Religion from the Bottom Up

Cambridge, MA. I am back in Cambridge – 30 degrees cooler than Chicago – and want to fulfill yesterday's promise to write a few words about the reason for my week in Hyde Park. I was participating in a seminar on theologies of religious pluralism and comparative theology sponsored by the American Academy of Religion with a generous grant from the Luce Foundation. This was the second summer of the second cohort of scholars (about 25 mostly younger scholars, from large and small institutions, including seminaries, religious and state universities) from around the country. (More such seminars may or may not follow.) Participants’ areas of expertise included the classics of philosophical and theological literature, works of contemporary art and literature, anthropological and sociological study, feminist and postcolonial critique, and a shared commitment to escape from the “great world religions” syndrome by attending to less studied indigenous traditions (American, Asian, African), the experience of immigrants, and the myriad combinations of new religious experience being crafted by Americans who see themselves as belonging at the same time to more than one tradition.

Though invariably energetic in such fields and already engaged in significant writing and teaching, in the two weeks (this month as last year this time) they were guided by a team of eight of us more senior professors in conversation on where the study of religions (in the plural) is going today, how it is being enriched and complexified from many disciplinary perspectives, and — as the particular distinctive mark of this seminar — how all of this matters theologically (in the Christian tradition [largely Protestant] but also in Jewish and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist contexts).


It is impossible to say much more in terms of summary here, though you can look up the participants’ names at the AAR website and then Google them to see what they/we are writing. But three things stand out in my mind a day after it ends. First, simply, it was a very enjoyable week. I realize that the academic life and professor-talk can seem rather daunting and dull, and ponderously footnoted, but it was not quite so. This was/is a lively group of creative individuals, and our conversations, table talk, walks and museum trips were invariably interesting, entertaining.

Second, you may recall that I turned 60 last summer, and so dodder along as a member of the baby boom’s ageing cohort. I was struck, around our table, at how I am now poised between two worlds: on the one side, the great tradition that precedes me/us, ranging from the ancient classics up to the great theologians of the 20th century. This group, vast as it is, has been on my mind from the start, since I had to define my work in Hindu-Christian studies and comparative theology in relation to such elders. But on the other side, there is the increasingly large number of younger scholars – multiple generations and half-generations, down into their 30s and 20s – who are right now sorting out how they will do their work; I am part of those past, senior generations from which they distinguish themselves. I needed to distinguish myself over against my elders, and I see that these younger scholars, faced with issues and possibilities unavailable to me, challenges arising for them in the academy and in the many churches and religious communities, are figuring out things in new ways that, while honoring the work done by me and others on the teaching team, also simply break new ground.

This is reason for hope, provided we realize how monumental the shift may be. On this point, I cannot help but quote from Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times for June 5: “The second trend we see in the Arab Spring is a manifestation of ‘Carlson’s Law,’ posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: ‘In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.’ As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is ‘moving down,’ closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.” 

Carlson’s law (which Friedman applies to China) could be wonderfully and cleverly applied to the Church hierarchy (try it out, just for the fun of it), but here I limit myself to remarking how important it is for us who are more established and senior in academe to encourage our younger colleagues – as we should also be encouraging our students – in doing their own work in their own way, and not being surprised when they do. (And of course, we need to listen to people who are not academics at all, but that would be another blog’s topic.) In any case, this week I was finding it good to be able to celebrate the new conversations that are arising now: a little more chaos, but also smarter, closer to the people, and by no means dumb.

Third, though, celebrating creative diversity doesn’t mean we can, or want to, evade the great challenge of linking multitudinous exciting scholarship to the great traditions of the Church, and to the Roman Catholic Church in particular. (Just two of us, out of 30 or so, were Catholic.) The various ways of study mentioned above do not easily translate into either traditional or orthodox or progressive or liberal Catholic positions, and simply do not fit into the terminology of Christology or ecclesiology or Trinitarian theology, etc. Much that was said was neither liberal nor conservative by the standards of most Catholic conversations.

It is not that these younger scholars are denying the divinity of Christ, or equating all religions relativistically, or rejecting the wisdom of Tradition, or debating standard ethical teachings of the churches – but rather that the questions asked and the research done do not necessarily even connect up with the things we Catholic theologians have tended to write about and argue about among ourselves.

We are in a brave new world of twenty-first century religious reflection; new questions are leading to new answers, and in some cases these simply pass by the debates that vex us so much, including those that occupy so many In All Things blogs. This is not the place to address the consequent theological issues in depth — particularly as my self-imposed 1000-word limit has been transgressed — but only to plead for some perspective. We can fight in the Church over liberal-conservative differences, argue for or against new answers to the old questions — and in the end find ourselves marginal to the intellectual ferment of some of the most thoughtful spiritual people in our time. That I wish us to plunge in, learn outside and not just inside the Church, need not mean catering, watering-down, secularizing, getting in trouble with the Vatican, etc. But it does mean that we need to remember that God is giving so much wonderful intellectual and spiritual energy to his people outside the Church. We need to learn also from them how to understand the truth and beauty of our Faith.

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PJ Johnston
7 years 7 months ago
It's never been clear to me from reading the advert for such events if students are welcome or have any realistic chance of getting accepted, but it sounds like great fun!  If it's not a likely forum for grad students, are there similar venues in which graduate student participation IS welcome?  I'm the only person who works around these methodological issues in my program and nobody on the faculty is really all that interested (with the exception of my advisor) or knows how to offer the salutary advice (no exceptions here).  But I find it reassuring that there is sustained discussion of these topics somewhere in the academy!
Reply: PJ, this particular seminar was for faculty only, but if you check the AAR website, there may be seminars open to grad students too. Of course, the AAR annual meeting accepts grad student paper proposals, and has events specifically to aid grad students in their careers. FX


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