Amos Yong



            Whereas Paul Tillich maintained that “the form of religion is culture” (Tillich 1959:47), sociologists of religion in the tradition of Durkheim and Weber have generally held religion to be but a form of culture and therefore seen culture or society as the all embracing concept which give rise to forms of religious life.[1]  The question of who is correct--Tillich or the Durkheimian tradition--is a theoretical one of utmost import for the student of theology.  The presumption of methodological atheism in the social sciences is a given at least insofar as the sociologist of religion is supposed to approach her subject impartially.  The result, however, has been less than satisfactory for theology.  While the theological task necessitates that the theologian engage the empirical data presented by the social sciences, the question of how such an encounter takes place is a difficult one since the methodological premise of the sociologist of religion--that of religion as human projection--does not fit well with those of the theologian’s.  Sociologists with theological concerns such as Peter Berger, however, have argued that “to say that religion is a human projection does not logically preclude the possibility that the projected meanings may have an ultimate status independent of man” (1969:180).  The expressed purpose of this paper is to explore how social scientific methods can benefit the task of theology, and to do so, I will limit the scope of inquiry and resort to the work of Clifford Geertz.[2]


            Geertz is a contemporary cultural anthropologist who seeks to extend the original insights of the tradition of Durkheim and Weber, and in doing so, offers us an interpretive theory of culture.  I want to propose that while one reading of Geertz--that seen as an extension of the methodological premises of the social sciences--may disqualify his anthropological method as a legitimate approach to theological inquiry, on another reading, it does not and actually even turns out to sustain the effort of theological argumentation.  The difference between the two readings is, for purposes of this paper, that between open and closed.  The latter refers primarily to the methodological presumption of the social scientific tradition as one that is closed regarding religion and its symbols referring to any transcendent reality.  Since, however, it is difficult to determine where methodological presuppositions turn into metaphysical aprioris and it is almost impossible even to stop this process of unwitting transformation, a closed reading of Geertz will not on the whole pay theological dividends.  In this case, religion and its symbols are always bound within the social reality and can never be interpreted regarding any transcendent.  In contrast, however, an open reading will follow Berger’s suggestion and refrain from drawing metaphysical conclusions too quickly.  In this way, both religion and its symbols will be approached in a way which at least allows for the discovery of transcendental reference.  As Robert Neville has argued regarding religious symbols, while they could be “thoroughly spurious insofar as they refer to the infinite or divine . . . , let that be a conclusion, not a premise.  A study of religious symbolism should begin from phenomenologically open premises” (1996:xvii).  In other words, an open reading of Geertz does not initially prohibit the drawing of connections between social reality and the transcendent, and as such, not only facilitates dialogue between the sociologist and the theologian but also enriches the theological endeavor.[3]


            This essay comprises of three sections.  In the first, I will briefly outline the chief features of Geertz’s anthropological-cultural approach to religion and argue for its superiority over that of his predecessors.  Then in the second section, I will ask about the importance of Geertz’s theory for theology, investigating specifically the phenomena of Pentecostal glossolalia.  I will apply his method of “thick description” to speaking in tongues, and seek to unravel the meaning and the theological implications, not only of the phenomena themselves, but also of the process of religious interpretation based on Geertz’s theory.  However, while this paper is written from the perspective of a participating Pentecostal, it is far from a theological essay on tongues-speaking. Rather, it is centrally concerned with the question of the relationship between the social-scientific study of religion and theology.  Geertz’s cultural anthropology, it will be shown, can be an extremely useful, and at times even normative, tool for the theological interpretation of religious phenomena.


In the last section, I will briefly suggest one way in which an open reading of Geertz can be developed in a theological direction, as when complemented by the more recent work of Robert Neville.  Then, I will return once again to the contrast posed between the theologically open and the social-scientifically closed theories of religion in order to highlight, from a theological perspective, the dialectical movement that occurs in the interpretation of religion.





            Geertz insists that the contemporary sociological study of religion must treat the work of its pioneers--he names Durkheim, Weber, Freud, and Malinowski--as “starting-points only,” and “move beyond them” (Geertz 1973:88).  In order to see what it is exactly that Geertz deems in need of improvement in these earlier theories, we can get to the heart of the matter in his concept of culture.  Culture, for Geertz, “denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men ommunicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (1973:89). 


In contrast to his predecessors whose focus was specifically on society and the forms of religious life therein, for Geertz, the object of study for the anthropologist is culture, and it is in and through this dimension that the study of religion is best approached.  Before I explicate his method, it is important to ask how this shift in emphasis is an advance for the social-scientific tradition.  For purposes of this paper, I will briefly contrast his approach with that of the sociological model of Durkheim, the socio-economic model of Weber, and the reigning anthropological model prior to Geertz’s own work.


            Durkheim’s central thesis in his founding sociology of religion text was that “religion is something eminently social” (Durkheim 1965:22), by which he meant that society was, in an ultimately closed sense, the only reality, and within which the forces of religion could be assessed and understood.  In terms of personal religiosity, Durkheim himself was a rigorous agnostic.  Yet, the reigning paradigm for sociology of religion during the time of the early twentieth century when Durkheim was writing was undoubtedly that posited by Marx and his theory of religion as the opiate of the masses and Comtean positivism.  Unsurprisingly then, Durkheim’s understanding was that “the concept of totality is only the abstract form of the concept of society” and that “at bottom, the concept . . . of society and that of divinity are very probably only different aspects of the same notion” (1965:490).  This notion of society as the all-embracing reality has now been subsumed by Geertz under what he considers as the even broader notion of culture.  Geertz distinguished between culture and social system by seeing “the former as an ordered system of meaning and of symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place; and . . . the latter as the pattern of social interaction itself” (Geertz 1973:144).  In contrast, Durkheim does not differentiate between the two, and in fact, really shows no identification of the concept of culture at all.[4]


            Geertz does credit Weber with having seen insightfully the problem of humankind as that of meaning--meaning couched and “suspended in webs of significance.”  However, although Weber did speak of the many forms of cultures in all their varieties, he lacked the more carefully thought out notion of culture posited by Geertz.  In fact, Weber’s understanding of culture was mediated and interpreted by his theory of economics; for Weber, economics was fundamental, and culture--if understood at all--a derivative.[5]  In contrast, Geertz takes “culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (1973:5).  Thus, in contrast to Weber whose overarching task was the discovery of “ideal types” of religious consciousness such as the charismatic prophet (Weber 1993:46 ff), Geertz foregoes Weber’s more rigorous type of rationalism in favor of amore wholistic approach to religion and religious meaning within the context of its cultural framework.


            Geertz, however, also considered his interpretive theory an advance over the cultural-anthropological theories that were influential early in his career.  He sets himself against the layered or what he calls the “stratigraphic” conception of human life which attempted to locate essential humanity in descending from cultural, to social, to psychological, and finally to biological factors.


Against this approach which seeks to “peel off,” as it were, successive and composite/non-reducible levels in order to find connecting anthropological clues to human meaning, Geertz proposes a more integrated or synthetic approach utilizing his concept of culture.  Culture is then seen as “a set of control mechanisms . . . [which humankind is] most desperately dependent upon . . . for the governing and ordering of behavior” (1973:44).  Thus, Geertz insists on the fundamental importance of culture for the understanding of human life:


            Undirected by culture patterns--organized systems of significant symbols--man’s behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts

and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless.  Culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is not just an ornament of human existence

but--the principle basis of its specificity--an essential      condition for it (1973:46).


The interpretation of cultures then, would be the intelligible inscription of these patterns, a laying open of the “interworked systems of construable signs,” and the dissection and re-connection of he social events, behaviors, institutions and processes which together form the totality of these patterns; in other words, what Geertz calls “thick description” (1973:14).


            It may be here that an aspect of Geertz’s thinking, if enlarged sufficiently, will play an important role in his interpretation of religion.  As central as it is to his

theory, I want to urge that Geertz’s concept of culture does not necessarily have to be understood as a closed system.


Now although the question of whether or not Geertz’s system is or is not closed is primarily a theological one which does not arise in his own cultural-anthropological analysis with the sort of specificity detailed here, it is necessary for us to ask this question of Geertz given the assumptions of his predecessors in the field and also given our own interests in assessing the relevance of sociology to religious and theological symbols.  How then should Geertz be read on this issue?  In the first place, he is simply saying above that the totality of culture is an essential condition for human existence, but I do not think by this that Geertz has to be read as saying that culture is necessarily the sole condition for it.  Second, and more importantly, I think to that to read Geertz in such a way would be to ignore the essential openness of his interpretive theory.  The hermeneutics of culture, he is careful to point out, is “intrinsically incomplete;” this is because anthropology “is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate” (1973:29).  While this may be understood as a hermeneutical circle within a closed system, I suggest that resisting this temptation will be much more productive for the purposes of the student of religion, and especially so for the work of the theologian.  I will defend this enlargement of Geertz’s theory in the final section below after demonstrating its fruitfulness as applied specifically to a religious phenomena.


            It should now be fairly clear that Geertz considers his concept of culture to be an expansion on the Durkheimian society on the one hand and on the Weberian explanatory theory of economics on the other.  Against the reductionism of these social-scientific approaches to religion, Geertz’s interpretative theory is an attempt to infer from the historical particularities and the empirical facts, and not an exercise in schematizing the facts to laws arrived at on the basis of apriori thinking.  Further, Geertz appears to have awakened from the rationalistic optimism that plagued moderns from the previous generations in his acknowledgment of the ambiguities that beset the interpretation of culture; nevertheless, he proceeds on the hermeneutical path.  Finally, his thick-description is an effort to converse with the other, and to allow their story to be told and understood in their own terms, rather than to impose a previously formulated theoretical schemata on the subjects of sociological and anthropological study.  All of this is an advance on the ethnography of his forebears, who proscribed their own theories on the quantitative amassment of facts and artifacts, thus clouding, with their compilation of data, the human faces and identities which alone are the reals in the social and cultural world.


            Within this framework, then, how does Geertz understand religion, and what does his theory suggest for an approach to that subject?  Geertz defines religion as “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (1973:90).  He suggests that “the anthropological study of religion is therefore a two-stage operation: first, an analysis of the systems of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the religion proper, and, second, the relating of these systems to social-structural and psychological processes” (1973:125).  In other words, rather than seeing the psychological, and social aspects of human life as “prerequisites” (as indeed they are in the other anthropological models) to the development and formation of culture, Geertz prefers to view the cultural dimension--complete with its web of signs and symbols--as illuminating of these processes.  Instead of attempting a summary explication of his definition of religion, I will, in the section that follows, simply unpack its meaning in applying it to the Pentecostal ritual of tongues-speaking.  The resulting thick-description--which complexities would have been obscured by the more reductionistic methods of Durkheim and Weber--will then be related, as suggested by Geertz, to the other human processes.  At that point, I will assess the results attained by Geertz’s cultural-anthropological method from a theological point of view, and will explain why the improvement on his theory--read openly--as I suggested above is important for a theological understanding of these phenomena.





            The recent explosion of Pentecostalism worldwide in the last two to three decades has sent a scurrying of sociologists of religion--both those within and without the Pentecostal community--to examine and explain its global expansion.  It should not be surprising, then, that the hallmark of the movement, the phenomenon of glossolalia--from the Greek, glossa, or tongue speaking--has been almost incessantly under the spotlight of investigation during this same period of time.  An extremely “thin description” of tongues-speech tells us not much more than that it is the ecstatic making of verbal sounds, thus leading some who have attempted to define it by noting it as “a puzzling psychological and religious phenomenon” (Kauffman 1967:211).[6]  In any theological analysis, but even so in the light of the cultural-anthropological interpretive model before us, there is, of course, much, much more going on than an audio analysis reveals. 


            A thick description of tongues-speech--a la Clifford Geertz--from the testimony of Frank Bartleman, one of the revered early Pentecostal pioneer leaders, reveals the complexity, mystery, and alluring attraction of this religious experience.  Bartleman’s glossolalic encounter is preserved in a classic testimonial[7] that has, in many ways, become representative of the experience for many Pentecostals, and therefore deserves to be quoted at length:


On the afternoon of August 16 [1906], at Eighth and Maple, the Spirit manifested Himself through me in “tongues.”  There were seven of us present at the

time....After a time of testimony and praise, with everything quiet, I was softly walking the floor, praising God in my spirit.  All at once I seemed to hear in

my soul (not with my natural ears), a rich voice speaking in a language I did not know.  I have later heard something similar to it in India..  It seemed to

ravish and fully satisfy the pent up praises in my being.  In a few moments I found myself, seemingly without volition on my part, enunciating the same sounds

with my own vocal organs.  It was an exact continuation of the same expressions that I had heard in my soul a few moments before.  It seemed a perfect

language.  I was almost like an outside listener.  I was fully yielded to God, and simply carried by His will, as on a divine stream.  I could have hindered the

expression but would not have done so for worlds.  A Heaven of conscious bliss accompanied it.  It is impossible to describe the experience accurately.  It

must be experienced to be appreciated.  There was no effort made to speak on my part, and not the least possible struggle.  The experience was most

sacred, the Holy Spirit playing on my vocal cords, as on an Aoelian harp.  The whole utterance was a complete surprise to me.  I had never really been

solicitous to speak in “tongues.”  Because I could not understand it with my natural mind I had rather feared it (Bartleman 1980:71-72).


            Any attempt to gain access into the meaning of glossolalia in this narrative will necessarily have to pierce through the network of symbols that are operative.  One way to “make sense of”this thick-description of glossolalia provided by Bartleman is to assess it in terms of Geertz’s definition of religion.  In the first place then, even a summary identification of some of the more important symbols, metaphors, and imagery employed here reveals the complexity of tongues-speech: the praise-and-prayer-meeting; seven of us; praising God in my spirit; in my soul; a rich voice; perfect language; a divine stream; fully yielded; no effort; complete surprise.  This listing, by no means comprehensive, exemplifies Geertz’s “set of symbols” in exemplary fashion.  There is, in Bartleman’s report, a wholistic dimension to his experience of glossolalia.  The language is replete with biblical allusions and pietist-holiness rhetoric (Bartleman being a Holiness preacher before his Pentecostal experience).  Each in sequence enrich both the narrative of the experience as well as provide an aesthetic balance to the quality of the experience itself. 


            More importantly, however, when fleshed-out according to Geertz’s definition of “religion,” this set of symbols “acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men.”  “Moods” refer to the intensive, qualitative, and conditional character of religious phenomena, while “motivations” to their consummatory or teleological direction.  Both are plainly discernible in Bartleman’s glossolalic experience.  The intensity of “mood” is not in doubt.  Upon later reflection, Bartleman assessed this “mood,” and confessed that “the Spirit had gradually prepared me for this culmination in my experience, both in prayer for myself, and others.  I had thus drawn nigh to God, my spirit greatly subdued.  A place of abandonment of will had been reached, in absolute consciousness of helplessness, purified from natural self-activity.  This process had been cumulative” (1980:72).  Necessarily included in a more complete assessment of the meaning of Bartleman’s experience would be a full consideration of this “process”--including his social location, his psychological profile, and other aspects of his religious history, along with the corollary contextualization of the symbols relative to this “process.”   In a preliminary sense, however, glossolalia in Bartleman’s account has to be seen as representative of a particular religious mood, the intensity and quality of which are not discontinuous with the rest of his life and spiritual quest, but is rather an extension of both.  In other words, Bartleman understood his experience of tongues in part to be the defining moment of a “mood,” as it were, in Geertz’s sense.


            Further, that his encounter with the Spirit was indeed motivational can be seen when he says that


in the experience of ‘speaking in tongues’ I had reached to climax of abandonment.  This opened the channel for a new ministry of the Spirit in service. 

From that time the Spirit began to flow through me in a new way.  Messages would come, with anointings, in a way I had never known before, with a

spontaneous inspiration and illumination that was truly wonderful.  This was attended with convincing power.  The Pentecostal baptism spells complete

abandonment, possession by the Holy Ghost, of the whole man, with a spirit of instant obedience (1980:73).


Bartleman thus understood his speaking as a symbolic prelude to the life and ministry which followed, the meaning of which is traced--in a causal sense in this testimony--to the earlier charismatic experience.  Of course, the import of this effect of glossolalia can only be measured  against the entire range of early Pentecostal life and religiosity.  Again, however preliminarily, it is evident that when examined in the light of Geertz’s “moods” and “motivations,” a real sense can be discerned in which this initial experience of glossolalia both is defining for Bartleman’s life and ministry, as well as the reverse, whereby the meaning of glossolalia itself has to be understood in light of his experiences of the divine both before and after August 6th.  In short, glossolalia both defines the mood as well as its motivations.  It is encompassing, but why not so, given its central place in Pentecostal spirituality?


            While it is not necessary to go on, although we surely could with this testimony, what is more important is the “witness” which Bartleman’s account gives to Geertz’s view of religion. It is true that Geertz comes no closer to acknowledging the transcendence of culture than in his notion of “a general order of existence.”  Of course, the “general order of existence” in Bartleman’s testimony is presupposed in the set of symbols drawn primarily from the Bible, and promulgated from the pulpits of early Pentecostal preachers both at and prior to the Azusa Street revival.  Thus Spirit, God, and Heaven, and other images such as perfect languages, the sacred, and natural ears and mind (in contrast to the supernatural) are indicative to some degree of this order.  Be that as it may, Bartleman’s account is an eloquent testimony to the threatening character of chaos--an important feature of the “generality” of the order of Geertz’s cultural reality, especially as seen in the limits in the analytic capacities of humankind (Geertz 1973:100).  The experience of the Holy Spirit as manifest in speaking in other tongues was one that strained Bartleman’s cognitive sensibilities and resisted his descriptive capabilities.  It was “impossible to describe,” and a “complete surprise,” both even though he said later that he was actually “prepared” for this experience.  What is important to note here, is Bartleman’s denying conscious seeking or appropriation of the phenomena.  In fact, he admitted his fear of this unknown. 


Glossolalia was significant for Bartleman of both the “generality” as well as the “order” of ultimate existence.  In his experience, speaking in tongues was

both vague (an unknown language) and precise (perhaps Indian in character), both ambiguous (bliss) and determinative (albeit consciously experienced),

both chaotic and concrete, both unknown and known.


            Perhaps in wanting to give concrete expression to this general order of existence, Geertz moves toward their being clothed in an aura of factuality.  He makes this move by positing as axiomatic a well-known religious perspective: that of faith seeking understanding (1973:110).  Can we detect the “aura of factuality” which Geertz says accompanies this experience of the general order of existence?  Certainly, Bartleman’s experience of glossolalia was that of being possessed by the Spirit in an utmost sense, the utterance being “without human mixture” (Bartleman 1980:72).  And yet, of course, it was Bartleman himself doing the speaking, and no one else. 


Although the connection was not explicitly drawn in the text by Bartleman, the standard explanation for most Pentecostals is that glossolalic experiences are simply the replaying of the paradigmatic instance of tongues-speech, when those in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.[8] 


Thus, Bartleman also speaks of complete and utter abandonment, an “absolute consciousness of helplessness,” and a “Heaven of conscious bliss.”  Of course, immersed as he was in the language of the Bible and steeped in the religious world of late nineteenth-century revivalism, Bartleman thoroughly imbibed in the ethos and spirituality of early Pentecostalism.  He was, undoubtedly, well aware of the role of tongues as well as its real and symbolic connections with other dimensions of spiritual life, both of which were defined ideologically and doctrinally by the emerging Pentecostal community.


            Geertz concludes his cultural-anthropological approach by seeing the resulting moods and motivations of religion as “uniquely realistic.”  It is certain that Bartleman’s experience had radically altered “the whole landscape presented to common sense, [...altered] it in such a way that the moods and motivations induced by religious practice seem themselves supremely practical, the only sensible ones to adopt given the way things ‘really’ are” (Geertz 1973:122).  Whereas before August 6th Bartleman considered himself as just another Holiness preacher, after that date, he looked upon himself as more fiery than the great missionary to China, Hudson Taylor (Bartleman 1980:73).  Being profoundly affected, Bartleman spoke of being possessed with a “spirit of instant obedience.”  It is an understatement to retell Bartleman’s story as a renewal or intensification of commitment.  It is rather nothing less than a new ministry, a new way, and a new revelation--as his own words indicate--understood as the result of a total transformation of soul and its being conformed with the calling of God on his life and ministry.  We have here again the dialectic between the experience and life, between glossolalia and its proceeding causes and succeeding effects.


            With this thicker description before us, what can we say that glossolalia means, specifically for Bartleman himself, but more importantly, generally for Pentecostals?  On the more personal and psychological level, the experience boils down to an ecstatic encounter with a dimension of reality on the boundaries of culture that is soul-transforming and world-defining--Geertz’s “model-of.”  This is the process of internalization.  Socially and communally, it is an experience which legitimizes, empowers, and provides spiritual and religious identity--Geertz’s “model-for.”  This is the process of externalization.[9]  Let me deal first with the former


            For Bartleman, as for most Pentecostals, glossolalia is the primary means of gaining entry into a religious cult which both advertises the personal encounter with the divine and claims to elevate the devotee’s spiritual status, neither of which are without social implications.  Thus, in what has since become a foundational study of Pentecostalism, Walter Hollenweger, one of the premier interpreters of the movement, speaks of tongues in functional terms, as a “tribal mark.”  Its significance, bluntly put, “lies in the experience of being taken into a fellowship which involves a change in one’s whole way of life, and which develops a scheme of values which is easier to comprehend and communicate, and the maintenance of which is controlled by group dynamic processes (services)” (Hollenweger 1973:491).  Detailed socio-psychological studies have, to a some extent, borne out these claims (Richardson 1986:369-80; Mills 1986b:425-438;).  It explains, for instance, at least in part the more recent explosion of Pentecostalism in Latin America (Sepulveda 1989; Wilson 1991:67-97), wherein the internalization of glossolalia is seen as a functional symbolic-ritual that in turn produces positive socio-economic results.[10]


            It would be easy, given these socio-psychological implications, to understand the processes and internalization of glossolalia simply as the heavy-hand of society being exerted upon the individual.  This, of course, would not explain why people like Bartleman are drawn to Pentecostalism in the first place, only that once at the door, their powers of resistance are slowly incapacitated.  Attempts to answer the previous question have led some to connect the psychological and biological aspects of tongues-speaking (Hutch 1986:381-95).  Other anthropologists, however, have reversed the argument and proposed that part of the attraction of Pentecostalism is precisely at the sociological level where it provides an invitation into a community of mutuality and equality that redresses activity, embodies opposition, and empowers adjustment in the socio-economic arena (Hine 1986:439-462; Alexander 1989).  These are, in part, some of the functional meanings given to the phenomena of glossolalia under Geertz’s “model for” when seen as a sociological and cultural interpretive instrument.


            The value of Geertz’s cultural-anthropological approach for religious studies is in the flexibility of the model as seen in its ability to incorporate the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of human existence and to integrate them semiotically.  Since what Geertz is after is meaning, none of these other dimensions are privileged in an apriori manner, and in this way, he avoids the reductionism which plagued his predecessors.  Every instantiation of tongues-speech would then need to be thickly described, and understood within the network of symbols wherein it is found operative.  Ultimately for Geertz, however, the concept of culture is an elastic one and serves a double function: it provides an overarching framework of interpretation for human existence as well as expands insofar as clues to human life are found in all the other social and sciences.  We have seen how applicable this model has been in one representative case of glossolalia.  At the same time, this is, ironically, both the basis upon which Geertz insists on the ongoing openness of cultural-anthropological interpretation, and its being locked into a hermeneutical circle.  Read in the wake of the Durkheim, Weber, and the social sciences, then, Geertz is only allowed to explain glossolalic phenomena as mediated in a never-ending fashion by the dialectical interplay of signs between the cultural-anthropological framework and the psycho-socio-biological dimensions; it would never be possible, in this model, for us to finally “touch-down,” either in the experience itself or in any other arena, for each sign would function as a referent to another, which would in turn possibly point back to itself understood in light a another variant, and so forth ad infinitum. 


            From a theological perspective, however, this seems rather “thin” and ultimately unsatisfying.  The explanatory power of Geertz’s model can and should be retained so far as it goes.  However, meaningful  theological assertions which theologians need to make cannot, if Geertz’s culture be read as a closed system, be done in a manner which is not discontinuous with the explanations given under the model.  But it is precisely such theological assertions that are supplementary to the hermeneutical process, and in a further sense, ultimately important for the theologian.  In short, I believe that Geertz’s project of explanation will fall short so long as guarded by the masters of the sociological tradition of Durkheim and Weber.  Rather than being locked into the hermeneutic circle of culture and its dimensions, it will be released to fulfill its promise to provide meaning ultimately (read theologically) if theologians are granted license within the interpretive theory itself to press the theological questions.





            My proposal, therefore, is to retain in large part Geertz’s theory of culture and semiotics for its intrinsic value in its orientation toward meaning in human life, but as a theologian, to read his sense of incompleteness and openness as one that is ontologically grounded in transcendence.  This move can be defended in a number of ways, perhaps one of the most promising of which is Robert Neville’s theory of imagination.  Imagination, understood as “the most primary or primitive organization of human experience,” Neville writes, “is religious, regardless of whether it contains any specifically religious symbols of God or related matters.  By imagination is meant . . . the elementary capacity to experience things as images” (1996:47).  This fundamental human ability is what engages us with and relates us to the beyond, understood theologically in terms of transcendence, and further explicated by Neville as represented symbolically by “finite/infinite contrasts.”  In the technical sense defined by Neville, finite/infinite contrasts “mark what is experienced as a special condition defining worldliness or world construction,” and insofar as their interpretations are true, “they are realities, or structures of reality . . . [and] have the form of being disclosures of reality, not of being mere images themselves” (1996:58). 


            In and of itself, however, the central role of imagination for religion is not peculiar to Neville but had already been commented on even by Durkheim himself.  Even as patriarch for the sociological study of religion, Durkheim had noted that “the first systems of representations with which men have pictured to themselves the world and themselves were of religious origin” (1915:21).  Durkheim, however, who was concerned to establish the sociological study of religion on an equal footing with the then conceived objective inquiries of the hard sciences, never pushed the larger philosophical and religious questions--not to mention the theological ones.  Therefore, he could not allow the claims of religious adherents regarding the transcendent to be understood as such, but rather had to confine them to the realm of scientific and therefore phenomenal and social study.  Coming from  this lineage, Geertz, who wishes to take the claims of all religious participants at face value, is unable to do so in a closed cultural system.  In contrast, an open reading of Geertz assisted, for example, by Neville, can and will privilege the explanation of the insider when understood at their own specific level so long as “qualified by the biological, cultural, semiotic, and purposive contexts of the interpreters” (Neville 1996:240).


            These are extremely important qualifications since they take into account all the essentials of Geertz’s cultural-anthropological hermeneutical system.   Doing theology is now permissible and, in a very real sense, necessary, insofar as Geertz’s interpretive theory is extended by Neville’s insights.  Neville’s theory of religious symbolism as applied to glossolalia produces some fascinating results. [11]  Bartleman’s claim (and those of countless other Pentecostals) was to have actually encountered God the Holy Spirit, the sign of which was his speaking in tongues. 


Theologically, tongues can be seen as a finite-infinite contrast: finite insofar as it itself is a sign set within a network of theological and religious symbols which are overlaid by other biological, psychological, and sociological networks of symbols--fully cultural in the sense intended by Geertz, and infinite insofar as it is a divine-human encounter fully qualified by the finite human cultural context.  In this connection then, a psychological-theology of glossolalia can generalize, in words reminiscent of Bartleman himself, that “glossolalia is a symbol of the mystery of God, a mystery that can ‘swallow us whole’ and grant us ‘insights beyond words’ (Macchia 1992:58).  More important, however, are statements which relate the sign and its beyond: “In glossolalia is a hidden protest against any attempt to define, manipulate or oppress humanity.  Glossolalia is an unclassifiable, free speech in response to an unclassifiable, free God.  It is the language of the imago Dei” (1992:61).   These are theologically meaningful statements that enable us to further locate the significance of glossolalic experiences like Bartleman’s which are allowed in Geertz’s theory as complemented by Neville’s but denied by the more stringent--and, I am arguing, misguided and less valuable--social-scientific reading of Geertz.  In short, Geertz’s interpretive theory is sufficiently comprehensive as a hermeneutics of culture (totality) to ground the quest for the human encounter with the divine, and sophisticated enough to be open with regard to the transcendent or divine referent.


            My point is that as humans, we strive to “touch down,” as it were, into something concrete.  Tongues itself is only phenomenally so; as a sign, it points beyond itself.  This “beyondness” can be accounted for in Geertz only in a genuine openness to transcendence.  Ironically, the truly transcendent is at the same time the most frustratingly ambiguous in an existential sense, but the most concretely explanatory in a theological sense.  In point of fact, however, there is a double-movement that occurs in the work of both the sociologist of religion and the theologian.  On the one hand, the theologian benefits from the empirical work done by the social scientist.  Is it not the case that sociological findings possess explanatory power which allow the theologian to draw and substantiate theological conclusions?  On the other hand, some theological claims, whether or not drawn from the data of social-scientific research, serve as further hypotheses to be tested for the sociologist.  Is it not the case that theology in part contributes to the intellectual Weltanschauung against which the disciplines of the social sciences have developed, and which funds the ongoing sociological quest? 


            Let us get the most that we can out of Geertz’s model.  It is very illuminative at a number of different levels and able to connect with the various dimensions of human life.  But in the process of interpretation, Geertz’s hermeneutics of religion actually “pushes” the pale of culture farther and farther in an effort to pierce through to what lies beyond it, finally--if we are to be genuinely open and respectful of the religious and their experiences--breaking the boundary which demarcate the finite from the infinite. 


            In this essay, then, I have provisionally shown how Geertz’s theory is useful for students of religion.  At the very least, my hope is that it has opened a window and shed a glimmer of light on Pentecostal glossolalia as a cultural-anthropological phenomena.  However, if we are to be concerned with meaning, as Geertz is, we are ultimately--and, as students of religion, religiously, and as theologians, theologically--concerned.  In this latter case, glossolalia is but one way in which we engage our concerns ultimately.  I will therefore close by returning to Paul Tillich and saying it is better to see that “religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself” (1959:42).





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[1]In the chapter on “The Sacred” in his book The Sociological Tradition, Robert Nisbet identifies the important sociologists and their contributions as Alexis de Toqueville’s analysis of the relation between the development of doctrine and the intellectual democratic tradition, Numa-Denys Fustel de Coulanges’ idea of the correlation between religion and the rise-and-fall of the classical polis, Emile Durkheim’s theory of the sacred and the profane, Max Weber’s notion of charisma, and Georg Simmel’s concept of piety (Nisbet 1966:221-63).  This paper will build specifically on the contemporary work of Geertz in connection with the work of Durkheim and Weber.

 [2]This paper is Eurocentric to the extent that it seeks to grapple with sociological approaches to religion and is therefore constrained by the dominance of western actors in the field. This is not, however, to say that Eurocentrism holds all of the answers for questions raised in this paper.  I quoted Tillich above primarily as a contrast to the Durkheim-Weber tradition and not because I am going to deal with his own method of correlation.  This essay focuses primarily on whether and how the sociology of religion can benefit the theological enterprise.

[3]The present continuous and the past tenses used here capture the essential orientations of both approaches toward that which is socially transcendent.  I am not suggesting that these are the only two options available for reading Geertz, but only that they are in some ways ultimately  theologically.  Reading Geertz’s interpretive theory in my open sense will therefore serve as a heuristic device to determine its fruitfulness for theology.

[4]There is no entry for “culture” in the Index to Durkheim’s study.

[5]This is what we find in the chapter on culture--“Religious Ethics, the World Order, and Culture”-- in Weber’s The Sociology of Religion (1993:207-22).

[6]“Ecstatic” should be understood in its general phenomenological sense as a mystical psychological state of mental absorption or rapture accompanied by a somewhat involuntary loss of control.  My focus on this paper will be on the general features of glossolalia as exemplified in one testimony rather than on adjudicating between its specific varieties such as xenolalia (documented occurrences of actual languages unlearned by the speaker), akolalia (the hearing of actual languages even when one may not be spoken) and the like.  For a concise summary of these and glossolalia as a whole, see Spittler 1988.

[7]Bartleman’s experience took place at the Azusa Street revival in 1906, an extended event that most Pentecostal historians consider the beginning of the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement.  He kept some record of this in his diary, which was used in the re-telling of his story and published not long after in testimonial form in a Pentecostal periodical.  This also formed the basis for his autobiographical reflections which appeared in 1925 titled How “Pentecost” Came to Los Angeles--How It Was in the Beginning.  The source I am quoting from is a reprint of this later book with a new title.

[8]Acts 2:4, New International Version.  Pentecostals have traditionally distinguished between tongues-speech in Acts, understood as xenolalia and either communicative or evidential, and in 1 Corinthians, understood traditionally as personal or congregational prayer and prophetic (with interpretation) language.  However, insofar as they are at least phenomenologically similar (Spittler 1988:338), this distinction is not vital for purposes of this paper.

[9]For starters, all of the psychological and sociocultural studies of glossolalia in Mills (Part Four and Part Five of Mills 1986:347-424 and 425-92) are a reliable introductory reference to other work in the field.

[10]My qualification of “in part” in the explanatory power of glossolalia is important as there are undoubtedly many other reasons why Pentecostal varieties of Protestantism are growing in Latin America (see Martin 1994:73-86).

[11]This application can be seen in a manuscript I have titled “‘Tongues of Fire’ in the Pentecostal Imagination: The Truth of Glossolalia in Light of R. C. Neville’s Theory of Religious Symbolism” which is currently being revised for publication.  Geertz’s model plays a secondary, but important phenomenological role in my argument there.