On Knowing Humanity: Book Review

Meneses, Eloise and David Bronkema, eds. 2017. On Knowing Humanity: Insights from Theology for Anthropology. London and New York: Routledge.

Reviewed By: Leanne Williams Green (University of California, San Diego)

On Knowing Humanity: Insights from Theology for Anthropology contributes to several current projects and proposals in which the disciplines of anthropology and theology engage one another. Several of these endeavors aim to make each discipline speak to the other in particularly foundational ways (see Lemons et al. forthcoming, or Banner 2013 for an approach from moral theology). These emerging projects are situated where the significant growth in anthropological studies of Christianities has opened up space not only to make Christianity in its diverse and global manifestations a focus of anthropological interest, but also to account for the intellectual heritage of anthropology itself and its association with Christian visions of humans and of the world. In his elegant tracing of the faith commitments of several early anthropologists, Timothy Larsen (2014) has pointed out the ways this kind of engagement has already been evident historically in the work of individual scholars. In the examples he describes, the interaction between theology and the subject matter of these anthropologists is categorical, going beyond merely a faith stance from which each operates as ethnographer and analyst. While other singular efforts like those of John Milbank (1990) sought to take theology as social theory, a larger shared project did not emerge within anthropology.

By contrast, this volume attempts to take theology as an explicit starting point for providing alternate methodological and epistemological stances for anthropologists, that is, alternate to the perceived secularism of anthropology. The project is unique in the way it seeks to bring Christian stances unashamedly to bear on the subject matter, particularly by drawing in Christian theological concepts. While the volume as a whole does offer a distinct approach, with examples of potential alternative epistemologies, there remain some theoretical questions to be addressed.

According to volume editors Meneses and Bronkema, the stated purpose of this new volume is to “develop a new set of conceptual tools informed by insights from Christian theology to be used analytically in anthropology” (2017:1). One unique aspect of the project comes from the committed Christian theological interest of the contributors, working across several disciplines and many coming from confessional institutions, intending to challenge the terms from which anthropology has operated epistemologically and theoretically. The contributing scholars describe their own stance as “orthodox, evangelical, ecumenical, and critical in nature” (13). The volume attempts to tackle a “problem” that the editors describe in their first chapter, published initially as an article of the same title in 2014. The “problem” they identify relates to the ways in which the twin aims of Anthropology- the “scientific” and the “instrumental”- are hampered by simultaneous commitments to both secularism and liberalism. They claim that these limiting commitments mean that anthropologists cannot fulfill what they intend or purport to do in understanding human life in its diversity, and then attempting to promote human flourishing.

The volume is divided into two sections: taking on, first, the “ethnographic encounter,” by looking at epistemological engagements between the fields. The latter portion seeks to “broaden the ontologies,” so allowing the theoretical frames at play to take into account those of the ethnographic informants. In one sense, then, the two sections attempt to engage with two “turns” within anthropology- the first appearing in many of the chapters as the “interpretive turn” or the “reflexive turn” for which Geertz is heavily cited. The second is the more recent so-called “ontological turn.” Organized around conceptual words from Christian theology – like mystery, mission, calling – each chapter works out a concept in its relation to anthropological method or epistemology.

The two most compelling efforts are those in which the theological concepts framing the argument transform the anthropological aims in some capacity. In using the notion of “mystery” to consider how the process of ethnographic encounter and engagement unravel, Howell’s chapter shows most convincingly that the analogous categories that both disciplines use are not ones of simple comparison. Howell is not interested only in pointing out where anthropological and theological concepts align. Rather, the intellectually robust theological notion of “mystery” suggests something about the nature of humans themselves, and of how they know and are known in partiality. He uses “mystery” to suggest that the very limits in knowing human difference is meaningful.

Like Howell, Flett in his chapter does more than merely propose that a theological concept could be useful for anthropology. Drawing from the scholarly visions of social scientist Berger and theologian Torrance, Flett identifies the limits of each discipline in exploring the nature of social relations. He suggests how conversation between them might lessen these limits. He points out the problem of conceiving a human person that is “free to be determinate (to have a concrete identity and to fulfill a concrete calling)” without being “determined” by the larger social order (217). Flett suggests that Berger has difficulty accounting for the flexibility of the human person to remain open to influence while not becoming a “vehicle of determinism” (217). Torrance, in his theological anthropology, could gain from Berger a more rigorously articulated theory of the cultural world, while Torrance could offer Berger a “transcendent reference point” (217).  Flett sees this addition from Torrance as necessary to keep the “plasticity” of human social life a possibility in Berger’s account.

Flett’s chapter focuses particularly on the theological category “Trinity.” The critical importance of the Incarnation to the Christian tradition, a commitment to Christ’s fully bearing humanity as human, makes anthropology necessarily important for Christian theology. Indeed, Flett quotes Barth saying that “theology has become anthropology because God has become man” (209). The affirmation of the Incarnation is foundational for the stance of the scholars in this volume, as an epistemological basis for understanding humanity in general and in particular. For example, Backues uses the importance of the Incarnation to Christianity to make a claim about “humility” forming the basis of methodological and theoretical approaches to anthropological study, and God become human in Christ is paradigmatic for such an approach.

In other chapters, the authors tackle their chosen theological concept to propose analytical changes to the way we approach religious thinking and spirituality ethnographically. The historical disciplining of anthropology is highlighted and challenged in chapters by Hartley, Bronkema, and Paredes. Under the purview of “mission,” Hartley describes how a forgotten early teacher of anthropology and ethnography, Agnes Donohugh, had a significant role to play in promoting the study of anthropology, particularly as a woman, for her missionary students. She remains important also for her attentiveness to religious themes in early ethnography in general. Bronkema shows how anthropological consideration of the problem of “principalities” and other spiritual powers is limited when the ethnographer is confined to a “social constructivist” paradigm (168). Finally, Paredes attends to the way that the history of anthropology in Latin America, and the cultural questions with which it is engaged, means that the discipline as practiced has had to engage differently with matters of alternate cosmologies of the “divine.”

The theological terms used to ground and center the arguments in each chapter are terms with which theologians and those committed personally to Christian theology have already been grappling. As such, they offer a set of apparatus or a certain kind of convergent approach with anthropological endeavors. In utilizing theological concepts, many of the authors also avoid drawing from theology merely to understand the ethnographically descriptive categories of importance to their research subjects and communities. (This is true with the exception, perhaps, of Ybarrola’s chapter on “calling,” which itself shows usefully how an attention and credence given to the theological categories of informants alters and enriches the analyst’s understanding of migration narrative accounts).

The strengths of the volume lie in the novelty of centering analytically on theological concepts, which Joel Robbins notes in his afterword. To ground anthropological pursuit explicitly in individual theological ideas in an attempt to challenge epistemological and methodological assumptions is a unique contribution to current conversations in the anthropology of religion. But what makes the novelty meaningful is the potential in such a primary conversation between anthropology and theology: To recognize that Christian theology has had to struggle with the simultaneously cosmic and intimate concerns of relational identification and radical difference between divine and human, human and the rest of created order. These endeavors offer striking parallels with the complex, problem-ridden efforts of anthropologists to learn how to deal with human difference, and to learn to see deeply from another’s point of view as both strikingly intimate and perplexingly other. The theological concepts put to work in the volume are most fruitful when they prompt engagements that move beyond analogical similarities, mobilizing the kind of epistemological kinship between anthropological concerns and theological ones that sets the basis for a potentially productive theoretical conversation.

The use of theological categories as theoretical tools for social theory is not, however, without potential hazards to anthropological goals. With regards to Meneses’ chapter, Robbins “plead[s] for caution” in the notion of “witness” to people “back home” of those whose lives and experiences differ radically from our own (229). The danger is in presuming that operational categories like “suffering” actually correlate across cultural lines. In this case Robbins is challenging the very way that Menses sees the Christian ethic shaping the encounter with cultural “Others,” and the resulting ethnographic work. I would suggest that the theological meaning of “witness,” and the way that Meneses utilizes it, has less to do with giving account of something, and more to do with an orientation to the issue with that of love, an ethical stance with regards to the production of ethnography. Another approach offered by Flett, invoking Torrance, intends to tackle the fear entailed in a full engagement of theology with a disciplinary other- anthropology. This engagement could in turn shift aspects of the theological approach itself. Conversely, the result might be a kind of universal relativism that Backues wants to move away from. As an anthropologist, however, this specific kind of relativism is one which Robbins is wary of letting go. These theoretical differences suggest that there may be some significant limits to the kind of conversation that is possible between the disciplines.

Where the volume does succeed, the authors are able to show that their chosen theological concept moves beyond mere similarity with anthropological analytic categories. In the arguments of such chapters, it becomes evident that in conversation the approaches or frameworks of each discipline might be honed in some capacity. In several instances, however, I am left wondering whether the main take home is that Christianity is compatible with anthropological thinking. Rather than advancing the efforts of both theology and anthropology, it seems that the main offering of Christian theology to anthropological practice and theory is ethical commitment- whether “love” as the way to “witness” to violence, or “humility” as an approach to ethnographic understanding. This seems to reduce theology unfairly to ethics. For example, Dearborn makes a biblically robust case for the importance of the “stranger” in historical Christianity, but it remains unclear how an orientation of welcome to the “stranger” in ethnographic encounter might offer anything more than an ethical commitment of charitable knowing of the Other.

I do not think that reduction to an ethically committed stance is at all the intention of the authors, nor is it the goal of the volume. I think that those times it emerges as such it is because the project is new, and thus some of the chapters are just starting to gain some analytical traction when they conclude. In the newness of the endeavor, some of the pieces feel as though they slip back into showing that Christian anthropologists can operate effectively as anthropologists, even if doing so from an explicitly committed stance. If this point is necessary to make in each chapter, it would be important for the chapter to equally offer an additional point of theological or anthropological import.

In one sense, the avowed theological specificity and commitment, and to some degree narrowness, of the book’s authors does prove a strength. Where vocabulary and approaches are sufficiently shared among scholars, a joint project has the potential to reach somewhere deep and potentially transformative, this despite marked variation in the content and goals of the individual chapters. That said, it might be helpful for the authors themselves to acknowledge the historical reasons for the ease with which they draw from specific theories or thinkers. For example, the apparent antipathy between the linguistic turn and Christianity does seem to run up against the openness of the “postmodern” shift. It shouldn’t be surprising if there are some aspects of the hermeneutical turn that might feel particularly at home for Protestant Christians who privilege text (whether written or performed) and interpretation. In a critique like the one offered in this volume, this kind of reflection is something I would want to see present.

One final question that I have about this emerging conversation is whether the engagements between theology and anthropology need be about “religiously committed others” at all. While it might be the case that these engagements are necessarily located in the study of religious communities, it is likely that a conversation engaging theology and anthropology together need not be tied to claims about representational truth, nor ethical commitment, nor even to the purpose of better characterizing what our research subjects “believe.” If we replace the purpose of truth-witness, itself fraught also with some real representational quandaries, with something like “seek first understanding,” we might also find that a conversation between anthropology and theology would bring theoretical insights that are not subject to continuing debates about secularism and subjectivities. No doubt those conversations need to continue, but I do not think that they need to be resolved in order that a thoughtful engagement between the methods and categories of anthropology and theology might prove useful to one another, if for no other reason than they have some similar tensions (of say, human difference) with which to grapple.

The variety of pieces in the On Knowing Humanity volume engage with theological categories and the historical flow of anthropological thought to a degree that provokes an original kind of approach to the “problem” the editors identified at the outset. Having suggested epistemological stances from which theology and anthropology might be in conversation, the volume does open up further spaces for theological concepts to be put to work in anthropology in theoretical ways. It allows us to perhaps begin to move beyond arguments and propositions about the possibility of “theologically engaged anthropology,” or of work across the two disciplines in contributing to one another, and to actually try it out by testing the terms which are offered by each discipline to the other.


Banner, Michael. 2013. The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology

and the Imagination of the Human. Oxford: Oxford UP

Eloise Meneses, Lindy Backues, David Bronkema, Eric Flett, and Benjamin L. Hartley. 2014.

“Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in

Dialogue.” Current Anthropology 55 (1): 82-104.

Larsen, Timothy. 2014 The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. USA:

Oxford University Press

Lemons, J. Derrick, ed. Forthcoming. Theologically Engaged Anthropology. Oxford:

Oxford UP

Milbank, John. 1990. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Oxford:


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