he AAR conference is still giving me the impression that it did last year: unbelievably huge. It's much less personally engaging than other conferences I've been to: too big, too diverse, too much happening at once. It's sort of the Wal-Mart of academic conferences. If I recall correctly, it's something like 7000 in attendance, but that might be the numbers from before AAR split with SBL. Normally, the word "diverse" would be a positive one, but this is "diverse" in the way a student paper ought not to be: not enough unity and focus to give it much cohesion. Still, as a buffet or sample bar, it is interesting to be able to take in talks on just about everything, but conferences that are a little more thematically unified seem to be more able to grab my attention and imagination.
I ran into Michelle P., who I met years ago doing summer Master's classes in Spirituality at Notre Dame. I thought that I might see her again, as I had last year at the AAR in Chicago, and so we once again had a good hour or hour-and-a-half of catching up. She's launching into a Paul Ricour-based dissertation on a language of silence, so to speak, analyzing and articulating the raw experience of silence and of awareness of being itself, with a lot of engagement with Edith Stein and Martin Heidegger as part of it. I thought that sounded daring in itself, because it is so difficult to try to articulate such fundamental (and such non-vocal) experiences. It reminded me of a song-writing challenge Kevin and I imagined back during the Road Trip in 2000
, when we were struck by the nature of the high-altitude quiet when we stopped along the top of the Beartooth Mountain Pass
: to try to somehow capture this distinctive silence in music. That same irony seemed to be driving Michelle's project, whether in language or in music one would try to describe an experience of silence. But what else are we left with, as far as human tools go? Music seems the easier option to me, really, in being able to take refuge in metaphor and in emotion-bearing sounds beyond the scope of language. But I did think that Michelle was setting herself up for a great research agenda after finishing the dissertation in being able to take the language and tools of analysis that she is crafting and then turn those onto a variety of mystical texts that she can explore with those tools. It's easier to go into kataphatic mysticism – the mysticism of "stuff," of metaphor and image and mediation through things, ranging from nature to music to conversation to sacraments – than it is to go into apophatic mysticism, the mysticism of stillness, silence and negation. But both routes are equally valid and equally necessary in human mystical experience. Nor can you really separate them, I think, because even the most kataphatic of mystical experiences, like the sacrament of the Eucharist with its language, story, drama, ritual, bread and wine, always can lead one into an apophatic experience of silence and simple awareness of the presence of God in receiving the Eucharist.
I also ran into Gavril from our Department, who I had also last seen at last year's AAR, and caught up on his news a bit, as well as running into Marquette Professors Hughson, Schultenover, and my Doktorvater Fahey after the end of the afternoon's Ecclesiological Investigations session. I had sat talking with a Dr. Kim from Leeds Trinity University College at the end of that session, where the closing respondent to the papers presented had talked about the work of Ecclesiology having shifted from the older paradigm of being concerned primarily with the question of the relation of church and state, and now had moved to the relation of church and culture. We were both struck, though, that the way that this had been presented was in such a way as to basically reduce Ecclesiology to Missiology, or the study of mission or missions. While my own ecclesiological work is concerned with such activities as an outgrowth of spirituality, it really starts, as in the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, with a much more explicit interest in the Triune God, and only from there moves toward activity and spirituality. That is to say, it is a primarily theological ecclesiology. The respondent's concern with the use of the tools of the social sciences for ecclesiological work just made me wonder whether that would end in the reduction of ecclesiology to sociology, or sociological descriptions of church behaviours, which I don't think is the same thing as ecclesiology at all.
Anyway, it was exciting to see that the Ecclesiology section, which Fahey told me this summer was a relatively recent addition to the AAR, had gathered quite a large group in attendance. Even more interesting was to see how young and diverse that group was. The Scottish presider quipped about this in his closing comment, wondering aloud whether this indicated that the proclamations of a post-Christian culture might be premature.
Had a good interview today, very
focused on my teaching skills and history. We most talked about teaching theology to a broad and diverse stretch of students: across religious, ethnic, educational, and age groups. In many ways, my experience at Saint Joe's was more useful background than my experience at Marquette, where I've had only a few non-traditional students, whereas in South Bend I also did some teaching for the diocese, with students thirty or forty years my senior. So it was a very comfortable, "shop-talk" sort of conversation, but she definitely kept me interested in the position.
So that's been the day, with all of its random conversation and stray activities, whether talking online education with a Pagan woman trying to set up an online Pagan seminary in California as we stood in line at a conference center coffeeshop downstairs in the Palais des congrès de Montréal
, or whether venturing out a little while ago to a restaurant open in an alley in Chinatown for some late-night food.