Saturday, March 29, 2008

MAAR, Part 1: Thursday

It is no secret that I have a keen interest in the study of religion. While I am a librarian by trade, I like to keep current in the Religious Studies field. This is a bit different from being interested in religion from a personal faith perspective—it's about studying religion and how it functions in society.

This year, I decided to attend the MAAR (Mid-Atlantic American Academy of Religion) conference. I am a member of AAR, and I hope to attend the national conference in November. In the meantime, I was interested to see what was being presented locally.

I attend a lot of library conferences, and I noticed differences right away. Library conferences are now replete with blogs and wikis for conference-goers to post their comments or reviews, for presenters to post their presentations, and for the posting of generally useful information. Not so at this conference; it was suggested that this was not the bailiwick of those running the conference. I think I might volunteer to spearhead this for next year.

Blogging would be useful for this group, because the style of presentation is not via PowerPoint or a prepared talk—it's the literal reading of academic papers. Some presenters did have slides or videos to go along with their papers. Given the nature of the discipline, there isn't anything wrong with this—but as a listener, it is difficult to keep track of all the important details of a paper, especially if the presenter speaks very quickly. As you might expect, some presentations were better than others. Sometimes the speaker was clear, but the paper was too jargon-laden for any but those specifically involved with the same research to understand.

I obviously did not attend every session, but here are some of the highlights from those I did attend:

“Religious Experience and Sociopolitical Power” by Stephen S. Bush, Princeton University. Stephen talked about the study of mystical/religious experience. He defines 3 separate schools of thought with regard to the study of such experiences: a classical “perennialist” school (Rudolph Otto, William James, Mircea Eliade) which believes that the person's religious experience is central to understanding these experiences—there is a “mystical core” to these experiences.. Around the 1980s, a “constructivist” theory emerged (Steven Katz) that denied there is a “mystical” core to religious experiences. Current theoretical discourse can be seen in the works of Robert H. Sharf. Sharf believes that scholars do not have access to the minds of mystics, and therefore the mystical experience cannot be studied—only the language used to describe the experience can be studied. Bush believes that Sharf has some convincing arguments that should change the way we look at religious experiences. However, not all of Sharf's arguments are convincing. Bush points to a study done by R. Marie Griffith, in the book “God's Daughters,” which focuses on the women in a Pentecostal community, whose submission to the males in the community is one of their characteristics. Griffith examines this community with a “critical empathy” model; she does not condemn the women for being submissive. However, this does not mean that there should be no criticism at all. Griffith seeks to find a balance between criticism and empathy with this approach.

Bush uses this study as a starting point for talking about how religion and social power may intersect. Focusing only on this study, and stressing that these are only starting points and not an exhaustive list, Bush comes up with 4 types of relationships between experience and power in this group:

1.One who undergoes one or more experiences, validated by the group, may gain authority within the group.
2.The content of the experience may provide power (e.g., experiencing God as Father, Husband, Lover, etc.)
3.Experience may be a compensation for deprivation.
4.Experience may make a substantial contribution to the religious community.

I found these observations to be interesting. Bush had suggested that these might apply to other religious groups, but not necessarily so—a universalism of these relationships is not implied. I asked him about the absence of religious experience for these women. In traditional Western mysticism, the absence of experience can mean that one is moving on to the “next stage” of their mystical relationship with God—John of the Cross's “Dark Night of the Soul” for instance. Bush replied that for these women, the absence of experience sometimes offered frustration—a woman being prayed over by the community who does not get well is then accused of not having enough faith. The woman resents the judgment, but will not openly say so to the group. In my own opinion, I find this all interesting, because it shows how tangible experiences (feeling “on fire” with God's love, speaking in tongues, etc.) sometimes act as “proof” of religiosity to others, when the fact may be that these experiences mean nothing at all. It is entirely possible that one will become an “experience junkie”, and practice devotion only to try to get the experience. It is no different from any other kind of attachment (needing one's morning coffee, etc.). The fact that one may be given authority because of these experiences also implies a need to “keep it up” to prove that one is in “right” relationship to God. What is also ironic is that in the Bible, Thomas is often chastised for not believing until he “sees” proof for himself. Christians are exhorted to believe without the tangible proof. This seems to suggest the opposite in social settings. I do think this has applicability outside of Griffith's group of women.

“Spiritual Ecstasy and Death to Self in Bonaventure's Understanding of Contemplation” by Rebecca Howell, Lutheran Theological Seminary.

This was a very interesting talk on Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis in Deus and De Triplici Via. Bonaventure identifies with Pseudo-Dionysius, though his conclusions are different. Pseudo-Dionysius has a negative theology (God is not this, God is not that). Bonaventure sees the seeker as being brought to God via “death to self”. Howell notes that while St. Francis arose to the mountaintop and and receives an ecstatic vision that leaves him with the stigmata, Bonaventure climbs the same mountain and comes down with a book outline. She notes that while the deepest stages of contemplation are indescribable, Bonaventure manages to intellectualize them anyway. (This is actually a problem of all of mysticism--”let me describe my indescribable experience to you.”) She mentions the use of liturgical symbols—the impossibility of contemplating God without “material means” due to the limitations of the mind. This is reminiscent of Hindu Bhakta, where the devotee focuses on an image of God, not because the image is actually a “correct” image, but because it allows the devotee to focus their attention on the greater reality the image represents.
Howell also discusses the use of the “positive talk of God's names” to create a sort of spiritual ecstasy. This is also in line with Hindu conceptions—one recites a sahasranama stotra or an ashottara stotra or namavaali to create the same result. I was reminded of a talk by Dr. Lise Vail at Montclair State University, where she discussed the use and meaning of sounds in Hindu worship. The recitation of the names can bring about a harmonious vibration with that sound that is synonymous with what we call “God”, or the ultimate reality.

I was also struck by the similarities between Bonaventure and St. Teresa of Avila—both cite seven levels of contemplation, with both conceptions including a sense of darkness or suffering, and a sense of silence/negation in which one realizes that God cannot be truly apprehended by the mind or intellect.

“The Mercy and Justice of God: Tertullian's Understanding of God's Preference for Repentance over Death” by Mark A. Frisius, Marymount University.
Mark's paper discussed Tertullian's writings in response to two writers in particular—Marcion and Valentian. Marcion suggested that the problem of God's mercy vs. his punishment could be resolved by suggesting that there were 2 gods—one was the Old Testament God that punished, one was the New Testament God that was merciful. Tertullian countered that God is goodness, and that any punishment meted out by God is for the greater Good of the person and humanity. Tertullian also suggested, against the views of the Gnostics (Valentian) that martyrdom was also a good thing. He believed that martyrdom led to eternal life, rather than permanent death. I am reminded of Elaine Pagel's book on the Gospel of Judas—the writer was in clear opposition to Tertullian's view (see my earlier blog posting on this).

Tertullian was extremely hardcore in the strictness of his belief. He did not think that anyone who was not Christian could be saved, and that once someone became a Christian, they absolutely could not ever sin again—it was unforgivable. Apparently there were some venial sins that could be forgiven with severe penances and public humiliation, but Tertullian doesn't say what these are. He was appalled by the idea that anyone should be allowed to sin. His eventual alliance with the Montanists was probably due to their severity and strictness. Eventually Tertullian fell out of favor with the Church—it was apparent that no one could ever meet his vision of the true Christian.

It occurred to me while Mark was speaking that Tertullian would have made a great subject for an Eriksonian psychohistory. Hmm...

“Job's Wife and the History of Consequences: a Lecture in Slides: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Interpretations,” by Choon-Leong Seow, Princeton Theological Seminary (SBL Plenary Talk)

I am not a member of SBL, but I attended this anyway. Dr. Seow was a fantastic speaker and presenter. He discussed the common conceptions of Job's wife as a shrew and a temptress. He examines the Biblical text, and finds that in the original language, Job's wife does not tell Job to “curse” God, but rather to “say some words to him so that he may die”. Dr. Seow suggests that this is because the wife is moved by his suffering, and thinks he would be better off dead than to live in such a way, without regard for her own widowhood if that were to happen. There is no suggestion that she has done anything wrong, or that Job is angry with her, even though he refuses to do what she asks. Muslims interpret Job's wife as an example of compassion, and Dr. Seow showed photographs of artwork depicting Job's wife from various churches and texts from around the world to support his agreement with that thesis.

Stay tuned for Part 2, the Friday session...

No comments: