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.
Blind Spots and the Impact of “Revolutionary Love”
Craig R. Prentiss
Upon learning that Dr. Serene Jones had announced the upcoming AAR Annual Meeting in San Antonio would proceed under the theme of “Revolutionary Love,” my first thought was: Since when did we have conference themes? Sure, I knew that the AAR once had particular global foci: Africa, Central and East Europe, Japan, etc. I also knew that the conference location often lent itself to particular sections and groups soliciting papers related to this geography. When in San Diego or San Francisco, papers are more likely to be sought for themes relating to “the West.” And then there was Orlando. Who knew that the word “Disneyfication” played such a prominent role in the scholarship of our peers (a role which seems to have diminished considerably since those salad days at the Dolphin and Swan hotels when we couldn’t get a yogurt and coffee for under twenty bucks).
The AAR’s organizational structure appears to place limits on the choice of themes. After all, what themes of any consequence could be applicable across the board in an organization housing the “Video Gaming and Religion Seminar,” the “Bonhoeffer: Theology and Social Analysis Group,” and the “Material Islam Section”? Moreover, while every professional academic organization houses scholars with a broad range of questions and interests, few are so divided over the issue of what counts as a legitimate method of study. Those that are find themselves in similar “culture wars.” It was precisely into this methodological chasm that “Revolutionary Love” stepped.
As someone identifying as a religious studies scholar with an interest in the social production of knowledge, who teaches in a department of “Theology and Religious Studies” at a Jesuit university, where, until fairly recently, I was the only non-theologian in the department, I confess to being hyper-sensitized to questions of disciplinary boundaries. I’ve grown very used to observing my friends and colleagues from other departments (and my own) drop their heads, slump their shoulders, and let out a deep and knowing sigh as it dawns on them that I am about to launch into my three-to-four minute (and very animated) spiel about the differences between theology and religious studies when somebody innocently identifies me (on a weekly basis) as a theologian. At the same time, I’m well aware the markers I use to differentiate the two fields are not universally shared by other self-identified religious studies scholars (a fact that I don’t emphasize at any point in my three-to-four minute spiel).
Is there irony in a person interested in the social production of knowledge acting as a self-appointed gatekeeper as to what does or does not get to count as religious studies? Sure. A little. But gatekeeping and boundary marking seem to be as close to endemic to our species as any other characteristic, so I don’t feel compelled to apologize for the contradiction. In fact, since classification is innate to what we do, then let’s classify boldly! (My theologian friends will get that subtle reference to Luther).
Bold classification is what this series of responses to “Revolutionary Love” in The Bulletin has engendered. For instance, Naomi Goldenberg interpreted the theme as an example of the AAR “selling” Christianity. Deepak Sarma went further when he wrote: “Dr. Serene Jones is just another in a long line of Christian theologians who try to mask and masquerade their imperialistic missionary paradigms onto other, non-Christian traditions.” While Richard Newton chose to “applaud Dr. Jones’s push to embrace scholarship as a political act,” he also reminds us that “It is [a political act] whether we intend it to be or not.”
As I reflected on my own opinion on the appropriateness of “Revolutionary Love,” I could not separate Dr. Jones’ background as a theologian, situated in a theological seminary, from my reading of the theme. Despite her call to “use the word ‘love’ in the broadest possible sense” (perhaps a nod to her own anticipation of the criticism the theme would face), I shared the concerns expressed by Goldenberg and Sarma. Newton is certainly correct that scholarship is inherently political. It would appear, however, that my own political stance on the direction I’d like the field to move does not align with Dr. Jones’s stance. But I had hoped this essay could move beyond my own subjective impressions to an analysis of something measurable and, perhaps, useful to readers as they chew on the theme of “Revolutionary Love.”
Words have consequences. Among those are the feelings and opinions they engender. But in the case of an AAR theme, the consequences of “Revolutionary Love” should, in theory, be testable against the actual impact they have on the proceedings of the San Antonio annual meeting. Those proceedings are, ultimately, conditioned by the papers solicited (and selected) by the Sections, Groups, Seminars, and Clusters that make up the conference. So I decided to go through all 180 PDF pages of this year’s “Call for Papers,” where “Revolutionary Love” should, presumably, have its greatest impact.
The results were illuminating. Barely one-fifth of the total Groups, Sections, and Seminars included the actual of theme “Revolutionary Love” in their calls for papers. That number increases to about 29% if we include groups that asked for papers dealing with “love” alone, minus the “revolutionary” modifier (and in this group, I include the Religion and Politics Section which accidentally misidentified the conference theme as “radical love”). There are many potential reasons for the failure of other topical organizations to have included “Revolutionary Love” in their calls for papers, ranging from simply not getting the message, to having other priorities this year, to a conscious act of defiance. Still, based on the call for papers, over two-thirds of the sessions are likely to be unaffected by the choice of theme.
Another pertinent question, it seems, is whether there was a discernible pattern in those topical organizations choosing to include “Revolutionary Love” or a variation of the “love” theme, in their call for papers. The answer here is a resounding yes. In fact, 62% of those organizations with the word “theology” or “theological” in their titles called for papers dealing with love. Only 11% not self-identifying as focusing on theology called for papers on this topic.
As to Deepak Sarma’s claim that “Revolutionary Love” masked the application of “imperialistic missionary paradigms” onto non-Christian traditions and regions, I thought I’d do a tally of those organizations dedicated to non-Western geographical regions and non-Christian communities of discourse. Sure enough, there seemed to be a pattern here as well. Of those 32 organizations, only 7 (22%) solicited papers on the theme. Of those seven, I included the call from the African Association for the Study of Religion (an association which, itself, is an umbrella organization for an array of scholarly concerns), as well as the African Religions Group, and the Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society Group. Given the significance of Christianity in Africa, as well as the high number of Asian Christians in North America, these three organizations may not help to counter the claim that “Revolutionary Love” reflects, primarily, Christian theological interests. Without these three, the tally drops to just under 13%. Notably, all sections, groups, and seminars dedicated to Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Daoism, Judaism, Paganism, and four out of five organizations dedicated to the study of Islam, did not call for papers on “Revolutionary Love,” or anything related to “love.” This data suggests that, perhaps, the concerns of Goldenberg and Sarma were shared by scholars in these areas.
I work under the assumption that Dr. Jones had no “imperialistic” intent in proposing “Revolutionary Love” as our theme in San Antonio. But we all have blind spots. Ideology writes itself on to all of us, and ideology works to create blind spots. It is difficult to talk about religion—a category whose emergence and malleability has itself reflected particular interests and done important work in the service of ideological production—without talking about blind spots. Perhaps we can profit from interpreting the story of “Revolutionary Love” at the AAR as a story of blind spots having consequences.
Craig Prentiss is a professor of religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of Staging Faith: Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II (NYU Press: 2014), and a former editor of The Bulletin back in its paper days.