Blog | June 2010

Social sciences, theology and many coffee cups

by Dorottya Nagy


Not long after I started my work at the Max Planck Institute, I attended a conference -- the first one in my new position. During the coffee break the first intermingling with my fellow participants took place; the same old ritual of new comers attempting to get to know each other, always eased by the statuary position of holding a cup in one’s hand, biting into a cookie and -- while still with a full mouth -- approaching the person next to you, widening your eyes in the ‘interest stand’ and initiating an exchange of words with the old awkward questions such as ‘how do you do?’ or ‘may I introduce myself?’ Usually such well practiced rituals rarely surprise; put in another way, the answers to the first questions usually may not become dangerous for the life of the piece of ceramic in one’s left hand. Yet, during that certain coffee break, two of my fellow ritualists managed to break their coffee cups while getting to know me. One could in many ways provide a scientific explanation for the coincidence of cups falling exactly at the moment when the getting-to-know ritual reached the point where I gave my self-positioning answer that I am a theologian. ‘A theologian?’ and there we went for the first time, the cup fell; ‘a theologian?’ and there we went for the second time and another cup was broken. I do not remember too much of the contents of that conference but I will remember the faces of some of those social scientists puzzling with the question how the notions ‘Max Planck Institute’ and’ theology’ could ever come together in terms of a job description.

It was not long after I started my work at Max Planck Institute that I attended a conference organized by and for theologians. At the moment the first cup of tea ‘stumbled’ in a left hand during the get to know each other ritual, a strong déjà-vu feeling attacked me and made me prevent any further damage by giving a short lecture on the importance of interdisciplinary research. As if I were not persuasive enough, some of my fellow theologians predicted a short life of the social sciences/theology combination. Those who got the touch of the contemporary spirit congratulated me that I could be one of the first theologians who was granted a position at a social scientific institute.

These early experiences of my adventures at and around the Max Planck Institute made me personalize the question about the theology- social sciences nexus. In a way, all my life long I have been operating from a minority position; and here once again a new one (whether one becomes a cuckoo in the nest is a whole different question and depends on many factors). All of a sudden the question 'what does theology has to do with social sciences' and vice versa became a personal one which asks for answers going beyond the personal.

Why does the relation of theology to social sciences look somewhat unpromising and surprising? Is this relationship about two parties which could never become each others’ better halves? On an individual level there is engagement with the other called theology or social sciences. Experts of both fields outstandingly cooperate with each other -- yet it is unusual or exceptional that theology and social science live under the same conditions of one single department. Could Richard Roberts be right when he talks about a ‘natural progression from the mentalité of the once all-knowing theologian to that of the ambitious contemporary social scientist who aims not merely at comprehensive interpretation of human life-worlds, but also to promote the emancipator role of social science as itself the agent of enlightened modernity’(2005:370)? And consequently, do theologians really occupy a ‘shrunken and marginalized residual territory’? Is there a competition between these parties, a game of practicing superiority? Or even worse, in the present academic, consume- and instant-production-driven academic system, are they made into each others’ competitors for the same financial resources? Can social sciences ever mean more than raw material, and orientative data for theologians? Can theology ever mean more than interesting or boring ethnographic data for social sciences? Is there interdisciplinarity among these without mockery? (Joel Robbins elaborates more on this type of mockery in his article ‘Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?) I wish I could solve the theology-social sciences puzzle. At least there are people who start talking about the existence of the puzzle.

The experience of working together with social scientists researching diverse manifestations of Christianity as ethnographic topics, I see that a thorough engagement with theologians on clarifying homonym concepts may contribute to a deeper understanding of the human behavior. The same experience teaches me that social sciences may prompt theology to ask questions according to different logical patterns than the ones appropriated. The same experiences convinced me that there is no value-free research in social sciences either, especially not when researching that, which we with a common agreement and tolerance call ‘religion’.

The recent work experiences made me underline my initial attitude with which I have started the work at this institute: we all, theologians and social scientists, are committed to the explanation of human behavior; this is the utmost beautiful hermeneutical exercise one can ever be given. Who knows, recognizing the existence of the hermeneutical task may help us getting further with solving the puzzle. Instead of analyzing the differences from common, well learned and petrified frameworks, it might be more helpful to look at this fundamental similarity from a different perspective. For doing that we do need collegiality. Collegiality means that we do dare to symbolically and literally read, interpret, and view together. (Think of the etymology of our word ‘colleague’ – those who read together!) Collegiality also means that we do dare to come closer to each other, theologians and social sciences; and that those who may decide about that dare to create institutional interdisciplinarity as well -- and that all not only for the sake of coffee cups.


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