November 19, 2012
— Martin E. Marty
Tomorrow is the end of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Chicago. The Program Book for the gatherings is 496 pages long. You read that right. When I mention that "a number of thousand scholars of religion" are meeting, my friends of secular ethos orientation gasp: they can picture restaurateurs, gun-sellers, and auto-dealers convening in such numbers. But "religion" scholars in abundance? Can this be true?
It is. It takes the cavernous, soul-less halls of McCormick Place and eighteen hotels to accommodate these North American religionists, while graduate students, "old friends," and others bunk with acquaintances around the city. What these do tends to be invisible to off-campus populations and much is even ignorable on the campuses in which they thrive. The word is out that religious practice is declining in North America, that attendance at and support for religious ventures has been having harder times. But you wouldn't know that from observing the conventioneers or opening the Program Book. They do not draw notice as do medics in the American Medical Association, and their religion and sacred rites are not experienced as intense as are those of the acolytes of the American Rifle Association or the National Football League, but there they are.
One sights astonishing variety here. The SBL "Sections" include "Cognitive Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation," "Disputed Paulines," "Asian and Asian-American Hermeneutics," etc. and the AAR fosters groups on "Animals and Religion," "Evangelical Studies," "Queer Studies in Religion," "Quran," and scores upon scores more. Related Scholarly Organizations cluster alongside AAR and SBL, among them "Colloquium on Violence and Religion," "International Bonhoeffer Society," "Karl Barth" and "Reinhold Niebuhr" societies alongside "La Communidad of Hispanic Scholars," and, again, many, many more. There are stars and shapers as well as promising graduate students and tenure-track newcomers to the fields.
No, don't try to keep up. Not many "Confucian" or "Archaeology" scholars can or would try to have all the Western theological and sectarian options in mind. But more and more are making efforts to bridge the scholarly and the "public religion" worlds. Special interest: the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago, which sponsors this e-letter and exacts each Monday version of it from me, was founded almost fifteen years ago by academicians who join colleagues elsewhere as bridge-builders.
I stroll down the street to the meetings to gawk and greet and browse and eat, sometimes overwhelmed by the multitudinousness of it all but, as always, I'm inspired. I've not attended the gatherings since 1997, but with one here in Chicago I am on three or four panels. One is relevant to today's topic: "A Conversation around Themes from No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education," an Oxford book by Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen. They make their case, as does the mere existence of the profession and this convention.
Next week we'll stop tooting horns for our own profession, open the doors to where the practice and not merely the study of, religion prospers or declines or surprises. We are not likely to run out of "visible" expressions of faith, alongside the "no longer invisible" presence of religious studies here and there and, one gets the impression here this week, everywhere on campus.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.