Presence, practice and relational anthropology: synchronized swimming and a book launch

by Lieve Orye

Le Grand Bain

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Utrecht. The night before. I went to see the movie ‘Le Grand Bain’. There I was, enjoying the movie on my own, plenty of room, surrounded by about 80 empty seats. No other soul around. A screenshot of a cinema room filled with people told me to put my phone on silence. The humour of it brought me in a good mood for the film that was announced as a feel good movie. It tells the story of an odd group of men, each with their own life story and struggles, brought and held together as a team by synchronized swimming. They are not taken seriously by anybody. Nevertheless, they find out about the European championship in male synchronized swimming and decide to participate. After undergoing a hilarious training program, and after a failed attempt to steal sets of bathing suits and bath robes, they manage to get to Sweden and, after a nerve wrecking competition, they win the championship.

Several times though, episodes are shown of the men talking, after training, in the changing room. There, they manage to be present to each other, and give each other space to open up and tell a bit more about their story, their recent troubles. One of them tells of his depression, another of his financial troubles, another of being bullied. Not all of them are able to open up, and sometimes they have to call each other to order. Nevertheless, the synchronized swimming practices and the challenges they meet along the way allow them to develop relationships in which trust and mutual support as well as the shapes and figures of their championship act become possible.

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Book launch: a practice book of presence

The next day, a new book Praktijkboek Presentie by Elly Beurskens, Marije Van Der Linde and Andries Baart was presented to a room filled to the brim with people and enthusiasm. Baart is well known for his work in care ethics and for his opus magnum Een Theorie van Presentie (2001). The theory of presence found its roots, inductively, in the work of street pastors in Utrecht. Baart is keen to emphasize that he did not invent the practice of presence. It was done and is done constantly by numerous professionals and volunteers who again and again make an effort to be there for and with the people they care for.

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The presence approach which describes and theorizes these practices is nevertheless radical, with far-reaching consequences. It breaks away from care as primarily a provision of solutions to problems. Away from care that focuses on the reformulation of what is going on in someone’s life into a rather orderly, well-defined problem, a theory-driven diagnosis and a solution in the shape of interventions that consist of the application of efficient, effective and competent procedures according to a previously determined plan. The street pastors in Utrecht worked in a very different way: they were there for others without directly focusing on problem solving. The focus was on the cultivation of caring relationships and it was only within these that content and form was given to care. Baart’s study of their practices resulted in a theoretical book, some 900 pages. Now, Praktijkboek Presentie is launched to make the theory more accessible, understandable and inviting to practitioners who wish to practice presence more reflectively.

The ‘latende modus’

As part of this book launch a mini-lecture was given on a key element in the practice and theory of presence: in Dutch, the ‘latende modus’. It refers to an non-interventionist mode of care characterised by patience, unconditional attentiveness and receptivity. It was contrasted with the dutch words ‘maken’ (or the ‘makende modus’) and ‘bemoeien’, characterised by an activism, by knowing what needs to be done on the basis of an intake, a diagnosis and a treatment plan and following that through. Not surprisingly, ‘laten’ and non-interventionism are words that easily trigger misunderstandings, especially when the far-reaching implications of the presence approach are not seen. One of Baart’s strategies to counter these misunderstandings is to explore the word’s field of meaning by drawing attention to other closely related words that indicate a much richer reality of non-interventionist being with the other. Words such as watching over someone, being witness to someone, making space for someone, accompanying someone and undergoing their situation already shatter the first impression of ‘doing nothing’.

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Baart’s reflections on the practices of presence signal much more than just an alternative to an interventionist approach. As he notes in his inaugural lecture at the NWU South-Africa in 2016, care and caring are to be seen as the most fundamental category of good, sustainable life together. Taking seriously the experiences and practices of presence by so many professionals and volunteers in their care for those who find themselves ill, marginalised and in trouble pushes one towards a fundamentally different understanding of what makes the world tick, of what it means to be human and of what it takes to live well together. It pushes away from an understanding that emphasizes intentionality, rationality and autonomy, towards a relational anthropology that emphasizes ‘being with’ and ‘knowing one another from inside the relationship’. I would say it pushes towards Tim Ingold’s relational anthropology that makes similar connections between care, presence and sustainable life together and that likewise emphasizes the primacy of attention over intention, the importance of ‘letting be’ and of knowing from within.

To care for others, we must allow them into our presence so that we, in turn, can be present to them. In an important sense, we must let them be, so that they can speak to us. However, letting be, in this sense is not easily reconciled with understanding, let alone with explanation. Understanding and explanation belong to that other mode of attention, as check-up. In this mode, we attend to things and persons so that we can account for them. Once accounted for, they can be ticked off, removed from our list, and dispatched to that repository of the ‘already known’ or ‘well understood’ the contents of which no longer demand anything of us… (Ingold 2016:20-21)

If Baart is interested in further enriching his vocabulary to speak about being human and to strenghten his diagnosis of what is wrong with approaches that emphasize objective expert knowledge, intention and intervention, Ingold’s relational anthropological work is a gold mine. (1)

Synchronized swimming

Life is not lived intentionally but first and foremost attentionally with others, writes Ingold. Though this odd group of men shared an interest in synchronized swimming and took up the plan to participate at the European championship, the movie shows them much more as a relational ‘community of attention’, - of people trying to feel their way forward in the company of one another -, than a ‘community of interest’, - a sum of individuals who purposefully, efficiently and competently work towards a goal agreed upon at the beginning. It is the growing and ongoing relationships between the men that make it possible for certain plans to arise, for a journey to be undertaken, for dreams to become accomplished.

In synchronized swimming marks are given for the intricateness and sharpness of the shapes made by the moving bodies of the team. The movie shows how these shapes, made by this odd group of men to the thrilling surprise of everyone, arise through much practice involving the training of a synchronised attention to each other in the water. But the story is much more than this. Learning to align their bodies in the water they find new space to live attentionally with and care relationally for each other and others, and flourish. As Baart notes, “attentiveness makes people flourish, it makes them do well.” And so they did!

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(1) On the relevance of Tim Ingold’s relational anthropology for theological anthropology, see the conclusion of our Louvain Studies special issue on ‘Relation, Vulnerability, Love’

Baart, A. (2001), Een Theorie van Presentie. Boom Lemma Uitgevers.

Beurskens, E.; Van Der Linde, M; Baart, A. (2019) Praktijkboek Presentie, Coutinho.

Ingold, T. (2016), ‘On Human Correspondence,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, 9-27.



Louvain Studies special issue on ‘relation, vulnerability, love’

by Lieve Orye

Several treads of thought woven at the Anthropos conference in 2016 have been rewoven into paper and digital format. A Louvain Studies issue (41(3), 2018) has been published recently with contributions of several keynote speakers and respondents. You can find a table of contents and links to further information at the ‘Special Issue Louvain Studies 2018’ page on the conference archives website.

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As editors, Yves de Maeseneer and I feel that this special issue has become a well-woven cloth, a colorful tapistry of thought and reflection on the what and how of theological anthropology in the 21st century. We particularly would like to draw attention to the last article in this issue, ‘Weaving Theological Anthropology into Life. Editorial Conclusions in Correspondence with Tim Ingold’. In this last contribution, we weave together five key themes that have been raised in the different contributions of this issue, and we do so in conversation with the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold. This weaving together confirms the terms ‘relation’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘love’ as key for theological anthropology in the twenty-first century.

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A first theme is theological anthropology’s conversation with the discipline of anthropology. The first section addresses Michael Banner’s call for a more thorough anthropological turn for theological anthropology. Following a line of connection starting from anthropologist Joel Robbins, who has inspired Banner in taking this turn, towards Ingold, we argue that the latter’s understanding of anthropology as ‘philosophy with the people in’ turns him into a much more interesting conversation partner for a theological anthropology that wishes to pay attention to the work of being human and being moral ‘on the ground’.

The second section finds a similar opening for conversations between theology and anthropology in relation to evolutionary perspectives. Here we make the connection with anthropologist Agustín Fuentes’ work in order to open up such a space. Fuentes does important work, as both Jan-Olav Henriksen and Markus Mühling appreciate. But, we argue here again – in line with Mühling’s contribution – that Ingold’s reflections in conversations with evolutionary theorizing take us onto a fundamentally different path towards a fully relational theological anthropology.

A second theme is woven through these first two sections. Being human is a practice, notes Banner. Or, as Brian Brock indicates with the help of Barth, we exist in our acting. In Ingold’s relational anthropology ‘to human’ is a verb; being human is a never-ending task. In these understandings, a perspective that sees knowing-in-being as primary is indicated. We argue with Ingold that Henriksen’s emphasis on what is specifically human is important to keep, though within a framework that goes beyond a human-animal and a culture-biology divide by prioritizing movement and life in a forward-going approach.

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The third and fourth themes, addressed in the third and fourth sections, must be seen, with Ingold, as two sides of the same coin. The third theme involves a weaving together of Ingold’s primacy of knowing-in-being with Banner’s and Brock’s existing-in-believing. This further opens up a discussion of enskilment, of tradition and way-formation, and of imagination and vision in a relational, participative perspective.

The fourth theme, however, clarifies with the help of Elizabeth Gandolfo and Paul Fiddes that such knowing-in-being fundamentally involves exposure and existential risk in a ‘wild’ world. Vulnerability surfaces as a key notion here. We follow Ingold in taking a step beyond James Gibson’s ecological psychology which was key in Mühling’s contribution, towards an understanding of the world, not as a given, but always on its way to being given.

The fifth theme brings us to theology’s areas of concern in the conversation with anthropology. Theology ‘from a wound’ points to the dark side of wildness and vulnerability, and to the need to discern when and how to embrace or to resist vulnerability. Importantly, such discernment and resistance happen through existing-in-believing: precisely a believing and acting that discovers through participation that love is the deepest reality.

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As organizers of the Anthropos conference 2016 and as editors of this Louvain Studies issue, we hope that several of the threads of thought and reflection developed and woven together at the conference, in the conference blog and in the journal issue will find further life, growing into further thoughts, comingling with other lines, taking up other forms and shapes. But even more, we hope that these threads of thought might find ways to correspond and comingle with lines of life, nurturing these towards a more sustainable world. Our hope is that theological anthropology in the 21st century will be a discipline with a critical agenda, in line with Joel Robbins’ characterization of theology and anthropology as critical disciplines nourished by O/otherness, and that, in line with Tim Ingold’s characterization of anthropology, it becomes shaped by a method of hope.

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.

The Tree of Life: lifeless human superiority or life embracing growth?

By Tom Uytterhoeven

Research is an intellectual adventure, or so they say. In this blog post I would like to report on a recent episode in my personal adventure, in which I lost the safety of a trusted assumption, and experienced the thrill of discovering new ideas, without yet knowing where these ideas will bring me.

One of the theological metaphors that inspired my research into the theological relevance of evolutionary studies of religion, is that of kinship. Philip Hefner uses this metaphor in his book The Human Factor (1993) to express the close relationship between humanity and the rest of the global ecological community, a relationship he believes religion could and should make us more aware of. Until recently I was convinced this metaphor remedied a problematic interpretation of another metaphor used to capture the essence of Darwinism: the Tree of Life. Now, I have my doubts.

From tree and human superiority...

It started as a sketch in a notebook, drawn around 1837. What gave the picture of a Tree of Life, when it appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species, an enduring appeal is that by using only a few lines, Darwin seemed to capture the essence of his ideas. Following the tree from its roots to its top, one can see the tree’s branches and twigs as species, emerging and flourishing until they faced extinction, along the way giving birth to other species. Moreover, the Tree of Life shows us that all life forms on Earth are related. Despite their apparent diversity in appearance, they all share the same roots.

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Although it is interesting to see, for instance, how others before Darwin developed ‘Tree of Life’ schemata to indicate the interconnectedness of life, and how it is related to the Great Chain of Being, I want to focus here on one feature of the 'Tree of Life' metaphor which limits its metaphorical power, or, rather, which allows the metaphor to guide our thinking into an anthropocentric trap: as all trees do, a Tree of Life grows. Growth is easily associated with going upwards, in the direction of the sunlight shining down on the branches and twigs of the tree. And this, in turn, implies that the higher branches are the newest, the freshest, the greenest, in sum, the best branches of the tree. This becomes apparent in quite a few later variants on Darwin’s original sketch, in which the human species is placed on top of the tree.

Even in modern models, the human species is still often placed in a special corner. These anthropocentric depictions of Darwin’s Tree of Life are remarkable, since there is no scientific basis to give humanity an exceptional status. For as we know, there is no goal, no direction to natural selection and there is no meaning in evolution other than the survival of life, in whatever form.

... to circle and kinship?

Some current models of the Tree of Life avoid this explicit anthropocentrism by turning the phylogenetic tree into a circle. Species are placed on the circle according to their genetic relationship to each other. The closer together two species are situated in the model, the more genetic material they share. This seems to steer us away from anthropocentric interpretations of evolutionary history and to help us recognize our shared ancestry with other species. A good example of the latter is Nancy Howell’s article 'The Importance of Being Chimp'. Howell emphasizes the close genetic relationship with primates and identifies five topics which she believes theological anthropology should focus on: (1) culture-nature dualism, (2) continuity and discontinuity between humanity and other species, (3) using humanity as a measure for evaluating animal abilities, (4) the definition of personhood, and (5) morality and sin.

Far from criticizing her proposals, or similar ones, like Hefner's, that work with the same basic kinship metaphor, I nevertheless wonder whether this exchange of a tree reaching for the sky with a circle focusing on relations within allows us to take enough distance from the idea that the human species finds itself superior at the top of the tree, closest to the sun.

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Destabilizing suggestions from anthropology: from lifeless to life embracing growth

For me, this question presented itself while reading Beyond Nature and Culture, a book by Philippe Descola (2013). Descola identifies four different types of perceiving the relation between humanity and nature: analogical, animistic, totemistic, and naturalistic. It would take us too far to discuss each type in depth, but it suffices here to know that they result from different combinations of perceived continuity and discontinuity between humans and nature (plants, animals, inanimate nature). What, to me at least, is both most interesting and most disturbing - in the sense of challenging my own assumptions -, is the fact that Descola refers to these types as four different ontologies, and, even more, sees naturalism - the ontology we are accustomed to - as only a recent and geographically limited one.

Reading his analysis resulted in questioning the rigid border between ‘the natural’ and ‘the cultural’, and made me aware how this boundary is easily taken to represent a qualitative leap from the former to the latter that places the human species as the species with culture again at the top. The assumption of such a border and leap is a consequence of how particular ontological axioms restrict our view rather than a consequence of taking empirical facts into account. Reading Descola, I also started wondering whether Hefner’s kinship metaphor, which in turn builds on a non-anthropocentric interpretation of the Tree of Life metaphor (see the circular model above), might be sufficient to express the close intertwinement of humanity with nature - and vice versa. Maybe we need other metaphors to express what it means to be aware of the evolutionary history of the human species, including its membership of the global ecological community.

However, reading Tim Ingold's article 'On the Distinction between Evolution and History' I came across his concept of ‘growth’ that differs radically from the rather abstract understanding that informs our usual reading of the Darwinian Tree of life and even that of the circle models of kinship. He writes:

If human beings on the one hand, and plants and animals on the other, can be regarded alternately as components of each others’ environments, then we can no longer think of the former as inhabiting a social world of their own, over and above the world of nature in which the lives of all other living things are contained. Rather, both humans and the animals and plants on which they depend for a livelihood must be regarded as fellow participants in the same world. And the forms that all these creatures take are neither given in advance nor imposed from above, but emerge within the relational contexts of this mutual involvement. In short, human beings do not, in their productive activity, transform the world; instead they play their part, alongside beings of other kinds, in the world’s transformation of itself. It is to this process of self-transformation that I refer by the concept of growth.

When reading this, it appealed to me because of its parallels with the evolutionary concept of ecological niche construction, which also stresses the multiple feedback relations between all living and non-living elements of the ecological web. What seems still missing in the latter, is this perception of life as a process of self-transformation of the world, or as the growth of the world. 

It will take more research and (self-)reflection to discover the possibilities and limits of this concept of growth for theological anthropology. But it seems to suggest that, minimally, we learn to see the Tree of Life differently. Not as lines indicating an upward movement towards a top position but through a focus on that which grows in a growing world: the tree as a whole, alive in a living reality. Perhaps the following two pictures, the first an artistic interpretation of ‘the tree of life’, the other a Christian meditation on Easter, clarify somewhat what I think this could mean.                                

 

... 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.

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.

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.