The Anthropology of Christianity
Duke University Press Books, 2006
384 pp., 30.95
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.
Cannell initially raised the theological ghost haunting anthropology by commenting in her Malinowski lecture on how shocked some colleagues were to hear of her scholarly interest in Mormonism. Not merely did they consider Mormonism boring and morally dubious, but not really Christian. No doubt orthodox Christians would agree, but the mysterious ability of anthropologists to intuit heresy suggests something interesting about their inherited model of Christianity.
According to Cannell, this model focuses on those versions of Protestantism implicated in the transition to secular modernity and disenchantment. Christianity was construed as "the impossible religion" on account of a transcendent God so far above humanity and the mundane world that the spirit warred against the flesh, which meant that conversion signaled a rupture with the past, both historically and in the biography of the convert. Christianity valued the inward above the outward, and the sacrificial gift offered without thought of any reward, and it saw death as the end or telos of life. The centrality of the gratuitous offering not only generated a Western estimate of exchange for profit as of inferior worth but also, for example, rendered suspect those ritual exchanges between families which in other cultures are built into marriage ceremonies. (In Christian Moderns, Keane points out that condemnation of this "traffic in women" may well bring together morally conservative missionaries and radical feminists.)
Of course, there are versions of Christianity which approximate the anthropological model, for example pietism, but the model's pervasive presence can mean that kinds of Christianity lacking a high tension between body and spirit, heaven and earth, are seen as instances of secularization. Cannell's strategic deployment of Mormonism in her Malinowski lecture makes the point very well because for Mormons "heaven" is bodily life on earth enhanced by steady progress: rapture without rupture. As heaven arrives on earth you will give birth without pain, and eat chocolate without getting fat. Heaven is just the best of all possible worlds.
Should Mormonism be discounted as para-Christian (or an instance of incipient secularization), one might follow Keane by citing Pentecostalism as a dramatic case of a holistic treatment of body and spirit, simultaneously very ancient and very modern, in which the body is treated as the pre-eminent site for the ecstatic expression of joy and praise. In Pentecostalism the energies of the Holy Spirit heal the body as well as exorcising the demonic, and make for betterment of every kind here and now. In my own writing about Pentecostalism I have been reprimanded in ways Cannell would recognize. I have been told that Pentecostalism is not really Protestant precisely because it does not conform to the ascetic Weberian model based on Calvinism seen as en route to modernity. Instead it represents rather an uprush of archaic "primitive" religion in disguise. This implies a restrictive concept not only of what it is to be Protestant but of what it is to be modern. On the other hand I have been told Pentecostalism represents a colonial intrusion of an American-inspired modernity, promising material rewards in return for faith in a way contrary to "the" authentic African spirit. Like Cannell when it comes to her Mormons, I have devised a (mildly provocative) response to all this by using the label "Afro-Jewish" to characterize the Pentecostal fusion of an Old Testament link between good things and a good life, and the effervescence of black revivalism. The shock effect is palpable.
It is a pity, as Cannell herself says, that the individual studies making up her eleven chapters do not include a contribution from continental Africa, because much recent research there, for instance by Birgit Meyer (in her Translating the Devil, 1999) as well as by others in her group (now) at the Free University of Amsterdam, would be highly congenial to Cannell's approach. The work of Africanists is also congenial and supportive, much of it profoundly informed by anthropology. One thinks of John Peel, a notable critic of the Comaroffs, of Terence Ranger, and—in the younger generation—of David Maxwell, whose splendid study African Gifts of the Spirit has just come out. In my own work I have found anthropological analyses of the role of women in Pentecostalism, even when Marxist, attractively indifferent to obsolete models, for example Diane Austen-Broos, Roger Lancaster, Salvatore Cucchiari, and Elisabeth Brusco.
What Cannell does include is a highly insightful study by Simon Coleman of the "Faith" Church in Uppsala, Sweden. According to this particular "Faith Teaching," the body is "put under subjection" only to build it up, bigger and better, in the image of Jesus Christ Superman. Money is donated not in emulation of the selfless gift of God in the person of his Son but as an investment looped through a divine stock exchange guaranteeing returns, perhaps ten-fold, even a hundred-fold. Of course, Protestantism has always been disposed to regard the parable of the talents as an incentive to invest courageously, but the principle of do ut des as promoted in Uppsala offers a rather striking reversal of the image of a Suffering Savior central to Lutheran Christianity. Unsurprisingly Swedish Lutherans, however secular they may be, dismiss the Uppsala Church as not really Christian, and even more obviously not really Swedish. On the other hand I recollect a friend in Uppsala pointing out that city's magnificent hospital as the site of the real religion of the Swedes, rather than the cathedral. Maybe the logic of a body-building church, architecturally not like a church at all, is another expression of that.
In her critique of the inherited model of an ascetic Christianity based on an acute sense of transcendence far beyond the human, and inimical to the body understood as "the flesh," Cannell points to much in mainstream Christianity that does not fit. A broadly Catholic Christianity understands the body and matter as bearing the divine presence through the action of the sacraments. God was incarnate in the body, and faith looks for the resurrection of the body. One might add that transcendence in the Old Testament does indeed reject tangible, material expressions of the divine as idolatry (in a way Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not), but it does not follow that the natural body and its instincts, or the natural creation, are rejected as such. The Muslim heaven as imaged in the architecture of Andalusia might suit the Mormons very well.
To reinforce her argument about the protean variety of the Christian repertoire, Cannell turns to the treatment of conversion to Christianity, not in the contemporary developing world but in the classical world. That is also a contested field, but at least the "unstable synthesis" of early Christianity as treated by Peter Brown is not bedeviled by a model derived from Calvinism. Cannell also cites Edmund Leach on the oscillation in Christianity between a faith mediated through the priesthood and tangible, material forms, such as icons, relics, sacred places, and sacrifices, and direct access to God available to the individual heart and/or expectation of a kingdom come "on earth as it is in heaven." It is shared points of reference that make the Christian repertoire recognizable, not a particular privileged model.
There are two aspects to Cannell's reformation of anthropology. It is not just that anthropology needs to relax its attachment to a model of the transition to Western modernity whereby a particular version of Christianity plays an essentially instrumental role. It also needs to relax its attachment to a model of its non-Western reception whereby it plays an instrumental role as a response to dislocation rather than providing attractive ways of thinking dislocation through. One might even entertain the possibility that people are really interested in Christianity itself. You find an example of how that might be done in Joel Robbins' Becoming Sinners (2004), where he analyses conversion in Papua New Guinea. Faiths don't merely function: they are, they appeal.
The eleven studies in The Anthropology of Christianity show that even the same form of Christianity engenders varied consequences when the receiving culture is different. The idea of conversion may not "take" in some societies, or may be treated as forgettable rather than a once-for-all change, or embraced as already prefigured and only to be expected. For example the Piro people in Peruvian Amazonia recognized that the arrival of evangelical missionaries had brought a major change in settlement but forgot about conversion to the point where they maintained they had always been Christian. The Bilak of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, confounded missionaries by suddenly turning to Christianity (and embracing its work ethic) after years of indifference, but did so because they recognized the Bible as magic booty, temporarily lost but returned to them as promised. In South India conversion to Catholicism over four centuries involved varying degrees of assimilation to the immanent energies of Indian religion and cults of possession and exorcism, depending on which religious order was operating at this or that period, under or beyond Portuguese control.
In his Christian Moderns (the first volume in a promising new series, the Anthropology of Christianity, under the general editorship of Joel Robbins) and in his afterword to Cannell's volume, Webb Keane offers a brilliant and richly textured meditation on the missionary encounter of Dutch Calvinists with the indigenous peoples of the island of Sumba, Indonesia. So we have a textbook case of the inherited model, as well as a subtle exploration of the reception and inflection of Calvinism in a very different society.
Keane first provides an account of the global reach of Christianity as a universal religion which is owned and propagated by non-Western peoples, and does indeed help bring about a shared modernity. For that matter, as John Peel has shown, it was always the indigenous catechists who carried the message. Keane also traces the history of the pietist wing of Dutch Calvinism, and of the various strategies adopted by its missionaries to bridge the gap between their inward faith and the "materialized" ancestral rituals of the Sumbanese. They worried about the reception of their message just as other missionaries did in most of the studies assembled by Cannell. Had the Sumbanese in all sincerity of heart converted to "pure religion and true," or had their cultural world in turn converted and subverted the message? Christianity converts, culture subverts. This is the problem of "the impossible religion" all over again insofar as it regards ritual, icons, sacrifice, verbal formulae, and legalism as material distractions rather than supports for the inner life of the spirit. Because Christianity, especially Protestantism, looks on the "'inward parts" and seeks purity, sincerity, and transparency of motive, it devalues and even destroys the outward expressions on which the Sumbanese, and humans generally, depend. One consequence can be that faith is confined to heartfelt transactions between the individual soul and God, a condition sociologists name as privatization, and it can be the royal road to secularization.
This issue of a purification of intent at the expense of material and outward expressions has historical ramifications as well as a pervasive cultural and psychological logic. Keane analyzes how this logic works itself out in the distinctly modern sense of scandal at any confusion between humans, words and things. He identifies in particular the ideal of autonomous persons acting conscientiously and spontaneously, and resisting any leakage of human agency into alien things or fetishes. The fear of fetishism expresses a distinctive modern anxiety expressed in philosophy in a stress on the good will, in science by an evacuation of magical properties from nature and from objects, and an insistence that words have an unequivocal reference to things, and culturally in a suspicion of ritual, rhetoric, and courtesy; especially as these support non-rational hierarchies.
This is also the source of vehement contemporary objections to induction by way of birthright into the religious traditions of whole communities, on the ground that religion should be a matter of voluntary association on the part of mature people. The Baptist principle is here translated into a secularist critique, precisely on the model inherited and promoted by anthropology.
Keane works out the Weberian logic still affecting and infecting anthropology and sociology precisely in the way Cannell suggests. This logic fits easily into the kind of secularization theory based on privatization, individualization, rationalization, and abstraction expounded by Steve Bruce. It also belongs to what Keane calls a master narrative of personal liberation underwriting both modernity and democracy. Modernity and democracy are based on a secularized Protestantism promoting conscience, trust, sincerity, and voluntarism, as well as the standard oppositions between freedom and determinism, subject and object. Protestantism matters because it affects whole populations, whereas secular ideologies are largely the property of élites. Secular Jews and Protestants march in the van of progress, closely followed by believing Protestants (highly commended), then the Catholics and the Orthodox and the Muslims, just as they do in Steve Bruce's Politics and Religion (2003). That order of precedence can easily be mapped onto Keane's analysis by constructing a continuum from voluntary and inward faiths devaluing as idolatrous and fetishistic all the materializations grouped by Keane under the head of semiotic forms, and ritual faiths based on involuntary or birthright transmission for whole societies. These latter faiths nurture the spirit by working inwards from outward and virtually automatic ritual actions. Believers respond to material manifestations of the sacred through prior immersion in accordance with tradition. Because these responses are automatic rather than autonomous they are condemned as anachronistic and in a queue waiting to catch up.
Here Keane's analysis relates not only to the West as it encounters the Two-Thirds World but also to major conflicts between Western and Eastern Europe, and between the West and Islam. It corresponds to differences thrown up by an older anthropological debate about non-Western (or Mediterranean) cultures based on honor and shame, and it trails further differences relating to the status of women and the imperative of childbearing. Those behind in the queue have their revenge on those in front by outbreeding them.
The key paradox is as follows. Apart from the United States, Protestantism succumbs to its own secular and modernizing potential, while the inferior potential of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam lends them greater power to survive.
No wonder Catholic anthropologists like Mary Douglas criticized those "Protestant" aspects of Vatican II that cast aside the ritual anchors of identity as inessential, or that postmodernity opens the sluice gates to the multitudinous seas of immanence, from paganism and magic to pantheism and secular therapies.
Far from underwriting the standard model, Keane undermines it. Like Fenella Cannell, he has serious doubts about its applicability, either as a triumphalist prescription for the global future or as an analysis ignoring the built-in "anthropological" limits on the capacity of autonomous spirit to transcend material and semiotic forms without self-destruction. Our humanity is embedded. This warning comes from just those social scientific disciplines founded on, and most deeply implicated in, the secular condition they seek to analyze.
David Martin is the author most recently of On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Ashgate).
1. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2005).
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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