by Stephanie Y. Mitchem

I heard a rumor the other day. A colleague returned from a conference where, she informed me, the word was out that CrossCurrents is now conservative. That was news to me, as it probably would be to the contributors to this issue. However, the rumor jarred my thinking about the shifts in meaning of categories, like conservative, and some of the things those shifts signify.

Americans generally seem to have collapsed categories like radical, liberal, and conservative into the simplest possible definitions. The multilayered complexities of a politicized spectrum that yields shades of gray rather than sharply defined locations are seldom recognized. In order to gain votes, politicians blur the lines even further as radicals pick up old conservative slogans, the conservatives start dressing like the liberals, the liberals . . . well, it goes on and on. Identity is such a headache these days.

All the drama involved in these identity pains becomes more intense in the realm of religions, where faith and belief are no less politicized but the claims of liberal or conservative seem to be much more sharply defined. For those in professional pastoral or academic roles revolving around religion, the polemical natures of some religious dialogues transform conversations into bloodsport. For instance, when the reception of communion becomes politicized, that is a good indicator that we're in trouble. And so, methodologies become holy ground that must be protected; doctrines become immutable, unimpeded by the limits of humanity. Departments must be strengthened no matter who is in them; churches must stay open, even if their messages are tired. Any journal that publishes religious fare is bound to get tangled in these lines.

This journal continues to reflect its roots which come from CrossCurrents (CC) and the Association for Religion and the Intellectual Life (ARIL). Both CC and ARIL have been committed to exploring the edges of religious thinking with intelligence and compassion. Both CC and ARIL encouraged the different, new, and off-the-beaten-path thinkers. I have benefited from that encouragement through participation in the summer Coolidge Colloquium. In the summer of 2003, I was glad to attend as resident theologian, honored to be part of the twentieth anniversary of the Colloquium.

Twenty years of the Colloquium. Each year, in the midst of whatever social shifts and political nightmares were occurring, another group of scholars has gathered to name the richness and struggle with the paradoxes to which religions will drive us. This year, as always, the energy generated from the rapid exchange of ideas probably could have fueled a few city blocks. Of the participants, some might have named themselves liberal, conservative, radical, or even created their own categories. They were committed to various goals, at different ages and stages of life, cutting across disciplines—and for a few weeks, they willingly entered into no-holds-barred discussions about religious, ethical, and social dimensions that can define human being.

There are those who decry the loss of the so-called American public square where ideas can be interchanged. Perhaps the Colloquium and other settings like it, including some classrooms that have not descended into testing-fever, are all that remains. Or perhaps these idea exchange centers are, with the Iowa caucus, the last remnants of lived democracy.

What happens at the Colloquium also happens in this journal: a group of thinkers come together to grapple with ideas. In a society where free speech is often trivialized, religious dissent has become conformity, and politics rules by fear, a forum like CrossCurrents has a certain radical edge. Mass-marketed thinking does not fit. "Truth" is questioned. It is appropriate that the intersections of the journal and the Colloquium are highlighted in this issue.

All seven of the essays herein are from participants of the 20th anniversary Coolidge Colloquium. Four of the essays are directly related to the projects brought to the sessions. Irene Diamond and Gayle Baldwin set new directions in thinking that have no respect for our comfort zones. Matthew Hedstrom visions innovative ways to connect history with contemporary thought. Alberto López Pulido presents core cultural experiences that inform his scholarship. Three essays are related to discussions that were part of the Colloquium experience as participants thought more deeply about their lives and careers. Each focuses on teaching with justice. Ranen Omer-Sherman analyzes the engagement of ideas with students. Angela Leonard names her pedagogical commitments and methods. Jon Pahl's personal story is nearly parable for all in ivory towers.

As this issue goes to press, another group of thinkers enters the Colloquium process for the 21st year. Perhaps they will, together as a group, be able to name their locations on the identity spectrum as conservative. Or liberal. Or perhaps not.

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Source: CrossCurrents, Summer 2004, Vol. 54,  No 2.