AAR 2020 TWW Planning Meeting Notes

Christopher Denny – St. John’s University
Theology without Walls – Planning Meeting – December 3, 2020
American American of Religion

I think that yesterday’s joint session between TWW and SBNR scholars marks a watershed in the young history of the Theology without Walls initiative. For the first time that I can recall we devoted an AAR session to hear from a scholarly group outside of our own that also self-consciously rejects theological and communal constructs as a precondition for its scholarship. The SBNR panelists perceptively honed in on some of the assumptions that TWW has made, often implicitly. Paul Bramadat located TWW inquiries in a tradition of liberal pluralist and mainline Protestant theology that was disproportionately represented in the academy, relative to the affiliations of its member churches. Reading Jonathan Z. Smith’s collection of essays On Teaching Religion, I came across Smith’s claim about the academic field of religious studies as he claimed, “Tillich remains the unacknowledged theoretician of our whole enterprise.”1 I caught the scent of TWW’s Tilichean heritage in the challenge Bramadat, Katherine Jones, and Jeffrey Kripal posed to our project. What do we do with those Cascadian naturalists who don’t acknowledge ontological or epistemological priorities to which theology, even a theology without walls, defers? What about those seekers whose individual pragmatism is resistant even to the nomenclature of ultimacy or philosophy?

Answers to these questions are not within the scope of my remarks during this planning meeting, but I am heartened that we have new scholarly dialogue partners from whom we can learn and possibility collaborate on future projects. My goal with these comments is to raise the tactical issues of TWW’s public relations and its future audience. As the number of potential TWW fora grows, so does the need to make deliberate choices about prioritizing our target audiences, of which there are more than one. I do not mean to be crass in raising this issue, but Kripal’s very perceptive comment about the huge disparity of material resources possessed by traditional religious communities and those possessed by emerging ones cannot be ignored because a similar difference in resources exists among the institutions in which TWW scholars work. The COVID pandemic has exacerbated the financial pressure most colleges and universities face and those of us who work in humanities and social science fields are not generally on the list of essential disciplines that are being prioritized. There are endowed chairs and external support granted to scholars working in confessional fields at religiously-affiliated schools. But where are the chairs or fellowships for TWW scholars to engage in this research program (to use John Thatamanil’s phrase from this morning)? Will these resources emerge at a time when much of the broader public in the United States has turned against higher education as a bastion of elites? Wesley Wildman noted that TWW is the only theological school whose natural home is the academy, but much evidence indicates that the academy, outside of its elite representative institutions, has fallen on hard times. Linda Mercadante noted the challenges.

This leads me to the question of the prioritization of TWW audiences, which I will pose as “Sages or Scholars?” Each group has a different type of discourse and different institutional homes. Sages I define as those who engage in what we could call first-order discourse, giving accounts of encounters with transcendence, or ultimacy, or Allah. The SBNR panelists gave us a road map of where to look for more first-order discourses in our current spiritual marketplace, discourses outside the classically-sanctioned traditions that are the object of study in the regnant paradigm of comparative theology. By contrast, the “Scholars” are the academic methodologists who are prominent in the American Academy of Religion. Their métier is the second-order discourse and their passion is taxonomic classification. They include both those sympathetic to the claims of first-order discourse and those who seek to deconstruct and subjugate it within non-religious discourses and fields of study. Their names include Ninian Smart, Craig Prentiss, Donald Wiebe, Russell McCutcheon, and Timothy Fitzgerald. In our contemporary context, I note a pronounced difference in the gender representation among scholars on one hand, and sages on the other.

Whether you use the terms “sages” and “scholars” or “theology” and “religious studies” is not a defining issue for the question of prioritizing audiences. Note my term here is prioritization, not an either-or choice. TWW can engage both audiences, but with finite amounts of time and money, practical choices need to be made. Should TWW focus most of its attention on listening to the testimony of sages, to provide documentation of encounters of theological activity happening beyond often-reified classic traditions that, in the economic First World at least, are losing their purchase on the social imagination? If TWW moves in that direction we will need to think about an outreach beyond the academy as currently constituted. The price for that choice, however, will be a heightening of suspicions by what Jerry has called the “secular magisterium” of the academy, but that might happen anyway. Should TWW instead seek to engage the scholars first and foremost? If we do that my bet is that the elite members of the AAR, including the editors of its scholarly journal, might open platforms to us, but there might be a cost in having to subordinate first-order discourses to allay the fears of scholars in religious studies departments at secular institutions who are already suspicious of the presence of evangelical scholars and presses in the Academy.

1 Jonathan Z. Smith, Teaching Religion, ed. Christopher I. Lehrich (New York: Oxford UP, 2013), 54.

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