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Thomas A. Tweed (University of Notre Dame) responds to Divinity School Professor Richard B. Miller‘s second chapter, “On Making a Cultural Turn in Religious Ethics,” in Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The May issue of the Forum features Friends and Other Strangers, Miller’s most recent book, which argues for expanding the field of religious ethics to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. Professor Miller urges religious ethicists to turn to cultural studies to broaden the range of the issues they address and to examine matters of cultural practice and cultural difference in critical and self-reflexive ways.

Friends and Other Strangers critically discusses the ethics of ethnography; ethnocentrism, relativism, and moral criticism; empathy and the ethics of self-other attunement; indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the meaning of moral responsibility in relation to children and friends; civic virtue, war, and alterity; the normative and psychological dimensions of memory; and religion and democratic public life. Miller challenges distinctions between psyche and culture, self and other, and uses the concepts of intimacy and alterity as dialectical touchstones for examining the normative dimensions of self-other relationships. A wholly contemporary, global, and interdisciplinary work, Friends and Other Strangers illuminates aspects of moral life ethicists have otherwise overlooked.

The first post in the May issue includes the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy.” In the coming weeks, scholars will offer responses to different chapters of the book. At the end of the month, Professor Miller will close out the series with a final response. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.


Thinking Normatively about Culture

by Thomas A. Tweed


Richard B. Miller’s Friends and Other Strangers seems to have two imagined audiences. On the one hand, it’s “first and foremost a contribution to religious ethics” and, taken together, the chapters “make an extended case for expanding the field of religious ethics” while also suggesting “new directions for future work.”1 Specialists can judge how persuasively the book addresses its primary audience and meets its primary aim. As a scholar of religion who has relied on participant observation as well as archival research to craft empirical and theoretical accounts of religion as it is practiced, I’m more interested in Miller’s second imagined audience and the book’s other purpose, which is addressed directly in the second chapter, “On Making a Cultural Turn in Religious Ethics.” That chapter takes up the call “for greater interdisciplinarity in religious ethics, focusing on developments in cultural studies, moral psychology, and anthropology.”2 Miller’s “cultural turn” amounts to what I’ve called the “quotidian turn,” since he wants to “craft an ethics of ordinary life” by taking seriously the “local knowledge” and “vernacular traditions” of the non-elites who are affected by the moral reasoning of religious ethicists.3 So, as I understand Miller, the turn to culture is not a spotlight on elite cultural forms, say paintings and novels, but an emphasis on ordinary people and everyday life, including on religion as it is practiced and not as it is prescribed. The scholar who agrees to take this vernacular cultural turn confronts two duties—to fairly represent and judiciously assess “the ethics of everyday life.” In doing so the ethicist engages multiple disciplinary methods by drawing on “an eclectic array of tools in the human and social sciences to assess idioms of the right and the good.”4

Using varied tools seems wise and it’s helpful to analyze idioms of the right and the good, both among ordinary folks and the scholars who write about them. We all engage in value talk as we make epistemic, moral, and aesthetic judgments, I argued as I tried to bridge a divide that separates scholars of religion.5 My earlier scholarship focused on ritual, artifacts, and narratives more than moral codes enacted in everyday practices, but reconstructing moral worlds seems praiseworthy—especially for those who imagine their work as religious ethics. In fact, I was surprised to learn that religious ethicists had not already taken the vernacular cultural turn. I trust Miller’s characterization of his field, however, so I can only appreciate the proposed turn as a gesture toward multidisciplinary engagement and ask what we all might do next as we explore the ethical dimensions of personal and public affairs and “talk normatively about culture.”6

I can’t do more than hint at a few questions to ponder as we look forward to the interdisciplinary conversation about moral life that Miller has invited us to join. First, I wonder if it might help to think more about whether culture is the term that best unites our labors at this historical moment? Miller’s understanding of culture acknowledges that the term refers to a dynamic process not a bounded thing, and therefore allows us to attend to the itinerant as well as the stationary. That’s good for tracing the flows of people and practices in this age of time-space compression. But can we enlarge our angle of vision still more to multiply the disciplinary partners we engage and widen the moral issues we address? Culture includes “buildings” and “visual heritages,” Miller suggests.7 Can we go farther and apply evolutionary biologists’ “niche construction theory” as we take environments as our shared focus?8 In other words, what if our next turn is not cultural but ecological? What if religious ethicists—and the rest of us—strive to analyze and assess the moral quality of habitats or cultural niches, the environments that peoples inherit, modify, and bequeath? We might ask, for example, if those niches are peaceful, equitable, and sustainable. We might ask how particular practices make—and break—habitats and whether some broken niches might be repaired. Would that wider framing bring more natural scientists into the discussion and position us to formulate a more robust ecological ethic? Or would more be lost than gained by shifting our key term from culture to habitat? In short, are religious ethicists making the cultural turn at a time when we all should be turning in a different direction?

Second, whether we decide our shared term is culture or habitat, for our colleagues who see their work as aligned with the impartial (if not “value-free”) sciences, how can we justify the need to make normative judgments? Certainly, colleagues in cultural studies and allied fields like American studies, gender studies, and ethnic studies embrace normative judgments. Some in anthropology and psychology departments are comfortable taking moral stands too. But not all. Some colleagues in those and other specializations in the human sciences—including some religion scholars—avoid value talk and see their work as “scientific,” whether that means mapping neural pathways, analyzing survey data, or excavating stones and bones. Shall we ignore them or coax them to the table? If they’re welcome too, how do we convince the reluctant to overcome their principled resistance to talk about principles?

Finally, after we manage to get a conversation going with campus colleagues should we also then talk to the ordinary people that Miller urges us to attend to as we represent and evaluate vernacular moral idiom? If so, when do we address them? Before we start or as we work? Do we conduct telephone surveys, structured interviews, or focus groups? Should ethicists engage in participant observation, as Miller and some other ethicists have done?9 Do we present our completed work to our interlocutors, opening ourselves to their critique, in person or in print? If so, how might we change how we talk and how might we ready ourselves to listen? Further, as we widen the conversation beyond academics in this age of alternative facts and moralistic rants, on the left and the right, how can we convince conflict-weary fellow citizens and global neighbors that they need even more “thinking normatively about culture”? Don’t we need less normativity and more empirical thinking about culture—and everything else? Some contemporaries might ask: don’t we need facts, real news about real things, not more intemperate value talk that fails to rise above impassioned self-interest? And, while we’re solving contemporary problems, how can we convince ourselves and others, including the unnamed who leave their moral traces on the landscape, that strategic compromise, if not principled accord, is still possible in the public arena—and if Miller would direct us to chapter 10 for his response, what might he say to those who report they are worn down by “value pluralism” and lack confidence in “public reason”?10

In short, I seem to be asking, how does this book solve all our problems? Well, maybe that’s too much to ask, even of a book this humane, hopeful, and ambitious. So, appreciative readers who aren’t ethicists might just thank Richard Miller for prompting our questions and proposing some answers, as he charts a turn that enriches a field and, most important, widens a conversation. In this age of fracture and fragmentation, shouldn’t we welcome any contribution that broadens the discussion on campus and beyond campus gates?


Thomas A. Tweed is the Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies and Professor of History.  He is also Faculty Fellow in the Institute of Latino Studies and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Tweed’s research, which includes six books, has been supported by several grants and fellowships, including three from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He edited Retelling U.S. Religious History and co-edited Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History, which Choice named an “outstanding academic book.”  He also wrote The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent and Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami, which won the American Academy of Religion’s book award. Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion was published in 2006, and his most recent book, “America’s Church”: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital, also received the AAR’s book award for historical studies. In 2015, Tweed served as president of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the largest professional organization for scholars of religion.

 * Photo image: “Touching Strangers” by Richard Renaldi. Since 2007, photographer Richard Renaldi has worked on a series of photographs for which he asks complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait.

  1. Richard B. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 3, 12.
  2. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 39-40.
  3. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 40. Thomas A. Tweed, “After the Quotidian Turn: Interpretive Categories and Scholarly Trajectories in the Study of Religion since the 1960s,” Journal of Religion 95.3 (July 2015): 361-385.
  4. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 74.
  5. Thomas A. Tweed, “AAR Presidential Address: Valuing the Study of Religion: Improving Difficult Dialogues within and beyond the AAR’s ‘Big Tent,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84.2 (June 2016): 287-322.
  6. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 56, 2.
  7. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 42.
  8. I have found the cross-disciplinary conversation about “niche construction” helpful. That discussion began among evolutionary biologists: F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin. N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, Monographs in Population Biology, volume 37 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). And the conversation has extended to other fields. For my proposal about the usefulness of niche construction theory in a conversation with an anthropologist who studies the distant past see Thomas A. Tweed, “On Narratives, Niches, and Religion: A Response to Jonathan Marks,” Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences 3 (2016): 183-187.
  9. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 149-152.
  10. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers, 306-307.