From Sweden with Love

A scene from the campus of the University of Lund, Sweden

by Johanna Bos
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.

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Echoes of “A Woman’s Voice”

Dr. Gay Byron, Suendam Birinci, and Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer spoke as proponents of 'critical vision'

Johanna Bos, in her opening remarks for the recent interfaith conference “A Woman’s Voice,” referred to the objective of the conference as the fashioning of “utopian space.” She cited recent work by Elizabeth Castelli in characterizing utopian space as “an alternative space within which the future might be reimagined and renagotiated in light of a critical vision of the past and present.”1

This critical view of past and present emerged clearly in every plenary presentation. Dr. Gay Byron’s talk “Teaching Empires, Interpreting Texts, Redefining Authority” in particular focused on the presentation of the history of the ancient Axumite Empire, and the way its existence has been reflected through the eyes of its “others” in antiquity. Once the standard, classic sources begin to appear as sources from a particular standpoint, with their own symbolic agendas and systematic distortions, it becomes possible to consider the meanings of those symbolic agendas and systematic distortions, as well as to look for other sources. This is precisely the direction Gay Byron’s most recent work is taking, as she sifts the demanding texts of the Axumite, or Ethiopian, Empire. For those in her audience who don’t know ge`ez, however, just becoming aware that certain “authorized” sources of information about the topic of the Axumites require critical re-examination serves as a reminder that similar dynamics have been at work, and are still at work, in our more immediate contexts. It can remind us to reflect on the symbolic apparatus laid before us in newsprint and video pixels, as contemporary representatives of empire purvey their official views of the meaning of racial difference, class difference, religious difference, gender difference. Gay’s lecture reminds us to be suspicious of reports that are too easy to understand; perhaps the ease of understanding comes from the use of “information” as symbol to reinforce one particular picture of the world, rather than the use of words and images as information, to complicate, widen, and deepen our picture of the world.

The presentations by Suendam Birinci and Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer did, in fact, complicate, widen, and deepen our picture of the world. Suendam Birinci focused her attention on the authoritative status of the Qur’an in the religious tradition of Islam. The text, she pointed out, is understood by Muslims differently from the way the Biblical text is understood by most Jews and Christians. The text’s status as direct revelation from God, independent of human composition, transmission, and even understanding, underpins the authority of the text of the Qur’an in a way that differs from the authority of a Biblical text that is understood to be open to historical and literary criticism and to interpretation in light of its human authorship. Birinci emphasized the possibilities inherent in education with respect to the text of the Qur’an, pointing out that familiarity with and understanding of that text becomes the ultimate touchstone for legitimate communal authority in the context she outlined. This should constitute a place from which women can challenge illegitimate erasures of their God-given rights. Birinci sketches an alternative future — which incidentally might resemble a historical past that has been almost forgotten by most contemporary Muslims — which would include education made available to women equally with men, and respect for religious views granted according to merit.2

Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer depicted a present in the Jewish context that has become a time of intense focus on texts and tradition, in which women’s textual scholarship is being recognized and gaining authority (as in the publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, commentaries on the Torah portions by women rabbis) and women’s voices as interpreters and re-inventers of religious tradition are increasingly attended to and accepted as authoritative. She noted, however, that this new authoritative position comes historically on the heels of an earlier eclipse of a different organization of religious life in which women, in fact, enjoyed significant authority in the realm of women’s ritual and spiritual life. In evidence she cites the memoirs of Pauline Wengeroff, translated by Shulamit Magnus, as demonstrating the way official histories have obscured the trajectories of loss of cultural authority in the now-vanished traditional context. Interestingly, however, growth in women’s authority according to the pattern established by modern and masculine religious and scholarly authority is increasingly permitting a critical revival of traditional practices, and a re-inscription of traditional practices in the contemporary context in ways that retrieve and reshape the sources of women’s authority within the living tradition. One of the things suggested by this account is that critical consciousness, and assessment of the gains and losses that come with historical change, while difficult, are also essential. This critical consciousness and assessment require the perspectives made available by gender difference, along with those made available by other sources of difference, before they can count as knowledge about the paths towards liberation.

It is one thing to recognize that the goal of a conference of this type is to create “utopian space,” in the sense of alternative space that is open to critical reflection on and re-evaluation of what is “common knowledge.” It is another to make the effort to inscribe such “utopian space” more deeply into our routines. That effort, some will say, would really be “utopian” — in the sense of being unrealistic and impractical.

But one of the lessons of the recent conference “A Woman’s Voice” is, in fact, that this effort can be made. Pockets of critical space, for reimagination and renegotiation of alternative futures in light of critical visions of the past and present, can be fashioned. The conference room is only one of many possible spaces of this kind. The classroom, in which students and teachers pursue emancipatory practices, is potentially another. A living room, in which people gather for Bible study with a determination to hear what a living God is speaking into a contemporary context, could be such a space. The Women’s Center, we are reminded, is called to be this kind of space; this is precisely the objective of the Center’s programs of education, advocacy and celebration.

Indeed, the church itself is called to be this kind of space, a place in which people together can catch a glimpse of an alternative future of justice and peace, that does not simply replicate indefinitely the cold material inequalities and casual violences of our contemporary world. “A Woman’s Voice” had something to say — let those with ears to hear, hear.

Delay Thou Not!

Online registration for this unique conference is still open — but the caterers are drumming their fingers to know how many will be joining us for the opening lunch and the dinner reception preceding the lecture. We would LOVE to hear from everyone before next Wednesday!

[Click the link below for more information about the conference, and access to online registration.]

Interfaith Conference A Woman's Voice Brochure

Fifth Annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Interfaith Conference 'A Woman's Voice' September 12 - 13, 2010

Register Now for “A Woman’s Voice”

Online registration is available now for the Fifth Annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Interfaith Conference “A Woman’s Voice.” Details and access to the registration site are available by clicking the brochure below:

Interfaith Conference A Woman's Voice Brochure

Fifth Annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Interfaith Conference 'A Woman's Voice' September 12 - 13, 2010

SAVE THE DATES: September 12 & 13

SAVE THE DATES!!!

SEPTEMBER 12 AND 13, 2010

While in Rochester, I visited with our next Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer, Dr. Gay Byron, of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. We had a great conversation and envisage a marvelous time together in September. Dr. Byron will present the lecture on Sunday and the next day provide a workshop on her research on the early Christian Church in Ethiopia. This will be our fifth Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and all the events will take place within the context of the conference “A WOMAN’S VOICE – WOMEN SPEAKING WITH AUTHORITY IN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY” to be held on September 12 and 13 on our campus. Our two other speakers are: Dr. Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and Suendam Birinci of Hartford Seminary. This promises to be a conference filled with energizing and spirit-filled occasions, so make your reservations early!

You can do so by going to the Women’s Center Facebook page, by contacting Johanna Bos (jobs@lpts.edu or jovanwijk@gmail.com), the Women’s Center (womenscenter@lpts.edu), or Kate Davidson (kdavidson@lpts.edu). We will soon make it possible for you to register online via the LPTS website.

Having a Wonderful Time . . .

An image from NWSA conference. . . wish more of us were here!

The National Women’s Studies Association conference we’ve been attending since Thursday has been a phenomenal experience for us! Although the Women’s Center at LPTS is not, it seems, a typical Women’s Center in some ways, as Women’s Centers in institutions of higher education go, in other ways we are really typical, and have a lot to gain by networking with directors, coordinators and staff of other Women’s Centers, as we were able to do at the Women’s Center pre-conference meeting on Thursday. For another, this has been an incredibly, unanticipatedly stimulating concatenation of people, ideas, scholarship, experiences, images, meaningful juxtapositions and almost bizarre coincidences (if I may be permitted to use that word — I know some readers will deny the existence of coincidences in this world, but so be it, you’ll know what I am trying to refer to, at least) and there will be plenty to think about, follow up on, and work through for months to come. I will try to say more about that, in a little more depth, in the next few posts.

We were fortunate that this year’s meeting, held in Cincinnati, is so close to home — reduces the pressure on the budget in funding transportation, lodging and per diem, and made the travel seem so — possible. Now that we know what the impact can be of attending a conference like this, it will probably start to seem essential.

So next year, we have already started thinking, it would be nice to be able to come with a few more people . . .