History and Religious Studies (AHA2011 Summary)

18 Jan

Now that historians have had more than a week to digest their experiences at the 2011 American Historical Association meeting in Boston, they may feel inclined to move on to their teaching loads, research projects, and other professional obligations. This is often the way of things, right? Fly into Boston on Wednesday, spend a few days catching up with editors, colleagues, and friends, participate somewhat regretfully in stodgy conference paper presentations, and then fly home again loaded with exam copies of the newest materials in your area.

As a graduate student in religious studies I find the narrative of gloom and doom offered by those who focused on the job fairs or the standard conference experience to fall well short of the mark of what I experienced in Boston. To be sure, I spent a few days catching up with an old friend and colleague, sat through at least one exceedingly stodgy paper presentation, and could barely lift my duffel bag into the overhead compartment on the airplane ride back to sunnier weather far from Boston. But these are not at all what I’ll remember about the 2011 AHA because for once I attempted—and succeeded—in creating a coherent and meaningful conference experience by selecting a specific group of panels and roundtables to attend. I may have been particularly fortunate in this regard because the AHA 2011’s theme was “History, Society, and the Sacred.” To whit I attended the following sessions (covered in greater detail on my own blog, A Lively Experiment):

Thursday: “Keywords in American Religious History: Diaspora, Sexuality, Liberalism, Pentecostalism, Islamic Fundamentalism”

Friday: “Revisiting the Teaching of Religious History”

Saturday: “Bracketing Faith and Historical Practice: A Roundtable”

Saturday: “Why Study Religion in the American West?”

Sunday: “Beyond the Protestant Nation: Religion and the Narrative of American History”

Sunday: “Uncovering the “Religious” in Religious History”

The sum total of these sessions was my concerted effort to find a personal program that would enhance my thinking about surveys of America’s religious history. From essential keywords to the role of faith and the importance of the American West, each of the sessions I attended had something to offer my personal development as a designer of curriculum to teach the history of religion in America. Consequently, the thing that I most noticed about the AHA was neither the stressful, dreary job fair nor the is-there-someone-more-important game of inter-sessions hallway small talk. What I noticed was the sustained undercurrent of commentary about the differences between history and religious studies.

I’m sure that had I not trained in three departments of religion (or comparative religion or religious studies), this consistent murmur might have easily failed to reach my ears. Throughout the conference, however, I felt the strain of the challenge of talking about religion for historians and I heard religious studies often subtly put down by those historians who teach courses covering similar material. In sequential moments religion became that indefinable bugaboo of historical analysis and that shiny object that amuses those specialists “over there” who don’t know how to contextualize anything. Hyperbole aside and despite this year’s theme, there remains an unease not only with religion as a subject but also with religion as a object. In the first instance, religion is not the thing in itself but rather that thing through which other things are facilitated. Perhaps religion explains the social climate of the 1960s or the political climate of the 1980s. In this mode religion acts causally but also as a means to another end. In the second instance, when religious groups receive sustained focus (as objects) they are still often given the ill-treatment Jon Butler described as “jack-in-the-box” religion. The Puritans, the Great Awakening, the Scopes trial, and the rise of the Religious Right? Religion belongs in those highlights, but fails to merit attention in the interstices of these events as a steady component of the narrative akin to presidential politics or military history.

Elsewhere I have argued that this sense (caricature or not) led me to believe those of us who share course topics but hail from different fields such as history and religious studies need to engage in far more sustained dialogue about our teaching and research. Here, however, I’d like to pose a different question: what do historians think about the way that scholars in religious studies use history? Since I attend far more conferences about religious studies than I do about history, it’s a question that I am particularly keen to explore. Do religious studies folks routinely use history or historical methods in a way that strikes professionally trained historians as sideways and ill-conceived?

My bias has likely shielded me from any such impression, but thanks to the AHA I can say I will be far more attentive to this inversion when I return to WECSOR or the AAR. I can only hope that next year’s AHA will afford me a similar opportunity to reflect on the pull of my own interdisciplinary tendencies and the way that slipping between disciplines can not only put one at unease but also open powerful revelations that help us all to escape our own self-conceptions about our fields. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt one bit that for me it affirms the vitality of the conference model as a way to enhance our own intellectual growth. As a graduate student footing the bill for expensive conferences across the American continent, I guess that’s a ringing endorsement and a pledge to see you again next year in Chicago.

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