Theology and Anthropology, Part 1


Theology means Study of God (at least etymologically). Anthropology means Study of Man (again, etymologically). I would like to suggest that Theology has cultural anthropology as a powerful tool (perhaps most powerful tool from the human sciences) in its development from revelation and context. The material here is a bit heavy (for me at least) but I think it suggests a healthy move away from over-reliance on historical or philosophical analysis.

“I am persuaded that historical inquiry is a useful and necessary procedure but that theological reading is the reading of the text, and not the reading of a source, which is how historians read it. Historical inquiry, while telling us many useful things, does not tell us how we are to understand the texts as texts. I am persuaded that in the search for an answer to the question of how to understand the texts as texts, the closest discipline to theology is not history at all. When I ask what external discipline is potentially most useful in theology, I come up with an answer that surprises me, and it is in a certain kind of social anthropology that bears some relationship to a kind of literary inquiry also. Why? Because I take it that Christianity, on which theology reflects, is first of all a religion. It is not a network of beliefs, it is not a system, first of all. It may be an intellectual system also, but not in the first place. Further, it is not first of all an experienced something, an experienced shape, an essence. Rather, it is first of all a complex, various, loosely held, and yet really discernible community with varying features– a religious community of which, for example, a sacred text is one feature that is typical of a religion. And the sacred text usually (and certainly in Christianity), in the tradition of interpretation within the religion, comes to focus around a sacred story. The word sacred is terribly loaded, let’s simply say it focuses around a central story, certainly in the Christian religion, in the Christian community. It is this kind of approach that I discern in looking at religion, the Christian religion, not under any high-powered comparative system, but under the aegis of the rather humdrum science, anthropology.”

–“Types of Chrisian Theology” by Hans W. Frei. Yale University Press, 1992. pgs 11-12.

Again… a bit heavy, perhaps, but let’s consider what I believe is being said. Theology is tied to sacred text and to a faith community. To develop theology requires understanding of the faith community and the understanding of the sacred text as it exists in the faith community.

  • Christianity is a religion… an area of study of cultural (social) anthropology.

  • A faith community is a culture and as such is understood anthropologically.

  • A sacred text provides meaning to a religious community and has meaning bestowed on the text by that same community. As such, understanding the text is, in part, a cultural anthropological activity.

Hans W. Frei

Often theology is seen as being assisted more by historical analysis (or philosophical/critical analysis) rather than cultural analysis. Historians like to look at a text as source material for analysis. However, understanding a text in terms utilizing the tools of the historian is fraught with problems when it comes to sacred text… such as the Bible.

The problem is that historical analysis is built on presumptions that is problematic in most religions… including Christianity. Historical analysis seeks to find meaning in past data based on the presumption of natural (and local) progression and causation. This seems fairly reasonable. But what happens when it comes to sacred texts. Consider the question of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. Historical analysis starts from the assumption of natural occurrences and so it is ill-equipped to deal with the miraculous (unless of course the proper response is rejection). Likewise, the Bible points to an eschatological history— God working in and through history with a long-range active plan. This implies a plot to history… placing itself more in the area of literature than history. History books have authors, but the assumption of these same books is that history itself has no author. Additionally, and for similar reasons, historical analysis cannot deal with predictive prophecy, except to reject any such predictions beyond educated hunches.

If this is not obvious, consider the following: Suppose you were writing a history of the stone images on Easter Island. Suppose you did a lot of research and finally turn in your findings for peer review. Your findings were that in approximately 1325AD, a miracle happened and all of the statues suddenly appeared on the island. <NOTE: I am making no such claim… just making up an example.>  Such a viewpoint would never make it through peer review. It might make it onto the Internet or “Ancient Aliens” on television. But for historical analysis, there is a presumption that events connect through natural and local causation. One cannot deny the (highly unlikely) possibility that something amazing MIGHT have happened and the statues suddenly appeared around 1325AD. Rather, such an unlikely possibility is not considered in historical analysis.

Therefore, theology grounded on historical analysis will inevitably be pulled into a naturalistic worldview.

This is, of course, not to say that understanding sacred text is not potentially aided by historical analysis. This is particularly true of the Bible.

  • The Bible was written in history, and, in fact, over a considerable period of time historically. This is unlike the view of adherents to the Quran who believe that it existed and exists ahistorically.

  • The Bible writes about identifiable historical events over a wide range of history. This is unlike the Book of Mormon that, although written in a historical style, does not appear to link to identifiable “real” history.

  • The Bible emphasizes the relevance of history in its message. This is unlike much of the Hindu sacred texts in which history is not really seen as relevant to the message.

So historical analysis is an important tool, but not as important as the tool of cultural anthropology.

The next post will continue the thought from Frei. The third post will look at the role of context in theology and its relationship to cultural anthropology.

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