Cultural Anthropology

By: Rev'd Gerry A. Arbuckle, SM

Before I describe my work at Campion Hall this year let me briefly explain the nature of cultural anthropology. Anthropology is about how people feel and communicate with one another and across cultures. It is often about revealing the cultural forces that motivate people and their institutions, although they are commonly unaware of the existence of these forces and their ability to control behavior.

That is, culture is truly a "silent language". As the water is to the fish so culture is to the human person, a truth so difficult to grasp unless, like the fish, we experience the trauma of suddenly being deprived of a culture, a sense of belonging. Cultural traditions, values, attitudes and prejudices are silent, like the stillness of water for fish, in the sense that people are most often unconscious of their presence and influence.

Cultural anthropology can be an inquisitive, challenging, uncomfortable discipline, questioning  the status quo, people's prejudices, looking into underlying interests, if not destroying fictions and empty phrases, at least revealing them. We might well describe anthropologists as "cultural whistleblowers"!

Every discipline, including theology and sciences, institutions – including the  Church itself – are encased within and are influenced by cultures. The Church is no misty entity. Its structures and theologies are subject to cultural forces that need to be constantly articulated and critiqued.

We ignore culture at our peril. I have found, for example, that without an informed understanding of the complexity of culture and the behavioral consequences of cultural change in healthcare institutions, such as the National Health Service, many avoidable disasters will continue to occur jeopardizing the safety and welfare of patients. So also in the Church's ministries. We may write brilliant mission statements and strategic plans, but if we ignore cultural realities these are doomed to failure. As it is said: "Culture eats strategies for lunch!"

Research at Campion Hall

As a result of anthropological research conducted from Campion Hall in recent years I have now been able to finalize for publication a book on personal and organizational aging. [1] Why, despite physical aging, do some people maintain a youthfulness? Why do organizational cultures, including the Church itself, age and lose energy for change?

Most changes, even if people intellectually assent to them, necessitate loss and loss evokes grief. A clear distinction, however, must be made between grieving and mourning. Grieving or grief  describes the internal emotions of sadness, sorrow, anger, anguish, confusion, shame, even guilt that results from our experiences of loss. Grief is pain. It is loneliness, emptiness. It is fear. Many kinds of loss can occur one on top of the other, such as poor health, work retrenchment, death of loved ones, breakdown of relationships, the loss of self-worth, the inability to defend oneself against the onslaughts of bullying in its many faces, so grief can accumulate and becomes overwhelming.

Grief is thus not confined to death experiences though many griefs presage the definitive loss through death. Every time we grieve we are asked to let go of some familiar and cherished part of ourselves, and this can be hard. But grief is a normal part of life, in fact a necessary consequence of being alive. Grief is not a sickness any more than joy.

Mourning, on the other hand, shows us how we are to handle grief positively. It embraces two simultaneous and complementary dynamics. First, it refers to the culturally patterned external expressions or rituals which publicly acknowledge that loss and grief have occurred to the bereaved. Second, it also connotes the agonizing inner journey that the bereaved must make to let go their attachments to what is lost in order to be able to move on in life. Loss evokes contradictory impulses that the process of mourning must grapple with.

Not just individuals, but also cultures of all kinds, experience grief as they grow decrepitly old. The Church is a culture. It is no misty entity. It, therefore, can age through overwhelming grief. Unless this grief can be publicly articulated in mourning rituals it will haunt the living, lead to all kinds of de-energizing dysfunctional behaviour, and destroy every spirit of youthfulness. As the wise Roman poet Ovid (43BC-17AD) wrote centuries ago: "Suppressed grief suffocates."

It is of overriding significance for people to say loss hurts and to be able to express this freely and unashamedly before people who understand. Traditional cultures remind us of the crucial need for ritual leaders of mourning. They call the people to let go the past in order to be open to the new. So Tennyson simply articulates this key advice: "Ring out the grief that saps the mind." And in the words of psalmist: "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning...You have turned my mourning into dancing (Ps 30:5,11).

Without these leaders entire cultures are in danger of dying through suffocation.

I apply this anthropological theory not just to the secular world but also to the contemporary Church. Why has Pope Francis had such a sudden and dramatic impact on the Church? Anthropologically the answer is surprisingly simple: he is a ritual mourner!

Over the last sixty years the Church has experienced loss after loss. For example, the initial enthusiasm generated by Vatican II was quickly crushed. Legitimate dissent has been culturally suffocated. We have been officially forbidden to mourn. Suddenly, in 2013 with the election of Pope Francis new hope has dramatically emerged. Why? Francis became a ritual leader of mourning. By his words and actions he is allowing the suppressed grief to be articulated in all kinds of informal and formal mourning rituals.

Uniqueness of Campion Hall

A researching anthropologist must struggle to learn the art of reflective listening, that is of listening to the symbols, myths, and rituals of people they wish to study and serve. Yet at the same time the anthropologist must be listening to and identifying the cultural prejudices deep within themselves that block this openness to learn from others. This is why I have found over many years that Campion Hall is so important for my thinking and writing.

The Halli s an "oasis of contemplation" in which I am able to ponder in a faith atmosphere what I hear and see in my research.

In this contemplation I can be helped to integrate my thinking. Plato says in the Phaedo, "Wisdom is the harmony of intellect and will based on self-knowledge." Wisdom is information and understanding gained through contemplation on experience that will guide behaviour. It is a form of understanding that combines a reflective attitude and a practical concern to act virtuously.

While wisdom can and must draw on the insights of human reason, ultimately true wisdom comes from the contemplation of God's revelation in Christ Jesus. This is the import of Saint Paul’s advice: "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards...But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise" (1 Cor 1:25, 27).

[1] The 'Francis Factor' and the People of God: New Life in the Church (Orbis, 2015)