Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Of Anthropologists and Missionaries

A Clash of Worldviews

Charles H. Kraft

School of World Mission
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, California 91101
 [From Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 32 (September 1980): 140.]

 Anthropologists and missionaries as human beings are pervasively conditioned by the values of the cultures of which they are a part. Western anthropologists and western missionaries, as members of the same broad cultural stream, share many of the same values. Similarities in these worldview values, the result of similar cultural conditioning, explains some very basic common concerns and approaches. Among these common concerns is the felt need for both groups to attempt to transcend their own cultural conditioning, at least in cross-cultural contexts. There are, however, differences between the two groups in the ways in which each group attempts to transcend its culture. These differences are seen as differences in basic value orientations, here labeled worldviews. Several aspects of the differing worldviews are dealt with below.

The motivation for this paper stems from the felt need on the part of myself and others who attempt to be both missionaries and anthropologists to explain our understanding of how this is possible both to ourselves and to others. I attempt to do this first by outlining what I observe to be several areas of conflict between the worldviews of the two groups and then by making certain suggestions concerning the possibility for constructing an integrated perspective.

The historical and contemporar): intracultural tensions between those who gravitate toward the opposite positions to be described are artifacts of the similarities and differences between the worldviews of the two groups. The influence of the cultural conditioning of the two groups is such, however, that neither is neutral toward the answers that the other group prefers. Historically, for example, western culture has moved from a theocentric worldview to an anthropocentric worldview. Given the deeply rooted assumption within the western worldview that any such major change is to be considered progress, it is understandable that those whose worldview is anthropocentric evaluate those whose worldview is theocentric as outdated. Thus, anthropologists tend to see missionaries as behind the…times. Missionaries, for their part, tend to see the preferred answers of anthropologists as antiChristian. The result tends to be a closed-mindedness on the part of each group toward (1) the options chosen by the other group, (2) tolerance of the persons who choose those options, and (3) the possibility of any integration of anthropological and Christian presuppositions into a single worldview.

In addition to the pervasiveness of the distinction between theocenteredness and anthropocenteredness is the fact that missionaries have ordinarily been influenced by the understandings of reality available through the study of the humanities, especially philosophy and history employed for theological purposes. Within these disciplines, especially as they are applied by conservative Christians, the "naive realism" perspective,l now being questioned and abandoned by philosophers of science, has continued to be very influential. Anthropologists, however, have been primarily influenced by a disciplinary perspective that is largely in revolt against at least certain of the major emphases of the humanities. In this revolt contemporary anthropologists have largely turned against naive realism.2 It is understandable that missionaries, and conservative Christians in general, should regard any perspective other than that of naive realism as a grave threat to their core values.

Related to this conflict of worldviews between the older academic disciplines that have influenced the theological perspectives of missionaries and the younger behavioral sciences is the fact that devotees of alternative worldviews often come across to each other as devotees of different religions. The devotion of many anthropologists (and other behavioral scientists) to their man- and science-oriented worldview seems often to be of the same nature as the devotion of missionaries to their theocentric worldview. It is well known in conservative Christian circles that many of the advocates of the behavioral sciences have attempted to promote their cause at the expense of supernaturalistic religion (e.g., Freud, Skinner). Such a fact led William James to contend that the supreme commandment of scientism is, "Thou shalt not be a theist" (James 1904:131). The fact that theological liberals often have virtually abandoned a supernaturalistic perspective in favor of a man-centered concern (often that of sociology) has also tended to turn conservative Christians against the behavioral s-lences. Man-centeredness with its concomitant emphasis on cultural, social and psychelogical relativities has appeared antithetical to a perspective that attempts to focus on God and God-given attributes.

What missionaries, and other conservative Christians, often overlook is the man-madeness and consequent fallibility of every academic discipline, including those on the basis of which Christian theologians have made their interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. Even if, as missionaries contend, the data of the Christian Scriptures are sacred, the perspectives in terms of which they are interpreted are human. A recognition of this fact opens the possibility that even data that are regarded as sacred may fruitfully be analyzed from the perspectives of disciplines other than those traditionally employed.

Are the kinds of polarization discussed below between the concerns of Christian missionaries and those of behavioral scientists a necessary concomitant of the incompatibility of evangelical faith with naturalistic scientism? Or is it simply an artifact of the inability of such competing perspectives to overcome the pressure of western culture to push persons and disciplines to absolutize their specialized insights? One could, for example, infer that in areas of concern to both groups each polarizes in reaction against the other group's position. Anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, of course, do not ordinarily move to their positions in reaction to missionaries--their tendency is not to take missionaries quite that seriously. Their reaction, I believe, has its roots in the overall reaction against the theocentric worldview that our culture as a whole has abandoned except within the groups that produce missionaries. Missionaries, however, often react consciously to behavioral science perspectives by moving more firmly into the extreme positions characteristic of their groups.

The Polarization Outlined
Though there is a fair measure of variation within each group, the variations tend to cluster around the pole preferred by the group.

(1) The first problem is that of ultimate authority. To conservative Protestants (including missionaries), God has been the source of ultimate authority. But, due to the tendency of western culture to absolutize one or the other of two alternatives, conservative theologians have tended to exalt God's authority while demeaning, largely ignoring, or, at best, only vaguely outlining that of human beings. Their treatments in this area often lack balance. Anthropologists, for their part, have been even more guilty of polarization since they have, in reaction, turned completely to human experience as the source of authority. This is, of course, in keeping with the naturalistic humanistic worldview that western science espouses.

2. The second area where these groups differ is in how to arrive at truth. Conservative Christians have focused on revelation from God as the source of at least the most important truths, whereas anthropology looks to scientific discovery via empirical research as the source of truth. To conservative Christians (under the influence of their theological tradition) truth tends to be primarily a cognitive, propositional kind of thing, derived from faithful interpretation of the once-for-all revelation given in the Scriptures. For anthropology, on the other hand, the key to finding truth is a never-ending process of sense perception leading to theory building, testing and modification.

3. A third problem of concern to both groups is that of determinism and free will. Conservative Christian theorists have seen man as circumscribed by God, And those theologians who have gone to the determinist extreme have seen him as absolutely determined by God. In reaction against such theological determinism, other Christian theorists have focused on human freedom. Both Christian groups have, however, tended to deal rather imprecisely with the circumscribing, sometimes determining, effects of culture. Anthropology, has, of course, tended to ignore the possibility of divine limitation and focused on the interaction between human beings and culture.

4. A fourth concern pertains to the matter of what (if anything) is absolute and what is relative. Conservative Christians consider it essential that their perspectives be firmly based upon and give strong witness to theological absolutes. They seek to discern from the Bible divinely ordained absolute truths that are applicable to all humans at all times. Naturalistic anthropology, in reaction, has made the culturally relative aspects of human existence its primary focus. Anthropologists have been quick to criticize conservative Christians for regarding as absolute certain aspects of western culture. And many Christians have fallen into a kind of "worldview shock" by being forced to admit the validity of at least certain of these contentions.

(5) Closely related to the opposing emphases with respect to absolutes and relativities is a polarization over whether to be primarily concerned with human commonality or with human diversity. Conservative Christians, interested in discovering the "once for all" verities with respect to God have focused likewise on that which is regarded as the same for all human beings. Differences stemming from culture and/or psychology have often been noted but either minimized or condemned as heretical. Behavioral scientists, while retaining a commitment to basic human commonality, have tended to react against both (1) what they see as a naive overemphasis on the extent of such similarity and (2) the ethnocentric basis on which many of the generalizations concerning similarities are based. Within anthropology, then, there has developed a rather total peroccupation with cultural diversity on the part of many (though not all). At one extreme, many conservative Christians overestimate the number of similarities between "human nature" and basic western values. At the other, many behavioral scientists and many liberal Christians seem to have "sold out" to a relativistic perspective, acting as if nearly everything about peoples of different cultures is totally different. Many conservative Christians have blamed the behavioral sciences for such liberal perspectives as "situation ethics" (see Fletcher 1966). This has further alienated the conservative Christians from the insights of the behavioral sciences.

6. A sixth difference that can be noted relates to what I here call a preference for "static models" versus a prefefence for "dynamic models" of reality. The "once for all" preoccupation of conservative Christians has pushed them toward the adoption of perspectives that have very little room for "give" or growth in them. Behavior is understood as good or bad, black or white. A person is either a Christian or a non-Christian, in or out on the basis of one decision. The dynamic processes tend to be ignored by means of which one becomes a Christian and moves toward maturity or by means of which one changes one's behavior from sub-ideal toward more ideal. The behavioral sciences, though themselves also plagued by static models, have at least lately come to be more concerned with the dynamic processes by means of which changes in human behavior come about.

7. A seventh concern is the problem of imperfection. To conservative Christians, the immediate cause of evil is in human nature corrupted by sin. Anthropologists have, however, tended to go to an opposite extreme. They have taken a positive view of human nature. Evil, therefore, has largely been seen as a function of imperfect sociocultural systems rather than of imperfect people.3

8. Another area of polarization to be highlighted here involves the focus on concepts recorded primarily in books versus a focus on people and their behavior. The academic tradition of which conservative Christian theology is a part conceives of research as book-based and largely centered on thinking behavior. Anthropologists, as a part of the behavioral science reaction against the excessive preoccupation of many with the purely conceptual, have turned to studying the totality of human behavior. The field method called "participant-observation" has been developed by anthropologists in an attempt to serve this aim (see Pelto 1970). Conservative Christianity, minus this ability to study the totality of human behavior in culture, has continued to be concept and bookcentered. This concept and book-centeredness has enormously hurt missionaries working in preliterate societies. Their background and training has provided them with no tools by means of which to get inside the hearts and minds of the peoples with whom they work.

9. A ninth area that may be designated is the fact that both groups are actitve proselyters. Conservative Christians, and especially missionaries, are, of course, openly committed to winning people to their point of view. Anthropologists, and other academicians who feel that their discipline has led them into new truth, often appear to be equally "conversionist." I once had to counsel a distraught graduate student who was nearly denied admittance to a doctoral program because, despite otherwise impeccable credentials, his professors questioned his commitment to the discipline.

10. A final point to be considered is the fact that each group has its own "Golden Rule" that it tends to forget or ignore when interacting with the other group. For Christians this doctrine is expressed as, "Treat others as you would like them to treat you" (Luke 6:31). For anthropologists there is the equivalent in the doctrine of cultural relativity (or, better, "cultural validity"). We are to respect and take seriously every other cultural way of life just as we respect and take seriously our own culture.

These are a few of the major issues on which the worldview of conservative Protestantism (from which the majority of the missionaries here in view have come) differs from that of anthropologists. The fact that many of the members of each group spend a considerable amount of energy criticizing the perspective of the other group indicates the extent to which the views are seen to be in competition with each other and mutually exclusive. It is not uncommon, for example, to find critical allusions to missionaries in anthropological publications and to find critical allusions to anthropologists (and other behavioral scientists) in statements made by conservative Christians. Not infrequently those of us who attempt to do anthropology on the basis of a conservative Christian ideology are regarded with suspicion by members of both groups. We question, however, whether the polarization that has occurred is necessary. For in so many areas we see the concerns of the two groups to be more conplementary than mutually exclusive, once the tendency to polarize completely at one extreme or the other is overcome. In what follovs I seek to outline a possible synthesis of the worldviews in the hope that such a model might suggest a fruitful basis for understanding and, for some at least, for building a new worldview.

Toward a Synthesis

Human beings need some sort of worldview allegiance (Or faith). Conflict at the worldview level between missionaries and anthropologists is, therefore, a conflict between faiths--not a conflict between faith and non-faith. The fact that one faith has a supernatural object while the other denies the relevance of that object cannot, I believe, mask the fact that even the anti-supernatural position is a faith position.

Crucial to the conservative Christian worldview is an allegiance to a supernatural God. This worldview value would be regarded as non-negotiable in any attempt by Christians to take seriously the anthropologically preferred alternatives to the positions traditionally taken by Christians on the above issues. But, I believe, a conservalive (better "evangelical") Christian could modify considerably in the direction of the anthropological position and remain true to the essentials of his faith. In fact, I would maintain (as argued elsewhere) that certain of the anthropological positions allow a Christian to be more true to biblical guidelines than do the traditionally held positions.

I further argue that an anthropological perspective does not require an anti-supernaturalistic worldview assumplion, and that, therefore, those committed to supernaturalistic worldview assumptions can do valid anthropology. Indeed, given a commitment to the anthropological doctrine of "participant-observation," an anthropologist who is himself committed to supernaturalistic worldview assumptions is likely to be in a better position to study peoples who have supernaturalistic assumptions than is an anthropologist with a naturalistic worldview. A committed Christian (even a missionary) might, therefore, be able to adopt a validly anthropological perspective--but only if he/she adopts an understanding of Christianity that is not bound to the extreme positions outlined above. For example:

1. I believe it is possible to develop a perspective that denies neither the authority of God nor the authority of human beings--a perspective that holds to the ultimate authority of God, without denying either the importance of the delegation of certain authority to humans or the fact that on occasion God limits himself to that human authority. The Psalmist asked, "What is man?" and concluded that we are "but little less than God" (Ps. 8:4,5). Jesus became human and trusted humans (in spite of many good reasons for mistrust) to carry on his work after him. Perhaps the insights of the Science of Man (anthropology) concerning this marvelous creature that Christians believe was created by God are not incompatible with Christian understandings, as long as human authority is not absolutized. Perhaps, further, anthropological insight can assist conservative Christians to overcome their bondage to the so-called "Puritan" negativeness toward human beingness--a negativeness that lies behind much of the antagonism that many missionaries exhibit toward other cultures.

2. Informed Christians are forced to recognize that the search for truth is much more than a matter of receiving revelations from God. Even the study of the Bible, considered to be God's revelation, involves interpretation based on human conceptualization and perception. More Christians are coming to believe that such interpretation can be validly done from a variety of points of view-perhaps even from an anthropological perspective. There is, I believe, room within missionary-minded Christianity for an approach that takes seriously both divine revelation and the human discovery processes by means of which that revelation is made vital to Christians and to the life of the world around them. I am, in this regard, experimenting with an approach that postulates the revelational validity of the biblical data and the interpretational validity of a cross-cultural anthropological perspective applied to the understanding and application of the insights available from the biblical data. The results of this approach are in some respects quite different from those of traditional monocultural theological approaches. Many of the missionaries with whom I interact find the new approach much more promising. So do those with whom they work within other cultures.

3. Those with a supernaturalistic faith (and especially Christian missionaries) can no longer ignore the mass of anthropological data concerning the influence of culture on human beings. Though committed to a belief that God is in ultimate control, informed Christians can no longer be content to deal with the relationships between human beings and God with only imprecise, passing reference to culture. For it is evident that even if one believes that it is God who ultimately circumscribes human beings, one must accept and try to understand the fact that culture also circumscribes humanity. Furthermore, conservative Christianity maintains that God interacts with human beings in history (= culture). Understanding the nature of that milieu and its relationships both to humans and to God is, therefore, of prime importance to Christians. Anthropology's strength at this point is in an area of one of conservative Christian theology's greatest weaknesses. For anthropology is the discipline that has devoted the most attention to the development of an understanding of culture. Christians can employ anthropological perspectives and methodology just as they have for years employed historical perspectives and methodology without fear of compromising their faith.

4. In the area of absolutes and relativities, we face perhaps the most sensitive issues. Conservative Christians, without the jarring esperience of having to really face cross-cultural diversity, have tended to absolutize much more of western culture than even western interpretations of the Bible allow. Missionaries have often been much less ethnocentric. But even those with the most intense exposure to other cultures have often been extremely reluctant to accept the validity of the perspectives of other cultures.

This leaves conservative Christians committed to a faith once clothed in the trappings of a Middle Eastern culture but now pressed into Euro-american cultural forms and taken to the ends of the earth as if inseparable from these Forms. Anthropologists and others with a relativistic biashave I believe, rightly criticized Christians for regarding as absolute certain aspects of western culture. And many Christians have seen the validity of at least certain of these contentions. Conservative Christians stop short, however, of seeing the essence of Christianity as simply the product of western (or any other) culture and, therfore, devoid of trans-cultural validity.

A committed Christian with an anthropological perspective seeks to distinguish between the relative cultural forms, in terms of which even transculturally valid Christian meanings must be expressed, and those meanings. He adopts and supports from the Bible (cf. Nida 1954:48-52) relative cultural relativism" and adds to the list of cultural universals acceptable to naturalistic anthropologists a category of "spiritual universals" or "universally experienced spiritual felt needs" to which he sees essential Christianity speaking. He attempts to learn from anthropology how to become expert in interpreting and applying his non-western source of revelation (the Bible) without sacrificing his supernaturalistic worldview, in such a way that the interpretations he makes are cross-culturally valid rather than ethnocentric. There is much potential conflict in this area between the practice of most anthropologists and that of most conservative Christians. I believe that this is mostly at the surface level, however. The conflict, while the result of the different faith positions as they are actually held does not indicate the impossibility of working out an informed anthropological approach based on a biblical faith.

5. In the area of whether to focus on human commonality or on human diversity, I believe both groups have begun to show more concern for the focus of the other. Anthropologists seem to speak more today of cultural universals while conservative Christians-especially those, like missionaries, who work cross-culturally-speak more acceptingly of cultural diversity. In my judgment, conservative Christianity still has a ways to go toward overcoming its absolutized ethnocentrism. A cross-cultural perspective learned from anthropology but wedded to a supernaturalistic worldview could provide an approach that is both more satisfying and more in tune with the Christian Scriptures.

6. Conservative Christians can and, I believe, must learn from anthropologists and other behavioral scientist~ concerning the dynamics of human life. It is often at least as important to understand the cultural processes b) means of which people move (or are moved) from one state to another as it is to understand the goals toward which one desires that they move. Such understanding is important to an informed interpretation of the Bible. For the Bible shows God accepting people whose belief anc: who have attained to a particular ideal behavior. He accepts people who are "in process toward," even though not yet having attained God's goals for them. It is the im position of western cultural models on biblical interpretation that has staticized the conception of what God approves to conform to western "either-or" values. The input of more dynamic anthropological thinking can contribute to freeing essential Christianity from its enslavement to traditional western modes of thought.

7. With respect to the problem of imperfection, biblical Christianity requires a belief that there is something radically wrong with human nature. There is, however, so much to learn from the findings of anthropologists concerning the outworking of evil in socio-cultural systems that Christians dare not ignore its insights. For conservative Christianity needs to deal in an informed way both with the evil in human beings and with its outworking in sociocultural systems.

8. Conservative Christians, especially those who work cross-culturally, can learn from anthropology how to study people and human behavior more effectively and with less dependence on books. This would be of great positive value both to the cause of the missionaries and to the people they seek to reach. It should, furthermore, constitute no threat to the missionaries' worldview.

9. Conflict between proselyters may never be fully reconcilable. But this situation could, perhaps, be rendered more tolerable if it is recognized that the two faiths are not at the same level and are not, therefore, mutually exclusive. Christian faith is an ultimate sort of commitment to a God who exists outside of the historical and cultural milieu within which human beings operate. Anthropological faith, on the other hand, is faith in a perspeclive in terms of which to view the historical and cultural milieu. If such faith posits a naturalistic or humanistic object or perspective as its ultimate, it is at that point that it conflicts with Christian faith. If, on the other hand, Christians insist that a particular perspective on history and culture is concomitant with their commitment to God, there may be conflict with anthropology at that point.

I would contend, though, that the ultimate faith in God exercised by Christians is combinable with the anthropological perspective (or perspectives) on history and culture. The perspective(s) on history and culture ordinarily associated with conservative Christianity are, I believe, artifacts of the marriage between Christian faith and the western academic perspective traditionally associated with the humanities (especially certain schools of philosophy and history), rather than essential parts of that faith. Likewise, the close association between the anthropological perspective(s) and naturalistic faith is an artifact of the situation that anthropology has been largely developed by those who espouse such a faith. If this is true, it is at least thinkable that another perspective (such as that of anthropology) could be employed by those committed to Christian faith--that those who are committed to an anthropological perspective could legitimately espouse Christian (rather than naturalistic) faith.

Whatever proselyting goes on between these groups should be recognized for what it is and conducted on the proper level. The advocate should understand whether he is seeking to win his hearer(s) to an essential faith or to a new perspective that will, of course, have implications for how one understands his faith but is not mutually exclusive with that faith.

10. With respect to the Golden Rule, perhaps the only thing to say is that one wishes that each group would obey its own version. I have attempted above to provide at least the start toward a rationale that would make toleration and respect between the groups more possible.


I have sought in this paper to make esplicit ten areas where anthropologists and conservative (Protestant) Christians share similar concerns but follow different paths in seeking to deal with them. I have suggested that we are dealing here with a matter of similarity and difference between worldview values. The development of differing positions and the concomitant antipathy between the groups is understandable as a normal result of the historical backgrounds of the two groups. Though the focus chosen by each group in each of the ten areas tends to be in opposition to that of the other (in keeping with the differences in their respective worldviews), I maintain that the opposition is not necessary. By recombination (in Barnett's sense-Barnett 1953) of a Christian ultimate faith with a largely anthropological perspective on history and culture one can, I believe, both resolve the majority of the conflicting issues and develop a more satisfying worldview than either alternative has traditionally provided.


1See I. Barbour (1974:34 ff) who describes this perspective as believing that such concepts as scientific theories are'accurate descriptions of 'the world as it is in itself'. .. Theoretical terms [are] said to denote real things of the same kind as physical objects in the perceived world." This position thus sees virtually a one-to-one relationship between reality (whether physical or spiritual) and the concept of that reality held by the advocate of this postion.
2 The perspective that Barbour labels "critical realism" is much more in vogue within the behavioral sciences. This perspective, like naive realism,"takes theories to be representations of the world." But, unlike the naive realist, the proponent of critical realism "recognizes the importance of human imagination in the formation of theories... [Ne) thus tries to acknowledge both the creativity of man's mind and the existence of patterns in events not created my man's mind. Descriptions of nature are human constructions but nature is such as to bear descriptions in some ways and not in others" (1974:37).
3Anthropologist Waiter Goldschmidt (1966:134-136), however, shows a mediating position.


Barbour, lan G. 1974 Myths, Models and Paradigms. New York: Harper and Row.
Barnett, Homer G.1953 Innovation: The Basis of Cultural Change. New York: McCrawHill.
Fletcher, Joseph 1966 Situation Ethics. Philadelphia The Westminster Press.
Goldschmidt, Waiter 1966 Comparative Functionalism Berkeley: University of California Press.
James, William 1904 The Will to Relieve. New York: Longmans, Green and Company.
Kraft, Charles H. 1979 Christianity in Culture. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. Orbis Books.
Nida, Eugene A.1954 Customs and Cultures. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
Pelto, Perti, 1970 Anthropological Research. New York: Harper and Row.


  1. Very insightful and many excellent points, but the manner of writing in this article immediately made my eyes glaze over.

    The type of anthropology under discussion is cultural.

  2. Kraft, as a Christian missiologist, was an important figure in cultural anthropology. His Christ in Culture (Orbis) was an important early influence on me.

    I added "cultural" to the title. You make a good point, but there are few Christians in most of the branches of anthropology.


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