Cambridge, MA. This past weekend a remarkable event took place at Boston College: Engaging Particularities X, the 10th annual conference dedicated to comparative theology, the theology of religions, and the related fields of missiology, global theology, and other related fields. Organized by doctoral students in the Theology Department at BC, the conference showcases papers by grad students, with critical responses by other grad students. Most of the presenters and respondents are from BC (Theology and now School of Theology and Ministry), but right from the beginning ten years ago the conference also welcomed students from other area schools – e.g., Andover Newton Theological School, Boston University School of Theology, Harvard Divinity School — to present papers and respond, and also from farther afield — e.g., Fordham University, Georgetown University, the University of Notre Dame, and Santa Clara University.
Personally I am delighted to see how the conference has flourished, since I had my part to play back in the beginning, when I was the Jesuit Assistancy Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue. I helped get this initiative off the ground, working with Tracy Tiemeier, then a BC doctoral student and now Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola Marymount University. The idea was that every Jesuit-related ministry had a dimension related to interreligious dialogue, just waiting to be brought into the open – so why not the work of doctoral students in theology? And why couldn’t grad students run it themselves? Tracy took up the challenge brilliantly, and over the years, many a conscientious student at BC has steered the conference from the call for papers to the successful weekend conversations. Many of these papers have eventually made their way into print, in a dissertation, subsequent book, or journal essay.
I was not there this year — I was at the 100th anniversary meeting of the American Theological Society at Princeton, a decidedly older body of scholars — but I did receive a copy of the Engaging Particularities schedule, and just a sampling of paper titles — apologies to those I don’t mention — will give you a feel for the event, that began on Friday, March 30 and ended on Sunday, April 2:
“The Poverty of Christ in al-Ghazali and Bonaventure.” Brooks Barber (Catholic University of America)
“A New Stage in Comparative Theology: The ‘Mystical Appropriation’ according to Abhishiktananda.” Ionut Moise (Oxford University)
“A Patient Pedagogy: Teaching Comparative Theology as Spiritual Practice.” Daniel London (Graduate Theological Union)
“Teaching Wisdom in Christian Religious Education: From Dogma to Self-Knowledge through the Lens of Islamic Irfan.” Axel Takács (Harvard Divinity School)
“Giving Ourselves: Sacrifice in Jewish and Christian Liturgy” Ben Durheim (Boston College)
“Stretching the Mould: Complex Religious Identity, Simone Weil, and Comparative Theology.” Bennett Comerford (Boston College S.T.M.)
Above is a picture of Tracy Tiemeier; you can find an array of pictures of Engaging Particularities VIII here.
There is much to ponder here, even aside from the papers themselves, which have over the years been excellent and worth considered study even by professors. I will highlight just two points. First, particularity is key: rather than debating the large issues of pluralism on a grand level, the conference has always delighted in smaller scale, more substantive and more interesting studies that, while carefully focused, have great implications: if you want to get at the largest issues of faith and religion, do some small, careful, thoughtful study. Second, we can all be proud of these students who are forging ahead in facing the issues of Christian truth pluralism, faith and diversity, with courage, insight, and vigor. We get the impression sometimes that the Church is going slower and slower on issues of interreligious understanding, but these students, our theological future, show no sign of slowing down. We sometimes hear that younger Catholics are more conservative, less open to pluralism, yearning for the pre-Vatican II Church. And surely some are, often for solid personal reasons. But these BC graduate students and their friends from around the country are all of that generation, and testify to the energy and life still abundant in the Church 50 years after the Council.
But let me close by quoting some of the comments (slightly edited) of Erik Ranstrom, a current doctoral student — working on his dissertation — who was also present at the very first conference ten years ago, and who gave the opening night reflections at this year’s conference:
“This graduate student conference gave the comparative theology project recognition and exposure, hard-fought institutional backing and support, and the opportunity to ensure a productive future for the discipline by developing young scholars. Engaging Particularities is the beneficiary and heir to the early history of CT, and was situated to have an important role to play in preserving and advancing the place of inter-religious and comparative concerns in theology… Although the area of comparative theology has gained some acceptance, we do well to remember how the struggles in the early years mirror some of the same suspicions and indifference scholars, albeit in a different context, adopt toward comparative theology, interreligious dialogue, and theology of religions today.
“From the “restoration movement,” i.e., the Magisterium’s reform of the reform, to post-modern solipsism, to internal dangers, such as the temptation to become insular and indifferent to the attitudes of others because of area-studies status, comparative and interreligious theology faces challenges today. Engaging Particularities, as in years past, has a role to play in responding to those challenges. Remembering and honoring the history and the figures that bore this event, recognizing that in some ways their story and their response should be our own, and utilizing the conference as they did to create a space for academic conversation that can act as a leaven in our respective departments, colloquia, and research areas is my message on this tenth anniversary of Engaging Particularities…
“Now that I have one foot in the graduate student world and one foot in such associations as the American Academy of Religion, Society of Hindu-Christian Studies, and the Catholic Theological Society of America, I am experiencing first-hand just how valuable Engaging Particularities has been in providing a valuable and well-adjusted conference model, opportunities for collaboration with former Engaging Particularities participants, and the never to be taken for granted comfort of finding a friendly face among the crowds. If my words tonight can play at least a small role in keeping this multi-layered role of the conference alive and well for the next ten years, I will count it as a success. Thank you.”
There is great reason for hope when we think of Engaging Particularities at its tenth anniversary. Congratulations to all involved over the years, and to the BC Theology Department (and John Borelli of Georgetown, the Society's current Coordinator for dialogue activities in the USA) for continuing to support this most important initiative!