Friday, May 10, 2013

Don't Pooh-Pooh Anthropology

I watched a video some time back of a lecturer in a well-known seminary pooh-poohing the validity of anthropology in the curriculum for training people for missions. While I respect the lecturer and the institution and can understand the rationale for their position I think they are wrong. 

The suspicion lies in the Enlightenment roots of the discipline. Indeed many of the early anthropologists (though they relied heavily on data sent back by missionaries) were driven by an atheistic agenda. So it is understandable that many would want to keep well away from it. I would argue, however, that it is vital that those training for cross-cultural missions be given the opportunity to grow in wisdom by being exposed to the insights that the discipline can bring.

Anthropology, like history, is an interpretive discipline that must be handled critically. Lack of critical reflection on anthropological perspectives leads to one of two unhelpful results: uncritical acceptance of anthropological perspectives that are based on unbiblical ideas or unthinking rejection of valid anthropological insights, and often both at the same time. Thankfully, anthropology as a discipline is a lot humbler than it used to be and though there are still those who seek to undermine truth there are a lot who are seeking to reflect on the phenomena of people and their cultures self-critically. We can learn from them just as we can from historians.

As theologians around the world grapple with the cross-cultural transmission of the faith in their own setting they have something to contribute to the global church. The inter-cultural sharing of theological insights must inevitably involve translation, demanding much patience and inter-cultural wisdom. The church will grow as we listen to the insights of those in various settings across the world today as well as those in various settings across the centuries, i.e. as they engage in both synchronic and diachronic studies. Let's not pooh-pooh the discipline of anthropology but listen to people who, though fallen, have contributed valid insights into how other people live.

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