“Bonjour, hello,” I’m told, finally reaching the front of the long line at the convention center cafe. It’s Montreal. I can say “bonjour,” at least. Wouldn’t that be polite? But that could invite an incomprehensible flurry of Quebecois French, which would only serve to remind me how utterly I failed to learn the language from my dear mother, who is fluent. “Hello,” I say, and order a breakfast sandwich without the ham. It comes with ham anyway.
“How’s your French?” I ask my friend, a graduate student who is here to give a paper that examines the early Christian thinker Origen through the perverse lens of Georges Bataille. “I can read it fairly well.” When he orders, he orders in English too.
Religion is back in Montreal, a city that, when it tore off the habit of de facto clerical rule during the last century, thought it had done away with the stuff. Body parts and sexual acts aren’t the bad words here (the neon awnings of strip clubs abound); say the name of a part of a Catholic church out of context in Quebecois French, and chances are you’re cussing. But over the last week, frustrating every hope for blessed laïcité, 4,500 religion scholars converged under the shadow of the royal mount for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
Fortunately for the city’s liberated residents, few of these name-badged guests ventured many blocks beyond the downtown Disneyland of the Palais de Congres and its neighboring hotel towers. Even if they had, though, it’s unlikely that they would have poisoned sensible Canada with the most fearsome religious cargo of its southward neighbor. No revival tents were set up, nor were certain sexual preferences being visibly protested. Indeed, one of the AAR’s most illustrious and observant members has suggested that Paul Tillich might be the “unacknowledged theoretician of our entire enterprise.” It is the academic leftover of the eminent reasonableness that caused and continues to cause the self-immolation of what anachronistically still calls itself “mainline” religiosity, along with its various outgrowths and fellow-travelers.
Here, atheist ritual scholars and seminary educators can gab about Foucault, saving their mutual disapproval for afterward, while downing cocktails with graduate students at departmental receptions. Buddhist nuns walk in costume alongside bearded anabaptists. Eastern Orthodox priests, speaking of beards, shudder in their robes as queer theory takes hold of their Church Fathers. Tenured professors preach a theology of liberation for the poor.
Compared to previous years, the signs of the economic crisis are evident. The reception of my Californian alma mater made manifest Arnold’s massive budget cuts across the UC system: we had to buy our own drinks—or, rather, borrow them from the lavish spread of a Christian publisher next door. (For a Fortress, they hardly put up any defense.) The exhibit hall was sparse, as some American publishing houses declined to make the trip. The Templeton Foundation’s massive, canopied display that I always look forward to each year (it gets bigger and bigger) was reduced to a tiny nook. The most visible vendor of all was Edwin Mellen Press, an outfit that I was specifically warned against by a librarian as a vanity operation. The name graced every tote bag worn by every attendee and the back of every program book.
If nothing else, though, there was the usual fix of secret celebrities—the people who might not attract notice walking down Fifth Avenue but the sight of whom here causes palpitations in grad students. This year, they included the magnificent James Cone who, together with Cornel West, told the story of civil rights as it unfolded in the halls of elite theology—delivering me my annual fix of hope in my profession. Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim who before was unable to attend due to being blacklisted by the U.S. government, gave a distinctly unterroristic talk about matters facing global Islam today. The Slovenian rock star philosopher Slavoj Zizek reminded us that true Christianity is atheism, just after Thomas J.J. Altizer, still dressed in the bright green suit that would have been wearable in his heyday, proclaimed the self-annihilating, kenotic God (vis a vis Satan) of Hegel and Blake: total, apocalyptic, and dead. The same might be said of his present reputation—but that doesn’t keep him from putting on quite a show.
Making my way back to these États-Unis, the selfsame home of old-time religion and morally bankrupt financial markets, gone is the holy order of tenure, the wondrous dreamland of harmonious diversity, the obligatory church of discussion panels, and the blessed sacrament of coffee. Into the splendid, ugly realness once again.