Fieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World

Christian Scharen
Published by Baker Academic in 2015

Reviewed by Joshua R. Sweeden, Theology, George Fox Evangelical Seminary

Christian Scharen’s Fieldwork in Theology is a recent addition to Baker Academic’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series. It joins the series, which is largely dominated by perspectives from Radical Orthodoxy and MacIntyrean thought, by offering a clarion call for theological ethnography in ecclesiology. Scharen’s text spurs a necessary dialogue regarding the limitations of idealist constructions of church and the importance of contextual attentiveness for understanding the nature of the church in God’s mission. Series editor James K. A. Smith, in fact, notes the value and function of Scharen’s text in the midst of the “disappointment” in discovering that Radical Orthodoxy’s church as an “alternative society, a haven from liberalism, an outpost of the kingdom, [and] a community of reconciliation” turned out to be hard to find and no less abstract (xi).

Within ecclesiology—the field of theology devoted to the study of the nature of the church—the critique of abstract and idealist blueprint ecclesiologies is not new, nor is the argument for the inclusion of social sciences in ecclesiology. But Scharen offers a new lens, while giving due credit to Kathryn Tanner, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Nicholas Healy, who have argued similarly. The value of Scharen’s work, and a likely reason for its inclusion in The Church and Postmodern Culture series, is his analysis of Pierre Bourdieu and corresponding French thinkers Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Loïc Wacquant for engaging in theological ethnography.

Scharen grounds his own call for theological ethnography—or what he terms “fieldwork in theology,” borrowing from Bourdieu’s own notion of fieldwork—in an ever-present need for the church to “inquire how God is at work loving the world and acting for its good amid real burdens and brokenness” (xv). Scharen notes a new vitality of mission among Christians and a desire to “wake up” to the Spirit’s invitation to participate in God’s mission (5). He offers fieldwork in theology as a “tool toward ‘getting involved’” (xv), and, more specifically, suggests the social science of Bourdieu provides a “careful, disciplined craft for inquiry” that can serve the Spirit’s call for the church to join God’s activity in the world (5). Scharen establishes his case over the subsequent four chapters, consistently referring to the work of Rowan Williams and the “practice of dispossession” to highlight kenōsis (the Greek word for self-emptying as envisaged by Christ) as an appropriate posture for Christians and the church in the world.

Scharen begins with Bachelard, a historian and philosopher of science at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1950s, demonstrating how Bachelard “abandons the Enlightenment dream of reason” by employing a non-Cartesian epistemology that rejects Descartes’ skepticism of the senses (34). Instead, Bachelard proposes an “active empiricism” that recovers the role of sense-experience in the scientific method (36). Scharen then illustrates how Bourdieu and Wacquant build from Bachelard, appropriating his “revision of the Cartesian legacy” as they explore human action through the concept of habitus—the development of disposition and practice in relation to social context (40).

In chapter 3, Scharen explores embodiment through Merleau-Ponty, also a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and then the Collège of France in the 1950s. Scharen emphasizes Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “our bodies are not simply objects in the world … but rather are our very means for relating to and living meaningfully in the world” (51). In other words, “I” or “self” are possible only in relation to context and situation, to the “world of things and of other people” (53). This is what Merleau-Ponty calls “being-in-the-world” (52). Scharen relates this notion of embodiment back to Rowan Willliams, echoing his emphasis that we do not learn what God is like in the abstract. Instead, we get the life of Jesus that “shows us what God wants to happen” (59).

The heart of Scharen’s proposal resides in chapters 4 and 5 where he explains the value of Bourdieu’s and Wacquant’s social science for theological ethnography. Bourdieu’s development of habitus and field takes center stage. Scharen explains Bourdieu’s analogy of a game to illustrate how people acquire a “generative habitus,” or “system of dispositions,” that both provides a “feel for the game” and allows players to “make moves within the bounds of the game” (76). “Field” is used as a double entendre, signifying the physical space where a game is played and more generally the “objective, historical relations within a specific domain of society.” For Bourdieu, then, habitus and field “are always a ‘historically constituted, institutionally grounded, and thus socially variable generative matrix’” (77). Scharen hopes the implications for ecclesiology are apparent. Christian discipleship and theology are incomplete when developed in the abstract, since they always exist in a “socially variable generative matrix” with context.

Scharen explores the futher development of Bourdieu’s fieldwork through Wacquant’s “carnal sociology which inverts the approach to fieldwork from ‘participant observation’ to ‘observant participation’” (100). As evidenced through his involvement in the Woodlawn Boxing Gym, Wacquant sought “as full a ‘participant’ role as possible,” describing his own work as “setting the course for sociology of the body but also from the body” (101). Again, Scharen draws a connection to Rowan Williams’s idea of the “practice of dispossession.” He suggests Wacquant’s emphasis on habitus and the formation of persons draws attention to the significance of “everyday settings where the gospel challenges us to live in or as mission—God’s mission, or dispossession—to and for others” (106).

Scharen is convincing in his call for the church and theologians to take seriously the lived realities of persons and the complex dynamics of particular fields where habitus is formed (113). He is successful in demonstrating the value of theological ethnography for rediscovering the contextuality of both the church and Christian life. As such, Scharen’s text is a helpful addition to contemporary ecclesiology as it further envisions the shape of theological study for a postmodern world. In particular, Scharen’s text is useful for graduate students exploring theological methodology in the fields of ecclesiology and practical theology where discernment of critical correlation of context and theological norms remains central.

As a further evaluative note, and not to diminish or detract from the value of Scharen’s text, some readers may find his engagement with postliberal ecclesiology and Radical Orthodoxy to be reductionistic. For example, as Scharen addresses the church’s participation in God’s mission to establish his case, he states that “two main positions exist with respect to mission” as the church adjusts to the post-Constantinian era (6). “In the first, the church withdraws from the world for the sake of forming a clear Christian identity over against the world. In the second, the church enacts an anarchic ‘giving away’ of itself in and for the sake of the world” (7). Scharen uses Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens to represent the former and Donald MacKinnon’s “Kenosis and Establishment” to represent the latter (6-11). While Sharen acknowledges his typology presents “ideal types” which work as “analytic positions” that do not so neatly exist in lived form (7), he proceeds with the generalization by oversimplifying Resident Aliens as “a kind of Christian withdrawal by consolidating identity over against the world” and in doing so exacerbates a common misassumption of postliberal sectarianism that theologians like John Howard Yoder and Hauerwas vehemently rejected (9). Not surprisingly, then, Scharen leans into the latter position—kenōsis—as seen in his use of Rowan Williams’s practice of dispossession. The question, of course, is if Scharen’s typology sets up a false binary in juxtaposing the logic of kenōsis with what he calls Hauerwas and Willimon’s goal of “seeking a disembodied home elsewhere” (13). If so, then one of the guiding presumptions of Scharen’s thesis, that “two main positions exist with respect to mission” and that an ecclesial posture of kenōsis necessarily precludes the identity of church as alternative society, will need to be revisited.

Cite this article
Joshua R. Sweeden, “Fieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 195-197

Joshua R. Sweeden

Nazarene Theological Seminary
Joshua Sweeden is Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Church and Society at Nazarene Theological Seminary.