Monday, July 01, 2013

Where are the theologians?

This is the one of the three stories I used to begin my conference paper at the ANZATS Christians in Communities conference.

I am here among these working-class people in this post-industrial landscape because I want to hear their stories. I take their voices seriously. This is what research in religion means, I fume, to attend to the experiences and beliefs of people in the midst of their lives, to encounter religion in its place in actual men and women’s lived experience, in the places they live and work. Where are the theologians from the seminaries on the South Side, I want to know, with all their talk of postmodernism and narrativity? When will the study of religion in the United States take an emperical and so more realistic and human direction? Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

It is used in Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography and so enabled me to engage this new series -Studies in Ecclesiology and Ethnography – from Eerdmans. The story also asks some important questions about theology. Who does it? Where should it be done? How should it be done? Who should it be for? Those questions essentially shaped the rest of the paper.  I began with three examples of ecclesiology and ethnography, including one from my fresh expressions ten years research. I offered a “down under” critique, drawing on the post-colonial work of indigenous researcher, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, to argue that research should be for the community, not the researcher of the academy. 

Finally, I explored how ecclesiology and ethnography could be theology, rather than simply social sciences with a theological cherry thrown on top at the end. This was, I felt, the most creative section of the paper.  I returned to my initial three examples, and argued that in them was a triptych of places in which theological reflection was found – in the researcher, in the community and in the subsequent reflection. By way of example, I then pointed to two places in the second Eerdmans volume, Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography which I consider intriguing illustrations, of the unintended yet potential trajectories made possible through ecclesiology and ethnography. Thus each example returned us to my initial question – Where are the theologians? Because if they are, like Robert Orsi insists, with the congregations in mission, it sets off a rich train of questions about the nature and practice of writing, teaching and formation.

Working on this paper has been about stepping back from my actual ethnographic research into fresh expressions, in order to think more carefully about the very discipline I’m part of.

Posted by steve at 07:29 AM

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