Thursday, November 22, 2007

wrap up of my AAR experience...

Time for a final post about my AAR experience. So, here's what I did on Sunday and Monday:

Sunday started off with my arriving a bit late to the section dedicated to the thought of Charles Taylor. Naturally, it was packed, and so, after standing for a while in the back where I could barely hear (it didn't help that the mic wasn't loud enough - you'd think they would double check things like that beforehand), I decided to leave.

After lunch, I went to a panel put on by the Society of Christian Philosophers, discussing Stephen Davis' new book, "Christian Philosophical Theology." Having read one of Davis' books for class, I was looking forward to hearing him speak, and he came across as extremely genuine and fair-minded. Not only was he able to respond quite effectively to the criticisms of the panel, he also seemed to exhibit a great deal of humility, something which - lets face it - is not a posture to which most academics are naturally prone. (Having said that, however, I would like to point out that several of the speakers I heard at the AAR conference seemed quite humble and that was quite refreshing to see...)

The discussion among the panel brought to light another issue, one that appears to be extending throughout academic theology as a whole; namely, the issue of intellectual bias vs. religious adherence. In other words, it seems that one party would like all religious study to be undertaken in an environment free of sectarian bias, and another wishes to do theology, philosophy, etc. within the confines of their particular faith tradition. This clash of approaches could most clearly be seen in the interaction between Christine Helmer (a professor of theology at Northwestern University) and William Lane Craig (a Christian philosopher and apologist who is well known for his debates with atheists).

Helmer seemed defensive from the get-go, and criticized the SCP not only for its lack of diversity (she stated that they "have an image problem") but for their perceived unwillingness to approach philosophy and theology from a genuinely objective viewpoint. Although Helmer argued rather strongly that dialogue is necessary between disciplines - a quite valid point - her rather defensive posture seemed rather off-putting and did not fit very well with her own language of dialogue. I was also confused by her proposal, inasmuch as I cannot see how anyone, theologian, philosopher, or otherwise, can truly shed their biases and approach a discussion with complete objectivity. Perhaps this is not what Helmer meant, but the impression she gave was that her way of doing things was more honest than her dialogue partners, and given that this was her first time meeting all of them except Davis, I'm not sure it was the best approach.

Of course, William Lane Craig, as was evident in this session, can be quite abrasive as well - perhaps in part due to his particularly rigorous brand of analytical logic, which does not lend itself well to camaraderie. I wonder if his many years of debating have left Craig with the logical attack as his primary form of communication? At any rate, I cannot fault him for his personality, or for his conviction, even if I didn't agree with all of his points. I do think that there may be a tendency among staunch evangelical conservatives like Craig to see "the defense of the faith" as the reason for all intellectual endeavors, and this mindset seems to me somewhat fear-based and may indeed lead to the sort of unwilling behavior Helmer indicated. But I could not be certain of this simply from one panel discussion.

At any rate, it appeared again to be a case of people talking past each other, both thinking that their approach is obviously the best and not stopping long enough to consider whether the other might have some merit. While I am not certain of this, I got the impression that this divide exists across the academic spectrum, and may even have some influence on the recent decision to split apart the AAR and the SBL. When one side believes that the unbiased study of religion is the primary goal, and the other believes that the sincere study of the Judeo-Christian faith is the primary goal, there is bound to be conflict. I cannot imagine that meeting at a conference is the best way to begin solving this problem, although there is certainly a place for that. Indeed, it needs to be dealt with on a much broader scale, and with more compassion and less hubris on both sides. End of rant. :-)

Anyway, to wrap up:

Later on Sunday afternoon, I attended a very good lecture given by N.T. Wright entitled "God in Public." His primary point was that the enlightenment dualism that separates discussion of God from the public sphere is no longer a valid option, and the Church must take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, and find new ways for the full message of the Gospel to be heard again, because the Gospel is a common good that we, as Christians, should seek to share with all the world, and with their help, not forcing it upon them. To quote Wright: "The Church must get on with the works of justice, beauty, and healing that the systems [of the world] know they should do, but can't figure out how to do. We must collaborate without compromise, and critique without dualism."

I will perhaps write a separate post on this later... as well as a post on the lecture given by Charles Taylor, who gave a plenary speech on Sunday night entitled "Religious Mobilizations."

Monday... well, Monday didn't quite turn out the way I had hoped. I slept in instead of going to a Fuller Seminary breakfast with the guys (which, as it turned out, cost $15! Although meeting Richard Mouw would have been nice...) and got ready to go to the San Diego Zoo, which is something I had been looking forward to. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post, I got a slight misdirection from the hotel staff and ended up missing my bus while waiting for a transit train. So, instead of getting to the zoo around 10:30, I didn't get there until after 12:00. After rushing through the zoo for about an hour trying to see as much as possible, I was getting really worn out (still carrying my laptop bag with me!), and I realized I was going to miss the 2:00 p.m. session I had hoped to attend, so I roamed around the zoo a bit longer, but by this time I wasn't really as excited. I finally left the zoo around 2:30, and it took me over an hour to get to the convention center via the bus and trolley. I am certainly thankful for public transit, but it was far from efficient this day...

So, anyway, after getting back to the conference, I went to an interesting combination session that featured proponents of Radical Orthodoxy and Process Theology in conversation with each other. One of the highlights of that session was getting to hear John Milbank speak - he is an exceedingly brilliant fellow, and that's all I have to say about that. But it was a bit odd watching as the two groups tried to promote their similarities and downplay their very obvious differences - the biggest one being divergent views on the passability of God. Still, I have to say that the genuine attempt at dialogue was a refreshing example of what some people in the other sessions I attended seemed to desire but were unable to achieve. It may not have been fully successful, but I thought it was a worthwhile attempt.

And, that was it... I was totally wiped out from the weekend, so I went back to the hotel after dinner and slept just long enough to be rudely awoken at 5:00 a.m. in order to catch my plane back to Seattle. All in all, a worthwhile experience, a fun - and sometimes frustrating - trip, and maybe, just maybe, a possible glimpse into my future... if I am ever blessed to be a presenter at such an event. Time will tell...