Book Notice: Scharen & Vigen

I’d be the first to admit it. I’m a big Clifford Geertz fan. I can’t think of many others who match his fluency in so broad a range of disciplines. That being the case, it may come as no surprise that anthropology’s significance for theological inquiry is a question I have a fair bit of patience for. We already know that theology and philosophy, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, are singularly bound to one another; this is so tired a tale that it doesn’t need further rehearsing here. Elsewhere I’ve tried to give some attention to the ties between theology and literature, which I don’t think many would consider all that great an imaginative leap either. But now I’d like to put the spotlight on theologians building bridges with anthropology. The connections between these disciplines may be less obvious. To help bring their affinities into sharper focus, Continuum released this title in 2011: Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics edited by Christian Scharen (Luther Seminary) and Aana Marie Vigen (Loyola University Chicago). The volume is divided into three parts: the first presents the theoretical vision grounding their proposal, the second collects seven examples of the sort of theologically conscious ethnographic work the editors are calling for, and the third is a concluding essay offering advice on how one may proceed as a theologian equipped with ethnographic sensibilities. Though in its execution the volume foregrounds its revisionist sensitivities to an extent that threatens to eclipse its primary purpose of showcasing the powers of ethnographic discourse, you needn’t hesitate to give this volume a hearing on that account. The project still succeeds in alerting us to a neglected perspective (and its accompanying limits), and that much remains logically separable from some of its proffered conclusions. Nevertheless, a few more words on the theological warrants motivating the juxtaposition of these disciplines may be in order.

All scholarly disciplines, and theology is no exception here, will inevitably face the question of whether and how distinct fields of study hang together. One answer to this question takes its cue from the tautological axiom that “knowledge is knowledge,” consequently authorizing a vision of the gamut of intellectual inquiry as a cooperative venture in a shared enterprise. In this paradigm, theologians would be duty-bound to consult with natural and social scientists, philosophers and historians, and so on, revising their truth-claims in the process, because they supposedly share canons of judgment and verification that transcend the differences between their discipline-specific objects of study. The prospect of talking past one another isn’t a live fear here. Since all inquiry registers in the same key of discourse, there’s nothing to worry about.

A second answer to the question of how disciplines hang together rejects the defining axiom of the first. Here inquiry starts instead with the premise that “knowledge for you isn’t necessarily knowledge for me.” This paradigm just can’t shake its perception that greater significance needs to be accorded to the discontinuities between disciplines and their respective deliverances. Scholars, they’ll say, aren’t simply schooled into a general competency for “intellectual inquiry” — there’s no such thing. Rather, they’re enculturated into discipline-specific memories, idioms, and procedures of discourse, etc., all of which contribute to generating distinctive imaginative capacities. Here theology’s autonomous and non-foundational character is celebrated, sometimes even touted as the safeguard of its orthodoxy. (The Tertullians we’ll always have with us.)

Of course in reality we don’t face so stark a disjunction, as these two answers are really only two poles on a spectrum broad enough to accommodate a variety of more nuanced positions. Hans Frei, for example, once contemplated five possible answers. I, however, have painted the picture in this fashion so as to motivate this question, what does theology stand to gain from increasing its circle of interlocutors? Which are its closest cognate disciplines? What I see as at stake in this question is the formation of our theological imaginations. Let’s face it — theologians are impressionable. Who they choose to converse with will shape their sense of theology’s tasks and audiences. Why I find ethnography particularly worth heeding, finally getting back to the matter at hand, is its capacity to recover theology’s ecclesial roots and responsibilities. Among the throng of theology’s potential conversation partners, ethnographers stand in a unique position to amplify the voices and attend to the practices of actual Christians. You may find yourself surprised by how much mere description can uncover. As the editors put it, “Ethnography is a way to take particularity seriously — to discover truth revealed through embodied habits, relations, practices, narratives, and struggles.” These are touchstones theologians would do well not to neglect. I’ll leave it to Scharen and Vigen to unpack ethnography’s significance for theology further.

You might also consider:

  • Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, edited by Peter Ward, (Eerdmans, 2012), which includes contributions from Paul Fiddes, Alister McGrath, John Webster, and Richard Osmer. (This volume would have served just as well for this notice.)
  • Nicholas Adams and Charles Elliott, “Ethnography is Dogmatics: Making Description Central to Systematic Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology, vol. 53, no. 3, (2000), 339-364.

(Maybe you’re wondering what discipline I’ll try putting theology in dialogue with next? Well I won’t leave you in the dark. There’s no question that it will be historiography. Theologians, this is a field pleading for theological attention.)

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