Jon Bialecki

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Anthropology and Theology, Difference and the Monological

The other thing that I’ve done relatively recently which I’m particularly proud of is my review of Barber’s On Diaspora, written for AnthroCyBib, the website that I co-curate with James Bielo, Naomi Haynes, and Tom Boylston.

(A tangent: That website is also the origin of my ‘signature’ on this blog – on AnthroCyBib, all postings are also signed as  by “AnthroCyBib,” though, regardless of whether it was put up by Jams, Naomi, Tom, or myself. Long, uninteresting story behind that).

I like this piece not simply because the author of the book seemed to see at least some value in it, but also because, while Barber’s book is not theology (or at least not easily classified as theology), it throws light on important aspect of the relationship between theology and anthropology. Barber’s book points to a virtuality in Christianity that runs towards multiplicity and  immanence. Needless to say, this is not a universal theological vision. This is an important point because there seems to be a big push as of late to take up Joel Robbins challenge regarding the relationships between theology and anthropology. There are several pieces in the pipeline suggesting that anthropology would do well to take up theology as offering useful insights.

The problem with this is that theology tends to be monological, and while it would be going too far to say that anthropology is solely about human difference, that certainly is one of the poles that gives shape to the field. If we take up theology as having insights for different aspects of human behavior, then that pole collapses we end up trying to explain a variable with a universal, which is analytically misguided. (More about this if/when those pieces come out – beating up unpublished works seems at once bad cricket and too much inside baseball).

Now, this isn’t a problem with all theology – in my (limited) free time I’ve been working through Amos Yong’s In the Days of Caesar. What strikes me about the book so far is not just his use of anthropological material on Pentecostalism to craft theology – which is interesting enough – but also the fact that it is a theology that prizes variation and difference, not just in human formations but in divine action as well. While I am no proponent of privileging theological framings over social science ones, it strikes me that this is the kind of theological thought that could really be engaged with in a productive manner; and this is a thought I could probably not have formulated clearly without the Barber book.

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