I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving attending the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL).
Approximately 10,700 members, partners and friends gathered in the massive halls of McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago to hear and give papers; to see old friends; to interview for jobs as professors, librarians, grant administrators, editors and deans of seminaries; and to visit an exhibit hall that scores of publishers transform into the largest religious bookstore in the world. If you care about religion, there is nothing like it.
There were papers with challenging titles like “How Mourning through Facebook Has Transformed the Grieving Process,” “Zorba the Buddha: Embodiment, Sacred Space and Globalization in the Osho International Meditation Resort” and “The Achaemenid Royal Iconography and the Implementation of Heavenly Order on Earth.”
This year many of my former teachers were being honored, and I spent most of my time at those sessions. My dear friend and master’s degree thesis adviser, Gordon Kaufman, died last year, so a group of his students spent an afternoon considering his effect on theology and on our lives. Kaufman proposed that we are biohistorical beings who engage in theology as “imaginative construction” and that the divine mystery can be pictured as the evolutionary process of “serendipitous creativity” that we experience in the universe.
A panel discussed Sarah Coakley’s new Systematic Theology, which arises out of her contemplative prayer life as an Anglican priest/theologian.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza won the Martin Marty award for advancing public understanding of religion. She discussed how her experience as a refugee fleeing communism in the ruins of World War II informed her work as a pioneering feminist in the 1970s.
Harvey Cox attempted to answer the question of why so much religious creativity comes from the margins, from communities of oppressed people rather than from places of power.
Rather than address my paper or list everything I heard, I want to share one theory that was in the air at the conference. Serene Jones, president of Union Seminary in New York City, said that simultaneously, we live in a springtime of liberation from old patterns of oppression but are also drowning in a flood of change as we feel economic pressures threaten our survival (and certainly make religion seem less important).
Denominations like ours that founded the AAR/SBL have advocated values for decades that have led to fundamental social changes concerning the status of people of color, women, sexual minorities and relationships with other religions. While this effort to change society has been wildly successful, these religious institutions are faltering. Jones persuasively argues that we need to build a new house, new institutions that can spiritually feed people facing the challenges of today. This is exactly the work that I see the churches of our town engaged in here. We are at the frontline of trying to create something new out of the depths of our religious tradition.
Six years ago at the AAR/SBL it amazed me that no one was talking about declining participation in American Christianity. Now I feel we are part of a larger conversation about how the church can reach a new generation. We have a great message. I’m looking forward to our work together transforming the world.
The Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Los Altos.