This past month I had my first foray into the conference-side of academic life. I presented two papers—or rather, two parts of the same paper—at two conferences. I’d like to share some of my experiences and reflections from these events.
The first paper I presented was “Parsing Oneness Pentecostal Christology” at the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS). The conference was held at a Marriott conference center near the University of Maryland, and I was only able to attend for one day.
The travelling circumstances were less than ideal for me. Due to work situations, I couldn’t have Friday off of work to travel to the D.C. area. That meant I had to fly out of Seattle at about 10pm, sleep on the five hour (or so) flight, and hit the ground running at 6am Eastern Standard Time. Surprise surprise, I could hardly sleep on the plane, and maybe functioned on 2 hours of sleep for 36 hours. See, academic life isn’t always glamorous. Maybe for most people it never is? I don’t know.
The conference was a decent size. There were a number of “interest groups” where papers were presented throughout the day. I guess the idea is that if you’re particularly interested in one area—say, philosophy or church history—you can hear papers in those areas without having to bounce around rooms. What this meant at this particular conference was that there were three or four papers given in a room over about two hours. You listened to one paper, then had Q&A, then repeated until everybody gave their paper.
Since it cost me a decent amount of money to make the trip, it didn’t make sense to me to sleep through the morning interest group sessions. I was there to learn and to network. Failing to do either, even on little sleep, was a missed opportunity waiting to happen.
I had about two hours between the first morning sessions and my paper. I tried to sleep for an hour (it didn’t work) and TO go over my paper one more time. I was incredibly nervous.
I shared our interest group with Dr. Chris Green of Southeastern University. He essentially argued against some claims in “Spirit Christology” by looking at Athanasius’ claims about the Incarnation. I enjoyed his paper and learned a lot, including what Spirit Christology even is. I’m a little embarrassed to say I’ve done all this reading in analytic Christology and I have been around Pentecostal circles my whole life, but I hadn’t heard of Spirit Christology until the conference. As I understand it, the idea is that Jesus Christ, even as the Word Incarnate, never acted directly from his divinity. Jesus had to be a “man of the Spirit,” where what he did was completely dependent on the Holy Spirit. I find the suggestion objectionable for several reasons, but I see why some Pentecostals have focused on the idea.
Dr. Green was well-known around the SPS, or so it seemed to me. And based on the fact he received a few “amens” during his paper, I could tell others were engaging with his material. This is what I had to follow up on. Add two hours of sleep and a respected young scholar who presents before you, and you have a wonderful potion of anxiety and imposter syndrome in one bottle. Also add to this the fact that (who I consider to be) an important Oneness Pentecostal theologian introduced himself to me prior to the papers, and you’ve got a lot of pressure on one measly Master’s student. When Dr. Green finished, I drank my potion and got up to present.
After about the first paragraph my nerves loosened up. Maybe it was boring, but I just read the paper out loud. I had the entire thing written beforehand (something that seems to be a novelty for such presentations) because I had to have it ready more than a month beforehand to be considered for the “Young Scholar’s Award” issued by the SPS. In the paper I argued that either way the Oneness Pentecostal wants to go on a concrete-compositional Christology, he can’t account for the fact that there are two witnesses to the fact that Jesus is the “light of the world” in John 8:12-18.
Anyway, I made it through the paper as I approached my allotted 25 minutes (which isn’t much, by the way) and prepared to get hammered in the Q&A. I received significant pushback on the paper from at least two gentlemen. One of them argued that I assumed my concept of “persons” and Jesus’ concept of “persons” were equivalent. He conceded that my argument could still be right, but I needed to show that my thought-world and Jesus’ thought-world on “persons” as they relate to individuals who count as witnesses were the same. Otherwise the argument just doesn’t work, or so he claimed. The other gentlemen said I was offering a caricature of the Oneness position and needed to look more into what Oneness Pentecostals say about Christ in their early hymns and other materials. Plus, he asked, why am I making such a big deal about all of this? Why can’t Pentecostals of all stripes just follow Jesus and get to know him?
To the first gentlemen I tried to offer this response: Why can’t it be the case that, for any human communication to occur, including communication that comes from the Bible to us, there are certain common sense notions of things like persons and witnesses that Jesus and I both share? Why can’t there be an assumed, essential notion of what a “person” is that, even if it is not explicitly defined in the Bible, anyone must assume in order for the Bible to make sense at all? His pushback was that this shows I’m still making assumptions I shouldn’t. I approached him after the paper to get more clarity on his objection, and I admit I became a bit frustrated, at one point even saying that his objection sounded incoherent to me. I just wasn’t understanding the criticism, and where exactly it falsified my argument. I hope I didn’t come off as rude, and if I did I express my apologies.
With regard to the second gentlemen, I ignored the allegation that I was offering a caricature of Oneness theology. I offered arguments for every claim about Oneness theology that I made, and I based them on statements from prominent Oneness Pentecostal’s books. It’s not like I was making this stuff up, so that allegation ignores the obvious. And to the second concern I had to enter into a little biographical aside. I said that I am myself a former Oneness Pentecostal. We can’t just sweep issues like this under the rug because they literally determine how people choose to live out their religious lives. I am a testament to that.
That same second gentlemen, when I was talking with the first after the paper, made a side comment about how I wasn’t being “humble” in my claims. I later found at that he’s a college professor, which makes this side comment baffling to me. I attempted to make a forceful argument in my paper, and of course my conclusion was that John 8:12-18 provides evidence that Oneness Christology is false. But here’s the thing: I laid out my argument, with premises and the conclusion, to what I was arguing. I justified each premise, and gave serious responses to objections to them. What this gentleman doesn’t know is that I was responding to a claim that David K. Bernard himself gave to me in personal correspondence about John 8:12-18. How is responding to somebody’s objections to my argument evidence of a lack of humility?
It seems to me that he conflated a lack of humility with my attempt to make a real, sustained argument that someone else is wrong. I doubt that this is an idiosyncratic problem, and is maybe more common in academic circles than I realize. If it’s lack of humility that I have for showing up on my own dime to an academic conference, or for intentionally going to a conference that Oneness Pentecostals seem to frequent, or for arguing somebody else is wrong because I still have family who accepts Oneness Christology, then so be it. But I think anybody who wasn’t personally offended by my paper would think otherwise.
Honestly, I can’t think of a more loving or humble way to approach an issue like this. I have given my exact argument for anybody, especially the Oneness Pentecostal, to see and object to. Anybody can purchase my paper from the SPS and read it. I haven’t hidden my claims in some academic ghetto to serve my own needs.
This is exactly why I think analytic theology is necessary, in some cases, at least, for there to be progress in theology today. For my part, I hope to make it clear to readers exactly what I’m arguing and why. I think my readers should be able to point to a premise and object to it. If you know of a better way to carry out cross-denominational conversations, I’d like to hear it.
After the paper a third gentlemen came to speak to me and said that he appreciated it and what I was trying to do. I saw that the part of his name tag that wasn’t obscured by his overcoat said “ed,” so I had a haunch who it was. It was Dr. David Reed, and he encouraged me to look at Canadian universities (like his own) for PhD studies. For those who don’t know, Dr. Reed is an important historian of Oneness Pentecostalism, but he is a Trinitarian.
I also received some positive feedback from Dr. Green after the talk. He actually said he had hoped to catch me afterward, and we sat down to talk for a while. I think we talked for 45 minutes or so, and he gave me some advice for responding to the criticisms I received during my Q&A. He also encouraged me to get the piece published. Perhaps I will, but after I get another paper, and my Master’s thesis, done first. I hope to do what Dr. Green did for me to some young scholar one day.
In the evening I attended the SPS’s banquet. There was some great music and other things that happened there. I happened to sit at a table of students who were accompanying their professor from Northwest University (a Christian college near where I live) and had fun with them. Funny enough, they also took the same plane I did on the way home. Near the end of the banquet I was honored to receive the Young Scholar’s Award from the SPS for my paper, and had some great conversations afterward.
Then I went to my hotel and slept for 14 hours. Now that was glorious.
At the end of April I attended the Midwest meeting for the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS) to present another version of the paper I gave at the SPS. I called it, “Two Witnesses: A Dilemma for Oneness Pentecostal Christology.” The biggest difference in the two versions of the paper is that, in the one that I did for the EPS, I offered more objections and responses to my arguments. In one of those objections I waxed more philosophical than my SPS interest group probably would have cared to listen to. I essentially responded to the argument by giving a Oneness-modified version of Brian Leftow’s “Latin” model of the Trinity.
Anyway, I arrived the night before the conference, although the time difference and the fact I hadn’t eaten the whole afternoon or evening kept me up into the wee-hours of Central Standard Time. To be honest, that night I was even more nervous about presenting at this conference than at SPS. I don’t mean this in a rude way, but it’s because when a philosopher sees an argument in standard form, they can follow the justifications and objections in a way that I don’t think most of those listening to my paper at SPS did. A philosopher could sniff out anything I missed, or any fallacies I made. I expected quite a bit more pushback at EPS than I received at SPS.
In the morning I attended three great papers. Just before my own session, I attended Beau Branson’s paper called “Must God Have a Son?” Since I suspect the paper is going to be published as a part of a new call for papers by TheoLogica, I won’t give away details on it.
We were informed just before my session that another EPS paper scheduled for that time was cancelled because the presenter couldn’t make it. I guess that worked in my favor, since it meant more people came to my paper than there probably would have been otherwise. But it also upped my anxiety. Sweet.
Once I started to read the paper line-by-line my nerves loosened up again. I also had five more minutes than the first version of this paper, so that was nice.
Then came Q&A. I had no idea what was about to happen. And then… I was given more ways to respond to the Oneness objections that I raised. After a moment of silence, and after the encouragement I felt I was receiving, I even asked if anybody wanted to raise an objection to the paper. Nobody did.
This has both a positive and negative side to it. The positive is that, perhaps, my argument was good enough that these philosophers (and some theologians, since EPS was there in conjunction with ETS) didn’t feel the need to augment anything I said. That’s odd, because I’ve been to a few philosophy papers, and typically there’s a “This paper was great, but…” But the negative is that I don’t know if I gave the paper in the right venue. These were (probably, I bet) primarily Trinitarians. They already think Oneness Christology is false. Or maybe I didn’t receive pushback because my session was the one just before lunch. I’ll never know. If I ever publish the combined version of the SPS and EPS papers, I guess we’ll see if somebody comes along and blasts me for overlooking something.
Here’s one area I had expected, and hoped, to be pressed: My argument didn’t just count against Oneness Christology, but also against Leftow’s own “Latin” view of the Trinity. To get a synopsis of that view, I’d suggest you read the section entitled “One-Self Theories” at the SEP “Trinity” entry. It seems that my argument also counts against such a view of Trinity being the “best explanation” of what scriptures like John 8:12-18 say. On Leftow’s own view, as I argued, you just don’t get two witnesses. At bottom, there’s just one Boethian Person there giving testimony as two Lockean persons in some scenario that is analogous to time travel. And there’s just no reason to think that Lockean persons are what the witness laws in Deuteronomy had in mind. I’d like to hear some reason to think otherwise. To be clear, my claim isn’t that Leftow’s view is false or unorthodox; the claim is that it doesn’t best explain John 8:12-18 in a way that some other view might.
I guess what I want to explore more is whether the abductive argument that I made counts against other kinds of “Latin” Trinitarian views. Scott Williams distinguishes “soft” Latin views from “hard” Latin views (of which he says Leftow’s is a version). Does my version count against “soft” Latin views? I’m not sure. If it does, then I guess I should be willing to say that the best explanation of certain New Testament passages, if not the New Testament as a whole, is some sort of “three self” or “Social Trinitarian” view. On any such view, I want to be able to square it with a strong version of divine simplicity (think: Aquinas) and a strong version of the monarchy of the Father (think: Branson). Can such a view of the Trinity be accomplished? No idea, but I hope to find out.
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to give papers at conferences next year. I hope to get at least one paper in submission this year. I’ll also be writing my Master’s thesis this summer, so it’s going to be a busy time. I’ll send out a BOLO on anything else I have coming up!