In Agreement with Krista Tippett

While sitting in the audience at a live Krista Tippett talk recently, I found myself in strong visceral agreement with words that I hadn’t anticipated would arrest me so much. Already a fan of Tippett’s for the ease at which she converses with people about challenging topics, I hadn’t really thought about potential vocational crossovers when it came to theology and anthropology.

Yet here I was, perching upright on the edge of my seat, heart pumping explosively, skin perspiring, lump in my throat, as Tippett began to describe her motifs for studying Divinity, nearly all of which I had once taken to be some key tenets for studying anthropology. Namely, to better account for human differences by confronting the unknown; questioning moral binaries (such as right and wrong or good and evil); thinking about rituals; appreciating how ‘truths’ play out in people’s stories rather than through facts. I spoke to her briefly afterwards about The Familiar Strange project and she seemed enthusiastic, too, to hear of the similarities in our visions.  

I do still like to think of theology and anthropology as quite distinguishable from one another, and the subtle and empowering qualities of marking diversities is important to keep thinking about (e.g., see our previous blog on multiculturalism by Simon). But similarities often go less recognised, and are important to think about when working through the social fallout of apparent differences.  Let’s focus on anthropology’s contributions to this debate for a moment.

Opinions to Knowledge to ‘Cultural Fundamentalism’

The anthropologist Nigel Rapport has drawn on the philosophers of Liberalism and Science to push anthropological analysis beyond notions of difference between people and cultures. Rapport cautions anthropologists against ‘cultural fundamentalism’, as we might better strive ‘toward a true knowledge of other as of self rather than a simple toleration of an imagined difference’. By considering the uncomfortable meanings that people have in common, Rapport suggests, we can take a clue from our very hesitancy to even go there and see those similarities – we tend toward protecting the idea that we’re different. We tend to think in terms of “I’m right” and “they’re wrong”.

In agreement with Karl Popper who stressed the importance of openness to critique, Rapport said that anthropologists need to remember that ‘individuals change their opinions less than societies do’. This is because opinions (often stubborn) are the beginnings of knowledge, but the latter has stood the test of more scrutiny: ‘[d]ifference becomes a step along the way to the recognition of universal human truth’.

While the notion of one human truth might be slippery, the experience of fear is one feasible candidate (and one we also share with non-human animals). Returning now to what Krista Tippett spoke of, it is important to note that when fear is unresolved it keeps happening, often manifesting in bitterness rather than growth.

Adolescent America, Fear and Racism

One of Tippett’s main messages was that we allow personal and social growth only when we confront what is painful and uncomfortable (echoing several previous blog posts I have written for The Familiar Strange). Tippett posited that American culture and a majority of people in it are not able to confront discomforts, and that anger is merely a publicly expressed symptom of fear and pain that haven’t yet been contemplated. She suggested that most of America appears to be stuck in ‘adolescence’ because contemplation requires a lot more effort. Although the American case is pretty exemplary, of course it’s not just Americans to whom this situation applies. Let’s think about racism for a moment.

To take fear as it results in racism as a more ‘universal’ case for how this adolescent hatred cycles thoughtlessly around, back in 1969 anthropologist Margaret Mead reflected that:

Children’s initial response to the strange often is one of fear. A brown-skinned child, seeing a white person for the first time, may scream with fear. A white-skinned child, seeing a dark person for the first time, may also. If the screaming, fearful child is comforted, reassured and given a chance to learn to know and trust the stranger, he will have one kind of response — one of trust and expectation of friendship. But if his fear is unassuaged or is reinforced by the attitude of the older children and adults around him, he may come to hate what he has feared. [as quoted by Maria Popova]

In the American context or otherwise, when is it too late to revise what we have learned? We must we keep learning how to work with our fears. Even if it means going against the grain a little, challenging Western values that teach us to dissociate from people and ideas that do not immediately serve our current selves, or reinforce how we differ from others.

Transcending the Self and Differences

Needless to say, connecting with those with whom we are unfamiliar or feel different from can be a very tall order (hence why anthropology isn’t a very popular subject of study!). In Western culture, generally, we like to think of ourselves as bounded individuals capable of ultimate independence while sharing our lives with others.  We are generally rewarded for exhibiting self-sufficiency over communality and spirituality. Fear – and the hard work of confronting it (along with other emotions) – is a large part of this story.

As Jules Evans said in a recent Aeon essay, ‘[t]he journey beyond the self is not safe or predictable’, then again ‘staying in the self also has its risks – boredom, staleness, sterility, despair’. In not risking discomfort, there’s also the unresolved fear (and pain) of that we are yet to comprehend. No one is entirely ‘wrong’ in their beliefs, but if you find yourself physically awoken by something – in agreement or angry revolt – it might be useful to recognise the points at which the chords struck, and to be more curious about the unforeseen overlaps.

Unlike Krista Tippett, I don’t believe in a God. I can, however, sense a spirituality through connections with the living human race. As an advocate of phenomenology, I view lived experiences of ‘self’ as being thoroughly enmeshed in a larger experience with others and the world. And there is no one disciplinary turf to best unpack that on – I can accept that theology and anthropology alike have common stakes in the road despite diverging a little on where the roads might lead us. It does not pay to be afraid of those common stakes. Further, I try to be what my partner describes as ‘anti-disciplinary’ in my thinking about knowledge, in order to keep interrogating present assumptions or ‘truths’ (yes, Foucault might have nodded along here too). 

                                                                                                                                                  [Image by Julia Brown]

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