Nigerian Pentecostalism: Book Review

Wariboko, Nimi.  2014.  Nigerian Pentecostalism. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

By: Jörg Haustein (SOAS, University of London)

Wariboko’s book is an important contribution to the by now substantial array of studies on Nigerian Pentecostalism, and yet it is one of a kind. Instead of providing another historical, political, or socio-economic analysis of the “Pentecostal explosion” in Africa’s most populous country, Wariboko seeks to unlock its secrets from within, by producing a philosophical analysis of Nigerian Pentecostal spirituality and theology. His closest conversation partner is Ruth Marshall, whose influence is acknowledged at the outset and implicitly or explicitly engaged throughout the book.

In the introduction, Wariboko helpfully summarises his entire argument and carves out his niche by contending that none of the previous studies were actually concerned with “the issues of religious production of knowledge.” While this is a bold, but not wholly inaccurate claim, it also foreshadows one of the central problems of this book, to the philosophical underpinnings of which we will have to return below: The “religious” is posited as a category sui generis (e.g. in opposition to socio-scientific analyses), which is quite a modern twist to Wariboko’s otherwise central understanding of Nigerian Pentecostalism as an anti-modern phenomenon.

The main text of his book is divided into two parts. Part one offers an intellectual genealogy of Pentecostalism – in a philosophical rather than a historical sense –, and part two explores the “ethical vision” of Pentecostalism and its contribution to society and politics. The book concludes with two related chapters. One summarises the argument once again, and the other relates these findings to the socio-economic and geopolitical context of Nigeria, in which “the supernatural is a technology of existence.” (p. 287) That the Nigerian context comes almost as an afterthought is an important pointer to the author’s rejection of political or functional analyses: understanding Nigerian Pentecostalism from its theological and philosophical grounds will properly elucidate Nigerian society, not the other way around. This radical foregrounding of the Pentecostal theological articulation opens up some very interesting lines of investigation, but occasionally gives Wariboko’s discourse an idealistic or even apologetic hue.

That said, his analyses provide much more than elaborations of Pentecostal world views and cosmologies. Rather, he brings them into dialogue with a whole range of philosophers and theologians from Badiou and Bataille to Hegel and Heidegger, from Foucault and Lacan to Tillich and Yong – to name only his most important references. This line-up should not be misread as an eclectic collection of intellectual nods to en-vogue thinkers. Rather Wariboko uses them to develop a stimulating philosophy of spirituality, its relation to individual and corporate bodies, and its ethical potential for politics and society. Naturally, this works better in some places than others, as Wariboko’s meandering and dense writing style on occasion leaves behind only a trail of philosophical gestures that this reader would have liked to see explored in greater detail.

In all of its philosophical elaboration, the central premise of the book is actually quite straightforward: Pentecostalism is primarily concerned with attaining a glimpse of the invisible, with bridging the gap between the phenomenal and the noumenal. As such it is a lived rebellion against the transcendental firewall of epistemology, because Pentecostalism aspires to experience the Kantian thing-in-itself and – in a more existential sense – the subject-in-itself. (p. 45) This has a number of consequences. Firstly, Pentecostalism splits off the phenomenal as the primary site of lack or sin, which yet (or therefore) becomes the receptacle for experiencing the noumenal, as Wariboko illustrates by the juxtaposition of excretion and Godly visions in narratives of divine calling. (ch. 3) This constitutive, Lacanian split creates a complementary dynamic of desire and disgust which informs both the disciplining regiment of holiness and the erotic exuberance of spirituality. (ch. 4) Secondly, the experience of the noumenal not only endows bodies with spirit, it also creates spirits without bodies, which Wariboko (invoking Durkheim) sees as inherently linked with collective spirituality. (ch. 5) This is the site of body politics and the ultimate ground for a Pentecostal political theology, especially as it overlaps with Nigerian politics being similarly saturated with spiritual presence (ch. 6). Thirdly, the experience of the noumenal is also a proleptic borrowing from the divine vault of full potentiality. This enables Pentecostals to construct a different notion of sovereignty, built around the phantasmic site of miracles and the virtue of friendship rather than the political existence of a Pentecostal community. (ch. 7+8) Moreover, it also enables Nigerian Pentecostals to project a Blackness which is no longer defined by economic lack, but overflowing prosperity for all who believe, and a world with Nigeria at the centre as God’s most favoured nation. (ch. 9) Epistemology is thus revealed as ultimately political.

The idea of spirituality as centred around the experience of the noumenal is of course not new and has always accompanied the study of religions, from Max Müller’s invocation of the “infinite” to Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” The merit of Wariboko’s study is to spell out this idea for Pentecostalism in unprecedented detail and philosophical erudition. However, as Wariboko is well aware, the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, between the natural and the supernatural, has been bequeathed to us by modern epistemology – and therefore I am not sure whether Wariboko’s analysis actually takes us further, as he contends. My suspicion arises most distinctly in a passage where he criticises the “modern theologian” Amos Yong for wanting Pentecostalism to return to the “noncorrupted modernist, Enlightenment epistemology” and to respect the thing-in-itself as something always behind the veil. (p. 263) Wariboko counters that Pentecostals see this unattainability of the thing-in-itself as the “symptom” of modern epistemology and therefore seek to “collapse the boundary between phenomenality and noumenality.” However, does this inversion really move our analysis beyond the habit of reading Pentecostalism through the prism of modern epistemology, or rather, does it further reify these foundational categories? In other words: if Pentecostals phenomenalize the noumenal and vice versa, as Wariboko concludes, are they really concerned with these juxtaposed epistemological categories? If they are not, it would be Wariboko’s reading of their theology that modernises them. If they are – as I suspect – then we should go beyond the established trope that Pentecostals (and “Africans”?) revolt against the confines of modernity that have enclosed them. Our questioning should rather be directed at the genealogy of this epistemological distinction in Nigerian Pentecostalism. How and from where did they inherit the “supernatural” as an epistemological category? Who or what produces and polices the distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal, which is so constitutive to Pentecostal desire and disgust? Or in more general terms, precisely how is enchantment “enchanted”?

These questions about the historical and political grounds of epistemology bring us back to the issue of power and to one of the most interesting parts of the book, where Wariboko explicitly engages Marshall’s work in his discussion of Pentecostal sovereignty (ch. 7). I am not quite sure what to make of Wariboko’s assessment that Marshall externally imposes the issue of sovereignty on Pentecostals, or that her theory of sovereignty presupposes the subject. Beyond the need to deal in her own currency as a political scientist, Marshall quite carefully grounds Pentecostal agency and subjectivity in relations of power, and I think she could well sign on to Wariboko’s statement that “sovereignty is not the afterglow of subjectivation but the soul of the strategic relations of the moral power of subjectivation.” (177) That Marshall diagnoses a “lack” of an alternative Pentecostal sovereignty rather stems from her observation that in the Nigerian colonial and post-colonial political economy, the site of sovereignty has always been elsewhere and occulted – and that Pentecostalism merely mirrors this tendency. However, Wariboko makes an important point by noting that we cannot think of sovereignty without the notion of excess, which simultaneously forms sovereignty’s condition of possibility as well as a universal threat to its every instantiation. He may well be right to insist that Pentecostalism occupies such a space of excess and thereby foreshadows other sovereignties, but unfortunately the elaboration of this insight often comes at the expense of eclipsing the politics of power, especially in his chapter on “altersovereignty” or the virtue of Pentecostal friendship.

In essence, the debate between Marshall and Wariboko is about what hope there is for Pentecostals inaugurating a new Nigerian society – with Marshall more or less regretting that they cannot and Wariboko insisting on Pentecostal potential. In my view, this question is overburdened with an ethical and eschatological impetus that might get in the way of a critical analysis of religion and politics in the post-colonial age. I would rather hedge my bets with a messier philosophy of politics, like Laclau’s radical democracy, where the only ethical remainder consists of feeding back excluded voices from the margins that lay bare the hegemonial operations of power, within Pentecostal and academic discourse alike.

Pentecostalism has always been a central site for the anthropology of Christianity, and Wariboko’s book will certainly contribute to it remaining so. Despite my conceptual criticisms, I found his book a highly stimulating treatise of Pentecostalism that I would recommend to anyone working in the field. Though Wariboko’s observations and considerations are mostly in dialogue with philosophy and theology (and political science), I expect that many of his thoughts it will generate an anthropological echo in the study of Pentecostalism and beyond.

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