Against Heresiologies: Book Review of Barber’s “On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity”

Barber, Daniel Colucciello. 2011. On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity. Eugene, Or. : Cascade Books.

By: Jon Bialecki (University of California, San Diego/University of Edinburgh)

When AnthroCyBib started out, its mission was to index and disseminate academic materials “contributing to, or in dialogue with” the Anthropology of Christianity. In short, it was to be a place where one could expect to find news – good news, if you will – of the kind of monographs and essays that those interested in the intersections of anthropology and Christianity would want to read. Not do overdo the auto-critique, but this in practice has meant mainly anthropological and ethnographic works. Some sociology, geography, and history, and even the occasional missiological text has been included, but these have been the outliers. And no one has complained. This suggests that who or what we imagine to be ‘in dialogue’ with the Anthropology of Christianity isn’t that far reaching.

This a little surprising, given the importance that outside disciplines have had on the anthropology of Christianity. While we cannot by any stretch of the imagination claim either unique, or even exemplary, disciplinary status in this regard, the anthropology of Christianity certainly has been ‘in dialogue’ with Continental Philosophy. Fanella Cannell (2006) starts out the introduction to her Anthropology of Christianity volume by invoking Hegel, even if she holds him up as in essence asking “what difference does Christianity make,” which to Cannell was the wrong question entirely. More recently, there has been engagement with Continental Philosophy’s own dalliance with Paul (Bialecki 2009; Engelke and Robbins 2010). Theology, too, is something that the anthropology of Christianity has at least a theoretical map to engage with (Robbins 2006), even if its usually taken up in the form of ethnographic evidence rather than intellectual interlocutor. Yet still, this material seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

I bring this up not because I want to take anyone to task for not citing or not reading either philosophy or theology, or to celebrate the moments when there has been engagement with these fields; people will cite whatever they will, and there is no knowing, really, what anyone is reading or not reading. Rather, I want to draw attention to the anthropology of Christianity’s engagement with theology and philosophy in order to ask how difficult it might be for the sub-discipline to have an encounter with a text that presents itself as neither philosophy or theology, while yet at the same time understanding itself to be a part of both disciplines. I am speaking here of Daniel Colucciello Barber’s On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity, a book that intentionally slips itself into the interstitial cracks between those disciplines, and which is all the more difficult to pin down for its shockingly straightforward, lucid prose. And yet despite all the difficulty in positioning his text, and for all the distance there is in his theoretical project from the sort of meticulously ethnographic work that is the hallmark of the sub-discipline, I think that anthropologists of Christianity would do well to read Barber. I think that this is the case because Barber allows us to to have a better grasp of the ontological and political stakes that are already inherent in the ‘anthropology of Christianity’ project, as the field is now constituted – and to perhaps even think of what might happen if we started doing, self consciously, what we have already been doing all along. To be specific, and acknowledging that it will take some time to explain what this means, or why it would be important, Barber offers us a way to defuse “heresiologies” without erasing Christianity, and gives us reasons to take care to see that we are not creating a heresiology of our own.

“God, or Nature”

As said above, part of the difficulty in reading Barber is that he is neither fish not foul. A Duke graduate who worked in Religious Studies and the Program in Literature, who has had teaching posts in philosophy and communications, who skips between quoting Yoder and citing Deleuze, there is a willing refusal to be pinned down. When he rhetorically asks himself “[f]rom what position is this written,” he answers that he would rather “avoid the question, or at least avoid its presuppositions.” (Barber, 146). As we will see, this is a motivated position, but one that does not allow for an easy and early recognizability.

That doesn’t mean that were are dealing with a completely alien terrain, though. Barber’s political program, for instance, is thoroughly recognizable. Noting the similarity between his thought and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000), Barber tells us that “what is sought is a mode of collectivity that is ‘in common’ without being thinkable in terms of a unified body, such as ‘the people.’ This is to say that in each case divergence is seen as central to, rather than as the ruin of, commonality.” (Barber, 144-145, footnote 43).

What is interesting about Barber is not his politics, though, but how he gets to his politics. Barber asks what appears to be two different questions, questions which, for Barber, are just parallax views on the same underlying issue. The first questions is what would it mean to have a truly diasporic Christianity; the second question is what does it mean to think of the relation between philosophy and theology – or any two other similar discourses – if one presumes a strict immanence in being? It may not initially seem clear why these two questions are variants of each other, but Barber’s closely argued book makes the case in a way that cannot be easily or uncritically dismissed.

The path towards uniting these two questions goes right though Baruch Spinoza, a not uncommon route in discussions of immanence. Barber starts off his book by asking what Spinoza meant in his description of substance as “God, or Nature.” Barber reads these alternate articulations of reality as both indicating substance, the sole and constituting entity in Spinoza’s univocal cosmology. This might seem to be a needless doubling, but Barber sees these two significations as not being redundant. Rather than having God and Nature serving as fungible indexes or signs for substance, God and Nature instead are separate attempts to give immanence an “improper” name. These names are improper because attempts at giving totality a completely encompassing name always fails, in that these attempts at naming must be immanent to the totality that they name, resulting in a shortfall and a concomitant inevitable excess that escapes signification. That excess, in other words, is the part of substance that the name for substance must be embedded in for it to be possible to attempt to name substance. For Barber, these improper names are still necessary, as there is no escape from inevitability of signification. In fact, multiple improper names are necessary (even as the form of these improper names are contingent), with each improper name grasping the excess of the other improper name, and while each improper name also having an excess of their own.

This proliferation of improper names creates circuits between God, nature, and immanence, with both God and Nature both having a relationship with immanence, and also with each other. Now, there are other ways to imagine the relationship between God, Nature, and excess, Barber acknowledges; in fact, he architectonically sketches four other paradigms that each posit different relations for his Spinozan triad, with each paradigm exemplified by a set of recognizable names in philosophy. For Barber, though, each of these rival paradigms fail because they attempt to prioritize either theology (here standing in for God) or philosophy (here standing in for Nature), or to see one or the other of these terms as in essence inarticulable. Only an immanence with two improper names can allow us to grasp the whole – though the whole can never be grasped at once, and as we are immanent in it, it can never be grasped exhaustively.

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and . . . the year of the Lord’s favor”

All this, though, is prelude. The real move comes when Barber puts forward the specifics of one particular theological articulation: the “Christian Declaration,” an announcement of a new set of affairs, of a striving for divine perfection and a love for enemies. This announcement is like a performative, in that these jubilee-inspired qualities are made real in the very act of their pronouncement.

Now, this is a statement that is radically egalitarian, Barber states, undoing relations of domination. Set against hierarchies, it is an “oppositional discourse,” that is not about what is, but rather about “possibilities of existence” that are yet to come (Barber, 36-37). Also, and this is an important point, due to its performative-like nature, the way that it pulls itself up by its own bootstraps, this decleration is capable of being given a fully immanent reading. Built around bringing to some other discourse the good news that the other discourse lacks, the Christian Declaration is a “theology” that is up for the hard work of shuttling between frameworks that Barber believes is essential if one is be honest about thinking through an immanent condition.

But the Christian Declaration is just one reading, one variant, one potential, in Christianity. Barber is careful to acknowledge that Christianity actually-existing Christianity looks little like his liberative Christian Declaration; as he states somewhat dryly “Christianity’s historical performance has not proceeded in accord with the content of its declaration.” (Barber 32). Furthermore, he wants us to understand that the Declaration should not be taken as an essence, truth, or kernel, which would serve as an alibi for historic Christianity in that while every specific iteration of Christianity is flawed, its fictive essence remains unsullied. Rather, Barber makes clear that the declaration is merely one direction that Christianity can go. Christianity is manifold. While these are not Barber’s words exactly, there is not Christianity, but Christianities. And up to the present moment, Barber seems to suggest, amidst these Christianities, the Christian declaration has only rarely, if ever, been given full force.

This multiplicity of Christianities, this possibility to take either the form suggested by the Christian Declaration, or to alternately take the course of a constrained Christian identitarianism, means that there is something open ended about the faith, that it can go different ways, and that each repetition, even as it acts as a return, brings forward new possibilities: a very Kierkegardian sort of thought (see Tomlinson forthcoming), even if Kierkegaard himself isn’t mentioned. Barber makes this polymorphism thinkable by not considering Christianity to be some set of pre-existing imperatives, but a problematic, an open-ended challenge that places both Christianity, and the dominating forces it encounters, into question with every encounter. Even the Christian Declaration, if ever actualized, would not be a single form of Christianity, because its good news would be configured differently as it engages other discourses that are, presumably, also differently configured from one another.

This multiplicity is important because not only does Barber want to point towards new ways of being Christian, he also wants to make room for the breaking free of other directions that have been long trod. The Pauline vision of Christianity, for example, is one that Barber is particularly ambivalent about; while Barber appreciates the challenge to the then-existing Roman power structure that Pauline Christianity offered, Barber suggests that by conflating Rome with “the world,” and opposing it in its entirety to some thing else, Paul has transcendentelized the Christian declaration, situating it in a way that has removed it from time, even as it injects it into history. Paul has activated part of the anti-dominative, anti-transcendent potential of the Christian declaration, but only by making Christianity itself a transcendent discourse that does its own dominative work on all else. One does not shuttle between Pauline Christianity, other discourses, and the nameless – rather, Pauline Christianity attempts to control or make subsidiary all other discourses it encounters or envelopes.

For Barber, this is unfortunate because that forecloses what he feels is the most powerful iteration of the Christian Declaration – Christianity as diasporic, an ungrounded mode of thought and practice that not only undoes the hierarchies it encounters, but undoes itself as well without erasing itself, allowing itself to be affected and effected in the encounter. Peripatetic, cosmopolitan, multilingual, transforming others and (just as importantly) being transformed itself in turn, this is what Barber sees not as the truest form of Christianity, but the form that (in juxtaposition to Pauline Christianity) would come most to terms with what is already entailed in immanence, and would therefore most realize in its fullness the anti-dominative Christian potential.

Religion as Christianity, Secularism as Religion

But again, diaspora is not the mode that Christianity has been historically actualized in, at least so far. Rather than accept the diasporic mode, after Paul Christianity has doubled down on the identitarian and transcendent, attempting to control the open promise of the problematic by singularizing what Christianity could be, identifying alternate Christian formations as flawed and dangerous rivals, and creating a discourse of heresiology. But it is only by way of this heresiologicially instituted univocality that Pauline and post-Pauline Christianity can control internal and external difference in a way that makes the mis-recognition of Christianity as transcendence possible (as opposed to being understood as immanent or performative). This transcendent sclerotization, however, does not succeed in stabilizing the field. Rather, after setting up a Christianity cleansed by heresiology as ‘the truth,’ Christianity must confront difference again. This confrontation and annulment of difference occurs in the moment when other modes of thought become conceivable not as autonomous projects, but as Christianities manqué with their own (lacking) truths and their own heresies; in short, they become thinkable as other religions, all rendered fungible to the degree that they can be (negatively) compared with a Christian truth. But this is not the final turn. Just as other religions become stabilizing and secondary others for Christianity, Secularism – viewed here as an inheritor of Christianity, if not another avatar of it – uses religion tout court to secure itself. And in each of these moments, difference is suborned and potentialities foreclosed.

For Barber, though, this turn of events does not necessarily have to end in tragedy. There is nothing that is automatically wrong with the concept of Christianity, or of other religions, as having either a continuity or an integrity, understood here as Asadian discursive traditions. Nor is there anything wrong in the belief that one discursive tradition might be offering something unique, something that other collectivities might not possess – remember, every improper name has its own excess, and Christianity performs the excess of others as something novel, an idea that Barber sees as being implicit in the concept of evangelion, or “good news.” Even secularism could have value, provided that it does not see itself as supersessionist overcoming of religion, but as yet another variant expression of substance. In fact, all these different complexes are not only more than permissible, they are actually necessary if one is to do the kind of shuttling work between different improper names of immanence, the procedure that Berber models in the opening pages of his book.

What is dangerous is to achieve these discursive traditions by way of postulating a faux transcendence that precludes internal variation through the policing action of heresiology, and which denies external variance by making all else either an inversion or a diminished variant of one’s own collective identity. This includes attempts to affirm diaspora in ways that make this groundless undoing proprietary to any particular religious tradition; other traditions have something like the diasporic, but being in embedded in a Christian mode of thought, Barber believes that it is Christianity which is ‘closest to hand.’  In short, the Pauline option was not a necessary or forced choice, and certainly not the only option; and just as important, Pauline Christianity in many ways stands in the way of what many strands in Christianity seem to potentially aspire towards.

Anthropology and Heresiology

This book is far richer than the bare bones presented here; for instance, there is the relationship between history, causality, and the apocalyptic, the use of the Deleuzian concept of fabulation instead of truth, and the repurposing of Catherine Keller’s critique of creation ex nihilo, all of which could be laid out in a longer review. Rather than trace out every thematic in the book, though, what I would like to turn to now is the question of what implications this book might have for an anthropology of Christianity.

Aside from mere rejection, there are three tacks that one can take when confronted with a book like this: one can take Barber’s work up as theory, as metric, or as project. Theory seems most promising, but it should be noted that the concepts of religion as something that has a complex extimate relationship with other modalities as a part of its nature as an emergent facet of immanence is something that has been separately formulated by an anthropology of Christianity (Bandak 2012); the concept of Christianities as pluriform, multifaceted actualizations of potential that come from some iterable problematic has also been independently posited in the anthropology of Christianity literature (Bialecki 2012). Of course, there is something of value in seeing all these elements comprehensively put forward in a single breath, but that only gives this book about the ‘good news’ a utility, and not a novelty.

But it can also be taken up as something other than theory. There is the possibility that this book could give us a metric, finally providing a measure which would allow  “[a]n anthropology of ‘Global Christianity’” to “develop an acutely critical, but perhaps ultimately impossible, position with respect to its ‘object.’” (Marshall 2011). Barber could be read as giving us a bar by which we can measure which of our “culturally repugnant others” (Harding 1991) are not so repugnant after all, but are in the process of engaging in the critical work that would allow them to at least aspire to ascend to the level of the diasporic (see Bialecki 2009, Bielo 2011,  Elisha 2011). But this would simply introduce a different heresiology. We would have a new and, in effect if not in framing, transcendent way of ranking Christianities as greater or lesser, in just the same way that Christianity ranks other religions or that secularism ranks religion in general. This would be, in short, a back door method for the return of the very movement that Barber is attempting to deny, and in the end this would constrict possibility while giving the illusion of dilating it.

Rather, in militating against that position, Barber actually gives us a warrant for the anthropology of Christianity, and not some future or virtual anthropology of Christianity, but rather an anthropology of Christianity as it is currently constituted. His warrant goes beyond the banal observation that the anthropology of Christianity is an encounter at a certain plain of equivalence between on one hand religion, and on the other a form of secularism that is not (at least consciously) supercessionist. Of course, there is a certain value in the kinds of encounters between ‘discursive traditions,’ in the kinds of meetings that Barber thinks are an important part of an ethical adequation to immanence. However, any two non-dominative discourses can do that work in a moment of encounter.  An anthropology of Christianity would bring nothing particular to that combinatory juxtaposition, no “good news” of its own, apart from being our own combinatory juxtaposition – at least in part, and only to the extent that we would remain ourselves afterwards.

What it is that the anthropology of Christianity does which is unique is to undo heresiologies, eating away at their logic of the exemplar and of the diseased variant. From the view of an imagined orthodoxy, there has always been something suspect about the subjects that seem to recurrently stand in the center of an anthropology of Christianity: the raucous spirit disko of the Urpamin (Robbins 2004) or the rejection of the Bible by the Friday Masowe (Engelke 2007) are as unpalatable to orthodoxy as they are central to emerging comparative discussions in the sub-discipline. In short, despite initial anxieties to the contrary, the anthropology of Christianity has done a good job of overcoming the Christianity of Anthropology (Cannell 2005), in presenting mutant forms alongside other forms that might receive the seal of orthopraxy. In the anthropology of Christianity, a dour Calvinism and an ecstatic prosperity gospel stand side-to-side (see Keane 2007, Coleman 2006), and folk Catholicisms need be accounted for with the same gravity and care given to the high church (Cannell 1999, Mayblin 2010). But this is difference not merely squared, or to the third power (different Christianities juxtaposed both with one another and non-Christian, but Christian delineated, difference), but difference carried to exponential powers far more extreme than that. More and more the anthropology of Christianity is attending not just to differences between Christianity and its others, or between different Christianities, but even to difference within Christianities (see Scott 2005, Bialecki and Hoenes del Pinal 2011).  This is a intensity of difference that makes inoperative the idea of even thinking a ‘single’ Christianity. Confronted by countless forms of Christianity, all of which are capable of bearing the same degree of intellectual attention, the capacity of heresiology to campaign for a single Christianity that stands apart from all else, and in a way that undoes the uniqueness of all other Christianities, collapses.

This may seem to be the bloodless academic politics of representation. I certainly don’t claim that it is the only politics possible, or even that it is anywhere near the most important political act at the present moment; either of those statements are foolish. But if we are to follow Barber, what the anthropology of Christianity does is not without value – undoing heresiology and proliferating forms of Christianity without submitting Christianity to “object dissolving critique” (Robbins 2003:193), opposing the domination inherent in transcendental claims without undoing whatever ungrounding work which might be present in the “Christian Declaration” as it is found in the field. And most notably, this denaturing work of the anthropology of Christianity is not done through experimental forms, but rather is brought about by ethnographies that often appear as somewhat conventional in many of their aspects – some might even be tempted to say ‘traditional.’

To me, this suggests several things. First, it hints that if we look closely enough, we may find that rather conventional seeming ethnographic forms may already be doing the kind of experimental conceptual and political work that other anthropologists, who have rejected these forms, are militating for (see Course 2013). Second, this work has been done without an explicit program, or without much gatekeeping about who can or who cannot be an anthropologist of Christianity, including a certain lack of concern regarding anthropologists who have a certain kind of fealty to Christianity messages (Howell 2007). I think there is a temptation to see this openness as a tasteless and un-opinionated liberalism, neither hot or cold, working in the end towards a leveling lowest common denominator sort of inclusiveness that is as empty as it is hollow. But it is possible to also read this work of pluralizing the Christian without erasing it, or without instituting alternate internal anthropological heresiologies, as a deterretorialization acting with a certain slowness that obscures the fact that it is still approaching on a long but asymptotic curve an absolute deterretorialization. And while deterretorialization should not be necessarily conflated with liberation, at least Barber allows us to see that the proliferation without erasure of Christianities undoes at least one vector of domination, creating an intellectual and social space from which some other good news – Christian or otherwise – might one day be heralded.

Works Cited

Bandak, Andreas. 2012. “Problems of Belief: Tonalities of Immediacy among Christians of Damascus.” Ethnos 77(4):535-555.

Bialecki, Jon. 2009. “Disjuncture, Continental philosophy’s new “political Paul,” and the question of progressive Christianity in a Southern California Third Wave church.” American Ethnologist 36(1):10–123.

Bialecki, Jon. 2012. “Virtual Christianity in an age of nominalist anthropology.” Anthropological Theory 12(3): 295-319.

Bialecki, Jon and Eric Hoenes del Pinal. 2011. “Beyond Logos: Extensions of the Language Ideology Paradigm in the Study of Global Christianity(ies).” Anthropological Quarterly 84(3):575-594.

Bielo, James. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York: NYU Press.

Cannell, Fenella. 1999. Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cannell, Fenella. 2005. “The Christianity of Anthropology.” Journal of the Royal Anthropology Institute 11(2):335-356

Cannell, Fenella. 2006. “Introduction: The Anthropology of Christianity.” In The Anthropology of Christianity, edited by Fanella Cannell, 1-50. Durham: Duke University Press.

Coleman, Simon. 2006. “Materializing the Self: Words and Gifts in the Construction of Evangelical Identity.” In The Anthropology of Christianity, edited by Fanella Cannell, 1-50. Durham: Duke University Press.

Course, Magnus. 2013. “The Fifth of FIve Worlds.” Accessed March 19. http://aotcpress.com/articles/worlds/

Elisha, Omri. 2011. Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, Matthew. 2007.  A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, Matthew and Joel Robbins, eds. 2010. Global Christianity, Global Critique: South Atlantic Quarterly. Durham: Duke University Press.

Harding, Susan. 1991. “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other.” Social Research 58(2):373-393.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Howell, Brian. 2007. “The repugnant cultural other speaks back: Christian identity as ethnographic ‘standpoint.’” Anthropological Theory 7(4): 371–391.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marshall, Ruth. 2011. “Falling on the Sword of the Spirit.” Accessed March 19, 2013. http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/02/28/falling-on-the-sword-of-the-spirit/

Mayblin, Maya. 2010. Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil: Virtuous Husbands, Powerful Wives. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Robbins, Joel. 2003. “What is a Christian? Notes toward an anthropology of Christianity.” Religion 33(3):191-199.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2006. “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” Anthropological Quarterly 79(2):285-294.

Scott, Michael. 2005. “‘I Was Like Abraham’: Notes on the Anthropology of Christianity from the Solomon Islands.” Ethnos 70(1):101-125.

Tomlinson, Matthew. In Press. “Bringing Kierkegaard into Anthropology: Repetition, Absurdity, and Curses in Fiji.” American Ethnologist.

3 thoughts on “Against Heresiologies: Book Review of Barber’s “On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity”

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