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Thoughts on SST 2013

April 14, 2013

I have a new perspective on theological conferences. While once I used to attend in the hopes that Professor So-and-So might approach me, casually mention that he/she has been following my work, and then immediately ask if I wouldn’t mind joining their department (witness the insane, deluded, and pathetic thoughts of the average doctoral student), these days I find that my priorities have changed. As I just about round the end of my first year of teaching doctrine at a busy theological college in the southwest of England, I’ve discovered that conferences present a different sort of opportunity for the non-student theologian: the chance simply to spend time with one’s friends and colleagues.

Now, as far as conferences go, the Society for the Study of Theology (SST) puts on a good’n. Whereas one can easily get lost (or stampeded) in a wave of tweed jackets, dark-rimmed glasses, and aggressively flung homemade business cards at AAR, SST is small enough (around 225) to  get to know people on some sort of authentic level. As historical theologian Alan Sell put it in this year’s AGM, somewhere along his 40 years of attending the conference, the group transformed in his mind from being a mere academic society into something more resembling a fellowship – and in my short run as a member, it’s certainly possible to imagine how this might happen. And so, if all goes well, I look forward to one day being the crotchety old theologian at the bar regaling the kids with tales of a young Paul Nimmo’s controversial plenary address way back in ’16 (make it happen, Paul).

This year’s theme was ‘Theology and Education’ – and we were treated to five plenary sessions related to this topic…at varying levels of proximity. Laurie Zoloth, president-elect of the aforementioned AAR, gave a thought-provoking paper which identified the onset of ‘translation anxiety’ as the moment where theology’s ethical task becomes most pressing – translation being an act which uniquely introduces the elements of trust, fidelity, relationality, and justice into theological discourse. SST president (and theological Groucho) George Newlands also gave us a collection of thoughts on the Holy Spirit, inviting us to reflect on the broadness and unpredictably of the Spirit’s work in the world today, particularly in China.

The two papers which hit most directly on the topic of theology and education came from brothers-in-Cambridge-arms David Ford and Mike Higton. Ford’s paper, perhaps provocatively, suggested that one of the more fruitful relationships between theology (more specifically: religious studies) and education might be found right here in the UK, boldly concluding, after a series of observational comments on a few representative institutions, that: ‘the UK alliances of university theology and religious educational institutions offer the best available paradigm for universities and churches in plural societies.’ This of course drew out some interesting discussion in the Q&A, particularly one question regarding the exportability of the UK model absent the presence of an established church (and perhaps the unique history of the English religious situation altogether).

Mike Higton presented us with an audaciously titled yet actually quite measured ‘Theology of the University,’ in which he urged us as theologians to look constructively at the actual phenomenon (as opposed to simply ‘the idea’) of the modern Western research university in order to discern the ways in which this particular kind of institution might facilitate ‘knowledge’ – perhaps even in a Christian sense wherein knowledge is coordinated to its proper end in ‘the God of love.’ Here I particularly appreciated two points: 1) Higton’s reminder that the academy is best conceived as a society of people and not simply a collection of disparate disciplines joined up in the name of some sort of abstract project (e.g., human progress), and 2) the insistence that the university itself is part of larger complex of educational possibilities, that is, ‘universities only make sense as one niche in a massively interconnected learning ecology, rather than as a world unto themselves.’ (and thank God for that)

My favourite plenary paper, however, came from Aberdeen’s own John Swinton, who essentially gave us a precis of his recent book on theology and dementia entitled: ‘On Being a Disciple When You’ve Forgotten Who God Is: Dementia as a Time for Learning.’ Obviously, John is doing some of the more significant work in the area of theology and disability – and this paper was no exception – but what made his contribution so encouraging, I would say, was the way in which it so unashamedly wove the concepts and even discourse of the Christian faith so seamlessly into what might be termed a classic ‘theology and…’ project. It was, in other words, a species of applied theology as theology – and that is surely an approach to interdisciplinary work that I’d like to see more of in the theological academy. The substance of his paper was of course formidable – not least his suggestion that dementia will not properly be understood until it has been described theologically – but I’ll leave my final observation at this: I suspect that John’s paper reminded a good deal of us in attendance that Christian theology has the ‘stuff’ to deal with the more complex matters of life, and, for some reason or another, that was absolutely refreshing.

So that was SST for 2013. I fail to mention, of course, many of the very fine short papers I heard this year – but I suspect my assessment is predictable: the Aberdeen theologians, once again, nailed it.

I’d be interested to hear from any others who were at the conference this year – how was your experience?

Theologians pose for a quick picture at SST 2013.

Theologians pose for a quick picture at SST 2013.

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