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The American Academy of Religion, in its statement of purpose, calls itself “an inclusive learned society and professional association in the field of the study of religion. The Academy [we are told] fosters teaching, research, scholarship, and critical awareness about the study of religion as a humanistic field of learning.” The AAR was formed in 1964, grafted onto the stock of an organization called the National Association of Biblical Instructors, which had its own beginnings in 1909. Curious about the treatment of religion in the university and about the functioning of this learned society, I decided to attend its Annual Meeting, to be held in November of 1991 in Kansas City. Never having been a member of the organization, I came not as a participant but simply to observe and (as will be seen) to take notes.

I made no preparations for the convention beyond a perfunctory attempt to gain some historical perspective by paging through Volume One (1933) of the Journal of the National Association of Biblical Instructors. A report on the Twenty-third Annual Meeting, held in 1932, showed that it was a modest two-day affair, including half-a-dozen addresses with such titles as “Recent Excavations in Palestine,” “The Bible and Modern Education,” “A School Principal’s Reactions to the Problems of Biblical Instruction,” and so forth. From the treasurer’s report I learned that the entire budget for NABI in the preceding fiscal year was $376. A note in the same issue from JNABI’s editor Ismar Peritz announced, “We do not share the views of those who hold, openly or tacitly, that the Bible and the religion it reveals are antiquated; we believe that biblical religion as culminating in the life, teachings, and regenerative power of Jesus is the only solution of the problems of universal citizenship.” 

Sixty years, it is fair to say, have wrought some changes in the association. The 1991 meeting was attended by more than 5,000 professors and graduate students; a 184-page program listed over 400 presentations in 59 program units; an $850,000 capital campaign is under way. Yet the ways in which the AAR has expanded from its taproot are not simply a matter of size and structure. If we may take Mr. Peritz’s opinions as a benchmark, there has been some shifting of deeper allegiances as well. 

On arrival at the Kansas City Convention Center, I was issued a thick book containing abstracts of the papers to be presented at the meeting. These abstracts served to guide one’s choice of session (as each time-slot offered as many as eighteen separate options), to help identify the speaker’s principal interest in the problem at hand, and in more than a few instances to corroborate the evidence of one’s ears. As might be expected at a conference of scholars, not all arguments were equally easy to follow. 

In the first afternoon of the conference I attended a session on the theme of “Violence, Victimization, and Social Control.” The notion of religion as an instrument of social coercion was hardly restricted to this group; indeed, it served as one of the leitmotifs of the meeting: in its overt realizations, as in the paper titled “Exorcism as a Means of Christian Social Control,” and in its covert forms, as discussed in “HIV-Antibody Testing as an Exercise of Socio-political Power.” At the present session my attention was arrested by the thesis of James McBride of Fordham, which be epitomized as follows:

War, Battering, and Sports: The Gulf Between American Men and the “Other”

The outbreak of armed conflict in the Middle East coincided with a marked increase in the cases of battering of women. As the day on which the number of such cases annually reach their peak, Super Bowl Sunday witnessed a great outpouring of “renewed patriotism,” befitting the culmination of the first week of war. The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between the virile asceticism of character ethics and the psychic economy of the androcentric social order manifest in war, battering, and territorial games. In particular the analysis will demonstrate the intimate bond between the renewal of totemic identity and the ritual sacrifice of the “other,” be they women, people of color, or religious “fanatics,” by drawing upon the theoretical work of Theodor Adorno, Rene Girard, and Georges Bataille.

Our male-dominant culture, according to Dr. McBride, has a bone-deep terror of the “other,” all that which is not itself, which it must destroy in fact or symbolically sacrifice by means of ritual. The terms “enemy” and “woman” are interchangeable: “The enemy must be female or must be made so,” we were told. Women are battered; male enemies must be gelded first. The speaker confessed that in listening to reports on the Gulf War be noticed that “castration images” were so common that it could not be a coincidence. He passed around a political cartoon showing Saddam Hussein waist deep in a pool of oil (“Or feces?” he conjectured): evidence that the legless Hussein was castrated, and thus feminized, in the eyes of our political culture. The connection of war with sports was adduced through an analysis of the vocabulary by which the leaders of Operation Desert Storm explained their craft; Gen. Schwarzkopf, for example, referred to his Kuwait invasion plan as a variation on the “Hail Mary pass play” in football. Dr. Naomi Goldenberg’s insights into the totemic structure of this sport were presented to convince the skeptical that there’s more to it than meets the eye. Each football play begins with a birthing ritual in which the quarterback puts his hands between the splayed legs of the center, directly beneath the anus. When the pigskin is delivered through the center’s legs into the player-midwife’s arms it becomes “live.” (At this point there were bums of astonishment and assent from the audience.) The key in this exercise of male narcissism is “ball possession.” One tries to penetrate the opponents’ defense; to fail is to fumble is to become “ball-less,” to be gelded. Football, like patriarchal culture generally, “creates women” so as to annihilate them as the enemy: like war itself, it is a ritualized realization of the male need for an “incestual relationship to the castrated mother.” Applause for McBride was long and ardent.

More explicit in her religious concerns was Dr. Anne Hunter, who spoke in the same session. She identified herself as “coming from the battered woman movement,” and admitted that she had “clawed her way out of an abusive marriage.” Heterosexual gender norms enshrine male privacy and female publicity, it was argued; nurses tend to be in full view all day while doctors work behind closed doors. Male scrutiny of the female abets and justifies violence against women and strips the abused of defenses. Dr. Hunter discussed Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a prison design in which back-lit cells are arranged in a circle around a darkened hub or core, from which the guards can see their prisoners’ every movement at each instant, while the captives never know whether or not the hostile eye is trained on them. The Judeo-Christian doctrine of the all-seeing male God is a barrier to women’s freedom, she explained, for it makes women into prisoners of Bentham’s panopticon; they languish in cells on whose walls the threat “GOD SEES YOU” is permanently painted. Far from being consoling, biblical expressions such as “the hairs of your head are numbered,” “from my mother’s womb you know me,” “he holds me as the apple of his eye,” extend the normative male gaze into the most private part of women’s lives. How did this come to pass? “When we live away from our internal erotic movements, we become prey to external constraint”⁠—an elegant inversion of the Western moral imagination. Hunter’s remarks also found an enthusiastic reception.

So did another presentation:

An Exploration of Quilt Design as a Reasoning Process

This paper explores the idea that quilt pattern designs are one way women reason about life, quilting a way women communicate their thoughts to one another and arrive at communal consensus regarding an understanding of the world, and quilts themselves the sustaining, functional way women convey their consensus to others.
Quilt design is a method of moral reasoning created by women in a survival-adaptive response to sexist culture that discourages them from culture-recognized intellectual achievement, and quilting itself is a process by which women come to a consensus regarding truth⁠—a way which, though often dismissed as “craft,” offers the intriguing possibility of serving as a door to deep levels of communication and covenant not normally accessed in the contemporary world.

This address, given by Brenda Basher of the University of Southern California in the section devoted to Arts, Literature, and Religion, left at least one listener somewhat unpersuaded. Yet it could hardly be categorized as eccentric by AAR standards. The imagery of loom and needle was much in evidence in Kansas City in the discourse of feminists, and as roughly a quarter (ninety-three, by my count) of all the papers were feminist in approach, this made for a palpable impact. The language of the “web” forks into the token of the subversive female webster/weaver and that of the female spider/spinner, both potent icons for contemporary feminists.

Not that the use of the term “feminist” is without problems. At the same conference I learned that feminism has identified itself too closely with the concerns of white middle-class women. Black women have already erected womanist, and Hispanic women “mujerista,” theologies of their own. It seems not to be clear where this declamation of feminism is to end, but I noticed that most speakers used three adjectives (feminist/womanist/mujerista) to avoid the charge of exclusivism. It was in fact during a panel discussion on Teaching the Womanist Idea that Dr. Toinette Eugene identified “African-American quilting” as a distinct and valuable enterprise and source of self-definition, presumably in an effort to resist the hegemony of Anglo-feminist quilting theorists. Eugene was concerned to describe a “practical praxis circle” in which the personal experience of black women can be used as a ground of their spiritual empowerment.

Eugene’s co-panelist Katie Cannon expressed her intention to depict “one small part of the tabula rasa of inclusivity” in the womanist mode, insisting that true liberation is based on the conviction that “orthodox truth not be the norm of our daily lives.” Religion has a central place in Cannon’s scheme, although she distanced herself from “our dominating and chauvinistic Christian heritage” (it was, as it happened, the Feast of Christ the King that day), and vowed to “deconstruct this ideology which led us into complicity with our own oppression.” It was noticeable that Cannon and Eugene both showed a lively sense of humor with regard to their own theorizing⁠—a feature that was not greatly to the fore in other sections of the meeting. Cannon was especially successful at evoking audience reaction, drawing several “Amens!” from her listeners. She attributed this response to the effect of erons, a term coined by her Episcopal Divinity School colleague Carter Heyward, and explained as “particles of passion generated whenever we do our pedagogy.”

Feeling the need for a walk and for coffee, I skipped the later presentations in this section and made my way through the Convention Center to the refreshment area. As with any large convention, there was an exhibition hall filled with vendor displays, belonging in this case to publishing houses and software companies. As with any large convention, there was an air of professional chirpiness exuded by the salespeople and one of cautious bonhomie by their customers. While almost everyone was dressed in business attire, the number of beards and thick glasses made it obvious that this was an academic gathering. I was amused to see two Shriners passing through the lobby, complete with fezzes, clearly having strayed from some Kansas City conclave of their own. Viewed through the AAR lens, they might have arrived from Andromeda. As it happened I bumped into an acquaintance, an Old Testament scholar, who was attending sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature, which meets concurrently with the AAR each year. He assumed I too was in town for the SBL, and when told otherwise rolled his eyes and sighed. The SBL made an injudicious alliance with the AAR some years ago, he explained, and for financial reasons can’t go its own way⁠—much like a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage for fear of starving on her own. When I related the gist of the papers I had heard earlier he showed no surprise, but pointed out that there were subgroups within the AAR that had managed to insulate themselves from the general enthusiasms and preserve more traditional standards of scholarship; the sections dealing with Asian and North American religions were given as examples, as was a group concerned with Roman Catholic modernism.

It was to a session of the last-mentioned group that I went next, where a discussion of a paper by Joseph Komonchak of the Catholic University of America was underway. Aside from diction of a rather exquisite political correctness and some tittering at the mention of the name “Ratzinger” (whom Fr. Komonchak invoked respectfully), there was little to distinguish this section from a faculty seminar in a conventional university setting. A sober debate took place about the impact of Vatican II on Catholic perceptions of ecclesial continuity. Interesting arguments were advanced regarding a side issue, the origin of popular Marian piety in the nineteenth century: was it a “grassroots” phenomenon, or the market creation of European religious publishing houses, or (as one scholar argued) a stratagem of the hierarchy to reinforce the submissive role of women? No consensus was reached.

One of the less exotic-sounding listings in the meeting program was the Theology and Religious Reflection section. The paper titles, however, suggested that these words too were spoken with a distinct AAR accent: “Existentialism and Feminist Liberation Theology,” “Postmodern Multiplicity and Feminist Responsibility,” “Developing a Feminist Rule of Faith.” More abstruse, perhaps, was the offering of Diane MacDonald of the Iliff School of Theology:

Body as (Ex)tension or (Re)tension: From “Serpentine Wanderer” to “La Mère qui jouit”

Although Mark C. Taylor’s “body” metaphor of “serpentine wanderer” avoids the closure of the Cartesian and Husserlian selves booked to a “transcendental signified,” Taylor’s “wanderer” reverses the prioritizing of spirit over flesh in modern theologies, valorizing a flesh devoid of spirit, thereby collapsing the tensions of an irreducible “other.” His metaphorical “body,” then, is an (ex)tension of the phallocentric and phallocratic technology of modern theology, now confined to a two-dimensional wordplay indifferent to the cries and joys of a richly signed wor(l)d.
In contrast, Julia Kristev’s “body” metaphor of “la mère qui jouit” retains a fluid identity responsive to the irreducible “other” within both her internal and external relations. This “body” of (re)tension unleashes the powers of a heterogeneous semiotic into the ordering processes of symbolic language, thereby transgressing modern dualistic thinking, and leading to an ontology of relatedness infused with a praxis of “care.”

It must be confessed that I found MacDonald’s own explication more serpentine than jouissante. Were I forced to decode her thesis in monosyllables, I would render it thus: gay men see things in more black and white terms than do “bi” girls. The broader theological implications of her proposal continued to elude me even as she spoke, but the project of gender-based deconstruction was hardly unfamiliar by this time. Across the board at the AAR, for the speakers I heard address the issue, the notion of sexuality as an essentially plastic phenomenon, an artifact of culture rather than an endowment of nature, was a datum and not a demonstrandum. Little sympathy was shown Camille Paglia’s dictum that “nature has tyrannically designed our bodies for procreation.” The inference commonly drawn was that, lacking natural realities on which to base his thinking, the individual makes his own sexual proclivities into a personal project, and “morality” is simply an index of the authenticity with which he has embraced this project.

In a paper titled “From Gendered Subjects to Gender as a Liberating Performance,” May Fulkerson of the Duke Divinity School did combat with the thesis of Simone de Beauvoir that, while gender is a acculturation process, sex isn’t. “Both sex and gender are done to one,” she insisted. Compulsory heterosexuality is one of the current dominant power realities that deform human consciousness. Emancipation from hierarchies and dualisms is effected by defining gender as “a performative practice in relation to multiply constructed subjects.” Thus, the figure of speech by which a nun is said to be married to the Church might be reconceived in terms of a “butch-femme relationship.” A proof-text was found in Galatians 3:28. “We are all performing our sex,” Dr. Fulkerson insisted, “there really is no male or female in Christ.”

This point was made in stronger, if less Christological, terms by Anne Pellegrini of Harvard:

Sexual Alterities: Otherwise Put

The practices of gender-fuck,* so much on display in lesbian and gay subcultures, might seem to challenge the hegemony of the sex-gender system. In displacing the purportedly “natural” symmetry of biological sex and social gender, practices of self-stylization, such as butch-femme, S/M, or cross-dressing, lay open gender as masquerade. A feminist-informed, queerly placed interrogation is offered here of the representational matrices within which the stabilizing terms of gender may be opened up and over turned. Drawing on recent work in gay and lesbian critical cultural studies, I attempt to outline the possibilities of sexual and desiderative alterities. And here the resort to the plural “alterities” is meant to resist the reificationist impostures of gender and sexual dualisms. It is also intended to suggest the instabilities of desire, the potential pleasures and dangers of moving beyond the number two.

Cheerfully announcing that “you can’t tell a butch by her cover,” Pellegrini presented a vigorous case, somewhat in the manner of James Joyce, for the “interstructuration of class and race” with contemporary paradigms of sexuality. The so-called natural symmetry of sex is a fiction of heterosexual males fraudulently elevated to a biological truism in order to reserve power exclusively to themselves. The myth of normality exists to brand dissidents as deviants so as to rob them of a political voice. When women gather to talk about oppression, she reminded us, they’re called “dyke, queer, man-hater.” When men assemble to do the same thing, they’re called “senator, congressman, cardinal.” No argument was offered⁠—and, to judge from the question period that followed, no argument was deemed necessary⁠—to establish a factual historical basis for malign male oppression. Nor was there any explicit or implicit protest on moral grounds to the erection of this system of coercion. It seems that earlier critics of patriarchy and its attendant sexual ethic complained that what the patriarchs advertised as morality turned out, on inspection, to be political self-interest, disguised; human liberation thus entailed a depoliticization of inherited sexual norms and attitudes. Pellegrini, by contrast, claimed such depoliticization to be illusory. “There is no ‘outside’ of politics,” she insisted. Every human endeavor, every theory, every activity, every work of art or occasion of leisure, every affection or antipathy, is at bottom a political gesture. This point was reinforced in rather stark terms by a detailed discussion of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography exhibit titled, “The Perfect Moment.” Pellegrini described the various combinations of unconventional coupling that the artist depicted, and drew particular attention to the fact that, in virtue of the height at which the photographs were displayed, the viewer himself was obliged to bend over to study each specimen, thus making himself willy-nilly complicit in its political purpose. What Mapplethorpe demonstrated in his work, we were told, is the truth that “All relations are essentially relations of power.”

No exceptions were tendered to the rule stipulated above. Were we to interpret, I wondered, not only the relation of husband and wife but also those of mother and child, toddler and playmate, priest and penitent, healer and healed, as in the last analysis power ploys? There is no “outside” of politics. Pellegrini’s own proposal, as I understood it, is simply to multiply sexual options, which are ultimately political choices, which are ways of exercising power: whence the invocation of “alterities.” Gender is masquerade; we “put on gender” like a costume or a political badge. “Lesbians,” she said, “are not always women.” We were reminded that cross-dressing, voguing, and gender-fuck are occasions of heightened political consciousness in which the actor makes use of cultural counter-discourses to free himself from tyrannous dualisms. I was unable to discover from the presentation itself what the practices mentioned above actually were; in view of the somewhat arcane academic enthusiasms of the audience, the question period that concluded the session did not seem the best occasion to ask.

Throughout the conference there was a curious discrepancy between the nature of the rhetoric employed and the overall demeanor of the participants. One would be hard-pressed to find a more unabashed, unvarnished, purely Nietzschean exaltation of power. “Power produces truth,” we were told by one speaker, herself quoting theologian Sharon Welch. “There are no standards outside history to which one might appeal for adjudication.” On the other band there was little of the Nuremberg-style rapture one might expect to accompany such radical sentiments. Most presenters received vigorous applause, and it was patent that most listeners were in full sympathy with what they were told; yet they appeared to have heard it all before. The sessions were typically attended by 100-125 people, many of whom sat in apparent contentment throughout the talks snacking on raisins and nuts they carried in clear plastic bags. Few took notes. No one, in my hearing, asked a question expressive of fundamental skepticism about the value of the deconstructionist or postmodernist project. Nor was any speaker called on to make clear how his paper contributed to the study of religion, according to the terms of the AAR. Of course it’s pointless to dwell on the obvious; what was puzzling to an outsider seemed perfectly clear, even banal, to the initiated.

Lest it be suspected that by singular luck or uncommon industry I managed to capture the most exotic specimens of intellectual life at the AAR, I should point out that this was not the case. It is true that I avoided the highly technical sections on Hindu theology or Nag Hammadi Gnosticism or the thought of Ernst Troeltsch, and it is true that this more conventional scholarship accounts for a sizable portion of the AAR’s business. On the other hand, if a paper might be judged by its title (or the rubric under which it was presented), I was coasting quite comfortably in the midstream. I omitted a roundtable discussion on “A Comparison of the Counseling Techniques of Christ and Carl Rogers,” and, with less regret, a discussion of “Shit, God, and Kitsch: The Role of the Body in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” I declined to accept John Simmon’s offering, “Woman’s Spirit Rising: The Introductory Class in Women and Religion Challenges Rural Midwestern Values in a Live PBS Teleclass Format,” which was presented in the section on the Academic Teaching and Study of Religion. I ducked a panel convened on the topic “Appropriation and Reciprocity in Womanist/Mujerista/Feminist Work.”

Many of the papers I happened to hear displayed a pronounced interest in unconventional sexual appetites; yet this interest was diffused across the boundaries of many disciplines and many sections of the Annual Meeting. There was, indeed, a session given over entirely to the Lesbian Feminist Issues in Religion Group. Let one synopsis (of a paper by Kathleen Sands of the University of Massachusetts, Boston) stand for all:

Powers, Pleasures, and Goods: An Invitation to Conversation on Lesbian Sex

Using the S/M debate as a starting point, I suggest guidelines for a lesbian feminist discourse on sex. Anti-S/M writings, I observe, approach sex with predominantly moral language, while pro-S/M literature brackets moral concerns and, instead, approaches sex with interests such as power, pleasure, and intensity of experience. These discourses represent areas of concern generally characteristic of religious experience and communities: the moral, the mystical, the aesthetic, and the somatic. Since these areas of concern are relatively autonomous, conflicts arise about their respective roles within a life or a community. For example, tensions over lesbian S/M parallel the tensions religious communities often experience between mystical experience and moral or doctrinal commitments. Lesbian feminist theologians ought to offer moral strategies for bringing diverse concerns into moral harmony within the sexual lives of lesbians and our communities.

Already glutted with the metaphysics of sexual anguish (and queasily mindful of the fate of Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae), I decided to skip this section. So too with the Gay Men’s Issues in Religion Group, which offered “The Gay Community as Wounded Healers,” “Making Love as Making Justice: Toward a New Jewish Ethic of Sexuality,” and “The Compatibility of Reason and Orgasm in Tibetan Buddhism: Reflections on Sexual Violence and Homophobia.” A man can handle only so much religion, after all.

In the third (and, for me, final) afternoon of the Annual Meeting a session was listed of the Theology and Science Group on the theme: The Natural and Moral Origins of Sin and Evil. I was looking forward to this forum with particular interest, inasmuch as the topic promised a change of intellectual diet and because Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago⁠—a scholar of considerable influence⁠—was scheduled to speak. To my disappointment, Prof. Gilkey was unable to attend. I did hear Mary Hunt, of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER).

In a paper titled “If Biology Isn’t Destiny, What Is?” Hunt deplored the “dangerous hegemony of the U.S. in the construction of a New World Order,” and spoke hopefully of the contributions to be made by “feminist/womanist/mujerista advances in theology” in refocusing our energies for social change, as such theology provides “a critique of power through a hermeneutics of suspicion.” Hunt expressed satisfaction that “the myth of objectivity has been put to rest in science as well as theology,” and applauded the paradigm shifts in virtue of which both have moved “from value-free to advocacy-based priorities.” Orthodox Christian theology has worked to encourage violence; for example, the story of “God sacrificing ‘his’ Son legitimizes child abuse.” Chaos theory in contemporary physics can help lead us to a reassessment of the category of sin. Through the prompting of feminism, Hunt suggested, we are invited “to move from Chaos (capital ‘C’) to chaos (small ‘c’), from ethics to ecology.” If we are respectful of the insights from chaos, it was argued, the concept of sin may fall away.

While it was not made explicit, Hunt’s reasoning seemed to follow this course: sin belongs to a structure of natural morality, which in turn requires that nature be fundamentally rational. But if nature is ultimately chaotic, it is irrational. Therefore natural morality, and sin, are illusory. Certainly Hunt viewed natural morality as a malignant doctrine. “Women taught not to sin are taught not to change,” she insisted, and affirmed the insight of Boston College’s Mary Daly: “Elemental Being is sinning; it requires the courage to sin.” The final note I made, the last bit of wisdom I carried away from the American Academy of Religion, was the dictum that served as the keystone of Mary Hunt’s address. Our present task, she concluded, is to explore fully the implications of the first and the greatest commandment of the new dispensation: “Go, and sin some more!”

As I made my way to the airport I couldn’t help but notice the familiar Midwest roadside piety of billboard and bumper-sticker: God So Loved The World . . . If You Love Me Keep My Commandments . . . Jesus Loves You. It struck me that “love” was a word I hadn’t heard pronounced⁠—at all⁠—in the past three days. My thoughts were carried back to the (naive? prescient?) confidence of NABL’s Dr. Peritz, who could write, in the year of Hitler’s accession to power, that biblical religion provided the only solution of the problems of universal citizenship. Clearly the AAR had come a long way from its beginnings. As I boarded my plane I saw that, by an odd coincidence, the man in front of me was one of the stray Shriners I had bumped into at the Convention Center. He was still buoyed by the recreations of his own weekend, and was cheerfully yodeling in the jetway. “Everything’s up t’date in Kansas City,” he sang, “They’ve gone about as far as they kin go!”

“Yes,” I said to myself, “Yes I suppose they have.”

* We reluctantly report the scatological language but it seems necessary to conveying the substance and tone of discussions at the more elevated levels of religious studies in the contemporary academy.⁠—The Editors

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., a frequent contributor to First Things, is a graduate student in Comparative Semitic Philology at Harvard University.