Theology and Anthropology, Part 2.

The previous post, quoted Hans Frei. This post expands the idea.

Theologian rolePreviously it was noted that a theologian working with a sacred text (particularly, in our case, the Holy Bible) must recognize that it is part of the community of faith, providing guidance and meaning for that community, and given its status by that same community. As such it is integrated into a religious culture. Based on that role in culture, the theologian must think as a cultural anthropologist, understanding the text as the text of a faith community first. Historical criticism may have its place, but as a tool is limited by its own assumptions and methodology. Now we can move forward.

Hans Frei goes on to suggest that there are two forms/methods of social (cultural) anthropology. He describes them as “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “hermeneutics of description.”

The hermeneutics of suspicion has a statement that may be explicit, but is more likely implicit. It is something like this: “The people say they do _______________ because of ___________________. But the real reason they do it is ______________________.” I was always taught that this was simply BAD Anthropology. Cultures with this hermeneutic are filtered through a presumptive model. There are many different ones. Well known analysis filters are Marxist, Psychoanalytic, or Evolutionary models of behavior.There are many many more.

The hermeneutic of description does not focus on “the real reason” but understands behavior in terms of collective perception of the culture analyzed. The goal is to understand the culture on its own terms… understanding how the community sees its own behavior. For example, In historical Christianity it is common to call community members “brother” and “sister.” If asked, most Christians would probably identify with the symbol of “church as family.” A few might point to the “Fatherhood of God” and their collective status as “joint heirs with Christ” A Freudian model may come up with a very different “real meaning” behind familial terms (I have no idea… haven’t asked.) Hermeneutics of description (induction without presumption) would, to me, describe GOOD anthropology.

An interesting example of the difference between a hermeneutics of suspicion and description is in the area of LAWNS. Why do we have lawns around our houses? I read a theory proposed that we have lawns around our houses because of our evolutionary history. Our primitive ancestors were scampering around the savannahs of Africa and that racial memory leads us to desire lawns around our house. That is hermeneutic of suspicion. To me it has a Procrustean feel to it.

However, a hermeneutic of description leads to a different view. Consider three different cultural settings I have visited. Culture 1 is in Buffalo, NY when a homeowner some years ago was told that he could not let his yard stay unmanicured. Culture 2 is in a Georgia swamp where an old home there had the area around it immaculately swept sand. Culture 3 is in Pampanga, Philippines where my wife’s grandmother every day ensured that the area around the house was hard-packed clay devoid of any plants or mess. The interesting thing is that the reason given by each of these cultures for the ideal of relative barrenness around the different houses was the same “Keep away the vermin.” From a hermeneutic of description, pulling in an evolutionary “real reason” is not considered helpful. But I am tempted to go further. In this case, not only is the “Savannah Theory” not viewed as helpful, it does not even appear to be correct. Many cultures don’t have lawns… and even the three cultures listed above don’t look like each other and none of them look like the African savannah.

Summarizing this first post, cultural anthropology helps us understand the Bible within the context of the practicing community of faith. While historical analysis has value, the presumptions of historical analysis often war with religious dogma. As such, historical analysis tends to work from a hermeneutic of suspicion. What is needed is description… understanding the Bible, first of all, from the collective perception of the community for which it is sacred or central to their conduct and understanding.

The third post will look at context and correlation as it connects to theology and anthropology.