Theology as Ordinary Human Data

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Theology as Ordinary Human Data

By | April 2002
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Abstract: Religions, myths, rituals and theologies are understood by many scholars somehow to possess or transmit essential truths or values that magically transcend their particular setting. In a word, "things religious" are presumed from the outset to be extraordinary, thus requiring special interpretive methods for their study. This essay attempts to reverse this penchant in modern scholarship on religion by presuming instead that those observable activities we name as "religion" are an ordinary component of social formations and, as such, can be sufficiently studied by drawing on the methods commonly used throughout the human sciences. Using "the problem of evil" as a test case, the essay argues that seemingly privileged or unique discourses on evil are but ordinary efforts at establishing cognitive intelligibility and overt political justification.

There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extraordinary it is? (Bourdieu 1998: 21)

Theology as Ordinary Human Data

When I first read Pierre Bourdieu's above comment on the surprising effort it takes to represent ordinariness as extraordinary, I was struck by the importance of his seemingly subtle point. It is important for three reasons. First, it takes seriously the insider's unreflective understanding of their own social worlds — after all, the object of study throughout the human sciences is people simply doing what they happen to be doing. Second, Bourdieu helps scholars to focus their attention on the techniques whereby people represent a subset of their behaviors (i.e., what they happen to be doing) as important, meaningful, and worthy of reproduction and transmission (i.e., what they must or ought to be doing)....
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