Advent, AAR, and the Diversity in the Academy

Christians around the world are knee-deep in the season of Advent. Advent is about waiting. Advent is about anticipation. Advent is about the in-breaking of God into the world as the baby Jesus – an in-breaking we hope for, and an in-breaking we prepare our hearts and minds and homes for. But what if we pan out from this Advent waiting from a purely spiritual sense and look at it more broadly?

This year I attended my first annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (despite having once been a graduate assistant for the AAR in Seminary). I was struck by three things during my time in this conference: the first what the overwhelming number of white men. Like, staggering numbers of white men. There’s a dissertation’s worth of breaking down how privilege and power play into who can and cannot obtain a Ph.D and do scholarly research, but let’s leave it with: there were a WHOLE BUNCH of white guys talking about, presenting on, and being experts in religion.

A second aspect I noticed was that minority traditions (meaning non-Eurocentric and non-Christian) were relegated to specific “tracks” – like the Black Theology Track. This has benefits, but it also means that that critical work is seen as a subcontext to larger conversations.

Finally, I noticed the strong divide between people who were coming from the place as practitioners of religion (or leaders) and scholars. Many were both, of course. But as someone who is a faith leader first and a scholar second, there was a noticeable divide in the academic circles about how scholarship is used and what scholarship is “good.”

These are all problems in the Academy, and it is my Advent prayer that the in-breaking of God helps us to find equity in this (among many) fields.

Let’s start with the fact that many white men do excellent scholarship. Great. But, how is the conversation about second Temple Judaism enhanced by the voice of an African American man who knows a thing or two about living as a minority community? How is our conversation about the role of sacrifice in the Abrahamic Traditions expanded when we hear a Latina theologian speaking? How is our understanding of עָבֶד (ebed, meaning slave or servant) in Isaiah enhanced by queer voices of color? If the dominant body of scholarship is still concentrated within a single identity group, we miss out on the richness of the human experience and how that informs our scholarship.

Advent calls us to wait for the anticipated, expectant in-breaking of God into the world, but it doesn’t call us to do so with passive apathy. We await the birth of Jesus by Lighting candles on our Advent Wreath and reflecting on Scripture. We await the birth of Jesus by decorating our homes and churches, by sending cards that wish for happiness and joy to others, and by making special foods. These are acts of anticipatory celebration. These are moves toward the in-breaking of our Incarnate God.

So too, we should not wait for the Academy to change passively. We shouldn’t wait for God’s in-breaking – an in-breaking that will set the captives free, will give equality and equity to the oppressed, and will amplify the voices of the marginalized – to change the status quo. We prepare for that in-breaking now. We wait, we hope, we prepare, but we do it by working today to build the Kingdom.

It is my Advent prayer that we who are scholars in and of religion look at our own house – our own Academy – and prepare our hearts and minds for an in-breaking. An in-breaking into who can and does critical research. An in-breaking into who has access to research. An in-breaking into who sits around the table – on on the panel.

Hallelujah, Come Lord Jesus.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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One thought on “Advent, AAR, and the Diversity in the Academy

  1. I agree this is an issue (though I am in the majority you describe). I don’t like being “ghettoized” either, as if womens’ voices were only relevant as women in the “feminist studies in religion” panels. The same goes for interreligious dialogue. We dialogue people are often seen as a kind of optional, side-gig sort of thing in religious studies/ theology circles. I think that actually what we do changes EVERYTHING, and *every* theology should be an interreligious theology. Baby steps.

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