Usually, the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting has all the repose of a bee hive, with way too many professors and graduate students swarming in and out of elevators and generally clogging all available floor space. This year, the recession and the extra-U.S. locale kept the numbers down, and Montreal’s mammoth Palais des congrès actually made it seem like a rather small affair. Shortage of attendees meant shortage of funds generally, and so the celebration of the organization’s centennial was a pale shadow of what some imagined it might be a couple of years ago. But then, this multi-disciplinary, hugely various body doesn’t make itself easy to love anyway.
The biggest star in attendance was Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim intellectual whom the Bush administration kept out of the U.S. via the Patriot Act’s “ideological exclusion provision”–a move that the Obama administration, typically, is expected to reverse but has not quite gotten around to yet. In any event, Canada doesn’t indulge in such ideological exclusions, so Ramadan was finally able to accept the AAR’s long-standing invitation to grace it with his presence. The talk of his I attended was, to put it generously, mediocre: a simplified rendition of the main argument of his next to last book, to the effect that reforming Islam depends on changing not the faith itself but interpretations of it–and on transforming Muslim minds–all in unspecified ways. Whatever. Even Ramadan’s Euro-panache didn’t keep a huge audience prepared to enthuse from drifting to the exits before he was done.
By contrast, Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher renowned among the theoretically inclined, provided some great (Groucho) Marxist stand-up in a session on the continuing life of Death of God theology. He was preceded by the granddad of the American D of G school, Thomas Altizer, whose pronouncements on Blake, Satan, Kierkegaard, et al. were delivered with such oracular verve that it had the audience grinning. Who would have thought the Death of God could be such fun?
On the religion and politics front, an Obamaite session on the presidency included such faith-based luminaries of the present administration as Eboo Patel, Susan Thistlethwaite, and Shaun Casey (the Wesley Theological Seminary professor not the model). Prominent in the Beltway enterprise of helping the Democrats get religion, Casey was indiscreet enough to give last year’s Obama campaign a C- on religious outreach, though not indiscreet enough to say why–other than to allow, “We could have done a lot better than we did.” By contrast, he gave high marks in the outreach department to both Howard Dean’s DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
He also made it clear that the biggest frustration came in dealing with religious leaders–“the most difficult of all constituencies…I think they are very limited.” By contrast, I guess, religion professors are positively tractable.