16 April, 2011
Spending a week in Sweden, a country I have never visited, to attend a conference, organized by the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem and the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University in Sweden to celebrate its 60th anniversary, has been quite an experience. The official title of the conference was “Stereotyping the Other – Exploring the Anatomy of Religious Prejudice and Ways to Dismantle it, and it included presentations from a wide range of participants from Muslim, Jewish and Christian perspectives. A theologian and a philosopher from Great Britain spoke on the nature and power of prejudice and love, on sexual stereotypes and confidence; scholars from Israel and the North-West Europe explored Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and Muslim Occidentalism, Judaeophobic films from the Nazi era and religion as it is portrayed today in the media. In the afternoons shorter papers included topics as the possible banning of homophobic sermons in Sweden as well as the topic of the new Radical Orthodoxy and Evangelical Christian views of Islam in Sweden. It was a heady brew indeed.
I was teamed with Pamela Eisenbaum of Illif School of Theology. She spoke on the possible relationship of the thought of the apostle Paul and Emmanuel Levinas, while I addressed the issue of stereotyping the other in the form of erasure. Lively power point slides accompanied my presentation and those of the younger participants in the conference. I began by instructing the audience in the singing of “Turpitude, Moral Turpitude,” also known as Calvin’s Round. We had no time to practice and get the song perfected into a round but it was the only time the audience sang.
In terms of women’s participation, eight of the sixteen who gave major presentations were women. Of the twenty one people giving shorter papers, only six were women. Most of the afternoon presenters were young and it seemed a pity that the percentage of women was lower in that contingent. Of the rest of the conference goers, I guess about one-fifth to have been women. That too is somewhat disconcerting. I think that the organizers, all male, did their best but a conference of this sort also shows that we still have a long way to go, also, perhaps especially, in academia to achieve greater equity between the genders. In some ways I consider this to have been a hugely successful conference because of the interfaith participation and also because of an atmosphere of genuine communication and conversation around issues of religion and faith. Because the number of people attending was fairly small, about 70 or so, everyone got to talk to everyone, and engage with the neighbor in a unique way, something that does not often take place at academic conferences.
A formal banquet closed the festivities on the last night, for which we went into town to one of the old hotels in Lund. Apparently, it is a Swedish custom to be treated on such an occasion to singing by a small choir. We heard an exquisite quartet’s rendition of Swedish, German and English songs. For the grand finale they sang “Turpitude,” having practiced and perfected it under the guidance of a conference participant who was also a member of the group. That time, all the guests got to participate in the song as a round which we sang three times, until all the tables ended together with “inherent baseness,” naturally the high point of the event for me.