Ian Linden - Reflections from the American Academy of Religion conference
What do you call 10,000 theologians, religious studies professors and religious booksellers? A disputation of theologians? A proliferation of Professors? A sub-Angelic host? That was allegedly the number in San Francisco for the 2011 American Academy of Religion annual conference.
I haven't seen so many elderly white- bearded men in one place ever before. It's enough to create an identity crisis. And if you have ever published a book on an even marginally religious topic, seeing about an acre of them all in one place is kind of depressing. How many commentaries on the Gospels can the secular world take before it capitulates and surrenders?
Just the place to promote the interdisciplinary theme of "faith and globalisation" you might think. Well, yes, the three Tony Blair Faith Foundation seminars were well attended and the number rose; the second more than the first and the third the biggest. The discussion was lively particularly on secularism and religion in the public square where the speakers Indian, Iranian and Quebec experience showed just what a diminished and parochial conversation Europe was having on the subject.
The session on religion and the internet had a similar global feel to it with avatars meditating silently in cyberspace in the Zen Buddhist tradition and calling in recognised Zen authorities to legitimate it, Orthodox Jewish authorities carefully controlling their websites and Hindu nationalists mutating a religious identity into a globalised form of ethnicity. New forms of charismatic authority and community and also the continuity of old forms; fluid boundaries mapping onto an amorphous definition of an emerging field of study.
For those who fight against a pejorative binary opposition between "ivory tower academics" and "dumb activists" as if academics are never engaged and activists are invariably knee-jerk dummies, this was not a reassuring gathering. Out of a truly prodigious array of themes and sessions, there was just one I could find on Religion and Development (otherwise called well-being and human flourishing). And I knew almost half the people there.
It's not that I have anything against the study and problems of transgender Mormons, but whether religion might be an important factor in healing, health systems, and, yes, human flourishing, doesn't seem to deserve a comparable one-off ranking in terms of attention given to it by 10,000 religious specialists. Call me old-fashioned if you like.
It’s just that the participants only had to walk out of their hotels to trip over the homeless and destitute in the streets. Faces with poverty and suffering etched into them looked up at you from cardboard beds in doorways. One man, hood- up slumped so you couldn't see his face for all the world like a Guy Fawkes made by kids. Another feeding a tiny dog with meticulous loving care on the sidewalk next to a fancy dress shop. All next to shops worthy of Milan. The gap between rich and poor far, far worse than anything in Europe's big cities.
Maybe, just maybe, the academy had something theologically relevant to say about this appalling disparity in wealth and wellbeing. But it was hard to find. In the land of Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day this is, to say the least, surprising. In retrospect the collective term should probably be "An Amnesia of Theologians".
Director of Policy