... 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.

Templeton prize awarded to Jean Vanier: From Politics to Love, L'Arche and belonging

Lieve Orye

We live in a society that makes work of joining up while forgetting the work in joining with.

Sansoublierlesourire

In March, good news spread around the different l’Arche communities in the world. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize.  It will be formally presented to him at a public ceremony at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on Monday, May 18. L’Arche communities are important for showing concretely “the central role of vulnerable people in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society”, as the Templeton Foundation website phrases it. Quite often one can find the l’Arche community mentioned in discussions of theological ethics and in theology and disability discussions. Michael Banner, for instance, in Ethics of Everday Life (2014) mentions these communities as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ and notes that ethnography of such a community would help us understand the possibilities of a countercultural form of non-biogenetic kinship (58). Banner also sees them as communities that embody a regard for the suffering other. The one who suffers is not to be a passive recipient of care but is recognized as an active giver whose gifts one must learn to receive (102-3). Here as well Banner insists that it would be necessary to subject L’Arche to the critical ethnographic gaze, to study carefully and closely how it provides a new social topography, a counterpractice to ambivalent humanitarianism (104).  Some key issues are given here: countercultural ‘alternative kinning’ and a plea for ethnography, or rather, a plea for ‘learning from and thinking with’ the concrete l’Arche communities.

Alternative kinning: beyond rights, towards love

‘Alternative kinning’ seems to me a topic high on the agenda in theology and disability and even in theology and ethnography discussions, though it is not often put in these terms. In a previous blogpost Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s reflections on disability and inclusion and/or pluralism were briefly discussed. She as well emphasizes the importance of studying how these take shape in practice and, based on her own participant observation in a multiracial church that also welcomes people from group homes, she sees how practices of inclusion and pluralism still leave the other easily marginalized. She suggests the addition of a new category: “’receiving from the other’ as a crucial element of  real (ecclesial) welcome”. John Swinton (2012), who nominated Jean Vanier for the Templeton prize, says something very similar when he makes a plea to exchange the language of inclusion for that of belonging, or maybe better, to embed the first in the second. “To belong”, he notes, “you need to be missed”(183). The language of disability categorizes and allows the categorizer to stay with and hide safely behind that language and its distancing position; the language of disability and inclusion describes thinly allowing the describer to keep control of the relationship and avoid the call that can be heard as well as the weight of responsibility that can be felt in the thickness of reality. Such language only gives thin terms that lead only to thin inclusion. The step forward, for Swinton, lies again in ethnography, more particularly in Clifford Geertz’s often mentioned distinction between thin and thick description. Where thin description gives only the bare bones of a phenomenon, thick description strives to see the whole of a thing (180). Thin descriptions allow the describer and the reader to keep reality sanitized, removing the real call, the real involvement, the real guilt, but also the real gift, the real encounter. Swinton’s call for a thick description expresses the wish to really see and to belong with the other, realizing that one’s own belonging cannot be full belonging if others are merely included.

Let me thicken this with two pieces of anthropological material to show how the issue of thin and thick description relates to the issue of inclusion versus belonging.

Clifford Geertz’ Thick description and participant observation

At the start of his Balinese fieldwork Clifford Geertz found himself and his wife ignored by the villagers who seemed to be looking through them as if they were not there. He tells in his writings how they felt “as ephemeral and insubstantial as a cloud or a gust of wind” (Lee & Ingold 2006:67). But when, during a police raid on a cockfight they had come to watch, they turned and ran with the rest of the crowd, the situation changed abruptly. Rather than remaining privileged anthropological visitors who simply could have identified themselves to the police, they had accompanied the villagers in their flight. Afterwards, their fieldwork opened out successfully, Geertz noted. Jo Lee and Tim Ingold see this as follows: “With the run, it seems, the anthropologists suddenly came down to earth, were able to make their bodily presence felt, and could thenceforth participate with the villagers in the ebb and flow of everyday life” (idem). Running with the villagers meant that Geertz’s movements and those of the people he was with were grounded in shared circumstances. Walking with them allowed him to get to know them and learn from them.

Or to put it another way, we cannot simply walk into other people’s worlds, and expect thereby to participate with them. To participate is not to walk into but to walk with – where ‘with’ implies not a face-to-face confrontation, but heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind (Idem).

Such participation as joining with is what makes the vast difference between thick and thin description, not the detailedness, nor the articulatedness of it. That such thick description is a challenge becomes clear when in going back home, the ethnographer often soon forgets in his writing up and in his theorizing the walking with and being together or reduces this to a mere means that allowed for the construction of ‘knowledge about the other’.

Alternative kinning as belonging, as joining with

Such forgetting or reduction also lies behind the language of inclusion. I would say with Ingold, - who in The Life of Lines (2015) discusses the vast difference between seeing the world and being human in terms of an assembled, joined up collection of blobs and seeing the world and human becoming primarily in terms of ongoing lines that join and correspond and carry on – that the language of inclusion involves a joining up of people, attempts an assembling of people and things in terms of their interests and needs, whereas the language of belonging involves a recognition that people join together, walk with each other, receive each other as gift. With Swinton and Ingold, we can say that when lives are joined, not joined up, one will be missed. For Vanier, it is the power of loving one another and the sharing of gifts that overcome difference and exclusion. Swinton adds that you belong when your gifts are longed for and that “such longing is not discovered through politics or argument, but only through the gesticulations of God’s love towards human beings as they are embodied within the lives of those who have come to know and love God and who long for the love of God to become the pivot point for the redemption of the world” (183-184).

To understand properly what L’Arche as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ is about, we first have to learn to see the world, human becoming and participant observation not in terms of joining up, intersubjectivity, interaction and inclusion but in terms of joining with, or as Ingold calls it, ‘corresponding’. Within this ongoing world, through participant observation, we might then learn from and with L’Arche communities how in their Christian going on God is present. For Swinton, there is a difference between a thin, self-centered love and a spiritual love that signals the Kingdom through small gestures – gestures, I would say, that again and again invite and take up the invitation to join lives, for the duration of a moment, for the duration of a joint activity, with the promise to be willing to see what comes next in growing together. As Christians, we are called to look away from ourselves and to look to Jesus to find ourselves. For Swinton, such a way of looking at one another through Jesus offers us a thick description of what it means to sit with the marginalized, to befriend the stranger, to offer hospitality to those radically different from one’s self. These words tell us of a thick reality in which the principle of joining up, the principle of likeness, is exchanged for the principle of joining in grace.

 

Banner, M. (2014) Ethics of Everyday Life. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ingold, T. (2015) The Life of Lines. Routledge: London.

Lee, J. and Ingold, T. (2006) “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing,” in Locating the Field. Coleman, S. and Collins, P. (eds.), Berg: Oxford, pp. 67-86.

Swinton, J. (2012) “From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 16(2), 172-190.

The photograph was taken in Montreal, 2009. Sans Oublier le Sourire is a French Canadian organization that promotes participation and belonging for its members.