TWW MAR-AAR Conference March 5-6 2015
The conference was held at Loyola University, Columbia Graduate Campus
8890 McGaw Road, Columbia, Md. 21045, March 5-6, 2015
Panel – “Theology Without Walls: Theology From the Ground Up,”
Chair: Jerry L. Martin, Philosophy, University of Colorado at Boulder
Christopher Denny, Theology and Religious Studies, St. John’s University
Jeremy R. Hustwit, Philosophy and Religion, Methodist University
Pim (Wilhelmus) Valkenberg, Religion and Culture, Catholic University of America
Jeffery D. Long, Religion and Asian Studies, Elizabethtown College
Hyo-Dong Lee, Comparative Theology, Drew Theological Seminary
Comment: John Thatamanil, Theology and World Religions, Union Theological Seminary
Report of TWW Panel at MAR-AAR 2015 in Maryland
Weather made it almost impossible for the meeting to take place. The conference organizers deftly folded the two-day schedule into one day and, with somewhat reduced attendance, the program proceeded without a hitch.
By luck or providence, John Thatamanil (Union Theological Seminary) gave a highly relevant, stimulating keynote address explaining, and making the case for, comparative theology. He spoke aptly of theologians as falling into two groups, which, with good humor, he characterized as “coop chickens” and “free-range chickens.” Comparative theologians — and “theologians without walls” — fall into the latter category. It is a talk usefully pitched both to those unfamiliar with comparative theology, who are trying to understand it, and those practicing comparative theology, who need help explaining and justifying it to skeptics (or dogmatics).
John kindly agreed to serve as a discussant on the Theology Without Walls panel. Weather and other “acts of God” prevented J. R. Hustwit (Methodist University), Hyo-Dong Lee (Drew University), and Jeffery D. Long (Elizabethtown College) from being present in person, but each had sent their comments in advance, and they were read first. My introductory comments are posted elsewhere.
I won’t try to summarize, which would be difficult indeed, but just mention briefly a few things that struck me. Ego was central to J. R. Hustwit’s interesting and varied journey, both how religious traditions had dealt with it (Daoism’s spontaneity, Christian kenosis, Yogic prakriti, Sufi fanaa, and especially Buddhist trishna) and how he personally, as a competitive sort of guy, had dealt with it. He also spoke warmly of the Indian practice of communal resonance through kirtan.
Hyo-Dong Lee’s journey has been shaped by “the theological quandary I was in,” relating both to a personal God and to the “philosophically non-theistic character” of East Asian thought. After a deep exploration of Hegel and the Daodejing, Hyo-Dong Lee discovered in his Korean roots Nongmun’s concept of qi as ultimate reality and the teachings of Donghak or Eastern Learning, which also has a conception of Ultimate Qi, a personal deity called Lord Heaven, who is both one and many, divine and creaturely, both within and outside the human self.
Jeffery Long’s reflections began with finding of a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita at a flea-market. As a boy, he had lost his father in a tragic death and had struggled over questions of death and afterlife. In the illustrated text, there was a picture of a deceased man surrounded by his mourning family, with the quote, “The wise lament neither the living nor the dead.” It was like seeing his own father and family — “the words spoke directly to my soul.” Later, he faced a quite different challenge. In transition from his Catholic youth to his embrace of Hinduism as he entered graduate school, he found himself taunted for his pluralism, as if showed a lack of spiritual and intellectual seriousness. One of his theological tasks has been to develop a serious, defensible form of pluralism.
Christopher Denny (St. John’s University) was present. “In life were a map, we could anticipate turning points in advance,” he began. “Our existential and religious journeys are more complicated, however.” He noted that, in post Vatican II ecumenical dialogue, each side always took as a given its own historic positions, locking them in to things they as individuals might well want to challenge. He recommended dialogue focused instead on “existential experiences of the partners.” His second turning point came while, as a Catholic teaching at a Catholic university, he was putting before the class the debates over exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. One guy, a poor student, didn’t hold back: It doesn’t matter; each individual picks the religion or non-religion of their choice; nobody else can second-guess that choice. Denny rejoined: So it’s just a matter of consumer choice, like pushing your card around the supermarket? Exactly! they all responded. Denny was appalled but later thought, “Doesn’t the kid have a point?” People are autonomous. They take different routes on the spiritual map. Unlike relativism, TWW does not assume that all religious preferences are equal in existential value. “The recognition of preferences and choices provides theology with a new starting place.”
Wilhelmus (Pim) Valkenberg (Catholic University of America) preceded Denny but made a striking statement that was directly relevant to questions of autonomy, preferences, and choice: “Sometimes we are not so much choosing as chosen.” That is a vital dimension of the spiritual life. Without a written version, I cannot do justice to his remarks but he presented a number of reflections based on his intensive experience with Catholic-Buddhist dialogue.
John Thatamanil praised the session for its focus on participants’ own spiritual and theological journeys: “We don’t do this enough.” He summed up with session with the comment: “It’s a blessing.”
~ Jerry L. Martin
AAR New-England Maritime 2015 Boston March 21, 2015
“Theology Without Walls: Theology from the Ground Up
Panelists spoke to “turning points” in their spiritual-theological journeys that have been informed or transformed by encounters with other religious traditions.
John Berthrong, Boston University
Christopher Denny, St. John’s University
Jon Paul Sydnor, Emmanuel College
Jon Weidenbaum, Berkeley College
Jerry L. Martin, University of Colorado at Boulder – Chair
Report on TWW Panel at AAR New-England Maritime 2015 in Boston
The meeting convened during the last lurch of a snow-struck winter. Only Brad Bannon (Harvard Divinity) was missing, due to a non-weather event. The topic was “Theology Without Walls: Theology from the Ground Up,” as it was at the earlier Midatlantic meeting. I introduced Theology from the Ground Up as one possible methodology for TWW. As an alternative to the quest for a synthesis of all the world’s great religions, we can proceed by putting together and trying to make sense of a variety of elements from our own studies, personal experiences, encounters, and epiphanies — the “divine shafts of light” that come our way. Whatever nods we make to larger traditions and creeds, that is how most of us proceed in our own spiritual and theological journeys. A copy of my “Opening Remarks” can be found elsewhere on this site.
The question I posed to the panel was: “What were two or three important turning-points in your spiritual-theological journey that were in some way informed or transformed by an encounter with an idea, text, thinker, person, practice, or whatever it might be, outside your home tradition? And what did you make of those encounters?”
John Berthrong (Boston University) described his vivid sense, as a teenager raised in Oklahoma, sailing into Hong Kong Bay with his family and their belongings, on a glorious afternoon, encountering more people in one city than lived in his whole state – and a whole new civilization. From that time forward, he studied East Asian civilization and religion, especially the neo-Confucian tradition in its many varieties – more varieties than I, as a non-specialist, could readily note. His impressive list of publications would, of course, give the interested reader a start on understanding the journey of this productive and distinguished scholar.
Jon Paul Sydnor (Emmanuel College) described several turns, growing up in a Presbyterian Church in Richmond, becoming a rationalist (a positivist!) in college, discovering that philosophy’s insufficiency, finding – by attending a Unitarian service after which “now I want to go to church” – that “I really was a Christian,” later broadening into Eastern traditions, especially Ramanuga (on which he has written an excellent book, a comparison with Schleiermacher) and, more recently, Buddhism. He also learned something about theology from two scientists he knows. The first was working on the cluster of issues settled by the discovery of the Boson particle. Instead of being pleased, he was dejected because it had been a very exciting field. The second reported his hypothesis had been disconfirmed – and was thrilled. “Now we have to figure out why it failed.” Success in thinking is not finding a final resting place, but being constantly challenged and renewed. We shouldn’t think so much of theology from the ground up as theology going sideways, where life and inquiry thought never reach a final resolution, where the journey is the destination.
Jon Weidenbaum (Berkeley College) begin life in a rather secular Jewish home. As a teenager, he discovered Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which taught him to attend to the moment “as Adam early in the morning” (Whitman) and to appreciate each thing in its tathata or “suchness.” Still, he found in Kierkegaard that our most uncomfortable moods can also be revelatory, as our religious lives “crash against” our limits instead of overcoming them, and that there is value in “becoming a self as opposed to self-transcendence.” Similarly, Unamuno champions “the grinding between eschatological hope and reason rather than their easy reconciliation.” Then he encountered William James who inspired the importance of doing justice to the texture of our lived experience and to cultivating the “morally strenuous” form of existence that led that philosopher to the idea of a finite god, with whom we partner in the struggle against negative forces — an effort also explored in the Jewish Kabblistic tradition of an inwardly fractured deity as seen in the shevurah or “fracturing of the vessels.” He mentioned influences from the rich variety of Hindu theological traditions as well as from Dewey’s non-reductionist naturalism. He is not really worried about the jumbled diversity of these outlooks. A unified overview is less important than being true to the disparate aspects of the spiritual life.
Christopher Denny (St. John’s University) observed that “if life were a map, we could anticipate turning points in advance.” “Our existential and religious journeys are more complicated, however.” He noted that, in post Vatican II ecumenical dialogue, each side always took as a given its own historic positions, locking them in to things they as individuals might well want to challenge. He recommended dialogue focused instead on “existential experiences of the partners,” and gave an example of how Christians and Buddhists might fruitfully explore the radical contingency of the world. He then descried the time, as a Catholic teaching at a Catholic university, he was putting before the class the debates over exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. One guy, a poor student, didn’t hold back: It doesn’t matter; each individual picks the religion or non-religion of their choice; nobody else can second-guess that choice. Denny rejoined: So it’s just a matter of consumer choice, like pushing your shopping cart around the supermarket? But instead of recoiling that this pointed rejoinder, they embraced it: Exactly! We make our own choices, and who’s to judge? Denny was appalled but later thought, “Doesn’t the kid have a point?” People are autonomous. They take different routes on the spiritual map. Unlike relativism, TWW does not assume that all religious preferences are equal in existential value. “The recognition of preferences and choices provides theology with a new starting place.”
Mary (I think), a pastor, pointed out that panelists had mainly spoken of their encounter with ideas, and wondered if there were particular spiritual practices that had influenced them. Several panelists talked about the importance of meditation, and I talked about prayer. And time was up.
As a personal report, I also had one of those providential encounters such meetings make possible. Richard Oxenberg (Endicott College?) missed our panel because of duty elsewhere, but he and I had a long discussion about his spiritual journey and mine – talk from both mind and heart — that was a real blessing.
Report on TWW Panel at the Midwest AAR 2015
On the lovely campus of Ohio Northern University, we held a plenary session after dinner with a large and responsive audience. I began by presenting the basic argument for Theology Without Walls, a version of which is posted on this forum.
Peter Feldmeier, University of Toledo, expressed a thoughtful utique et non: Yes, insofar as “God transcends conceptuality,” “different religious often appear to be describing the same kinds of transformations and end-game,” religions can complement each other, and “mutual belonging” grows among those who deeply study another tradition. His own spiritual life has been informed by Wu-forms of Daoism and Buddhist notions of anatta. No, insofar as a universal perspective undermines faith and results in contradictory metaphysical commitments, the scope of TWW is unmanageable and suggests a metanarrative, and fences are valuable: “If everything is up for grabs, then one has nothing to grab onto, no religious form.”
Kurt Anders Richardson, McGill University, put the discussion in the context of global developments such as “the massive phenomena of dis-affiliation with religious institutions,” boundary-crossing, “basing one’s life plans on personal conviction rather than associational expectations” – all related to “highly differentiated selves.” As a result, “whether inside or outside religious institutions, the human being has become an agent of spirituality/religiousness as self-care.” In this context, TWW asserts that “scriptures and other source texts of religion are the common property of humanity.” And TWW must draw on “the combination of confessional, interreligious and contemporary engagements with the reality of God in the world,” “exploring and explicating promise and fulfillment, wherever that may be found.”
Paul Knitter, Union Theological Seminary, was not able to attend in person but sent a set of issues for TWW to address, such as postmodern concerns about “situatedness” which he does not agree with but required a hermeneutics to deal with; the extent to which interreligious dialogue can evolve into TWW; the challenges TWW poses for comparative theology and vice versa; the danger of “an individualized, privatized understanding of religion”; the vexed problem of criteria; the need for a theologian to work within a particular religious community; the potential of a broader kind of comparative theology, “theology writ large,” to evolve into TWW; and “multiple religious belonging” as “necessarily and promisingly” involving TWW.
I responded with some reflections on the need to think less in terms of block phenomena called “religions” and more in terms of what Wilfrid Cantwell Smith called “religion in the singular,” a vast repository of spiritual data and resources available to us all. It would be a mistake to let postmodern or methodological concerns block our access to it. Whatever we owe to our communities, it can’t be less than the fullest Reality we can find.
~ Jerry L. Martin