In an oft-cited 2006 article, anthropologist Joel Robbins claimed that theology and anthropology have an “awkward relationship” because each discipline has abilities the other envies. Theologians long for tools to integrate more adeptly the nuances and contradictions inherent to cultural difference. Anthropologists covet theologians’ persuasive power to create normative change in the lives of their readers. Theologians chase the is, anthropologists the ought.
While there is some truth to this claim, the generalities Robbins uses to describe each discipline misses that both already contain resources that can help them realize these desired goods. Robbins is not unique in this regard. In recent years there has been an explosion of scholarship on the relationship between theology and anthropology, and a common denominator among most of it (with gestural exceptions I’ll return to later) is a lack of specificity around which and whose anthropology and theology we’re talking about. I suspect most anthropologists would agree there is no singular “anthropology,” just as most theologians would dispute a singular “theology.” Yet curiously the conversation has been framed as if there is a theology and a social/cultural anthropology in general. The result is a single narrative that boils down to a single question: “How can anthropology help theology get to the is, and theology help anthropology get to the ought?” Unsurprisingly, we keep coming up with similar answers and returning to the same quagmires.
This is not to say that theology and anthropology have nothing to offer one another. Rather, my contention is that we have become so mired in one question between two overly generalized disciplines that we are missing possibilities for something generative to emerge from a more specific interdisciplinary exchange. If we mine the depths of particular traditions and discourses within these disciplines, we find that each has had in their possession the whole time at least some of the answers they’ve been seeking, and those answers placed in conversation could offer something genuinely new.
As an example of this generality, let’s consider an exchange between Robbins and theologian Michael Banner. This is not a randomly chosen example. Aside from illustrating the dynamics I name, both Banner’s and Robbins’ accounts demonstrate that speaking in generalities contains the danger, even the proclivity, to frame the conversation as normatively white, male, and Eurocentric. This is unrepresentative of the diversity within each discipline and deserves interrogation in its own right.
Theology and Anthropology “in General:” A Transactional Relationship
In 2014, Michael Banner published his Bampton Lectures as The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human. The book begins with the conceit that moral theology and Christian ethics (he uses the terms interchangeably) have become preoccupied with ethical analysis of “hard cases”: extraordinary moral dilemmas removed from the everyday social context in which they are experienced. In his opening pages, Banner rehearses the history he believes got us here. Moral theology’s origins in Roman Catholic Penitentials made it more attuned to weighing the gravity of individual sins than attending to the social complexities of moral life. During the Reformation and after, Protestants famously objected to legalistic formulas for sin and salvation. Yet, Banner contends, they failed to present a constructive alternative, opting instead to ignore ethics as a theological enterprise until Barth and Bonhoeffer came on the scene in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. This was not long before Vatican II, at which time the Roman Catholic Church also admitted to the need for more robust attention to the social in theological moral analysis.
One obvious conversation partner for moral analysis is moral philosophy, which Protestant theologians had been engaging to varying degrees since the eighteenth century. Much of this engagement was defined by critique. In the few instances when Protestant theologians did engage favorably with strands of moral philosophy, they tended to take them up on their own rather than integrate them into larger theological programs. This was the case, for instance, with the teaching of “Scottish commonsense philosophy” in newly established American theological schools in the eighteenth century such as Harvard and Princeton (Dorrien 2011). Problematic for theologians was that the dominant traditions that had taken hold in moral philosophy were ill-equipped to offer them resources for social analysis. Deontology and utilitarianism each, in their own way, favor moral deliberation based on rationalistic intellectual thought experiments rather than the exercise of practical wisdom in the thick complexity of everyday life. This dearth of attention to the social, in fact, laid the groundwork for the contemporary resurgence of virtue ethics.
This story forms the basis of Banner’s case that unlike moral philosophy, anthropology offers moral theologians and Christian ethicists the tools we have been looking for to move from “hard cases” to “everyday ethics.” Anthropology can help theology move past tidy constructs for the moral, he concludes, and allow it to refine its own categories through thick attention to ordinary life (Banner 2014, 202). While this is not an unworthy aim, it does little more than suggest that ethicists ought to read ethnographies and look to lived communities for source material – something womanist and mujerista theologians have been doing since at least the 1980s, as Christian ethicist Stephanie Mota Thurston observes in the 2019 volume Everyday Ethics: Moral Theology and the Practices of Ordinary Life, published in response to The Ethics of Everyday Life (Thurston 2019). By the publication of Banner’s book, it had already become increasingly common for theologians and ethicists not only to mine ethnographic accounts produced by anthropologists, but to use ethnographic method themselves as a mode of ethical inquiry.
As I have written elsewhere (2021), Joel Robbins’ recent book Theology and the Anthropology of Christian Life (2020) essentially parallels Banner’s argument from the perspective of anthropology. Robbins moves through a series of ethnographic case studies to demonstrate how theology can help anthropologists take seriously the ontologies of religious communities. He concludes that theology can help anthropologists develop greater understanding of actors’ categories in Christian cultures, challenge their preconceived theoretical frameworks, and offer them tools to responsibly exercise judgment. In mirror image, Robbins and Banner each contend that the best theology and anthropology can offer one another is a theoretical sharpening.
Is such a transactional relationship all that is available at the intersection of these two disciplines? Within the frames Banner and Robbins offer, perhaps. Both men restrict theology’s disciplinary contours to Western Eurocentric theological traditions, constructing a normative framework for “theology in general” abstracted from ordinary life. Delimited in this way, theology becomes a string of philosophical ideals so mired in the ought that it has had no time for the is. Of course such a theology would need even anthropology’s most basic resources. And which anthropology does Robbins submit for our consideration? Robbins offers us an anthropology that has only recently begun to pay sustained attention to ethics, responsibility, and normative judgment. This anthropology lacks the resources of a discipline experienced in wielding normativity.
Such accounts of theology and anthropology “in general” can, and ought to be, provincialized. Instructive here is historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument that European intellectual traditions ought to be placed alongside rather than hegemonically subsume the diversity of “forms, practices, and understandings of life” in non-Western societies (Chakrabarty 2000, 17). When cast as normative genealogies, white Euro-centric disciplinary frameworks for theology and anthropology act as broad neo-colonial brushes that paint over diverse discourses and traditions that run through each discipline. My contention is that placing these multitudinous lines of thought – those emerging from Western and non-Western traditions – in critical, mutual, and intersectional dialogue contains promise for directions yet unexplored.
From Disciplinary Transactions to Political Practice
The growing but fragmented anthropology and theology conversation does contain some gestures to the diverse textures present in each discipline. The opening pages of Aana Vigen and Christian Scharen’s Ethnography as Theology and Ethics (2011), for example, point to distinctions between how scholars working in distinct subfields of theology and Christian ethics might approach ethnography with different sets of questions. As an early conversation-defining text, however, the volume chooses to focus mainly on common concerns rather than differences. In Everyday Ethics: Moral Theology and the Practices of Ordinary Life, as noted above a volume that offers a sustained response to Banner’s book, contributors Molly Farneth, Stephanie Mota Thurston, and Luke Bretherton each object to Banner’s monolithic presentation of theology, pointing to particular epistemologies, traditions, and scholarly developments that would have enriched the book (and in some cases made it more accurate). Bretherton also argues that to speak of ethnography in generic terms obscures how certain forms of the method are more amenable than others to ethical and theological inquiry (181).
For anthropology’s part, anthropologists who orient themselves in relationship to the “ontological turn” such as Jon Bialecki (2014), David Bronkema (2017), and Johannes and Sharon Merz (2017) have each argued from different theoretical standpoints that anthropology’s epistemological commitment to secularism distorts its understanding of religious lifeworlds. They point to or seek to generate theoretical spaces in anthropology – drawing on, for example, Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory or developing what the Merz and Merz term “postsecular anthropology” – that can take the agency of gods and spirits on its own terms. At the same time, however, the ontological turn can be itself distorting in its implication that theology necessarily orients itself around the transcendent rather than the immanent. Such a stance has been contested by multiple theological schools of thought, from ecofeminist and womanist process theologies such as that of Ivone Gebara to the humanist Black liberation theology of Anthony Pinn.
I follow these accounts with a gesture of my own, toward three strands in social/cultural anthropology and theology/Christian ethics that I believe offer particular promise as conversation partners. Each has thus far been underdeveloped in the anthropology and theology conversation: Christian social ethics, engaged anthropology, and the anthropology of ethics. In dialogue, these discourses contain the potential to generate a distinct political practice disciplinarily rooted in both anthropological and theological traditions.
The story Banner tells about moral theology as fixated on “hard cases” is not only contradicted by liberationist theological traditions that first emerged in the 1960s. His omissions go back even earlier, leaving out the robust tradition of Christian social ethics that in Protestantism traces its beginnings in the U.S. Social Gospel Movement of the late nineteenth century. In Catholicism, social ethics finds its roots in the social encyclicals, the first of which, Rerum Novarum, was issued in 1891 as a response to exploitative labor practices. In the 1930s these encyclicals offered theological inspiration to Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as they founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Even as major Catholic and Protestant theologians like John Courtney Murray and Reinhold Niebuhr began to give social ethics less of a radical bent, the tradition remained rooted in its commitment to constructing theologies in dialogue with contemporary social issues not merely in the abstract, but in ways that demand ethical and political action. As Gary Dorrien writes (2011), from its beginnings Christian social ethics “approached ethics inductively as the study of social movements addressing social problems. Social ethicists used social scientific methods to observe, generalize, and correlate their way to an account of the whole, including its ethical character” (2).
Engaged anthropology shares many of these same normative commitments, as a thread running through the discipline before it had even fully formed. Setha M. Low and Sally Engle Merry (2010) offer the early example of John W. Powell, an ethnologist who in 1870 “testified before Congress about the genocide of native peoples following the building of the railroad and Western expansion” (205). They follow with a historical survey that includes Franz Boaz’s critiques of racism and fascism, anthropologist-organized teach-ins protesting the Vietnam War, and calls for “advocacy for and participation of studied populations” following the discipline’s reflexive turn in the 1980s. Low and Merry frame engaged anthropology as an umbrella encompassing several forms within the discipline, but perhaps one of the best known is the activist anthropology inspired by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Her influential article “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” (1995) critiques anthropology’s moral relativism in favor of “an explicit ethical orientation toward ‘the other’” (418). Scheper-Hughes’ call for ethnography “as a tool for critical reflection and for human liberation” (418) set an agenda for a now established anthropological subfield that regards ethnography as a political practice that itself comprises an act of solidarity with oppressed and vulnerable communities.
The anthropology of ethics is a more recent movement for anthropological engagement with ethics. It takes a different theoretical angle from that of Scheper-Hughes’ activist anthropology; its main conversation partners the Foucauldian and neo-Aristotelian strands of moral philosophy that have come to characterize the contemporary revival of virtue ethics. Somewhat ironically, Joel Robbins’ 2013 article “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good” became an influential touchpoint in the development of this discourse. Robbins argues that greater ethnographic attention to “how people living in different societies strive to create the good in their lives” contains potential to inspire readers’ moral imagination (458). Influential figures in the development of the anthropology of ethics such as Sabah Mahmood, Cheryl Mattingly, James Laidlaw, James Faubion, Michael Lambek, and Veena Das may disagree on theoretical particulars such as whether Foucauldian work on care of the self or neo-Aristotelian accounts of virtue offer the best framework for ethnographic attention to the ethical life. But they share a project committed to moving past thin Durkheimian equations of morality with “socially authorized rules and values” of a given society (Laidlaw 2014, 19) and the moral relativism this schema implies. In its place, they seek to develop an anthropology whose thick accounts of ethical self-making and the good in everyday life can itself become an ethical practice. While Banner’s account of the promise of social anthropology for moral theology almost exclusively relies on the anthropology of ethics, his engagement with this discourse remains underdeveloped. Banner goes no farther than to suggest that the anthropology of ethics might serve as important source material for theological deliberation on the moral.
What ought to be clear from this all-too-brief survey is that both anthropology and theology contain resources for and commitments to engaging description and norm, the is and the ought. Christian social ethics takes social scientific data as its starting point, prior to engaging in moral analysis grounded in Christian scripture, tradition, and sources of “reason” such as political philosophy. Engaged anthropology does very similar work, without the reliance on sources from a particular religious tradition. Both Christian social ethics and engaged anthropology share a conviction that political action ought to emerge from social analysis. While the anthropology of ethics is less heavy-handed about political activism as a moral necessity, it shares in common with Christian social ethics and engaged anthropology a commitment to cultivating a more just and equitable society.
Centering the conversation on these shared values generates a set of common questions to which each discipline can bring both normative and descriptive resources. For instance, given the diversity of interpretive positions contained in both theology and anthropology, on what normative grounds can theologians, Christian ethicists, and anthropologists make judgments related to matters pertaining to universal moral constructs such as human rights? How do scholars in each discipline navigate disciplinary disputes and boundary-making related to such normative stances? Is there or ought there be a line between the scholarly and the political? How do theologians, Christian ethicists, and anthropologists avoid reproducing colonial discourses when writing about marginalized communities, even in the name of solidarity? Questions such as these have been and continue to be taken up by both anthropologists and theologians with shared commitments to careful descriptive work for the purpose of larger normative commitments. Reframing the theology and anthropology conversation in these terms recognizes that these two disciplines are not as epistemologically distant as they may seem.
I conclude with a reminder that my treatment is meant to be gestural rather than exhaustive. The three disciplinary discourses I name are not the only ones that might generate new forms of dialogue between theology and anthropology. My larger point is that to move the theology and anthropology conversation in new and productive directions, we need to shift the terms of the dialogue from anthropology and theology “in general” to more targeted and specific interdisciplinary exchanges that place a diversity of thought from traditional centers and margins in mutual dialogue. This direction forward contains the potential to generate a political practice in which scholars from each discipline collaborate to realize shared visions for a more just and equitable society.
Sara A. Williams is Assistant Professor of Community-Based Learning, Ethics, and Society at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion in the area of Ethics and Society from Emory University.