anthropology as a guide to faith

In my spiritual background there was little room for creativity, understanding, or messaging outside of a straight and narrow understanding of faith. Christian worldview embodies a clear message, points us to God, is based in the Bible, is mostly black and white, and contains the “truth” of our beliefs, actions, and ways of being in the world. There wasn’t much space for nuance, subtlety, ambiguity, gray, or the in-between. I didn’t know it then, but the latter is how I’m made to be in the world. As I grew older and more self-aware, I noticed I’m not as concerned with arriving somewhere (like definitions or answers), but more so with the questions that keep us moving.

Going back to the social sciences, it’s why undergraduate anthropology wasn’t difficult for me as a Christian; I could live in the tension between the mostly secular humanist world of my studies and the spiritual one in which I was raised, most of which I still adhered to at the time (at least theoretically). I, like everyone, am black and white about certain things; my life is shaped by and lived according to certain beliefs about the divine, myself, and the world, resulting in practices within that framework. As I began encountering other perspectives and thinking for myself, I became more bothered by the dogmatic and entrenched beliefs, interpretations, and explanations in the Christian world I come from (now more than ever). Unsurprisingly, my discomfort is most directed towards the expression from which I come—certain segments of conservative evangelical or charismatic Christianity.

Personally, I’d rather understand why someone believes and lives as they do, how they come by it and how it’s lived out in the real world, rather than immediately ascertain the “truth” of what they believe and its manifestation. This is what cultural anthropology taught me. Many of the devout could take a page or two from these scholars (however secular humanist they may be), not to mention their methods.

Some religious persons and communities believe they observe God, humans, and reality from an objective and infallible observation deck. As enculturated human beings who live in social communities, this is not possible. Anthropologists know it. While they attempt to observe, study, participate, and ask questions, to research, understand, describe, and explain people and communities as objectively as possible, any good anthropologist or ethnographer recognizes they bring their own loaded experience and subjectivity to the table. Every person of faith in any spiritual community does the same, whether they know or admit it or not.

Anthropologists thrive on qualitative data—insight into the particulars of people and their communities through observation and participation. As much as possible, they glean local knowledge without making moral judgements. In a way, anthropologists allow themselves to be evangelized (a loaded word, I know) by the people, groups, communities, and cultures they study and engage.

What would it be like for Christians to do the same? To enter society (or a single life or community) with the humility of acceptance and an openness to learning, as much as or more than trying to make their own culturally influenced faith framework accepted and understood. To allow themselves to be evangelized by those who are different (the other) as much as they attempt to evangelize these others. To approach the world with open hearts and minds instead of refusing to budge from static beliefs and ways of being that are just as inherited, contextual, subjective, and socialized—in other words, just as cultural—as all other beliefs and communities.

One of the cardinal sins of anthropology (and humanity at that) is enthnocentrism: judging another culture, community, or people group (or spirituality in this case) according to the beliefs, standards, and customs of your own. This is not to say that everything is relative, that good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, and true and untrue don’t exist on any existential or universal level. I think most of us would agree that, to some extent, they do. The struggle against ethnocentrism (personal and communal, even national and global) requires a renunciation of pride and a humble submission to the other(s), whoever they may be for us or our community. While it does not mean accepting, condoning, or turning a blind eye to injustice or harmful beliefs and practices, in the very least it challenges us to put ourselves in another’s shoes, whether a single individual or broader community. It’s a serious attempt at awareness and understanding before making judgments and asking to be understood.

We may be surprised by what we find if we look more patiently and intimately at others and their communities (spiritual or religious or Christian or not) through the lens of the social scientist—one of intense observation that requires true interest, openness, and deference. Even then, we still ask if this qualifies us to pronounce a final judgment.

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