Imbolc 2004, Vol 3-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Goddesses, Scholars, and the American Academy of Religion
The combined annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) has to be experienced to be believed. The 2003 conference, held last November in Atlanta, Georgia, required three of Atlanta's largest hotels to accommodate the hundreds of meetings and two giant vendors' halls. Each of the hotels has an enormous main lobby, then stairs or escalators downward to two or three more floors full of meeting rooms. The meeting list book for the meeting is about a half-inch thick, with pages as thin as Bible pages. During any one time-slot you can attend such varied meetings as "Methodology in the Study of Religion and Disability" to "Interactions between Japanese and European Scholarship on Buddhism" and "Ramadan: A Fast of Faith."
This is the tribal gathering for scholars of religion. There's not much on the program aimed at the interests of a religious practitioner: no how-tos on sermon-giving or coordinating youth groups, or serving your community or holding a ritual. This is the conference for university professors, the rugged world of publish-or-perish, whether in the university, the small college or the seminary. Each meeting consists of one to six papers being read; there are probably 100 papers being read during any time-slot during the four-day event. Thousands of scholars are here reading their work for their colleagues, getting feedback, attending committee meetings, and making connections. Famous full professors are reading, young Ph.Ds early in their careers are reading, and graduate students are reading. This is the place par excellence for auditory learners. Papers are read, period. I didn't see anything with visual aids, and forget the poor kinesthetic learners. Each paper lasts 10-20 minutes, and sometimes there is time for a few questions or comments.
People are frighteningly brilliant here. The vast majority of attendees are Ph.D. holders, now teaching religion at the college and graduate levels. They speak Goddess-knows how many foreign languages, one of them English. It's easy to feel outclassed, vocabulary-wise. I'm not sure how many times I heard the words intersticial and interstices. I can now spell and pronounce both of them, and have a pretty good idea of what they mean. Scary, isn't it?
You may be wondering, as I as, would the Goddesses be welcome at the AAR? This turned out to be a complicated question. I arrived one day early, for a brand-new preconference, the Conference for Contemporary Pagan Studies (CCPS). Not yet big enough or established enough to be a "group"; or a "section" within the AAR, scholars of pagan religions are nonetheless beginning to hold conferences, establish scholarly journals, read papers to one another, edit scholarly book series, and encourage each other to high standards. Watch for the reborn journal The Pomegranate, and the book series Pagan Studies to be published by Altamira Press.
Many Goddess women would have had an enjoyable day at the Conference for Contemporary Pagan Studies. We heard research by Wendy Griffin at California State University, Long Beach on attitudes toward nature held by Goddess women. Jone Salomensen from Norway talked about her recent book Enchanted Feminism, a scholarly look at the Reclaiming Collective. Lucie du Fresne has just finished a Ph.D. on aspects of Goddess religion and is teaching at the University of Ottawa. Michael York from Great Britain turned out to be a real soul-sister, since he is an expert in Indo-European religion and knew Dr. Marija Gimbutas. All of the papers read at the CCPS were interesting, and the 40 scholars in attendance were fascinating people from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway, France and Iowa. (Ok, my tongue is in cheek here. A lot of people consider us to be a foreign country.) A Goddess woman might feel as if she was in a deep cauldron over her head at the CCPS but she wouldn't feel unwelcome.
The day after the CCPS preconference, the full AAR/SBL conference started in earnest. There were very few sessions having anything to do with Goddesses, ancient or modern. My first choices were always sessions on Women and Religion, hoping at least to learn something more about feminism and religion. Carol P. Christ is the Goddess scholar who has been most active in the AAR for the longest time, and was one of the founders of the Women and Religion section back in its early days. Over her career, Dr. Christ has chaired the Women and Religion section, coordinated meetings, presented papers, and read from her books. This year, she read a paper on aspects of her new work, She Who Changes, a rich theological work based on the ideas of process philosophy. She compared and contrasted She Who Changes with an earlier book of hers, Diving Deep and Surfacing. The new book is less "Goddess-oriented" than her previous books have been, but it notes marked similarities between Goddess thealogy, other theologies, and process philosophy, bringing Goddess religion into a wider conversation with theology in general.
There was one moment that crystallized for me how much of a leader and path-breaker Carol Christ has been for Goddess women in the religious academy. A panel of scholars was discussing a book by Mary Farrell Bednarowski, The Religious Imagination of American Women. A variety of panelists, Christian and non-Christian, women and men, responded to Dr. Bednarowski's book. At the end of the session, when questions were taken from the audience, Carol Christ rose with a comment. She pointed out that, although the book was about the religious imagination of American women, Goddesses and Goddess women had generally been ignored, both in the book and on the panel. Dr. Christ stressed that Goddess religion is a large and influential part of the whole of women's religion in this country. Yet it is often left out of books and conversations and panels such as the one before us. I heard Dr. Christ make a similar point in another of the Women and Religion sessions. In my imagination, I saw her making these comments and points over and over throughout the 30 years that she has spent in the American Academy of Religion. I was proud of her voice, proud of her courage and stamina, and I appreciated her so much. I also felt a small bit of tinder kindle in me, that I could maybe join with her voice. There need to be more voices saying, "Don't ignore the Goddess women. Don't ignore the Goddesses. They really are here, and they really do matter in the study of religion."
Goddess women would have enjoyed some of the papers I heard at sessions given by the Ritual Studies group. Ritual Studies is a subset of the academic study of religion, studying all kinds of religious rituals, not just pagan rituals. I heard a paper on a Dianic Goddess ritual, another on a Buddhist ritual from Southeast Asia, and a third about a woman leader of Pentecostal ritual in an African-Canadian church in Canada. An Iowa scholar and professor, Dr. Nikki Bado-Fralick is the chair of the Ritual Studies group. These scholars are spending significant time in these various communities, watching and attending rituals, recording and analyzing them. At a committee meeting following the papers, there were great ideas about future topics in Ritual Studies, and dreaming about bringing a ritual to the AAR.
So, sisters, there is work to do be done in the academy. Because of the persistence and courage of women like Carol Christ, the Goddesses are alive and afoot at the AAR. But there are still strong forces arrayed to ignore or silence them and our words about them. I am thinking that the next time I go, instead of listing my affiliation as my Ph.D. school on my name badge (Union Institute and University,) I will instead list my affiliation with the Women's Thealogical Institute. Here's to all of us getting a foot, and heads and breasts and hands, in the door.