Review: Joseph Webster on “The Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond”

Part II: Review Forum, “The Anthropology Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”

The Anthropology of Christianity at the Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond

Coleman, Simon. 2014. Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s281-s291.

Engelke, Matthew. 2014. Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s292-s301.

Hoskins, Janet Alison. 2014. An Unjealous God? Christian Elements in a Vietnamese Syncretistic Religion. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s302-s311.

By: Joseph Webster (Queens University, Belfast)

The Special Issue of Current Anthropology under review seeks, as its title states, to push the anthropology of Christianity in ‘new directions’ – and it is the third section of the SI, it seems, where this effort is pursued most vigorously. Indeed, as its title states, this section does not limit itself to Christianity – however (generously) one defines it – but instead approaches its ‘boundaries’ by offering papers from Coleman, Engelke and Hoskins who discuss, respectively, the evanescence of pilgrimage as ‘ritual semiengagement’ (Coleman: 24: 288), the ‘not Christianity’ of secular humanism (Engelke 2014: 299), and the ‘counter Orientalism’ of Caodaism (Hoskins 2014: 310). Yet, the question remains – and this is the question with which I want to frame my review – do these papers successfully manage to go ‘beyond’ Christianity, or do they still find themselves stuck in its orbit? The authors themselves appear to have this same question in mind – albeit approaching it differently and with different conclusions – when presenting their own ethnographic and theoretical commentary. The question is important because it goes to the heart of what the anthropology of Christianity must be if it is to be ‘properly’ anthropological. Are we, then, in these three essays, presented with a comparative project that is equally concerned with ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’, both within and outwith religion (in general) and Christianity (in particular)? Put another way, where is the anthropology of Christianity, and where are these essays in relation to it? In an attempt to suggest some possible answers, I want to discuss each piece in turn before making some more speculative comments regarding what they might collectively tell us about the present location of this most prolific (if not yet particularly promiscuous) anthropological sub-discipline. 

Coleman, in an insightful essay entitled ‘Pilgrimage as Trope’, seeks to explain the concept’s relative lack of traction in relation to what he calls the ‘semiotics of theory’ (2014: 281), that is, the processes (and fashions?) of model-making in anthropology. The ethnographic context for this discussion concerns various forms of pilgrimage around Walsingham, England. At times, the semiotics of Coleman’s ethnography (as opposed to his theory) seems a little unclear. Early on, for example, the essay refers to Walsingham as a place ‘of Protestant pitched – literally, ritually – against Catholic’ (ibid.), mentioning how followers of Ian Paisley annually protest ‘a solemn procession of Anglo-Catholics through the village’ (ibid.). The problem here is that both ‘Anglo-Catholics’ and Paisley’s Ulster Free Presbyterians are Protestant – Anglo-Catholic in this context being synonymous with the ‘High Anglican’ tradition of the Church of England. Thus, one of the ethnographic intrigues lost as a result of this semiotic slippage concerns how Walsingham seems to pitch not Protestant against Catholic, but Protestant against Protestant. At other times, the essay seems to conflate Pentecostal and Protestant, suggesting, for example, that ‘pilgrimage possesses one evident advantage for those worried about the over-Pentecostalization of the anthropology of Christianity; namely that studies have focused less on Protestants and more on Catholics, and even Orthodox believers’ (Coleman 2014: 283). Clearly, however, ethnographic attentiveness to Protestantism is not necessarily the same thing as ethnographic attentiveness to Pentecostalism – although suggestions to the contrary may indeed be a product of the ‘over-Pentecostalization of the anthropology of Christianity’ (ibid.) – and perhaps most especially the anthropology of Protestantism.

While the slippages in these ‘semiotic’ designations are certainly not majorly disruptive to Coleman’s provocative theoretical suggestions about pilgrimage as trope (more on this below), they do belie the suggestion that the anthropology of Christianity has already reached the point where it can clearly and effectively go ‘beyond’ itself (cf. Engelke: 292) without having first established a clear and effective sense of what (and where) Christianity, or Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, or Pentecostalism or Anglo-Catholicism actually (‘literally’) is. My broader concern here stems from another of Coleman’s shrewd observations about model-making within anthropology, namely the tendency to remake religion – in this case Christianity – ‘in our own image’ (Coleman 2014: 281), for example by obsessing about ‘modernity’ (ibid.). This is another important insight. Understood in this light, anthropology can be seen as producing an inversion of Pauline theology about image bearing, for it is not ‘man’ who is made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, but rather Christianity that is made (and endlessly remade) in the image of people. While this approach is entirely appropriate for a human centred discipline like anthropology, this still raises the question ‘where?’ – i.e. where does the anthropology of Christianity stand in relation to theology? While this is clearly not a new question within the sub-discipline (cf. Cannell 2005), I am also reminded here of Rodney Needham’s work both on dual symbolic classification (1973: xviii-xxx) and synthetic images (1978: 23). If Needham’s work in these areas tells us anything, it is that inverted categories retain a close mnemonic relationship to each other. In this (hardly ethnographically controversial) view – where ‘man’ is not made in the image of God, but God is instead made in the image of ‘man’ – it seems that we have not gone beyond Christianity at all. We have merely gone beside it, or perhaps behind it.

Coleman’s own essay seems to speak to this issue more directly than we might anticipate by asking both a normative question (should we imagine that Christianity exists per se?), and a pragmatic question (how are we discussing Christianity?). Perhaps unavoidably, more questions then emerge. Drawing on Clifford (1997) it is here that Coleman asserts the usefulness of pilgrimage as a comparative tool (or trope) for model-making, in part due to its applicability to social places we might not readily expect, such as the airport or the market (Coleman 2014: 283). The point here, as Coleman’s ethnography bears out, is that pilgrimage might helpfully be seen as an eminently everyday affair. Such a suggestion led me to think again about whether or not Scottish prawn trawlermen enact a kind of pilgrimage each time they leave the harbour to steam to fishing grounds a hundred miles off the coast (Webster 2013). Could the same be said of the husbands of Santa Lucia whose pilgrimage involves journeying to corn fields to ‘sacrifice’ the sweat of their brow on behalf of their wives and children (Mayblin 2010)? These examples seem somehow more compelling (if no less romantic) than Bauman’s suggestion that the Western world is now filled with modern, secular, pilgrims and nomads, restlessly searching for identity (Bauman 1996 in Coleman: 283). But of course, whether or not they actually do find such an identity at Heathrow or Kotoka International (Chalfin 2008) is another discussion altogether.

What kind of pilgrimage, then, does Coleman find in Walsingham? The ethnography presented here is as striking as it is illuminating. We are introduced to Donna, a middle-class, middle-aged woman, married, with children, living in the east of England (Coleman 2014: 287). Raised Anglican, with Catholic influences, we are told that Donna had become lapsed, but ‘did maintain relations with Walsingham’ (ibid.). These journeys to the village were primarily focused on family, friends, and time spent fruit picking. The emphasis here is on sociality, memory, and the seasonal movement of time. Coleman explains with real care how Donna’s pilgrimage is subtle, low-key, unselfconscious and only semi-articulated (ibid.), contrasting with the kinds of ‘high density’ religiosity that anthropologists normally gravitate toward. The concomitant suggestion that anthropology tends to ignore ‘low density’ forms of Christianity simply by virtue of focusing on the exuberant or the forceful – Catholic-Charismatics (Csordas 2012) or the Exclusive Brethren (Webster 2013), for example – is a point well taken. And clearly the methodological challenges of identifying and following low key expressions of Christianity do not offer sufficient excuse for not trying. We need more studies of this kind, not simply as a way to further expand the ethnographic record, but also as a way to further interrogate our disciplinary proclivities for self-conscious, copiously articulated religion.

Yet I am also left wondering if the anthropological attractiveness of identifying this kind of (inverted?) ‘low density’ religiosity stems from precisely those ‘semiotics of theory’ that Coleman is himself seeking to problematize. If anthropology tends to remake Christianity in the image of its own theories and models (be it modernity, or materiality, or affect, or ontology, or whatever), would searching out such ‘low density’ religiosity inevitably involve those of us who work within the anthropology of Christianity remaking it in the hegemonic image of the wider demographic/ethnographic context that we ourselves typically inhabit? Could we be at risk of transforming the search for the repugnant cultural other into a search for the agreeable cultural ‘us’? Assuming we wanted to engage in such a search, (and here I take a rare cue from the quantitative sociology of secularisation), it seems that Donna’s middle-aged, middle-class, subtle, lapsed, low density, low-key, unselfconscious, semi-articulate, familial-focused, England-centric, Anglican-Catholic hybrid would be an excellent candidate for a statistically representative ideal type of British believing-but-not-quite-belonging Christianity. Yet, regardless of the specific ‘semiotics of theory’ that Coleman’s own call to attend to ‘low density’ religion emerges from, what he achieves in this essay by shining a light on these knowledge building processes in action is of genuine import. As a result, the fact that we haven’t been taken very far ‘beyond’ Christianity – demographically or ethnographically – does not matter much, for instead we have been taken into the world of Donna’s occasional, semi-committed, quasi-religious life, that is, into the utterly mainstream world of contemporary British Christianity.

But what of the (ever more mainstream) world of ‘not-Christianity’; that is, the world of secular humanism? Engelke’s essay on the British Humanist Association (BHA) is well paired with Coleman’s, addressing similar questions about the extent to which groups which emphasise difference may (or may not) helpfully be related in terms of similarity. As in other work on the topic, Engelke’s clear position is that ‘Humanism is not Christianity. Humanism is not “a religion.” … Humanism, in spite of Christianity – and indeed often out of spite for Christianity – is different’ (2014: 299). Identifying the substance of this difference is, importantly, part and parcel of Engelke’s comparative project, prompting the deceptively simple question ‘what can we learn about Christianity from people who are not Christians?’ (2014: 292). As with Coleman, the process of knowledge building is placed centre stage. ‘What I want to emphasise here’, Engelke tells us, ‘is the fact that [the anthropology of Christianity] should… exist beyond itself – after itself, even – as an impetus for other kinds of conceptual and comparative projects (ibid.). Interestingly, when describing the reaction of colleagues upon hearing of his research with the BHA, the results feel like another uncanny inversion – this time of the reaction Harding (2001) received when colleagues learned of her research among Southern Baptist fundamentalists, as Engelke himself notes (2014: 294). Thus, rather than affirm (and despise) their real Christianity, the reaction meted out to Engelke’s informants at the hands of his critical colleagues is to assert and (and mock) their false humanism by concluding ‘that humanists sound like Protestants in all but name’ (ibid.)

Putting to one side the possibility that this conflation hints at an over-Protestantization of the anthropology of Christianity, what remains centrally important here is the extent to which these critical assertions (that Humanism is Christianity-in-disguise) reveal, in Coleman’s terms, a problem within the sub-discipline’s ‘semiotics of theory’. Are we bumping up against another form of ‘continuity thinking’? Engelke suggests that we are, but where does this leave us? Where, we might ask again, is the anthropology of Christianity – in this case in relation to Humanism? While I am inclined to agree that ‘continuity thinking’ is indeed present within the material that Engelke offers, it seems to me that such thinking originates in the (emic) semiotics of the ethnographic data we are shown and not in the (etic) semiotics of theory which follows on. Is it possible that it is Engelke’s BHA informants rather than his critical academic colleagues who are most guilty of continuity thinking here? If they are, it seems to be a largely unconscious process. While this last suggestion of mine immediately places me on shaky analytical ground, it seems worth attempting to stand here for a brief moment to better describe what I mean. If, to return to Needham (1975), comparative anthropology is in part about identifying family resemblances, then the resemblance between Humanism and Protestant Christianity seems to merit some exploration. Since the Brethren context is the one with which I am most familiar, I want to use it as my point of comparison. For the sake of clarity, my purpose here is not to draw straight lines between Humanism and Brethrenism, but merely to point to some suggestive common features.

Perhaps most strikingly, then, both Humanism and Brethrenism firmly deny that they are ‘religions’ or even ‘religious’; Humanism does so because it regards religion as antithetical to logical reason (Engelke 2014: 296-297), Brethrenism does so because it regards religion as ‘man made’ and ‘dead ritual’ and thus antithetical to a ‘living’ relationship with God. (Clearly the difference here is also key, as Engelke explains, with Humanism regarding ‘culture’ as axial to Christianity and many Christians regarding authentic Christianity as acultural (ibid.: 300)). Connected to this, both Humanism and Brethrenism shun the labels readily applied to them (ibid.: 296), believing them to be overly narrow and thus obscuring of their aims. Both Humanism and Brethrenism place heavy emphasis on logic, evidence and interiority, experienced in terms of being a free thinker, unencumbered by groupthink (ibid.: 298). This requires a submission to reason, understood as the natural outpouring of common sense (ibid.). For Humanists this might mean submission to evolutionary science (ibid.); for the Brethren this generally means submission to the Bible and creationist science. Yet, both place some qualifications on reason (ibid.: 297) choosing also to emphasise meaning, community and communion (ibid.: 298). Both Humanists and the Brethren undergo some kind of real personal transformation, described as ‘realization’ in relation to Humanism (ibid.: 296) and ‘conversion’ by the Brethren. Intriguingly, both Humanists and the Brethren share these experiences with fellow members by recounting stories of personal transformation.

All of this is not to suggest that Humanism is a religion or that Humanists are Christians. Pointing to possible family resemblances is not the same as insisting that two relatives are twins or even siblings. Yet, estranged ancestry still suggests common ancestry. And so it does not seem too improbable that Humanism and Brethrenism – both emerging in the late nineteenth century and both sharing an emphasis on personal freedom, interior reason, and fierce anticlericalism – may be thought of as closer cousins than either group would have the stomach to admit. Further, if such an observation can be described as a ‘gotcha argument’ (Engelke 2014: 301), (and am I am not convinced that it can), then any resultant interpretative discomfort should be shared, and thereby halved. But our main question remains hanging in the air – where does the anthropology of Christianity stand in relation to Humanism?

The obvious objection to my analysis above is that I am guilty of continuity thinking. Yet, what I have tried to suggest is that, with specific reference to Engelke’s presentation of the BHA, this is not so much a theoretical objection as it is an ethnographic observation. If anthropologists who identify family resemblances between Protestantism and Humanism are guilty of continuity thinking, they stand guilty alongside those Protestants and Humanists who are themselves under the anthropological lens. Put simply, where the continuity is real the ‘continuity thinking’ is less of a problem. Yet, as already highlighted regarding different views on the role of ‘culture’, there is also a strong sense of discontinuity. That both continuity and discontinuity are present should not be a surprise, since both relate to wider experiences of temporality. Thus, while I agree with Engelke’s core assertion (namely: ‘to say that Humanism is not Christianity is not to accept or reproduce the worldview of Humanists themselves’ Engelke 2014: 301), the opposite assertion also seems fair. In other words, to suggest that Humanism has family resemblances to Christianity is not to reject or rescind the worldview of Humanists – or Christians, for that matter. It is merely to point to similarity as well as difference, or, in the semiotics of this SI, it is to point to ‘unity’ as well as ‘diversity’. Such is the nature of ethnographic comparison.

This brings me to the final essay of the section – Hoskins’ ‘An Unjealous God?’ which describes religious syncretism within Caodaism in Vietnam. As with Coleman and Engelke, Hoskins addresses how knowledge and experience come to be classified in relation to Christianity. With this in mind, the essay opens with two very probing questions; firstly ‘how can peoples who have not actually converted to Christianity been influenced by what we could call the “Christianization of religious categories”?’, and secondly, ‘is it possible to convert to modernity without taking the Protestant model as the primary template of the “Christian modern”?’ Much of Hoskins’ piece is given over to detailed descriptions of the cosmology of Caodaism – helpful to those for whom her essay will represent their first intellectual encounter with the religion. Caodaism, then, is a religion structured along five distinct hierarchically organised levels: (i) Buddhist enlightenment, (ii) Taoist immortals, (iii) Jesus, Moses and Mohammed, (iv) local spirits and (v) ancestors. Clearly, such a cosmology is politically as well as theologically inflected. Relegating the status of Jesus to that of one of a number of middle ranking ‘saints’ in a pantheon headed by East Asian gods (a, pantheon, furthermore, which also includes Victor Hugo, Jeanne d’Arc, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Smith) has, Hoskins tells is, been read as a direct challenge not only to Vietnamese Catholics, but also to the French colonial administration (2014: 306).

Similarly, the universality of the atonement is downplayed by reimagining it as a localised event; in Caodaism, Jesus’ ‘sacrifice redeems the sins of humanity especially in Europe’ (306. Emphasis added). In another such critique, Caodaist spirit séances emphasise the ethics of equality, justice and national self-determination (Hoskins 2014: 307) – precisely those things that French colonialism and Catholicism are thought to impede. The fault, crucially, is not believed to be with Christianity per se but with its European construal, for ‘Christianity is presented as having been very close to the teachings of Buddhism before it was “corrupted” by later European interpretations’ (ibid.). The situation, however, is far from static, with many Vietnamese Caodaists emigrating to California and liberalising, by, for example, translating their scriptures into English, and engaging in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church. At the same time, some Caodaist leaders in Vietnam are attempting to depoliticise the faith by rebranding it as ‘indigenous religion’ which contains ‘no Christian theology’ (ibid. 309). Such are multiple (and contested) meanings of Caodaism. Where, then, does Caodaism stand in relation to Christianity?

Hoskins’ answer – despite Caodaism’s worship of Hugo and its reverence for his Humanist philosophy – seems intriguingly closer to Coleman’s position than Engelke’s. That is to say, Hoskins regards Caodaism as akin to Christianity – ‘a modern, congregational religion’ that is ‘most Christian’ in its ‘acceptance of a Roman Catholic institutional model’ and in its ‘theologizing of history’ (2014: 310) through notions of a chosen people and their (lost but soon to be reclaimed) chosen land. As such, Caodaism does not represent a rejection of Christianity, as we seem to find among Engelke’s BHA informants, but rather a provincialization of Christianity through a process described by Hoskins as ‘counter Orientalism’ (ibid.). Here – and this is Hoskins’ real and exciting contribution to the sub-discipline – Christianity is relocated outside its own exceptionalism, and placed into a delimited and subordinate relationship ‘under the wider umbrella of East Asian cosmology’ (ibid.). Where, for critics of the BHA, Humanism is Christianity in disguise, for the Caodaist faithful, Christianity is Buddhism (and Taoism and Spiritism and Ancestor worship and Humanism) in disguise. Its disguise, moreover, is distinctly European and thus strikingly local. Hoskins’ conclusion on this point is insightful – Caodaists ‘have made themselves “more Catholic than Catholics”, by applying the Catholic theory of “inculturation” to European religion and tolerating Christian rituals as “sincere but unsophisticated practices”’ (ibid. 311). This leads me to note one final inversion, this time of the question with which I have framed this review. Where, then, is Christianity in relation to Caodaism? Hoskins tells us that it is to be found at the (unjealous) feet of ‘the Jade Emperor as the supreme transcendent deity’ (ibid.). Such is the ‘counter Orientalism’ of Caodaism (ibid. 310).

I want to finish with some summative comments about modernity. What is it and where is it? Importantly, these are temporal as well as geographical questions. In terms of the geographical, the ubiquity of modernity is difficult to dispute. Walsingham, London and Tây Ninh are certainly not pre-modern, so does this mean they are all ‘modern’? If they are, does this mean that they are also all somehow ‘Protestant’, secretly or otherwise? Both Engelke’s and Hoskins’ ethnographic evidence flatly contradicts such a suggestion, while Coleman’s ethnography, which primarily deals with Anglicans, also warns against it by showing how permeable the line between Protestant and Catholic can be. One answer might be to draw on (ironically now somewhat old fashioned) sociological theories of ‘late’ (Giddens 1991) or ‘liquid’ (Bauman 2000) modernity, which represent softer versions of often too exuberant ‘anything goes’ accounts of postmodernism.

Here, Donna would represent the kind of highly reflexive citizen that Giddens imagines in late modernity by her – and here we see the influence of Weber – inhabiting of multiple, uncertain, competing, and contradictory identities. The same, too, seems to be the case for Caodaism, where religious syncretism represents the kind of pluralistic ‘pick-and-mix’ hybridity that constitutes popular understandings of both ‘late’/’liquid’ and ‘post’ modernity. It is the BHA then, who are the most straightforwardly ‘modern’ in their construction of a world that is logical, scientific, measurable, and thus knowable. Knowable, that is, through the interiority of personal reason. Does this make Humanism ‘more Protestant than Protestantism’ in the same way that Caodaism is said to be ‘more Catholic than Catholicism’? And where are Coleman’s Walsingham informants located in relation to these? Do they sit awkwardly in-between, or are they imperceptibly spread out along an assumed (and therefore invisible) Protestant-Catholic continuum? The difficulty in answering any of these questions is as revealing as it is vexing, suggesting to me that while, in these three essays, we have not been taken very far ‘beyond’ anything that appears to closely resemble Christianity, this need not be a problem, given how much ethnographic work clearly still needs to be done on its immediate and extended family. 



Bauman, Z. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Cannell, F. 2005. ‘The Christianity of Anthropology’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 11(2): 335-356.

Chalfin, B. 2008. ‘Sovereigns and citizens in close encounter: Airport anthropology and customs regimes in neoliberal Ghana’ in American Ethnologist 35(4): 519-538.

Clifford, James. 1997. Routes: travel and translation in the late twentieth century. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Coleman, S. 2014. ‘Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity’ in Current Anthropology 55(S10): 281-291.

Csordas, T. J. 2012. Language, Charisma, and Creativity: Ritual Life in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Engelke, M. 2014. ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism’ in Current Anthropology 55(S10): 292-301.

Giddens, A. 1991. Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Harding, S. F. 2001. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Hoskins, J. A. 2014. ‘An Unjealous God? Christian Elements in a Vietnamese Syncretistic Religion’ in Current Anthropology 55(S10): 302-311.

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

Needham, R. 1973. Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

_____. 1975. ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’ in Man New Series 10(3): 349-369.

_____. 1978. Primordial Characters. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia.

Webster, J. 2013. The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *