2021 Theme Statement

AAR & SBL Southeastern Regional Meeting 2021 at Florida State University

Theme: “Religious Imagination: Discourse, Practice & Critique”

Thematic Statement

This conference explores how religious discourse and practice, as well as religious studies, mobilize the imagination. Our imaginations are uniquely capable of giving us a critical distance from all that we take for granted and then returning us to it with new insights.

Human beings are imaginative creatures. We create and articulate worlds and perspectives that give power and direction to life. Religious texts and practices spring from this creativity. For scholars of religion, the question of how the imagination informs our topics of study – how people create texts, formulate traditions, and establish ritual practices – is paramount. Imagination inspires the people whose religious lives we study, but it also sheds light on our own academic invention. Our scholarly traditions are as much the products of the imagination as the religious traditions that we study. Imagination is therefore something that scholars and practitioners of religion share. Too often, though, we presume the reverse – that practitioners and scholars have qualitatively different perspectives. All the more challenging is to acknowledge our shared inventiveness.

How, then, do prophets and professors alike account for their flights of fancy? Why does the work of some sustain the status quo and that of others foreshadow change? How, too, do different traditions – both ecstatic and scholastic – conceptualize creative forces? Always in a visual idiom, as in our notion of the imag(e)ination, or, alternatively, through aural, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, or more embodied metaphors? And how do we as scholars use such metaphors to distinguish some kinds of religious ingenuity as “practice” from others that we consider “erudition?”

The Latin root of the word, “imagination,” has more diverse meanings than we might expect. Imagomeans both image andecho, shadow andancestor, metaphor andportrait. It evokes connotations that include what we typically define as art and poetry as well as religion. The word seems to imply that the act of representation is itself creative, enduring death like an ancestor, recalling the past like an echo, or depicting other realities like a portrait, in ways that can both trouble and console us. The imagination, instead of merely reflecting or obscuring reality, generates it, shaping experience in determining ways. It is therefore the supreme critical and political resource, capable of moving societies toward repression, renewal, or reform.

We invite participants to focus on how both sacred and scholarly imaginations can inform, deepen, or even reshape and redirect our shared work.