Friday, October 30, 2009

A few items on books and booksellers...

  • Christin Evans and Praveen Madan have started a promising series this past month at the Huffington Post, on independent bookstores. Their latest post is on the current dire straits of independent sellers, and what adaptations need to take place to make the industry viable for the future. Evans and Madan focus on the benefits of the inefficiencies of local sellers. An independent store may not be able to offer the latest bestseller at as cheap a price as Amazon, but they can offer an opportunity for a local writer, miles away from the bestseller list, to host a book event and share her thoughts with others. They can offer a place to browse spines and to sit down with other readers. The main point is that they can offer a place for books. The series is worth reading and acting upon. Find a local independent bookseller.
  • One point brought up in the Evans and Madan piece was the recent advent of print on demand technologies to small bookstores. The Espresso Book Machine has been gaining some attention in 2009, making its debut at the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont. Print on demand seems to be a significant benefit for print books in general, and especially for small bookstores that now have the opportunity of offering a wider catalog of books, allowing them to compete with Amazon warehouses more affordably. I was initially skeptical of the espresso machine- it seemed impersonal, and it rocked the boat of the received logic of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd printings. But I've warmed up to the idea. Distribution methods change over time, and this change seems to provide a number of benefits for bringing bibliographic material to life (or back to life). The historian of the book may have less artifacts of printing location, date, or run to work with on this model, but I think the significance of these bibliographic markers has already been dwindling over the past few decades. I can only see print-on-demand as a good thing for publishing and bookselling, and it seems like On Demand Books is being responsible in its work. One point of possible concern might be an increase in self-publication and a subsequent deterioration of the peer review process. As I see it, print-on-demand technologies should ideally change the material constraints of making books, but should not become a short-cut around the intellectual constraints of review and criticism. As a material tool, however, I think it's a great development.
  • Speaking of reviewing (and this moves on from books more to journals and articles), Brian Leiter posts a request from a journal editor on the importance of suggesting alternative manuscript reviewers. There has been some good discussion at Leiter Reports over the past few weeks on improving the review process in philosophy journals, much of which would apply to theology as well. Kent Anderson also recently took a look at a study of peer review in science journals, which claimed that peer review declined in helpfulness with the age of the reviewer. While the study looks largely unhelpful, the discussion brings up some important points about the review process.
  • To close, I'll note one recently published book that looks interesting. Colin Koopman's Pragmatism as Transition is out from Columbia University Press. One of the aspects of the pragmatist tradition that interests me most is what Rorty discussed as a "Hegelian" move made over against some (supposedly) static "Kantian" insights. The idea of historical and experiential process as central to the giving and taking of reasons injects historicity into the life of concept use. Koopman's study applies the insights of older pragmatist generations and more recent continental theorists to emphasize "transitionalism" in neo-pragmatist work.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Presidential search at Wheaton College

For those who are unaware, Wheaton College is in the midst of a presidential search. Duane Litfin, who has served in the position since 1993, is stepping down next summer. As I understand it he has been intending to retire for a little while now, and is doing so following the current capital campaign that's going on.

The selection committee has a website up that is worth visiting. I have not been able to attend any of the on-campus meetings about the selection process, so I don't know any more about it than is publicly available. The nomination/application period ends on November 1st, so they are about to cross a significant threshold in the process. The committee is soliciting input: you can email them at They will take nominations, and will of course continue to receive advice and opinions even after the nomination process closes this weekend.

I bring this up because the last presidential election at Wheaton was a significant one in its implications for evangelical scholarship and the position of the evangelical professoriate. Without rehearsing too much here (though see here), Nathan Hatch (now president of Wake Forest) was the prominent candidate for the position of president, and was a favorite amongst the faculty. The selection committee at the time, however, chose to bring in Litfin instead, which caused some bit of objection from a number of corners. In the last few years we have also seen a fair amount of concern over hiring-and-firing from Litfin's administration, most prominently with Dr. Joshua Hochschild. (I might add... while at the PMR conference two weekends ago, I was chatting with a Villanova professor and it came up that I was from Wheaton. The immediate follow-up was the firing of Dr. Hochschild, and this became the topic of the remainder of our conversation.)

As the committee decides on Litfin's successor, then, it may be worth forwarding them your thoughts. Wheaton's public face and academic legacy deserves careful consideration, especially from those who are in some way connected to the institution. The obvious concern, of course, goes something like this: "Well, plenty of people voiced their opinion a decade and a half ago, and were apparently ignored by those charged with making a selection." It may very well be that a similar backroom decision will take place in 2010 with little regard for our wishes. While they at least claim to be interested in our opinions and ready to take them into account, however, I think it's still worthwhile to write the selection committee a letter. Perhaps even mention the previous support of Hatch that went unheeded. Mention the exodus of certain professors like Mark Noll, and the dismissal of others like Joshua Hochschild. All of this is pertinent to the decision of who will be our next administrative leader.

To close on a lighter note, I ran across this story of a previous presidential passing-of-the-torch in ReCollections, the blog of our archives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conference on Hegel, Religion, and Politics

Worth noting is the Hegel Society of America's 2010 conference, with the theme of Hegel, Religion, and Politics. Full papers are due for review by January 31st.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New series in medieval intellectual history

Vasileios Syros sent me this, and I thought I'd pass it along for interested readers. He's editing a new series from Arizona State University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. ACMRS is one of two well-regarded medieval centers in the state, the other being at the University of Arizona as a result of the efforts of the late Heiko Oberman. The ACMRS is a research powerhouse in particular, and offers a long list of book series and journals, so the new series is in a good home. ACMRS works with Brepols and the David Brown Book Company, and tends to pull together publications from various societies at relatively affordable prices for the reader.

The first volume will be out next year, on the transmission of Aristotle's political ideas. Professor Syros told me that there is a second volume in preparation on Avicenna that will hopefully be out next year, and that their intention is to try to publish two volumes a year. Syros is very concerned with widening the breadth of our understanding of medieval intellectual culture, bringing in Persian, Indo-Islamic, and other voices to what is often a myopic focus on Western Europe. I'm sure this series will reflect that concern, and I think you can see it on display already in the contents of the first volume. Below is the series description:

Medieval Confluences: Studies in the Intellectual History and Comparative History of Ideas of the Medieval World
This series examines comparative medieval and early modern intellectual history and explores the comparative history of ideas in various medieval contexts (Christianity, Islam, Syriac, Jewish, Persian, Byzantine, and Indo-Islamic) and the interaction of these traditions.

General Editor: Prof. Vasileios Syros (University of Chicago / University of Helsinki)
Assistant Editor: Dr. Leslie S.B. MacCoull (Society for Coptic Archaeology, North America)

Editorial board:
Prof. Muzaffar Alam (University of Chicago)
Prof. Linda Darling (University of Arizona)
Prof. Anthony Kaldellis (Ohio State University)
Prof. Cary J. Nederman (Texas A & M University)
Prof. Jean-Pierre Rothschild (Ecole pratique des hautes etudes & CNRS)
Prof. Mauro Zonta (University of Rome, La Sapienza)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kathryn Tanner elected president of the American Theological Association

Somehow I missed this back in May. From Circa, the newsletter of the University of Chicago Divinity School:

Tanner Elected President of the American Theological Society

Kathryn Tanner, the Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Theology, has been elected President of the American Theological Society. As President of the ATS, Tanner will preside over the 2009–10 sessions and give a presidential address to the hundred member group.

Founded almost one hundred years ago, the ATS encompasses leading scholars from across the denominational spectrum. Former presidents include scholars Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Cardinal Avery Dulles and Geoffrey Wainwright, the founding editor of Christianity Today. Chosen by her peers, Tanner is the third woman elected president of the organization, which meets annually at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey to discuss current theological issues.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Two journals for medieval theology

Mark Johnson of Marquette recently noted a call for papers from Mediaevalia Philosophica Polonorum. I had never heard of the journal before, but it appears to have some important material in it. MPP began in 1958 (I gather sporadically, based on its current volume count), and has since 2006 been publishing one issue annually. The focus of the journal is stated: "critical editions of medieval texts, articles on medieval philosophy, theology and history of medieval science, as well as up-to-date information about the current research in the field of medieval studies." Articles are in English, French, German, or Latin.

Another important journal to take note of, though it has only been out a few years, is Archa Verbi, the yearbook of the International Society for the Study of Medieval Theology. Published annually since 2004, Archa Verbi has some really great work, and I've already been making some use of it (Perkams's 2004 article on trinitarian attributes). Articles are in English, French, German, Italian, or Spanish.

It should be noted that on their websites, Mediaevalia Philosophica Polonorum only lists contents from 2006, and Archa Verbi only lists contents from 2004-2007. I'm not sure whether this means that publication is backed up a bit, or simply that websites are not up to date. The Regenstein Library has Archa Verbi listed up to the 2008 volume, but we only seem to have Mediaevalia Philosophica Polonorum through 1996.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A few items...

Calls for Papers
  • The International Journal for the Sociology of Language is soliciting proposals for an upcoming theme issue on "language and religion."

  • Robert Brandom's Reason in Philosophy is out. We're reading Brandom for the pragmatism seminar, and if you're not familiar with his work you should really explore it a bit. It's been a joy to read- he has a fascinating mind. This almost embarrassingly superlative review from the back of Reason in Philosophy sums up quite well, I think, the tour de force that is Bob Brandom:
This work is a formidable achievement that demonstrates deep historical knowledge and awesome hermeneutic and systematic philosophical powers that, in this degree, are conjoined at best in a handful of people alive. This is in every way a superior work of philosophy, and shows why Robert Brandom holds a singular position in the discipline worldwide.
--Sebastian Rödl, Universität Basel.
  • Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is out. This may seem like an odd book to highlight for clavi non defixi. It's the text around which our Introduction to Religion course is structured- a 12th century Islamic tale about a man raised in the wild who teaches himself the sciences and eventually reaches a sort of mystical enlightenment. The reason why I highlight it is because, as a text, it lays out a rather interesting take on philosophy and the sciences in the medieval period. The author discusses the legacy of al Farabi, al Ghazali, Avicenna, and others in the introduction, providing some facinating contemporary commentary on the state of philosophy in Spain. As the study of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas turns increasingly to the influence of Islamic conversation partners, this book will be a valuable contribution to understanding the period even for scholars of explicitly Christian intellectual history.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rome makes ecumenical work with Protestants more difficult

That should be the title of this article. Not "Vatican creates new structure for Anglicans". There is no structure in place for Anglicans, but only for those who leave the Anglican Church.

I think that a few years ago I would have received this news positively; it's surely a good thing that Rome is extending its arms to Christians in other communions, and there's no question that many Anglicans or former Anglicans have grievances and are looking for a home where they can rest safely. But I've lost a bit of my former patience with the one-way street that tends to be Rome. Or rather, I've become more realistic about Roman claims to unity, and don't look at the Church that happens to have the word "Catholic" in its name as self-evidently living up to that name.

Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christianity Unity, has been against this sort of massive amnesty because of the damage it does to ongoing ecumenical work. And presumably the PCPCU would be the curial body responsible for relations with other Christian churches. But this directive comes from William Levada and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Not where you'd expect an ecumenical welcome to come from. And that's because it's not an ecumenical welcome. There is no recognition of Protestant legitimacy, but only a Roman Catholic recogntion of Roman Catholic vestiges in those who are former Protestants moving through the process of recognition by Rome.

I have nothing against Anglicans or other Protestants who decide to become Roman Catholic; that decision is perfectly fine. But these conversions have nothing to do with ecumenical advances or mutual recognition of separated Christian communions. They are quite the opposite of that. Catholicity is not advanced by these moves, rather folks are just shuffled from one group into another. Recognizing orders and eucharist in the same way that we have a basic recognition of baptism would be an ecumenical advance. This is not.

My recent article in IJST on "'Fullness of the Spirit' and 'Fullness of Catholicity' in Ecclesial Communion" gets into this. If you email me (evan.f.kuehn -@-, I'd be happy to send you a pdf.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Erin on theologians

I'm back from PMR, and have a busy week ahead. Probably won't be posting much to clavi non defixi.

In the meantime, you should read Erin's further comments on "theologians and their crazy talk". Erin walks the treacherous line between church and university, and does so very well. There's a recognition of the work of pastors and theologians, and some perceptive criticisms of both, that I think avoids the common errors of over-pietizing theological work or falling into the converse trap of letting theology be led around by the cultural expectations for an academic elite (this, I take it, is the theologian's version of the pastor's temptation to be a businessperson/entertainer).

Friday, October 16, 2009

PMR Conference at Villanova

Today I'm at Villanova University for the 34th Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference. I'll be presenting a paper on Saturday morning in a panel on Medieval Political Thought. Kerri Kupac of Fordham University will also be giving a paper, on "Isolation as Divine Punishment, and its Role in Medieval Political Philosophy". Peter Busch of Villanova will be giving a paper on "Dante’s Rejection of Augustine’s Politics". Thomas Renna of Saginaw Valley State University will be presenting on "Avignon Critics: Dante to Catherine of Siena". My paper will be on "Melchizedek as Exemplar for Kingship in Twelfth Century Political Thought".

This will be my first time at Villanova, and at the PMR conference. The reputations of both are familiar, however, and I imagine it will be an enriching weekend.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Local canons

Before our pragmatism seminar began yesterday, Kevin Hector was asking us which texts we thought were part of the "canon" of philosophical works at the University of Chicago Divinity School. That is, which texts were continually referenced in lectures and discussions-- which ones, even if not assigned, could be easily identified as necessary reading in order to properly orient oneself in the ethos of the institution.

I was not familiar enough with the philosophical lay of the land to contribute to the conversation, but it was interesting listening. One student suggested that for Marion and his circle, Being and Time was necessary. Kant was the most obvious thinker; even I, in my limited interactions, could pick up on the centrality of his first Critique, and within my first two semesters at the Divinity School I had been assigned Kant's Religion twice, by two different professors. Another student brought up Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations as a work that should be canonical, though it did not quite enjoy that status. I believe Hegel's Phenomenology was mentioned but not accepted into the inner circle of Chicago texts.

Eliade's work was brought up as something that was decidedly not canonical; that it was even a faux pas to introduce it. If I'm ignorant of the philosophical culture here, I'm even more ignorant of the history of religions culture, so again I couldn't really submit an opinion. The mention struck me as odd, though, since Eliade is so tied to the "Chicago School" on religion. But one thing that I do see at the Divinity School (and this can be both good and bad) is that the young eat their parents rather than vice versa. I imagine that the decidedly critical attitude here leads to a good bit of generational turnover in ideas.

Hector was less interested in discussing theology texts, as he took them to be more readily identifiable. Upon volunteering that he could think of five or so off the top of his head, someone mentioned that Schleiermacher was surely one of them. Hector said that they were all Schleiermacher texts... he was joking, but the kernel of truth therein was rather large, I think.

The exercise was quite helpful. Hector said, and I'm inclined to agree, that local canons are useful for communities of discourse insofar as they provide points of commonality. A set of texts presents a set of problems and perspectives. And it doesn't matter so much whether the reading list is the "correct" one; the canon is not scriptural. Its purpose is to stand as a framework for thinking in the context of one's immediate neighbors in a way that will become gradually, mutually intelligible.

While the point didn't come up yesterday, I think it's fair to say that there will also be instances of friction amongst canons that are constructive. The canonical status of Being and Time, for instance, only characterizes a portion of the Divinity School. When these folks talk with others who are not of the Marion circle, there will hopefully be fruitful dialogue as a result of the interaction of differing perspectives. There is also a significant presence of process thought here that will certainly contribute to, if not define, the conversation.

Hector himself is another instance of this friction. In our pragmatism seminar, he is bringing in texts that are relatively canonical at Princeton, though not native to Chicago soil (Dewey's ghost haunts elsewhere, I suppose). Wilfrid Sellars, Robert Brandom, Donald Davidson, and Jeffrey Stout loom large. Victor Preller's Divine Science and the Science of God is also a work that is somewhat unknown outside of certain (East Coast) circles, but has been brought up periodically during discussion. The genealogy is notable. The footnotes of Hector's Theology Without Gaps are clear indicators of a canon that he has now introduced in the Divinity School for the purposes of dialogue on theology, pragmatism, and the philosophy of religions. The fruitfulness of the interaction is also already notable- in the spring, Hector will be working with Richard Fox (who does history of religions) to give the Brauer Seminar on "Religion and the Idea of Practice".

The discussion on canon was helpful for thinking through the task of theology (or any other academic task) in community. It may be worthwhile to consider what similar canons dwell in your own institutional home, as a way of establishing a deeper sense of where the current conversation is going. This also may be a more constructive way of thinking about the "ranking" of theology programs than the recent attempt by R.R. Reno to separate the sheep from the goats. What canons inform various communities of discourse, and which institutional community is the best place to get certain tasks done in academic theology?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Theologians talking to one another about themselves

There have been a number of discussions recently about the status of theologians and theology in the academy. I don't know what the trigger of all this was (perhaps Ben's discussion on theology as research a little while back), but some fruitful dialogue has resulted. Halden spoke a bit about moral failures of theologians, but also suggested that the disconnect between theology and piety can be worthwhile. Adam, I think, offers a helpful response on Halden's "ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome".

Also worth noting is Samuel's discussion of the academic marginalization of theology, and his suggestion that in many ways this marginalization might be quite deserved:
I’m always astounded by astronomy, how vast the scale of their material is. It’s incredibly relativing [sic], and I think theologically healthy, to be reminded of the contours and scope of the universe. It also gives me some doubt about the parity between the contributions scientists and theologians in recent times have made. Could anyone claim that theology in the past hundred years has even helped and improved the church (never mind the “world”) on anything like the scale that science has improved our lives? I say this as one of the most anti-postivistic, die-hard-defender-of-the-humanities types around. Generally speaking, I tend to find that many theologians are actually not doing anything in their work that is recognizably knowledge-giving, insight-enhancing.

On the other hand, Jason offers some quotes from Barth on doing theology in the university, and I think the critique of the status of theology and religious studies is especially helpful (this quote is Jason's quote of Barth):
A faculty in the science of religion has no reason for existence whatsoever; for though it is true that knowledge of religious phenomena is indispensable to the historian, the psychologist, and the philosopher, it is also true that these scholars are all capable of acquiring and applying this knowledge themselves, without theological assistance. Or is the so-called ‘religious insight’ the property only of that rare historian or psychologist who is also a theologian? Is the secular scientist incapable of studying the documents of religion with the same love and the same wisdom? Palpably not.

I don't know if I have too much to say on all this, but the posts are worth reading through. I resonate with both the critique of theology amongst the sciences offered by Samuel, as well as the critique of certain sciences from the vantage point of theology offered by Jason. Barth's point on what today is known as "religious studies" is worth making- but it also needs to be recognized that we can't exactly implement his critique without a massive overhaul of numerous university disciplines... not only religious studies, but any that are defined by the phenomenon they claim to study rather than by their unique right and ability to study it. And I just don't see how something like that is really needed, as long as we recognize the relative status of the identity of something like "religious studies". It should also be remembered that Barth elsewhere discusses theology in terms of its object/subject of study, so he is willing to frame theology in terms of its reference as well as its methodological ability. But as a caution and a qualifier, I think, Barth's points are worthwhile. And they are certainly helpful in defending the place of theology in the university, if not for doing away with religious studies departments.

Samuel's discussion of theology in terms of its relative failure when compared to other sciences is worth reading as a goad to better work (and theology is not the only discipline he has criticized). The point pretty obviously isn't, I think, to offer a critique of the sort that K.L. Noll did this past summer. Theology certainly can present knowledge, and arguments against this claim are simply the other side of the Barthian coin- the scientist of religion that sees a science of religion as de-legitimizing theological work. Samuel's point, in contrast, is that theology often doesn't live up to its potential. And on this point, Barth would certainly have been in agreement.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A few items... book reviews, conferences, and academia in recession

Book reviews
  • a roundtable discussion on the future of the book review in print and online, put on by Princeton UP and the Center for the Study of Books and Media.
  • Others may already be aware of this, but I'm not an SBL member and only just discovered that Review of Biblical Literature puts all of its book reviews online in fulltext. There's also a straightforward system for volunteering to review books. I've been quite impressed with how SBL runs itself; my sense is that there is a lot more participation amongst the membership, and they've employed some smart processes for getting things done. When AAR and SBL split, I recall that SBL extended a warm invitation to the Karl Barth Society, and that sort of cooperative approach seems to be true of the society more generally.

  • The Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology is putting on a 2010 conference on Peace, and has a call for papers up.

Academia in Recession
  • Some good news. The American Council of Learned Societies has announced a two-year fellowship program, looking for 50 candidates who are recent PhD's (2008-2009) and do not currently hold a tenure-track position. The fellowship seems specifically to want to target the tough job market, and hopes to set an example for other initiatives: "[an ACLS officer] said that the council is under no illusion that these 50 two-year positions will reshape the job market. Rather, he said, 'we hope this inspires others to do something, too.'"
  • From the University of Chicago, President Zimmer has expressed the administration's intentions to expand the faculty and to make sure graduate programs that have scaled back in light of the recession continue to grow. Again, the significance of this move is what it urges for the rest of academia. Obviously not all schools will have the resources to do what UChicago is doing, but it's good to see that the humanities and social sciences are the subject of some bold initiatives. It will be especially important to defend their continued work and growth amidst the STEM fields, which will probably receive a good bit of attention for obvious vocational reasons. (h/t Adam)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

AAR's Statement of Best Practices for Posting Placement Information

The latest issue of Religious Studies News, the AAR's official newsletter, mentions an important statement approved by the Board of Directors this past summer on Best Practices for the Posting of Graduation and Placement Records.

In my recent post on the ranking of theology programs, John P. brought up some crucial points about the logistical issues involved in funding doctoral studies and job prospects after the fact. Considering carefully whether a program will be a dead-end for a future academic career may sound cynical to a still-idealistic prospective student, but these questions need to be asked. Unfortunately, there is too often too little information provided by departments to help applicants make educated decisions where to place one's resources, energy, and years of commitment. From the AAR statement:
In a 2008 survey conducted by the AAR, over 80 percent of current graduate students in the field responded that they had little or no understanding of the job market for PhD graduates in their specific field of study when they started their studies, and 82 percent reported that they had little or no understanding of the job placement success for graduates in their field of study from the institution they were attending.
This, it seems to me, could be partially the fault of students who don't investigate enough. But certainly a good deal of the blame lies with the departments themselves. The AAR's new statement urges departments in religious studies to post information about current enrollment, length-of-study, and job placements of graduated students. They recommend that this information be updated at least annually and be posted in a prominent location.

There are ways to find out some of this information if a department doesn't provide it., for instance, allows you to rank schools based on certain criteria, including job placement. They pull this information, not from departments, but from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, a project of the NSF and other societies that tracks graduates and where they are currently employed. I can't imagine that this information is quite as accurate as a department's own records of dozens rather than thousands of students. But again, this is the dilemma- where can prospective students reasonably turn when important information is not available to them from academic institutions?

Be sure to read the best practices statement, and do some investigating about which departments have this information and which do not. I imagine that even if it's not posted publicly, an inquiry to the admissions office might turn up the records in some cases.

And please, if you know that your department does provide this information, post it in the comment section. Let others know which programs are providing the best informational support for their current and future students. Wheaton College, for instance, has a well set-up page highlighting the job placements of all of its doctoral program graduates. If the University of Chicago Divinity School has this sort of information publicly posted, then I'm not aware of it. The Committee on Social Thought has a list, however.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nuts & Bolts

As I keep adding folks to the blogroll, and my list of topic labels gets longer, I'm trying to work on some interior decorating here at clavi non defixi.

I've switched to a label cloud for a change of pace, but I don't know whether a long list might just be easier to use. I'm thinking about taking down the "resources" box, since I only have a handful of random sources anyway- I may link to another page where I can put up a fuller list of resources without taking up too much space here (I have a private google site that I've been tinkering with for a while that's basically just a whole bunch of links to different resources in academic theology and related disciplines... I may make that public at some point). I lightened the background color a little while back to brighten things up and because I had a few comments of people who couldn't distinguish a hyperlink from regular text very well.

So nothing major is being switched around, but let me know if you like or don't like anything in particular, or if there's something that you think would be good to change.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A few items...

  • New FTC guidelines for endorsements of products in blogs are upsetting publishers. Endorsers will need to disclose any "material connections" between themselves and the sellers, and while this requirement intends to protect consumers from reviewers with ulterior motives, it also seems to present a lot of problems for the normal book review system, which tends to include the giving out of free copies of books to reviewers. See responses from Duke UP here, and from Ron Hogan here. Other responses will surely be forthcoming.
  • Adam Eitel, a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of an article in IJST last year that gained a good deal of attention, has some work in progress that will be worth looking out for. He is apparently in the midst of an article on “Aquinas, Preller, and God-Talk: a Response to Kevin Hector”.
  • Jim West has pointed out that the Biblical Studies department undergraduate program at the University of Sheffield may be forced to close. Contact information of the Vice Chancellor is provided for those who would like to voice their concern. UPDATE: it appears that a website has been set up, dedicated to the cause of the department.
  • The tentative 2009/10 schedule for the University of Chicago Theology Workshop is up. It looks as if a good deal more Chicago students are presenting this year than last year, which should make for some rewarding opportunities to interact on current research projects.
  • Brad has provided us with a wonderful piece, written in the scholastic style of a quaestio disputata, on baptism in the triune name.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bibliographic information on Jerome Taylor

This past Christmas, I discovered that my sister-in-law is the granddaughter of Jerome Taylor, the medievalist who translated Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon and M.-D. Chenu's famous study Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century.

Since then I've been working on reconstructing Taylor's academic career, more as a personal hobby in the same way that someone might work on a family genealogy. It has been somewhat confusing, as there is another scholar with the name L. Jerome Taylor (who seems to be a Walker Percy scholar). Often the two Jeromes are actually conflated into one author heading in catalogs (see here for further thoughts on the perils of metadata).

I'm compiling a sketchy vitae of his work, and I thought I'd ask whether anyone had further information that they could offer. Here's what I've got:

1957: The Origin and Early Life of Hugh St. Victor: An Evaluation of the Tradition, Notre Dame: Mediaeval Institute, 70 p.

1960-61: Chaucer Criticism- Vol. I, The Canterbury Tales, Vol. II. Troilus and Criseyde and the Minor Poems. Ed. Richard J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor. Notre Dame: University Press, 1960,1961.

1961: Hugh of St. Victor. Didascalicon. Jerome Taylor, trans. New York: Columbia University Press.

1964: Guggenheim fellow in the humanities for medieval literature.

1966: first meeting of the Medieval Association of the Pacific, Jerome Taylor spoke with 5 others on an unknown topic ( The journal Chronica was started the next year, and Taylor published regularly in it.

1968: M.-D. Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century: essays on new theological perspectives in the Latin West, trans. Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little, University of Chicago Press.

1970: Panel Discussion, “The Medieval Villain” at the Midwest Medieval History Conference, Oct. 10th, Madison WI, with Joseph R. Berrigan, Jr. and Sarah M. Farley (Taylor listed as professor at University of Wisconsin). From the meeting minutes (
“…a certain man of letters, Jerome Taylor by name, did boldly point to his candidate, the Blessed Bernard of Clairvaux, and then proceeded with dialectical (say rather "diabolical") wit, to transmute the greatest virtues into the the greatest vices: and--wonderful to say--everyone laughed, some because it seemed preposterous, others because it seemed true, while yet some few laughed because they were inwardly proposing to themselves still other medieval worthies no less ridiculous--what more need I say?--the session dissolved, by divine inspiration as it were, into howls of glee, and cackles of delight…”
1972: Medieval English Drama, ed. Jerome Taylor and Alan H. Nelson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1996: From the University of Chicago Magazine, June 1996,
"Jerome Taylor, AM'45, PhD'59, professor emeritus of English language & literature at the University of Wisconsin, died January 21 at age 77. The author of seven books, he had also taught at Dartmouth, Notre Dame, and Chicago. Survivors include his wife, Rose; five sons; four daughters, including Jane Taylor Fary, AB'71; and 13 grandchildren."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gareth Matthews and Augustine

I just noticed yesterday that a recent issue of the journal Metaphilosophy includes a symposium on the work of Gareth Matthews. All of the articles were presented at the 2005 "Garyfest," a celebration of his career and coming retirement from the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts.

Readers of this blog will know Matthews from his work on Augustine- he edited the Cambridge edition of de Trin 8-15 and wrote or edited other books on Augustine. Matthews has also worked extensively in ancient philosophy and philosophy of the child.

Be sure to check out The Augustinian Tradition, edited by Matthews and published by the UC Press. I mentioned earlier that UC Press is having a huge sale on its books, and this volume is one of the ones that will be less than half price until the end of the month.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Commentaries on Wilfrid Sellars

We're reading Wilfrid Sellars' s 1956 essay Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind for the pragmatism seminar tomorrow. The essay was a pivotal critique of "the myth of the given" in epistemology, and would probably be considered one of the most important works of 20th century analytic philosophy.

EPM can be found fulltext online here. It was originally published in volume 1 of the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science series.

In 1997, the essay was reprinted in a volume edited by Richard Rorty, with a reading guide by Robert Brandom. This is the text that we're reading for the pragmatism course, and sections of Brandom's guide are assigned for a later week (we're also reading a number of other essays by Brandom).

I'm awaiting the Rorty-Brandom book, which will hopefully arrive through ILL soon. In the meantime, I've been reading EPM in another printing. In 2000, Willem de Vries and Timm Triplett published Knowledge, Mind, and the Given. The book consists of a long introduction of EPM, a commentary of the book, and the original text itself. This version is not on the reading list for the seminar, but another work of de Vries on Sellars is recommended reading. Timm Triplett is a foundationalist, while Willem de Vries follows Sellars, and the idea of two thinkers who disagree on a text writing a commentary of it together is interesting in itself. It's been very helpful to me so far in understanding Sellar's argument, and while I can't at this point make a comparison between it and the Rorty-Brandom volume, I would definitely recommend de Vries-Triplett for those who would like to get into Sellars. I read their introduction, then a Sellars section followed by its commentary, followed by the next Sellars section, followed by commentary, etc. This approach has been working well so far.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Reno's New Rankings: a response

Ranking Theology Programs- the very idea

Theology lacks the rigid institutional pecking order that some other disciplines have, and I think that’s largely a good thing. At the same time, such a rankings vacuum creates some of its own shortcomings. Students entering grad school depend upon reliable information on the capacity and suitability of different programs, and often this information is lacking. We should, therefore, welcome contributions to transparency with regard to this sort of information when it happens to come along. R.R. Reno attempted to offer just that in 2006, writing a subjective and cursory ranking of theology graduate programs in North America for First Things magazine. Yet despite the commendable goal of helping students figure out how to pursue studies in a wise manner, it also opened itself up to a good bit of (quite justified) critique.

After three years, Reno has returned to offer another ranking of theology programs at First Things, and this one strikes me as just as unhelpful as the last one. To be fair, Reno never claimed to be attempting anything that was exhaustive or scientific, so it wouldn't be appropriate to expect the equivalent of the Philosophical Gourmet in the space of a single-author column. But it seems to me that there's an egregious amount of favoritism, superficiality, and limited evaluation in the column.

Reno's Remnant

Let's begin at the end of Reno's 2006 piece, which actually wasn't half bad. Of Ephraim Radner and David Bentley Hart, he wrote:
These two remarkable theological minds are not just in less-than-ideal places for an aspiring, adventuresome graduate student interested in serious theology in the service of the Church, as is the case with Marshall. Radner and Hart are totally inaccessible. Radner is a parish priest in an Episcopal church in Pueblo, Colorado. Hart has a temporary, one-year appointment at Providence College. For all intents and purposes, both have been excluded from academia.
I don't know about "excluded," but his point is well-taken, and it's worth making. We need to be discerning, and pay attention to where the innovative work is being done. The problem comes, however, when Reno begins to go a bit too far in identifying a remnant of "good" theological work in the wider wasteland of North American academia. In this bleak picture, two schools garnered "even a relatively strong thumbs up", and the rest of the list related a rather woeful amount of shortcomings. Some departments were "pretty antagonistic to the idea that what the Church has taught over the centuries is, in some important and legitimate way, to be found in the Scriptures." Other places were "aggressively post-Christian." Still others "have seen a decline in serious intellectual life brought on by the intensely ideological agendas."

Reno, in other words, took a very good point about the precarious state of innovative work in academic theology (the point could be made of most humanities disciplines as well), and inflated it into a sorting of the sheep from the goats, department by department, based on a rather over-psychologized sense of their underlying motivations for or against nothing less than the very proclamation and continuity of the Church. Much as I'd want to be on the look-out for such hostilities, I just don't think he's being at all realistic. And worse than being unrealistic, he's distorting the way that prospective students look at graduate programs in theology. The attitude is much the same in his most recent piece, and I'll move on to that.

As in 2006, Reno sees Duke and Notre Dame as the top schools to go to for graduate education in theology. I won't argue with that- whether or not there are better programs out there, these two are certainly worthy of substantial praise. We begin to see the ideological commitments behind Reno's argument, however, when he mentions the supposed shortcomings of Notre Dame's systematics faculty:
The old Liberal Catholic Establishment continues to hold sway, which can lead to a narrow fixation on the old battles of the post-Vatican II generation, as well as the grotesque reduction of modern Catholic theology to the heroic figures of the mid-twentieth century.
This hearkens back to Reno's 2006 article, where he blamed the Jesuits for a "liberal-revisionist agenda" that "may have seemed cutting-edge, but these days it's pretty tired, and tiresome."

I won't deny Reno's point, in some ways. More traditionalist and conservative theologies are enjoying the fruits of some really wonderful work these days, and there is a sense that what was radical a few decades ago just isn't anymore. I'd even personally associate with some of the schools of thought that Reno is trying to defend here. But:

1) It's stupid to speak of "the Jesuits" as some academic monoculture, and the same goes for liberal Protestantism. The complexities of these and other theological traditions cannot be boiled down to some political drumbeat or cultural agenda, and Reno is lazy to make such a claim.

2) It's stupid to act as if such things as the theological interpretation of scripture, or the embrace of a ressourcement project, or the courage to respond to the errors of secularism, neo-liberalism, or modernity are somehow not being done in all sorts of theological circles- liberal, conservative, and otherwise. They are. Reno is excited about the work of some theologians, and I'm happy for him. But he needs to open his eyes and realize that his favorite theologians don't have a monopoly on vitality and innovation. This sort of triumphalism can unfortunately be present in lots of Barthian, Radically Orthodox, or Ratzingeresque Catholic circles, and I think it would be best (despite my own sympathies with all of these groups) to be a bit more humble about who the cool kids on the block are right now. Contextual theologies aren't "stuck in the '70s." Nor is liberalism. Academic theology is flourishing in lots of different, contradictory directions. And that's a good thing.

3) I think the ecclesio-centric aspect of Reno's rankings can be misleading. Reno's opposition to a place like Princeton, or UVA, or Brown, or Columbia because of the correlation with culture and society that is emphasized relies too much on theology running the show. His worry is of theology being the "tentative intellectual outsider." While such marginalization would be troublesome if true, what Reno's opposition amounts to is an inability to play nice with others. These departments aren't shutting out theological voices, and the attention to non-theological norms and questions strengthens theological projects rather than pushes them aside. We need these conversations, and it's no virtue to eagerly put ourselves into a situation of academic ghettoization because theology doesn't possess a super majority of the faculty. Really, truly, they're not out to get us. And really, truly, the Church isn't going to burst forth in some institutional apotheosis just because a faculty of "ecclesial theologians" is lined up somewhere. If anything, their work might stagnate because they aren't being asked enough questions from outside.

Reno's essay seems like something that would appeal to First Things readers and audiences that are caught up with a concern to emphasize the present normativity and indeed resurgence of a tradition that is Christian in a classical and an orthodox sense- as defined, of course, by them. An "us-against-them" mentality runs through the whole thing that doesn't seem to see dialogue across confessional or methodological boundaries as being helpful or formative.

Another thing that's bothersome about Reno's piece is that it focuses on a shortlist of well-known names and reduces the American theological scene to these people. Hauerwas, Hütter, Griffiths, Hays, Tanner, O'Regan, Stout, Radner, Seitz, Barnes, Volf, Levering... don't get me wrong- with a few exceptions, Reno picks a wonderful set of names to highlight. But surely he can try a little bit harder than simply spouting off folks in his own graduate cohort and those who have tended to fill the footnotes of Pro Ecclesia, Modern Theology, and International Journal of Systematic Theology over the past two decades. It just strikes me as too easy, and really, too cursory. Besides a few token mentions, Reno ignores a ton of people who are less well-known, and who positively make a number of departments (departments that aren't on Reno's list, of course). And seriously, if a prospective graduate student in theology is looking for schools, Hauerwas, Volf, et al. are the names and the reputations that will already be obvious. It doesn't help to rehearse them yet again and ensure that less well-known scholars continue to go under the radar for lack of attention.

Some Things Reno Should Have Said

I don't want to get into "ranking" programs too much myself. I try to stay away from using this blog for polemics and opinionated commentary, as I intend it to be more of a resource hub for work in historical and systematic theology. But it seems resourceful to at least think through the academic situation a bit, so I'll do some of that now while attempting to avoid making a shortlist.

1) Reno should have mentioned Union Seminary. He dismisses Columbia in passing, but he's wrong to do so. He also should have mentioned Vanderbilt and Emory, which he brought up in 2006 only to criticize. He also should have mentioned the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, and Claremont, and he should not have dismissed the Boston schools. And all of these are the obvious names; we're still talking prestigious schools and not diamonds in the rough. Reno seems to ignore these places because of a perceived old-school liberalism that he thinks gets in the way of good theology.

2) To his credit, Reno mentions some schools toward the end that don't tend to get as much press. But he seems to be more keen on the Catholic schools here, and even here he only mentions a few. Some mention of other Catholic schools, as well as smaller Protestant and Orthodox ones, would have been helpful. He also sticks to the superficial list of names mentioned above... Levering is a great theologian and it makes sense to highlight his hire at Dayton, but two other professors were hired at the same time as Levering, and they don't even get mentioned by Reno.

3) I would have ranked Marquette higher. Their faculty is just stellar, and I think that they are only getting more attention each year. This will be the place to be in a few years, like Chicago, or Yale, or Princeton, or Notre Dame, or Duke were/are now.

4) Reno should have paid some attention to evangelical schools. Wheaton has gained some great faculty over the past few years, including Beth Felker Jones, George Kalantzis, Jennifer McNutt, and Keith Johnson. Vanhoozer has also lately arrived from Trinity. Places like Fuller also would have been good to mention in this category.

5) Another difficult issue with any theology rankings is the problem of seminaries and denominational schools that have some very good work going on, but are not research powerhouses the way the bigger and more prestigious institutions are. I don't think these schools should be ignored, but I also don't know how one should take them into account. The job market is tough, and there's no question that brand name will go a long way, for better or worse. I wouldn't fault Reno for not discussing this more delicate issue, as it's just difficult for any ranking to take into account both the prestigious universities that are usually rightly lauded, and the less prestigious ones that will have faculties just as sharp and worthy, but perhaps also carry some unfortunate liabilities on account of their size.

Some thoughts on Chicago

I had a number of issues with Reno's thoughts on the schools he mentioned; often I was puzzled and disagreed, other times I think he was fair enough. I won't bother to mention all of my reactions, as there are others in a better position to give an assessment. But I thought I'd discuss Chicago quickly, since that's where I am now. I'd qualify that I don't have extensive experience at the Divinity School, and I'm not on campus regularly, so my opinion will not be the most expert.

The University of Chicago is apparently on the decline because it's saddled to the sinking ship of Ye Olde Liberalism. This is awfully convenient for Reno's narrative, but entirely useless as a guide. In addition to Tanner, every professor I've encountered has been challenging and concerned with doing excellent constructive work in theology. I don't know how Reno concludes that "orthodox Christian theology is marginal at best," my only guess is that he looks at a school with faculty committees on the history of religions, Islamic studies, History of Judaism, sociology of religion, etc., and assumes that this inherently presents a competitive and marginalizing situation for theology. On this, see my point above about Reno's ecclesiological bunker mentality. I think such concerns are symptomatic of an underlying insecurity on his part, rather than any real opposition to orthodox voices in theology.

Another point I'd add about Chicago- I've been shocked at how many conservative students I have run into here. For those who are interested in applying, you will not be alone and up against a bullying crowd if you come from a conservative Evangelical or Catholic background. This actually took me by surprise; I was expecting less conservatism than I've encountered thus far. I wouldn't worry- here or anywhere else- about being shoved to the side by those nasty liberals that your pastors and undergraduate professors told you ghost stories about. Academic theology in America these days is being bombarded by conservative Evangelicals and Catholics, and it's going to be tough to find any place where good work from these perspectives isn't well-respected. Don't fall into Reno's trap of mistaking a pluralist environment where not everyone agrees with a hostile environment where people don't care about doing good theology.

Okay, I'm Finally Ready to Conclude

Although I have a lot of complaints about Reno's piece, I think it's a good idea that he bothered to write a column like this. What we need, however, is a dozen such columns from people of widely differing perspectives. This would provide better context and highlight the fact that there is no single answer for where the best place to study theology is. For some people who are looking for a certain type of environment, Reno's advice may be quite good (although I think I know "these people" and "this type" well enough to say that even here Reno unfortunately leads his readers astray). For many others, he's just muddying the waters and being unfair.

Theology is in a good place right now in North America. There is a lot of good work coming out, and there are a lot of new rising stars just beginning as faculty or still in graduate programs. While job prospects in the humanities are not good, most departments are also being smart about this by tightening their acceptance quotas in order not to flood the system with lots of unemployable PhD's. This will only make the next generation of theologians tougher and sharper. So I don't think it's right to look at the situation as one of gloom and doom, nor do I think it's appropriate to say that only a handful of schools... and really only two... are getting the job done. Prospective students should ask around and chat with lots of different people from different perspectives. This is the only way that they'll come to some worthwhile conclusions about graduate school. Hopefully this post has helped a bit towards that; feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment section or contact me if you want to discuss things further.

New series from Brill on Systematic Theology

Brill is starting a new series, Studies in Systematic Theology:

Brill’s series Studies in Systematic Theology accepts for publication monographs of high academic quality in the field of the systematic research of Christian doctrinal theology. All books published in the series must employ a systematic method of research. The scope of the series covers the entire history of the development of the Christian doctrine and theological thought, although the series focuses on modern theological questions. Works relating systematic theology with biblical theology are also welcomed. Studies in Systematical Theology is an ecumenical and non-confessional series of publications, it covers studies related with any Christian confession or with no confession. Further, the series aims at an intercultural investigation of Christian systematic theology. Studies crossing the cultural, racial, linguistic, geographic and other borders are warmly welcomed. Special attention is given to research of the non-western interpretations of Christian doctrine. Both contextual and global aspects of Christian theology are appreciated.

The first three volumes (all forthcoming) are listed on the series page:

1. Constructing Irregular Theology
Paul S. Chung

2. A Theology of the Church for the Third Millennium
Kenan Osborne

3. Confronting Confucian Understandings of the Christian Doctrine of Salvation
Paulos Huang

Looks interesting, but of course, the volumes are at typical Brill prices.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A few items...

  • Discussion of "unchurched believers" in recent polling. This sort of analysis offers an interesting response to certain atheists who have trumpeted the rising percentage of non-religious people in the U.S., but I think Hout and Fischer's piece still begs for a Balthasarian "churched unbelievers" response to its Rahnerian tone.
  • Ingrid Rowland's Giordano Bruno is out in paperback, with a cooler cover than the original hardback.
  • Loome Theological Booksellers is advertising "perhaps the largest selection of liturgical texts in the world" for sale.
  • A report from Ithaka on what libraries should be doing with their journal print holdings amidst the shift to digitization. I haven't read it so I don't have any thoughts on it, but it should be interesting.
  • Joshua Blanchard is in the midst of an in-depth review of John Loftus's Why I Became an Atheist. I don't personally tend to have a ton of interest in these sorts of apologetic questions, but Joshua's discussion is a must-read (as his blog always is). He's offered a very thoughtful critique, and Loftus has joined in (his responses are also a must-read, but for quite different reasons... he gets a bit perturbed over the course of the reviews, and it's all great spectator sport). The link above is to the initial post on the book, and it should be easy enough to follow through the more recent posts. Joshua isn't finished, so be sure to check back.
  • I don't tend to be a huge fan of blogs that have a "CC Blogs" label attached, but I think that Avdat gives an interesting response to a recent discussion between Halden and Adam on violence.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology

Oxford UP's new series Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology will be worth keeping an eye on. Last year the first volume was published on Calvin, Participation, and the Gift. This past summer the series released its second volume, on Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers. The next volume in the series will apparently be Lewis Ayres' expected study on the Holy Spirit (his volume on Augustine and the Trinity will be coming out from Cambridge UP next spring).

On not going to AAR

It's that time of year again. AAR/SBL season.

John and David have mentioned their plans for Montreal, and I thought I would as well. I'm not going. Again.

Last year it was a tough decision, and I wrote about how "I feel this huge weight, like I should be there as a matter of scholarly responsibility." This year, not so much. I mean, I still recognize the importance of attending these conferences, but I'm feeling less bad for not attending any particular conference, even the annual conference of a flagship society like AAR or SBL.

I am attending the PMR conference at Villanova in a few weeks, because I'm presenting a paper there. But if I weren't presenting a paper, I just don't see how attendance would have made all that much sense. Plane tickets were a little over $200 (granted, not bad at all for plane tickets). Student registration is $70, then there's $20 for each of two lunches and $45 for a banquet meal. There's no requirement to attend these meals, but the whole reason why conferences are apparently so important is the conversation and networking, right? Which means you need to attend the meals. I haven't registered yet, but I'll probably bag some lunches, and then shell out the $45 for the banquet. I'm hoping to find some friends to stay with while I'm there, but if I can't, add hotel prices to the total. And train fares to get from the airport to the conference.

I emailed the conference organizers during the summer to ask if they offered any scholarships for students to help pay the way, but got no response-- not even a "sorry, nope." AAR has been talking about offering scholarships to defray conference fees for students, but the project has been "under construction" for a few years. I can't find it listed at all on their website right now... perhaps they've decided that it isn't good to tantalize students with the possibility only to tell them that there's nothing pulled together at the moment. And if the Divinity School helps to fund student activities of this sort, they're doing a decent job of not broadcasting it.

In addition to the financial issues, it's just too much to do right now. I am tied down with other projects and commitments, and as it is I could use a few 25 hour days between now and the end of the year.

I'm not trying to complain- there's always something like this that you have to decide to say "no" to, so I'm not arguing that this is some sort of cosmic injustice. On the contrary, I'm saying that those of you who aren't attending AAR (or SBL, etc.) should not feel as if they've offended some unwritten rules of the game. (maybe I'm the only one that needs to rationalize all this, but I imagine there are at least one or two others out there feeling the same way)

I think that it's important to be a regular conference goer during graduate school, as this is a good way to meet people, to gain some practice in lecturing and presenting, and to establish a presence amongst colleagues. But there are wise and unwise ways to do this. We can't afford to go to all of the wonderful conferences that we'd like to, in the same way that we can't afford to stock our bookshelves with the all of the latest and most important volumes (or the classic and most important ones).

Here are some rules of thumb that I think are important to consider on conferences (from my vast experience of two and a half years and only a handful of conferences, of course, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt or add to/correct it):
  • You should still be submitting proposals to conferences regularly. Attending a conference in order to present a paper there makes the investment much more worthwhile. Although it sounds rather utilitarian, very often the most valuable take-away from an event is the line that it provides for your CV, at least early on in your career. Others can voice their opinion, but I think that presenting a paper each calendar year offers a good record of involvement, at least for an MA or early PhD student. More than that is wonderful; less than that isn't a sin, but there will be others who are ahead of you.
  • I've enjoyed attending/presenting at conferences that are a little bit out of my discipline. AAR will offer this to a certain extent, as there are all sorts of approaches to religion beyond the theological panels. But if your interests include historical, or philosophical, or political approaches, submit a paper to the conference that covers your historical period, or to APA, or to APSA. A brilliantly articulated political theology is going to be ignored by the wider community of those who think about politics unless you interact with them, as is a brilliant philosophical theology or historical theology. Going to places where religious thought is not a normative concern helps to expand these horizons, and often helps to cure theologians of a (rather rampant these days) sophomoric sense that they have the interpretive key to all the world's problems, or that they even understand the record that they're trying to set straight.
  • Take advantage of regional conferences. These tend to be cheaper, less intimidating for younger scholars, and a good chance to meet people with whom you will be interacting more regularly, simply on the basis of proximity. They also contribute to the health and vitality of local academic communities by making scholarly contact more concrete than simply a host city upon which everyone descends once a year from the four corners of the world.
  • But do try to attend AAR or SBL. There isn't a comparable scholarly association dedicated specifically to theology, and these are the flagship organizations and the standard conferences for scholars of theology in North America right now. The assumption should be that you are going unless there is a reason to make a decision not to go. And don't get me wrong- there will be plenty of potential reasons not to go- but I don't think that these reasons should make AAR/SBL into one conference among others. It's still the normal yearly gathering about which we have to make a decision.