Stewarding the American Academy of Religion: An Interview with Prof. Jin Y. Park

Image courtesy of Jin Y. Park

On 23 November 2023, Prof. Jin Y. Park of American University assumed a role that religious scholars consider a great honor: president of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). It is a post that she will hold for a year, until 23 November 2024. The AAR is the world’s largest and most prestigious organization in religious scholarship. The charge of the organization is to promote “excellence in the academic study of religion.” (American Academy of Religion) It fosters and facilitates exchanges among the scholars of religion and those interested in religion’s profound role in the human experience. Its annual meetings have been the acme of the organization’s activities, but the Academy also hosts activities throughout the year, especially via webinars, regional meetings, publication series, and more.

The AAR is an institutional member of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). In September, it hosted a leadership seminar for all of the incoming presidents of its member organizations. The executive directors of member organizations also have regular meetings with the president of the ACLS to exchange ideas about current issues and future directions of scholarly organizations.

As chair of her university’s department of Philosophy and Religion, Park has spent a career engaging in Buddhist reflections on moral, ethical, and political thought. In the ever-more volatile global environment, her focus on Buddhist ethics, governance, and engaged citizenship in an East-West context have been critical for reflecting productively on our times.

“As you know, the world has been changing quickly, and scholarly activities also change according to the times. In recent years, the AAR has been making efforts to reflect the shifting academic scene,” Park told me. “The AAR has continued to foster excellence in the academic study of religion while promoting the public understanding of religion and its involvement with issues such as climate change. In terms of the job market, the AAR has been confronting the declining number of tenure-line faculty positions in the humanities and diminished research funding.”

For Park, the AAR has been a venue through which she has met with scholars in her field, exchanged ideas, and fostered new milestones in religious studies. As with many groups founded in the West, the organization started with a focus on Western religious traditions, especially Christianity. When Park joined the group almost three decades ago, the participation of scholars of non-Western religious traditions was tiny. “In the past 30 years, however, the academy has transformed itself into an organization that is more sensitive to diversity and inclusion. Not only has the space for scholars of non-Western religious traditions been expanded, the leadership has changed as well, as you can see that someone like me—a Korean American who specializes in East Asian Buddhism, especially Korean Buddhism—now has the privilege of serving as the AAR’s president,” she said.

As one of the premier academic societies focused on studies in religion in the West—certainly in the US—the AAR hosts the largest and most well-known religious studies conference in the world. Held annually, the meeting has been held fully in-person since 2022, and Park said that the AAR is catching up to pre-pandemic participation levels. In response to my question about the rise of virtual meetings, she noted that: “In 2022, the AAR leadership held a series of meetings with the AAR members to hear their views on the AAR and also discuss the modality of the annual meeting.” The conclusion was that virtual meetings can complement certain limits of in-person encounters.

These limits are not trivial, as Park acknowledges: “Since the pandemic, research funding at many higher education institutions has been reduced or eliminated, which makes it difficult for some scholars to finance their travel to the annual meeting. And there are also access issues. People of disability or people who cannot travel to the conference site for other reasons would like to have virtual meetings.”

To meet this demand, the AAR will pilot a virtual annual meeting in June this year. This June meeting will be for 3 days during the last week of the month, scheduled for the 24th to the 27th. It will have various components, including a presidential plenary panel. Since the June 2024 meeting is a pilot, it will involve trial and error. Overall, Park and her team feel excited about this new aspect of the AAR annual meeting.

Park’s academic foci are but a few among hundreds, even thousands of academic interests under the umbrella of AAR. I asked her how she ensures all voices within the AAR get attention and exposure. “You’re right. Buddhism is only one part of the AAR. My field—non-Western religion—is still not a mainstream subject of the AAR. But, as in our society, diversity, equity, and inclusion have become increasingly recognized as important in the scholarly world, so addressing social equity is imperative,” she replied.

“I am the president, but like past and future presidents, I do not make decisions all by myself. The AAR has various committees (both standing and ad hoc) on which scholars of different religious traditions with different research topics serve. As president of the AAR, my role is to hear voices and ideas from different constituencies and facilitate space in which thousands of academic interests can flourish and we can share discussions of their relevance to our lives and society.”

Image courtesy of Jin Y. Park

Being president of the AAR naturally requires a skillset that does not always come instinctively to people. As Park observes in the academic context, “One of the most important leadership qualities, for me, is a capacity to listen to the voices of constituencies. Human relationships seem to be one of the most difficult aspects that a person in any leadership role needs to juggle, and hearing voices requires making decisions to act. In a group like the AAR, which has thousands of members, it is never easy or even possible to make decisions that every member agrees with or appreciates.” She further noted: “Serving in a leadership role, I believe, means being attentive in making decisions, always considering the groups who would not welcome any particular decision and communicating with them.

“I believe that the interpersonal skills required for high-level leadership also go hand-in-hand with hard knowledge about situations and contexts. The more informed and diligently contextualized a situation is, the more the decision making can be effective and compassionate. Caring is an important quality for any leadership role.”

Her current research has, as noted above, always been relevant to the big priorities and issues of today’s world. Now it is becoming even more urgent. “One topic that I have focused on in recent years has been nonviolence. Nonviolence is the first precept of Buddhism, and many other religious traditions also teach it. In the midst of the rampant violence of our time, the practice of nonviolence seems, to many people, to be a bit out of place,” she observed.

“My students usually say that nonviolence is a nice but impractical idea. However, I believe that we cannot counter violence with violence if we want to envision a world better than the one where we live now. As you know, violence takes various forms: not only more explicit ones such as war, gun violence, and sexual violence, but also social discrimination, hunger, economic inequity, and climate change are all violence we face in our times.” Park continued. “If we agree on this, there should be various forms of nonviolence that we can practice at different levels: the social, the political, and even in our daily lives.”

Park suggests that we should give time to think over or brainstorm nonviolence and its relationship to our lifestyles. “A scholar who is an expert on this topic mentioned that we teach about various wars in our education but not much about nonviolence. I completely agree with that. I believe that nonviolence should be a movement, not in the sense of doing protests on the street, but in the sense that nonviolence should be a constant and consistent practice.”

She notes that violence and nonviolence are inevitably related to the power dynamics of the parties involved. “When violence is used, those who impose it must believe that they are more powerful than the object of their violence; as such, the value of the object of their violence is hierarchically understood with regard to the imposer of violence. Those who are at the margin more often tend to suffer from violence, be this social violence or even the ecological problems of our time. For me, reflection on marginality, another topic that I’ve been working on, goes hand-in-hand with considerations of nonviolence.”

As president of the AAR, Park was able to decide the presidential theme of the coming year’s conference. Fittingly, her presidential theme for the 2024 AAR meetings is going to be: Violence, Nonviolence, and the Margin. I cannot think of a better presidential theme for our times as 2024 unfolds before us. Thanks to Park’s thinking and leadership, the AAR is poised for new breakthroughs, and might just help us reflect better on how to save the world.

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American Academy of Religion

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