The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., 48.95
Purity and Danger
On one level, the premise of Timothy Larsen's new book is straightforward. If you are like most people who know anything at all about cultural anthropology, you probably imagine it is no friend to religion, or at least not to the Christian tradition. Its English-language origins were deeply rooted in the Victorian tradition of evolutionist thinking, and the discipline first grew up around arguments asserting that human cultures develop over time from simple, primitive original states to more complex civilized ones. In schemes of this kind, religion belongs to the dawn of humanity, and its contemporary forms, including Christianity, are vestiges of ruder times destined to die out as the cultures that house them further evolve, in keeping with the stories of secularization that the majority of founding social scientists told, each in their own disciplinary terms. What gave the anthropological version such bite, however, was its equation of religiosity with the primitive—religion was not just wrong, evolutionist anthropologists at least implied, it was a ridiculous thing for modern people to participate in, one that made them carry on like credulous savages.
Within a generation of anthropology's founding, anthropologists would begin to give up on the evolutionist models that first nourished their field, and they quickly began to promote the idea that there was no useful scale on which to rank societies as more or less advanced. Instead, anthropologists came to suggest that one must recognize that all societies make sense on their own terms, and all of them provide those born into their folds with reasonable, more or less functional and meaningful ways to live. As revolutionary as this new position proved to be, it turned out that it was no more friendly to religion as a source of truth than the old evolutionist one had been. To be sure, once anthropologists gave up on evolutionism, they began to investigate the religions of those they studied much more carefully than they had before, and they considered the ways religious thought and practice contributed to constructing worlds in which people could successfully dwell. But along the way they also developed the most influential 20th-century version of relativism, and this led them to dismiss any claims one or another religion might make to be telling the real truth about the world. In the light of this notion, one assumes that even after the move beyond evolutionism, few anthropologists were particularly religiously inclined at home, where religion would be a matter of commitment and truth claims rather than distanced scholarly investigation and relativistic openness. And it does turn out to be the case that very few of them became well known as promoters of the Christian faith—or of any other faith, for that matter.
The main story Timothy Larsen has to tell is that the history of anthropology is at least a little more complicated that this standard account allows. The Slain God is made up of six biographies of important anthropologists, all focused primarily on their engagements with religion, though with some thoughtful attention to their intellectual lives thrown in. The two major Victorian figures it treats—Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer—turn out to have lived lives that largely fit the expected pattern. As they moved more deeply into anthropology (or, it might be better said, progressed in their invention of the subject), they moved further and further from the Christian traditions in which they had been raised. But the four important 20th-century anthropologists whose lives Larsen examines refuse to conform to type. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor and Edith Turner were (and still are, in Edith Turner's case) Catholics whose lives were deeply marked by their own faith commitments. Read in these straightforward terms, Larsen's book shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that one can be a successful anthropologist and Christian (or at least a Catholic). Given that this is a man-bites-dog kind of story of received wisdom upended, even if one only follows Larsen this far (and he does not insist that readers go beyond this point), The Slain God is a very interesting book.
But if one is, like me, an anthropologist of religion who first came to the discipline in the 1980s, this is not a book one can easily assimilate only in the relatively straightforward terms in which Larsen presents his materials. It is, instead, a deeply jarring unorthodox telling of a key corner of the discipline's history. In Larsen's account, Tylor and Frazer stay where we'd always learned they belonged—on the safely rationalist, "religion-bashing" side (to use a term to which Larsen also has resort) of the line between the faithful and the secularists. But the biographies of Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and the Turners are a revelation. It's not that anthropologists of my vintage (and of several earlier generations) did not know that all of them were Catholic. I even had enough personal contact with Edith Turner, for whom I worked as an assistant in graduate school, to know this at first hand. But I think it is safe to say that few of us had any real sense of the depth of their engagement with their religious tradition. Or, more carefully put, few of us knew what their lives looked like when comprehended from the point of view of their religious commitments, nor did we know just how necessary it was to take this point of view on them if one wanted to understand who they were both as human beings and as scholars.
Larsen proves decisively that one needs to know these anthropologists from such a religious angle if one wants to know them at all. He does this by recovering all manner of details that have either been unknown before or have been scattered throughout the literature, mostly in places where they have received little emphasis.
In the first category—that of new material that has never seen print before—Larsen shares a moving poem in which Evans-Pritchard, writing on his 42nd birthday, just days before he was received into the Catholic Church, regrets much of how he has lived his life to this point and longs to put his hand into God's own and feel "a child again." Larsen also presents quotations from a fascinating if rather intellectually convoluted letter in which the formerly Marxist Victor Turner endeavors to explain his conversion to his solidly leftist and not notably religious graduate advisor, the immensely important anthropologist Max Gluckman. Such discoveries are thrilling for those who care about the history of the discipline, and they provide the reader with a sense of almost illicit intimacy with Larsen's subjects. But even more persuasive than his use of these new sources is the way Larsen weaves the other kinds of details he marshals—the ones that have always been around in the record, sometimes hiding in plain sight in the writings of the anthropologists involved—into lives that make sense in religious terms. It is the cumulative weight of this evidence that makes his point about needing to study these anthropologists as religious people so convincing.
All of this is unsettling for a reader like me because Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and Victor Turner are not just important anthropologists of religion. They are easily three of the six or seven most important figures the field has ever known (Levi-Strauss and Geertz would come to mind as the next two to add to the list). Larsen is at pains to make this point (and to indicate Tylor's and Frazer's great stature in their own times), and he does so in appropriate ways, such as by citing encomiums from their peers, listing awards won, and detailing honorary degrees received. For my part as a native informant in this matter, I can say that I was trained in the 1980s to regard them as the geniuses who gave the anthropology of religion its shape and made it an intellectually compelling field of study. To discover that their own lives found their coherence as much in their Catholicism as in their profound systems of anthropological theory forces one to think in new ways about how they became the towering figures they already were when I first came across them. It is for the way it opens up this question that this book will be greeted as something of a bombshell amongst anthropologists of religion.
At least as an anthropologist of religion, it is impossible to read Larsen's book without being led to the question I just set out: how did the faith commitments of Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner contribute to their intellectual creativity and success as scholars of religion? This is not, however, a question upon which Larsen is inclined to dwell. He does observe that all three of them railed against reductionist accounts of religion, the kind that would explain it away as a simple reflection of social structure, for example, or as nothing more than false consciousness. And he does discuss, at least briefly, most of the intellectual contributions that made these scholars famous. But this is primarily a work of religious biography, not of intellectual biography or history, so the question of how these scholars became the intellectual giants they were in their prime does not stay in focus.
Setting matters of intellectual history to one side, Larsen's biographies do raise interesting questions about what should count as a religious life. Taking the bait set by those anthropological skeptics who took comfort in proclaiming that at the very least Evans-Pritchard, who was known to drink quite a lot and attend church very rarely, was a "bad Catholic," Larsen sets out to prove that all of his Catholic subjects really were or are religious. What might it mean to prove this for anyone, anthropologist or not? One metric Larson sometimes turns to is that of sincerity.
Thus we learn that one "would be quite mistaken to infer from 'bad Catholic' that Evans-Pritchard was not a sincere Catholic," and that Douglas "sincerely believed that anthropological theory and findings were compatible with the Christian faith." This focus on sincerity plays to Larsen's strengths as a writer with a gift for leading readers to feel they have grown close to those about whom he writes. But one wonders if there might be a hint here of what Douglas would have called a "Protestant bias" toward a focus on the individual and his or her inner states when it comes to defining the nature of religiosity (Larsen himself imagines Douglas might charge him with something similar in another connection).
There is more to this point than might first meet the eye, for in some ways this is a very Protestant book in large part about Catholic subjects. Or at the very least, it is an individualist book about scholars (once we get past Tylor and Frazer) whose greatest insights were about social structures and collective life (as Larsen himself shows, in his fine discussions of Evans-Pritchard's interest in social structures, Douglas' in hierarchy, and Turner's in communitas). It is also a set of historical narratives focused on remarkable individuals that pays some but mostly passing attention to the communities and institutions in which they were involved, and which paints their greatness as theirs alone. When it turns to explanation, it prefers to dwell on the psychological rather than any cultural or social factors that led to their preoccupations and their successes. It is also a book about the inner lives of specific individuals focused on scholars of humanity who very rarely wrote about the inner lives of any specific individuals.
Some anthropologists, and maybe even some historians, might see these mismatched emphases between the biographer and his subjects as a weakness of the book. I would argue instead that it is one of its great strengths. Larsen tells us important things about these important scholars that they could not have told us about themselves, and that their discipline-mates had missed for years and would probably have gone on missing. As Douglas taught us, different kinds of cultures have different kinds of strengths. Larsen, I am speculatively suggesting, has brought the strengths of his own culture (along with his own impressive skills as a scholar and as a writer of considerable charm) to bear on a group of scholars who brought their own quite different culturally rooted gifts to bear in making the anthropology of religion what it is today. The results are a highly original book that should be with us for a long time to come.
Joel Robbins is Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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