Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme: Aaron Hughes


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.

by Aaron W. Hughes

Oh, AAR, the things you do when we turn our backs!

I had reluctantly gotten over the fact that the organization likes to play a politically correct Noah when it comes to election time by providing us with two of each species: two Jews for treasurer, two evangelical theologians for Vice President, and so on. Then they threw me another curveball: our 2016 annual meeting is to be guided by the theme of “revolutionary love.” This suggestion comes courtesy of our new seminarian president, Serene Jones. She does not mean this term “in the infantile American sense of being made happy,” she informs us, “but as a state of being, or a state of grace.”

Presidential themes are apparently a new phenomenon, one of the undoubtedly rather few perks that come with what I imagine would be a rather thankless job. While I realize that the themes are in no way binding on anyone save those who the president invites to attend “their” plenary sessions, the overly theological direction of this year’s theme struck a negative chord with me. State of grace? Are we not a scholarly organization devoted to the secular study of social actions that are sublimated to the realm of imagined metaphysical truths?

As the co-chair for the Study of Judaism at the AAR, we were encouraged to push this theme in our call. But, as scholar of Judaism, I don’t recognize this theme. To the contrary, swirling in the background just behind it—at least for me—is the s-word. Supersessionism. It was, for example, Jesus’ “revolutionary love” that sought to transform the Temple cult. It was Paul’s “revolutionary love” that distinguished between the heart and the penis, and between a “religion of the law” and one “of the spirit.”

I know some of my colleagues in Jewish studies will object and say that the emergence of Hasidism in the eighteenth century represents a form of “revolutionary love.” But even if this is the case, and I certainly am not convinced that it is, then Jones returns us to an earlier time in the study of religion, one wherein the so-called mystical traditions of the so-called world religions share some common core of sui generis spirituality. Do we really want to return to a (Huston-) Smithian analysis? Does she know this or does she even care?

Or, others might say that some Reform or Renewal Jews engage in a kind of “revolutionary love” when they engage in tikkun olam, “the reparation of the world” (aka social justice). But again I’m not convinced, especially when we remember that the latter takes place in an overwhelmingly American context, where again the underlying concepts about what counts as religion are Protestant.

The christocentrism inherent to the theme, when compounded with the fact that the new vice-president, David Gushee, is an evangelical theologian (someone who had the need to tell us earlier in his career that same-sex marriage was bad, but can now tell us it is fine—who cares?! We’re a scholarly organization) sends an unfortunate signal to the scholarly community.

What does it mean to engage in the academic study of religion in 2016? Apparently, it means to look for largely Christocentric and supersessionist themes with which to examine the diversity of the world’s religions. Apparently, it also means that an incoming president can quip that the AAR is “not particularly hospitable to, say, confessional or constructive theology, or more conservative religious viewpoints.” The point is not that Gushee is a Christian. Rather, it is about his theological investment in his object of study, an investment that threatens to undermine the strides that some of us have tried to make in establishing a more scientific and non-confessional study of religion.

So many intellectual battles have been fought to make the academic study of religion respectable. Most of these battles were done in order to remove the Protestant and Christocentric terms and categories endemic to the field. Have we already forgotten these battles? I recently saw an announcement for a new book series that, if anything, seems to be defined by some vague notion of “post-theory.” Apparently Qoheleth was right: there really is nothing new under the sun. Everything that has been done can now be undone only to be done again, also in the name of “theory.” It seems that the AAR has allowed back in that which many tried to force out—theology. This theologizing is not even smuggled in through the back door, but greeted warmly and allowed to enter ceremoniously through the front door.

AAR, you should know better. But am I really surprised?

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014), and Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception (Equinox Publishing, 2015). 

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