Thursday, 16 April 2015

On Surviving Academic Conferences III: The Final Chapter

Yesterday (Wednesday) was the final day of papers at this year’s SST conference. The highlights for me were the seminar, ‘Philosophical zombies: fact or fiction? (and why this is a question worth asking)’, in which Sarah Lane discussed the problem of mind–body dualism using the ‘philosophical zombie’ concept; Victoria Lebzyak’s seminar, ‘Thinking the world liturgically: Alexander Schmemann on the relationship between Church and World’; and Tom Greggs’s plenary paper, ‘The Priesthood of No Believer: On the Priesthood of Christ and His Church.’  Among other things, Greggs argued that the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ should be understood communally rather than individually: I, as an individual or particular believer, am not a priest; but the whole body of Christ, of which I am a member, is a royal priesthood. And why? Here’s a quotation:

The individual exists in relation to God only as mediated and interceded for by the community; and an individual in the church cannot exist within the church except by the act of the Spirit that orientates her outside of herself in relation to God and the other members of the community. The direct intensity of God exists, for members of the church, only through the mediation and intercession of others: we are not called to (and indeed cannot) face the glory and holiness of God alone: this divine intensity is mediated to the believer through extensity of the community, and it is to [sic] the extensity of the community that is presented and interceded for in relation to the intensity of God’s life. Another way to put this is to say that only in the body of Christ can we face God.

Tom Greggs, ‘The Priesthood of No Believer: On the Priesthood of Christ and His Church’, unpublished paper, presented at Society of the Study of Theology, April 15, 2015, p. 12.

Also of interest today was the plenary panel session, ‘Gender, sex and systematic theology: present realities, future aspirations’. The six panellists each made a short presentation addressing aspects of gender injustice. Subsequent discussion was very interesting (though not much was actually thrashed out in depth due to the time constraints), and I’m reminded once more of how our privileges, whatever they may be, tend to obscure our vision of the wider picture.

One of the panellists, Margaret Adam, mentioned four women (names were changed to protect the innocent) who had all been subjected to some kind of gender injustice in the academic sphere. While Megan (the fourth woman mentioned) had successfully gained her PhD and was publishing regularly, she had been unable to secure a teaching or other academic post anywhere. (There’s a joke I heard recently: How many humanities graduates does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one – but there were 300 applicants for the job.) I have to say that I didn’t, and still don’t, appreciate why this one is specifically a gender issue; I, for example, haven’t been able to find such a position, either. But I must be open to the possibility that my blind spot – my white European maleness –may be obscuring the finer detail of this situation. Issues of privilege are hard to analyse, especially when one often finds oneself located at the privileged end of the spectrum. Thus conversations such as the one led by the panellists are very important for both Church and Academy.

One other thing that came across quite clearly to me during the course of SST is the importance of liturgy for effecting reconciliation and unity. In the Q&A session following her short paper on Tuesday, I believe that Julie Gittoes said that people of different theological persuasions nonetheless come together under the same Eucharistic liturgy. No doubt this is rather idealistic. But the sentiment surely emphasises how important are the liturgical practices that arise from within our varying ecclesial traditions. By the Spirit’s influence, these practices have the power genuinely to bring us together as we submit ourselves to various liturgical narratives, which themselves are based on Scripture’s own story of the world’s encounter with God in Jesus Christ.


  1. I love the zombie cartoon. It reminds me of all the arguments surrounding sin and suffering that are proposed by people who have experienced very little suffering and who would rather pretend it didn't exist than actually try to approach it with honesty and integrity. I read and enjoyed three books about zombies last year. I found that if I told myself the zombies were a metaphor for the human condition, the challenges we all face, etc., the stories were very engaging.

    I do have a thought on the story of 'Megan'. In my considerably unlearned opinion all types of prejudice need to be addressed from the ground up. It doesn't matter how many female, or black, or disabled CEOs or professors there are if those at the bottom of the pile, and their very real needs, are ignored. It's not that the high achieving women, or black people, or disabled people, are unimportant but they are not representative of the whole and, as followers of Christ, our focus should always begin with 'the least of these'; the people who have it the toughest. It is too easy, too hygienic, to just focus on the small group of people at the top.

    Sorry for hijacking your comments section. You've hit a nerve or two!

    1. You're not hijacking it at all, Sandy; what you say is very pertinent to these issues of privilege I'm thinking about at the moment.

    2. My short take on philosophical zombies is that they are logically possible while the concept is ultimately logically absurd. Peace, Jim