The AAR seems to run in cycles for me. The first year I attended I remember the complete disillusionment I felt with the event after sitting through three sections that seemed far weaker and less exciting than at smaller conferences. I don’t know if it was really the quality of the paper so much as the pressure everyone seems to be under to attend as much as possible, thereby crippling the most vibrant part of conferences, in my opinion at least, the discussion that flows from the Q&A out into the hall and hopefully well into the night. That’s where I’ve discovered new lines of research and felt like I actually engaged with fellow scholars. And that simply happens very rarely at the AAR, once about every other year or so. Though the work of Synousia has made great in-roads at a permanent place for secular theologians/philosophers that simply isn’t available at the Continental Philosophy and Theology group that seems to have to vie with the interests of Christian phenomenologists as well as more interesting work.
Anyway, this year was a pretty bad one, owing in large part to the horrible venue that is the dystopia called McCormick Place, my own rushed scheduled when I was there, and the very white and very male and very straight domination of theological studies in general. Of course there are wonderful sessions outside these rather narrow coordinates, but if the field is represented by its scholarly output and who is making the money, I worry that we are in a field dominated by the likes of very traditional theology propagated and protected by white theo-dude-logians. One particular thing I found annoying was hearing all the “ontology” talk, an issue I’ve long had a problem with in theological circles from my grad school days. Like when, for example, a rather popular gasbag proclaimed that gay marriage is “ontologically impossible” or when certain students (usually male and almost always white) proclaim their need and desire for a “rigorous and consistent ontology” to ground their religio-ethical commitments. Regarding the first, it seems a strange claim unless one is absolutely an idealist of the worst kind, since gay marriage has actually happened and being-qua-being has, it would seem, not collapsed under the weight of all that gay marriage. And regarding the second, is that anything other than a way of saying that you want your religion to be grounded on the actual existence of God with some surety? And if so, isn’t that just a symptom of the theology of fear we see driving the sale of so many Christian responses to Darwinism and other forms of naturalist exploration? It is essentially a rather big word being used to cover over one’s fears and does, as far as I can see, absolutely zero theoretical work.
All of this seems to me to cut to the real problem of the practice of Christian theology (and perhaps monotheistic theology in general), which is ultimately a problem of knowledge and authority. In conversations with young graduate students in theology I often see repeated a particular argument that seems to be coming from those in my generation and the one just above. Let’s take an example from a session on Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory where Agamben is found to be committing the heresy of Anti-Barthianism. A young Barthian rose to defend Barth with the claim that though Agamben recognizes a form of sovereignty at work in Barth this sovereignty has to do with God and therefore isn’t problematic. Or, in other words, the ontological difference between God and creatures is such that it isn’t a big deal, even if we see this same logic repeated at the level of creatural governance. Or, in other word, don’t look at the empirical when you are thinking about the transcendental and don’t look at the transcendental when you are thinking about the empirical.
Or consider another example, which really, really bothers me, regarding the political claims made about the Eucharist. It has become increasingly popular after Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist to claim that the true political act happens within the traditions and practices of the Church (which, of course, for Cavanaugh means the Roman Catholic Church, but for many of his quasi-Catholic protestant readers refers to some more amorphous body). It’s a strange claim considering that book is in many ways about a specific and horrifying failure of the Roman Church. But it is also an empirical claim, if it is true that life is better in the Church than outside in the realm of the secular where we have abortion vans and let people starve in the streets, well then life within the Church should reflect that. As soon as you point this out the move again is to say, well don’t look at the empirical level, look at the transcendental or ontological. Or, essentially, the move is to repress this criticism, to practice a kind of weak theodicy by way of appeal to a mystical but securing notion of the ontological. And what’s sad is, it doesn’t even mean what they think it does.