Hans Hillerbrand on the church historian’s task

Hans Hillerbrand on the church historian’s task

“We [church historians] [should] not hesitate to argue vigorously that the avenue through which to understand Western culture is its Christian history. We have been all too timid, I believe, about this. […] We tend to overlook the effects of Christianity on the political, social, economic, and intellectual dimensions of society. As long as we only see it the other way around, that is, as long as we are overwhelmed by how politics, economics, class, gender have impacted Christianity, we have yielded our place and have made ourselves superfluous. Our colleagues in economics, political science, or sociology can do this kind of analysis much better. Some of us might even suggest that historians of Christianity would be better off as members of such departments, since we have neither a distinctive subject matter nor a distinctive methodology. Of course, much of what is done in religion departments could well be done elsewhere in a college and a university. But the issue is not, so it seems to me, the structural alignment of the study of the history of Christianity, but the dictum of its intrinsic, indeed pivotal importance in Western culture. Surely, after we have acknowledged the reality of other factors, non-Christian, non-theological in Western (and since the eighteenth century also global) history, the fundamental importance of Christian history remains. Michael Walzer may well have overstated the case for the Puritan origins of liberal democracy and Max Weber may have been wrong on the Calvinist origins of modem capitalism. Still, they argued for the pivotal importance of our field.”

from “Church History as Vocation and Moral Discipline,” Church History, Vol. 70, No. 1, (2001), 17.

P.S. from Clifford Geertz

“Religion” is everybody’s favorite dependent variable.

from “The Pinch of Destiny: Religion as Experience, Meaning, Identity, Power,” in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton, 2000), 173.

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.)

Clifford Geertz on the adventure of intellectual inquiry

Clifford Geertz on the adventure of intellectual inquiry

“An affection for what doesn’t fit and won’t comport, reality out of place, has connected us to the leading theme of the cultural history of “Modern Times.” For that history has indeed consisted of one field of thought after another having to discover how to live on without the certainties that launched it. Brute fact, natural law, necessary truth, transcendent beauty, immanent authority, unique revelation, even the in-here self facing the out-there world have all come under such heavy attack as to seem by now lost simplicities of a less strenuous past. But science, law, philosophy, art, political theory, religion, and the stubborn insistences of common sense have contrived nonetheless to continue. It has not proved necessary to revive the simplicities.

“It is, so I think, precisely the determination not to cling to what once worked well enough and got us to where we are and now doesn’t quite work well enough and gets us into recurrent stalemates that makes a science move. As long as there was nothing around much faster than a marathon runner, Aristotle’s physics worked well enough, Eleatic paradoxes notwithstanding. So long as technical instrumentation could get us but a short way down and a certain way out from our sense-delivered world, Newton’s mechanics worked well enough, action-at-a-distance perplexities notwithstanding. It was not relativism — Sex, the Dialectic and the Death of God — that did in absolute motion, Euclidean space, and universal causation. It was wayward phenomena, wave packets and orbital leaps, before which they were helpless. Nor was it Relativism — Hermeneutico-Psychedelic Subjectivism — that did in (to the degree they have been done in) the Cartesian cogito, the Whig view of history, and “the moral point of view so sacred to Eliot and Arnold and Emerson.” It was odd actualities — infant betrothals and nonillusionist paintings — that embarrassed their categories.

“In this move away from old triumphs become complacencies, one-time breakthroughs transformed to roadblocks, anthropology has played, in our day, a vanguard role. We have been the first to insist on a number of things: that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; that political order is possible without centralized power and principled justice without codified rules; that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own. That this led some to think the sky was falling, solipsism was upon us, and intellect, judgment, even the sheer possibility of communication had all fled is not surprising. The repositioning of horizons and the decentering of perspectives has had that effect before. The Cardinal Bellarmines you have always with you; and as someone has remarked of the Polynesians, it takes a certain kind of mind to sail out of the sight of land in an outrigger canoe.

“But that is, at least at our best and to the degree that we have been able, what we have been doing. And it would be, I think, a large pity if, now that the distances we have established and the elsewheres we have located are beginning to bite, to change our sense of sense and our perception of perception, we should turn back to old songs and older stories in the hope that somehow only the superficial need alter and that we shan’t fall off the edge of the world. The objection to anti-relativism is not that it rejects an it’s-all-how-you-look-at-it approach to knowledge or a when-in-Rome approach to morality, but that it imagines that they can only be defeated by placing morality beyond culture and knowledge beyond both. This, speaking of things which must needs be so, is no longer possible. If we wanted home truths, we should have stayed at home.”

from “Anti Anti-Relativism,” in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton University Press, 2000), 64-5.

Clifford Geertz on Rorty’s Wittgenstein

Clifford Geertz on Rorty’s Wittgenstein

“The grounding of feeling, thought, and judgment in a form of life—which indeed is the only place, in my view, as it is in Rorty’s, that they can be grounded—is taken to mean [by Rorty] that the limits of my world are the limits of my language, which is not exactly what the man [Wittgenstein] said. What he said, of course, was that the limits of my language are the limits of my world, which implies not that the reach of our minds, of what we can say, think, appreciate, and judge, is trapped within the borders of our society, our country, our class, or our time, but that the reach of our minds, the range of signs we can manage somehow to interpret, is what defines the intellectual, emotional, and moral space in which we live.”

Clifford Geertz, “The Uses of Diversity,” in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton University Press, 2000), 77.