Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme: U Colorado Graduate Students


In this 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.

Andie Alexander: While I regularly follow the Bulletin blog, one of my class assignments for my seminar on Religions in America at the University of Colorado Boulder this semester has been to address current conversations being had on blogs within the field. Our assignment was to follow two blogs and report back each week on the different ideas being discussed. Having selected the Bulletin blog as one of my two blogs to follow, I addressed their series on Revolutionary Love in class a few weeks back. At the time, the only post in the series was that from Aaron Hughes, but it worked well to cultivate much discussion among my classmates.

There was a bit of pushback to Hughes’ contention: “The christocentrism inherent to the theme… 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.” The general response to his point was: “Sure, all methodological approaches are rooted in a particular history, even the theoretical ones.” And while I don’t disagree with that argument, I think it doesn’t fully address the larger point I see Hughes trying to make. Furthermore, while I fully understand the concerns raised by Naomi Goldenberg and Deepak Sarma—especially with Sarma’s questions of whom this theme serves (and subsequently, does not), a point later addressed more explicitly by Eleanor Finnegan—I think that the problem extends far beyond the, to use Goldenberg’s phrase, “further Chirstianization of my professional association.” My concern with this notion of the “christocentrism” and “Christianization” at the exclusion of others is that the next step would be a more pluralist approach—a corrective approach suggested in my seminar as a response to this Protestant leaning. The problem I see with having an equal-opportunity approach to theme designations is that it furthers the assumption that this field of religious studies is ultimately about some stable, definitive category “religion” that represents internalized expressions of belief. By having a pluralist approach to presidential themes, we move away from any sort of critical discourses preoccupying the field today.

I think Richard Newton makes an interesting point in arguing that the emergence of conference themes suggests a notion of irrelevancy—not something all that new to those in the academic study of religion, let alone, the humanities. But the sense that we need some sort of central theme to create a sense of purpose for the field—let alone, the need for a sense of purpose—is, I think, quite telling. However, to rely on some notion of “love”—however broadly conceived it may (or likely, may not) be—necessarily posits the field within a particular set of assumptions. And while those notions and definitions of “love” may be varied, they still all harken back to the assumption that this category is necessarily important within the field of religious studies. As Merinda Simmons argues:

But that fact is too often forgotten, it seems, even now in this academy wherein talk of “critical theory” proliferates but wherein its implications are curiously absent. Scholars thus do themselves… no favors by… professing their love for it, and calling that progressive academic work. What we are left with, in that case, are dueling essentialisms in the service of respective passions.

These “dueling essentialisms”—to use Simmons’ language—ultimately distract from the larger concerns. While we can very easily get caught up in the argument over whether Revolutionary Love is an acceptable theme, and consequently, a goal of the AAR, I think we should be more focused on why it is that the AAR, and more broadly the field of religious studies, see a need to define a yearly thematic purpose and goal for scholarship in this field. To me, these themes are a very troubling attempt at field legitimization, which ultimately do not work in our favor.

While I have no intention of expressing my grievances with the theme of “Revolutionary Love” specifically, I will posit that the concerns raised in some of these posts are, to me, too narrowly construed. Though I am no fan of the Protestant assumptions of religion underscored by this theme, I think that we should be more concerned with the larger question of the motives of our field. Even though the well-intentioned and insightful arguments address the negative implications of the biases of the executive members of the AAR, they ultimately lead to these “dueling essentialisms” of purpose, which rely on the assumption of the self-evident importance of this category “religion.” In doing so, these arguments then divert our attention away from the more systemic issues of how our field is being constructed and legitimized more broadly by and for us, as well as for others. Rather than weighing in on the legitimacy of Revolutionary Love—let alone, any other theme—as an appropriate endeavor for the field of religious studies, I think we should be turning our attention to why the AAR and scholars within the field are attempting to legitimize the academic study of religion in this way.

Israel Dominguez: As someone who has only very recently entered academia through the field of religious studies, I find myself simultaneously enthralled by and struggling to understand the tensions found within this new environment:

“Theology needs to stay out of our way.”

“No, no, no. You can’t forget where you come from. Besides, theology isn’t going anywhere.”

“Why does any of this matter again?”

There are so many different perspectives, each straining to be heard above the din of clashing opinions. The controversy surrounding this year’s AAR annual theme is a prime example of that clash. Naomi Goldenberg and Deepak Sarma have taken decisive and aggressive stances against the apparent “Christianization” and “imperialistic missionary paradigms” that Serene Jones’ theme seems to promulgate. Others like Craig Prentiss and Aaron Hughes have also taken clear, albeit less accusatorial, positions that share the concerns expressed by a more vehement set of voices.

After reading various blog responses that weighed in on the situation, I went in search of Jones’ actual wording of the theme in order to try and get a better feel for what exactly was going on. She writes: “I use the word ‘love’ in the broadest possible sense, including love as a social and political force, a structural reality, a collective endeavor, a shared social practice, a language, a relationship, a moment, a gesture, an identity, a quest.”

While Jones may have used James Baldwin to help contextualize the now-contentious use of the word “love,” her own description is fairly open-ended. Describing “love” as a language, moment, quest, or gesture seems to appeal to the term’s ubiquity, transcending any one, specific religious context. While Jones’ background as a theologian is evidenced by her choice to use “state of being, or a state of grace” to help further the definition of her theme, that’s not really a surprise. We are ultimately a product of our biases. We can’t help but be so.

At the moment, I cannot honestly say whether I’m in favor for or against “Revolutionary Love.” Personally, however, I think one of the most critical things to not lose sight of is the fact that this particular annual meeting theme has created dialogue – dialogue that can provide insight into our own identities as scholars, based on how we perceive and react to this theme. Jones herself said she wanted “to provoke our thinking,” and she has certainly done that. Besides, tension isn’t necessarily something that should be shied away from. The energy of our field is so consistently powered by conflict and, more importantly, its resulting discourse. Without conflict, scholarship stagnates and growth is actively inhibited, and where would we be then?

Elizabeth Wilson: One of the most basic and fundamental things I have been taught and trained to do in academia is to be generous with my reading and understanding of a text. I tend to think that whatever scholar I am reading has spent time and energy, years of labor and devotion into whatever work he or she is putting forth. I intend to continue this practice as I move through my own academic journey and would hope that others would do the same. I read the description put forth by the president of the AAR, Serene Jones, and applied this generous principal. I worked to check my own baggage and bias and attempted to read with an open mind. What I read did not offend or threaten me as a burgeoning scholar at all. I was more concerned with the varying responses. I’m concerned about the dichotomy set up between theological and scholarly, or what some have claimed is more scientific. Theological study is not the demon in this story, but it tends to be the marginalized outcast. Theology is not a counter to the academic study of religion, where one is good and the other bad. The pursuit of religious studies is not a science. I truly do not understand how it could be. It seems that the science rhetoric is a means to legitimize the validity of this pursuit. There is plenty of room at the table and plenty of food to enjoy by all, theologians and scholars alike. What is more, I do not read Dr. Jones explanation as a way to assert a theological stance or present Christianity as the dominant presence. I agree with Aaron Hughes that Dr. Jones is not attempting “some common core of sui generis spirituality”.

I do see how some may feel left out of this attempt to incorporate. Eleanor Finnegan reminds us that, “scholars have played an important role in using ideas about love to reassert feelings of estrangement, difference, and exclusion.” This theme can easily be read with Christocentric undertones and emic terminology that would be familiar to anyone in the “in-group” of Christianity. However, who cares! I’m yet to meet a scholar who does not foreground his or her own work and perspective. It’s what they know. Why should we fault any scholar for speaking on what they know? Is it not what they have been trained to do? By trying to distinguish who is in and who is out, have we not become guilty of the very structures and practices we critique: othering? There are better things we can do with our intellect and energy than tear apart a theme for a conference that ultimately does not matter. It is optional and completely open to interpretation and usage. If we want to talk about love, perhaps we should focus on the fact that “the love that we lack is the bond of charity between study-of-religion(s) people and theologians, between critics and caretakers.” (Steven Engler)

John Sheridan: After reading the posts of religious studies scholars about the upcoming AAR Annual Meeting in San Antonio, I have become deeply invested in this debate. I have to say that two weeks ago this debate seemed quite frivolous to me. Dr. Serene Jones, an ordained minister, has set the theme for the Annual conference as “Revolutionary Love.” The scholarly repertoire of critiques and analysis on both sides of the debate has been very insightful. Some scholars think we should embrace this theme with a critical and creative perspective, turning the theme inside out or any other way we want. However, judging by the rhetoric of other scholars, it seems as if they are going to vomit with disgust over such an abhorrent AAR theme. Despite what I say next, scholars on both sides of the debate have made very insightful suggestions that have caused me to think critically about the issues at hand and what is at stake in this seemly impertinent debate.

We must be vigilant and wary towards any theme that does not represent a scholarly consciousness of inclusivity and sensitivity to other religious traditions and peoples. However, if to uphold this consciousness we then criticize a worldwide tradition along with its adherents, it would seem that we are contradicting ourselves. Christianity deserves the same scholarly attitudes and approaches as any other religious tradition. I do not claim to be objective by any means but religious studies has taught me how to quite my biases so I can listen to perspectives that are different from my own. Hopefully, this causes me to analyze and understand these perspectives that are foreign to me. I deeply value this process because I understand what it is like to have your worldview radically reconfigured by the introduction of new and profound knowledge.

I believe that an interdisciplinary field should promote inclusivity, openness, and unification. I think it is important that we do not just implement religious studies techniques of tolerance and understanding when we are studying religious traditions that interest us, but also implement these techniques when interacting with other scholars, fields, and persons. Finally, in regards to scholarly rigor and objectivity, it is important to remember that religious studies analyzes Nones as well as Christians. Therefore, contextualizing objectivity as nonreligious seems problematic for myriad reasons.

John Sheridan is a first-year master’s student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. His focus is on religion in North America and the lived experience of an Anabaptist communal group called the Hutterites.

Elizabeth Wilson is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on Christian appropriation of Buddhism.

Israel Dominguez is a Chancellor’s Fellow and first-year master’s student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. His primary research interest focuses on decolonization within the context of U.S.-Mexico borderland religion.

Andie Alexander is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on the discourses on belief, practicality of definition, identity construction, and distinction of public and private with regard to issues and constructions of religious freedom in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.

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