Resisting a "Pure" Theology
Pierre Bourdieu and Theology in Proximity
About the Author: Dr. Ashish Varma is an Indian American theologian based in Chicago, IL. His dissertation work explored theological grounding for virtue ethics. In recent years, his research has sat at the intersection of theological engagement with race and ecology, writing and speaking on both. Additionally, he edited and contributed to A Praying People, a collection of essays on prayer (Wipf & Stock, 2023).
A few weeks ago, during a run-of-the-mill church service, my pastor opened his sermon on church conflict with an amusing caricature of fan dynamics in sports rivalries. The American football season was set to begin, so he reached into the hidden compartment of his pulpit and produced a Chicago Bears jersey, which he quickly slipped on. In full disclosure, I have little interest in American football, but I am surrounded by a city that loves its Bears, for better or worse. Even for someone such as myself, it’s hard to miss the degree of excitement in the air, the banter among fans, and the analysis of the games (before and after) that pervades the local media. The new season happened to be opening with a home game against the Bears’ biggest historic rivals, the Green Bay Packers, which only heightened the local excitement. In short, it made perfect sense that the pastor would be caught up in the excitement ahead of the big game. Using team rivalry to illustrate interpersonal tensions and the ways to resolve conflict also made sense: Americans care about sports (especially football!) and thrive on the energy of rivalries between teams. The pastor knew his place and preached to the environment.
Amid the sermon, though, one comment perked my attention. The pastor quipped, “Scripture is full of theology,” before asking, “Aren’t you glad when sometimes we can set aside theology and find that Scripture teaches a practical lesson?” From my point of view, the pastor dichotomized between the scriptures’ theological teachings and its practical application. I was shocked! Looking around, no one else shared in my surprise. The room seemed to breathe tacit agreement. Yet as a professional Christian theologian—specifically a theologian who works at the intersection of theology and ethics—it seemed obvious that theology just is practical and that pastors, of all people, would immediately agree. Pastors spend years in training specifically to minister to people. That is, they enter communities with the aim of making practical the rich narrative and teaching of the faith. Pastors specialize in practical theology. How could a pastor make such a dichotomy? I would think that the pastor would be most inclined to describe theology as a practical discipline. Nevertheless, here we were, collectively drawing a line between the two.
How did we get here? What is it about the nature and state of theology that generally garners the same dichotomy in the popular imagination? A full study would obviously betray our question, leading us into the halls of academia and technical arguments after scouring histories of theology and the academy. Perhaps the mode of understanding would prove that there really is little direct relation between the content of theology and the practical work of local ministry. However, without delving into technicalities, I would like to suggest that the perception of abstraction is built into the idea of theology that we take for granted, even though it does not have to be.
To make my point, I would like to run alongside the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. While he takes aim at the nature of Western philosophy, I think his concern also addresses the usual course of Christian theology. After all, the technical discipline of theology as we know it arose in the first place from a community of early church intellectuals who sought to demonstrate the intellectual rigor of their claims to Greek and Roman philosophers (see Robert Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them). Those who set the course for our primary way of doing theology and philosophy in the West today thought that the highest form of knowledge could only be achieved if we separate our thinking from personal or cultural experience and bias. While our modern world developed a new notion of “science” by perfecting this distance from experience, early and Medieval Western theology paved the way for our modern mode through the development of a “scholastic” method that looks a lot like our geometry proofs. Knowing God happens through following a series of logical steps, which one can perform in a room set apart from the rest of creation. Our minds can follow the logical trail without the use of our senses. To do theology, we need to be disconnected from our being in the world where we experience daily life. For example, glance at the work of Thomas Aquinas, who was the most significant scholastic theologian of the Middle Ages. What you see is a developing argument based on logic alone. It looks very different from Jesus picking up a mustard seed before opening into a theological exposition about it. What we are often left with, then, is abstract theology by itself. In turn, we are left to conclude that this kind of classroom theology is “pure theology.”
Of course, not all theology (nor philosophy) capitalizes on distance, but our primary image of theology and its development take place amid the celebration of distance: “this doctrine is true here, there, and everywhere,” or “this ethical principle is good here, there, and everywhere.” To get too close would result in the tainting of truth and goodness with local bias and emotion.
Looking back soberly, I participated in this logic of distance in the worst way when I first became a Christian. In my early days as a Christian, I gravitated toward conservative apologists who tended to make all conversations about the faith into an argument. My Hindu parents were not particularly impressed about my conversion, but I was going to prove the intellectual superiority of my new faith. I would bend each of our conversations away from anything personal until I could settle firmly into the world of distant arguments. One particular time, I was trying to convince my mother about the logic of hell. My case went something like this: “if God is creator, then all that he created belongs to him; how can a creature say “no” to God? If God says to believe in him, then we need to listen; if we do not listen to the eternal God, then we must face his eternal consequences.” My mother, raised and educated in India, was not so fluent in the rules of distance in Western arguments. She made the argument personal: “Are you saying my father is in hell?” As a good modern disciple, I was supposed to avoid the messiness of emotion precisely because it presents complications that are personal. At that moment, my modern self knew that I had to run quickly from my mother’s closing of emotional distance. Today, I am not so sure, as I look back with embarrassment. Where theological distance ironically called for simplifying an important issue through the use of narrow logic, the messiness of emotional proximity would later force me to theologically reevaluate every step I took in that conversation.
In his Pascalian Meditations, Pierre Bourdieu finds himself in a defensive posture. His antagonists are Western philosophers, whom he cites as perpetual critics of his own guild of sociologists. For Bourdieu, the stakes are high, seeing the basic nature of the critique as one of proximity and distance. To modern philosophy, distance is a value because it believes that when we are too close to something or someone, emotion gets in the way and prevents us from thinking clearly. The way we know is by shaking off the constraints of our material lives, together with their emotional attachments that hinder our objectivity.
Sociology—so the modernist argument goes—inherently violates the rule of distance, for it enters into places to understand peoples and communities from within local structures and in accordance with local ways of being. Of course, postmodern philosophy has long critiqued the general modern posture, but for Bourdieu, the issue specifically boils down to the senses: Western philosophy, he argues, thrives on its centering of the senses of distance—namely, seeing and hearing. In contrast, Bourdieu believes that true understanding needs to center the senses of proximity—namely, touch, smell, and taste. He believes this nearness puts him—and sociologists—at odds with the program of Western philosophy but in a better position to understand the world.
From an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that Bourdieu is deliberately creating an academic dispute. But closer to the conversation, one sees that Bourdieu is laboring to carve out space for himself and fellow sociologists. He exists in an environment that has discounted his work because it lives too close to its subject matter, and so he seeks to legitimize his study of peoples from nearby. Bourdieu argues that in order to understand people’s actions truly, one needs to understand their material motivations. He sees “ritual action,” “myth,” custom, and traditions full of meaning that arise out of “the urgencies and demands of the situation” at hand. To understand, we need less “theoretical gaze” that performs “logic and algebra” from a distance and more “gymnastics and dance taking advantage of all the possibilities offered by the ‘geometry’ of the body . . . and oriented towards perfectly serious and often very urgent ends” (Pascalian Meditations 55–6). In other words, touch, smell, and taste motivate life, not seeing and hearing from a distance alone.
Unfortunately, we have often reduced theology to an exercise from a distance. In dialoguing with Bourdieu, my goal is not to undo the tremendous gains and rich traditions that belong to that distance but rather to see theology wrapped up in all of the senses. One of the greatest gains of the Barthian revolution in theology was to return the subject of theology to its subject matter—namely, Jesus. Barth believed that for too long had theology been reduced to squabbles related to the historic reconstruction of the life and times of Jesus. In Bourdieu’s terms, much of modern Western theology had reinforced distance in order to better ascertain what exactly we could know about Jesus, while reducing Jesus’s words to universal morals that dismiss the particularities of real people and places. But in this process, theology failed to draw near and hear from Jesus as the physical man in his physical place. And interestingly, the Jesus we encounter in the Scriptures made (Jn. 2:1–11), drank (Lk. 7:33–4), and distributed (Matt. 26:27–9) wine—taste and smell. He did the same with bread and fish (Matt. 15:32–38)—taste and smell again. He held up a mustard seed to make a point (vision and smell!) based upon the process of growth in creation (Matt. 13:31–2)—experience. Jesus touched those with illness (Matt. 8:1–3) or received their touch (Matt. 9:20–1). He breathed on his disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit (touch). Jesus was nearby, and in that proximity, he did and lived theology, for he drew people to the Father by entering into local life and addressing real needs. Jesus wrapped all of creation and local customs into his revelation of God.
On that otherwise run-of-the-mill Sunday morning, the pastor of a modest church drew upon the local emotions of American football to minister the theological heart of Jesus toward conflict resolution. There is still plenty of space to contemplate the ways of God in Jesus Christ from afar, but for theology to be fully meaningful in varieties of local settings, like Jesus, it must enter into places and richly draw upon the senses of proximity.
Sports rivalries are a start, but we can look even more closely. In the city, we can find out why bus routes, train lines, and highways create the well-worn paths that they do. Perhaps the paths deliberately avoid certain communities and peoples. Do these pathways negotiate a cadence to life that might advantage some people over others? Why do grocery stores build where they do? Are there communities without wide access to nutritious foods? Why? Maybe we could learn about the historic birth of suburbs and why they are such desirable destinations. How does historic urban flight have continued social effects? In the countryside and in small towns, why do people tend to vote almost exclusively Republican? How has industrial flight impacted these communities? In all settings, we can investigate the social logic of school locations, bussing, and funding.
Charitably understanding all of these things would require closing the distance and engaging senses of proximity. In so doing, theology itself would find that it is most meaningful in proximity. By drawing close, theology will find itself inherently practical, addressing local questions.
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