An Etic/Emic example in Christian theology

Etic, rather than simply emic views, can help us understand reality.  I wrote about etic and emic perspectives here: https://toddrisser.com/2014/01/22/etic-not-just-emic/

Here’s a simple example concerning etic and emic approaches. Someone approaches a pastor and says “What does the Christian faith believe about ________?” An emic answer would be a pastor who says “Christians believe _______,”  and answers purely and only from his church’s tradition/ his denomination’s theology. He doesn’t act as if this is one faithful Christian answer among many, he simply states his tradition’s stance as if it is the one and only genuine Christian answer. No caveats, no addendums.

An etic response would be for the pastor to say, “That question has been answered several ways by Christians of various branches of the Christian family tree down through the centuries. Our tradition believes the correct answer is _____ and here’s why. Our Catholic friends believe______.  Our Presbyterian friends believe ________. The Mennonites figured ________. So this has been an area with a variety of faithful Christians trying to be faithful to Jesus in understanding what the Scriptures convey. But like I said, here’s our view, and here’s why…”

Answering this way helps avoid turning people into sheeple, is honest, and values the thoughts of Christians throughout history and across the family tree, not just my tribe. I also think it avoids future situations where someone feels like the pastor was less than forthcoming in their answer. It avoids the “If you don’t think what we think, then your answer isn’t even a Christian one” lunacy. It avoids assuming people are not smart enough to sort things out. It helps avoid leader-worship.  Perhaps pastors stick with emic answers because they believe that a person will only get to heaven with perfect theology, or because they are insecure that someone may choose another church? I’ve noticed people like being treated like adults  rather than children. They like full disclosure, even more than “the party line.” I believe people can be respected enough to tell them the big picture, not just our slice. Truth is truth.

Advertisements

Etic not just Emic

Etic and emic are words that come to us from cultural anthropology. Emic views of a situation are from within, from inside the worldview of a particular culture, an intimate view. Etic views are those from outside, attempting to understand through comparison across many cultures. A big picture view.  

Most of us automatically think in emic categories – from within the culture or subgroup we belong to. Like all humans, I of course view things emic-ly, but you can also develop the habit of taking the etic view as well. So, for instance, when my college-age son once asked me “What do you think of tongues?”[1] Although I responded with all kinds of emic insider observations, my first reaction was etic: “Well, ecstatic mystical experiences show up in all the world religions. It’s something humans do. A certain portion of people find that to be a central component of their spiritual experience, others don’t seem wired that way.”  Or another, more nerdy, example: when asked recently to list ten things about myself, my first response was as etic as I could draw: “I am a biological creature, created by God, living in the Sol System of the Milky Way galaxy.” I probably should have said something about carbon-based or oxygen.

Viewing things from an etic perspective can help bring a wider perspective and break us out of narrow paradigms which are parochial and don’t take the big picture reality into account. We often emic-ly assume something has a theological raison d’etre when worldwide studies show it to have more of a cultural one. The fact that two of my graduate degrees had healthy doses of cultural anthropology  certainly helps me be aware of etic realities.  Cross-disciplinary reading is also very valuable in this arena. If you only read within one realm (say, Christian theology, or even a substrata of that), you often get caught drawing emic conclusions which are woefully lacking in awareness of etic realities staring you in the face. Some of the completely ignorant, and laughable if it weren’t so egregious, comments made by Christians regarding Islam are a common example these days. Understanding some of the practices in the Old Testament over three thousand years ago are another. Reading across the social sciences, hard sciences, and history, help protect us from embarrassing emic limitations.


[1] “Tongues” is an emic Christian word referring to the experience of glossalia. There are a variety of opinions on the subject from within Christianity.