Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ethnography and Theology

"Practical theology," in our still-Schleiermacherian theological curricula, has always been a bit of a stepchild in the seminary--an appendix to the "serious" work of systematic theology and biblical studies, the place in the curriculum for a few tips and tricks about how to conduct a funeral or do hospital visits, the "touchy-feely" enclave down the hall.

Fortunately, this is changing. Indeed, I think "practical theology" is poised to become one of the most interesting and important fields in theology, precisely because the old divisions of labor are eroding. We are rightly beginning to realize (a) that all theology should be "practical" and that "systematic" theology is often a project well lost; and (b) that practical theology has its own rigor which is now beginning to flourish. In a similar way, liturgical theology is no longer just the baroque ornamentation of theology; instead, we are beginning to understand how and why it should be the center of the curriculum. There have been enough developments in this direction that we're already beginning to see backlash and critique, which I take to be a good sign.

One of the most interesting developments in practical theology over the last several years has been an emerging conversation between theology and ethnography--taking the engagement between theology and social science in new directions, with more finely tuned nuances. I think this is a necessary engagement particularly for those who would make a certain ecclesiology central to both the theological task and Christian formation. We simply can't shrink from the fact that, as theologians, we are also making empirical claims about the shape of communities and the effects of practices. That means we're also, in some sense, accountable for those claims--otherwise critics can justly charge us with a kind of idealism and abstraction of which we are sometimes guilty.

I was pressed in this direction by the work of Christian Scharen, first in his book, Public Worship and Public Work--a helpful critique of roughly "Hauerwasian" tendencies to make ecclesiological claims about formation without being accountable to whether those really show up on the ground. His suggestions for a necessary engagement between ecclesiology and ethnography also shows up in an important (appreciative) critique of Milbank, "'Judicious Narratives,' or Ecclesiology as Ethnography," (pdf) published a few years back in the Scottish Journal of Theology. This article is an excellent crystallization of the issues and the parameters of debate. One can also see this intersection of ecclesiology and ethnography in Mary McClintock Fulkerson's book, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church.

I don't mean to suggest that we should just baptize ethnography; nor would I claim that this dialogue between ecclesiology and ethnography is without problems. It can still easily head in the direction of a kind of "Chicago school" (e.g., Don Browning) social-science-foundationalism. But it need not do so. Instead, I see it as a promising trajectory for research.

So I was glad to see that Practical Matters, the online journal in practical theology at Emory, has devoted an entire issue to "Ethnography & Theology"--a great way for newcomers to wade into this growing conversation.