I find myself this week in San Antonio, Texas, at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Some 5,000 or so scholars of religion meet every year for sessions on hundreds of themes relating (sometimes in difficult to discern ways) to the study of religion and/or the Bible.
Its an interfaith gathering of a different type- there are Hasidic Jews and Buddhist monks, Catholic priests in a variety of habits and clerics, professorial-looking men in tweeds and beards, young scholars with tattoos and mohawks. What brings them together is a shared interest in the life of the mind, applied to the multi-faceted manifestations of religion in this country and around the world.
Visiting the Alamo (a pilgrimage almost required in these parts), I found myself sitting on a wall across from the legendary chapel. Standing a few feet away was a street preacher, delivering his understanding of the Word of the Lord to the crowds milling around the courtyard. I pondered how the folks just down the road at the conference would interpret and analyze and challenge this street preacher’s understanding of Christian teaching and the interpretation of the Bible. But what surprised me was the number of people who would come up to him, not to heckle or challenge, but to thank him for “witnessing to the Gospel in this place.” One young man with his family wound up trading favorite Bible verses with the preacher, who was encouraged by the support. They huddled in a prayer circle and the preacher prayed a long prayer that seemed more oriented to affirming the rightness of their faith in the face of such unbelief all around than to a relationship to the addressee of the prayer.
Some brought together by mind; some by heart, but the scholars and the preachers were bound together by shared language (I was in another session about jargon) and shared purpose.