SECSOR 2016

Last week I attended the 2016 SECSOR  (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) Conference in Atlanta.

I presented in one of the “Women, Gender, and Religion” sections, along with four others discussing the intersections of gender and nationality.

One paper in particular that stuck with me was Pamela Ayo Yetunde’s “A New Spelling of Our Names: The Psycho-Spiritual Experiences of African-American Buddhist Lesbians”. (A link to some of her writing can be found here)

Yetunde’s approach was ethnographic (as were all of the panelists other than myself), and approached the religiosity of these women in a way that I did not expect. Her data included those who self-identified as Buddhist, but additionally looked at the ways in which the individuals described their beliefs, worldviews, and practices, labeling them as Buddhist if they fit into what could be described as Buddhist theology.

A greal of the paper seemed to be supporting the notion that a person can hold multiple religious identities, and that these do not necessarily need to be in conflict with one another. This is a notion that I think is very interesting, and one that would be worth considering in more detail as I continue my studies.

I don’t have a lot to add at this time. I was at first dismayed that all of the other panelists were addressing contemporary theological communities using anthropological and ethnographic methods, while my subject matter was rather ancient, and I took a theoretical approach. But through my brief conversation with Yetunde I saw how they could be connected. My paper dealt with the violent exclusion and othering of one group by another, and hers dealt with a way in which it seemed like certain individuals were able to bridge gaps between practices and traditions that at first seem irreconcilable.

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Kripal’s “Biological Gods”

Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University, came to speak at my university earlier this week for our annual Witherspoon Religious Studies lecture.

His lecture, “Biological Gods: Science (fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies”, focused on three specific works by individuals who identify themselves as “Experiencers”, or those who have had alien or UFO encounters.

Kripal discussed how these kinds of experiences are socially scripted into our psyches. A contemporary tale of an alien encounter is the modern equivalent of ancient tales of divine encounters. For Kripal, this scripting doesn’t mean that the experiences are necessarily invalid (though he remains neutral, neither advocating for the objective reality of UFO sightings or alien encounters nor dismissing them as hogwash).

As I understood it, he thinks that it makes perfect sense that a culture so enmeshed with technology would perceive these supernatural experiences through a technological lens. Just as a Catholic Catholic child in, say, the 1500’s would naturally see a Marian apparition.

He finds that these seemingly radically different experiences are linked; they are an emergence of the scripted form of some sort of encounter that is inexpressible. The person sees a UFO (or Jesus’ face in a piece of toast) because they expect to, but this is the result of some sort of other-worldly touch that only has the option of emerging through the lens of something we are already familiar with.

I think Kripal’s approach is interesting. He advocates for putting the mysterious (or the divine) back into the study of religion. While I think that this can create some issues (some might immediately jump to the realm of the miraculous when attempting to explain religious phenomena), but I think it is an interesting idea.

Religious Studies is so often incredibly depressing, Kripal noted. I’m afraid I agree. Though I love the field with all my heart, sometimes I feel like it is missing an air of wonder and incredulity.

Maybe it’s just me, but at times I feel that everything is reduced to a theory or explanation, and all of the amazing “stuff” that makes up the so much of what we study is ignored or extinguished.

What would it mean to attempt to reinvigorate the study? How could this be done carefully? Could it be done at all at this point?

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