World Christianity and Interdisciplinarity: Combining Theology and Social Sciences in the Field of World Christianity

Elizabeth Marteijn is a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh. Her research brings together the methods of theology and ethnography in the study of Palestinian Christianity. She attended the conference on World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary from 18–20 January 2018 and offers the following in conversation with Jason Bruner’s recent essay on this blog.

Cornelis de Man, A Scholar in His Study

The goal of the recent World Christianity conference, held at Princeton Theological Seminary from 18–20 January, was to inquire into the state of the field considering the currents, perspectives and methodologies. One of the conclusions was the fruitfulness of the intersection between theology and social sciences, in particular ethnography and the anthropology of Christianity, within the field of World Christianity, as was highlighted earlier on this blog by Jason Bruner.

In this post, I will explore some of the reasons why the intersection between theology and social sciences is proving so popular. One part of the answer is that World Christianity has developed as an interdisciplinary academic enterprise, with historical, missiological, theological and social-scientific interests. In addition, there have been trends in World Christianity in which different approaches blended together. Firstly, after the publication of the seminal works of Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans in the 1980s and 1990s, a proliferation of contextual theological works appeared.1 With this attention to the context, theology becomes to a greater extent a matter of reflection on human life in view of the Christian tradition and opens up to social-scientific study. Secondly, there are trends to study theological reflection and engagement of ordinary people by interviewing them. Diane Stinton and Jason Carter have produced two such works.2 I consider these trends as preliminary to the recent interest in the intersection between anthropology, theology and World Christianity.

For a more complete answer, this intersection needs to be understood in relationship to developments in related fields. At the same time World Christianity emerged in the 2000s, a group of theologians in ecclesiology and practical theology, including Christian Scharen, Pete Ward, and Mary McClintock-Fulkerson, started using ethnographic research methods to ask and answer theological questions.3 This turn is innovative in the sense that the scholars do not simply apply these ethnographic methods as complementary, but embrace them as a way to ground their theological work in lived experience.

Within anthropology this changed with the emergence of the anthropology of Christianity and, specifically, when Joel Robbins published his article “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” (2006).4 He argues that anthropologists could move beyond treating theology with suspicion and be open to transformation and revision by theologians. We are now some years further on and have seen anthropologists building on Robbins thesis, like Joseph Webster, Timothy Larsen, and Brian Howell.5 Currently, there are two promising projects focussing on this dialogue between anthropologists and theologians: the Theologically Engaged Anthropology project led by Derrick Lemons and the On Knowing Humanity project led by Eloise Meneses.6

Jason Bruner is right to note the trend among the postgraduate students who attended the PTS conference to find new ways to combine different methodological approaches. This move towards interdisciplinarity is a trend among postgraduate students in general, but maybe among PhD candidates in World Christianity in particular. This is due to the broad educational background many PhD candidates in World Christianity have received. Postgraduate students at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity in Edinburgh, for example, complete courses from different disciplines. I have finished a course in mission studies from a theological perspective, courses in African and Asian Christianity from a historical perspective and a course in the anthropology of Christianity from the social-scientific perspective. Previously, World Christianity was a conversation between scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds. It seems that the new generation tries to let this conversation happen within their work. Bruner notes that the future of the field of World Christianity seems to be marked by disciplinary openness and I expect he will be right.

Still, some questions remain unanswered. How will these disciplines be used together: as complementary, in dialogue or even in mutual transformation? How will the theological ethnographer or ethnographic theologian deal with one’s own faith background? In other words, how much space does one give for normativity and belief? To which extent should one prioritise a focus on the religious aspects in relation to other aspects of human life? These are just a couple of questions added to the ones Bruner already posed.

On top of that, it is important to note that the engagement of ethnography and anthropology on the one hand and theology on the other hand is not unproblematic. The relationship between anthropology and theology is full of tensions. The secular nature of anthropology and the Christian-commitment of theology seem to be radically opposed to each other. There are major obstacles like those pointed out by John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas, who rejected theology borrowing from social sciences and a majority of anthropologists wanting to uphold the secularity and liberal values of their discipline.7 Yet, I argue that the previously described changes in World Christianity, theology and anthropology bring these two disciplines to a moment that they are ready to make the rigid boundaries more porous. Studies that use anthropological, ethnographic and theological research methods are starting to be produced and we heard several examples during the conference as well, but these studies are still few and mainly focussed on the authors’ own cultural and ecclesiastical background.

World Christianity is inherently interdisciplinary, and thus this field could be the place par excellence to apply this synthesis and help develop it. The methodological openness of World Christianity removes the disciplinary obstacles theologians and anthropologists might face. We are only at the beginning of this dialogue between World Christianity, theology and anthropology, and I see much promise for the future of this development.


  1. Stephen B. Bevans (2002) Models of Contextual Theology. Revised and Expanded Edition. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books) and Robert J. Schreiter (1985) Constructing Local Theologies. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books). 
  2. Jason A. Carter (2017) Inside the Whirl Wind. The Book of Job through African Eyes. (Eugene: Pickwick Publications) and Diane B. Stinton (2004) Jesus in Africa. Voices of Contemporary African Christology. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books). 
  3. Mary McClintock Fulkerson (2007) Places of Redemption. Theology for a Worldly Church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Christian Scharen (ed.) (2012) Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography. (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) and Pete Ward (ed.) (2012) Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography. (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). 
  4. Joel Robbins “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” Anthropological Quarterly 79:2 (2006), pp. 285-294. 
  5.  Brian M. Howell, “The repugnant cultural other speaks back. Christian identity as ethnographic ‘standpoint’,” Anthropological Theory 7:4 (2014), pp. 371-391; Timothy Larsen (2014) The Slain God. Anthropologists and the Christian faith. (Oxford: Oxford University Press.) and Joseph Webster (2013) The Anthropology of Protestantism. Faith and Crisis amongst Scottish Fishermen. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan). 
  6. Derrick J. Lemons (ed.) (2018) Theologically Engaged Anthropology. Social Anthropology and Theology in Conversation. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). [Forthcoming] and Eloise Meneses & David Bronkema (eds.) (2017) On Knowing Humanity. Insights from Theology for Anthropology. (New York: Routledge). 
  7. Stanley Hauerwas, (1988) Christian Existence Today. Essays on Church, World and Living in Between. (Durham: The Labyrinth Press) and John Milbank (1990) Theology and Social Theory. Beyond Secular Reason. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing). 

2 thoughts on “World Christianity and Interdisciplinarity: Combining Theology and Social Sciences in the Field of World Christianity

  1. Pingback: Looking Eastward: The Middle East in the Field of World Christianity | Centre for the Study of World Christianity

  2. Pingback: Latin American Christianity in the US: A Window Into the Study of Migrant Christianity and its Theological Benefits | Centre for the Study of World Christianity

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