Mid-Atlantic AAR – March 16 – 17, 2017

Mid-Atlantic 2017 AAR Proposal

Theology Without Walls: Modes of Engagement with the Divine

Panel Discussion:    Christopher D. Denny – St. John’s University
Jerry L. Martin – formerly University of Colorado at Boulder
Rory D. McEntee – Drew University
Peter Savastano – Seton Hall University

Contacts:       Rory McEntee – rmcentee21@gmail.com
                        Jerry Martin – jerry.martin@verizon.net

Theology Without Walls (TWW) has been described as doing theology beyond the borders of any particular religious or wisdom tradition. In its fullest sense, theology is not merely a single faith or confession seeking understanding; it is all spiritual insight, wherever found and however acquired, seeking understanding.

From a theological standpoint, why not seek to utilize whatever insights available into the nature of Ultimate Reality and rhythms of Divine life? Why inscribe our theology within a single wisdom tradition?

TWW differs from other forms of comparative theology in precisely this way. The exploratory goals of TWW and comparative theology are in many ways overlapping. However, comparative theology’s insistence on claiming a specific theological tradition as one’s “home,” from which one can reach out to other traditions while remaining rooted in one’s own, is seen as too restrictive for TWW. It is not that one can not engage TWW from such a perspective—that is, being rooted in a single faith tradition—but one is not required to.

The ultimate goal is not just intellectual. John Thatamanil speaks of TWW as “the quest for interreligious wisdom,” a quest which requires orienting ourselves to ultimate reality both cognitively and affectively in the most comprehensive way possible. Ideally, TWW facilitates engagement with divine reality, more fully and truly understood.

This panel will explore transreligious avenues of access to the divine reality and modes of engagement. The hypothesis to be considered is that avenues to the divine, evidences about the divine, and engagements with the divine are closely intertwined.  The nature of ultimate reality determines proper comportment or orientation towards it and proper actions, attitudes, disciplines, and engagement.  At the same time, our experiences of and engagement with the divine are sources of insight into divine nature. Confessional theologies provide authoritative correlations of these aspects of the spiritual life. Without such guidelines, how is the transreligious theologian to assay such correlations?

TWW works to broaden our understanding of the lived experience of wisdom as it crosses religious boundaries. As new modes of religious life develop, emergent avenues, evidences, and engagements with ultimate reality are born. TWW can reflect on, dialogue with, and embody these spiritual impulses in ways not always open to comparative theologians, bringing both insider and outsider perspectives to bear in proposing discerning correlations and in synthesizing insights into divine reality as experienced by humanity.


Panel Abstracts

Christopher Denny:

“Sacrificial Multiple Religious Belonging: Vedic and Christian Test Cases”

One major factor in debates about secularization and religiosity in contemporary sociology centers upon the methodology used to determine affiliation.  Is self-identification sufficient for establishing religious belonging, or should researchers search for markers of religious behavior such as participation in worship services, personal prayer, or knowledge of scriptures and theology?  When examining the phenomenon of self-identified “multiple religious belonging” this question becomes even more acute.  This essay will explain how theologies of sacrifice in Vedic and Christian traditions can articulate intellectual frameworks for multiple religious belonging that are more tangible than definitions of affiliation that rely only upon self-identification.  The functional focus on ritual also provides more sociological content than alternative theological explanations of multiple religious belonging that only appeal to essentialist assertions regarding supernatural providence or internalized altruism (e.g. the categorical imperative, Gefühl, “anonymous Christians,” “reality-centeredness”).  I will argue that Vedic ritual and ancient Christian Eucharistic celebration provide models for reconceiving multiple religious belonging so that communal participation in sacrificial rites from different traditions embodies a visible commitment to self-transcendence that makes claims to multiple religious belonging more credible.


Jerry Martin

“The Interactive Logic of Engagement with the Divine in a Transreligious Context”

This paper will explore transreligious avenues of access to the divine reality and modes of engagement. Avenues to the divine, evidences about it, and engagements with it are interrelated.  The nature of the divine determines proper actions, attitudes, disciplines, and engagement.  So too, our experiences of and engagement with the divine are sources of insight into the divine nature.

Usually, comparative theology is rooted in a home confession, which provides authoritative correlations of these aspects of the spiritual life.  By contrast, Theology Without Walls does not privilege or presuppose a “home” confession.  Without confessional guidelines, how is the transreligious theologian to assay such correlations?  This paper will explore ways theological methods from one’s home tradition can be adapted and extended beyond confessional terrain, as well as well as what non-confessional resources homo religiosis — the human person open to the divine — can bring to the task.


Rory McEntee

“Multiple Religious Belonging or No Belonging? Discernment, Religious Depth, and TWW as Spiritual Practice”

As scholars and the public struggle and grope towards understanding emergent forms of religiosity (multiple-religious belonging, spiritual but not religious, interspirituality), notions of discernment, religious depth, and spiritual practice often figure prominently in both defining and assessing these forms. Some form of commitment to a particular religious tradition is often considered the appropriate type of discernment concerning religious depth. Spiritual but not religious is seen as an amorphous searching for something vague and undefined, beholden in many cases to a rejection of institutions and the drifting whims of an immature ego. This categorization has been earned through ethnographic work among younger people.

I will argue however that ethnographic understandings which fail to take into account the most mature elements (and practitioners) of emerging spiritualities are bound to miss the most important developments, just as similar methodologies would in studying a religious tradition. Further complicating this model, I will point out problems with correlating religious depth with belonging to a particular religious tradition. While scholarly tempting, this can lead to blind spots and neglect of creative theological resources. As a result, I hope to point out ways to allow for religious belonging to be conceived more broadly. TWW could then play an intrinsic and needed role in the unfolding of emerging spiritualities, as a locus of the depth and commitment needed for mature theological reflection. Along the way I will look at religious experience, perennialism, practitioners of emergent forms of religiosity, and post-colonial considerations.


Peter Savastano

“Can You Dig More than One 60 foot Well in a Lifetime?”

An Auto-ethnography of Engagement with the Divine, Dispatches from the Field!

Huston Smith, the scholar and practitioner of various religious and spiritual traditions, who died on December 30, 2016, said in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, given in the late 90s:

Mine has been a rather peculiar history, and I don’t want to leave the impression that one is in any way spiritually ahead because of this kind of incorporation. I liked what a teacher in India once said to me. If you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill one 60-foot well than 10 6-foot wells. And generally speaking, I think a kind of smorgasbord cafeteria, choosing from here and there is not productive. So I would not at all put what’s happened, I feel, to be feasible for me in any way ahead of where I might be if I had devoted my entire spiritual exercises to Christianity.

Over the course of a lifetime of deep engagement with various religious and sacred traditions of the world, I too have heard from various teachers about the dangers of digging 10, 6-foot wells rather than just one well, 60 feet deep. Perhaps it will be for others to judge in the end, but this has not at all been my experience. Rather, I have been lead to follow a path by the Divine Spirit that has involved digging more than one 60 foot well over a lifetime and I’m still digging. Taking an auto-ethnographic approach, this essay explores what it means to deeply immerse oneself in various religious and sacred traditions over extended periods of time, and finding a meaningful pattern in this process. Also explored will be some of the metaphors that best describe this pattern based on personal firsthand experience. Is it a “spiral”, a “labyrinth”, or a “language”? How does the Divine operate in one particular life and what does it mean to do theology without walls or to do theology with walls that gratefully have many large windows and doors for one to leave when the signal comes to move on to another religious or spiritual tradition or practice or, even more challenging, none at all?


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