Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic?

I'm asking as an outsider to the whole "apocalyptic" fashion that has lately taken cool theologians everywhere by storm... was this a 2009 thing, or is there more to come?

Based on the theology blog coverage, one almost got the impression that the only things happening in Montreal this past November (other than Zizek-Altizer, of course) were sessions on theology and apocalyptic. Websites were set up. Superlatives were liberally employed to describe what was happening. Maybe I misinterpreted the energy surrounding this, but I had the sense that people were intending to point out something of an "apocalyptic turn" in theological work. It seems logical- there's no question that it's a hot topic, and Nate Kerr's study has received a lot of sustained attention over the past year or two, at AAR and elsewhere. On a cruder level there has certainly been a wider pop-cultural fascination with the whole concept.

But as the call for papers for AAR 2010 comes out, I don't see an apocalyptic group listed. Are there plans for a 2010 presence? As I understand it, the purpose of the Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic venture was to feel out the possibility of adding a new consultation to the AAR roster. Is something like this still a few years down the road? Or was there a decision that such a consultation wouldn't be pursued? I haven't run across anything from the organizers about what's going to happen.

While much of the current revival on this topic isn't my personal cup of tea coffee (at least as far as my constructive theological interests go), I'm still curious to know what you all are up to.

15 comments:

  1. There are a number of us corresponding about the plans for this year's AAR session on Christian theology and apocalyptic. It will definitely be meeting again.

    I don't think anyone should have expected the level of blog traffic and discussion that attended the release of Nate's book to signify a new norm. However, work is definitely still being done by a variety of folk. But books don't get published overnight, sadly.

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  2. It seems to me that the theoblogosphere has a way of producing a false sense of what is current or "fashionable" in theological discourse. Certainly Nate's book has received a lot of instant attention in the theoblogosphere, but I think it is only really beginning to be noticed by the majority of scholars (who by and large aren't blogging or reading blogs). I don't think anyone has been intending to point out an "apocalyptic turn" in theology--it seems to me that your impressions about this probably have more to do with discussions in the theoblogosphere which can hardly be considered as representative of theological scholarship as a whole.

    That said, I hope that discussions on theology and apocalyptic continue both in the blogosphere and at formal scholarly gatherings.

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  3. And, really, any sort of "apocalyptic turn" should not be seen as beginning with Nate's book. J. Louis Martyn's commentary on Galatians is really what's behind everything (with Barth and Yoder in the background).

    And, from what I'm seeing, theologians are just now starting to notice Martyn's work.

    And then of course there's the matter of Catholic apocalyptic theology, which we see in the work of Cyril O'Regan, who picks up on major apocalyptic themes in Balthasar. And really, that whole turn, though related, takes a quite different tack than the sort of apocalyptic turn in Protestant theology since Barth.

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  4. I remember thinking this about a year ago, Evan. I just chalked it up to personal ignorance. I'm still not sure what all the hub-bub is about, since a lot of times it simply seems like a new way of talking about old things.

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  5. I'm quite well attuned to the fact that theology blogs aren't representative of wider theological work (thank goodness!), and that's a bit of why I asked about this. Often (perhaps unfairly) I get the sense that some folks operate on the assumption that what's hot in a certain circle is going to revolutionize the field; superlative lists of theological work inevitably circle around the interests of the clique that's doing a lot of posting about it. There's nothing wrong with that, of course... but I do have a suspicion that some folks convince themselves of the centrality of their own interests, or the lack of importance of other work.

    All that said, I'm not trying to accuse anyone in particular of this, more I'm observing a general vibe that I get from some people who get excited about "apocalyptic". And I certainly wasn't trying to accuse Nate Kerr of anything in bringing up his work... while I've only read snippets of it, I'm looking forward to getting to it in full at some point. I brought up the attention it's getting as attention perfectly well-deserved (from my limited knowledge, at least). And I think you're right, Halden, that interest in "apocalyptic" precedes anything that has gone on in the past handful of years.

    I am glad I ruffled a few feathers, though. Part of my intention was admittedly to poke some fun and draw a little bit of fire. I trust it was obvious enough that I'm being less serious and less harsh than critiques of Niebuhr or Milbank or Swinburne that one might run across on certain theology blogs. I am, however, honestly interested in knowing if there are any plans, so thanks for responding to that, Halden.

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  6. Evan,

    It's interesting to think about your question by looking at major institutions, in this case, what I think are, rightly or wrongly, considered among the top 5-7 Religious Studies/Theology programs and what their interests/publications reflect.

    So, marked interest in apocalyptic theology (of the kind on the blogosphere): UVA? No. Yale? No. U of C? No (correct me if I'm wrong). Princeton? No (unless indirectly? perhaps a PTS person can speak to this). Notre Dame? No-ish (is O'Regan really closely connected to the stuff on apocalyptic discussed in the blogosophere?). Harvard? No. Duke? No (unless you count the Yoder/Hauerwas connection).

    So, institutionally (from this narrow, but significant, sample), the answer seems to be, No.

    Also (no offence intended to lovers of the AAR, etc.), I'm not sure AAR conferences are representative of what's going on. I know of certain major scholars in the past (e.g. I understand Gerrish and Gilkey eventually stopped going/didn't go to AAR meetings) and today (I won't name names) who didn't see AAR etc. as very valuable.

    I know you know this, Evan (which is why it was clear you were trying to ruffle feathers), but one can also just look at some of the major theological journals and get a similar set of "No" evidence: IJST, Modern Theology, Theological Studies, etc.

    I would hazard the contentious generalization that the more a theological/philosophy of religion topic is discussed on blogs and in books and journals not published by prestigious academic presses (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, et al.), the less representative the topic is of what the major thinkers in a field are concerned with.

    Hardly a criticism, or necessarly a suggestion that such a state of affair is odd, or bad. Just an observation.

    Incidentally, but on a related point, I thought Smith's criticism of an absence of peer-reviewed journal publications among continental philosophy of religion was fair, and important. Blogs can be a way for people to talk about stuff they can't publish in a major journal (again, not necessarily a criticism), as well as a lot of other stuff that does not fit into the realm of publications - and this is often what is valuable about them, I think.

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  7. Evan:

    Just to follow up on Halden's clarifications above. We are currently in discussions as to the number and nature of some sessions on "Theology and Christian Apocalyptic" at this year's AAR. We are remaining with the "Additional Meeting" format at this time in part because we are not sure of the significance exactly of being tied to the structure of the AAR proper as a "group" or "consultation." We are also looking to extend meetings beyond the AAR to other venues -- for example, while there will be 2-3 sessions at this year's AAR, there will be at least one session at this year's SBL. We're also trying to figure out what is the best way for the discussion to move forward through publications and various other modes of conversation. Information will be coming on all that, and I'm sure you'll get word of it. If you want to be notified directly of conversations, working groups, calls for papers, etc., just let me know and I'll make sure to do so.

    Also, I'd like to echo Halden's comment that I don't think anyone is thinking of this at all in terms of a movement, and certainly no one is concerned simply to trumpet an "apocalyptic turn" as such in theology. I think this particular set of "explorations" is rooted in a shared conviction that there might be something about the nature of the gospel as witnessed to in the Scriptures as irreducibly "apocalyptic," in a very distinct sense and in a way which defies easy categorization theoretically and/or as a worldview, etc. I think Halden is right that what is happening among those who share this conviction is a certain "ripening" in systematic theology and ethics, etc. of questions that have been much more thoroughly under discussion within a certain trajectory of biblical studies long before this point.

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  8. Thanks for the further info, Nate. When looking back at the 2009 program I saw that it was an "additional meeting", and was wondering whether that was maybe why it didn't show up in the 2010 CFP. Do please include me on any email list that you have-- I'd be happy to keep up with what's going on. evan.f.kuehn -@- gmail.com

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  9. "...one can also just look at some of the major theological journals and get a similar set of "No" evidence: IJST, Modern Theology, Theological Studies, etc."

    Do note, however, the contributions by Walter Lowe and Philip Almond to the latest issue of SJT, which I take to be pretty mainstream and flagship as far as general theology journals go.

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  10. Evan,

    True, true, SJT should not be neglected. I'm not sure these articles, which look good (I've only glanced at them), warrant a revision of my generalization. If they indicate a trend, then a revision of the generalization would be in order. Time will tell, I suppose.

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  11. Reflecting briefly on sjloncar's question about the distribution of interest in theological apocalyptic in various institutions, I would have thought that you might think of both Princeton (James Kay, Beverly Ganventa, Nancy Duff), and Duke (Doug Campbell, Joel Marcus) as notable; Cyril O'Regan at Notre Dame is definitely to be counted amongst those interested (see his 'Spaces of Apocalyptic' (Marquette U. Press, 2009). As as already been noted, there's certainly no 'school' here, but rather a shared theological curiosity in certain aspects of the 'ratio' of the Christian gospel which seem to hold particular promise at the present time. Last year's sessons were entitled 'explorations' advisedly. . .

    Regards -- Phil

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  12. Phil,

    Thanks for that further clarification. I was hoping my comments would elicit more reliable information, whether by confirmation or negation.

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  13. My point, also, was not to dismiss apocalyptic as a topic of theological interest. It is not one of my personal interests. I have some reservations about what some scholars are doing with the topic, and I have some concerns about some implications that certain modes of apocalyptic talk might have for theological work. But I was not at all trying to dismiss it as something irrelevant or not worth pursuing.

    Phil rightly brings up people at the institutions mentioned who are working on apocalyptic... and frankly, even if there weren't such people there, it really wouldn't matter. The lion's share of theological work in the U.S. is done outside of these departments. And outside of those journals. Presenting a dichotomy of the blogs on one side and the monied institutions on another is just as misleading as acting like blogs themselves are adequate indicators of academia as a whole. The situation is more complex than that.

    My intentions in this post were not to do any more than find out a bit more of what's going on with those interested in "apocalyptic", and admittedly I did so by offering some friendly jabs at those whose interests and opinions are a bit different than my own. I'm concerned that this is being taken too personally by some, and taken as an invitation to outright polemic against "theology and apocalyptic" by others. Believe me, you would know if I intended to level a critique against the concept of apocalyptic in theology. My apologies if I've misled people as to my feelings here, but at the same time, I'd ask that people not read into or assume too much about my (in the end rather benign) commentary.

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  14. Evan:

    As far as I'm concerned, no apologies are needed. I took your post to be nothing more than just hte kind of benign query that you say you intended it to be. And I don't think anyone that has commented here who has a working interest in apocalyptic has taken anything you said personally. And believe me too, you would know if I took anything you said as to level a critique of the concept of apocalyptic in theology! (Though it probably does need critiquing as a "concept" as such!)

    Your last comment does raise a question for me. In your post you said that the interest in apocalyptic is not necessarily your "cup of coffee," but in your last comment you indicated that apocalyptic as a topic is one of your "personal interests," and then go on to suggest that you have some concerns about how apocalyptic is being taken up. I'd be interested in these personal interests, as well as in your concerns -- perhaps even if you had the time and inclination to work the reasons for such interests and such concerns up into its own post.

    I will add your email address to the working list that I have, and I'll let you know as our plans are solidified for this year's AAR and SBL meetings. If anyone else should be interested in having their email addresses added to the list, please let me know at nathan.r.kerr -@- gmail.com

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  15. At least in Pauline studies, "apocalyptic" primarily names a particular model of divine action — on the one hand, a "punctiliar" model in contrast to "linear" salvation-historical models of divine action; and on the other hand, a model in which salvation is primarily a cosmic event rather than an individual or social event. In the background here are questions about continuities or discontinuities between Christ and the history of Israel, between the NT and OT, between creation and new creation, etc.

    So for me at least, the term "apocalyptic" can conveniently be used in this way, to help clarify and articulate different models of divine action. And I see this as an important strategy, since, in contemporary theology, some form of "salvation history" model is often simply taken for granted without further ado, as though that were the only conceivable way of thinking about divine action.

    So anyway, for that very reason I'd agree with you that it's regrettable if the term "apocalyptic" simply becomes faddish and imprecise.

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