Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?

By Robbins, Joel | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?


Robbins, Joel, Anthropological Quarterly


Although the trend is still quite new, certainly no more than a decade old, it is hard to miss the growing anthropological interest in Christianity. A topic that was once a complete non-starter in disciplinary conversations, Christianity has become of late a subject one can raise without fear of eliciting blank looks or raised eye-brows. As an object of ethnographic attention, at least, Christianity is on its way to becoming established, its worthiness of attention taken for granted. And this new-found legitimacy of Christianity as an ethnographic topic also raises a number of theoretical questions for anthropology more generally. Among these is one I want to take up here: what is or should be the relationship between anthropology and theology?

It is fair to say that to this point this question has hardly been asked, much less answered. As anthropologists have come to take Christianity seriously, they have begun to read here and there in theology, but there has been little explicit reflection on how we should approach theological thinking. As a way into this subject, I want to lay out three possible ways anthropology might engage theology-though in the end, given limited space, I will only go on to consider the last of these in detail.

A first way in which anthropology might engage theology is to study the role of theological ideas in its own formation. This strategy has worked before to redeem previously disregarded topics. One could say, for example, that some of the original impulse to begin interrogating capitalism seriously as a culture several decades ago came from our recognition that its logics too often unquestioningly become our own theoretical assumptions. To date, this route is also the one we have gone down the furthest with theology. Asad's (1993) well known argument about the Christian origins of anthropological notions of religion and culture; Sahlins' (1996) discussion of the theological sources of our fundamental images of human nature and desire; and Keane's (1997, 2002) studies of the Protestant roots of key aspects of our models of agency and of both linguistic and material phenomena, are all well known examples of work that reads theology to uncover and critique its influence on anthropological thought.1 Widely read, these works have spurred a good deal of further research along similar lines and it is fair to say that the project of tracing theology's role in the formation of anthropological thought is well begun.

A second way anthropologists might read any given piece of theology is as data that can inform us about the particular Christian culture that produced it. We have done rather less of this than of the first kind of work mentioned above. In part, this may be because of a still lingering reluctance to study elites-a reluctance that leads us away from studying the work of the theologians who influence, however indirectly, the Christian communities we study. It probably also follows from a paucity of models to draw on in thinking about how elite intellectual work and writing contribute to popular thought in most places, though we should be able to get help in this regard from the rapidly developing anthropological study of knowledge and expertise as cultural phenomena. And despite the relative lack of development of the this approach, it should be noted that the single most widely read book in the anthropology of Christianity-Susan Harding's (2000) The Book of Jerry Falwell-might be seen as exemplifying its potential. For Harding's book is clearly a study of how the systematic thinking of church elites has shaped fundamentalist culture, and in the concept of speech mimesis it provides a specifically Christian model of the way theological speculation can become popular practice (see also Crapanzano 2000). Coleman's (2000) work on Swedish charismatics similarly attends to the ideas of church elites and lays out indigenous models of communication and influence. Harding's, Crapanzano's, and Coleman's books are, then, good first steps in developing this second kind of relationship in which anthropologists approach theology as data. …

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