Theologically-engaged anthropology aims to answer big questions

2018 Lemons Head Shot.jpgHow does theology influence humans to make rapid religious cultural changes? That’s the big question for J. Derrick Lemons, a UGA assistant professor of religion and director of the Center for Theologically Engaged Anthropology. A recent grant award from the John Templeton Foundation will engage researchers from around the world in finding answers. As a recent article from the Foundation explains:

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Urapmin people, a traditional hunter-gatherer society who live in an isolated valley in the western mountains of Papua New Guinea, converted en masse to Christianity. As they proceeded to internalize and practice their newly acquired faith, they began to systematically abandon cultural practices now seen as incompatible with their new convictions. When anthropologist Joel Robbins arrived in the 1990s to do fieldwork among the Urapmin, he found them in a cultural situation his own training had not prepared him to interpret.

“Anthropology is really built on reaching out to the cultural other, groups that were non-European, non-Western,” says Lemons,  [...] “That was the bread and butter of anthropology through the ages. The idea was: we want to know what the ‘real’ religion of these people consists in.” But with the Urapmin, Robbins found a group of people whose conversion had not been directly influenced by Western missionaries. Their strand of adopted Christianity seemed unique, and Robbins initially struggled to sort out the theological underpinnings of their approach to their faith.

According to Lemons, who has worked with Robbins and other scholars over the past several years to strengthen ties between the disciplines of anthropology and theology, “when you’re interviewing someone about their faith, they may not say they’re quoting Augustine or that their beliefs are structured or inspired by Calvin. They may not have that type of language and it would take someone with some background in theology to know these ideas didn’t just drop from nowhere.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 1.11.43 PM.pngToday’s current sociopolitical changes, much like other periods of time in our history, is a landscape worthy of collaboration between anthropologists and theologists, he said.

“Traditionally, anthropologists have focused on the continuity of religious cultural change. Humans value order and predictability, and often behavior that is not in keeping with what is culturally expected is branded as deviant and punished,” said Lemons. “However, this focus neglects the reality of abrupt religious cultural change, referred to as rupture. For example, some cultures have immediately ended their indigenous religions upon conversion to Christianity. Additionally, the current sociopolitical changes in multiple countries in response to neoliberalism have baffled anthropologists and theologians alike. Clearly, a critical need exists to investigate and theorize about religious change from a perspective other than continuity thinking.”

His project aims to address the proposed ‘Big Question’ by studying examples from around the globe of religions rapidly changing and precipitating widespread cultural change.

“Importantly these changes will be studied from a theological perspective. In so doing, this project will encourage change within anthropology by promoting a shift in focus from frameworks focused on continuity to those focused on rupture, particularly from a theological perspective,” he said. “Furthermore, this project will research differences and similarities of rapid religious change in various contexts around the world. To fully answer the question, this project involves collaboration among anthropologists and theologians. My hypothesis is that the collection of ethnographic data from the research working groups around the world on rapid religious change will provide the insights needed to develop a grand theory about rapid religious change.”


To accomplish this work, scholars will form six research working groups in Australia, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, USA and South Africa comprised of both anthropologists and theologians ranging from senior faculty to graduate students. Group members will collaborate for one year virtually and in person to produce a series of manuscripts submitted to a journal, a special journal issue or to be included in a book by Lemons. Additionally, the project will expand the global community of anthropologists and theologians who use theologically engaged anthropology through two large conferences in Hong Kong and the USA, panels at academic meetings, and strategic expansion of the membership of the Center for Theologically Engaged Anthropology.


Lemons’ interest in this area of research came about in quite an unusual way, he said.


“While completing my Master’s in Divinity at Asbury Theological Seminary, I learned about connections between anthropology and theology through the works of missiologists and theologians like Paul Hiebert, Eugene Nida and H. Richard Niebuhr. I also witnessed my professors who were both anthropologists seamlessly transitioning between discussions of theology and anthropology while considering the social worlds of people around the world,” he said. “Through their teaching, I encountered the anthropological greats, like Tylor, Frazer, Douglas, Evans-Pritchard and the Turners and theologians like Luther, Wesley, and Barth. From my experience as a divinity student, I knew theology had a lot to contribute to anthropology and I never questioned the importance of this exchange for my doctoral dissertation research which focused on the ways leaders in the missional church movement created intentional cultural change.”


“I did not realize at that time that many anthropologists and some theologians view this exchange with skepticism,” he added. “That realization waited until I joined the faculty ranks and began to interact with a broader range of anthropologists. I discovered that very few anthropologists had a background in theology and those who did have this background did not openly share this information. Initially I followed my peers lead and hid my knowledge of theology too but reading Joel Robbins 2006 article, ‘Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship,’ and meeting other anthropologists who found theology useful for uncovering previously hidden meanings behind social behavior emboldened me. I found that theology was important enough to my ethnographic data that I could not neglect it.  All of these factors led me to write a grant ultimately funded by The John Templeton foundation to examine the question ‘How can theology contribute to cultural anthropology?’”


His research ultimately began by answering that question, with his first grant from the John Templeton foundation in 2014, through similar research. The newest grant award, however, moves the conversation forward even more.

“The first John Templeton Foundation grant project created opportunities for ongoing conversations among an international team of anthropologists and theologians.  The team formed working groups of researchers in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America to discuss the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration.”

The first grant produced a variety of discussions and resources on the topic which are found in Lemons’ book Theologically Engaged Anthropology. That initial grant also led Lemons to establish the Center for Theologically Engaged Anthropology (CTEA) to support future research of theologians and anthropologists.


Ultimately, Lemons hopes this second part of the grant and additional research question will push the intersection of anthropology and theology along for the greater good.


"This work will generate new knowledge regarding how religions end, arise, and endure across time and space,” he said. “With this knowledge, anthropologists benefit by improving their understanding of how religions change and how theology influences change in the religions they study. Theologians benefit by learning how to innovate by connecting their work with diverse examples of lived religion from around the world. The world at large benefits by being able to apply this knowledge in diverse cultural contexts.”