by Philip L. Tite.
The American Academy of Religion is the largest professional society for scholars studying religion. The annual meeting (held jointly with the Society of Biblical Literature), held in different cities each year in North America, draws around 8,000 academics from around the world. The AAR is a big deal. And perhaps that is why many have had serious concerns over trends emerging in our society in recent years. Not only have several scholars voiced concerns over confessional agendas within the AAR’s “umbrella” approach to the study of religion, but several have raised questions about the push toward social activism (e.g., the a recent issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion was dedicated to climate change). Is the academic agenda (and it is certainly an agenda) giving way to other, less or non-academic agendas (that are legitimate agendas, but not to be identified as scholarly research).
The theme of “Revolutionary Love” for this upcoming November’s meeting has become an important example of such concern, resulting in voiced concerns from the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), a much smaller academic society that holds it’s annual meeting in connection with the AAR and a society dedicated to method and theory approaches to the study of religion. Below is a link to the concerns raised by the President of NAASR (Russell McCutcheon [University of Alabama]) along with a follow-up letter from Tim Jensen (President of the International Association for the History of Religions) (and this is relevant as the AAR is a member society of the IAHR).
Rather than re-posting these letters, I encourage readers to go to the NAASR website and read them directly. There was also a series of responses from various scholars reacting to this theme on the blog site of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Here is the NAASR link:
I am fully in agreement with the concerns raised by both McCutcheon and Jensen, but I also want to stress that what we are seeing is a process of identity construction. What constitutes an “academic study of religion”? Does the metaphor of an umbrella–or set of umbrellas–resolve the tensions felt by members who have competing claims to normative identity, or does the metaphor add to that very tension by evoking an underlying value system of methodological pluralism? As we consider such questions, the answers we find (and perhaps put forth ourselves) are acts of self-authenticity; i.e., we engage in social acts of delimiting (and yes expanding a boundary is just as much an act of delimitation as contract a boundary) a social sphere to what we, as social actors, consider authentic or real. What is “real” scholarship? Does it include protesting for labor rights (something we struggled with regarding another annual meeting a few years back), fighting social injustice, protecting religious traditions, determining what the essence of a tradition is, making truth claims about supernatural and/or moral beliefs? Or do (some of) these–no matter how good or valuable–belong to other social spheres?
As I’ve said in earlier blog posts, to draw a boundary is an act of power (establishing, contesting, undermining, shifting, reinforcing, obscuring) by social actors. The debate over the AAR’s 2016 annual theme, from all sides, is one of such boundary construction and boundary maintenance. Yes, for me I think that “Revolutionary Love” as a conference theme is as problematic for an academic society studying human phenomena classed as “religion” or “religious” in some sense, as is a theme on “Love, Prayer, and Hope.” Such themes nicely contribute to a prayer and mediation retreat, but not for a professional academic conference (and, furthermore, such moves within the AAR help undermine the theoretical and methodological work that should be going on in such a professional academic setting). They are just two different spheres of interaction.
So in a sense, what is at stake here–and all boundary drawing evokes “stakes”–is the self-definitional question: Who are we as a profession? Indeed, what is an academic profession? And who has the moral authority to make such judgments? Or is it all a matter of relative choice? Such concerns, debates, and back-and-forth has been a significant component of the academic study of religion since at least the 19th century and especially from the 1960s onward. And the questions are just as pertinent today as it was fifty or a hundred years ago–because what is at stake for all social actors involved is the very future direction of religious studies as an academic field of study.
Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, including co-editor with Bryan Rennie of Religion, Terror and Violence: Religious Studies Perspectives (Routledge, 2008).