Is everything theological?

Reflections on “Grounded theologies: ‘Religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography” by Justin K.H. Tse in Progress in Human Geography, published online 18 Feb 2013.

“My central argument is that the task of geographers who deal with religion is to reveal spaces, places, and networks as constituted by grounded theologies, performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent.” (p3)

One of the things I have always loved about geography as an academic discipline is it’s commitment to building theory out of close observations of the world and the way it works. I think this is basically what Justin Tse is calling for in this article; he thinks geographers should pay more attention to the way in which people live and move and dwell in light of their understanding of the divine, the trancendent, and the sacred and that geographers should get down doing field work that pays attention to this in the same way that they have examined race, class, and gender as axes of difference. Of course they should. I find it surprising geographers need an article like this to convince them of this, but it’s been a little while since I was involved in a geography department.

But Tse is careful to argue not just for studies of religion but of theologies. I think this is because he does not want us just to focus on the institutions of religions – the places of worship or institutional structures – or on codified systems of belief. Theology, in Tse’s argument, is not (only) something preached from the pulpit (or mosque, or temple) it is the way people live out their understanding of the divine and its relationship to the world.

Theology is not something limited to people who consider themselves religious either, for Tse follows John Milbank in suggesting that “secular sensibilities are themselves theological” because it was shifts in theology that made secularisation possible in the first place and because they still have their own views of the relationship between the transcendent and the world (p4). There are strong similarities, then, between Tse’s understanding of ‘theology’ and what anthropologists would traditionally call ‘cosmology’. The result of this definition, then is that everything, whether it is self-consciously religious or secular, is open to the geographer examining ‘grounded theology’.

These ‘grounded theologies’ happen in various spaces/practices that Tse labels ‘immanent’. He uses the word ‘immanent’ a lot. Here are just a few examples:

Grounded theologies “are grounded insofar as they inform immanent processes of cultural place-making, the negotiation of social identities, and the formations of political boundaries, including in geographies where theological analyses do not seem relevant.” (p2)

“By religion, I mean the practice of particular narratives regarding divine action, transcendent presence, or supernatural reality in the immanent world that in turn inform conceptions of placemaking.” (p2)

“Theology in this sense refers not so much to the codification of religious propositions to which religious adherents give cognitive assent, but rather to the performative practice of narratives about metaphysical divine action in relation to the immanent world” (p4)

“Such concerns with religion as an integral part
of these assemblages typify these geographers’
concern that religion is not merely an ‘opiate of
the masses’ that veils the contribution of more
immanent social factors in the construction of
subjectivities” (p10)

“After all, to portray de facto interfaith mixing in religious spaces for secular causes is to bracket the transcendent and elevate an immanent sphere of action, precisely the grounding of a secular theology.” (p12)

“Following the previous sections, I contend that religion in geopolitics must also be understood as grounded theologies in practice, not as veils for immanent factors of injustice.” (p13)

In Christian theology, the word immanent describes the indwelling of God; it expresses His presence in the believer, in the created order, in the material world. It is usually used in contrast to transcendence, in which God is understood to be above and beyond the physical and material world. The way in which believers understand the balance or tension between God’s transcendence and His immanence is often really interesting (e.g. in my experience, it impacts how Christians think about and care for the environment). Yet Tse seems to use immanent to mean not God-in-the-world, but just the world. Maybe he’s not alone in this in social science, but it hasn’t struck me so strongly before. I think we lose some of the term’s nuance in the process.

If you are confident navigating the academic jargon of social science and religion, this is a great summary of some key thinkers and contemporary trends in academic thought. And if you are looking for a bibliography for work on geographies of religion (or social science and religion more generally) this article has a cracker of a reference list. I am looking forward to reading some more of Tse’s work and seeing him do the work of producing ‘grounded theology’ that he argues for here.

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