AAR/SBL 2015: It’s Bigger on the Inside

I was asked yesterday by a friend if the American Historical Association’s annual meeting is like the AAR/SBL.  Before I came to this conference, I thought it had to be sort of the same.  You know, lots of tweed, people who look like they could use fresh air, the occaisional panicked looking job candidate, and playing spot-my-historian-heroes to pass the time when I am not trolling the book exhibit. And so far, there is a lot of that.  Except the book exhibit (haven’t been there yet).  And I don’t recognize a lot of names/faces. The AAR/SBL, however, seems much bigger.  Much bigger.  Maybe I haven’t been to a conference of this size in a while or maybe I have been to a lot of AHA meetings, but the annual history conference (that coincidentally meets in Atlanta as well) doesn’t seem so massive.

I am impressed with the number of sessions/groups/panels that there are at this conference which brings both the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature and some associated groups together every year.  What I have seen and heard is impressive.  As one not versed in theology, I must confess some papers are bit over my head.  I, however, appreciate the questions asked.  I will have to digest it all, but I hope I can come away from this experience with much that will help my own work.

In the morning, I attended the Vatican II Studies Group session, Catholicism vis-à-vis Modernity and Beyond: Religious Liberty, Other Faiths and “Signs of the Times.”  I enjoyed Francesca Cadeddu’s paper on John Courtney Murray and religious freedom (Debate on Religious Freedom in the Light of Dignitatis Humanae and Its Reception).  I also found Nancy Dallavalle’s presentation The Risk of Catholicity: Dignitatis Humanae Comes to the Synod on the Family quite thought provoking.  Dallavalle talked about a culture of risk which exists now.  By this she means the real and perceived understanding or a world at risk.  She pushed her audience to consider how a Catholic outlook can exist with this outlook.  More specifically she states:

Dignitatis Humanae (1965), particularly its dyad “freedom” and “truth,” attempts to position the person vis-à-vis the state, for a church that must engage across all variety of political systems. This paper will introduce the notion of “risk” as a complicating factor in this dynamism, as perceptions of risk (whether from non-state violent actors; or economic policies or sanctions; or juridical actions) drive us to both join and sunder our community-making relationships. Bringing the immediate context of DH into dialogue with the discussion surrounding both “religious freedom” in the U.S. and the upcoming Synod on the Family, this paper will thus examine the rhetoric of “risk” as it proposes a theological perspective on the inner resilience of “catholicity.” from Dallavalle’s abstract

The other highlight (and I almost didn’t go) was the plenary , Racial Injustice and Religious Response from Selma to Ferguson with Imani Perry, Princeton University, Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary, and Ruby Nell Sales, SpiritHouse Project, Atlanta, GA. This description is from the program abstract:

The annual meeting focuses on “Valuing the Study of Religion,” which includes pondering how religion has been valued—and devalued—in public spaces. Addressing a variety of social spaces from the legislature to the streets, this panel analyzes religious responses to racial injustice. In 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, attending to injustice seems more morally urgent than ever. Considering both the historical trajectory that led us to this painful moment and the religious resources activists have employed, this conversation brings together notable voices to offer their assessments of the contemporary situation. Ruby Sales, the human rights activist and public theologian who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and later founded a non-profit organization dedicated to “racial, economic, and social justice,” will join Cornel West, distinguished religion scholar and democratic intellectual, in a conversation with Professor Imani Perry, a celebrated scholar of African American Studies and Law who has written eloquently about racial injustice and “pathways to freedom, equality, and enriched democracy.

I have lots of thoughts and reaction to this plenary, but I think sitting on them a bit longer would serve me well before I start making trite comments.  It was a powerful plenary and I am glad I went.  In passing, however, West and Sales engaged a growing generational debate about the new and evolving movement for racial justice (Black Lives Matter).  This has to be unpacked.

[Look at me using conference language.]

Tomorrow is another day and I haven’t even visited the Book Exhibit yet.  Who knows what new worlds I will find there? Apparently there are two levels!


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