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Learning from Zora Neale Hurston

The best place to begin in bringing theology and anthropology closer together is with someone who did not write as if the two were separate, even opposed disciplines. Zora Neale Hurston carried out ethnographic fieldwork on behalf of Franz Boas, and yet, writing in multiple genres, articulated a theological vision that meshed the universal God with particular human experience: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.”

This symposium asks what considerations are currently moving anthropologists and theologians to look to and even draw from the discipline of the other. I want to suggest that the best place to begin is with someone who did not write as if the two were separate, even opposed disciplines. The fact that they are considered to be such now is a historically contingent arrangement that developed in large part out of anthropology seeking to establish itself as an academic discipline – a science – precisely at the time that the academy was rejecting theology. Pairing, or even conversing, with theology, was out of the question.

More, a developing aspect of the professionalization of anthropology was the requirement that researchers do their own fieldwork. Missionaries, who had been serving as key informants for the earlier, armchair anthropologists, became competitors and thus enemies in the field of souls. Prior to that, both anthropologists and missionaries were, whatever else they were, agents of empire.

After Franz Boas utilized anthropological methods specifically understood as science to stress the individual particularity of cultures and therefore to refute colonialism’s hierarchical cultural rankings, theology was even more on the outs. That trajectory has, for the most part, continued even after the interpretive turn in anthropology.

In the meantime, theologians have in large part continued to make non-particularist universal claims because theologia is, after all, the study of (the universal) God. I have argued elsewhere that particularism is especially a threat to theologians because it points to the specifics of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, something that directly challenges the lives that they currently live.  Perhaps rather than beginning with anthropologists in one corner and theologians in the other and asking why and how they can talk across the room to each other, it is better to begin with someone who rejected the cross-disciplinary dynamics just described.     

It might seem odd at first that Zora Neale Hurston serves as an exemplar of what I would call anthropological theology. She left graduate school in anthropology after one semester of rarely attending classes, and she made clear that she did not believe in God, at least as presented to her by others. In her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road,she writes, “It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.”

However, Hurston’s ethnographies, while they do not fit the genre requirements of the academic anthropology of her time, presage the literary moves, misrecognized as innovations, announced and called for by James Clifford – and the mostly white and male authors in Writing Culture – by fifty years.  And one need not be a formal believer to make claims about God or gods. We can therefore fruitfully draw upon Hurston’s writing for cues about how anthropological theology – an approach that affirms that one can be an anthropologist and a theologian at the same time – works, with implications for both anthropology and theology.

We can therefore fruitfully draw upon Hurston’s writing for cues about how anthropological theology – an approach that affirms that one can be an anthropologist and a theologian at the same time – works, with implications for both anthropology and theology.

Hurston is, I would say, a foremother.

A passage in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is particularly generative to show just how. It describes a light-skinned Black, Mrs. Turner, who tries to develop a relationship with the protagonist, Janie Woods, because of the latter’s even lighter skin.

Mrs. Turner’s shape and features were entirely approved by Mrs. Turner.  Her nose was slightly pointed and she was proud.  Her thin lips were an ever delight to her eyes.  Even her buttocks in bas-relief were a source of pride.  To her way of thinking all these things set her aside from Negroes. That was why she sought out Janie to friend with.  Janie’s coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair made Mrs. Turner forgive her for wearing overalls like the other women who worked in the fields.  She didn’t forgive her for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake.

“Mis’ Woods, Ah have often said to mah husband, Ah don’t see how a lady like Mis’ Woods can stand all them common n_____s round her place all de time…Ah jus’ couldn’t see mahself married to no black man.  It’s too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race…If it wuzn’t for so many black folks it wouldn’t be no race problem. De white folks would take us in wid dem. De black ones is holdin’ us back.”

            The diatribe goes on for pages. Janie tries to offer a counter-opinion, but Mrs. Turner will hear nothing of it. Over time, Janie tries to be cold towards her, but Mrs. Turner keeps showing up. The book’s narrator elaborates as to why:

Anyone who looked more like white folk than herself was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness.  Like the pecking-order in a chicken yard.  Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t.  Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel.  All gods dispense suffering without reason.  Otherwise they would not be worshipped.  Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion…Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers.  Real gods require blood.

In this reflection, Hurston, as the author of the narrator’s voice, moves from a description of Mrs. Turner’s features (somewhat darker than Janie’s) to an account of her social ethics (“she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness”), to an evaluative description of that ethics (“insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t”) to an evaluative description of her theology (“it was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity”) to a general claim about belief in divine beings (“All gods who receive homage are cruel…Real gods require blood”).  If it is objected that one ought not relate author and narrator so closely, and that Their Eyes is after all a work of fiction, we need only turn again to Hurston’s memoir to find again the linkage of formal religion and fear: “People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences.”  

What unfolds here in just one paragraph is what I call emergent theology, that is, theology that develops first not from received doctrines or tradition, but through careful, granular observation of specific people and places. Framed in terms of the standard account of the sources for theology – scripture, tradition, reason, and experience – emergent theology begins with the last of these.

The turn to ethnography and oral narrative on the part of some mujerista and womanist theologians is in large part because the first three sources as handed down do not speak to, and even outright suppress, their lived understandings of God. What often attracts theologians to anthropology, then, are lacks or obstacles within received traditions.

Recognition of emergent theology unsettles the claim made by many anthropologists and qualitative sociologists that theological renderings on the part of a researcher, if they are not simply “found” in the field as is, are necessarily “imposed.”  The found/imposed dichotomy is a reproduction of the fact/value separation that even mainstream qualitative researchers have rejected since the interpretive turn.

If we acknowledge that any ethnographer is in danger of superimposing an etic perspective in a way that runs roughshod over the emic interpretations of the people she meets, then, as anthropologist Brian Howell has argued, theologically-informed interpretive lenses are no more inherently problematic than secular ones.  Recent openness on the part of some anthropologists to theological interpretation is indebted to this awareness of the inevitable role of the writer’s “positionality.”

The emergent character of anthropological theology also brings with it a recognition that the interpretive frames that we start out with – however theological – may well not be the ones that remain when we, by force of deadlines, must conclude a research project. In this approach, to fail to be open to our theologies changing as a result of our fieldwork is not just bad ethnography, it is bad theology. It is a refusal to believe that the Holy Spirit can be active through the people we encounter in the field.

One of the literary moves of interpretive turn anthropology is for the writer to place herself in the text for her to render her positionality visible to the reader. And again, this is something that Hurston was doing fifty years earlier, against the developing objective realist anthropological genre of her time.

In the first chapter of Mules and Men, her most well-known ethnographic writing, Hurston places herself in the middle of things. Her first stop is Eatonville, Florida, the town in which she grew up, and the chapter starts, “As I crossed the Maitland-Eatonville township line, I could see a group on the store porch. I was delighted…They looked up from the game and for a moment it looked as if they had forgotten me. Then B. Mosely said, ‘Well, if it ain’t Zora Hurston!’ Then everyone crowded around the car to help greet me.”  In later sections, she tells – in the first person – of her nearly being stabbed, and of her initiation into hoodoo, all done with a vividness that takes the reader into the scene. The theological genre such writing most resembles is that of the confession, a mode of writing that uses the self as a mode to encounter the world.  If academic theology were to work in this genre more often, it would find another space of overlap with much of contemporary anthropology.

In Dust Tracks, Hurston undoes the bifurcation between universal and particular in a single sentence: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.”  Her journey to the fuller implications of that theology is an extended one. She thought – more or less constantly – about cosmological questions.

If being under the tutelage of Boas kept her own thoughts on such from entering her ethnographies, her memoir provides more space. We read there that her theology, appropriately enough, “emerged” over time. She tells of childhood visions that provided “a preview of things to come.”  The visions were burdensome: “I was weighed down with a power I did not want. I had a knowledge before its time.”

Much later in the memoir, while discussing how people turn to religion in fear, she begins to offer outlines of her own mature theology:

I find I know a great deal about form, but nothing about the mysteries I sought as a child…But certain things have seemed to me to be true…I do not pretend to read God’s mind.  If He has a plan of the Universe worked out to the smallest detail, it would be folly for me to presume to get down on my knees and attempt to revise it.  That, to me, seems the highest form of sacrilege.  I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny.  It seems to me that I have been given a mind and will-power for that very purpose.  I do not expect God to single me out and grant me advantages over my fellow men…Life, as it is, does not frighten me since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws.  The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out “how long?” to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime…I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms.  When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I will be part and parcel of the world.  I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change…Why fear?      

This theology has some striking affinities with that of James Gustafson. Prior to her acceptance of “the universe as I find it,” Hurston felt “weighed down with a power I did not want.”  When she accepted the universe’s “laws,” she found sustenance in nature. Gustafson turns to natural science and environmental thought to help develop an understanding of God as “the powers that bear down upon us and sustain us.”  For him, too, we get “a sense of the divine” from the “natural environment.”  Like with Hurston (“I do not expect God to single me out” for favor), Gustafson’s “theocentric” ethics is built to resist all anthropocentric tendencies in theology, to the point of denying the Incarnation: “Jesus is not God.”[i]  Both retain, as Jenny Hyest suggests for Hurston, a certain “Christian sensibility”; neither is Christian as this is most often understood.  Both are, among other things, theologians who ask big questions.

Hurston’s emphasis on the particular displays itself in her focus on what I call “porch politics,” which she positions as no less theological for its being political. Again, the first thing she mentions in the opening chapter of Mules and Men is the men gathered in conversation on the store porch. She underscores this emphasis in Dust Tracks: “There were the two churches, Methodist and Baptist, and the school. Most people would say that such institutions are always the great influences in any town. They would say that because it sounds like the thing that ought to be said. But I know that Joe Clarke’s store was the heart and spring of the town. Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths” (emphasis added). Through conversational advice, the telling of stories – what Hurston calls “big lies” – and playing the dozens, the porch-sitters sort out their own social arrangement – who is in, who is out, who above or below.

So, there have been persons fusing theology and anthropology for quite some time; they are just not likely to be found among professional academics. And Hurston is not simply a one-off. Though neither is as well-known as her, both Ella Cara Deloria (a Dakota) and Jovita González (a Mexican-American) did fieldwork and, like Hurston, wrote it up in plural genres in the second quarter of the twentieth century. What their examples suggest is that the contemporary models we are looking for may be found not under “theology” or “anthropology,” but under such rubrics as “narrative journalism,” “creative nonfiction,” or simply “fiction.” 

So, there have been persons fusing theology and anthropology for quite some time; they are just not likely to be found among professional academics.

Or they might not be under any public rubric at all. Hurston died in penury and was buried in an unmarked grave. Deloria and González could not get their major works published during their lifetimes, and this was left for others to do decades later. In addition to looking for exemplars in outré literature, then, we need to look for keys for how to articulate the world in the as-yet-unwritten testimonies of the people we meet in the field. There we are more likely to find a meshing of talk about God and the particularities of life lived; we might also find as a result that separating the two is a strange way to construct the world. This suggests that one avenue for bringing academic anthropology and theology closer together is to give the testimony of the people we meet in the field – and whatever spirits speak through them – more authority in our writing.      


[i] James M Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church, and the University,” Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Convention: The Catholic Theological Society of America 40 (1985), 93.  Elsewhere, he describes the claim that God became human as “exaggerated religious rhetoric.” James M. Gustafson, An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 107.

Disciplinary crossings

Symposium Essays

The “Sigh of the Oppressed Creature” in-between Theology and Anthropology

Combinations of theology and anthropology have been criticized for losing track of what theology ought to be about. Yet this loss might be precisely what enables scholars to understand political practices which point towards that which escapes both the theological and the anthropological grasp—a pointer which could be crucial to fashion solidarities that connect faiths in the pursuit of justice.

Immanent Singularity

This intervention invites to think active dis-imagination, in mystical and contemporary traditions, as a grounding political force.

From Disciplinary Transactions to Political Practice: Moving Past Theology and Anthropology “in General”

A common denominator among most scholarship on the relationship between theology and anthropology is lack of specificity around which and whose anthropology and theology we’re talking about. This overly generalized frame has privileged white, male, Eurocentric intellectual traditions and misses the generative possibilities of a more specific interdisciplinary exchange.

Learning from Zora Neale Hurston

The best place to begin in bringing theology and anthropology closer together is with someone who did not write as if the two were separate, even opposed disciplines. Zora Neale Hurston carried out ethnographic fieldwork on behalf of Franz Boas, and yet, writing in multiple genres, articulated a theological vision that meshed the universal God with particular human experience: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.”

Unsaying Anthropology and Theology

…dialogues between these two disciplines have revolved around anthropology’s socially situated “is” and theology’s normative “ought,” asking how these disciplines can take what they are allegedly missing from each other. In this way, anthropology and theology recapitulate a much broader divide between religion (as a moral realm) and science (as a purely descriptive domain). This division is fairly recent, growing up since the late nineteenth century (Numbers 2010), but it is now part of our common-sense. I want to question this division in what follows.

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