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The Anthropology of Christianity
The Anthropology of Christianity

Duke University Press Books, 2006
384 pp., $26.95

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David Martin


Anthropology's "Other"

The reformation of a scholarly discipline.

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Revisions and reformations gallop apace. They come with regard to the Darwinian controversy misconstrued as yet another set piece in the long and losing battle of science with religion (Ronald Numbers, John Brooke); to Christianity understood as merely the handmaid of colonialism (Norman Etherington, Brian Stanley); to Pentecostalism as essentially an extension of American cultural imperialism (Paul Freston); and to the idea that secular modernity on the Western European model prefigures the global future.

All these are relevant to the reformation of anthropology proposed by Fenella Cannell in her lucid and masterly introduction to her edited volume, The Anthropology of Christianity, and in the preview provided by her Malinowski lecture of 2004, "The Christianity of Anthropology."1 Cannell argues that theology is the suppressed "other" of anthropology, both with regard to its prehistory and some of its models and assumptions.

It is not that of recent years we have lacked ethnographies of Christianity and conversion to Christianity in the non-Western world, or that there has been no dialogue whatever between anthropology and theology. As far back as 1871, when contention over science and theology was at its height, Edward Tylor proposed such a dialogue; and in 1980, Meyer Fortes in his preface to a joint anthropological-theological volume on Sacrifice set out some terms of engagement. Cannell has read the theologian John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory (1990), and though his annihilation of the very idea of a social science just won't wash, she sees herself as looking at the way anthropology's attempted separation from Christian metaphysics, and its assimilation of key ideas derived from these metaphysics, has limited the development of the discipline.

This attempted separation goes back to anthropology's time of origin, when it set up a secular republic of letters under founding fathers detached from their own religious backgrounds, most of them Jewish or Protestant. Initially Christianity lay at the center of their concerns, especially Protestantism seen as a key element in the transition to secularity and modernity. But then one moved on, eventually beyond modernity, let alone religion.

There is an important link between the revision proposed by Cannell and the revised version of the link between Christianity and colonialism, and it comes out in Patrick Harries' chapter on anthropology in Norman Etherington's edited volume on Missions and Empire (2005). Harries pinpoints the repudiation of missionary ethnography, much of it evolutionary in approach, following the appointment in 1929 of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown to the new Oxford chair in anthropology. It so happens the evolutionary approach eventually made a comeback, spearheaded among others by Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger.

For Radcliffe-Brown, as for Malinowski at the London School of Economics, anthropologists should go out into the field to analyze the intricate web of institutions and practices as they "functioned" to maintain the social fabric. This approach came to be criticized later for its inherent conservatism, and at the time it fed easily into a caricature of the missionary as an agent of changes liable to disrupt the social fabric, and as an agent of colonialism, teaching people (as John and Jean Comaroff put it) to "perform civilization."

It is probably helpful to see the caricature of the missionary and the suppression of the theological "other" in the light of cultural anthropology's legitimation as an objective (and increasingly specialized) discipline. In fact anthropologists often allowed themselves to be co-opted as advisers on the management of change, while missionaries became increasingly sensitive to the consequences of the changes they introduced.

Setting up the committed missionary by contrast with the objective anthropologist ignored anthropology's own normative preoccupations. For example, though Christianity might merit discussion where it bolstered "resistance" to Western penetration, it could be ignored where it did not. Again, when anthropologists engaged in "salvage anthropology," they claimed to identify what was and what was not authentic. They slipped easily into a selective cultural relativism and, as the philosopher Dorothy Emmett pointed out, then confused it with moral relativism. Yet in spite of the varied strains of the initial separation between theology and anthropology, the eleven ethnographies brought together in The Anthropology of Christianity indicate how often anthropologists and missionaries shared certain assumptions, marking them both off from the indigenous peoples. Webb Keane in his Christian Moderns—about which more below—goes at length into just these assumptions.

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