As much for me as for the folks who have been messaging me asking how the conference is going, I’ll do my best to offer some quick fire reflections at the end of the day.
Curbing the Critical
I have been trained to be critical. I’d like to believe that I’m a generous person but I know that when it comes to academic presentations and conferences I can be among the less generous. I’ve developed a few rules for myself and so I share them here so you know what not to expect from these reflections:
- Have someone who you know and trust nearby so that you can make snide comments, get them out of your system and never think about them again
- Seek the best in every presenter; seek out those who are particularly good and thank them.
- For this conference I am keeping a list of things that really drive me crazy. There might be substantial things on the list but some are quite trite. Things of substance I can come back to in a more reasoned way. Trite things are trite and therefore I don’t need to dwell on them. The all caps STOP USING WORD XYZ! YOU AREN’T USING IT CORRECTLY! will never lead to anything good. It made me feel better typing it.
- Never ask a question at the mike. There are 1000 people here. I have ways of answering any legitimate questions at another time. Let those who don’t get to speak have their time.
Side conversations are not the side
One of the leaders presented on consensus decision making. One of the things she said was something like, “Side conversations, conversations over dinner, chatting during coffee break, these aren’t side conversations. This is relationship and is necessary for consensus to emerge.” I totally agree. I met Beatrice Churu this morning on the bus. She is a Kenyan scholar who teaches in a religion department (so not a strictly theological college) on African beliefs. She gently corrected some of my ignorance, offered some guidance on dispelling my ignorance, and talked about Catholic faith and African beliefs in a way that made sense. I had hoped to have this very conversation and it happened on the bus before the conference even really started. As well, she was genuinely interested in some of my work. Overall a side conversation that wasn’t a side conversation.
Personalism vs. structuralism
This might be more than some want to get into but others might find this interesting. From the front there was a preponderance of structural talk and a dearth of personalism. For example, many speakers will denounce empire (a structure) but few will share encounters with other real life human beings (a personal encounter). The two exceptions to this are striking. One was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby who shared about how he came to faith and how it related to the East Africa Revival that happened in Tanzania. It wasn’t a full blown testimony but it was touching in a way that others were not. More important, was the plenary by Dr. Mutale Mulenga-Kaunda. She is a gender studies prof in South Africa, a Pentecostal originally from Zambia. She shared some of her life story framed with the work of Brene Brown. She coupled it with structural criticism. She related her own personal experiences in such a way that we encountered the problems facing women in Africa in general in a whole new way. Neither Welby nor Mulenga-Kaunda had the perfect way of relating the individual with the whole but the point here is that they included both and for that their discussions were much richer.
This is a corollary observation: of the two parts of the conference, evangelism is the poor sister. Mission seems to lend itself to structural talk. Big systems (see empire) get countered by other big systems (the church). There is great faith in the church but in the end the church is only a structure. It is harder to have a personal faith in Jesus or to see the value of that. Of course thinkers like Bosch, Newbigin, Flett all touch on this dynamic but it is readily apparent here; the more a speaker uses structural language the less they talk about evangelism.
There is insider ball going on
There is a long tradition of these conferences and the work of the WCC in general. There are a lot of references to previous documents and work done. I wish that I had taken the time to read through all of those documents before coming because I feel like there is a WCC code that I’m not entirely privy to.