Any enormous affair with dozens of things going on at any one time inevitably defies summary by a single attendee, and this past week’s American Academy of Religion meeting in Montreal was no exception. Approximately 4,500 scholars, students, journalists, and exhibitors from around the world gathered to share their research, ogle newly-published volumes, and trade professional gossip over hors d’oeuvres. It happened to be the AAR’s hundredth anniversary, which, together with the rarity of taking place outside the United States, lent a special air of festivity. The weather was also uncommonly comfortable—the Californians must have brought it with them.
Considering the international location, it was fitting that this year’s AAR President was Mark Juergensmeyer, who delivered a plenary talk on Saturday evening on “The Global Future of Religion.” Ann Taves, his successor and fellow professor at UC Santa Barbara, introduced him. Juergensmeyer insisted on the need to study religion in a genuinely global context, rather than with the parochialism that can so easily take hold in the field.
Holding the meeting in Canada also helped secure the attendance of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Islamic scholar who has been unable to fulfill previous AAR invitations because his U.S. visa had been revoked on the grounds of an “ideological exclusion provision.” (The restriction was lifted by a federal appeals court earlier this year.) He participated in a plenary panel about “Islam and Modernity”—along with Reza Aslan, Nilüfer Göle, and Robin Wright—and delivered an address, entitled “Contemporary Islam: The Meaning and the Need of a Radical Reform.” The symbolic significance of his presence was widely felt among those of us who remember cancellation notices of his scheduled AAR talks in previous years.
The SSRC’s recent work made its strongest appearance in a Sunday morning plenary panel, presided over by Mark Juergensmeyer and featuring four other Immanent Frame contributors: Charles Taylor, José Casanova, Saba Mahmood, and Craig Calhoun. They discussed Taylor’s landmark book, A Secular Age, and the need for rethinking the category of secularity in light of the vital role religion plays in modern social and political life. A panel the day before, “Reconsidering Civil Religion,” also drew from the SSRC’s work in this area, and included talks by Philip Gorski, David Morgan, Ebrahim Moosa, Craig Calhoun, and Catherine Albanese. Immanent Frame editor David Kyuman Kim, notably, proposed an “elegiac” temperament as an antidote to the imperialistic excesses of American civil religion.
Sunday afternoon saw a series of high-profile plenaries, including a panel featuring Thomas J.J. Altizer, the prophetic, apocalyptic leader of the “death of God theology” movement in the 1960s, and the virtuosic Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. While declaring himself an atheist, Žižek also called himself “unconditionally a Christian,” insofar as he understands Jesus’ teachings to stand for undermining social and ideological hierarchies—the very existence of a God among them. For him, the essence of the Christian message is, “We can totally destabilize the universe.”
Perhaps the highlight of the whole meeting for this attendee, however, came just before that, in a conversation between Cornel West and James H. Cone, this year’s winner of the Martin Marty Award for contributions to the public understanding of religion. Cone reminisced about his upbringing and the remarkable support and setbacks he encountered as one of the first African-Americans to reach the highest levels of academic theology. It was a powerful reminder of the significance that the study of religion has had in the great social upheavals of the last century, and that it should continue to have in the century to come. West dried his eyes at one point, while Cone recalled a picture of them together years back at Union Seminary, and without doubt many of us in the audience were doing the same.
There is room to mention only these few most visible highlights of the conference. But likely the most important new insights came from the hundreds of sessions taking place all along, some with only a handful of scholars and students present. Kathryn Lofton explained to us “how to be a New Atheist” (hint: it involves masculinity); John Lardas Modern joined a conversation about new approaches in evangelical historiography; there were a number of panels, talks, and tours about Montreal’s religious heritage, including a remarkable film, Bonjour Shalom, about Hasidic Jews living in the city’s Outremont district, not to mention sessions on “Science Fictional Asia,” “How Taking Animals Seriously Is Reshaping the Study of Religion,” and a panoply of less surprising topics.
As we look forward to next year’s AAR in Atlanta, Montreal has given us plenty to gnaw on.