Friday, September 04, 2015

Fieldwork in Theology (Christian Scharen) -- Review

FIELDWORK IN THEOLOGY: Exploring the Social Context of God's Work in the World (The Church and Postmodern Culture)By Christian Scharen. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Xviii + 117 pages.

                It is probably a truism that theology has a cultural context, and therefore it behooves theologians to take that context into consideration as they do their work. That would include, I would add, pastors who are called upon to do theology in a particular context. My sense is that most of us who do theology, whether in the academy or in the parish, are not fully informed as to what that involves. That is, most of us do not have a strong background in the social sciences. As for me, I am a pastor who is trained as a historical theologian. I am by training an intellectual historian not a social historian. In other words, I spent my time reading books not doing field work! So, when I requested a review copy from the publisher, I may not have fully appreciated what I was getting myself into. That said I still want to offer my thoughts on the book and its value to our work of doing theology.

Christian Scharen, vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, is fully conversant with both theology and the social context. He has studied the leading sociologists, including the French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu and his mentors and students. In this book, which is a volume in Baker’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series, edited by James K. A. Smith, Scharen attempts to engage in a form of “theological ethnography.” He wants to show the reader how to do the kind of field work necessary to discern the connection between divine action and human response.


Although the editor believes that this book will be useful to pastors, it is probably more directed at doctoral students in theology and culture. I know that I found it to be a challenging read, because I simply do not have the background in the social sciences, and I don’t know who these figures are and why they might be helpful to us. Scharen attempts to introduce us to them, and brings them into conversation with contemporary theologians, perhaps the most well known being Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.   

Scharen begins the book by making his argument for the importance of fieldwork to theology and introduces us to the social scientists who will  help us connect theology and culture, so that the church might be better able to discern what God is doing in the world and then getting involved in that work. Thus, this has a strong missional appeal. As he writes in the concluding paragraph of this first chapter: “In order to engage ministry with vitality, perceive the new things God is doing, and ‘participate in God’, leaders have to get out and learn what’s going on and how to relate to the people and context where they are. Fieldwork in theology is that simple—and that complicated” (p. 30). In essence this is a response to the premise that we are resident aliens. That may be true, but we still need to understand our context.

After laying out what fieldwork in theology involves, the remainder of the book involves looking at specific elements of that interaction between theology and culture/society. For instance in one chapter he explores the relationship of science and sin through the eyes of sociologist Gaston Bachelard, whose non-Cartesian epistemology allows him to recognize the complexities of human life. From this, Scharen moves perception and incarnation through the lens of the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. From this the author returns to Bourdieu and a chapter on "practical logic." Here the author introduces us to two key terms for Bourdieu—field ("a way to name objective, historical relations within a specific domain of society," and "habitus," which "names these same relations deposited like sediment within one's embodied capacities of perception and action." That is, thinking in sports terms—the field is soccer, the habitus is the player. As theologians we are the habitus, the players on the field of God’s creation. The interaction of these two is key to understanding something -- including divine action and human response.  Finally he moves to the work of Loic Wacquant, a Bourdieu student, and what he calls "carnal sociology." What is meant here is that to truly understand a subject/situation one must abandon the rule against going native, and getting fully engaged in the situation in order to study it. Among the examples he gives is a PhD dissertation by a Vanderbilt student, now Baptist theologian, who sought to understand the connection between theology and practice by becoming involved in a congregation's education program, fully immersing herself in the situation, thus the work is both theology and memoir. 

I must admit that I struggled with this book. I simply do not have the background in the social sciences to fully appreciate the effort. I think that there is much of value here, but my own limitations in preparation (for instance, the key figures in the book are largely unknown to me) made it difficult to appreciate that value. That said I do believe that we need to understand our context and the social sciences are key to do this. Fieldwork is an important aspect to this work, but many of us have much to learn. This is perhaps a first step that will help some make that connection, and then perhaps they can communicate that message to the rest of us so we can discern the relationship of context to theological work. 

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