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.) Continue reading