Faith and Fieldwork

Yesterday’s USA Today article, “Why Certainty About God is Overrated” has still got me pondering not only connections between science and faith, but also between anthropology and ministry.  As a PhD student and a preacher, I can’t help but go there!

Particularly the part about philosopher Polanyi (whom we read in our Anthropology proseminar!), who speaks of “motivated belief” and questions objective facts, and the lines about the similarities in bias between people of faith and people with faith in science are striking: “People of science are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their experiments, and people of faith are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their beliefs. Living with doubt leaves one open to additional discovery, both in science and faith.”

And this all led me to thinking how unique anthropology really is (among the social sciences) with its emergent model of research, with the researcher being the chief instrument, and the process of participant observation being one that the researcher has to submit to, rather than try to wrestle toward a certain hypothesis, because the researcher believes there is a particular knowledge to be gained when the research is led by the informants rather than the anthropologist.

Now this isn’t to say that anthropologists don’t form hypotheses, that they don’t participate in, and therefore influence their research, and of course, anthropologists have their own biases, their own “faith convictions,” if you will.

But I think when anthropology is at its best, it is this faithful experience of being in the field, and submitting to the process, trusting that there is something wholly unique, wholly transformative to be gained in intimacy with other human beings, and that research designs often transcend the limits of our understanding, so there is true knowledge to be gained in the experience of letting go, of being open to one’s informants, and acknowledging that one path to understanding involves abandoning what one previously knew to be facts or fiction.

And this to me, couldn’t be any more of an allegory for the journey of faith, for the importance of submitting our plans, our knowledge, ourselves to God in order that we might be shaped not by the ways of this world, but by something transcendent. Now this is a familiar theme for meI’ve said before that I’m convinced that there’s something spiritual about cross-cultural encounters, and that’s no accident, because I believe we worship a God who loves and made diversity and made it good!  

But it is a powerful thing to find oneself transfixed, suddenly head-over-heels in love again with a calling and a vocation to two disciplines that so desperately need one another, challenge one another, and complement one another.  And to feel these things when just a week ago, I was seriously doubting myself, my work in China, and my research is such a blessing.

The peptalk or prayer I wrote myself at that time, looks surprisingly like the musings today, which I take to say that doubt, in all its agony, truly has something to teach both scientists and spiritual beings.  I share those scribblings that came from the depths of doubt with you today, to give you hope in the process, in the emergent, in God, and all that God is beyond our knowing or understanding, and I thank God for that!

It won’t be easy, I think, to settle back into life in China, and really roar into the research, which brings out all my insecurities, control-freak, language inadequacies, etc.  It’s a scenario in which I literally have no idea what to expect (yet I’ve been here a year!), and so my mind threatens to run wild with imagination.  And I’m so mystified, when I conceptualize it, about the dilemmas of fieldwork–the ‘me’ time versus the immersion in the field (I’ve a marriage to keep up after all!), the dual identity of anthropologist and minister and the ethics there, etc., etc.

And then I’m reminded that, it just can’t be intellectualized, and therefore, it can’t be figured out in any other way than by doing it, and fumbling and flexing, flailing, and even faithfully following the steps that we trust lead somewhere beautiful, epiphany-filled, honest, and exceedingly difficult.  I’m not about to give up before I’ve started, dammit, but sometimes the strangeness of it all is enough to induce paralyzing fear.

Yet, for me, these are when the crossovers between faith and fieldwork, anthropology and spirituality, are less a hindrance than a help, a patient teacher in times of tribulation.  It’s this voice that says, you of all people, you person of faith, who is wont to be dependent on God, know all too well that you can’t, you shan’t, you won’t will antyhing on your own, and that the romantic, saint-like posture of ‘waiting on God’ is in actuality much the posture of being reduced to tears and frustrations over our own inabilities, and finally looking up in time to notice God has been present all along.

So here’s where I stand this fall, at the precipice of this towering project, aware of God and yet in spite of myself, filled with human emotion and anxiety, faithful and yet flighty, eager and yet fearful, ready and yet never ready for what God, and yes, anthropology, have in store.  Amen.

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