Ethnography and theology: a special issue, a Call for Papers

by Lieve Orye.    

See CfP, special issue of 'Religions' on 'theology and ethnography' below.

See CfP, special issue of 'Religions' on 'theology and ethnography' below.

'Ethnography and theology': an issue of hospitality and correspondence

Within theology a lot of reflection is happening right now on how to make it relevant to 'the people in the pews', to ongoing concrete realities, especially those of woundedness and suffering. The 'how' of theology is under discussion and its speculative and abstract nature is being questioned. Ethnography is a keyword in these discussions that often, though not always, draws the attention to the discipline of anthropology. But ethnography is not simply a method to be borrowed or to be imported as a black box, a finished product from a neighboring discipline. It is one of the most discussed issues within anthropology and signs are getting stronger and stronger that theologians take up these debates, giving their own particular input and wielding their own particular tools.

One's relation to the other, or the more particular case of one's relation as researcher to the other as the subject of research appears in these discussions as a prime site where theologians and anthropologists can discuss being human in relationship in a self-engaged manner. Theologically, 'hospitality' is one concept put forward to reflect upon this relationship. Chris Scharen has emphasized the importance of the researcher's deep hospitality towards the other, the importance of attentiveness and of hearing the other into presence. More recently, at the annual Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference in Durham, Todd Whitmore asked his audience to start paying attention to the hospitality given by the research subjects, for research isn't possible without their willingness to open up. We as researchers are the stranger. We come from another place to figure them out in their place but easily forget or remain blind for the fact that they are trying to figure us out as well. As Whitmore said, 'their practice of hospitality places us in their debt'.

Of course, it is not an either/or matter. If a relationship succeeds work has been done on both sides and hospitality is a good concept to think with both about oneself as researcher and about the other as the one one learns from. To consider oneself as the stranger on another's turf and to recognize the work done by them in the relationship allows one, as Whitmore emphasized, to participate humbly, with patience, sitting with people, going beyond relations of control, learning to see, in theological terms, what God is doing, what the other is doing, and join in. Maybe being hospitable is, to put it in anthropologist Tim Ingold's terms, being squishy rather than hard.

Let us compare a hard object - say a ball - with a squishy one. The first, when it comes up against other things in the world, can have an impact. It can hit them, or even break them. In the hard sciences, every hit is a datum; if you accumulate enough data, you may achieve a breakthrough. The surface of the world has yielded under the impact of your incessant blows, and having done so, yields up some of its secrets. The squishy ball, by contrast, bends and deforms when it encounters other things, taking into itself some of their characteristics while they, in turn, bend to its pressure in accordance with their own inclinations and dispositions. The ball responds to things as they respond to it. Or in a word, it enters with things into a relation of correspondence. In their practices of participant observation - of joining with the people among whom they work and learning from them - anthropologists become correspondents. They take into themselves something of their hosts' way of moving, feeling and thinking, their practical skills and modes of attention. So too, my father corresponded with the fungi as he drew their forms under the microscope. His hand, along with the pen it held, was drawn into their formative processes, and as he drew the forms re-emerged on the surface of the board. Correspondence, whether with people or with other things, is a labour of love, of giving back what we owe to the human and non-human beings with which and with whom we share our world, for our own existence and formation.[1]


'Ethnography and theology': a special issue and a call for papers

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444) will be dedicated to this topic of ethnography and theology. Its deadline for manuscript submissions is 31 March 2017. Its Guest editor is Dr. Todd D. Whitmore, theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

Dear Colleagues,
The disciplines of anthropology and theology have long been at loggerheads. The clash between anthropologists and Christian missionaries in the field, long-held assumptions in the discipline of anthropology in investigating the cultures of religious others, theology’s reactive stance towards perceived encroachment in its domain of the human, and institutionally-structured disciplinary defensiveness have all played a role in this impasse. In the past decade or so, there have been openings on both sides of the divide. To date, most of the conversations have been between specifically Christian theology and anthropology. The aim of the present Special Issue of Religions is to build on those conversations and to extend them to the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Judaism as well with these and other questions: What can ethnography—a grounded method of investigation—contribute to theology, which, in the academic setting, is primarily speculative and abstract? Can, in turn, theological interpretations and understandings of particular events and cosmology broaden the hermeneutical repertoire of the discipline of anthropology? Should there be experiments in moving even further than disciplinary rapprochement and interdisciplinary borrowing (as difficult as these are) to genres that mix the disciplines? If so, what might an anthropological theology or a theological ethnography look like? And what are the liabilities of such mixed genres?
Dr. Todd D. Whitmore
Guest Editor

More information about this call for papers can be found at the 'Religions' webpage.


[1] Ingold, Tim (2016), 'From Science to Art and Back Again: The Pendulum of an Anthropologist', Anuac. 5(1), 5-23.

... to Ecclesiology and Ethnography: Durham, 2015

Lieve Orye

Under Saint Martha's gentle gaze

St. Martha  by Gianbettino Cignaroli (1706-1770)

St. Martha by Gianbettino Cignaroli (1706-1770)

My hope, expressed in the previous blog, to experience that what draws theologians to ethnography is precisely the same drive of reconnecting with the people in the pews and with the world in an ‘off the grid’ kind of way proved justified. The Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference was a vibrant gathering of about 55 scholars, all with an interest in exploring the possibility to enrich ecclesiology and theology through ethnography. As with the ‘Beyond Perception’ conference, this one as well was in many ways ‘off the grid’, giving participants the experience that the quality of a conference does not depend on the availability of name tags and paper versions of the program but on those who participate both within the official time slots as in the times between.

The venue this time was St. John’s College, in the vicinity of Durham Cathedral. It is itself a building that tells of different times and ‘on the spot’ adaptations to new times, not a building erected on an empty surface with conference purposes in mind. Rather, one could feel that the place had grown over time into what it is now. The non-linear lines and odd shapes of corridors, as well as the pictures of people on the wall made the hallway wanderer wonder about times gone by, yet still somehow present in the place. The experience in each of the session rooms was different as well. One room was rather big, full of light coming in, with a youthful modern feel; clearly a recent addition for which some of the garden must have been sacrificed. Another room, long and dark, teased those in it to suspect the disappearance of a wall and moved them to ‘make the space work somehow’ and to attempt through a reconfiguration of two long lines of tables and chairs to reweave the space into a texture more suitable for conversation and discussion. The third one had a yet totally different feel, as if one was being transported in time into the living room of a wealthy family of a century or so ago, with luxurious long curtains and a chandelier whose central sphere silently reflected all that was going on. A picture on the wall behind the speaker intrigued me, sometimes to the extent of taking my attention away of what was being said. A label underneath informed me that it was Saint Martha painted by Giambettino Cignaroli in the 18th century and a brief internet search afterwards clarified that it was Saint Martha of Antioch, a virgin martyr of the fourth century who miraculously tamed a dragon with an aspergillum or holy water sprinkler. According to the Golden Legend, it was “half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, that dwelt in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon. Holding a cross in her hand, Martha sprinkled the beast with holy water. Placing her sash around its neck, she led the tamed dragon through the village” (Wiki). In light of Ingold’s text ‘Dreaming of Dragons: On the Imagination of Real Life’ that was discussed at the ‘Sensibilities Beyond Science’ session at the previous conference, Saint Martha’s gentle overseeing of Ecclesiology and Ethnography sessions might be considered rather appropriate. As Ingold argues in that article, the rupture between imagination and reality must be healed, and my feeling is that such an aspiration informed many of the discussions within both the session rooms and hallways.  

Taking Theology & church ‘off grid’ through ethnography or rather the other way around?

Maybe Ecclesiology/Theology and Ethnography projects can be understood as an attempt to take theology ‘off the grid’, away from the cocooning spaces where the world is kept safely outside and is only let back in in shapes and forms that are domesticated; away from spaces where the body can be kept quiet as if in hibernation, protecting it from interfering noise and concerns that 'distract' so that the mind, apparently capable of existing on its own, can reflect on what it thinks to be the really real behind the real that everyone else experiences; away from places where imagination and reality have been ruptured, where theories and understandings easily remain idealist, at an hygienic distance from everyday life. Ecclesiology, the complaint is, has remained too much at a distance from concrete life in the churches and in the world outside and this distance must be bridged - theology must be ex-posed, pushed out into the world. Discussions revealed, however, that a key difficulty might be to avoid simply jumping off one grid onto another, selling theology short in the process. Luckily, qualitative research, action research, data and statistics, empirical observations and fieldwork descriptions did not silence the discussion of how ethnography can be theological.

Moreover, concerns about the future - about the future of churches but also, maybe even more about the future of our common world - lie behind these pleas and discussions. The mix of these concerns for the future, for the theological and for the world brings forth interesting reflections. The refusal to sell theology short seemed to work against taking up a distancing, objectifying relationship to the people one works with. Concern for the future, for this world furthermore directs the attention towards both signs of and possibilities for change and transformation. One argument that I think should receive further attention is being developed by Derrick Watson. He sees practical theology entangled in a distortion, even an elision of poiesis through a specific understanding of and emphasis on praxis. To me, Watson’s understanding of poiesis seems to imply a rather ‘off the grid’ being in the world that seeks a ‘changing of the world’ through tactile attentiveness to what is locally ‘to hand’, collaborating with the materials and beings of the world. Change here occurs within life as an ongoing, forward going process in which imagination and reality are continuously interwoven and the future is grown rather than made. The understanding of praxis he critiques, on the other hand, seems rather more an ‘on the grid’ understanding where the future seems a matter of shaping people through the repetition of practices with some internal telos, while reality, in Watson's example the garden, is cleaned out to leave only the residue of ‘spiritual life’, as it is found in the statements of people about their gardening. The concrete ongoing processes of mutual responsiveness within an ongoing world have fallen through the cracks again, imagination and reality torn apart again.

At the conference concerns about both the immunization against change as well as the too quick ‘catering kind of change’ in churches could be heard. Maybe, though, we should start to think about how to get churches, the people in the pews, more ‘off the grid’ as well, or as William Greenwood noted in his talk, about ‘how to open them and us up through companionship to opportunities’. This might involve a rethinking of praxis such that poeisis can flourish again. It might mean to help churches and Christians develop a non-negligent relation to ‘what is to hand’, learning through the Gospel and liturgy, to see, to wait and to respond to the call that can be heard in the ‘here and now ’ gathering of people, other beings and materials. My feeling is that this might first of all necessitate thinking through theology’s own being too much ‘on the grid’ participating in the rupture of imagination and reality. Maybe this might be our beast to tame. Under the gentle gaze of Saint Martha participants in the Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference were clearly wrestling with it.

From anthropology and theology... : "Beyond Perception", Aberdeen 2015

Lieve Orye

sensibilities beyond science and Growing the future

I’m in between two conferences, one last week in Aberdeen in Anthropology, the next one next week in Durham organized by the Ecclesiology and Ethnography network. And ‘ethnography’ is the common denominator, or the bridging word that allows for conversations between anthropology and theology to pick up a notch.

There was a vibrant atmosphere last week at the Scottish Rural College in Aberdeen. Feeling as if walking into a big farm, participants found behind some huge blue doors an old lecture hall hidden, with seats of cast iron and red velvet cushioning telling of former glory. In front a sturdy wooden table and chairs, backed on one side by an old piano, on the other side a small tractor. Coffee and tea breaks were next door (through a yellow door as huge as the entrance door) in a smaller hall in between instruments and ploughs. Not the very well provided fancy conference hall that creates an atmosphere of expertise and importance, that makes you feel that proper suit and dress are required. Not the hall sealed off properly from the outside world as if to keep it from disturbing the important, weighty sharing around of the latest data and theories. Instead, it was an agricultural place a bit outside the city, a place good to talk about being human and human becoming, about going beyond the culture/nature divide, about human-animal relations, about sensibilities beyond science and about growing the future.

Beyond Perception’ refers to Tim Ingold’s 2000 book The Perception of the Environment, and to the path breaking work done within the Anthropology department in the 15 years since and picked up by so many others in all corners of the world. The range of topics was breathtaking: biology, mathematics, architecture, archaeology, environmental issues, craftsmanship and practices, dance and drawing, education and theology. In one plenary session, ‘Sensibilities beyond Science’, Tim Ingold’s article ‘Dreaming of Dragons’ was picked up, a must read for theologians who reflect on the relation between theology and anthropology or on the relation between religion and science. The session indicated an opening of space for conversation between anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology of Islam, the booming anthropology of Christianity on the one hand and Islamic and Christian traditions and theology on the other hand, thus going beyond Joel Robbins’ understanding of the relation as one of awkwardness and mutual mockery and as one of competition in the attempt to be the resources for renewal and transformation in our world (Robbins 2006, 2013, see also Simon Coleman’s ‘Anthropological Apologetics’ 2010). One of the most interesting ideas in Ingold's text is the exchange of the religion versus science debate as grounded in a disconnection of knowing and being with the question "whether our ways of knowing and imagining are enshrined within an existential commitment to the world in which we find ourselves" or not, thus opposing religion, as recognizing these commitments as well as the relation between knowing and being, to negligence, an attitude of using or owning the world without properly listening to it and without recognizing one's owings, one's debts (Ingold 2013:746).

There was a kind of urgency in the air, as well as a feeling of experimenting, of the incipient, even though the event celebrated the past 15 years of anthropology in Aberdeen. A concern that surfaced again and again was the need for anthropology to engage and find ways to have its voice heard in the important discussions of our times, in the conversations about our world’s future. It is these same concerns, or at least strong overlapping concerns, that I feel are present as well in the ‘theology and ethnography’ discussions. In both fields work can be found that, inspired by the form of otherness that nourishes the discipline, is quite critical of the current lopsided ways in which being human and human becoming are often framed and of the just as lopsided ways in which knowledge, learning and research and their relation to the world's future are understood both by university and government.  

On the grid/off the grid

One paper, interesting for everyone to think with, was a paper on the difference between living ‘on the grid’ or ‘off the grid’ in Canada. That is, the difference between having electricity and water supplied by the grid on the one hand and on the other hand having to figure out with the materials at hand and in direct relation to one’s surroundings and the weather how to provide energy and water, while weaving one’s own goals and desires in constant direct relation to what could be made available. In a way, this ‘on the grid’/ ‘off the grid’ mapped out on, on the one hand, having a conference downtown in a fully equipped conference room that keeps the outside from barging in, and on the other hand, the option taken by the ‘Beyond Perception’ team that worked hard to bring about an ecology-minded dynamic conference in a venue that was, though of course not completely, kind of ‘off the grid’ conference-wise. The outside, the wind, the cold weather was never completely shut out. Rather than having all the necessities standard provided in an uncluttered space, keeping things predictable and efficient as well as all the efforts and materials to make things happen rather hidden, unnoticed, the team had to work hard with what was available, making the best of the opportunity. The presenter of this keynote paper, Phillip Vannini, made the distinction between ‘on the grid’ as the occupation of places that allow to ignore the outside as we do living in our warm houses supplied by electricity and water, and to ignore where energy comes from, counting on their constant availability – a relation of negligence to the outside, one could say – and ‘off the grid’ ‘opportunism’, referring to the etymological meaning of ‘ob-portus’, from the Latin Ob-, meaning 'towards,' and portu(m), meaning 'port,' where sailors had to wait for the right conditions to sail into.

This distinction is useful to think with in many contexts (and I wonder what it would teach us for instance in the current situation of receiving refugees in Europe), especially because we, academicians, anthropologists as well as theologians, but also as citizens, find ourselves in relation to a lot of things ‘on the grid’, attached to networks of circulation that make certain things constantly available and certain demands and expectations rather unquestioned, turning us blind to the outside, missing out opportunities to expose ourselves to the world that speaks in its own time. As disciplines nourished by an otherness, theologians and anthropologists but also educationalists who recognize the child's otherness and all kinds of other scientists who have discovered the world is to be listened to on her terms the 'on the grid' requirements often feel like a straight jacket. I wonder if the distinction maps on the distinction between the university as institution and the university as movement that educational philosophers Jan Masschelein and Simon Maarten make (2013). Whereas there is a rich university history as “the history of the victors, of those who manage to tame the disruptive or suspending movement of public thinking… [t]he history of the university as movement is yet to be told”(2013:108). I see the ‘Beyond Perception’ conference at the Scottish Rural College as part of that history of the university as movement. It was a group of people, not gathered around a production aim or under some defined rule, but around some “things”, that, to say it with Ingold’s words, were faced not with the back already turned to it because of goals and attention elsewhere, but listened to, through the work of all these anthropologists and other scientists present there, becoming attentive to them in order to grow a better future (see Ingold & Hallam 2014). This was done, in the shadows of Aberdeen University’s institutional and managerial thinking ‘on the grid’ deciding that according to some numbers and ratios provided by the grid the department of anthropology was a third too big. Theology knows how this feels, and I hope to experience next week that what draws theologians to ethnography is precisely this same drive of reconnecting with the world, and with the people in the pews, in an ‘off the grid’ way. A blog post on the Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference is planned, have a read in about 10 days.

Coleman, S. (2010), 'An Anthropological Apologetics,' South Atlantic Quarterly, 109(4), 791-810.

Ingold, T. (2000), The Perception of the Environment. Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London & New York: Routledge.

Ingold, T. (2013), ‘Dreaming of Dragons: on the Imagination of Real Life,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19, 734-752.

Ingold, T. & Hallam, E. (2014), ‘Making and Growing: An Introduction,’ in Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts. Burlington: Ashgate.

Masschelein, J. & Simons, M. (2013), 'The Politics of the University: Movements of (de-)Identification and the Invention of Public Pedagogic Forms,' Education and the Political, 107-119.

Robbins, J. (2006), 'Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?' Anthropological Quarterly, 79(2), 285-294.

Robbins, J. (2013), 'Afterword: Let's Keep it Awkward: Anthropology, Theology, and Otherness,' The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 24(3), 329-337.

SST Conference Nottingham 2015: Church, Otherness and Interruption

By Lieve Orye


“Thinking the Church Today” was the central theme of the Society for the Study of Theology conference at the University of Nottingham last week. During three buzzing days theologians from all over the UK, but also from Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium discussed what Church is or should be today, how it should be reflected upon, and how it could be understood as both continuity and discontinuity.

Church, dialogue and interruption

Lieven Boeve, founding member of the Anthropos research group, and first speaker at the conference, set the tone with his paper ‘Interrupting Scripture, Interrupting Church’. His was a rich paper in which the historical-dynamic, dialogical concept of Revelation as developed at Vatican II was taken forward encouraging theologians to continue the Vatican II practice of rereading doctrinal texts in view of perspectives developed in the context of the day. A key point was that in continuing this dialogue on how to understand Revelation today even its dialogical nature had to be thought differently. The suggestion was to reconceive it from the perspective of otherness and difference which brings more into focus the asymmetries in dialogue. The human person cannot be understood as first a being in itself that in a second step decides to relate and engage with the other. Rather, Boeve noted, we find ourselves always already in relationship, addressed by the other and being asked to answer. He noted that the previous strategy of dialogue as ‘mutual and critical correlation’ between faith and modernity that was based on the presupposition of continuity no longer functioned when such overlap eroded. In response, strategies of discontinuity had been advocated by theologians, some of who questioned even the very desirability of dialogue. As a third alternative Boeve proposed to reemphasize the necessity of dialogue but to reconsider its nature through the notion of ‘interruption’, a notion that involves both continuity and discontinuity. What is interrupted continues but continues differently. It involves the intrusion of an otherness that halts the narrative, draws attention to its narrative character and forces it to open up towards the other. Both Revelation and Church can interrupt. But also, both self-securing concepts of Revelation and Church can be interrupted.


Church and persons with disabilities: Receiving (from) the other

Both 'interruption' as well as 'otherness' were words that found a frequent echo during both formal and informal conversations at the conference. Let me mention one that provoked ample discussion within my reach of hearing. The third plenary paper by Mary McClintock-Fulkerson in many ways took up this question of Church and otherness, interrupting the rather abstract reflections in terms of exclusion, inclusion and pluralism using her ‘thick’ ethnographic description of welcoming people from group homes in UMC Good Samaritan. Visiting this church, meeting these people ‘with disabilities’ for the first time, she found herself, one could say, 'interrupted', questioned in her own openness toward the other. This interruption, and her fieldwork, helped her to see ‘inclusion’ and ‘pluralism’ as concretely given shape: inclusion took the shape of people from group homes being welcome in the Sunday service but on the condition of being as much as possible ‘like us’ – wandering around and making noises were seen to be disruptive and were discouraged. Pluralism took the shape of a special service, each Thursday evening, where people of the group homes could ‘be themselves’. McClintock Fulkerson argued to continue theological reflection on welcoming the stranger differently: Inclusion nor pluralism are in themselves good concepts to think with if we wish to honor all creatures, people from group homes included. That is, inclusion, welcoming the stranger, is important but how to go beyond a welcome that is conditioned by the standards of ‘the normate population’? Pluralism on the other hand does not set such standards and takes the needs of different groups seriously. But, by providing different services according to the needs of particular groups these are not really challenged to change. It remains easy to consider the ‘special needs service’ as ‘not really worship’. The interruption is neutralized. Allowing herself and theology to be interrupted, McClintock Fulkerson suggested adding a new category: “'receiving from the other’ may well be a crucial element of real (ecclesial) welcome”. She told us that she finds her theological categories questioned and challenged: how do you theologically take seriously people who will never be able to understand Christology or the Trinity, who will never have ‘the correct beliefs’, who even seem to communicate very differently and for whom “church” seems to “work” very differently? How do you honor the Imago Dei of people with disabilities? A first new way toward creativity in our practice of welcome, she noted, is humility. This means acknowledging that there is grace that the church does not control or even know. Second, we need new categories informed by disability studies that help us recognize that ‘disruptive’ behaviors are in fact a different form of communication, and from sociology, to help us understand ourselves as habituated into specific bodily proprieties and sensitivities. Thirdly, we need to look for a theological genre that is not simply doctrine but that nevertheless can result in a different critical theological lens to “discern how or if a faith practice has a discernible normative effect”, even when that faith practice is very different from what we are used to.

Structural problems, no structural solution?

The SST conference itself was in fact an effort in ‘receiving the other’, in being more welcoming to women. A women’s reception to start up the whole event, an extra tag to sessions that addressed issues of gender and diversity and a panel discussion “Gender, sex and systematic theology: present realities, future aspirations” were the major means to do so. In the panel session gender equality or the lack of it, the structural reasons for inequalities as well as personal experiences were discussed by a diverse group of scholars such as Margaret Adam (St Stephen’s House, Oxford), Jenny Daggers (Liverpool Hope University), Mary McClintock Fulkerson (Duke Divinity School), Karen Kilby (Durham University) who had been voted vice-president of the Society in the annual general meeting the day before, Katja Stuerzenhofecker (Universities of Manchester and Chester) and the President of the Society, David Brown. As in several other sessions I went to a major problem in all these matters seems to be that the effort to bring the issues, the differences, the problems to the surface, the development of categories, data and comparisons, also immediately seems to set the scene for making these issues unsolvable. I think Claire Hein Blanton, a young PhD student from Aberdeen, said it well in a conversation over dinner later on: “it is a structural problem that might not have a structural solution”. For me, this becomes very clear when the situation of people ‘with disabilities’ is addressed. It is not enough to devise new categories that would allow in theory to recognize their ways of experiencing the divine. As McClintock Fulkerson would quickly note, our bodily proprieties of fear and uneasiness are not that easily overcome. This can only be done by what is hardly ever addressed in these discussions, the need to take time and to be with each other, doing ‘work’ and acknowledging the ‘work’ done by the other to engage, to attune, to give and to receive. Rather than new theological categories that make 'theoretical' room for the other, we need theological language that redirects our attention to such concretely 'receiving the other'.

Christian ethics/design of everyday life?

By Lieve Orye

Theology and anthropology ‘by means of design’

What happens when in between theological books, one of which is Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008), a chapter on design anthropology is read, especially a chapter in which anthropology of design is exchanged for an anthropology ‘by means of design’?

Lieve on Christian design.jpg

Anthropologists Tim Ingold and Caroline Gatt rethink the relation between design and anthropology and in the process rethink both. Interestingly, they attempt to clarify the move they make from ‘of’ to ‘by means of’, by drawing a parallel with anthropology's relation to theology. They see the closest equivalent of what they are trying to do in a 2006 article by Joel Robbins in which he sees three kinds of anthropological engagement with theology: (1) anthropology exposing and critiquing theological roots of anthropological concepts; (2) anthropology using theologies and theologians as data and informants for ethnographic analysis and (3), the promising one, the closest equivalent for Ingold and Gatt, an approach in which anthropology opens itself up to theology as a potent source of inspiration for its own projects, “acknowledging that we have much to learn from the faith, commitment, and wisdom that give hope and commitment to others’ lives” (Robbins 2006:285 in Ingold & Gatt 2013:141). Ingold and Gatt’s ‘anthropology by means of design’ is then not aiming for (1) a critical design anthropology that looks for cultural imaginaries and micropolitics behind the science and practice of design, nor (2) for an anthropology that places activities of designers in their social and cultural context but is (3) an anthropology opening up to design as a potent source of inspiration for its own projects. Cross-pollination, though, would mean that those interested in doing theology in conversation with anthropology, as Michael Banner is recently suggesting for moral theology in his book The Ethics of Everyday Life (2014), could engage in drawing parallels the other way around: is there relevance in Ingold’s and Gatt’s reflections on ‘anthropology by means of design’ for how or what we do in theology, especially when it is a theology that wants to reconnect to everyday life? A full discussion would take at least an article, could easily fill a book, but let me give just a few hints of what might be possible.

Design conundrums: keeping life going

Design, Ingold and Gatt write, "is about shaping the future of the world we live in" (Ingold & Gatt 2013:144). But they point out that curiously design seems predicated upon the failure of our predecessors and upon an understanding of our successors as mere users who simply implement the designs already made. Our predecessors did not succeed in shaping a future for us whereas if we succeed to do so, the next generations can only implement. "Designs, it seems, must fail, if every generation is to be afforded the opportunity to look forward to a future that it can call its own" (Idem). Ingold and Gatt suggest, rather than to think design in terms of ends and final answers, to think it in terms of what keeps life going. That is, to stop thinking in terms of forms as specific results while paying attention to 'form-giving'. In other words, they plead for a shift from predictability and foreclosure to a life process that is open-ended and improvisatory.

We want to argue that design, far from being the exclusive preserve of a class of professional experts tasked with the production of futures for the rest of us to consume, is an aspect of everything we do, insofar as our actions are guided by hopes, dreams, and promises. That is to say, rather than setting the parameters for our habitation of the earth, design is part and parcel of the very process of dwelling (Ingold 2000). And it is, by the same token, about the ongoing creation of the kinds of environments in which dwelling can occur (Ingold and Gatt 2013: 144-145).

Key is that whereas an anthropology 'of' design, or 'of' any other human activity, turns the activity into an object of analysis and looks back over times past, Ingold and Gatt instead set out "to restore design to the heart of anthropology's disciplinary practice" and to move forward with people in tandem with their dreams and desires (Ingold & Gatt 2013:140). Such a shift also results in a very different understanding of what it means to be human. But even more, could a shift towards an open-ended forward-looking concept of design that refocuses attention on ongoing everyday life not be of interest in the search for an open-ended concept of ethics?

Christian dreams and hopes as open-ended Design?

Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008) is currently lying on my desk. Hers, I reckon, is a search for a theological ethics that saves itself (and us) from the design/future conundrum to allow again room to think ‘care for future generations’ without tying the future completely to the present and past nor, cutting it lose completely. Furthermore, she writes, “[i]t is not a question of applying existing ethical principles to future generations, but of existing ethically in a way that allows the future to happen” (Muers 2014:41). With Ingold and Gatt, I dare to suggest that to live Christianly is to design Christianly, is “to design things in a world that is perpetually under construction by way of the activities of its inhabitants, who are tasked above all with keeping life going rather than with bringing to completion projects already specified at the outset”(Ingold and Gatt 2013:145). Such Christian design might then be understood as improvisation in which Christian dreams and hopes and Christian imagination of the human give specific direction, specific sign-posts involving a seeing into the future, seeing a new world in becoming. We have a song in Flanders in which Christians ask God to teach them his future. This is not a request for a plan or a project to be implemented. Rather it seems to me to be a plea to redirect our attention from plans and designs that promise security, predictability and control to the signs in our ongoing participation in the world and the lives of others that point to the coming into being of the New Kingdom.

Let’s wrap this up in a more general way: I would say, fruitful conversation between theology and anthropology requires for both a focus on concrete ongoing life and attention to ‘keeping life open’ both in thought and practice.


Banner, Michael (2014) The Ethics of Everyday Life. Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ingold, Tim and Caroline Gatt (2013) ‘From description to correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’ in Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Wendy Dunn, Ton Otto, Rachel Smith.(eds.), London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp 139-158.

Muers, Rachel (2008) Living for the Future. Theological Ethics for Coming Generations, London: T&T Clark.