This coming week I’m headed out to San Francisco. I will be taking part in a very large gathering of scholars and teachers who are concerned with religious and theological studies. The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature met together for many years in the autumn on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The two meetings became increasingly larger, and the leaders struggled to maintain a collaborative partnership. The result was a contentious split and three years of hiatus in which the two groups met separately. It was called by many “the big divorce.”
The fall out from the split was that book publishers and other industries which support the academic study of scriptures, theology and religion more broadly were forced to spend twice as much to make themselves available at separate meetings. Or they made difficult choices and scaled back their presence, or simply didn’t go to one meeting or the other.
Separate meetings also meant that seminary faculties and professors in college departments of religion could no longer make use of a shared time and space for developing their specialized and cross-disciplinary research and teaching interests. It was a space potentially for understanding direction, new developments and latest ideas in a variety of fields. The joint meeting was also an opportunity for meeting job candidates and conducting interviews. This became more complicated when the two groups stopped meeting together.
The last three years might be viewed as something of a “trial separation” for AAR and SBL. A number of scholars maintain memberships in both societies, making the split feel very personal. For others it was a relief to cut down the size and complications of the meeting.
This coming weekend is a reunion of the AAR and SBL in San Francisco. The iconic golden gate bridge seems an apt metaphor of reunion, collaboration and continued flow of ideas and shared work between the two societies. It will be large and overwhelming in terms of the thousands of scholars descending on the city. The separation seems to have helped make a case in many minds that on par with the economic need for scholars, book publishers, hiring committees to be able to attend just one meeting and not two, the need for collaboration itself was worth revisiting. This is after all a meeting of the two largest academic guilds devoted to cultivating new knowledge in the public understanding of religions in North America.
“Sometimes it’s hard to share with your friends,” as my daughter liked to remind us when she was in the two-year-old class. We laughed at the seriousness with which this was pronounced. Seems to me no matter the size of the human interaction from preschool classroom to corporate boardroom to academic meeting room, sharing is still one of humanity’s greatest challenges . . . even, or maybe especially, when we are talking about sharing with friends.