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Disciplinary crossings

Why are anthropologists and theologians drawn to each other? What are they seeking?

Across a series of articles, anthropologists Carlota McAlister and Valentina Napolitano have called for a rapprochement between anthropology and political theology. For the purposes of the fields in which they work, political and cultural anthropology, they have invited their colleagues to consider the materiality of the ineffable: the dead, the excess, the more-than-human, the negative. In political theology, or more accurately in theopolitics, they find a theoretical tool by which to approach an “ever provisional messianic force” that anthropologists would do well to attend to. While some corners of anthropology have dealt with political theology down stream of Carl Schmitt, especially as read through Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe, McAlister and Napolitano prefer Martin Buber’s theopolitics, which focuses their attention not on the sovereign from above but on a diffused sovereignty from below. In this way, their intervention has resonance with the capacious and liberationist inflected discourse that gathers around the banner of the Political Theology Network.

In McAlister and Napolitano’s self-critical call for anthropologists to turn toward the theological as a conversation partner, they join an episodic and somewhat fraught inter-disciplinary exchange. Some anthropologists, for their part, have looked to theology for theoretical provocations of transcendence and the ineffable, while others have critiqued the limitations of transcendence itself, foregrounding the materiality of spirit. In either case, anthropologists have sought to take the divine seriously as a source for politics, ontology, or theory. From Talal Asad’s exposure of the theological surd within anthropological analysis to Joel Robbins’s exploration of the “awkward relationship” of divergent envies: theology and anthropology (if disciplines can be described with such singularity and agency) desire what the other seems to have. 

While these anthropologists have built a theoretical bridge toward theology, at the same time theologians and ethicists have appropriated ethnographic methods for their own purposes. Theologians have turned to anthropology for a method of attending to the everyday. From Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s groundbreaking mujerista theology to Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s congregational study (as well as many others), theologians have found in ethnographic methods modes of attention that give pride of place to the emic meanings that people in their own contexts bring to theological questions. Ethnography disrupts theology’s own tendencies toward speculative abstraction and instead roots the field in wider turns to a critical apprehension of relations and their emplaced, linguistic nature.

My own scholarship has traversed these disciplinary crossings. My book ¡Presente! draws on ethnographic materials to make theological arguments, and some of those arguments have found a home in debates about anthropological theory. I won’t rehearse those arguments here, but my interest has been to attend to the presence of the dead, and how that presence manifests in forms of agency that often go unseen when viewed through either theological or anthropological lenses. Moreover, my teaching at Candler School of Theology has regularly included introducing students to ethnographic methods, but less frequently anthropological theory. In the Doctor of Ministry course “Understanding Community” that I am teaching currently, we read textbooks on ethnographic methods, anthropologists like Marla Frederick who engage Christian communities, and theologians who utilize ethnographic methods and anthropological theory like Rebecca Spurrier and Natalie Wigg-Stevenson. Students want to become “pastoral ethnographers” by attending to the material conditions of their congregations, the social forces that determine the density and quality of their relationships, and the narratives that shape their and their congregants’ world-constructing interpretations. This is just one idiosyncratic anecdote, but I suspect it may resonate with other readers here at the Political Theology Network.

This symposium explores the cross purposes of the disciplines of anthropology and theology as they engage at the intersection of religion and politics. Why are anthropologists and theologians drawn to each other? What are they seeking? Anthropologists have found theoretical provocations, whereas theologians have found methods for attending to the everyday. But is this all that they want? How do theological and anthropological interests align, and diverge? And what possibilities for fruitful collaborations are yet unexplored?

Each essay traverses these disciplinary crossings in provocative ways that answer and undo these questions. 

Ulrich Schmeidel begins the symposium with a genealogy that reveals the incompleteness of any attempt at an easy disciplinary synthesis. Rather than pushing toward resolution, Schmeidel finds the unassimilable excess that each discipline offers to the other a primary part of the attraction. 

Valentina Napolitano extends the argument previewed above in her submission to the symposium. Shifting the locus of her attention from the dead to the animate planet she wonders what shared, if awkwardly disparate, resources might be recovered from the mystical traditions within theology. 

Sara Williams resists any singular narration of the desires of the fields of anthropology and theology. Instead, she finds plural disciplines with internal resources for reaching toward interdisciplinary exchange.

Todd Whitmore turns to Zora Neale Hurston as a source for the integration of the two disciplines. Retrieving a source before the split (a split rent by aspirations to scientific respectability), Whitmore denaturalizes and historicizes contemporary assumptions about these disciplinary divisions. 

Finally, J. Brent Crosson concludes the symposium with a synthetic reflection and response, arguing that this exchange highlights presumptions about religion, the divine, and ethics that have specific Christian foundations.  Drawing on his own long engagement with African Caribbean spiritual workers, Crosson provides an inductive, experimental ethics as a counterpoint to notions of ethics and religion that figure as approximations of “the good” (with a redemptive or transcendent horizon usually in view).

Together, these essays extend but do not resolve the unruly crossings between these internally plural disciplines. And each crossing suggests other pathways that might be taken in wrestling with gods, God, G-d, and God otherwise. 

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.