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«This insightful article traces the history of anthropology through its earlier stages, and describes the ambivalent attitudes many missionaries ...»

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Missions and Anthropology:

A Love/Hate Relationship


This insightful article traces the history of anthropology

through its earlier stages, and describes the ambivalent

attitudes many missionaries developed toward this brash,

emerging discipline. It then turns to the current scene and

shows how the fundamental revolution in western thought —

which Professor Hiebert describes as a paradigm shift in epistomology — drastically affected the social sciences.

Christians in general, and missiologists in particular, should welcome this shift, despite the tensions it generates, for we are thereby brought "closer to the biblical perspective of the limits of human knowledge and of the importance of faith."

I F ASTRONOMY with its heleocentric theory, biology with its concept of evolution and psychology with its notion of the subconscious have raised increasingly difficult theological questions in the past, today the most penetrating questions are being raised by the social sciences. And these promise to be even more disturbing than those that came before. This is particularly true of the questions now being raised in anthropology.

T h e church can no longer avoid anthropological questions by closing its eyes to them. Not only do anthropological assumptions now pervade much of modern western thought, but also Christian missions, because of their international character, are raising many of the same questions. Missions and anthropology are closely related and the interaction between them has been characterized by the ambivalence — the love and hate — that accompanies intimate relationships.

Paul G. Hiebert is Associate Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary. He served 6 years in South India with the Mennonite Brethren Church.

Missiology: An International Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, April, 1978


Missions and Anthropology The Early Years: Humans — Gods or Beasts?

As Reining has shown (1970:3-11), anthropology in England had its origins in the active mission and humanitarian movements of the early nineteenth century that arose, in part, out of the Wesleyan revivals. One of these, the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, arose in defense of the slaves. After bringing an end to slavery in England (1807 to 1833), the abolitionists turned their attention to the welfare of native peoples in the colonial dependencies, and organized the Aborigines Protection Society in London in 1838.

Soon after its establishment, the society split over the question of how best to help the "natives". One faction, associated with the missionaries, wanted to protect the rights of the aborigines by giving them immediately the "privileges of western civilization."

The other wanted to study the people in order to better understand them and the ways of helping them. The latter group left the society and organized the Ethnological Society of London in 1843.

One of the critical questions of the times was what does it mean to be human. Both missionaries and anthropologists had come face to face with a bewildering variety of peoples from different races and cultures, and both had to decide whether or not they considered these people to be fully human in the same sense that the educated peoples of the west were thought to be human.

T h e missionaries were committed to the unity of humankind by their theology. Convinced as they were of the truthfulness of their Christian message and its universality, they went to all parts of the world and to every level of society to minister for they considered all as created in the image of God and having an eternal destiny. But, as anthropologists were all too ready to point out, in subtle ways they often depersonalized the people to whom they went.

Some of this depersonalization took place because missionaries were people of their times. Like their contemporaries, they were convinced of the superiority of their culture, and they did not always differentiate this from their faith in the superiority of Christianity. They came from a society that was dazzled by the success of science and technology, and that saw itself as the end point of an ascending cultural and religious evolution. It is not surprising, therefore, that missionaries gave little credence to indigenous sciences, social organizations and religious beliefs. For the most part they were not free of the cultural ethnocentrisms of their civilization.

Depersonalization also occurred because western theology dichotomized people into supernatural and natural beings.

Some saw people as spiritual objects to be converted, others as creatures needing social and material aid. Neither viewed humans from a holistic perspective. To be fair, it must be recognized that on the ground level most missionaries were deeply involved with programs of evangelism, relief, education, hospitals, social uplift and development. For example, faced with famine, most did all they could to care for the needy. But a theological dichotomy often led to fragmented programs that ministered to one or another human need, and not to integrated programs that served whole people. Theologically the problem was how to deal with people's humanness and its relationship to their divine calling.

Finally, anthropologists charged the missionaries with being the tools of colonialism. At times missionaries were funded by colonial monies, 1 and they were not above using their relationships with colonial rulers to bring about changes in native cultures. Even more significant was the fact that they shared the basic assumptions that underlay colonial thought — assumptions that led to the segregation of western people mentally and socially from the people they came to serve. North Europeans and Americans did not migrate to the new land and intermarry with its people. Their "homes" remained in the West.

Anthropologists, for their part, accepted the people in their own cultural contexts and sought to understand them by studying them. At first this was done at arm's length, but in time living with the people and participating in their cultures became the hallmark of anthropological fieldwork. But, the missionaries were quick to point out, they too were guilty of dehumanizing the people.

Anthropological dehumanization occured on the theoretical level. With the general acceptance of an evolutionary approach to human origins, the question arose: when in the evolutionary sequence did creatures become human? What sets humans apart from animals? Its correlary was: are all living races of mankind fully human? Debates were held on whether the newly discovered Pygmies of central Africa were humans or apes, and


Missions and Anthropology whether tribal peoples had a "primitive mind" that, in some sense, was prelogicai and irrational. In 1863 the Ethnological Society split over the question whether or not Negroes were a different, and presumably lesser, species than Europeans. The big majority held not only that the Blacks were physically of a different species, but that this made them mentally and morally incapable of assimilating civilized ways. This faction left and organized the Anthropological Society of London. The two factions finally reunited in 1871 and formed the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. By then many of the anthropologists had come to affirm the essential racial and psychological unity of humankind.

On another level a naturalistic approach questioned the meaning of culture. If this, like man, could be reduced to biological determinants, how were humans distinct from other creatures, and what meaning was to be found in their existence.

Carried to the extreme, this position rendered all human thought systems meaningless. 2 Anthropologists also dehumanized people by their attempts to be value-free. Given their growing Rousseauian commitment to nonintervention in the lives of primitives, there was little to justify their existence as applied anthropologists. Consequently they turned to academia for legitimacy. They adopted the scientific methodology that had worked so well in the physical sciences, and sought to give objective, unbiased analyses of non-western peoples. However, "objective" in this context meant detached and value-free. And their detachment dehumanized people by treating them as predetermined objects rather than as rational human beings, 3 while their avoidance of values denied help to those in need and those oppressed by the advance of western civilization. Referring to the Queensland aborigine hunts in which Europeans slaughtered the primitive

tribesmen of Australia for their land, one anthropologist noted:

Anthropological science, like all sciences, is passionless on the point, but a better knowledge of its deductions and principles would have instilled some feelings of prudence and pity into the murderers, who seem to revel in the unnatural process of extinction (Popular Magazine of Anthropology 1866:6).

Still, anthropologists did nothing; for anthropology had no basis on which to build a morality.

Scientific methodology, as it came to be used in anthropology, dehumanized people in yet another way. Given a growing atheistic and deterministic stance, it is not surprising that early anthropologists gave little respect to the people's explanations of their own activities.4 They treated religions as irrational superstitions, and gave scientific explanations for human beliefs and activities in terms of economic and environmental factors on the one hand, or of sociopolitical factors on the other.

Anthropologists were no less philosophically ethnocentric in their relationship to other world views than were most Christian missionaries.

Finally, as the Marxist anthropologists in England point out, anthropologists became increasingly involved in the colonial processes. T h e early ones did so by providing an academic rationalization of colonial role and the "white man's burden", the later ones by providing the field information necessary to implement the move to indirect colonial rule made necessary by budget cutbacks. A great deal of the research carried out between 1930 and 1950 by many of the leading anthropologists was funded by the British colonial office.5 Furthermore, like their missionary contemporaries, anthropologists shared the basic colonial assumptions. Despite their intimate association with people during their fieldwork, they remained ultimately segregated from them. Anthropologists returned to the safety of their academic environments where they could talk about "their people." In the long run they shared even less identification with the "natives" than the missionaries.

The Middle Decades: Unity and Variety The second basic question to face both anthropology and missions was that of unity versus variety. By the 1930s both had come to accept the basic unity of humankind, but both were faced with an apparently unending and arbitrary variety in human behavior and cultural forms. In what way, then, were people one? And how does this variety relate to an underlying unity?

T h e question manifests itself in several forms. For missionaries the primary problem was: how should Christianity relate to the variety of non-Christian religions? Some took the position of radical displacement: truth was found only in Christianity; therefore all other religions were categorically rejected and would have to be replaced in loto. On the other extreme, some saw all religions as man's search for God, and


Missions and Anthropology Christianity only as the closest approximation of the truth. In between lay a multitude of positions stressing in varying degrees the uniqueness of Christianity and the presence of truth in other religions.

Closely related to this were several other problems. For instance, how does the Gospel express itself in the context of cultural variety? Western thought stressed cultural uniformity and western culture as the ideal. The Gospel became equated with a particular cultural form. But missions faced the fact that the Gospel can and does take many different cultural forms, and that the Church, to be effective, must be indigenous. Then what of the Gospel and of the Church is unchanging and eternal, and what is cultural and temporal? How should the missionary deal with such phenomena as people movements, polygyny and homogenous cultural groups?

Or how does the unity of the Church manifest itself in the midst of denominational differences? Is the Church the divine body of Christ, or is it a sociocultural organization subject to analysis by the social sciences? To emphasize only one or the other is to overlook the fact that the Church, indeed, is both.

To the anthropologist, the question of unity versus variety came in another form. Early anthropologists sought to reduce the variety of cultural traits to a single whole by incorporating them all into a single broad theory of cultural evolution.

However, intensive fieldwork made it clear that these traits made little sense by themselves. They had to be understood within the context of a larger sociocultural system. But there seemed to be no limit to the ways in which these systems organized the universe and no way to integrate the variety into a single comprehensive theory of culture.

To be sure, there was some search for cultural universals using the methods of cross-cultural comparison — a search for institutional universals such as the family, for religious universals such as the belief in a high god, or at least, for a common historical origin. But none of these stood the test. Each new fieldworker found exceptions to any generalizations, and discovered still other ways of ordering the world or yet more fundamental differences between them. The vision of unity faded in the light of cultural variety.

In the face of this variety, and lacking any unifying empirical universals, or metaphysical and ethical absolutes, anthropology turned to relativism. Variety was not only thought to exist at the most basic levels of human thought and behavior, but also at times extolled. Even comparison was called into question. It soon became apparent, however, that pure relativism undermined anthropology's claims to be a universal science of man, and, in the end, to a denial of the validity of science itself.

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