Chava Green: Unit 8- Vernacular Religion and Theological Discourse

This week’s readings offer us a number of methodological, analytic and ethnographic openings within the discourses of public health, women’s reproduction and theological anthropology.  Each article brings another facet to bear upon the thematic questions of agency, intentionality and contingency in women’s reproductive lives. As a number of authors have noted, women’s experience in childbirth is a privileged location to address such concerns since it is an experience that is often imbued with a range of cross-cutting meanings in their social and spiritual lifeworlds.

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks article, “When the Future Decides Uncertainty and Intentional Action in Contemporary Cameroon,” introduces these topics through the lens of women’s reproductive action and intention in the uncertain world of Cameroon at the end of the 1990s.  She approached her fieldwork within the typical language of family-planning literature common in public health discourse about intentionality, namely that women engage in family planning in order to enact their intentions regarding their family size and timing. She was met with a very different reality in the field when women responded to her questions about desired family size with a blanket uncertainty about the future and what it holds.  She uses theoristics in the phenomenological and philosophical schools, namely Schutz and Searle, to build a complex notion of what constitutes intention. Her conclusion, which is that there is a meaningful relationship between intentional projects and behaviors, is called into question when it is brought into ethnographic situations in which uncertainty and particularly economic and social instability are pervasive. She also raises the inconsistency between experiential uncertainty and the uncertainty measured in models in social statistics which quantify uncertainty in charts and scales.  In a skillful analysis, Johnson-Hanks shows the disciplinary limits of fields that speak in numbers and abstractions compared to the lived-experiences of women in Cameroon; however, I was left wondering if her response that uncertainty and “judicious opportunism” are the primary ways to tell a more “true” story.

In conversation with “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” and Don Seeman’s,“Divinity Inhabits the Social,” it seemed that some discussion or recognition of the way that divine players are part of the uncertainty in women’s reproductive discourse in Cameroon might be useful.  Although we were not privy to her full ethnographic data, in a few of the accounts or interviews Johnson-Hanks relates point to God or local religious beliefs as actors in people’s lives. For example, when she replied to questions about how many children she would like to have with the number two, “any bystanders would laugh uproariously and tell me that it was God who gave children” (pg 369).  In the article “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy,” a team of researchers from various backgrounds investigated the experience of unintended pregnancies among women in a homeless shelter in the American Southwest and found that such recourse to divine agency and the category of “blessing” was, in fact, an important analytic frame. Seeman posits in his article that to engage theology in anthropological work could involve using it as a prism through which to generate more accurate insights into the complexities of human affairs.  This appears to be the way that “Blessings Unintended Pregnancy” sought to bring to light the experiences of women in Naomi’s House, the homeless shelter.

What is raised here most prominently for me in the above discussion is the usefulness and validity of different methodological tools.  The crux seems to be what the scholar of a certain discipline or field seeks to accomplish through their work. A social statisian may be less concerned with how women experience uncertainty than with how a quantifiable graft of uncertainty can be used to track economic growth or decline over time.  A public health official might need to divide pregnancies into intended/unintended in order to distribute resources for contraceptives to locations with higher need. The question, then, is what does an ethnography, which serves to complicate and blur such binary or rigid analysis, hope to accomplish?  I think in both cases it serves a valuable tool. There must be an awareness of what categories people use to frame their lives in order to accurately ask questions and provide them resources. As the women in the homeless shelter showed, access to medical help or contraceptives does not necessarily mean they will use or trust them.  In Cameroon, Johnson-Hanks found that her questions may have failed because “numbers simply do not matter very much… whereas the social goal of honorable motherhood—being a woman who bears all her children within monogamous marriage” does.

Theological discourse and the attending vernacular language attached to it may be a critical way to read ethnographic data.  Don Seeman makes this point powerfully in his article when he writes that, “revered ancestors, village goddesses, and possessing spirits are all encountered as actors, moral agents, and participants—sometimes overwhelmingly important participants—in the social order that anthropologists study” (pg 336).  This is evidenced in the experience of the homeless women in Naomi’s House who experience pregnancy often as an act of divine agency that they do not want to or are not able to resist. Don also raises important distinctions between the use of strong doctrinal theology compared to the more vernacular language used by people in the field.  They can both be mobilized in ethnographic analysis but not to the exclusion of one of the other or to define to narrowly the factors in people’s lives. This balance is something I hope to explore more in class and I wonder how much this is also a divide between discursive readings and phenomenological readings of events.

For my own work, I found Seeman’s discussion of non-Christian uses of theology compelling.  He defines theology there more broadly as “a family of different kinds of expert discourse about religion” (pg 353).  This sort of engagement is at the heart of his article “‘Where is Sarah Your Wife?’ Cultural Poetics of Gender and Nationhood in the Hebrew Bible” where the use of open and closed imagery is explored across biblical and anthropological locations.  Read in conjunction with the other articles this week, its discussion of motherhood as blessing in a biblical context was perhaps the theological backdrop that could be employed to better understand cultural realities surrounding reproduction. I am interested in looking at the ‘cultural poetics’ of birth in Hasidic texts, which relate it to a larger redemptive project, as they may play out in the lives of Hasidic women for whom childbirth and rearing are overwhelmingly large parts of life.  I am curious to see how much they use the language of Hasidus, which may be a “Jewish Theology,” and how much they employ their own vernacular language.

Some closing questions I am left with from our readings are about how to attribute agency to different actors and how to read divine agency in ethnographic settings.  As Don wrote, using a theological lens is just one of many analytic tools available to an anthropologist upon their secondary step of work then their own analysis comes into play.  How does this push up against methodological atheism that we have discussed? Can we employ a theology that we are actively engaged with personally without entering into the danger of using the wrong analytic tool?  Or perhaps our privileged position will help us see what other cannot.  

7 Replies to “Chava Green: Unit 8- Vernacular Religion and Theological Discourse”

  1. Chava, thank you for your detailed and insightful precis. I think that you’ve tied our four readings for this week together in a helpful way. As I was reading the articles and nearing the end of your precis, I was also contemplating the implication of employing theological language in ethnographic study from the a position of methodological atheism. I am interested in discussing how ethnography, a discipline committed to methodological atheism, might conceive of its use of and relationship to theology, which is typically committed to just the opposite.

    As well, I wonder about how the ethnographer adequately accounts for the phenomenological experience of research participants who, as in our readings for this week, perceive of the Divine as a real and present actor in social situations. Does Johnson-Hanks provide the best model for this in her move to explanations provided by philosophy and statistical analysis? As you’ve noted, and I agree, Johnson-Hanks’ analysis of the role of religion is lacking. I wonder how taking seriously the place of the Divine in her participant’s accounts might have changed her analysis – and if her conclusions about agency, ambivalence, contingency, and “judicious opportunism” would have been nuanced or challenged as a result.

  2. Last week during class as we were attempting to define “Christianity” I mentioned the notion of language. However, I could not articulate the reasons why language is a key component of defining anything, particularly where the work of ethnography is concerned. Language, as I see it, is the intersection of the assigned articles this week – religious vernacular, local colloquialisms, and even statistics. It becomes clearer to me through the articles, especially Jennifer Johnson Hanks’ work, how language as the lens through which one understands a particular community is so vital. Johnson Hanks rightly critiques assumptions grounded in “Western philosophy and social thought” and privileges the voices of the Cameroonian women which disrupts our understanding of intention and action. (p. 364) I contend that reproductive choice is removed from being a practice of religion to one of agency. Such nuanced understanding of a woman’s right to choose and how she speaks about those choices reorients a willing ethnographer’s work towards the interlocutors’ consciousness. It also negates any statistical analysis considered. This portion of the article was interesting. Form the outset I questioned how can one measure intentionality and expect to see any statistical significance? Is the language of statistics ever useful in the work of ethnography? It seems to me that ethnography calls for more humanistic approaches to the study of people, culture, and religion.
    “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy,” in its study of religion, spirituality, and reproductive choice/contingency, implicitly critiques the church and the ways in which theology and doctrine are taught and understood. Whispers of theodicy and redemption through unintended and/or tragic circumstances negate the narratives of those who find no redemption and no reason for their plight. This is another kind of “language” that broadens one’s comprehension of how religiosity effects choice and how one interrogates and understands their life.

  3. Chava, thank you for your precis. I think you hit the nail on the head with your summary and analysis. I really found it interesting to consider the importance of one’s framework. The emphasis society puts on bearing children sets up one’s own view of what being a mother looks like. It can create harmful patterns where a lack of trust is formed concerning contraceptives. I also am interested in our discussion on moral agency and the use of theology when it comes to ethnography. Each person also brings about their own theological world when he or she encounters another person, and that world greatly shapes one’s view of the other.

  4. Thanks for the precis, Chava! It did a good job summarizing the many articles you had to take on for this week.

    As I think everyone has already commented, these texts all touch in some way on questions of uncertainty and contingency. How do we act when we are unsure of outcomes? Even more pointedly, how do we act when answering “how do we act” is dependent on outcomes that haven’t happened yet? The Johnson-Hanks, Seeman et al , and Seeman articles all engage with this question in different ways. Johnson-Hanks argues for a certain treatment of contingency as a phenomenological way of being (a similar conclusion, reached in very different language and approach, to Premawardhana’s argument for a certain kind of phenomenology of polyontological mobility among the Mahkuwa).

    Seeman et al introduce the fact that certain theological language can help constitute the experience of contingency. In his solo article, Seeman develops this further by arguing that theological concepts can play a role in constructing the social world where experience occurs. The danger, of course, is the tension between taking your theological cues *from* people’s experiences and imposing a theological language *on* people’s experiences.

    I offer that picture of how the pieces here fit together not to take issue with anything said! Instead, I think it leads into a question you raise about the dangers of bringing one’s own theology to the table: How do we read divine agency in ethnographic settings? And when is this “read into” rather than “read from” experience?

    The invocation of the as-if seems key–we act “as-if” the divine is real and present so as to construct a phenomenological understanding of the experience of another person. But I tend to think that the operation of the as-if produces a fundamentally different consciousness in the ethnographer than in the participant, a consciousness built on the idea of the suspension of itself. I will operate as if my consciousness is suspended in the possibility that another consciousness is more true–that the thing I don’t believe is real. In theater, it’s called “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

    But theater both is and isn’t reality, a shadowplay of things in and beyond itself. Is this ethnography, as well–to witness an experience the way an audience witnesses a play, across a chasm of “as-if” that is wider or more proximate based on the skill of the teller and the openness of the witness?

    Maybe. If so, then are we kidding ourselves when we say we “treat the divine as real” in a given context? We treat it as “real enough” for a phenomenological account. But isn’t that sentence an oxymoron? If we begin from a phenomenological position that holds that the experience is irreducible, then how can we get “close enough” and still think we’ve said anything worthwhile about experience? The irreducibility might suggest that the thing is more than even an assemblage of its parts, so it is unlikely if not impossible that any number of “close enough” accounts could ever portray the experience.

    I don’t mean for this to sound like I reject what Seeman sets as the ethnographic project, which is to produce “more adequate descriptions and analyses of the situated contexts in which human life transpires” (337). But I wonder whether how it could be possible that this project could be accomplished, and how we can understand other’s experiences, across the as-if, or in the intersubjective space that involves self and other.

    Here, I think, I just feel the absence of a certain move in ethnography, one that Seeman highlights in his book chapter: “social science boasts a relatively impoverished vocabulary for the analysis and description of alterity or transcendence of self” (347). Ethnography often proceeds on the belief that being in place together allows for some understanding of another’s experience. And yet ethnographic theory, in what I know, often does not articulate how this could possibly be the case. How might we know anything of another’s experience? What is the mechanism?

    It may seem to be enough to say, “Well, it doesn’t matter how it works–it works,” since anthropologists do not, by and large, claim to be philosophers or theologians.

    But to bring this unwieldy comment back around, I think that answer becomes less satisfying when we ask your question, “How do we read divine agency in ethnographic context?” How do we know when we’re “reading into” versus “reading from” experience? Quite simply, it seems impossible to know whether we’ve “read into” or “read from” unless we know how we are possibly able to read experience *at all.*

    That way, we have some way to articulate when we have gotten off track–much like this comment did several overly-long paragraphs ago.

  5. Chava, thank you for your précis. One question I have concerning Johnson-Hanks article is found on page 371 top left column. She writes, “Now, I may want to know the range of values within which I can be 95% certain that a true length lies: the confidence interval.” What I found strikingly odd is that the ladies being interviewed spoke that life was unpredictable. Yet a western scholar is predicting with percentages. Is this but another example of using western “categories” to understand a non-western people? I also appreciate your comments on the strengths and limitations of the varieties of methodological tools ethnographers will use, and how those tools will shape and impact one’s research. Finally, you mention that “discussion of non-Christian uses of theology compelling,” which for me brings up an interesting question. What impact, good, bad, or indifferent, does an ethnographer’s religious beliefs impact her/his analysis of the data? As a Christian pastor for 26 years, I struggled with the “language of blessing” within the lifestyles of some of these women in Seeman’s article. My question is not about judging the truth claims of these women. I raise this question as to address how one mitigates one’s own bias in her/his analysis.

  6. Chava, thank you for your well-structured précis. You have woven and put together takeaways from all the readings quite well. I particularly found the idea of Vernacular theologies interesting and also useful for my own project. While I was unable to relate to the idea of theology, as I read Don Seeman’s article, in the beginning; by the end of it, however, I was able to understand its usage in a more comprehensive way in non-christian traditions. Unlike a few readings we did in the past weeks, these essays spell out their approach and method very clearly. I do see merit in the project and see its possible implications on History writing too. I would like to learn more about how one strikes the right balance between the mainstream and vernacular theologies while developing analytic categories.

  7. Chava, thank you for your precis. One of the questions that I have here is how I should form questions for interview. We see from Johnson-Hanks’ article that she got responses from educated Cameroonian women that she did not expected (numbers does not matter). You also mentioned that “Johnson-Hanks found that her questions may have failed.” This makes me think that she asked with intention or maybe had an idea what their responses would be like. However, as we learned from the class that we never know what we will hear/find/see from the interview and field work. Then, what would be the best or safest way to ask questions for ethnographic research? I do not need to worry about forming questions as I will always end up with something new and what I did not expect? I believe this is important as how I form or list questions may entirely shift the direction of research.

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