This past week I had to write a history of the Research in Religious Studies Conference for the University of Lethbridge’s new president. I started reflecting on how much it really means to me, so rather than write a post bitching about things or poking fun at something (i.e., the usual Thinking Shop fare), I would share that history here as it really is the one thing that I’ve done academically that has probably touched the greatest number of people in a possible way (besides just lecturing or marking papers and exams).
The conference started back in 2003 and is now going into its 9th season. It is open to undergraduates and Masters students (we will accept PhD papers, but doctoral candidates would probably be better off trying to get into professional meetings) with papers on any academic subject pertaining to religion. The diversity we get is tremendous. The conference is modelled after the regional American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meetings: sessions of 3 or 4 papers of half an hour each, including about 10 minutes of discussion after each. The main difference comes in applying. We found that it is impossible to designate sessions ahead of time. The reason is that one can never be sure what upper level seminars are being conducted in various universities, so most pre-planning will probably come to naught. Also, students are quite nervous and are typically unsure if their papers will “fit” any pre-arranged theme. Many of the most interesting papers cut across boundaries anyway, and so we will take whatever papers that sound well researched. We make up the sessions after. It is often a chore as there is always one that doesn’t fit, but we always make them fit in somewhere, and it usually works quite well. Many students comment on the nice mix of papers.
We also have a policy of accepting any paper whose abstract indicated a good level of thought and a good methodology. There is, therefore, no upper limit to the number of paper. Since the conference is intended to be pedagogical, proposals that leave us with some reservation will often not be rejected outright but returned for further clarification. Often, students simply cannot write a good abstract while the paper itself is quite acceptable. Some proposals, however, are rejected.
My first attempt at organizing a student conference was back when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alberta. My firend Aaron Hughes and I thought it would be a good idea. Our few presenters and somewhat skeptical but supportive professors all thought it a great success although, unfortunately, it lasted only one year after we graduated. During my time at the U. of A., however, I was encouraged attend professesional conferences as well, and even had two papers accepted for presentation at the annual meetings of the Pacific Northwest Region of the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion (PNW-AAR/SBL, covering Alberta, B. C., Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington).
This left a great impression on me, so when I joined the faculty of the U. of L. in 2002 I proposed such conference. At a meeting in September of that year, many students expressed an interest and also concerns of the quality of their degree in comparison with the programs of larger departments of Religious Studies, such as that at the University of Alberta and especially Calgary (one of the largest departments in Canada).
Our first meeting was in early May 2003, when a handful of students presented papers to a small body of their peers, parents and a few professors in early May, 2003. The next year twelve papers were presented and in 2005 we advertised the conference at the University of Calgary where some of our former students were continuing their studies. A strong showing from there brought our total to over twenty presenters. Needless to say, our undergraduates clearly showed they could hold their own against their counterparts from other universities.
In subsequent years, Calgary proved to be our greatest supporter and we began pulling in presenters from further afield. In 2006 well over forty papers were presented by students from Alberta, British Columbi., Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and even Vanderbilt University in Nashville (by a Calgary alumnus). With this response, we were quickly forced to extend the meeting to over two days and have simultaneous sessions, a format that we retain. The succeeding year our meeting was as large and held immediately prior to the PNW-AAR/SBL conference which we also hosted. This time we included participants from Ontario, Washington, Tennessee Alabama, and Oregon. The many faculty who stayed for both meetings all expressed very positive reactions to the quality of research and presentation skills and the tremendous pedagogical benefit of the meeting.
The 2008 and 2009 meetings were smaller althoughboth drew contributors from near and far. These lower numbers seemed due to the economic downturn as many students were forced to cancel their plans to attend as their universities could no longer cover their travel expenses. Coming at the very end of the school term, many students are hard-pressed to fund such excursions on their own.
There have been some notable successes for our undergraduate presenters from the U. of L. Both Chelsea Masterman and Natasha Fairweather (nee Elder) presented on a number of occassions and the student’s research journal, Axis Mundi (peer reviewed by graduate students) accepted two of their conference papers; Natasha’s Effing the Ineffable: Demystifying the Muhammad Cartoon Controversy and Chelsea’s A Mutual Advantage: Interreligious Dialogue and the Discipline of Religious Studies. Natasha was also asked to join the editorial board despite being still an undergraduate.
The confidence that comes from having their papers accepted for our conference has led to some students presenting papers at professional conferences. Chelsea Masterman presented her paper at the meeting of the (PNW-AAR/SBL, in Seattle. Sarah Ginn-Christianson) delivered a fine paper on Shakespeare’s allusions to the Reformation at our meeting in 2009. On the encouragement of myself and some of the faculty from other institutions who heard it, she submitted it to the PNW-AAR/SBL undergraduate essay contest and we were pleased to hear that she won.
Perhaps the greatest signs of the impact of the conference on its participants is the fact that every year there are repeat presenters and with every new call for papers issued I receive numerous emails for past participants reaffirming the positive impact of the conference on their academic careers and expressing their regrets that they cannot take part this time around.
We are hoping the conference grows and we are looking towards starting an online venue for publishing the proceedings and other good student papers in religious studies.
Here are a few of the papaer abstracts from last year:
Raj Balkaran, University of Toronto “Virtue and Valour in the Vālmīki Rāmāyana: The Dance of War and Peace”
Is violence ever justified? While modern Just War doctrine, evolved from Roman and early Christian thinkers, stipulate criteria where forceful means is legitimized, how applicable is that ideology to the discourse on violence of ancient India? Vālmīki’s monumental Sanskrit epic, Rāmāyaṇa, has functioned as a repository of Hindu values for over two millennia. Despite its vast receptive history, the epic’s moral themes remain vital aspects of modern Hindu thought and culture. What, then, does the Rāmāyaṇa have to say about the legitimization of force? Through careful textual analysis, this twofold study firstly demonstrates the distinct presence of all seven modern Just War criteria within the text, including: (1) Just Cause; (2) Right Intent; (3) Legitimate Authority; (4) Net Benefit; (5) Last Resort; (6) Proportionality of Means; and, lastly, (7) Right Conduct. As such, this study enables unprecedented dialogue between Hinduism and Christian Just War ideology. While Vālmīki says much about just warfare, he also has much to say about nonviolence (ahiṃsā). Therefore, this study secondarily demonstrates that although just war ideology is useful in examining the epic’s legitimization of force, it is insufficient in accommodating the Rāmāyaṇa’s complex attitudes towards peace. By analyzing the significance of nonviolence throughout the epic; particularly as it manifests as the tension between the opposed values of kingship and asceticism I challenge the extent to which the Rāmāyaṇa ultimately valorizes the duty of the warrior, arguing that although thetale glorifies the ideal warrior waging a righteous war, it nevertheless critiques the very enterprise of warfare. Vālmīki accords nonviolence with so lofty a status as to ethically blemish even righteous warfare, demanding that we question whether violence is ever justified. The tension between the sociopolitical necessity of violence (the duty of the king) and moral imperative of nonviolence (the duty of the ascetic) is a lasting one within the Hindu religious tradition, one remaining as irreconcilable in the Rāmāyaṇa as in the religious culture which continues to cherish it.
Lauren Chomyn, University of Alberta “Violence as Beauty in Trito-Isaiah”
While it is often referred to as the book of comfort, Isaiah’s infamous utopian visions of a peaceful new heavens and new earth, in which the wolf and the lamb will graze together, are evenly matched with scenes of horror and violence (Isaiah 65: 25). Violence is not only the defining characteristic of the Israelites’ chaotic post-exilic state from which they hope YHWH will deliver them, but paradoxically, violence is also the tool by which Trito-Isaish hopes that God will establish and maintain a new and peaceful world. Isaiah’s tendency to mix violence and beauty in both its utopian visions and in its characterization of God, I suggest, are based on an ancient near eastern creation theology, by which violence not only is the means through which beauty is produced, but is itself a component of beauty.
Lara deBeyer, University of Victoria “Islanded in a Stream of Stars: Sacred Space and Sacred Time in Battlestar Galactica”
In the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica (BSG), the remnants of humanity wander the cosmos in search of Earth, the mythical homeland of one of their ancestral tribes. Following a trail left behind thousands of years previous, they search for the way to this world mentioned only in religious scripture. They seek refuge from the Cylons, the race of robots that wiped out the majority of the human population. BSG, as science fiction, sets out to do what few oeuvres in the genre have done before: address religious belief not as a cult or a misunderstanding of natural phenomenon but as a part of daily life. The search of Earth is both a practical search for a new home and a spiritual quest for those who undertake it. According to John Gillis, [t]he sacredness of a place is directly proportional to the effort it takes to reach it. The journey to the landscapes of the holy is always a ritualized ordeal. The nature of the quest in this space-scape is one of both mythical and quotidian
proportions, without replaying the old binary of “sacred” and “profane”. Using research by John Gillis and Mircea Eliade as a starting point, I hope to show how BSG reframes the ancient notion of the spiritual quest in the desert or at sea by transposing it into the 21st century unknown, outer space, and thus reinvigorates the inherited notion of humanity’s nostalgia for paradise.
Michael Kok, University of Alberta “The True Covenant People:� Ethnic Reasoning in the Epistle of Barnabas”
There was no abstract conception of “religion” in antiquity, but ethnicity and cult were intertwined. Building on Denise Buell’s thesis, I investigate the use of ethnic reasoning in Christian identity formation in the epistle of Barnabas. Barnabas utilizes ethnic reasoning and re-appropriates Israel’s epic to construct a distinct Christian ethnic identity with pure origins and represent the Judaean as an adversarial foil.
Ali Ahmad Rasekh, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec) “Messianism and Power: the Prerequisites of Mahdi’s Advent in Shiism”
In Shiite thought, the return of a messianic figure, called Mahdi “rightly guided-among people” occupies a central locus. In the rule established by the Twelfth Imam of the Shiites, peaceful, just, and righteous values overcome values represented and established by the demonic and cruel forces. The creation of such a society is a utopian idea.
The time of the Imam’s returning is not indicated, but it will happen before the world comes to an end, based on the Shiite thought. There are two sides here. On one side is the Imam, whose advent and rule will be an answer to the human being’s needs at that time. The date of his returning is known out of his follower’s control; an issue recognized by them. On the other side, however, is the society or, more precisely, the Imam’s followers during the time of his Occultation. This paper searches the task or, even, the responsibility of Shiite community during the absence of their leader from community. From the Shiite perspective, the time of the Imam’s advent is not in his adherents’ hands, but they might delay or hasten his coming by their behaviour. What kind of behavior and responsibilities must they commit themselves to?
The Shiites have taken two fundamentally different positions. One of these views argues for active participation in socio-political life and battling against unjust ruling power holders, while the second position invites people to take a passive position towards political affairs even when they are corrupt.
We can find representatives of these two opposing views in Twentieth Century Iran. Their rationales, social status, and connection to political power can be analyzed in this paper.
Peter Sabo, University of Alberta “The Dream and the Text: Reading Isaiah 66: 7-16 as Wish Fulfillment”
This paper attempts to read Isaiah 66: 7-16 from a Freudian perspective, specifically that of wish fulfillment. On the one hand it is clear that Jerusalem is personified as the perfect mother in this text and thus operates as the ultimate object of desire in replacement of the poet’s (pre)Oedipal mother. Yet, the portrayal of Yahweh seems to flip back and forth between fatherly (masculine) and motherly (feminine) imagery, which could be interpreted as a sign of dream censorship.
This censorship is not only present in the text, but can also be seen in the way that several biblical scholars interpret the text by cautioning against too strong of an association between Yahweh and motherhood.
Jessica Swann, University of Lethbridge “Was Pope Pius XII Anti-Semitic? An Analysis of a Man bothChampioned and Condemned”
The actions of Pope Pius XII before, during and concluding the Holocaust will be analyzed in order to come to a conclusion on the often debated accusation that the Pope was anti-Semitic because he failed to intervene to save and support European Jews using what his detractors argue was his substantial power to do so. The examples often given in favour of Pope Pius XII being anti-Semitic will be analyzed, such as his notable silence, as well as those who oppose the accusation with both sides motivations being examined. An attempt to conclude if he was acting in the norm of the time will be made through an analysis of the actions of other spiritual leaders and authorities of the same time, such as Protestant groups, in order to see if the actions of the Pope were drastically different. Even into the twentieth century anti-Semitism was often the norm, even if current Western societies choose not to acknowledge it. It is possible for Pope Pius XII to have been considered an ally of the Jewish at the time, as he did privately condemn Nazi Germany. An examination of the pope’s actions following the Holocaust will be done to further understand his previous motivations and overall character.� Finally, a look at the Catholic Church’s current stance on both Pope Pius XII and Judaism will be analyzed in order to help answer the heated question “Was the Pope Anti-Semitic” in terms of the current understanding of the word and also in regards to the norms of his time.
Anyway, the whole thing is a load of fun and it is great to end the academic year hearing well done student papers! And I learn a lot too!