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 Richard Newton
The annual meeting’s 2016 theme focuses our disciplined attention toward an order of love intent on “transform[ing] the world. Incoming AAR president Serene Jones asserts that love is a current running throughout the diverse traditions and moments examined by our guild.
I’ve been turning the theme over in my head. The challenge intrigues me. The premise concerns me. I’ll come back to both later.
Russell McCutcheon underscores that this is not a disinterested research agenda. As he points out, the theme beckons the social justice initiatives of Jones’ own institution, Union Theological Seminary, and its progressive conversation partners. He is among those disconcerted by the implications for a discipline constantly defending its contributions to the rest of the human sciences.
He’s not alone in asking whom this understanding of religion benefits. Citing examples from the study of Judaism, Aaron Hughes adds that seeing the revolutionary love as a phenomenological motif reflects an academy still beholden to a Christocentric and even Protestant point of view.
Their mutual dis-ease is well-founded. And while I join them in inquiring about specifically whom is served, I think there’s also an opportunity for additional tempered theorizing. I take “revolutionary love” as an invitation to ask how and why this theme might be compelling to the AAR.
To me, the phrase denotes a feedback loop wherein change validates passion and passion validates change. In many instances we might dismiss this hermeneutical circle as a case of “spinning one’s wheels.” The forensic observer will detect the imprint of evolution in its tracks— a modern orientation, de Certeau says, “that transforms nature by inscribing itself on it.” Revolutionary Love is a “scriptural project” that “produce[s] a new history (refaire l’histoire) on the model of what it fabricates (and this will be ‘progress’).”
I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but this certainly gives me pause. The 2014 and 2015 AAR presidents used the office to remark on what scholars of religion could be doing in the world. But we may be getting ahead of ourselves if we can’t discern what in the world scholars of religion actually do.
Since hearing the year’s theme, my thoughts keep returning to Pearl Jam’s hit album, Yield. Its anthems have me wandering, wondering to what extent might revolutionary love be a euphemism for a different lyric: “I’m at peace with my lust, I can kill ‘cause in God I trust, yeah. It’s evolution, baby.”
Make no mistake. My musings are not a screed against the divine rather an appreciation for the human. I, too, am awed by what we have been able to accomplish. But revolutionary love also reminds me that the wheels of progress turn because of our own self-referential gestures.
My awe devolves to caution after reading Merinda Simmons’ reservations. Love, she writes, is willing to bear the obscuring essentialisms to be uncovered by the scholar. To quote Pearl Jam yet again, what good are our engines of change when they’re fueled by a faithfulness to “m-y-t-h…belief in the game controls that keep us in a box of fear?”
What exactly is our guild afraid of? Full disclosure seems warranted here. Themes do preempt irrelevance. Revolutions forestall extinction. Love staves off loneliness. The pressure to prove our quality is great.
Scholars of the great mystery (or as I prefer, mystification) occupy an especially precarious position. It is tempting to elide our data’s signifying into our own significance. But there may be no better place to mount a resistance than San Antonio—where so many remember the Alamo at the expense of the inhabitants buried beneath it. In the verbiage of our theme, there’s a history of love being too patient and too kind. Revolutions leave little time for asking how our solutions are also part of someone’s problem.
I take Dr. Jones at her word when she invites us to consider revolutionary love “as broadly and creatively as possible.” And I want to applaud Dr. Jones’s push to embrace scholarship as a political act. It is whether we intend it to be or not.
But rather than greasing the skids of desire, I think the guild should foster a restlessness with the status quo. Monica Miller’s notion of “aporetic flow” comes to mind:
a… use of spinning, that is… alchemizing an ingenuity that would not offer a means of escape, but rather, new sonic travel and community while being stuck in the very concrete jungles that limited life options and opportunity for cultural exchange.
To some this may appear ignoble, but I wholeheartedly reject the equation of dispassion with apathy. Sometimes progress is circling back long enough to see that we’ve gone too far.
Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His research focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. He’s the founder of the student-scholar blog, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching, and the host of the podcast, Broadcast Seeding.