Rachel on Johnson-Hanks, Seeman et. al., Seeman / Who Has the Jet?

Rachel Wrenn

September 28, 2016

Precis: Johnson-Hanks, Seeman et. al., Seeman



My brother the airline pilot tells a story of learning how to fly a plane. When he would go up in the air with an instructor, they went in a plane that had two steering mechanisms, one for the instructor and one for the student. In this situation, it was essential to be impeccably clear on who had control of the plane. Thus, when the instructor wished the student to take over, s/he would say, “You have the jet,” and the student would respond, “I have the jet.”

“I have the jet” captures a wide range of the questions with which our readings for this week wrestled: in issues of reproduction, who has the jet—women, God, or even public health? In issues of studying these women, their bodies, and their situations, who has the jet—theology, anthropology, the government? “Who has the jet”: who has control, agency, authority to act, speak, or even study what is happening in issues of women and reproduction or even the broader category of anthropological studies today?

Or, perhaps, as some of our readings suggest, can they share the jet?


Our readings this week frame this discussion around the issue of women, reproduction, and theological language. Jennifer Johnson-Hanks offers a thorough study of women and reproductive issues in Cameroon in the article “When the Future Decides.” In it, she makes the argument that rational action cannot be limited to one definition; it looks different in different times and contexts. Borrowing from the phenomenology of Schutz, the philosophy of mind of Searle, statistical theory, and statistical data, Johnson-Hanks challenges the definition of intentional action as something that can only happen in a premeditated, organized way, along with challenging the use of statistics and certain philosophies to make sense of Cameroonian intentional action. In Cameroon, intentional action, especially around issues of reproduction, involves an “openness to opportunity” (367) since there are so many contingent and uncertain factors which would affect premeditated planning. It is only when one is presented with concrete, fixed options that one can make a plan or decision.

Johnson-Hanks includes a wide spread of evidence to support her claim. Quite simply on a literary level, such an impressive inclusion of evidence assumes an impressive base of knowledge in her readers. Johnson-Hanks makes a sophisticated argument, but one that is difficult to follow without a background in all of the areas of evidence she includes. She includes an implicit critique of imposing Western notions on other countries (which now always causes me to ask, “What exactly is encompassed in “The West”?), such as the belief that Cameroon had a “substantial ‘unmet need’ for family planning” (363). How would taking seriously the Cameroonian’s authentic way of intentionally acting change a health organization’s approach to helping them with reproductive planning? Or are the two mutually exclusive?

Uncertainty in reproductive planning forms a linchpin between “When the Future Decides” and “Divinity Inhabits the Social.” Whereas the question of premeditated, intentional action in reproductive planning is a moral or philosophical one in Cameroon, for the women of Naomi’s House, the researchers discovered it is also a religious and ethical one: should they, as humans, have the ability to plan/control their pregnancies? Or does such planning/control somehow limit their openness to divine will, agency, and even care for them (similar, in some ways, to how the women of Cameroon are concerned with limiting their openness to future opportunities)?

The main claim of the article is a methodological one, specifically around the relationship between anthropology and theology; without such careful attention to the theological language of the women, this issue of agency might have been missed and their self-description as “spiritual but not religious” assigned to a growing pile of “evidence” for the direction of the culture of religion. Neither the insight around agency or the intra-Christian struggle of “spiritual but not religious” would have been discovered without the careful and informed attention to theological language and actions of the women themselves and the theological training on the part of the researchers which allowed them to speak knowledgeably about theological topics. The paper makes clever use of language, naming theology (“queen of the sciences”) as just one player amongst many and anthropology (an “objective” science) as practically a religion in its own right (16). Overall the paper offers a compelling argument, ending with a call to careful collaboration between the two disciplines, steadfastly “hugging the shoreline of lived experience” (11), much as anthropology and biomedicine have wrestled and collaborated in more recent times.

I found myself getting lost in trying to figure out how, exactly, an anthropologist unfamiliar with a religious field would go about ensuring reputable “expert” theologian advice. How many “flavors” of theology are necessary to make an anthropological claim? Much like the tendency to brush broad strokes over “Protestantism” or “Catholicism,” there is great variation within the Christian theological tradition, much less the Jewish theological tradition (using that word with the same caution as Dr. Seeman), the Muslim tradition, etc. There is a lack of attention in the article to advising a sympathetic anthropologist how to go about carefully obtaining theological expertise. Perhaps this is article is a premature place to make that claim in that it is merely attempting to broach the idea of  some kind of collaboration between anthropologist and theologians; however, it is my experience that convincing someone that a strategy is possible goes a long way to convincing them it is valuable. So, a question for us today: how much of a theological “spread” do we consider necessary for an anthropologist to truly understand a concept? How would they easily go about finding the theological “experts?” How could they be certain they’re getting experts and not evangelists (not to make a dirty word out of “evangelist,” but to use it in the sense of one who offers information v. one who attempts to convert)? I have been around enough theologians, especially systematic theologians, to know how quickly the discussion can devolve into arguments; so, how “expert” should the “expert” be before their “expertise” becomes downright unhelpful?

In “Where is Sarah Your Wife,” Seeman demonstrates this necessity for collaboration through an impressive flexing of text-critical muscles. His main point is to lift up how essential it is for anthropologists to have access to theological and literary insight into biblical texts before making historical anthropological claims on said text. In addressing a mistaken understanding of the Biblical image of men “going in” to women’s tents as a historical clue to an earlier, matriarchal type of marriage called beena marriage, Seeman argues that this misunderstanding happened because anthropologists failed to understand the Bible first as literature and theology. Without adequate theological and literary knowledge of the Bible as such, the poetic image of men “going into” women’s tents was misconstrued just as easily the Naomi’s House women’s description of their pregnancies as blessings could have been without proper and careful attention.


So, theology and anthropology: can they share the jet? The answer, of course, is obvious: no. If one remains in this metaphor, then it is precisely a single entity’s control over the jet that makes the situation safest. Thus, in this metaphor’s terms, there is much at stake, for there can only be one winner with authority over the jet.

And perhaps that’s precisely the problem: public health, theology, and anthropology are all working with a flawed metaphor. Seeman concludes his article “Divinity Inhabits the Social” with a statement that manages to be at one and the same time cheeky and profound: “Theological languages…might even prove a blessing to anthropology.” Around medieval times, theology was understood as the “Queen of the Science;” today one would be hard pressed to find an anthropologist who would put theology much above the “Jester of the Sciences.” The possible “blessing” lifted up at the end of “Divinity Inhabits the Social” will become possible only when both disciplines confess that their own frameworks are crippling their potential rather than crowning their authority. So, a possible question for us today is, What’s a better metaphor?


  • Can theology by its very nature be a conversation partner? While there are certainly similarities between the self-conceptions of the fields of biomedicine and theology (“expert professional fields”), does the added tendency of theology to view itself as primary not just because of knowledge but because of divine anointing, as it were, make it even possible for it to be a conversation partner?
  • Where is the line when is a text too problematic to be used for merely literary or historical reasons? I appreciated Seeman et. al.’s focus in “Blessing unintended pregnancy” on giving some authority in the anthropological discussion back to the women themselves; however, the article on “Where Is Sarah Your Wife?” failed to acknowledge this same lack of authority over their own bodies that was true for women in the biblical text/context, especially evident in the traumatic story of the rape of Dinah. While it is unfair to critique a text written long before contemporary feminism, it is essential, if one wishes to speak about a religious text’s poetic or historical aspects, to acknowledge its fraught presentation of an oppressed segment of society, much the same way one has to do with Martin Luther and anti-Semitism, for example. It’s not enough to ignore those aspects, or to merely suggest that these writers were products of their time; their problems have to be lifted up and acknowledged. So, the question: is it possible in today’s world for a religious text such as the rape of Dinah to be discussed solely on its poetic or anthropological aspects? When does such a discussion sans an acknowledgment of its problems risk shutting the reader’s “ears” to the larger argument at stake?

One thought on “Rachel on Johnson-Hanks, Seeman et. al., Seeman / Who Has the Jet?

  1. Hey Rachel,

    I’m glad that you brought up the question of which theologies, when, and how should anthropology engage them. Something I was thinking about because of my own positionality is whether doing “experience-near” ethnography is necessarily always a departure from formal or “expert” theology. From my own Quaker perspective, theological claims or experiences articulated by informants wouldn’t necessarily be considered less formal or canonical than academic theology, though they might be less well-read so to speak, because Quaker theology is (theoretically) developed out of a whole community’s experiences of God. Every person has a piece of divine truth and contributes to theology, in other words. This is (showing my cards) one of the reasons I’m drawn to ethnographic work in the first place, because I think that lived theologies have important theological truths to teach more formal theologies. So doing experience-near work is actually kind of theologically motivated for me. But I guess I’m wondering what to do with that in the ethnographic space–acknowledge it? Try and bracket it? Would good empiricists want to run screaming from this, or is it not that different from rather mildly saying that we have something to learn from all our informants? Are there other traditions that would inherently value/privilege community knowledge, or am I a weird outlier?

    Another, totally unrelated question I had in the readings had to do with the explanations that experience-near methods come up with. The accounts of mothers using “blessing” to describe pregnancy in precarious situations resonated a lot with explanations I was given in interviews with low-income mothers with depression in Boston. They didn’t use “blessing” per se, but many located the birth of their child as a crucial turning point in their self-development, which was also often wrapped up in their understanding of God’s plan or desires for them (e.g “God wanted me to be more responsible so he sent me my son”). I think there are important conversations to be had about agency here, as there are with the Naomi House women, but I also find myself wondering to what extent the theology is part of resolving a cognitive dissonance after the fact: I have to make meaning of this situation, and this is the meaning I assign to it. Which isn’t to say that the meanings made are less real, but I guess I wonder if we would read the theologies any differently if this were the case. Maybe notions about divine agency aren’t widespread in a community; maybe they arise after particular kinds of experiences like unintended (whatever that means) pregnancy. Does that change anything about our reading of the women’s explanations? I don’t know, this is an active question for me.

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