Anthropology is the study of human kind, both past and present. On a continuum of different models, from past <—-> present, this model would be furthest to the ‘present’ side. The more past-focussed models place the most importance on Scripture and tradition. The anthropological model still values Scripture and tradition, but sees human experience as being of highest importance. Whether or not a particular expression of theology is genuine is assessed in light of human experience.
This model places great value on culture. It focuses on a sympathetic identity with a people’s culture and engages “special concern for cultural identity.” It seeks to find inherent goodness in all humanity and looks for expressions of faith already present, expressions different from tradition but still viewed as genuine spiritual experiences. Rather than relationship to a particular message, this model looks at more generalized items such as life, wholeness, healing and relationships as the criteria for judging whether a spiritual expression is sound. It looks for revelation and self-manifestation of God within the values and patterns of context – the meta-picture of humanity. If something is generally good for the life, wholeness and well-being of people, it may well be a manifestation of God.
In this way, the anthropological model draws theologians into studying cultures and traditions that may seem strange or offensive in the context of Christian tradition. This is not done with a view of converting or fighting these cultural traditions (although this will be a goal for many missionaries), but to gain a deeper understanding of the gospel as it is expressed in other cultures. A common statement of this model is that “God has not left himself without a witness in any nation at any time.”
A person’s cultural identity is to be established and preserved. For example, this model would speak of a Christian Māori rather than Māori Christian. It is a subtle shift, but shows where cultural importance lies.
This model is perhaps the most liberal in response and change from previous colonial mission work, where Western culture was seen as identical to Christian culture. A common metaphor is used here where the more traditionally focused method was that of the ‘pearl merchant.’ The Anthropological model on the other hand has been described as the ‘treasure hunter.’
Pearl Merchant: this metaphor is saying that other traditional models (e.g. translational model) approached new cultures with something valuable to sell or export.
Treasure Hunter: here, the anthropological model is seen as one which explores and studies foreign cultures looking to find value already present there.
In this way, the model also acknowledges that Christian tradition can learn from other cultures too. It can find new and varied expressions of faith that support or improve life and wholeness, being of benefit to both wider culture and Christian tradition.
A common critique of this model is that it can turn into ‘cultural romanticism,’ where the culture being studied is exempted from critical thinking. Also, traditional views will argue that it compromises Christian Faith, particularly people who hold to orthodoxy (“right belief”), believing that they already have the truth and it is their role to teach it to others (e.g. the translational model).
Another model at the other end of the spectrum is the Counter-Cultural model. This model is very similar to the work of the Hebrew prophets. It is heaven focussed, seeing Christians as being ‘not of this world.’ It therefore views non-Christian cultural expression skeptically, often seeing it as worldly and to be rejected, criticized, and condemned. However, in line with traditional prophesy, the counter-cultural model looks at countering and critiquing one’s own culture, rather than that of others.
Due to its focus on studying and exploring non-Western cultures, the anthropological model has been used for Māori theology in Aotearoa New Zealand. For example, Tui Cadogan has written in this model linking the similarities between scriptural ruling monarchs with their relationship to Yahweh and the traditional chiefly roles in Māoridom. Christian Māori movements such as the Ringatu and Rātana church were effectively practising this model before it was named and defined.
Māori spiritual leaders, particularly during rapid colonization and land wars, have identified with the kingly leadership of Hebrew testament characters and stories. For example, leaders such as Moses, Solomon and David, as well as the story of the Israelites lost in their own land, or the Exodus story of bondage and freedom. Perhaps this was because they saw the Hebrews as expressing values and views already present in their culture.
Tui Cadogan also links many elements of traditional Māori spirituality with Scripture and theology. She writes of the connection between tapu and the sacred, wairua and the spirit, wairua tapu and the Holy Spirit. The Māori importance on whakapapa, lines of ancestry, is also present in traditional Hebrew culture. Likewise with tapu around handling the dead and ritual cleansing. Māori often speak of a sacred connection with whenua that shares similarities with Biblical themes about sacred lands, promised land, and tribal inheritance.
Another theme in the Bible is the concept of land as conditional grant; it has only been gifted by God so long as it is looked after and protected. If not, it may be lost. This ties in with Māori ecology where the land is a spiritual entity to be conserved and protected from exploitation, ruin and foreign or tribal conquest.
The anthropological is very much focussed on the present. It aims to explore spiritual expression in cultures, seeing human experience as not only important but a good indication of genuine religious expression. This model is perhaps the most removed from traditional mission work, as it wants to establish and maintain cultural identities rather than converting and assimilating cultures into Western Christian culture. It still looks to encourage Christian faith, but through cultural identification and the goodness of humanity, rather than exporting and espousing a particular culture as being correct.