Monday, November 25, 2013

Beyond pluralism?

Sunrise over Baltimore, as seen from the 14th floor of the Marriott Courtyard Inner Harbor. AAR is nearly over for me - I'll attend another plenary and a panel and a half, and it's off to Minneapolis for a few days and Thanksgiving. It's been fun watching two Lang fellows - a faculty colleague and a student, both named Michael - navigate their first AAR, though I wish it were one of the more focused ones. The myriad panels, almost all of which one must miss as they are packed something like 50-deep (90 including SBL!), are overwhelming in number as well as specialization and jargon. Specialists can seem to be going to a hundred parallel conferences, never overlapping.

Sometimes, however, the big plenaries (chosen by the president) bring luminaries together around an exciting theme. This year's theme seems to be the rather passé topic of pluralism. The plenary by Karen Armstrong was like a TED talk for toddlers; the conversation with Diana Eck apparently even less interesting. Perhaps today's plenary on public presentations of pluralism will change that (hope springs eternal).

In the sessions themselves, however, pluralism is over, or taken for granted. Bringing world religions together in peace and mutual understanding seems a bizarrely abstract idea, and not just because we gave up on "world religions" years ago. We understand now that living in muddled worlds with multiple religious sources and resources is something like the norm, and that at no scale are people or peoples defined simply by a single identity or commitment (though it's interesting to study why and when they think they are, or say so). There seem to be few papers on pluralism, and many more going beyond that rather brittle concept to the messier realities of religion lived with others and other traditions. One session I attended (admittedly one on World Christianity) engaged syncretism, dualism, dual or multiple belonging, contextualization, vernacularization, indigenization, acculturation, blending, hybridity, bricolage and what a Catholic panelist called pansacramentalism. As many other panels are about intersectionality - how distinctions of every kind (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) are interwoven with the others in complicated and challenging ways.

Pluralism looks pretty simplistic by comparison. But I have to admit that if it's old news in the American Academy of Religion, it's still big news in the wider world, and something fervently to be wished for elsewhere. It's the ethos of much of the teaching of "world religions" attended by numberless students in our universities, and the structuring assumption of my own field "comparative religious ethics."

To be honest, pluralism lies at the heart of my understanding of what I'm about as a scholar of religion, too - recall my mantra that religious studies is the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real. Just last week I had to defend Diana Eck's case for pluralism (students were dismissing her arguments as ideological too quickly!) and became almost maudlin in describing how the encounter with another religious tradition - an other tradition - can be thrilling and humbling in a religious way: God (or whatever) is greater than any of our traditions, that greatness experienced as much in the incompatibilities of our traditions as in their commonalities. You can't have it all, but recognizing this is a powerful thing. Lee Yearley calls this feeling spiritual regret. Can one still feel that if one's understanding of religion insists on human messiness all the way down?

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