Gerard Mannion – “Theology and the American Academy of Religion”

Gerard Mannion

“Theology and the American Academy of Religion”

Concilium 2018-4. Kirche der Zukunft
Concilium 2018-4. The Church of the Future
Concilium 2018-4. La Iglesia del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. L’Église du futur
Concilium 2018-4. La Chiesa del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. A Igreja do Futuro

Thierry-Marie Courau OP, Stefanie Knauss et Enrico Galavotti


In this article, I will offer some reflections on the place of Christian theology within the American Academy of Religion (AAR, i.e., North America). It is a fascinating organization without which theology worldwide today would be very different.

I. The story of the American Academy of Religion

The Academy is the largest professional association or society for the study of religion in the world. The past and present of the AAR are both very much bound up with biblical scholarship in the United States. Its origins date back to 1909 and the foundation of the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools, which, in 1922, became the National Association of Biblical Instructors, and, in 1963, the AAR. Some of the AAR’s past presidents have been key figures in theology, church history and theological ethics, with a few originating from beyond the United States.
The AAR began to cooperate closely with the older Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), which was founded in 1888 and is the other largest professional society in North America (and so presently globally). From 1970 onwards the two associations have held a joint annual meeting (known as a conference or convention in other parts of the world) that has enabled the AAR meeting to develop from a small meeting accommodated in a single conference hotel to the 10,000 plus participants that now regularly attend.
But there have been divisions that have impacted theology and other approaches to the study of religion alike. The joint meetings of the SBL and AAR were interrupted by an unpopular separation between 2008 and 2011, when some voices on the AAR committee pushed through a motion to hold separate meetings (with dire logistical and financial consequences for all concerned, including publishers, many of whom could simply not afford to attend both exhibitions that take place as a key component of the joint annual meeting).
The separation was ideologically driven. So many members of either association had research and teaching interests that legitimately crossed over into those areas covered by the sister association. Consequently, many believed a secularist agenda pursued by some scholars of religion had forced through this largely unwelcome split (the membership of both societies voted overwhelmingly to reverse it1, never having been given the chance to vote on it coming into being in the first place).
The temporary separation of the two associations may be seen to be grounded in broader questions surrounding the identities of the disciplines gathered in them. The now long worn and tedious departmental, institutional and disciplinary ‘clashes’ between theology and ‘religious studies’ preoccupied many scholars in the mid to late 1970s and beyond into the later 90s and, in some places, beyond even that decade and, sadly, to this day. Thankfully, this ‘debate’ has largely been judged by history to have been, in many ways, unhelpful and even unnecessary, although some departments remain trapped in such binary oppositional thinking to this day. Some may (needlessly) have perceived it in terms of competition, some bought wholesale into the triumph of secularization theories (some of the leading pioneering theorists of which later and, in a self-deprecating fashion, mocked their younger selves’ mistakes and arrogance, for example Peter Berger). It is fair to say that the boundary lines between theology and ‘religious studies’ had never been fixed or never could be. Neither is technically a single unified discipline in and of itself. Theology has, since its beginnings crossed over into, learned from and contributed and helped to give birth and sustenance to so many other disciplines.
Religious studies is really an umbrella term that emerged in the 1960s and beyond, partly to reflect the impact of the many social scientific and related approaches to the study of religion that had emerged from the nineteenth century onwards. A second influential factor in the emergence of Religious Studies departments was due to the fact that, in the United States, confessional theology could not receive state funding due to the constitutional separation of religion and state. Yet a new approach to the study of religion, one not formally linked to any particular faith community or religious institution, presented no such obstacles to funding by the state. This was something especially exploited in the University of California system, many constituent schools of which became pioneers in the study of religion, continuing such important work to this day.
But a third reason why divisions and debates occurred was because sometimes people were simply unaware of what their colleagues were doing in the perceived other yet clearly neighboring, indeed often overlapping field. It is fair to say that there have always been theologians engaged in the study of religions other than their own and in methods beyond those technically identified as belonging to theology. And, especially since the late 1960s, many theologians have become increasingly conversant and interested in furthering the different methodologies for studying multiple religions that are core to religious studies. Many have happily lived and taught in both worlds, so to speak, advancing approaches across the divide. And so interreligious dialogue and religious pluralism have been greatly advanced thanks to this. The AAR has been a vital forum for allowing such cross-fertilization to take place and continues to be so.
As the organization grew, it is true that many theologians – including leading theologians – stopped attending the AAR at different points in the 1990s and especially early 2000s. There seemed to be an increasing reduction in program units focused upon core theological questions, and thus a lack of conference sessions, panels and papers that were of direct relevance to their work. Thankfully, such trends have been proactively reversed since the mid 2000s and theology is now either the primary focus or part of the major focus of a large proportion of the AAR’s program units.

II. Theological engagement through the Academy

So, what forms of theological focus take place through the work of the AAR? The annual meeting is the primary outlet for its work, yet the AAR does much more to foster scholarly enquiry. Alongside regular regional meetings, the Academy also publishes book series, awards various grants to facilitate and recognize scholarship and research (especially at earlier stages of careers), and it helps facilitate dialogue and research about religion-focused pedagogy and research themselves. Indeed, theology-oriented events have been some of the best-attended plenary sessions at the AAR in the past two decades, including an enormous audience turning out to attend a session about Pope Francis in Baltimore in 2013.
To name just a sampling of the program units that have advanced the discourse and practice of theology in recent decades, there are units that address Christianity as a whole from a variety of interdisciplinary methodological and geographical perspectives which are ecumenical in orientation and by deliberate design. So, for example, this present author can bear testimony to the aims of the Ecclesiological Investigations Program Unit, which is both linked to a much wider international network to promote open and pluralistic dialogue and scholarship about the church (especially ecumenical issues, interfaith issues, social justice and ethical issues and church-world/secular issues), and is a unit that has collaborated with other AAR groups each and every year since 2006. Similarly and since about the same time, the World Christianities Group has also taken a broad global sweep and explored this nascent new branch of theological focus from a wide variety of angles.
In addition to those groups with a firm commitment to exploring ecumenical issues, there are equally many which look at inter-religious issues and studies. Examples of those with the most direct focus on theological questions are the units in Comparative Theology, Comparative Religion Ethics and Contemplative Studies. Some groups explore specific ethical questions with a distinct commitment to theological approaches among the topics they discuss each year, such as the unit focusing on Class, Religion and Theology.
There are several denominational and tradition-specific units, such as the relatively recently introduced (2012) Vatican II Studies Unit and the Roman Catholic Studies Unit. Other denominations are covered by groups exploring Eastern Orthodox Studies, Lutheran, Reformed, Quaker and Methodist traditions. The Society for the Study of Anglicanism is presently an ‘additional meeting group’ which will hopefully be incorporated as a fully-fledged AAR group soon. Regional or country-specific attention is given in the recently formed Chinese Christianities Seminar and the unit on Middle Eastern Christianity.
And there is, of course, attention to the theologies of other traditions in various groups that focus on Daoism, Jainism, Islamic Studies, Jewish studies (and questions explored in an analogous fashion to those pursued through theological methods in Buddhist Studies).
There are groups which explore specific methods such as the section in Christian Systematic Theology in addition to units in Political Theology, Practical Theology, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, among other groups. Theological enquiry also receives much attention from historically oriented groups such as the History of Christianity Unit or the Nineteenth Century Studies. Some groups focus on prominent standpoints in recent times, e.g. Liberal Theologies and Open and Relational Theologies. And then there are groups that look at theology coming from particular communities and minorities. These include units in Black Theology, Queer Studies in Religion, and Indigenous Religious Traditions.
Some units explore the work and legacy of different theologians such as those exploring Augustine and Augustinianism, Barth, Kierkegaard, Tillich, Schleiermacher, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. Perhaps of significance, no single (modern) Roman Catholic theologian forms the focus of a dedicated group, perhaps reflecting the pluralism inherent in much Catholic theology, perhaps because Catholic scholars have yet to successfully propose one.
Theological questions also receive regular attention in the work of such groups that are either interdisciplinary by nature or by design such as Theology and Continental Philosophy or Theology and Religious Reflection.

III. A European Academy of Religion begins

In June 2017, the very first annual conference of the newly founded European Academy of Religion (EUARE) was held in Bologna, Italy, where it met again in 2018. It will be fascinating to see the very different, yet, I am sure, complementary ways in which this initiative will further promote theological discourse and research long into the future. Its style is, of course, more European continental in approach and that variety and difference from the character of the AAR is a positive feature that offers a distinctive range of opportunities for theological scholarship today.
EUARE has begun with great promise and I have no doubt it will come to prove a very significant addition to the annual calendar of forums where both theology and all other approaches to the study of religion are discussed. Involvement by scholars from North America thus far has been obviously limited given various factors, not least of all practical and schedule-related ones, but, again, I am sure intercontinental conversations and collaboration in the study of theology and religion will benefit all the more for the presence of these two associations.
It is too early to provide a similar overview on EUARE to that which has been given above on the AAR, but perhaps it deserves one of its own to reflect its origins and beginnings already. In years to come, I am sure it will warrant a very significant assessment both in retrospective and prospective terms alike.

IV. Academies of incomparable value for theology

The AAR is without parallel in the world. Yes, there are areas where it could be improved, and the schedule grows and becomes more relentlessly intensive each year. An additional day or so could profitably be added to its program. There is simply no annual gathering that offers so many opportunities for scholars to present their work, hear the work of others and to engage in a host of important meetings and networking opportunities of invaluable significance for their work and development alike. The enormous exhibition hall to which every single major and so many smaller publishers of theology come each year is itself a unique opportunity for scholars to explore the scholarship emerging in their fields of interest and to directly speak with publishers about future book projects they have in mind. Many journals, special interest groups and international and national networks host their own business meetings around the schedule of the AAR. The giants of the field can be heard and engaged with, alongside the most exciting emerging voices, too. Friends old and new encounter one another each November. It can sometimes feel as if anyone and everyone in the world of theology is there, despite some stubborn stay always deterred by the sheer size of the gathering or practical issues such as the not insignificant costs. Theology would be all the poorer and more limited in range and scope if the AAR did not exist. Now that we also have the EUARE, the future of theology looks all the brighter still.


Gerard Mannion holds the Amaturo Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at Georgetown University. Founding chair of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, he has authored, co-authored and edited some nineteen books and numerous articles and chapters in the fields of ethics, ecclesiology, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. He is presently the President of the International Network of Societies for Catholic Theology (INSeCT). Relative to this specific article, he has been a member of the AAR for sixteen years and was the joint founding chair of the Ecclesiological Investigations Program Unit of the AAR. He also helped establish the AAR’s Vatican II Studies Program Unit.veral articles and essays on the relationship between faith and digital culture, along with a number of pastoral and devotional resources. She is also co-editor of Authority and Leadership: Values, Religion Media (Blanquerna Observatory, Barcelona, 2017).


Gerard Mannion
Department of Theology,
Georgetown University
Room New North 120, Box 571135,
37th and O Streets
Washington DC 20057-1135 (USA)


  1. Or, more accurately, to commit to simultaneous meetings open to both organizations’ members in the same location each year.