Living together with difference through keeping the future open

By Lieve Orye

As the previous post indicated, the Anthropos research group had the pleasure of having Prof. Schnitter from the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Prof. Adam Seligman from Boston University with us for a few days. Both are involved in CEDAR, Communities Engaging With Difference And Religion. Within CEDAR people from very different backgrounds and communities are brought together during two intensive weeks to learn to ‘live together with difference’. Two elements are crucial in its philosophy and pedagogy: first, differences are important and not to be denied, privatized or aestheticized. Second, to open up a future wherein living with difference becomes not only possible but mutually enriching, the importance of ritual and of creating concrete shared experiences is emphasized. Ritual is seen as a place where people commit to each other, to the world, and to the future in ways that circumvent the need for consensus. The demand for sincerity and sharing a set of meanings and beliefs is seen to be counter-productive. In other words, to live together with difference does not consist in finding ‘common ground’ on an abstract level, in some shared fundamental theory or worldview, but ‘on the ground’, in our daily bodily going on with each other.

Here, paying attention again to Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008), I first want to suggest that more is needed than de-emphasizing beliefs and emphasizing ritual. The question rather is whether beliefs and practices hinder or nurture ‘living together with difference’. Muers shows how this depends on how we bring ‘the future’, and especially the question of how we ‘live for the future’ into the picture of daily bodily going on. Second, I nevertheless support wholeheartedly the shift in attention from shared worldview to our daily bodily going on with each other that Seligman advocates. But here as well, ‘living for the future’ demands a particular way of tending to our social fabric, to the radically ordinary.

Community, difference and future

How are communities, difference and the future interrelated?

“Responsibility to future generations involves forms of self-definition that do not rely on setting one’s own group over against those ‘outside’… If the future of the community itself is treated as a gift, rather than as a product or as threatening ‘fate’, we would expect this to be reflected in the capacity to deal with difference in the present, neither by bringing it under control nor by externalizing it as a threat” (Muers 2008:79-80, 88).

I think a crucial point is made here: our thinking about and living with difference is strongly related to how we think about and live for the future and how the past is allowed to give life to our present and future – or to suffocate the life of that present and future. Both Seligman and Muers, each in their distinctive way, make clear that both to live ‘for the future’ and ‘with difference’ have to do with our daily tending to the social fabric in which we live. Furthermore, it involves a tending to the radically ordinary precisely not in the shape of securing in advance one’s relations to the other while simultaneously trying to control the future. For Christians this means, as Muers points out, that as a community we are to live a kind of life whose future does not depend on its capacity to secure its own duration. To ‘treat our own continued existence, at the expense of others or of the wider environment, as a paramount good’ is misdirected Molech worship that nourishes unsustainable forms of sociality and deathly patterns of existence. Any attempt to frantically construct a road map for the future to be followed by all in order to gain control over it, involves precisely a way of tending to the present that gives rise to suffocating ways of being and suffocating environments. 

Tending the radically ordinary

“Choose life… so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30.19). The quality of the present is important for the future, but in a non-instrumental way. One way to concretize this is by emphasizing intransitive verbs: In commenting on Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Muers writes

[W]hat brings people together appears to be their participation in a non-instrumental work – a work that takes time, an ongoing labour and toil. …[T]his work has no obviously specifiable purpose external to itself; although it points towards a future (hope in our Lord Jesus Christ) it does not bring that future about. It is simply love’s labour, both labour on the basis of love and labour that makes love real… the relationship to future generations is worked out through time, rather than being given in advance... it is to exist ethically in a way that allows the future to happen” (Muers 2008:40-41).

To greet the other, to share meals, to labour and toil together is “to live out of a future that is given rather than seized” (Muers 2008:76). Anthropologist Tim Ingold seems to confirm this when he emphasizes the importance of intransitive verbs in ‘life embracing’ relational anthropology. Intransitive verbs, such as ‘to hope,’ ‘to grow,’ ‘to dwell,’ are all verbs that express a carrying on, that express the immersion and participation of beings in the currents of the lifeworld. Key here is that such carrying on immersed in the currents of the lifeworld no longer allows for an easy opposition of world and other. Really knowing the other cannot take the shape of othering, a holding at arm’s length to get a good look to see in which category someone fits, but takes the shape of togethering, of an aligning and an attuning to them. For Christians, this involves an opening up of one’s own future to the gift of the other and allowing oneself to be God’s gift in their life.

That such opening up is not simply a mental or spiritual exercise but also wholly a bodily one becomes clear when Ingold with his colleague Jo Vergunst point out a major difference between being face-to-face with someone, which can take the shape of an interview, a doctor’s appointment or a poker game, and going on a walk together. In the first situation, you can see the other in the eye, but you can also see what happens behind the other’s back and use that to your own advantage. It is more confrontational, less companionable. A shared point of view is not so easy to come by. In the second situation, you share a common movement and horizon, you go on together. As they note,

Crucially, walking side by side means that participants share virtually the same visual field. We could say that I see what you see as we go along together. In that sense I am with you in my movements, and probably in my thoughts as well. We can talk within and around our shared vista and the other things we are doing along the line of the walk. Participants take it in turns to carry the conversation on, and when not actually speaking one is nevertheless listening, participating silently in the ongoing flow (Ingold & Lee 2006:80).

‘To walk’ is mostly used as an intransitive verb. ‘To walk together’, it seems to me, might be a good movement and a good metaphor with which to think and live ‘together with difference’. This is clearly demonstrated by Sebastien de Fooz who was present at the workshop on CEDAR and who started the Jorsala project that organizes walks-in-diversity.


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

Ingold, Tim; Lee, J. (2006) 'Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing.' in Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. Coleman, Simon & Collins, Peter (eds.), Oxford: Berg.

To those interested in this line of thought, I recommend listening to Tim Ingold's 2014 Huxley Memorial Lecture 'On Human Corresponding'.

Pictures are taken from a soda can thrown into Den burn.

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.