Introduction: Theologically Engaged Anthropology        

Joel Robbins suggests that the relationship between theology and anthropology is awkward. This awkwardness has led most anthropologists to ignore engaging theology as a discipline. Anthropologists have studied religion through the lenses of anthropological theories such as structural functionalism, interpretivism, and structuralism. However, many anthropologists are reluctant to theorize using theology and to consider theology’s impact on religion. Robbins calls anthropologists to move beyond treating theology with suspicion and suggests that theology can give anthropologists a deeper understanding of religion.[1] There is a critical need for theologians and anthropologists to work together to create materials that anthropologists can use to enhance their understanding of how theology is done and how it can be used to develop a deeper understanding of human religion. This book seeks to answer the central question, “What can theology contribute to cultural anthropology?” without forgetting the equally important question, “What can anthropology contribute to theology?”

My interest in engaging theology grows out of my research of a church renewal movement within Protestant American churches: the missional church movement. The missional church movement pivots on the statement that a church in mission is being sent out and called beyond to interact with the outside culture, share Christ, and serve the community.[2] In the ethnographic process, I interact with Karl Barth’s theology of the Missio Dei and Lesslie Newbigin’s theology of the gospel within pluralistic societies. These theologies were developed by academic and practical theologians, implemented by local church pastors, and eventually embraced by several Protestant denominations—all of which were dispersed around the world. Using these theological perspectives, I discovered that people within the missional church movement were heavily influenced by a theological call to evangelize outside the walls of the church. The challenge for me was to decide what to do analytically with the importance of these theologies to the people I studied.

While my questions about what to do with theology in my own fieldwork may be considered the genesis of this project, the project became a reality because of several interactions that took place at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago, Illinois. First, I organized a panel that introduced me to other scholars who were interested in the role of religious identity in fieldwork and questions of how anthropologists should approach the divergence between belief and disbelief in research. For that panel, I wrote a paper that described how theology helped me to understand better another anthropological study of mine focused on understanding the actions of American Pentecostal emergency room doctors who worked in Haiti during the relief efforts following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. These doctors volunteered to use their professional skills as physicians and their spiritual gift of exorcising demons, and I analyzed their efforts through the lens of the theology of their home church. After the panel concluded, I hurried to the business meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, so I could meet Joel Robbins in person for the first time. Joel was very gracious and surprised me by asking what I was working on. Because I just had walked over from my panel where I discussed theology and anthropology, my first thought was to share about my paper. Joel surprised me again when he handed me his business card and asked me to email my paper to him because he was very interested in the awkward relationship between theology and anthropology. After the Society for the Anthropology of Religion’s business meeting, I attended a gathering of Christian anthropologists led by Brian Howell. During the time designated for introductions and announcements, Paul Wason, the Vice President for Life Sciences and Genetics at the John Templeton Foundation, mentioned that he would like to talk to anyone who was interested in developing a grant considering anthropology and theology. Inspired by my own research interests and my conversation with Robbins, I decided to talk with Paul after the meeting.

Ultimately, the project was awarded funding from the John Templeton Foundation to develop frameworks for a theologically engaged anthropology. To develop these frameworks, theologians and anthropologists were gathered for two mini-conferences in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 2015 and in Cambridge, England, in February 2016. For the better part of six days, the following scholars presented essays, debated, and enjoyed meals together: Alister McGrath, University of Oxford; Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard University; Joel Robbins, University of Cambridge; Derrick Lemons, University of Georgia; Don Seeman, Emory University; Brian Howell, Wheaton College; Paul Kollman, University of Notre Dame; Jon Bialecki, University of Edinburgh; Timothy Larsen, Wheaton College; Michael Rynkiewich, Asbury Theological Seminary; James Bielo, Miami University, Ohio; Khaled Furani, Tel Aviv University; Sarah Coakley, University of Cambridge; Fenella Cannell, London School of Economics and Political Science; Naomi Haynes, University of Edinburgh; Martyn Percy, University of Oxford; Tim Jenkins, University of Cambridge; Nicholas Adams, University of Birmingham; and Joe Webster, Queen’s University Belfast. In an attempt to summarize the meetings, Frances X. Clooney said, “This conversation attempts to rectify a historical split between theology and anthropology and take advantage of the obvious commonalties, in a sense rectifying an old divorce that seems now to be ready to be overcome.” Joel Robbins summarized the conferences in the following way: “We were mapping uncharted territory, and we did a good job of tracing the key routes through it. We realized how hard it is to define theology from an anthropological point of view. We also learned how anthropologists can approach theology and theologians from a lot of different directions: as a topic whose role in society they can study anthropologically, as fellow academics with whom they can debate, and as a form of thought that can transform their own theoretical thinking.” These meetings started a long overdue conversation about the relationship between theology and cultural anthropology.


In an effort to connect broadly the essays from this book with future research, I chose the title “theologically engaged anthropology” to bracket the topic. My hope is that, under this name, scholars will push the boundaries of anthropology and theology and attempt to connect them. In the following, I will consider individually the terms theology, engagement, and anthropology and conclude with ethnographic examples produced from the synergistic combination of theologically engaged anthropology to provide an overview of the essays and a starting point for future research.


Defining theology is a challenging task. Describing theology as “faith seeking understanding” provides a basic definition, but many theologians view this definition as too simplistic.[3] Even so, it offers a starting place for anthropologists who are novices at theology. The term faith suggests theology is developed from within a religious community of the faithful to provide an emic understanding of the cosmos, the ultimate meaning of things and their God. The term seeking suggests that theology is not a static body of knowledge but an area of study that changes over time and space. Timothy Jenkins underscores in this volume the corrective nature of theology by reminding anthropologists that “theological texts are not description, but acts of repair.”[4] In other words, anthropologists should understand that “theological critique is not usually written for the pleasure of philosophers, but to rectify specific forms of practical life.”[5] Finally, the term understanding means that the faithful believe that there is more to know and experience than is known and experienced at present. Viewing theology as faith seeking understanding provides anthropologists an opportunity to learn from an emic perspective about religious beliefs that change over time and space.

The work of theologians Sarah Coakley and Kathyrn Tanner emphasizes that theology is best defined and understood within the culture that produces it. Stephen Bevans views all theology as contextual and says, “Theology that is contextual realizes that culture, history, contemporary thought forms, and so forth are to be considered, along with scripture and tradition, as valid sources for theological expression.”[6] Understanding theology as rooted in humanity’s quest to seek a contextual understanding about God provides common ground for anthropologists and theologians to begin a dialogue. Naomi Haynes offers a promising definition of theology in this volume to begin this dialogue. She defines theology “as a particular kind of reflexive action, aimed at understanding who God is, how he works in the world, how people ought to relate to God, and what they can expect from him.”[7] Her definition is very accessible to anthropologists, but it also pushes theologians to consider the dynamic cultural contestation within all theological discourse.

Brian Howell argues in this volume that forms of theology most closely rooted in a specific confessing community are most helpful to anthropologists because of the interest of many anthropologists in connecting ethnography with a local culture.[8] Martyn Percy and Fenella Cannell support Howell’s claims by reminding us that implicit forms of theology found in religious communities are often neglected but tremendously helpful to understand the spectrum between belief and practice and the building blocks for religion.[9] On the other hand, Nicholas Adams reminds us that theology is most easily concerned with the vast or cosmological.[10] While anthropologists can most easily engage with implicit theology, Robbins pushes anthropologists to seek theological opportunities that force them to consider the whole spectrum between the implicit and the cosmological.


Authors in this book agree that theologians and anthropologists benefit from working together. The proposals for how they should work together, by and large, fall under two frameworks of engagement—stratified and transformational. The stratified framework encourages anthropologists and theologians to dialogue around common religious topics or problems with the understanding that “a complex reality, such as religion, will have multiple layers or strata, each of which demands to be investigated by a research method appropriate for that stratum.”[11] Alister McGrath thinks that “theology and anthropology can engage in a principled, informed, and respectful dialogue, in which neither discipline is required to surrender its integrity or distinctiveness, while the same time recognizing its limits and being open to the possibility of being enriched by disciplines that transcend those boundaries.”[12] While all of my collaborators would agree that a theologically engaged anthropology expands the partial perspectives of each discipline, some of my collaborators believe “an important caveat should be heeded, theology should not seek to become anthropology and anthropology should not seek to become theology in terms of either method or content. . . . Neither anthropology nor theology should become less itself but, rather, more itself in a dynamic interchange. Each discipline retains its own autonomy and language and yet draws knowledge and insight from the other.”[13] The advantage of a stratified framework is that a thicker ethnographic description emerges and illuminates previously shadowed motivations for Christians to live in a certain way. This stratified type of engagement is very popular for scholars involved in the religion and science debate and is an excellent example for theologians and anthropologists who are beginning to explore the fruitfulness of a theologically engaged anthropology. Furthermore, this is the least controversial way to move forward.

The second type of engagement between anthropology and theology is transformational and is defined as a deep engagement in which theological and anthropological questions, problems, issues, or topics pass through a process of mutual collaboration and new insights emerge. This transformative type of engagement is more radical but offers real opportunities for productive exchange. In fact, as Robbins says, “the time is right for anthropologists, more and more interested in rendering frank judgments, to come into dialogue with theologians about the role of judgment in their tradition and the ways its practice is best cultivated and carried out.”[14] Furthermore, Robbins suggests that anthropologists “can learn from theology about responsible ways of making any kind of judgments” and “theologians might also learn from anthropologists about the depth and complexity of the kinds of cultural expressions they are often called upon to judge.”[15] Robbins’ observations result in a transformed anthropology and theology in that the boundaries between each discipline are not so neatly maintained. This freedom is exemplified by Furani’s, Jenkins’, and Robbins’ essays in this book. Of course, this type of engagement runs the risk that anthropologists and theologians feel out of step with their peers because the boundaries between the two disciplines are so entrenched. That being said, a moment just shy of a collective effervescence was experienced at a meeting of my collaborators at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, when Jenkins pronounced that a transformative engagement holds the most interesting possibilities.


Like theology, the term anthropology is challenging to define. Defining anthropology as the study of humankind is doing little more than translating the word. On the whole, the essays generated by this project did little to define anthropology directly. One reason for this omission is the wording of our central question: “What can theology contribute to anthropology?” The question seems only to emphasize the need to justify the use of theology. However, we need to consider ways in which we justify the use of anthropology, too. To refocus our efforts, perhaps the central question should be asked in a different way: “What can anthropology contribute to theology?” Asking both questions together will help anthropologists overcome many of the inherent idols within anthropology that Khaled Furani critiques in his essay.

The one direct definition came from McGrath: “identify patterns of human behavior through empirical methods, which it seeks to group and, secondarily, to explain or predict.”[16] While direct definitions of anthropology are largely missing, indirectly several of the essays discuss anthropology. For example, Robbins writes, “anthropology at its best looks at how the different parts of a cultural formation are tied together in knots that often are in fact quite intricate, and anthropologists insist that when one does so none of the parts will appear to be freakish or bluntly irrational, nor will they evidence the simple ignorance of those who live in light of them.”[17] Another observation about the implied definition of anthropology from the essays and the discussions at the mini-conferences is that the foundational tenet for anthropologists of cultural relativism is rarely questioned. In fact, a reflexive relativism was encouraged by most of the authors in order to question the secular underpinnings of anthropology and the marginalization of theology. More specifically, the authors question the type of secular anthropology that would deem theology as an unfit collaborative discipline. In substance, anthropologists should be open to engagement with a committed discipline such as theology. In the end, anthropology should be defined as an academic discipline that analyzes cultures and uses all resources available, including theology, to do more thorough analysis.

Theologically Engaged Anthropology

A theologically engaged anthropology is a synergistic combination filled with tensions. You will notice tensions among essays, a few suggested frameworks on which to build a theologically engaged anthropology, and a heavy focus on theologies of Christianity. An example of tension would be that Jon Bialecki, Timothy Larsen, Daniel J. King, and Khaled Furani are at odds about the usefulness of aligning theology and anthropology through origins-based genealogical accounts. However, the creative tensions among the essays are very important to recognize and provide clues to important areas for future research. In reference to the focus on Christian theology, the reason for this focus is that most of the scholars involved in this project work directly with Christianity. In the planning, some thought was given to the need for this first project to work in a religion with a perceived demand for interaction at this time—partly fostered by the recent rise of the anthropology of Christianity[18]—and to gather scholars around one religion to provide common ground for discussion. However, Clooney makes clear that solely equating theology with Christian theology needlessly limits the opportunities for theological engagement across religious traditions.

Generally speaking, the essays are ordered from the more theoretical to the more ethnographic. Chapters 14 through 19 are especially helpful in that they provide ethnographic examples of various ways theologians and anthropologists are experimenting with a theologically engaged anthropology. Of note are the ways that theologians ground theology within lived experience and the ways anthropologists allowed theology to provide another lens through which to view their ethnographic research. In the end both examples provide a deeper understanding of religion. The following abstracts provide an overview of each chapter.

Chapter 1—New Insights from an Old Dialog Partner

J. Derrick Lemons argues that a growing number of anthropologists are ready to engage theology but struggle to find a framework that supports this type of inquiry. His essay examines the creative tension and history between anthropology and theology and argues that generating a reflexive theologically engaged anthropology improves anthropological research. To support his thesis, he provides an example from his fieldwork involving American evangelicals who use missional church theology to inform their lived religious experience.

Chapter 2—Which Theology for Anthropology? Types of Theology for Anthropological Engagement

Brian M. Howell suggests that defining the concept of theology may seem more suited for the professional theologian rather than the anthropologist, yet it may be the anthropologist who is best positioned to investigate theology in order to discover what conversations can be profitably brought into the work of anthropology. His essay begins with a typology of theology first suggested by Hans Frei in the latter part of the twentieth century. The typology serves to compare the present project to one undertaken recently by anthropologists engaging philosophy. Finally, the essay presents an ethnographic vignette from fieldwork in the Philippines to illustrate how this particular understanding of philosophy–theology may serve to answer anthropological puzzles.

Chapter 3—The Dependence of Sociocultural Anthropology on Theological Anthropology

Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. King argue that classic Christian theological anthropology has emphasized that all human beings are part of the one human family descending from Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, yet fallen and sinful. These beliefs have been traditionally expounded with reference to Genesis 1–3. Sociocultural anthropologists, in contrast, have often prided themselves on shedding Christian beliefs. The Genesis narrative, in particular, has been the object of attacks. Nevertheless, when some nineteenth-century freethinking anthropologists took this way of thinking to the next step and argued that belief in the monogenesis of the human race was just the result of the influence of an erroneous Judeo-Christian myth, the discipline weeded such thinking out of its midst. Thus, even as it sidelined Christianity, orthodox anthropology from the founding of the discipline to the present has affirmed the doctrine of the psychic unity of humankind. This essay argues that this foundational conviction of anthropology is informed by Christian thought.

Chapter 4—Theology Revealing the Hājibs of Anthropology

Khaled Furani proposes ways in which theology could promote a critique of idolatries in modern anthropology. It culls resources for this undertaking by scouring Nietzsche’s arguments against modernity. Nietzsche enables a vision of modern anthropology as symptomatic of God’s death in the West, thus inducing questions about the ways its adoration of idols may inhibit a truer inquiry. He finds examples to this effect in anthropology’s engagement with the nation state, humanism, and the constitutive concept of culture. He then speculates as to how a theological repudiation of anthropology’s idols could support a conceptual and institutional renewal going far beyond enhancing its study of religion. For instance, anthropology awakened by theistic rationality could adequately engage with the concept of tradition. It could also forge a new grammar of connectivity within the discipline as well as within the disciplinary arrangements of the modern university.

Chapter 5— What Can Theology Contribute to Cultural Anthropology?

Paul Kollman, after considering his personal history engaging theology and anthropology, examines the consequences of Robbins’ influential 2006 article on the disciplines’ relationship. Paul thinks that Robbins’ decision to focus on theologian John Milbank to make the case unintentionally discouraged consideration of other theologians who draw upon anthropological theory. Inspired by his own research on missionary activity in Africa and how theological understanding yielded insights into it, he turns to two frameworks that consider the outcomes of Christian missionary practices: anthropological writings by Kenelm Burridge and the theological essays of Andrew Walls. Both consider the dialectical relationship between the Christian message that missionaries bring and the reception of that message by those evangelized. He explores the similarities and differences between their two approaches and then considers what this comparison reveals about the potential mutual fruitfulness of bringing theology to bear on anthropological study.

Chapter 6—Theology’s Contribution to Anthropological Understanding in T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back

Timothy Jenkins offers a particular example of the contribution theology might make to anthropology by taking T. M. Luhrmann’s ethnography of evangelical Christian prayer practices, When God Talks Back (2012), as its focus. The argument has two aspects: first that theological criticism of notions of religious experience need to be taken seriously and will contribute to the anthropological description and, second, that something is missing from the anthropological description offered because certain theological ideas—in this case, principally, the direction of travel of the soul with respect to God—are underplayed. The case study illustrates the complexities we may expect from a project of the kind pursued in this volume.

Chapter 7—Narratives of Significance: Reflections on the Engagement of Anthropology and Christian Theology

Alister E. McGrath explains that narratives are important both to anthropology and theology. His chapter initially considers the general role that narratives play in an anthropological account of the construction of meaning and social identity before moving on to consider how certain narratives acquire a sacred status. This cultural analysis is then interpreted theologically as a first step in developing a theologically engaged anthropology of narrative. Although he interacts with leading voices in contemporary theological reflection, many of the more interesting theological engagements with the importance of narrative originate from literary circles, and he proposes to incorporate these in his reflections, considering how narratives can generate and sustain a sense of the sacred, provide an imaginative resource for theological reflection, and develop a framework of meaning. Finally, the manner in which such a theological framing of the role and significance of narratives may illuminate anthropological approaches is considered.

Chapter 8—An Anthropologist Is Listening: A Reply to Ethnographic Theology

James S. Bielo focuses on a commitment that has been gaining force among practical theologians and Christian ethicists since the early 2000s. The commitment is that ethnographic fieldwork can be used to generate theological reflection and knowledge. He hopes to encourage a substantive shift, from a one-way engagement into an actual and generative dialogue between ethnographic theologians and anthropological ethnographers. The animating question is this: What does each dialogue partner—anthropology and theology—stand to gain from such an open exchange about ethnography? To address this question, he argues that ethnographic theologians can work with a more diverse conception of ethnography while anthropological ethnographers can learn how theologians engage normativity in their work. He concludes by reflecting on genres of ethnographic writing as an opportunity for dialogue.

Chapter 9—Anthropology, Theology, and the Problem of Incommensurability

Jon Bialecki argues that anthropologists and theologians cannot speak about the contributions that theology could make to anthropology without first discussing the relationship between the two disciplines. Rejecting both genealogical accounts and universalist narratives that deny the historical and institutional specificity of either discipline, he sees theology, anthropology, and the people about whom they write as all being engaged in the same work. They are all struggling with immanent and virtual problems in the sense of the word used by Gilles Deleuze. This means rejecting understandings of anthropology and theology as second-order accounts, however, and seeing theological and anthropological thought as just other ways of thinking the problem through, albeit ways that often more clearly index the underlying problem. Finally, he illustrates this argument by showing similarities in anthropological, theological, new atheist, and Mormon attempts to grasp what may be the twenty-first century’s greatest challenge: an incipient technical possibility of transcending our humanity.

Chapter 10—Superstition and Enlightenment: Engagements between Anthropology and Theology

Nicholas Adams first engages two cases where anthropologists draw on the work of theologians and then develops a normative account of the relation between the two disciplines via a third, philosophy, by drawing attention to questions of scale in these engagements. The second part considers, briefly, the distinctive approach to time that theological work often articulates in its concern with the past for the sake of the future. This construct can be presented as an ideal scheme. The past is a resource for reparative thinking; the present is an abundance of signs of suffering calling for repair; the future is imagined as a life where suffering has been healed. He interprets Robbins’ and Jenkins’ interest in theologians’ work in the light of this approach to time, suggesting that both are concerned with change but in different ways.

Chapter 11—Anthropology and Theology: Fugues of Thought and Action

Douglas J. Davies writes a tripartite chapter in the hope that attention will be fixed on human creativity as it engages diverse themes while striving for satisfying resolutions of disciplinary tensions between anthropology and theology even if these are not achieved. The first part, entitled intrapersonal and interpersonal dialogue, is heavily autobiographical, and he trusts that readers will accept his offering as its own kind of case study of reflexivity, excusing its indulgence in biographical reflection on account of its intention to pinpoint the very particular and contextual nature of idea development. The second part, headed further conversation pieces, picks up just such ideas open to anthropological–theological conversation, including a cautionary gloss on the over-easy use of anthropology and theology as discrete terms. The third and final part, described as disciplinary quandaries, takes some of these formal classifications of disciplines further and also brings together some personal and institutional factors surrounding both anthropological and theological practice.

Chapter 12—Athens Engaging Jerusalem

Michael Rynkiewich presents a case in which the emergence of the individual is often credited to theological anthropology filtered through the Enlightenment. This concept has been reshaped with secular meaning, yet critical theological thinking continues to enhance our understanding of the person. Pannenberg’s exocentricism, informed by Erikson’s basic trust, situates the formation of the person in relationship to the Other. Moltmann’s work on the fragmented self, combined with Jones’s emphasis on the plasticity of the person, confirms the possibility of change, offering hope to a discipline where, according to Fountain, it is sadly lacking. Clayton’s top-down causality as counter to bottom-up determinism, coupled with Wesley’s understanding of free will, offers a view of agency that upholds both freedom and responsibility of the person. The embodiment of the soul in a non-dualistic, non-reductionist theology recovers the Eastern Church Fathers, particularly Maximus the Confessor, in their understanding of the goal of participation in God through participation in the Other.

Chapter 13—World Christianity and the Reorganization of Disciplines: On the Emerging Dialogue between Anthropology and Theology

Joel Robbins reviews recent changes in anthropology and theology to suggest that these changes bring them to a point where, in fact, their paths are ready to cross. The change in anthropology he considers is the unexpectedly rapid rise of what is called the anthropology of Christianity. More specifically, he examines the prosperity gospel, in which believers are convinced that God wants health and wealth for them in this world and overwhelmingly stress these themes in their worship. Scholars in the Western academy, at least, tend to find this kind of Christianity hard to assimilate to their more general understandings of the faith, or at least to their favorite understandings. Robbins believes a closer look at how this kind of Christianity trips up both theologians and anthropologists reveals places where both disciplines would be open to help from each other, the provision of which might lay the basis for a new kind of transformative dialogue.

Chapter 14—Latter-Day Saints and the Problem of Theology

Fenella Cannell’s research reveals that contemporary American Latter-Day Saints lead lives shaped by a conscious and often partially conflicted relationship to the authoritative teachings of their church hierarchy. This doctrine represents the power of present-day revelation channeled through the current Prophet; however, many Latter-Day Saints believe that prophets may also make human mistakes. For an important minority, including some feminist intellectuals, these tensions have been experienced as an attempt to prohibit the development of theology. The problematic status of “Mormon theology” may be one reason why many church members seek to reconcile doctrine with personal experience through the means of narrative and autobiography, producing a culture of Mormon stories. This chapter considers how some Mormon feminist excommunicates attempted to project religious authenticity against the grain of the institution. Mormon ethnography thus provides an instance of the anthropological approach to theology as a lived category, including the contestation of the space for theology itself.

Chapter 15—Theology on the Ground

Naomi Haynes provides an ethnographic exploration of theology on the ground, focusing on Pentecostal Christians on the Zambian Copperbelt. For Copperbelt Pentecostals, theology means drawing analogies between their experience and the stories recorded in the Bible. Through these analogies, believers insert themselves into the narrative of Scripture in an effort to change their personal circumstances. This analogical work has visible social effects because it positions people on different sides of the biblical narrative. While interpreting these effects simply in political terms would be easy, she argues that Pentecostal theology is more than just a struggle for power because the theological efforts of her informants represent conduits for divine action. The ethnographic study of Pentecostal theology, therefore, addresses one of the most vexing problems in the anthropology of religion, namely how to write God into our analysis.

Chapter 16—Comparative Theology: Writing between Worlds of Meaning

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, focuses on comparative theology, a form of tradition-grounded theological practice that learns deeply and effectively from another religious tradition or traditions. Even solidly textual work—translations, the study of scholastic systems, the tracing of lines of thought in commentaries, the decipherment of ritual and moral codes—proceeds as transformative learning indebted to the religious Other. It is a matter of engaged, empathetic learning that allows one to see inside that other tradition, even while the learning, its fruits, and the person of the comparativist remain grounded in a home tradition. For this complex interreligious learning to flourish, certain essential virtues are valued: humility, conviction, interconnection, empathy, generosity, imagination, risk-taking, and patience with ambiguity. This comparative theological learning exists in the liminal space between traditions, yet the comparative theologian still intends to return home, even if irrevocably changed by the journey abroad. Comparative theology thus cultivates virtues operative in anthropological research distinguished by empathetic dwelling in and with the Other.

Chapter 17—Passionate Coolness: Exploring Mood and Character in a Local Rural Anglican Church

Martyn Percy explores and analyzes the ecclesial identity of a local parish church in a rural context. Deploying the concept of implicit theology, a subgenre of ethnographic theology, he argues that the character of the church is composed through core and cherished values that are seldom explicitly articulated. What emerges from the study is that the character of rural Anglicanism in the Church of England can be understood as primarily but not exclusively temperate, mild, aesthetic, and rational. Moreover, there may be a link between the grammar and timbre of worship and the kind of God individuals and congregations subsequently believe they experience. Percy also notes a broader sociological significance of selecting to study a rural church. That said, this study pointedly avoids reductionism, but it does recognize the formation of an alloy in need of attention in the emergent social and theological construction of reality.

Chapter 18—The Exclusive Brethren “Doctrine of Separation”: An Anthropology of Theology

Joseph Webster draws inspiration from Webb Keane’s (2014) suggestion that “we shouldn’t decide in advance what ethics will look like,”[19] and he seeks to contribute critically to new scholarship within the anthropology of morality and detachment by constructing, in a very literal sense, an anthropology of theology via an analysis of the Exclusive Brethren doctrine of separation. Specifically, he seeks to answer two questions: (1) How do the Exclusive Brethren try to live good lives? and (2) what can we learn anthropologically from these models of the good and from the objections they provoke?

Chapter 19—Divinity Inhabits the Social: Ethnography in a Phenomenological Key

Don Seeman argues that theologians and anthropologists should consider themselves natural (if sometimes conflictual) conversation partners because “divinity inhabits the social,”[20] which means that neither field can avoid dealing with central themes theorized by the other. From a phenomenological anthropology viewpoint, theological languages contribute to new and more adequate accounts of lived experience. Based on women’s accounts of divine blessing at an Atlanta homeless shelter, this essay maintains that a continuum exists between academic theology and vernacular religion roughly analogous to the one between biomedical and vernacular accounts of suffering. Theologically engaged anthropology should emulate the analytic program of medical anthropology in probing the relation between these. Ways must also be found to broaden the kinds of expert knowledge that count as theology, especially in non-Christian traditions. The goal should be a theoretically robust program that contributes to more than just the anthropology of religion.

Chapter 20—Anthropological and Theological Responses to Theologically Engaged Anthropology

Sarah Coakley and Joel Robbins provide insightful responses from their respective disciplines to the essays included in this book. Together, they give serious consideration to the foundation of a theologically engaged anthropology while at the same time forging a pathway to propel theologians and anthropologists forward. The response by these eminent scholars reveals the exciting possibilities and cautionary pitfalls that this emerging field of study offers to both anthropologists and theologians.


In closing, the essays in this book should be viewed as preliminary words about theologically engaged anthropology and not the last word. Furthermore, this book does not offer simple solutions for how anthropologists and theologians should engage with each other’s disciplines. If there were simple solutions, this topic would have been adequately dealt with long ago. Instead, this book offers the opportunity for the reader to join the conversation that will continue for years to come. I look forward to seeing scholars take substantial steps toward answering the question, “What can theology contribute to anthropology?” without forgetting the sibling question, “What can anthropology contribute to theology?”

J. Derrick Lemons

University of Georgia


[1] Joel Robbins, “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” Anthropological Quarterly 79/2 (2006): 286, 292–3.

[2] Lois Barrett et al., Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns of Missional Faithfulness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), x; Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 8–9.

[3] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 3rd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 2.

[4] Timothy Jenkins, Chapter 6, #.

[5] Jenkins, Chapter 6, #.

[6] Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1992), 4.

[7] Naomi Haynes, Chapter 15, #–#.

[8] Brian Howell, Chapter 2.

[9] Martyn Percy, Chapter 17, #–#; Fenella Cannell, Chapter 14, #–#.

[10] Nicholas Adams, Chapter 10, #–#.

[11] Alister E. McGrath, Chapter 7, #.

[12] McGrath, Chapter 7, #.

[13] Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, “Theology, Science and Sexual Anthropologies: An Investigation,” Louvain Studies 35/1–2 (2011): 71–2.

[14] Joel Robbins, Chapter 13, #.

[15] Robbins, Chapter 13, #.

[16] McGrath, Chapter 7, #.

[17] Robbins, Chapter 13, #.

[18] For background read Joel Robbins and Naomi Haynes (eds), The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions, Special Issue of Current Anthropology 55/S10 (2014): S155–S366.

[19] Webb Keane, “Freedom, Reflexivity, and the Sheer Everydayness of Ethics,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4/1 (2014): 443–57 (here 444).

[20] Don Seeman, Chapter 19, #.