ADA, Ohio — Religion scholars are an eclectic group. They seem to really love their subject — not just the academic aspect, but its sacredness, too. "Some of what makes it unique is the dual commitment" to religion for both subject and soul, said Forrest Clingerman, a religion professor at Ohio Northern University.
On April 4 and 5, ONU hosted the American Academy of Religion's annual conference for the midwest region, which covers Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. There were 38 sessions of two, three, and four scholars all presenting their academic essays —132 papers in all. The 170 registered participants included undergraduates, graduate students, professors, and scholars with no current educational affiliation. The national president of the Academy, Laurie Zoloft of Northwestern University, spoke at the lunch on April 5.
Mr. Clingerman is the region's elected coordinator, which makes him responsible for the conference and gives him the perk of hosting it at his school.
The religious range of some of the scholars seems to rival the variety of the topics presented. Suzanne Morrison, an ONU faculty member, said, "I was raised in the Methodist Church, and then I became an atheist, and then an agnostic, and then a miscellaneous Protestant, and then I became a Buddhist and I wasn't able to go back." She presented a paper titled "La Santa Muerte Crashes Day of the Dead: A New San Francisco Syncretism?"
Ray Person, also at ONU, has a multi-denominational orientation. "I'm ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I'm married to an Episcopal priest, I teach at a United Methodist university, and since there's neither a Disciples of Christ or Episcopal church in the town of Bluffton where we live, we go to a Mennonite church — which was going to be a temporary decision, but that was over 20 years ago."
Having a lot of religion in your background can help your academic foundation.
"A lot of people think they can study religion without messing with all that groundwork," said Madeline Duntley of Bowling Green State University, whose paper was "Baby Boomer Spirituality and Alternative Spiritual Healers." "To study religion, you have to know people's scriptures, you have to know their organizational structure, you have to know things that you might not be particularly interested in, but you miss so much if you don't look at the entirety of the tradition."
"In the past, Christian education has been very much memorized Bible verses and 'you understand these different key points of our theology,'" said Ben Espinoza, director of youth and community life at Covenant Church in Bowling Green, who spoke on "Exploring the Use of Christian Practices in Theological Higher Education." "But I think we're growing more toward an emphasis on formation where we're seeing all aspects of church life are educative and formational in a sense."
"We're called to make life better not just for us, but for other people," said Paul Mueller, an adjunct or part-time professor of theology at Lourdes University who is studying for his doctorate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Mr. Mueller delivered two papers, "The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 and Cleveland, Ohio: A Crisis in Corporate Prudence and Its Results" and "Mgr. Marcel Lefebvre and the Minority Positions at the Second Vatican Council." "From the scholarly side, if you haven't done the work to know and investigate, you have to ask questions. If you haven't asked questions, then you don't have a faith. [You can't] just take things and say, 'OK, this is the way it is.' You have to question."
"I resonate with that answer," Mr. Espinoza said. "Where I encounter God, it's really the special revelation as well as the general revelation, watching God speaking through sacred scripture as well as through human beings as well as through research."
"The study of religion is important because religion has the power to criticize an institution to the point where it's destroyed and has the power to build it up again," Ms. Duntley said. "It has that unique ability to see what nobody else sees or to say what everyone is afraid to say is wrong, and call it out and completely change everything, but also, phoenix-like, to build it all up again and make it into something beautiful. You can mobilize thousands and thousands of people for good and evil, but of course you want to teach people so that they mobilize for good."
NOTE: TK Barger attended the meeting as both journalist and scholar. He presented a paper titled "An Expanded Humanism: The 'Conversion' of John Dietrich."