Sat through three big plenaries with famous speakers today - Tariq Ramadan, James Cone interviewed by Cornel West, and Thomas Altizer and Slavoj Zizek. Ramadan is a charismatic Islamic moderate, one of the world's most important and certainly the most visible of younger Muslim intellectuals (at least in the West). AAR has invited him several years in a row, but because the State Department under Bush wouldn't give him a visa, we've had to wait until this AAR meeting in Canada. (Apparently the State Department is revisiting the case.) Ramadan's not interested in reforming Islam but "reforming Muslim minds and interpretations," he explained, not "adaptation" to the changing world but its "transformation." Just like Christians, Jews and Buddhists, he added, a bit too often. The differences that make the difference weren't part of this talk, or not for this audience.
James Cone is the father of liberation theology, still incandescent after forty years. It's hard to recall that before Cone started writing, the idea that Christianity was a religion of liberation for oppressed people was unknown, at least in the world of theology - he builds on African-American folk traditions. It was fascinating and moving to hear about his life, begun in a segregated town in Arkansas and winding up at Union Theological Seminary, a figure of international stature who inspired oppressed communities around the world to find in Christianity a resource rather than a restraint. His new project is a book on the cross and the lynching tree; how could Christian theologians in America during the century of lynching not have seen any parallels between Christ and scapegoated victims nailed to trees?
The final session proved too much to bear, and I left before it ended (my friend R was ready to leave sooner). Altizer is the most famous of the "death of God theologians," who had their moment a bit before Cone inaugurated liberation theology. Marxist (occasionally Stalinist) Lacanian Zizek is the darling and buffoon of the contemporary philosophy and critical theory; to be a true atheist, he asserted, you need to go through Christianity. Both call themselves "atheist Christians," Altizer because he thinks God killed himself on the cross, and Zizek because he knows how to get people's attention and keep it. I'd never been in a room, even a huge one, with Zizek before; his bad behavior and buffoonery made me wonder whether Sasha Baron Cohen had a convincing alibi for the afternoon. I also wondered, though with less anger than R, why anyone should be interested in autopsies when there's no corpse in sight.
This was too much of celebrity, and also a kind of come-down from the visionary to the merely flashy. I was good and ready for a drink before dinner!