How to Make More from More? the Large Conference Loner Challenge

“Less is better” is a dictum that doesn’t just haunt Matt Sheedy. I feel as though that spectral proverb from J.Z. Smith may apply as much to conferences as the classroom. The phrase resonates with my cultural heritage, too.  There’s a cookbook title, famous among certain generations of Mennonites, that encapsulates the bent of that culture: “More-with-Less.”

Conferences come in a variety of sizes. Some are attended in the dozens to hundreds whereas others tip past the thousands. Each conference ranges between more and less in a variety of ways, but it seems to me that Smith’s pedagogy and my cultural heritage converge on the direct correlation between attendance and outcomes. The more the people, the less I appreciate the conference.

What follows is not theorizing that supports the claim, but anecdotal evidence accompanied by some ideas for action. Continue reading

Words and Things: Modern Concepts, Ancient Interests

Matt Sheedy (Ph.D) lectures in the department of religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, atheism and science v. religion in the public realm,  as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

Let us consider for a moment a list of native terms that Brent Nongbri discusses in his book Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) along with some of the more common definitions that have been assigned to them. Here we find the Khasi word ka niam (rules or duties) (1); the Greek term ioudaismos (the activity of Judaizing) (2); the Greek eusebeia (attitudes toward the gods); the Roman eusebeia (“toward the bonds of kinship”) (4); the medieval Latin saecularis (Christian clergy not in a monastic order) (5); the Chinese zongjiao (“ancestral” or sectarian teachings) (25); the Latin religio (variously rites, rituals, rules, worship, reverence, scruples, monastic life) (28-31); the Greek thrēskeia (variously signaling rituals, loyalty or obedience to divine authority, observances, worship of proper gods or a particular ethnic group) (35-38); the Arabic dīn (variously faith, law, debt, custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution, social transactions) (39-42); the Arabic umma (community, nation, faith) (44); the Arabic muslim (“one who submits to authority, surrenders, obeys”) (59); and the Middle Persian dēn (variously community, church, omniscience, wisdom, goodness, vision, revelation, etc.) (69). To this list Nongbri also adds dharma, dao, jiao (though he does not analyze their semantic histories) while noting that “[n]one of these ancient words delineates ‘religious’ from ‘non-religious.’”(45) Continue reading