Troeltschian Questions for “Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics”

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Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics marks a milestone in the engagements of Christian theologians and ethicists with ethnography.1 As the book’s introductory chapters note, these engagements have been developing over a long time and in a variety of schools within the fields of Christian theology and ethics. The book brings many of these schools together and shows how they have come to engage in ethnography. It highlights common ground that is often missed. The book is especially good, I think, in showing how schools of thought that are often thought of as in tension with one another—schools we might identify as “liberationist” and “postliberal”—share an interest in ethnography as Christian theology and ethics. If these labels are inadequate to describe complex clusters of individual works, they do make possible a quick description of significant convergence. Liberationist scholars have turned to ethnography in part because it offers a disciplined way of attending to voices of people who are too often ignored by scholars. Ethnography becomes a way of recognizing marginalized people and groups as moral agents, as speakers and actors, as subjects of liberation, and not only as recipients of justice. Postliberal scholars, for their part, have turned to ethnography in part because it offers a way of attending to the distinctive culture and practice of the church. If the church’s first social ethic is its life together, then theology and ethics would require disciplined study of the forms of church life. Ethnography promises to help with that work. And so liberationist and postliberal schools, whatever their differences, can share an interest in ethnography.

The opening chapters of Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics do not name this convergence explicitly. They wisely set aside the labels naming would require in order to display an overlapping consensus that can attract a wide range of adherents. Vigen and Scharen seamlessly weave together lines of thought that might have been identified as liberationist or postliberal in order to make their case for ethnography as theology and ethics. This case rings true. It makes ethnography seem like the natural next step for both of these schools, and for many more.

If postliberal and liberationist perspectives dominate the introductory chapters, other schools are present in the mix. The editors also mention the influence of a tradition of congregational studies exemplified by Nancy Ammerman and a tradition of practical theology with roots in Don Browning’s emphasis on “descriptive theology.”2 The “exemplar” chapters expand the circle even wider, displaying work with affinities to at least two other traditions of Christian theology and ethics that have, in recent years, opened into ethnography. I read Emily Reimer-Barry, Andrea Vicini, and Todd Whitmore as working from a post-Vatican II tradition of Catholic social teaching that not only insists on the need for action in this world but also places epistemic value on the voices of all the faithful. And I read Robert Jones as continuing a tradition of historicism that runs back through James Gustafson to H. Richard Niebuhr to Ernst Troeltsch. Each member of this line did work that respected the standards for historical and social sciences of his day. Updating that tradition, as I think Jones does, involves engaging the standards for historical and social scientific research in our own time. Turning to ethnography is one way to do that.

The book displays work that draws on all of these traditions. With enough pages, it could have displayed work from even more traditions that have found themselves engaged in ethnography for the sake of theology and ethics. A phenomenological tradition runs through Edmund Husserl’s concern with empathic, intersubjective understandings of the lifeworld to Edward Farley’s focus on interpreting situations and then to Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s full-blown ethnography.3 Another phenomenological route might be traced through Hubert Dreyfus and some of Christian Scharen’s other recent work.4 And developments in pragmatism might be traced through the ongoing work of Jeffrey Stout. Stout wants to argue for democracy not from abstract principles but from norms that are implicit in complex cultural formations. In the opening chapters of Democracy and Tradition, he considers figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Baldwin in order to “make explicit” (in Robert Brandom’s sense) some of these norms. It is a short step from such representative men to qualitative studies of communities— which is exactly what Stout has offered in his latest book.5

My point here is neither to pile up an encyclopedia of schools nor to trace every possible intellectual genealogy for the current interest in ethnography. And I do not mean to assign overly rigid labels. This is a complex movement. It is strong in part because its roots contain hybrids and hybrids of hybrids. Most of the essays in this book draw on at least two different schools. I do want to argue that many schools of contemporary theology and ethics have made some kind of cultural turn, and that, when people take seriously the implications of this turn, it often opens into ethnographic study.6 Scharen and Vigen’s book will become an important landmark, I think, because it gathers work from many of these schools together in one place. It helps strange bedfellows find one another. It makes possible conversations in which both common ground and new differences become clear. And so it is just the kind of book that can mark one moment in an intellectual movement and make possible the next.

Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics consolidates conversations about ethnography in ways that help frame important questions with new clarity. One of the chief contributions of the book is its distinction between two ways of relating ethnography to theology and ethics. The first uses ethnography “to describe as fully as possible what is” before turning to normative sources to evaluate the situation and propose ways to make it better. This descriptive use of the social sciences is well established in Christian social ethics. But Scharen and Vigen propose another use, which stresses ethnography as theology and ethics. This involves a way of seeing a situation as having “embedded or embodied within its life substantive contributions to theology and ethics … .” This latter approach is more novel in recent Christian theology and ethics. It holds description and prescription more tightly together. And it presses towards a genuinely theological ethnography.7

I have some real sympathy with the desire to hold ethnography (or history, or any other mode of thick description) together with theology and ethics. Such a move would bridge the divide between “is” and “ought,” between descriptions of phenomena in this world and normative claims like those about the nature of God, the good life, justice, or redemption. Those who call for bridging this gap between “is” and “ought” often frame the present divide as a symptom of a deeper neo-Kantian illness. And they make great promises for what it would mean to overcome the gap. They argue that some kind of bridge would restore meaning to earthly life, convictions, and institutions, for it would mean that what actually exists is not absolutely other to the way things ought to be. Realizing that connection would remove alienation from the center of contemporary worldviews. It would keep skepticism within limits that generate critical conversations instead of allowing it to slide into relativism and despair. It would guard against nihilism and the violence to self and others that comes with it. Even if these promises are not entirely kept, or kept with consequences we can’t quite foresee, they are appealing.8

But there are objections from many sides to an easy synthesis of “is” and “ought.” Chapter 3 of Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics notes one set of objections as it gathers some of the criticism that Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank have made of contemporary social science. The gap between “is” and “ought” might be bridged, Hauerwas and Milbank say, but not if social science that conforms to modern canons is allowed to describe what is. For modern social sciences make assumptions about the nature of human desires, motivations, and societies that produce distorted descriptions of the way things are. Building a bridge from those distorted descriptions, Hauerwas and Milbank say, will lead to equally distorted norms. And so they argue that social science—the work of saying what is—will have to change.

Vigen and Scharen argue against this view by showing that the projects of Hauerwas and Milbank actually require some kind of thick description of church life. That is surely right, and I think both Hauerwas and Milbank would gladly grant the point. But establishing that point does not win Scharen and Vigen’s debate with Hauerwas and Milbank. It just explains why Hauerwas and Milbank are so concerned about the relationship between theology and social science. It does not refute the critique they are making of the worldviews implicit in the methods of modern social sciences. Some of the exemplary chapters in Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics start to perform an overcoming of these objections, even when they don’t explicitly argue with them. Chapters by Jeffery Trible, Emily Reimer-Barry and Todd Whitmore, for instance, all use methods of modern social science to think through questions that involve topics like race, gender and power. And these chapters do not seem to slip into anything like nihilism. If the examples in Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics begin to suggest some ways forward, the book does not yet make explicit the arguments it would need to make in order to respond to important theological critiques of contemporary social sciences.

Objections to ethnography as theology and ethics might also arise from another quarter, one that inverts the starting point of Hauerwas and Milbank. Milbank and Hauerwas disagree with received methods and assumptions of social sciences for describing the way things really are. But they agree with the need to combine descriptions of church life with theological and ethical claims. But one could also imagine questions from a person who agrees with the received methods of social science but is very wary about attempts to move from them to more normative claims about theology or ethics. Scharen and Vigen defend ethnography as theology and ethics on its postliberal flank. But neo-Kantians in theology and ethics, on the one hand, and in history and the social sciences, on the other, might have questions, too.

James Gustafson poses just such a string of “Troeltschian questions” to postliberals in a 1999 issue of The Christian Century.9Gustafson spots the similarity between the historicism of Troeltsch’s day and the turns to culture that are at work in ours. And he revives Troeltsch’s worry that if all knowledge is historically (or culturally) situated, it cannot make claims to truth beyond the boundaries of its location. Won’t all this emphasis on situatedness and particularity—whether in history, culture, or some very particular place—just end in relativism? Gustafson knew that posing an abstract threat of relativism would determine the game in advance, for only a certain kind of abstract universal could satisfy the need posed by the threat of an abstract relativism. Gustafson instead developed his questions in more practical keys. Similar questions might be asked of Scharen and Vigen’s description of ethnography as theology and ethics.

1. Ethnography as theology and ethics raises questions about the nature and justification of the claims involved. For instance, when a theological ethnographer makes a claim, is it about God, or about what the informants believe to be true (whether explicitly or implicitly) about God? Or is this distinction part of the problem? If so, why is it a problem, and how should the theological ethnographer address it?

The question about the nature of claims is closely linked to questions about the justification of claims. For instance, it is easy to see how a theological ethnographer can make a claim about what a group of informants believe to be true. There are well-established criteria for judging the status of this kind of claim. It is more or less empirical. But if a theological ethnographer makes a claim not just about what a group believes to be true, but also about what is true about God, or about what is good, or right, or just, how should that claim be evaluated? What kinds of justifications or warrants might be offered for it?

2. A related but distinct set of questions arises about the extent of the authority of claims from theological ethnography. These questions become concrete through consideration of the diversity of worldviews that encounter one another in our time. And they can be clarified by comparing two kinds of claims. One could imagine a certain kind of old-school social scientist who makes an empirical claim about what one group of people believes about God. In doing so, she is asserting the truth of that claim for people in and beyond the group. She is claiming that it is a fact that these people at this time believe this. That fact is about some particular group of people. But the fact that this group of people believe something would claim to hold true for people in and beyond that group. What they believe might or might not be true about anything like “God.” And it might be true or false only for them. This old-school social scientist would have nothing to say to these questions. She would, however, insist that the fact that these people believe this to be true is a fact that is true for all.

But if a theological ethnographer studying the same group wanted to make claims about God—and not only about what the informants believed about God—how and for whom would those claims be true? Would they be true only for members of the group being studied, or for all people? If true for the group, how would the claims be justified to dissenters? If true for all, how could they be justified to people beyond the group? Would the theological ethnographer even want to convince someone from beyond the circle of informants to believe in this God? Would a person from beyond the circle of informants be wrong in some meaningful way if he did not believe in the God implicit in the informants’ lifeworld? Might some groups of informants be making claims that are true for all while others are either wrong or, if they are right, right only for themselves? How would we know the difference?

3. A third set of questions concerns method. Could a theological ethnographer ever make judgments that disagreed with an informant’s judgments? If so, on what grounds? Could a theological ethnographer use concepts not found in the informants’ lifeworlds—whether those imported concepts are explicit or implicit, theological or sociological—to describe the informants’ lifeworlds? Could a theological ethnographer disagree with the theology of a community’s description of its own life? For instance, when Jeffery Trible’s informants look at a church’s growth and say, “God did it,” could a theological ethnographer say, “Well, no. Class mobility did it”? On what grounds could a theological ethnographer say something like this? Or consider a case where the positions are reversed, and informants ascribe church growth to excellent marketing, hard work, and careful targeting of a growing niche. Could a theological ethnographer say that the informants are, in spite of what they think, caught up in a divine will that lets congregations grow and flourish where it will?

These Troeltschian questions have some purchase even without a scientistic account of the power of social sciences to offer a “neutral” or “objective” description. The questions would still need to be answered even if the social sciences were acknowledged as particular spaces in which power, knowledge and interests come together. The questions might then be reframed as concerning what it means to move from one particular place to another—or from one power-laden discourse to another—but they would retain a similar form.

Questions like these do not undermine the value of Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics. On the contrary, they underscore the great significance of the book, for it brings seemingly disparate conversations together as a complex but convivial whole. Scharen and Vigen’s book makes questions like these visible with fresh clarity and precision. And it already contains the seeds of many answers to these questions. Each of the schools that I named above has grappled with these questions. But their answers are different, and questions like the ones I have listed here can help to clarify the differences between them. The questions can help disaggregate members of a movement that can be lumped together too readily as just one thing. That disaggregation can clarify conversations that need to happen within the movement as well as at its edges.

Because these Troeltschian questions get at fundamental issues in theology, ethics and the social sciences, they open conversations about theological ethnography to new partners. Simply connecting the questions to Troeltsch helps in that work, for Troeltsch was a hub of 19th- and 20th-century history, philosophy and theology, immersed in core problems of his time and connected with only one degree of separation to a huge range of figures and texts. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, for instance, hammered out many of the main themes of their philosophies in a seminar on Troeltsch led by Gottfried Salomon-Delatour.10 And just these questions could be pressed to Adorno and Benjamin’s own studies of concrete cultural phenomena that open into theological and ethical registers. A complete account of what both figures might make of theological ethnography outruns the scope of this essay, but a brief consideration of Adorno might suggest one more way to approach ethnography as theology and ethics.11

Adorno famously critiqued the “identity thinking” in both positivist sociology and empty metaphysics. Positivism collapses any concept down into the object itself, and so establishes a one-dimensional world that is identical to itself. Positivism loses the ability to name the injustice of an existing state of affairs. It can only say that the state of affairs exists. Injustice becomes visible as injustice only with the juxtaposition of some concept of justice with the entity of existing social relations. Some concept—some kind of metaphysics—is necessary. But Adorno also critiques any metaphysics that would ignore its own entanglement in social relations and in the animal need within all human thinking. Such idle idealisms never touch the ground, and so give up any critical power they might have. Only when the metaphysical concept is confronted with those relations and that need—only when the concept is confronted with some concrete social entity—does it cease to be identical to itself and begin to release its truth content. Concept and entity should not be fused, then. One should not even build smooth bridges between them. But they can be juxtaposed. As Adorno writes at the end of Minima Moralia, “Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”12

To bring this messianic light to the ground, a theological ethnographer influenced by Adorno might follow Jeffery Trible’s lead in applying the concept “God did it” to the phenomenon of a congregation’s growth. But the interesting thing here would not be the ways that the concept fit the entity, but the gaps between the two—the ways that the social phenomenon outran, fell short of, exceeded, swerved around and otherwise failed to realize the theological concept. Seeing this gap—this wound, in Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s language—can open up a dialectical movement that is a kind of hope.13

Gillian Rose is right, I think, to worry that Adorno’s hope is entirely too listless. It consists only of persistence in the negative dialectic. It is endless mourning, “aberrated” mourning—a long, comfortable residence, as Georg Lukács said, at the Grand Hotel Abyss. In place of this comfortable despair, Rose proposes that we work our mourning. She argues that the gap between concept and entity, between theology and ethnography, opens up a space of freedom. And in that space we can exercise practical reasoning to address problems at hand. Rose’s practical reason has a certain poetic quality—reasonable action is not determined by the situation but created in poesis. And this practical, poetic reason “is comic, full of surprises, of unanticipated happenings, so that comprehension is always provisional and preliminary.”14 It, too, will be revealed to be non-identical with itself, and the space of freedom will open up again. Completion of one work of mourning only inaugurates the next work of mourning. The work of mourning goes on, and without the promise of progress. But the work itself is a kind of hopeful longing.

A theological ethnography that had learned from Adorno and Rose would not collapse the theological concept into the sociological entity, in a kind of enchanted positivism of some favored group. And it would not collapse the sociological entity up into the theological concept, with empirical studies offering only illustrations of pre-fabricated doctrines. It would instead pull theology and sociology apart, even while insisting that they belong together. And in that charged space between them, it would do the work of hope.

How would such a theological ethnography answer the Troeltschian questions posed above? It would be willing to risk claims about things like redemption—and not only what informants believed about redemption. It might be willing to risk assigning universal significance to those claims, even as it insisted on their fallibility. And it would be willing to interpret situations in ways that resisted or exceeded the interpretations of informants. But how could it justify such moves? What reasons could it give for its hope? Adorno was not terribly concerned about such questions, writing,

My experience was that whoever gave himself over in earnest to the discipline of a particular subject learned to distinguish very precisely between true and false, and that in contrast to such experience the assertion of general insecurity as to what is known had something abstract and unconvincing about it.15

Adorno was confident enough in the ordinary patterns of justification of various language games that no “general insecurity” about knowledge troubled him. On the contrary, the realization that thought “is not identical to being”—and that no amount of justification could close the gap—“not only allows the most convincing insights, but forces them.”16

I do not mean to suggest that Adorno has answered all of these questions and that anyone attempting to do ethnography as theology or ethics should follow his lead. I do mean to add thinkers like Adorno, Benjamin and Rose to the list of people someone interested in ethnography as theology and ethics might consult. It is one of the strengths of Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics that it invites these and other additions. It clarifies the questions at stake in such a way that it opens into new conversations. It does not settle all the questions it raises. But it makes it possible for us to ask them with fresh urgency and nuance. This is why it is a landmark in the field. It defines the present location and provides an essential point of reference for all of us trying to navigate this terrain.


  1. Christian Batalden Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen, Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics(London: Continuum, 2011).
  2. Ibid., 34.
  3. See Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations(The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1965); Edward Farley, “Interpreting Situations: An Inquiry into the Nature of Practical Theology,” in Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003); Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  4. See Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Overcoming the Myth of the Mental: How Philosophers Can Profit from the Phenomenology of Everyday Expertise,” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association79, no. 2 (2005) and Christian Scharen, “Learning Ministry Over Time: Embodying Practical Wisdom,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, ed. Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
  5. See Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Jeffrey Stout, Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  6. I have tried to say more about this cultural turn in Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 16-17. See also Richard Miller, “On Making a Cultural Turn in Religious Ethics,” Journal of Religious Ethics 33, no. 3 (2005): 409-43. I should be clear that I don’t think that a cultural turn necessarily leads to ethnography. In my own work it leads to thick theological histories that attend to the significance of performance, material culture, space, and more. Such work has a lot in common with ethnography, especially for the questions raised in this paper. But it raises a different set of questions for the ethics of research—questions that are central to Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics.
  7. Scharen and Vigen, Ethnography as Christian Ethnography and Ethics, xxii.
  8. Here I have in mind especially Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology(London: Verso, 1995).
  9. James M. Gustafson, “Just What Is ‘Postliberal’ Theology?,” Christian Century116, no. 10 (1999): 353-55.
  10. Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute(New York: Free Press, 1977), 194, n.53.
  11. In The New MeasuresI try to develop a related but not identical line of thought through reflections that put Benjamin in the foreground. The Fugleman chapter of that book describes the method and places it in relation to key postliberal and liberationist figures. The later chapters try to exemplify the method and deepen it through the process of connecting it to actual practice.
  12. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978), 279.
  13. See Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 379.
  14. Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 72.
  15. Theodor Adorno, Unpublished article on Karl Mannheim, 1947(?), Adorno estate, Frankfurt, quoted in Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, 53.
  16. Ibid.
By Ted A. Smith
Ted A. Smith is Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.