Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme: Steven Engler

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In this new series with the Bulletin, we’ve asked a number of scholars to weigh-in on the theme of this year’s upcoming annual conference for the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, TX, “revolutionary love.” Our aim is to provide a forum for multiple voices to weigh-in on what some consider a controversial theme in the interest of engaging not only this question, but how it relates to broader concerns and divisions within the academic study of religions. For other posts in this series, see here.

“Revolutionary Love” as Interdisciplinary Therapeutic

Steven Engler

This post charts a path between the Scylla of critics and the Charybdis of caretakers. Critics of the Presidentially mandated theme for this year’s annual meeting of the AAR read “revolutionary love” as overly Christian. But is there another way to read it?

Let’s be charitable here. The AAR is not a theological organization. Its goal is “to promote understanding of and critical reflection on religious traditions, issues, questions, values, texts, practices, and institutions.” The word “critical” stands out. It would be more than a little uncritical of the AAR to sanction a conference theme with explicitly Christian overtones. Privileging one religion so dramatically over others would arguably violate the organization’s own bylaws: “The AAR shall tolerate no discrimination on the basis of … religion….” If “revolutionary love” makes no sense from the perspective of members who study other religions, then the theme signals little more than their subaltern status. If it makes sense almost exclusively from a Christian perspective, then it is a banner for Christian theology’s hegemony in the AAR. If this were so, then any claims that the organization has left behind its roots in the National Association of Biblical Instructors would be laughable. Such an ideologically blinkered echo of the AAR’s evangelical origins would be anything but revolutionary, anything but charitable.

But I, for one, refuse to believe that the President of the world’s largest scholarly organization for the study of religions—even as a theologian and pastor—would privilege her own faith in such a naive and/or dismissive manner. I choose to look beyond the fussy view that “revolutionary love” is a blithe pastoral bromide. It would be ungenerous to see here no more than a scholarly frame for themes that resonate with Lynn Cowell’s 2011 evangelical teen self-help book, “His Revolutionary Love”: “If you want this—a radical passion that revolutionizes your life [AAR members: insert ‘society’ here]—read on.”

The obvious path beyond this contretemps is to take “revolutionary love” as a concept that has broad comparative purchase for the study of religions. Let’s work this angle. What key features does that concept pick out from a wide range of prima facie relevant cases? Here is a brainstormed set of examples, starting close to home in North American Protestant theology and moving further afield:

I seem to have painted myself into a corner. The function of concepts and categories in comparative analysis is to abstract and operationalize specific features. Here the opposite seems to be happening: the proliferation of examples keeps spinning off new senses of ‘revolutionary’ and ‘love.’

I am forced to revise my forecast for this tempest in a teapot. Although it would appear that “revolutionary love” has little or no value as a conceptual frame for the comparative study of religions, it can still be valuable as a sort of conversation starter. It sets out a topic of general interest in order to spark an affable chat among a disparate set of people who happen to end up sitting at a table together (along the lines of “did you know that Johnny Cash carved ‘Johnny Loves Vivian’ on a bench near the river when he met his first wife here in San Antonio?”)

The fact that “revolutionary love” can be interpreted in so many disparate and apparently incompatible ways can count in its favour here. AAR President Serene Jones clearly meant her chosen theme to serve this more convivial role when she wrote, “It’s hard to imagine any area of study … that does not reflect on the topic of ‘love’ – again, defined as broadly and creatively as possible.” Those of us who work on another planet than Christian theology must be broad-minded and creative in order to see the relevance of her theme. (Of course, “revolutionary love” falls a bit flat as an ice-breaker if scholars of non-Christian religions are left shrugging their shoulders and saying, “I’m still not seeing the relevance….” But I leave that for other contributors to this series of posts to hash out among themselves. I choose the high road.)

I suggest that we read “revolutionary love” reflexively. It’s about us. It gives us something else to argue about. (Witness this series of blog posts. It’s working already.) The love that we lack is the bond of charity between study-of-religion(s) people and theologians, between critics and caretakers. (Not that these two distinctions map neatly onto each other; we mustn’t forget the lingering presence of Traditionalists of the Huston Smith type in our three-ring circus.) To be sure, this love between us and them is more pragmatic, storgic and ludic than agapic— let’s not get carried away. But it will be revolutionary if it leaves us more appreciative of our disparate fellows as we rub shoulders, scurrying through the halls of the Hyatt Regency in San Antonio. “Revolutionary love” is a great ice-breaker for a conference where everyone inevitably ends up chatting, over a coffee or beer with a like-minded colleague, about just how odd some of the other attendees are: “not our kind of people at all.” Recall that the desperate, if temporary, AAR-SBL split was caused in part by disaffected scholars of non-Christian religions. Some of my colleagues have left the AAR because it is “too theological.”

Let us take a look in the mirror: what sort of inter-disciplinary alienation and enmity prompts such petty debates, over whether a conference theme is or is not sufficiently inclusive? Let us forgive and forbear. Let us arrive at the end of this year’s annual meeting firm in the conviction that we and all our badge-bedecked colleagues belong there and that the place is truly ours. Let us recognize that,

“Desperation leads us here…
Illumination meets us here…
Reparation leads us here…

And I don’t want to leave … this place….”

Of course, I had to cut great swaths of Christian soteriology to end up with these couple of marginally appropriate lines from David Crowder Band’s song, “Revolutionary Love”; but what’s a bit of proof-texting among friends?

Steven Engler is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. He teaches a variety of courses and researches religion in Brazil, as well as theories and methodology in the study of religion\s. From 2005-2007 he was a Visiting Research Professor in the Programa de Estudos Pós-Graduados em Ciências da Religião at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP), where he is currently Professor Colaborador. Since 2008, he has been Affiliate Professor with the Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montréal.

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One Response to Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme: Steven Engler

  1. Greg Johnson says:

    Nice piece, Steven. I’d simply observe the obvious: the theme–year-to-year–is only one piece of what the AAR annual meeting is about. So I have a take-it-or-leave-it approach in my own engagement with the themes depending on the ways they intersect (or don’t) with my own research and teaching interests (and I’m guessing that is true of most attendees). As Program Committee chair, I can report that seeing the last three presidents work up and deliver their themes has been genuinely inspiring. Go Serene! Plus, we all like to think we are revolutionary, and we all could use some love, so I’m on board with loving when we can and fighting when it matters. I don’t see that this is a fight.

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