The Slain God: Book Review

Larsen, Timothy. 2014. The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

By T.M. Luhrmann (Stanford University)

Do you need to be a person of faith to understand faith? This was the question at the center of the “rationality debate” that swirled around Cambridge when I arrived there as a student now alas some years ago. The issues were deep but the arguments went off in epicycles, mostly around readings of Wittgenstein and Evans-Pritchard. Their abstractness is framed in my memory by a dinner table anecdote told by my own advisor, Ernest Gellner, a profoundly irreligious man who swore he had been present one afternoon at an Oxford debate to which the panelists—perhaps even Winch and McIntyre themselves—had invited Evans-Pritchard. The question on the table became whether you could grasp, as an outsider, the meaning of cattle to the Azande, the cow being a philosophical stand in for God and supposedly an analytically more straightforward case. Did you have to know cattle yourself, know dusk-caked fields and a heavy sun? Did you have to grow up in Zandeland, in a world in which everything was about the cow? At the end of the debate, Gellner said, Evans-Pritchard stood up to comment. He was moved, he said, by the philosophical sophistication of the exchange, to which he had little to add. He did however want to mention that there were no cattle among the Azande. Indeed, if you look up “cattle” in the index to that famous book, you will see that the entry is listed: “cattle, absence of.”

The anecdote has remained with me because even at the time, I thought that the question as posed was ridiculous. Of course you do not need to be religious to understand religion. But it is true that being a person of faith probably changes what, in particular, you understand. What exactly does it change?

Oxford has recently published a book by Timothy Larsen that bring us to this question, although admittedly the author does not raise it directly. The Slain God is a study of the way six anthropologists—Edward Burnett Tylor, James, George Frazer, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas and the two Turners, Edith and Victor—related to their own Christianity. In a masterful review in Books and Culture, Joel Robbins points out that there have been two distinctive patterns in the ways that anthropologists have related to Christianity. In the first, what we might call the Whig version of anthropological theory, religion of any kind was imagined as a way station en route to a science-dominated modernity. In the second, the relativist response, anthropologists grew more respectful of the great role religion plays in the lives of humans, but they also insisted that all religions everywhere demand equal respect. Neither pattern leaves much room for Christianity or most other faiths. And so anthropology has been a largely secular discipline since its inception. “Once you stop religious thought,” the eminent anthropologist Jean LaFontaine remarked, “you start thinking anthropologically.”

The Slain God tells us this isn’t so. Tylor and Frazer do conform to pattern one. But the next four do not. They are all Catholics. Three of them converted after their fieldwork. In the case of the Turners, it is clear that they converted because of their fieldwork. The Turners saw and felt the spirit in the field, and when they returned, they went looking for a church. (As an aside, those readers who know Edie Turner’s vivid story of literally perceiving the spirit leaving the neck of a Ndembu patient during the famous healing ritual—a story she has told many times to great effect—my be intrigued by a detail she sometimes omits: she was drinking a hallucinogen.)

Moreover, what The Slain God makes evident is just how deeply engaged Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas and Victor Turner were with Catholic theology and with scripture. Many anthropologists do not know that Mary Douglas turned her research focus to biblical scholarship near the end of her career; that Evans-Pritchard regularly read his Bible and his missal, that books by spiritual authors were stacked by his bedside, that his “Notes on Nilotic Religion” was clipped with a Catholic devotional card; that Victor Turner read so deeply in theology that he could forget that his reader did not. “To take an extreme case, [Turner] imagines that his reader will understand the neurology of the human brain better once he has referenced the double procession of the Holy Spirit as articulated in the filioque clause of the Western creed.” You cannot read The Slain God and maintain your sense that Catholicism was just one of those little quirks these particular anthropologists had. Their theological commitments were central to who they were and how they thought.

And what all of them saw so brilliantly—and what has made their readers pour over and struggle with their texts for decades—is that faith is not about belief. Each saw in his or her own way that faith is about an organization of attention and emotion. Mary Douglas said it best:

Of course Dinka hope that their rites will suspend the natural course of events. Of course they hope that rain rituals will cause rain, healing rituals avert death, harvest rituals produce crops. But instrumental efficacy is not the only kind of efficacy to be derived from symbolic action. The other kind is achieved in the action itself, in the assertions it makes and the experience which bears its imprinting.

Ritual may express desire, but the point of thinking about religious acts as “symbolic action” was to assert that rituals create and control experience. A Christian does not pray because the prayer yields results in the world. Christians pray because prayer changes them. Thus Godfrey Lienhardt, another Oxford Catholic, on the Dinka, when they tie grass into a knot to prevent the sun from going down: “No Dinka thinks that by performing such an action he has actually assured the result he hopes for … The man who ties such a knot .. has produced a model of his desires and hopes, upon which to base renewed practical endeavor.”

I think that this insight is made easier by being a person of faith. I’ve been thinking recently about how flat-footed much thinking about belief can be, because when you are secular you think of the difference between you and believers as being the belief: the propositional commitment that God exists. Then you think about how someone can believe something that is false to the world.

But to a person of faith, the tension between the world as it is and the world of God is the point. Faith is about seeing the world as it is and experiencing it—to some extent—as the world as it should be. Faith is about having trust that the world is good, safe and beautiful—a world in which justice is triumphant, enemies are thwarted and you can thrill to the delicate beauty of the day. This is as true for those who worship small, local gods as it is for those whose devotion focuses on Christ, Allah or Ahura Mazda—big gods, as Ara Norenzayan calls them. The point of pouring a libation to one of the ancient pagan gods is to make your world a better place: to protect the crops, to heal a sick child, to bring wind to your sails so that your fleet can cross the Aegean and bring back a stolen wife. The small gods are at the least about explanation, prediction and control. The promise of the big gods of course is that those who follow them will flourish. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The blunt fact that these commitments are held in a world that is often brutal and unfair tells us that faith is hard and requires effort. Belief in a just, fair, good world is not some kind of mistake, not a deluded misconception that observers need to explain, but the nature of the faith commitment.

What I came to understand through my own research on evangelical Christianity is that faith is the management of the contradiction rather than the blind ignorance about the contradiction, and that it is the work of management that changes people. I see that recognition in these three Catholic anthropologists. I see it in Evans-Pritchard’s emphasis on the ambiguity of God concepts, in Douglas’ account of symbolic action, in Turner’s account of the experience of the liminal. I think their books have lived for so many decades because they describe something profoundly real about religious experience that is easier to recognize from within a faith commitment.

This is not to say that we have figured out how people do this. That understanding requires the secular and the faithful around the table, and the many people in between. Religion is pretty complex. In the end, the history of the way anthropologists have understood Christianity is probably going to be a history of anthropology itself.

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