Thoughts about My Experience at the American Academy of Religion
I have long believed that we need a more rigorous and scholarly approach to “the question of religion” for Urantia Book students. That’s one of several reasons I led an effort to mount a formal presence at the huge meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) held in Denver in November 18-22, 2022.
For the first time, a group of us exhibited both editions of the UB along with other materials of interest to academics (including translations and selected secondary works).
We did so on behalf of a new entity I have founded called the Urantia Book Academy and also to promote the work of the Fellowship and the Foundation. Pulling this off was a daunting challenge, first because we are almost totally unknown in the academic world, and second because our booth would appear alongside over 100 other exhibits by major seminaries and institutes as well as some of the largest academic publishers in the world. In addition, we got off to a late start with minimal funds of $2,500 that only paid for booth rental. (I covered the rest of the expenses myself, well over $1,000.)
Another reason for this effort was practical: the availability of booth volunteers from the community of veteran readers in nearby Boulder. And despite our handicaps, our dedicated team made it all happen through a rather herculean effort. Our group included Lynn Goodwin, David Kantor, Buck Weimer, Andre Radatus, and Sharon Adams, PhD (who gave significant moral support). We should all be grateful for their yeomen efforts.
My pragmatic goal for this enterprise was to obtain the contact information of at least 20 scholars; only six gave full permission, but nine also requested that we send free “examination copies,” giving us their addresses and emails to do so. (I will contact each of these and ask them to opt-in.)
Also important were three other reasons for our endeavor: earning name recognition by the hundreds of scholars who walked by the booth; creating long-term relationships with the several dozen folks who took flyers or talked to us briefly or sometimes in great depth; and garnering a “start-up” team interested in this particular form of outreach. In this connection, allow me to also acknowledge the work of Chuck Thurston for work on our large booth banner; Derek Samaras for help with graphics; the outreach committee of the Fellowship and its chair Al Lockett for funding most of the expenses; and thanks is also due to Tamara Strumfeld at the Foundation who donated UBs and printed translations for the booth.
Another reason for this effort was personal. I earned a masters degree in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2021, and noticed to my chagrin that none of my professors had ever heard of the UB. Plus, I found no scholarly articles about the UB in the vast scholarly indexes used by seminaries and religion scholars. The school’s library of over 800,000 volumes carried only two books of interest: an old edition of the UB, and Martin Gardner’s book. Honestly, I don’t want Urantians of the future who are attending universities or seminaries (or any future scholars interested in the UB) to have to face this sort of thing.
To this end, and with a bit of difficulty—in part because there is no previous scholarly work I could cite—I obtained permission at the seminary to cover the UB in just one chapter in my thesis. I have been lucky enough to attract a mainstream academic publisher who will soon bring out my revised thesis as a book entitled Truths about Evil, Sin, and the Demonic—now with two full chapters on the revelation. This is perhaps the first academic book to broadly cover the UB, and its purpose is to examine how “the problem of evil” has been conceived by Christian theologians over the centuries and then to compare their most compelling ideas and models with that of the UB.
I have also aimed to fill in another gap in academia by obtaining funding from the Second Miler Grant Program to create a textbook entitled Reason and Revelation: Scholarly Writings about the Urantia Book. It provides in one introductory volume high-quality essays about the UB by thinkers such as Meredith Sprunger. These materials have been selected for the anthology because they (1) showcase genuine scholarship, (2) interface with contemporary knowledge outside the Urantia text, and are (3) suitable for readers who are new to the revelation.
The book covers for these two titles were on prominent display at our AAR booth. Both books could be used by professors one day who may want to lecture about the UB in a seminary or a university class.
Knowing these volumes were forthcoming in 2023, I began to promote the idea of creating an educational entity with the working name of, as I said, the Urantia Book Academy (UBA). Its mission as I presently conceive it is to take the “religion question” seriously in terms of scholarship, research, and teaching. The UBA would begin its work by having its students encounter today’s cutting-edge scholarship in topics pertaining to the UB’s content, much as we have been doing with the Scientific Symposia now hosted by the Foundation. The UB Academy would go on to encourage serious academic research that would be published. And it would eventually train teachers, leaders, and ministers who would benefit from our own home-grown tradition of scholarship and who could one day find support due to increasing recognition of the revelation by scholars and clergy who are not reader-believers. Before too long, our papers could be presented at the AAR and a special unit for scholars of the UB could meet there each year.
As I envision it, the UBA would be complemental to the efforts of the UrantiaUniversity Institute. We would work closely with it, bringing forward the common aspiration to conform to academic and professional standards commensurate with current practices in universities. This would entail extending the range of inquiry of students to formally engage with ideas and texts outside the Urantia revelation; indeed, such an approach is suggested by the fact that the UB itself draws from a plethora of human sources and in fact contains thousands of references to the Bible.
Finally, a bit about the AAR: Founded in 1909, the AAR is the most important learned society and professional association of research scholars in the world concerned with religious studies, theology, spirituality, and related topics, with about 10,000 members worldwide. Associated with it is the Society of Biblical Literature, a membership organization with over 8,000 scholars that is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible. The two always converge and meet in tandem at the AAR’s annual event. The annual conference is a massive event, with over 7,000 attendees present this year in Denver.
According to my vision, we not only need to engage in critical scholarly study of the book, but it is essential that we build a following of mainstream professors of theology and religion studies. We need to see that the text, and secondary works about it, are taught in colleges, universities, and seminaries and appear in libraries and periodical indexes. A long-term objective as I see it is to persuade university departments to allow their grad students to get course credit for studying at the UBA, perhaps in affiliation with the UUI.
Imagine before long that there will be summer intensives: Picture youth from “mainstream” universities and seminaries mingling during these summer intensives with our regular students recruited from the Urantia movement. You can imagine how inspirational such summer sojourns could be for these young students, who will carry the truths of the Urantia revelation to future generations as teachers and ministers.