SAN ANTONIO (RNS) As The Literalist strolled the halls of the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, one woman stuck out. She was praying. At first, I assumed she was just meditating as any good religion professor does. But no, I heard her conversing with God.
I spoke with her on the condition of anonymity for fear of being ostracized in the religious studies department of her public university.
“I do believe in God,” she told me. “A discrete being somewhere who intervenes in our temporal affairs and with whom we can have direct communication.”
I didn’t believe her. I asked her to clarify if by “God,” she meant the “Divine Presence” or “love ethic” or “the Good.”
“No,” she replied firmly but quietly.
We took a walk outside the conference facility so she could really speak openly.
“You hear a lot about ‘God’ at these meetings, but no one dares ask each other what we mean when we say the word,” she told me over coffee. “We all just wink at each other about the elephant in the room, and then talk about ethics, history, sociology, you name it.”
She confided in me how student after student came to study religion at her university and left as atheists.
“Actually, some become panentheists,” she said. “That’s the lot who become religion professors. God is in everything and everything is in God. This coffee is just so refreshing, a true God moment.”
Returning to the conference, I spoke with Serene Jones, the president of the AAR board of directors and of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. “God is love,” she offered as a greeting.
I asked her about the existence of AAR members who actually believe God exists, in a real kind of way.
“Here?” she said in disbelief, and then took a moment to collect herself. “We welcome all, because the Divine welcomes all to the prophetic work of social justice.”
Even if they believe in a literal heaven and hell, miracles and creationism?
Jones sighed, then nervously laughed, and then smiled. “Of course!”