomplishes the following: (a) treats all religious phenomena as primary sources, i.e. the object of study; (b) adheres to common academic practices in the humanities and social sciences, as appropriate for the research question under investigation; and (c) incorporates self-critical reflection on the problematic of scholarly, secondary discourse vis-à-vis the primary, intramural discourse of the people and practices studied. These three goals are necessary to adequately formulate the study of religion as a discipline of scholarship in alignment with the Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences.

The discussion is enthusiastic, and the breadth of topic has attracted scholars from a wide variety of specialist fields within the study of religion. It is not the kind of thing where “resolutions” are reached on anything, but rather an invigorating open-floor exchange about strategies for methodological reflexivity in the production of knowledge about “religion” and other aspects of cultural. Some speakers gravitate towards theoretical issues, others towards the challenges involved in turning ethnographic fieldwork into legitimate (and ethical) knowledge. Others also focus on the treatment of marginalized religious communities, and how this actual social marginalization is perpetuated by certain androcentric, Eurocentric, and graphocentric norms that pervade western discourse. A particularly impassioned point is made by an organizer of the LGBTQ section of the AAR about the near-total discrimination of openly LGBTQ academics in the US job market, and how this reflects the kind of problematic assumptions that are embedded in the dominant discourse (which is to say, embedded in the power structures of Euro-American culture). Did I mention that the afternoon tea is also nice? The standout is some spectacular gingerbread cookies.

At a personal level, it is a great afternoon. I meet a lot of new people, including some who I will connect with again over the weekend. I touch base with a professor with whom I have been communicating via email for the last year, and we plan to meet properly tomorrow. One speaker whose paper I particularly enjoyed is a colleague of another scholar I have been in communication with in recent months, so we have a friendly chat afterwards too. I also get invited to the University of North Carolina reception on Sunday night by some fellow grad students, which I plan to attend in order to network further (and to get some free booze). I catch the shuttle bus back into town with a few nice people from the workshop, and it turns out that a guy I am sitting with is good friends with my current associate supervisor. So it is a bumper start to the AAR meeting at my end: stimulating discussion and some new connections. I ignore the evening’s welcome reception on account of the good mood, as I have no one in particular to meet there and I feel that my work is done for the day. The evening involves dinner, a beer, and bed.

Day 2 – Saturday, November 17

With last night going later than planned (emails always take longer than you think), I decide to sleep through the morning session. There are no sessions of critical import to my work, so I opt for the sleep and a lazier start to the day (loading my energy towards the evenings, as I put it). I thought about attending the 1pm session on the 100-year anniversary of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, but at the last minute I see a session called “The Identity of NAASR and the Character of the Critical Study of Religion”. NAASR is the North American Society for the Study of Religion, and is an umbrella society within the AAR that promotes a more critical and “scientific” approach to the study of religion, with the related charge that much of what the AAR does is crypto-theology dressed up as critical scholarship (at one point the AAR is accused of “apologetic phenomenology”). The star panelists are Russell McCutcheon and Donald Wiebe, who are well known for their thoroughgoing criticism of the apologetic tendencies of the “discipline” of religious studies. The discussion is heated at times, and there is clearly no consensus about what precisely the character of NAASR should be. Weibe, one of its founders, wants it to be about scientific approaches to the study of religion (e.g. cognitive science), whereas McCutcheon, its most influential member, advocates a broader approach that also includes history and critical theory – although, as he points out, the problem then becomes that NAASR is little different from the AAR, at least on paper in terms of the sessions that it holds.

A number of the people from yesterday’s workshop are also in attendance, and turn out to be important members of NAASR (which is a big payoff for me). They invite me along to tonight’s NAASR reception, which will be great for more reasons than just the free food and drink. I am hoping to meet McCutcheon and others who will be there, as their work has been deeply influential for the development of my own critical/methodological approach to the study of religion. After that, I am also attending a party hosted by biblical scholars Dale Martin (who I will be interviewing for the RSP next week) and Bart Ehrman. The Bart & Dale Show (as they call it) is a long running Saturday night institution at the AAR/SBL, and presents another great networking opportunity – which I have learnt are far more important than whatever one might learn from attending sessions. Hence why I have decided to skip the AAR Presidential Address in favour of the NAASR reception. However I will have to be careful tonight, as I am attending 2 parties with free booze – this happened last year at the AAR Saturday night, and I awoke with a tremendous hangover that prevented me from absorbing much on the Sunday. I fear a similar outcome.

The final event of my day was a 4pm meeting held with Randall Styers of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Randall’s work (Making Magic [OUP 2004]) has also been deeply influential in the shape of my own project, and he gives me a very generous 90 minutes of his time; we even catch the bus back together. We discuss both my doctoral project as well as wider strategies for carving out a career in the academic world. His advice is extremely helpful on both fronts, and he has proven to be an invaluable mentor whom I am sure to be in contact with over the coming years. He will also be at the NAASR reception tonight, so that’s another plus. Speaking of the reception, I must get out the door.

Day 3 – Sunday, November 18

I emerge on Sunday (mid)morning relatively unscathed, although I would not describe myself as chipper. The evening’s activities were great fun. Good conversation was had and more friends were made. The NAASR reception was a mirthful affair with food and drink aplenty, and the Bart & Dale Show was in its usual swing. My day begins by meeting an old supervisor for coffee, and we have a good catch up. I then attend a stimulating session at 1pm, a 90 minute consultation on future of the newly-formed Social Theory and Religion Cluster, comprised of a number of groups in the AAR which are seeking to co-operate at a level beyond their own specific panel discussions (e.g. the Sociology of Religion group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion group). The theme is “Social Theory and Religion, 2013–2015”. The forum is well attended and the audience represents a diverse spectrum of interests; this bodes well for the future of the Cluster. Although there is a seven person panel, the meeting is more of an open-floor discussion about ways to collaborate at upcoming conferences – such as holding featured guest-speaker lectures, organizing debates, holding cross-group panels on important scholarly milestones (such as the 100 year anniversary of Durkheim), etc.

The evening sees me attend the UNC Chapel Hill reception, to which I had been invited by Randall as well as some of his very amiable doctoral students whom I met at the workshop on Friday. The catering is of a high standard, as is the crowd. There are a lot of nice people there, so further connections are made. It is truly lovely to have met so many nice people when I arrived at the conference knowing virtually no one. My planned early night is yet again railroaded by the “couple” of “quick” emails I had to send, and I crawl into bed just before midnight. Despite the exhaustion, it is difficult to sleep on account of the whirring mind induced by the weekend’s conversations.

Day 4 – Monday, November 19 (The Final Day)

Thankfully the morning session once again contains no panels of crucial importance for me, so the day begins more slowly by catching up for coffee with a friend from Brown University whom I only get to see at the conference every year. I then head into McCormick to attend the final session for the Cultural History of the Study of Religion group, starting at 1pm. The papers comprise a strangely eclectic bunch of topics. It seems odd that they have been placed together. After properly getting lost in McCormick for the first time (I’m surprised it took this long), I arrive just as the session is starting to a scene that I did not quite picture: about 30 people sitting around a large, squared table formation, with no discernible panel of speakers. I grab a seat just as the Chairs explain the slightly experimental format: all papers had been pre-circulated amongst the 6 speakers, and instead of being read, they were summarized for the audience (about 10 mins each). The chairs then lead a fascinating discussion between both speakers and audience, in which they tease out a number of theoretical issues that flow through and connect the otherwise quite disparate papers. If you think that the following topics – C19th protestant missionaries and the telegraph; early reformed Judaism in the US; William James and his concept of the composite photograph; two post-war female, French, Catholic scholars; the translation industry around the Daodejing; and the American civic discourse of religious pluralism – sound like almost completely unrelated issues, then you feel as I felt walking in. You would then have been utterly enthralled to sit through and participate in the discussion that followed, and the session was testament to the productive conceptual spaces that emerge when good thinkers come together sharing broad theoretical commitments. I am amazed at how quickly two and a half hours fly by. The final 15 minutes are the business meeting of the CHSR group, which plots out potential session themes for next year as well as further reflections on experimental formats. Most concur that the format of this session was a success, especially on the Monday afternoon of a long conference when simply listen to talks for 2 hours would have been seriously draining; discussion is also had about linking the group’s agenda with the agenda of the Social Theory and Religion Cluster.

There are further sessions in the afternoon, as well as the final ones on Tuesday morning, but this marks the end of my involvement at the AAR conference. I am extremely happy with how the weekend has gone. I arrived at the workshop on Friday apprehensive that I would not meet many people or that the conference might not be that productive, but those apprehensions appear quaint in hindsight. It was a combination of meeting nice people but also putting myself out there: not just attending sessions, but piping up. I made a comment or asked a question in every session I attended, which I have learned is a great platform to be able to approach people afterwards, introducing yourself, and continue the conversation. I wasted no opportunities, and the conference could not have gone better for me, all things considered.

To unwind from the exhausting frazzlement of the last 4 days, my final mission in Chicago is to head way uptown to The Chicago Sweatlodge for a relaxing sauna. Since visiting Finland 6 years ago I have been an almost evangelistic saunophile, and my motto for world travel since that point has been “Another City, Another Sauna”. Considering myself a connoisseur of intense heat, I was mightily impressed with this young establishment, and I emerge 3 hours later glowing like a saint. The Finns say that the human body is never more beautiful than 30 minutes after a sauna, and the tingle on one’s skin afterwards truly is a remarkable feeling unattainable by any other means. The glow remains with me all night, and I am not even worried about the $50 of cabs that it took to get there and back. This marks the perfect end to a great conference.

I am now at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport awaiting a flight to New York, where I will engage in further meetings and conduct an interview for the Religious Studies Project. Boarding time is close, so over and out.

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

By Gemma Gall, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Donald Wiebe on the relationship between Religious Studies and Theology (6 February 2012).

The work of Donald Wiebe is not entirely alien to me; indeed, I have found myself agreeing with his response to phenomenology. However, on the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies, Wiebe’s visit to Edinburgh in 2010 found our opinions to be very divergent.

Wiebe begins his interview by admitting that it may not be possible to clearly delineate religious studies and theology, an admirable concession which seems to lull the listener into the false belief that he is promulgating an understanding of the ‘dichotomy’ which understands the malleable nature of both academic disciplines and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, he undermines this moment of resisting reductionism by his refusal to acknowledge development in the concepts of theology.

The reasoning which Wiebe gives for this is flawed: despite his recognition of the changing nature of theology, he continues to base his understanding of this relationship in the Christian tradition of God talk. His dismissal of ‘hybrid theology’ without any assessment of what this entails (and instead indulging in biased rhetoric) is one of the main failings of his summary of the theology-religious studies situation. Very few, if any, religious studies scholars would claim that religious studies should engage in studies in which they practice God talk. Surely this is simply theology? Similarly, ‘religious studies’ which do not engage with hybrid theology, the understandings of ‘god(s)’, ‘religion’, ‘supernatural’, or whatever element the group being studied claim to be the underpinning of their group, is surely just a ‘scientific’ study of the group. Of course it is necessary for there to be anthropological, sociological etc studies, but it is also necessary to consider how theology – in its hybrid sense – impacts upon practice.

As an example of how knowledge of the theology of the group studied aids understanding, I demonstrate how I have used theology. My own studies specialise in Islam with a particular focus on gender issues, which demands an understanding of the relationship between, for example, politics, economics, spatial theory, power relations and Holy texts (with the interpretation thereof) for an issue such as veiling. Refusing to engage in studying the revelation of the ‘hijab verses’ in the Qur’an, as well as their interpretation, leads to a confused and inferior study.

This dichotomy, Wiebe argues, may even prevent scholars of religion who are themselves religious from a non-biased study. According to cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology has developed to protect the ‘supernatural instinct’ which is employed when one can’t understand something. This is “hard-wired” to protect agency, thus preventing many of those with a faith of their own from bracketing it out; therefore endangering the scientific nature of their studies. Indeed, Wiebe claims that many scholars with a religious position of their own will not undertake the ‘hard work’ to retain a vigorously scientific study. These claims are predicated on an understanding of faith as a singularly correct entity. I find it hard to believe that there are many serious religious studies scholars who hold this position; it is antithetical to the aims of the discipline. I agree with Wiebe that scholars should not invoke their own beliefs in their studies; after all, that would not be a study of the group being undertaken but instead of one’s own beliefs. However, I feel that it is impossible to bracket all aspects of one’s own faith position;  that the holding of forms of belief may even benefit a scholar’s attempts to understand how another’s faith impacts upon their life.

The notion that our inability to prove or disprove the notion of God means that we should not invoke such a concept is highly problematic. Firstly, if the concepts of God(s), supernatural or other variants, continue to impact upon how a community functions, then the study again fails to fully account for the context.

Perhaps Wiebe’s determined view of non-theological approaches to the study of religion fails because it is fundamentally based on a notion of explaining religion. This is not what religious studies should purport to do; we provide theories and data detailing what people practice and believe, we do not explain ‘religion’. If this were possible, surely the interminable debates on definitions of religion would be complete?

Ultimately, Wiebe fails to recognise that whilst there may be methodological differences between the disciplines, there is a certain amount of interdependency between the two. Religious Studies without theology fails not only to adequately study the phenomena it purports to, but it fails to justify its existence a separate discipline. The good historians and philologists of whom Wiebe speaks are just that; they are not scholars of religious studies. Similarly, theology undertaken from one’s own faith position is simply practice of belief, as Wiebe himself claims; it has no place in academia. However, theology does not have to take this form. To use Wiebe’s own terminology, ‘hybrid theology’, where a non-biased and non-personal methodology is employed, offers an alternative. If Wiebe is serious in his claim that theology has a place as an object of analysis in academia, then surely he must reconsider his own views in order to see this as a ‘third way’ between a purely ‘scientific’ study of religion and the ‘God talk’ of Christian theology.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Gemma Gall graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Religious Studies in 2010, and is currently continuing her studies at Edinburgh with an MSc by Research in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She specialises in Gender and Islam.

The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies

Our interview this week features Chris speaking to Professor Donald Wiebe from the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto on the relationship between Theology and Religious Studies.

Out of necessity this interview was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes, and subscribe to receive our weekly interviews.

The relationship between Theology and Religious Studies  is not a simple one. David Ford writes that at its broadest, theology is thinking about questions raised by and about religions (2000:3). These questions are largely directed towards notions of transcendence (typically gods), incorporate doctrinal issues and are “essentially a second-order activity arising from ‘faith’ and interpreting faith” (Whaling, 1999:228-229). Essentially, theology is thinking about religion from within religion – although when most people refer to “Theology”, what they mean is “Christian Theology”.

It is generally accepted – at least as far as most academics are concerned – that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. This is succinctly summarised by Ninian Smart’s statement that “historical and structural enquiries, such as sociology, phenomenology, etc., […] are the proper province of [the study of] Religion, and the use of such materials for Expressive ends […is] the doing of Theology” (in Wiebe, 1999:55).

As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines. His primary areas of research interest are philosophy of the social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the history of the academic and scientific study of religion, and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of a number of books, including Religion and Truth: Towards and Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (1981), The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991), and, of particular relevance to this interview, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (1999). In 1985 Professor Wiebe, with Luther H. Martin and E. Thomas Lawson, founded the North American Association for the Study of Religion, which became affiliated to the IAHR in 1990; he twice served as President of that Association (1986-87, 1991-92).

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011, where Professor Wiebe also presented a particularly relevant paper with his colleague Luther H. Martin, entitled “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion”. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Jonathan Z Smith: “[R]eligion is an inextricably human phenomenon. […] Religious studies are [therefore] most appropriately described in relation to the Humanities and the Human Sciences, in relation to Anthropology rather than Theology. What we study when we study religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell.” (1978, Map is Not Territory, 290)

References:

Ford, David F., 2000 [1999]. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whaling, Frank, 1999. “Theological Approaches” in Peter Connoly (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, pp. 226-274.

Wiebe, Donald, 1999. The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Podcasts

A Personal Diary from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago 2012

A Personal Diary from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago 2012

Jack Tsonis, Macquarie University

Religious Studies Project Conference Report, American Academy of Religion – 16-19 November, 2012 – Chicago, Illinois, USA

When the RSP editors asked if I would be willing to do a report on the annual AAR meeting in Chicago, I eagerly agreed. However, when I arrived and actually thought about how I was going to do such a report, I realized that a different strategy was called for than the one I had envisaged. The AAR is one of those massive events in which every session has at least twenty panels on offer, not to mention the diverse array of evening functions. Attempting a report that provided wide coverage of the event would have prevented me from doing what I was primarily there to do: connect with scholars in my specific field by going to the appropriate sessions. Thus, instead of a full report on the meeting, what follows is a day-by-day personal account of my own little slice of AAR activity.

Day 1 – Friday, November 16, 2012

Having arrived in Chicago the day before to get my bearings, I make an easy bus trip downtown to the McCormick Centre, the location of the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting (which runs concurrently with the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting). The venue is absolutely massive, and is where President Obama held his election-night convention less than a fortnight ago. It is the biggest conference centre in the United States. It even has a metro stop built into the main lobby. It has four precincts (North, South, East, West), each being huge, multi-story halls in their own right. It is truly something to behold. The complex sits right on the shore of Lake Michigan, of which the East wing has an amazing view. The “lake” is more like an ocean. It, too, is massive.

Most of the sessions take place Saturday through Monday, but I have a workshop to attend from 2-6pm on the Friday afternoon. After registering at the main desk and taking care of the administrivia, I locate Room 353 East (situated opposite the aforementioned expansive view of the lake). The meeting is “The SBL/AAR Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline Workshop”, co-hosted by the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion group and the SBL’s Ideological Criticism group. The theme for the workshop is “The Analytical Handling of Norms and Values in the Study of Religion”, a juicy topic that touches upon a lot of the methodological issues in my own work. I was very interested when I signed up. I am also hoping to meet a few new people, as that’s the best part of a conference, and the best way to have fun in the evenings.

The workshop is well attended, perhaps 30 people in total. There are four sessions, plus afternoon tea. The sessions are all interesting, though some more than others. The focus is upon both scholarly and pedagogical responsibilities in the study of religion. The following synopsis provided by the organizers is a good distillation of the workshop:

Analysis of academic norms for the study of religion focuses on construction of a secondary discourse that accomplishes the following: (a) treats all religious phenomena as primary sources, i.e. the object of study; (b) adheres to common academic practices in the humanities and social sciences, as appropriate for the research question under investigation; and (c) incorporates self-critical reflection on the problematic of scholarly, secondary discourse vis-à-vis the primary, intramural discourse of the people and practices studied. These three goals are necessary to adequately formulate the study of religion as a discipline of scholarship in alignment with the Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences.

The discussion is enthusiastic, and the breadth of topic has attracted scholars from a wide variety of specialist fields within the study of religion. It is not the kind of thing where “resolutions” are reached on anything, but rather an invigorating open-floor exchange about strategies for methodological reflexivity in the production of knowledge about “religion” and other aspects of cultural. Some speakers gravitate towards theoretical issues, others towards the challenges involved in turning ethnographic fieldwork into legitimate (and ethical) knowledge. Others also focus on the treatment of marginalized religious communities, and how this actual social marginalization is perpetuated by certain androcentric, Eurocentric, and graphocentric norms that pervade western discourse. A particularly impassioned point is made by an organizer of the LGBTQ section of the AAR about the near-total discrimination of openly LGBTQ academics in the US job market, and how this reflects the kind of problematic assumptions that are embedded in the dominant discourse (which is to say, embedded in the power structures of Euro-American culture). Did I mention that the afternoon tea is also nice? The standout is some spectacular gingerbread cookies.

At a personal level, it is a great afternoon. I meet a lot of new people, including some who I will connect with again over the weekend. I touch base with a professor with whom I have been communicating via email for the last year, and we plan to meet properly tomorrow. One speaker whose paper I particularly enjoyed is a colleague of another scholar I have been in communication with in recent months, so we have a friendly chat afterwards too. I also get invited to the University of North Carolina reception on Sunday night by some fellow grad students, which I plan to attend in order to network further (and to get some free booze). I catch the shuttle bus back into town with a few nice people from the workshop, and it turns out that a guy I am sitting with is good friends with my current associate supervisor. So it is a bumper start to the AAR meeting at my end: stimulating discussion and some new connections. I ignore the evening’s welcome reception on account of the good mood, as I have no one in particular to meet there and I feel that my work is done for the day. The evening involves dinner, a beer, and bed.

Day 2 – Saturday, November 17

With last night going later than planned (emails always take longer than you think), I decide to sleep through the morning session. There are no sessions of critical import to my work, so I opt for the sleep and a lazier start to the day (loading my energy towards the evenings, as I put it). I thought about attending the 1pm session on the 100-year anniversary of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, but at the last minute I see a session called “The Identity of NAASR and the Character of the Critical Study of Religion”. NAASR is the North American Society for the Study of Religion, and is an umbrella society within the AAR that promotes a more critical and “scientific” approach to the study of religion, with the related charge that much of what the AAR does is crypto-theology dressed up as critical scholarship (at one point the AAR is accused of “apologetic phenomenology”). The star panelists are Russell McCutcheon and Donald Wiebe, who are well known for their thoroughgoing criticism of the apologetic tendencies of the “discipline” of religious studies. The discussion is heated at times, and there is clearly no consensus about what precisely the character of NAASR should be. Weibe, one of its founders, wants it to be about scientific approaches to the study of religion (e.g. cognitive science), whereas McCutcheon, its most influential member, advocates a broader approach that also includes history and critical theory – although, as he points out, the problem then becomes that NAASR is little different from the AAR, at least on paper in terms of the sessions that it holds.

A number of the people from yesterday’s workshop are also in attendance, and turn out to be important members of NAASR (which is a big payoff for me). They invite me along to tonight’s NAASR reception, which will be great for more reasons than just the free food and drink. I am hoping to meet McCutcheon and others who will be there, as their work has been deeply influential for the development of my own critical/methodological approach to the study of religion. After that, I am also attending a party hosted by biblical scholars Dale Martin (who I will be interviewing for the RSP next week) and Bart Ehrman. The Bart & Dale Show (as they call it) is a long running Saturday night institution at the AAR/SBL, and presents another great networking opportunity – which I have learnt are far more important than whatever one might learn from attending sessions. Hence why I have decided to skip the AAR Presidential Address in favour of the NAASR reception. However I will have to be careful tonight, as I am attending 2 parties with free booze – this happened last year at the AAR Saturday night, and I awoke with a tremendous hangover that prevented me from absorbing much on the Sunday. I fear a similar outcome.

The final event of my day was a 4pm meeting held with Randall Styers of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Randall’s work (Making Magic [OUP 2004]) has also been deeply influential in the shape of my own project, and he gives me a very generous 90 minutes of his time; we even catch the bus back together. We discuss both my doctoral project as well as wider strategies for carving out a career in the academic world. His advice is extremely helpful on both fronts, and he has proven to be an invaluable mentor whom I am sure to be in contact with over the coming years. He will also be at the NAASR reception tonight, so that’s another plus. Speaking of the reception, I must get out the door.

Day 3 – Sunday, November 18

I emerge on Sunday (mid)morning relatively unscathed, although I would not describe myself as chipper. The evening’s activities were great fun. Good conversation was had and more friends were made. The NAASR reception was a mirthful affair with food and drink aplenty, and the Bart & Dale Show was in its usual swing. My day begins by meeting an old supervisor for coffee, and we have a good catch up. I then attend a stimulating session at 1pm, a 90 minute consultation on future of the newly-formed Social Theory and Religion Cluster, comprised of a number of groups in the AAR which are seeking to co-operate at a level beyond their own specific panel discussions (e.g. the Sociology of Religion group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion group). The theme is “Social Theory and Religion, 2013–2015”. The forum is well attended and the audience represents a diverse spectrum of interests; this bodes well for the future of the Cluster. Although there is a seven person panel, the meeting is more of an open-floor discussion about ways to collaborate at upcoming conferences – such as holding featured guest-speaker lectures, organizing debates, holding cross-group panels on important scholarly milestones (such as the 100 year anniversary of Durkheim), etc.

The evening sees me attend the UNC Chapel Hill reception, to which I had been invited by Randall as well as some of his very amiable doctoral students whom I met at the workshop on Friday. The catering is of a high standard, as is the crowd. There are a lot of nice people there, so further connections are made. It is truly lovely to have met so many nice people when I arrived at the conference knowing virtually no one. My planned early night is yet again railroaded by the “couple” of “quick” emails I had to send, and I crawl into bed just before midnight. Despite the exhaustion, it is difficult to sleep on account of the whirring mind induced by the weekend’s conversations.

Day 4 – Monday, November 19 (The Final Day)

Thankfully the morning session once again contains no panels of crucial importance for me, so the day begins more slowly by catching up for coffee with a friend from Brown University whom I only get to see at the conference every year. I then head into McCormick to attend the final session for the Cultural History of the Study of Religion group, starting at 1pm. The papers comprise a strangely eclectic bunch of topics. It seems odd that they have been placed together. After properly getting lost in McCormick for the first time (I’m surprised it took this long), I arrive just as the session is starting to a scene that I did not quite picture: about 30 people sitting around a large, squared table formation, with no discernible panel of speakers. I grab a seat just as the Chairs explain the slightly experimental format: all papers had been pre-circulated amongst the 6 speakers, and instead of being read, they were summarized for the audience (about 10 mins each). The chairs then lead a fascinating discussion between both speakers and audience, in which they tease out a number of theoretical issues that flow through and connect the otherwise quite disparate papers. If you think that the following topics – C19th protestant missionaries and the telegraph; early reformed Judaism in the US; William James and his concept of the composite photograph; two post-war female, French, Catholic scholars; the translation industry around the Daodejing; and the American civic discourse of religious pluralism – sound like almost completely unrelated issues, then you feel as I felt walking in. You would then have been utterly enthralled to sit through and participate in the discussion that followed, and the session was testament to the productive conceptual spaces that emerge when good thinkers come together sharing broad theoretical commitments. I am amazed at how quickly two and a half hours fly by. The final 15 minutes are the business meeting of the CHSR group, which plots out potential session themes for next year as well as further reflections on experimental formats. Most concur that the format of this session was a success, especially on the Monday afternoon of a long conference when simply listen to talks for 2 hours would have been seriously draining; discussion is also had about linking the group’s agenda with the agenda of the Social Theory and Religion Cluster.

There are further sessions in the afternoon, as well as the final ones on Tuesday morning, but this marks the end of my involvement at the AAR conference. I am extremely happy with how the weekend has gone. I arrived at the workshop on Friday apprehensive that I would not meet many people or that the conference might not be that productive, but those apprehensions appear quaint in hindsight. It was a combination of meeting nice people but also putting myself out there: not just attending sessions, but piping up. I made a comment or asked a question in every session I attended, which I have learned is a great platform to be able to approach people afterwards, introducing yourself, and continue the conversation. I wasted no opportunities, and the conference could not have gone better for me, all things considered.

To unwind from the exhausting frazzlement of the last 4 days, my final mission in Chicago is to head way uptown to The Chicago Sweatlodge for a relaxing sauna. Since visiting Finland 6 years ago I have been an almost evangelistic saunophile, and my motto for world travel since that point has been “Another City, Another Sauna”. Considering myself a connoisseur of intense heat, I was mightily impressed with this young establishment, and I emerge 3 hours later glowing like a saint. The Finns say that the human body is never more beautiful than 30 minutes after a sauna, and the tingle on one’s skin afterwards truly is a remarkable feeling unattainable by any other means. The glow remains with me all night, and I am not even worried about the $50 of cabs that it took to get there and back. This marks the perfect end to a great conference.

I am now at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport awaiting a flight to New York, where I will engage in further meetings and conduct an interview for the Religious Studies Project. Boarding time is close, so over and out.

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

By Gemma Gall, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Donald Wiebe on the relationship between Religious Studies and Theology (6 February 2012).

The work of Donald Wiebe is not entirely alien to me; indeed, I have found myself agreeing with his response to phenomenology. However, on the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies, Wiebe’s visit to Edinburgh in 2010 found our opinions to be very divergent.

Wiebe begins his interview by admitting that it may not be possible to clearly delineate religious studies and theology, an admirable concession which seems to lull the listener into the false belief that he is promulgating an understanding of the ‘dichotomy’ which understands the malleable nature of both academic disciplines and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, he undermines this moment of resisting reductionism by his refusal to acknowledge development in the concepts of theology.

The reasoning which Wiebe gives for this is flawed: despite his recognition of the changing nature of theology, he continues to base his understanding of this relationship in the Christian tradition of God talk. His dismissal of ‘hybrid theology’ without any assessment of what this entails (and instead indulging in biased rhetoric) is one of the main failings of his summary of the theology-religious studies situation. Very few, if any, religious studies scholars would claim that religious studies should engage in studies in which they practice God talk. Surely this is simply theology? Similarly, ‘religious studies’ which do not engage with hybrid theology, the understandings of ‘god(s)’, ‘religion’, ‘supernatural’, or whatever element the group being studied claim to be the underpinning of their group, is surely just a ‘scientific’ study of the group. Of course it is necessary for there to be anthropological, sociological etc studies, but it is also necessary to consider how theology – in its hybrid sense – impacts upon practice.

As an example of how knowledge of the theology of the group studied aids understanding, I demonstrate how I have used theology. My own studies specialise in Islam with a particular focus on gender issues, which demands an understanding of the relationship between, for example, politics, economics, spatial theory, power relations and Holy texts (with the interpretation thereof) for an issue such as veiling. Refusing to engage in studying the revelation of the ‘hijab verses’ in the Qur’an, as well as their interpretation, leads to a confused and inferior study.

This dichotomy, Wiebe argues, may even prevent scholars of religion who are themselves religious from a non-biased study. According to cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology has developed to protect the ‘supernatural instinct’ which is employed when one can’t understand something. This is “hard-wired” to protect agency, thus preventing many of those with a faith of their own from bracketing it out; therefore endangering the scientific nature of their studies. Indeed, Wiebe claims that many scholars with a religious position of their own will not undertake the ‘hard work’ to retain a vigorously scientific study. These claims are predicated on an understanding of faith as a singularly correct entity. I find it hard to believe that there are many serious religious studies scholars who hold this position; it is antithetical to the aims of the discipline. I agree with Wiebe that scholars should not invoke their own beliefs in their studies; after all, that would not be a study of the group being undertaken but instead of one’s own beliefs. However, I feel that it is impossible to bracket all aspects of one’s own faith position;  that the holding of forms of belief may even benefit a scholar’s attempts to understand how another’s faith impacts upon their life.

The notion that our inability to prove or disprove the notion of God means that we should not invoke such a concept is highly problematic. Firstly, if the concepts of God(s), supernatural or other variants, continue to impact upon how a community functions, then the study again fails to fully account for the context.

Perhaps Wiebe’s determined view of non-theological approaches to the study of religion fails because it is fundamentally based on a notion of explaining religion. This is not what religious studies should purport to do; we provide theories and data detailing what people practice and believe, we do not explain ‘religion’. If this were possible, surely the interminable debates on definitions of religion would be complete?

Ultimately, Wiebe fails to recognise that whilst there may be methodological differences between the disciplines, there is a certain amount of interdependency between the two. Religious Studies without theology fails not only to adequately study the phenomena it purports to, but it fails to justify its existence a separate discipline. The good historians and philologists of whom Wiebe speaks are just that; they are not scholars of religious studies. Similarly, theology undertaken from one’s own faith position is simply practice of belief, as Wiebe himself claims; it has no place in academia. However, theology does not have to take this form. To use Wiebe’s own terminology, ‘hybrid theology’, where a non-biased and non-personal methodology is employed, offers an alternative. If Wiebe is serious in his claim that theology has a place as an object of analysis in academia, then surely he must reconsider his own views in order to see this as a ‘third way’ between a purely ‘scientific’ study of religion and the ‘God talk’ of Christian theology.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Gemma Gall graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Religious Studies in 2010, and is currently continuing her studies at Edinburgh with an MSc by Research in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She specialises in Gender and Islam.

The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies

Our interview this week features Chris speaking to Professor Donald Wiebe from the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto on the relationship between Theology and Religious Studies.

Out of necessity this interview was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes, and subscribe to receive our weekly interviews.

The relationship between Theology and Religious Studies  is not a simple one. David Ford writes that at its broadest, theology is thinking about questions raised by and about religions (2000:3). These questions are largely directed towards notions of transcendence (typically gods), incorporate doctrinal issues and are “essentially a second-order activity arising from ‘faith’ and interpreting faith” (Whaling, 1999:228-229). Essentially, theology is thinking about religion from within religion – although when most people refer to “Theology”, what they mean is “Christian Theology”.

It is generally accepted – at least as far as most academics are concerned – that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. This is succinctly summarised by Ninian Smart’s statement that “historical and structural enquiries, such as sociology, phenomenology, etc., […] are the proper province of [the study of] Religion, and the use of such materials for Expressive ends […is] the doing of Theology” (in Wiebe, 1999:55).

As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines. His primary areas of research interest are philosophy of the social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the history of the academic and scientific study of religion, and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of a number of books, including Religion and Truth: Towards and Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (1981), The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991), and, of particular relevance to this interview, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (1999). In 1985 Professor Wiebe, with Luther H. Martin and E. Thomas Lawson, founded the North American Association for the Study of Religion, which became affiliated to the IAHR in 1990; he twice served as President of that Association (1986-87, 1991-92).

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011, where Professor Wiebe also presented a particularly relevant paper with his colleague Luther H. Martin, entitled “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion”. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Jonathan Z Smith: “[R]eligion is an inextricably human phenomenon. […] Religious studies are [therefore] most appropriately described in relation to the Humanities and the Human Sciences, in relation to Anthropology rather than Theology. What we study when we study religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell.” (1978, Map is Not Territory, 290)

References:

Ford, David F., 2000 [1999]. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whaling, Frank, 1999. “Theological Approaches” in Peter Connoly (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, pp. 226-274.

Wiebe, Donald, 1999. The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy. New York: St Martin’s Press.