Saturday, March 13, 2010

MAAR Day 1: Via Negativa and Quantum Physics

On Thursday and Friday of this week, I attended MAAR (Mid-Atlantic American Academy of Religion)'s annual conference. It was held in New Brunswick this year, which made it reasonably close to home. This year, as in years past, I went to listen to papers rather than to present. What follows is a summary of the sessions I attended on Thursday, and tomorrow I will write about the Friday sessions. This year I approached MAAR's regional director about having some kind of conference blog, and he agreed it was a good idea, though there's always some trepidation about attaching "official" AAR responsibility to a private blog of any kind. So, I am going to set up a separate blog for more extensive treatment of the sessions I attended, and will provide the link to that, hopefully tomorrow. That link should eventually end up on MAAR's webpage. Hopefully others will add their observations to that blog. I've always felt that there's not enough scholarly conversation in the blogosphere by religion professionals. What's natural to the tech fields seems to be foreign to the humanities. Hopefully that will change--the only people (besides people like myself) blogging about religion are usually right-wing conservatives who are also blogging about politics. There needs to be a little more representation from other groups.

The papers were extensive and complex, so I'm only going to note a few highlights here.

The first session I attended was on Religion and the Arts. Out of the three papers presented, I was most struck by Ronald Bernier's paper on Bill Viola's work and its relationship to the theological "Via Negativa". I am particularly drawn to the Via Negativa theology because it so closely resembles the Eastern conception of "God". Via Negativa, or The Way of Negation, suggests that God cannot possibly be known or described--we only know that God is Unknown. (This is similar to the Vedantic idea of God as "No-Thing"). All notions of God as good, or wise, or loving are totally inadequate, as God could not possibly be those things in ways that we understand. Via Negativa theologians include Meister Eckhardt, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the author(s) known as Pseudo-Dionysus. Implied in this theology is the sublime experience of union with God--it is both pleasurable and painful at the same time. Viola's installation, "Room for St. John of the Cross", is meant to demonstrate the pleasure/pain paradox of the sublime. Viola's video installation, "The Passions of Bill Viola" demonstrates, among other things, the difference between an icon and an idol. An icon points to another Reality, but becomes an idol if the "human gaze" is too attached to it instead of the thing it's pointing at.

The next session I attended was the AAR Plenary address. This was given by Charles Mathewes, the editor of the Journal of the AAR. He was discussing the future of religious studies, and he predicted a bright future, if scholars "played their cards right". His talk was focused on the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies, and felt that scholars didn't do enough to look outside their own disciplines for opportunities--and humanities scholars needed more in the way of religious studies education, as religion is a crucial factor in many major world events. He warned against reductionist theories of religion, that reduce religious behavior to economics or genetics. He also felt that schools should re-think encouraging Ph.D.s in religion when there are very few jobs. I've always viewed religion as interdisciplinary, and I would imagine that only the Bible scholar (or the equivalent) would believe otherwise. Knowing that one can look to other humanistic fields for inspiration is good for writing and research, but doesn't say much about jobs. Maybe he means that more opportunities may come about if the academy as a whole sees the value of religious studies relative to other disciplines.

The second session of the day, on Contemporary Theology, also consisted of 3 papers, and there were 2 that made an impression on me. The first was by Matthew Riley, about Bell's Theorem, local realism, and our sense of "place". He mentions the notion of inner quiet often described by contemplatives, and suggests that it's hard to imagine that quiet in a largely urbanized humanity. He then tackles the notion of "local realism", based on the idea that the universe is made up of matter--material, tangible, and partitioned. Riley cites Alfred North Whitehead's critique that this view of the universe is "useful but false". He proposes that the universe is made up of subjective entities and experiences. Each entity is a locus for the universe. Everything is interdependent and moves in relation to each other, not in isolation. Riley points to Bell's Theorem which shows that 2 particles that come within proximity of each other (become "entangled") will gain characteristics of the other, including the particle's spin. This happens instantaneously--there is no time lapse. Riley does not address the time factor, but he does suggest that this rules out the entire class of local realism theories--things are neither here nor there, but both here and there. While Riley is using Bell's Theorem as more of an analogy, it is interesting how quantum mechanics shows the very unexpected nature of matter and the universe, and even though we don't see the effects at our complex organic level, it still may have far-reaching effects. In fact, it's hard to imagine how we're NOT affected, even if the effects are not apparent.

The second paper that grabbed my interest was Dr. Stephen Johnson's paper, "Catholic Tradition's Critically Expanding Universe". Dr. Johnson unfortunately wasn't at the conference, and Dr. Cynthia Eller read his paper quite capably in his stead. His papers are always entertaining, as he is as a teacher (I took most of my undergraduate religion classes with Dr. Johnson, and I credit him with my ongoing interest in religious studies). The paper is actually a review of Sister Elizabeth Michael Boyle's book, "Science as Sacred Metaphor." Dr. Johnson found the book to be pleasantly full of insight, as Sister Boyle describes God as possibility, seeks to defend science and religion from fundamentalist literalism, and even compares string theory to the Greek opposites of Apollo and Dionysus (something need to reconcile the order of classical physics with the disorder of quantum mechanics). Dr. Johnson went on to add his own critique of the Catholic Church as it is becoming under Pope Benedict, and spoke in particular about the Vatican visit to the American nuns, who he noted had spent time trying to become self-informed and gain credibility among people, while the Church hierarchy was increasingly losing credibility. He suggested that Catholics may need to lose the Church as it is now in order to regain it--they should not give up all the ground gained in Vatican II. I felt some validation in these last remarks, as they mirror my own thoughts on the issue.

Tomorrow I will talk about the Friday sessions.


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing this blog, Brigid. I'll look forward to reading tomorrow's as well.

Robert Ciccolini said...

Hey Brigid. My friend Alan was just interviewed on: Scroll down a little on the home page and look for the "Friendships" spot. His views seem to correspond to yours and I think you'll find it quite interesting..