Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Kathryn Tanner


Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997)

In this book Tanner argues for the utility of insights from anthropology in theological work. Her main argument is that, rather than accepting H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic formulation of Christ against culture, Christians must recognize that religious community and, by extension, theology are part of culture. To construct her argument, she offers a primarily social understanding of human nature, “Human beings construct the character of their own lives through group living” (4). After tracing the historical origin of the concept of culture through its role in manufacturing the hegemony of urban elites, she defines culture as “the primacy of social influences on the lives of individuals” (13). The book is divided into two parts, the first focuses on defining the concept of culture. The second on looking at how an understanding of culture can influence the study and construction of theology.

Culture, as she understands it, has nine basic aspects: 1. “culture is understood as a human universal” (25); 2. “The fact of ‘culture’ is common to all; the particular pattern of culture differs among all;” 3. “culture varies with social group” (26); 4. “a culture tends to be conceived as… [an] entire way of life;” 5. “because cultures are group-specific they are associated with social consensus;” 6. “culture is understood to constitute or construct human nature” (27); 7. “Cultures are conventions in the sense that they are human constructions;” 8. cultures are contingent and “a particular culture can never claim inevitability;” 9. “the notion of culture suggests social determinism: society decisively shapes the character of its members” (28). Perhaps her most important insight into culture is that it is “the meaning dimension of social life” (31). Additionally, she argues that it is now “less and less plausible to presume that cultures are self-contained and clearly bounded units, internally consistent and unified wholes of beliefs and values…” (38). Culture, is not, stable. Rather it is inherently unstable.

The key question of the second section is: “How might some fundamental theological topics appear differently, what new directions for their investigation might arise, were one to experiment in theology with a postmodern view of culture” (61)? She notes, “Saying that theology is a part of culture becomes a way of talking about theology in terms of what it means to be human” (64). Armed with this insight, she makes a distinction between everyday theology and academic theology. Both have “to do… with the meaning dimension of Christian practices, the theological aspect of all socially significant Christian action.” Everyday theology is “found embedded in such matters as the way the altar and pews are arranged” (70). Academic theology, in contrast, is a critical exercise that seeks to systematize and critique Christian practice and everyday theology.

When considering theological method she writes that it has “a twofold character. First, theologians show an artisanlike inventiveness in the way they work on a variety of materials that do not dictate of themselves what theologians should do with them. Second, theologians exhibit a tactical cleverness with respect to other interpretations and organizations of such materials that are already on the ground” (87). This means that “the issue of whose theological position is most compelling is decided by judgments of an aesthetic sort, ones like those used to determine, say, the best interpretations of a poem” (91). Further, “Faced with an incredibly disparate and complex set of materials, the theologian is always ultimately making meaning rather than finding it” (93).

The balance of the book is spent arguing for Tanner’s particular theological positions. Against people like John Millbank she rejects firm boundaries between Christian communities and the wider society. She rejects the use of “logico-deductive” arguments, claiming they are insufficient and inaccurate in constructive theological work (117). Her emphasis on everyday theology leads her to argue that “Christian identity, at this most basic level… is more a matter of form than substance” (124). Tradition is important in maintaining form across time. And that this tradition and form are a matter of discipleship, “One only comes to know the character of one’s own discipleship by listening to them… One remains the disciple of God, and not the disciple of God’s witnesses” (138).

Her concluding chapter’s argument is summarized in this sentence from its first paragraph: “My conclusions in the last chapter about Christian identity–that it is constituted most fundamentally by a community of argument concerning the meaning of true discipleship–suggested that Christian identity need not be jeopardized by ongoing disagreement about what Christians should say, feel, and do” (156).

My major criticism of Tanner is that she grossly underestimates the role of violence in maintaining theological consensus and establishing the boundaries of identity. While she amply engages with other theologians, references to Schleiermacher, Lindbeck, Millbank and Kaufman abound, she does not discuss particular religious communities, historical events or traditions. This makes her argument feel somewhat disassociated from the everyday theology that she sees as the subject of study of academic theologians. This disconnect undercuts her argument.

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