Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion

Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: 
Exploring the Worlds of Religion
The 2009 D.R. Sharpe Lectures at the Divinity School

Additional cosponsors include the The William Henry Hoover Lectures at the Disciples Divinity House, the Divinity Students Association and the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory.

April 22-23, 2009
Swift Hall, 1025 E 58th Street

Conference Objectives

Christian theology, especially theologies of culture, currently confronts an interdisciplinary and intercultural reconfiguration. Many contemporary theologians acknowledge the need to take into consideration the various ways in which culture has implicitly, if not always explicitly, engaged with theology. Furthermore, recent trends in theology demonstrate a growing appreciation for interdisciplinary approaches that readily embrace the methodologies of other increasingly specialized fields, such as critical and cultural studies in the humanities and the social sciences. Moreover, increased attention on and participation by previously underappreciated perspectives from the once "Third" and "Fourth" worlds of colonized and indigenous peoples respectively have both challenged and contributed corrections to various disciplinary methodologies, including those in theology. These recent trends suggest a decisive move for a comparative, interdisciplinary approach to the perennial reflection upon ideas of the religious inthrough, and beforecultures.

Conference Overview

Arguably, Christian theology in particular has reflected upon its cultural predicament and resources since the writing of Pauline epistles. Even before the work of the likes of J. G. Herder in the eighteenth century or the elaboration of an explicit theology of culture in the twentieth century at institutions like the University of Chicago, theological consideration of culture has shaped the elaboration of religious loci in, for example, understandings of the cosmos as "creation," of humanity in theological anthropology, of Christian communities in ecclesiology, et cetera. An interfacing with, standing within, and drawing upon the ecumene - or the "whole civilized world" - has historically infused not only the production of theology but also the self-understanding of religious communities' awareness and identity (even an existence "in the world but not of the world"). As a non-sectarian concept, the broadened notion of ecumene has come to refer to not only the wider world interrelated with but distinct from a religious community to be reconciled, but this concept also refers to the increasing diversity within globalizing religious communities predicated on constantly emerging cultural forms, dynamics, and critiques.

The theme of assessing new theologies and theories of cultures, however, also expresses a methodological concern. It is marked by the recognition that theological reflection is embedded within the concrete particularities of specific cultures at specific times as it strives for trans-local claims and transcendent relationships. Therefore, attempts at understanding and articulating theological claims must begin with investigating the wide variety of particularities of specific cultures. A current assessment of a theology of cultures should explore how religious studies has had aconcern for, a claim on, and accountability to culture. With the reflexive "cultural turn" in the early modern period, an increased awareness developed regarding the notion of culture, the theological enterprise inseparably enmeshed with the resources of culture, and how theology contributes to cultural formation. In other words, theological reflection upon the religious dimensions of discourse, forms, and gestures is a part of culture and, conversely, culture is a part of the rational (the logic as opposed to the mythic) or meta-discourse of theology. However, not until the modern era has theology had the specialized resources of the humanities and social sciences to draw upon - resources often contributed to by theology - for an ever-increasing understanding of culture. The postmodern situation and the postcolonial context have produced a heightened awareness of this concern by contemporary theologians. Finally, an assessment toward a reconfiguration of a theology of cultures critically reflects upon culture as a human extension which cannot be fully analyzed in exclusion to any ideas of divine impetus.

This conference will explore such questions and themes from various perspectives, especially from the perspective of contemporary and emerging theological work in culture. It will also include critical work from across the humanities and other human sciences as they reflect on religion and theology. The central focus will be emergent reconfigurations of theologies of cultures framed as a new kind of conversation in the vein of sustained previous approaches. Prior approaches to theology of culture, particularly as influenced by the "Chicago Schools," have taken three successive configurations: (1) a sociological reconstruction of theology focused on experience and social analysis, (2) a metaphysical reconstruction of theology influenced by process philosophy, and (3) a phenomenological reconstruction of theology with particular attention to language, semiotics, and the "hermeneutic turn." While not negating these prior approaches, the assessment of new overtures will take into consideration the shift away from a central concern for meaning (or conversely meaninglessness) as well as a move away from dyadic structures in general, such as "self" and "other," toward multi-variegated models. This would include attention on issues of motivations and aspects of power and agency, shifts in understandings of "spirituality" and the secular, regard for global trends and media or virtual ecologies, and increased emphasis on traditionally non-elite and semi-literate populations, all in light of contributions made by emergent local theologies.

The Structure of the Conference

In addition to a keynote lecture, the conference will be a mixture of six paper presentations and seven lectures over the course of two days. The keynote, lecturers, and panel presenters will include University faculty from the Divinity School and other departments, invited scholars of international renown, and current or recently graduated Ph.D. students from the Divinity School. Two lectures will be scheduled for each morning and an additional two lectures for each afternoon to allow sufficient time for discussion. Each lecture will be moderated by a discussion chair who will not issue a prepared response but rather help ensure thematic engagement across the conference. A luncheon panel of three paper presentations will also occur each day. An invited public intellectual will chair each panel, following with a prepared response and open discussion. Some of the topics explored will include: the reflexive nature of theology, global flows inclusive of concrete particulars, fieldwork and translation, power analysis and post-colonial theological discourse by non-elites, interfaith and intercultural dimensions, interdisciplinary methods, and theology as an ethnographic category. The conference will open and conclude with a lecture on how these topics might contribute to a new rapprochement between theological and cultural reflection.