“Faith in Anthropology” Symposium

Howell, Brian, J. Derrick Lemons, Jon Bialecki, James Bielo, Tanya Luhrmann, and Timothy Larsen.  2016.  Faith in Anthropology: A Symposium on Timothy Larsen’s The Slain GodThe Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(2):140-152.

Abstract: Timothy Larsen is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Illinois, and the author of The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), an intellectual history of the relationship between anthropology and Christianity. Here Brian Howell, Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton, introduces comments on the book from J. Derrick Lemons, Jon Bialecki, James Bielo and Tanya Luhrmann, as well as a response from Larsen.

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.) Continue reading

Harr, “Moving Words: Christian Language and the Modern World”

Harr, Adam. 2015. “Moving Words: Christian Language and the Modern World.” Reviews in Anthropology 44(3):161-177.

Abstract: Within the anthropology of Christianity, much attention has been paid to the convergence of Christianity with modern understandings of language. In this essay, I review scholarship that traces the historical connections between modern and Christian views of language, particularly in British colonial attacks on Hindu language practices, and I examine two recent ethnographies that offer different vantage points on the variety of ways in which contemporary Christians use language in a self-consciously modern way.

Cassaniti and Luhrmann, “The Cultural Kindling of Spiritual Experiences”

Cassaniti, Julia L and Tanya Marie Luhrmann. 2014. The Cultural Kindling of Spiritual Experiences. Current Anthropology. DOI: 10.1086/677881

Abstract: In this paper we suggest that it is important for the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of religion more generally to develop a comparative phenomenology of spiritual experience. Our method is to distinguish between a named phenomenon without fixed mental or bodily events (phenomena that have specific local terms but are recognized by individuals by a broad and almost indiscriminate range of physical events); bodily affordances (events of the body that happen in social settings but are only identified as religious in those social settings when they afford, or make available, an interpretation that makes sense in that setting); and striking anomalous events. We demonstrate that local cultural practices shift the pattern of spiritual experiences, even those such as sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences that might be imagined in some ways as culture free, but that the more the spiritual experience is constrained by a specific physiology, the more the frequency of the event will be constrained by an individual’s vulnerability to those experiences. We will call this the “cultural kindling” of spiritual experience.

Bialecki, “Does God Exist in Methodological Atheism?”

Bialecki, Jon. 2014.  Does God Exist in Methodological Atheism? On Tanya Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back and Bruno Latour. Anthropology of Consciousness 25(1):32-52.

Abstract: In the anthropology of Christianity, and more broadly in the anthropology of religion, methodological atheism has foreclosed ethnographic description of God as a social actor. This prohibition is the product of certain ontological presumptions regarding agency, an absence of autonomy of human creations, and a truncated conception of what can be said to exist. Reading Tanya Luhrmann’s recent ethnography, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (2012), in light of both the ontological postulates of Object Orientated Ontology and the work of Bruno Latour, this article proposes an ontological framework that makes it is possible to ethnographically describe God as a social actor without adopting methodological theism. This article also notes, however, that the ethnographic description of religious practice, found in studies of the Vineyard denomination such as Luhrmann’s, challenge Latour’s own account of the difference between science and religions as distinguishable enterprises.

 

Luhrmann, “Talking back about…”

Luhrmann, Tanya Marie. 2013. Talking back about When God Talks Back. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 389-98.

Excerpt: These responses are terrific and fascinating—not least because two of them contradict each other directly, and on a matter of considerable importance. Pascal Boyer argues that my observations about American charismatic Evangelicals are generalizable: that everywhere in the world, the intuition that gods or spirits are present takes work. In this sense, they are conjectures. Anthropologists, he writes, tend not to recognize this because their subjects present belief statements as assertions and then the anthropologists describe them in turn as indirect reported speech: “among the Fang, only the ancestors can make one sick.” After reading all those ethnographies it is startling to encounter the claim that the existence of these invisible agents is not matter of fact. But Boyer points out that there is no other good way to make sense of all the work people do in ritual.

Mayblin, “When God talks back about…”

Mayblin, Maya. 2013. When God talks back about When God Talks Back. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 381-87.

Excerpt: “What’s an anthropologist of religion like you doing with a book like this?” This is what God says to me as he catches me reading Tanya Luhrmann’s monograph When God talks back one night. I look up, surprised, then back at the book again.
But God isn’t leaving the room. He knows I’m confused. He knows that although I do not know what I am doing with a book like this, I’m enjoying spending time with it. There is something about Luhrmann’s style of writing that has properly transported me: concise, poetic—she writes with a bold, “straight-from-the-heart” sort of voice that makes me want to follow. Absorbed in the moment, I sense the sofa dip down beside me with God’s great weight. It’s not that I can see Him as so many waves of light hitting my retina, or as I see the coffee mug sitting on the corner of that folded up newspaper; I see him in my mind’s eye which, because of my particular upbringing, makes Him old, white, and sort of hirsute: Marx and Gandalf, rolled into one.

GOD: You know there’s nothing wrong in enjoying a book if it’s good.

MAYA: But isn’t the whole psychology-oriented epistemology central to this book something I should be eschewing?

GOD: Not if you’re also interested in where the anthropology of religion has to go.

Eriksen and Blanes, “What kind of God?”

Eriksen, Annelin and Ruy Blanes. 2013. What kind of God? Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 375-80.

Excerpt: The anthropologist reader of When God talks back does not need to open the book to begin to collect information about what it is trying to convey, and how. By looking at the cover, feeling the pages in your fingers and, especially, glancing through the back cover, one quickly understands that this book, despite being written by an anthropologist, is not written as an “anthropology book” nor is it intended for only a disciplinary academic audience: the endorsements from newspaper reviews and famous neuroscientists, the thin, soon-to-be-brown airport bestseller paper, the mainstream publisher. . . . All these sensorial acknowledgements easily confirm our suspicion.

Jenkins, “‘Religious Experience’

Jenkins, Timothy. 2013. “Religious experience” and the contribution of theology in Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 369-73.

Excerpt: In her recent book When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God, Tanya Luhrmann offers an anthropological description of the motivations and world-view of contemporary Evangelical Christians. This work forms part of a current movement by anthropologists to gain detailed insight into and understanding of North American Christianity (Bialeki 2009; Bielo 2009, 2011; Harding 2000), and may be set in the broader context of the “anthropology of Christianity” (Cannell 2006; Engelke 2007; Robbins 2003, 2007; Keane 2007; cf. Hann 2007; Jenkins 2012). I have two broad observations to make, one concerning what one might call the Protestant nature of experience as a category, the other noting the use of theological texts as significant anthropological source.

Stoller, “Cultivating the Inner Senses”

Stoller, Paul. 2013. Cultivating the Inner Senses. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 365-68.

Excerpt: In 1988 I traveled to the town of Tillaberi in the Republic of Niger, West Africa to attend the funeral of my teacher, Adamu Jenitongo, a sorcerer of great repute. During an apprenticeship that spanned seventeen years, he challenged me to tune my senses to the spirit world. It was a difficult challenge. In the black of night, I would often awake to watch him converse with his ancestors—all great sorcerers in their time. I could clearly hear his voice, but did not have the capacity to hear those of his forbearers. At the time I knew that no one could ever replace my teacher but I did want to continue my education in Songhay sorcery. Several days after the funeral, I went to Niamey, Niger’s capital city, to seek out the master herbalist, Soumana Yacouba. I wanted to become his student. I had known Soumana Yacouba for ten years. During that time, we would spend many days sitting behind a mat at one of Niamey’s main markets. Each day he would display his medicinal plants on the mats, and between client consultations we would talk about herbal medicine. In time we developed a rapport but never established the kind of master-apprentice relationship I had shared with Adamu Jenitongo. When I asked to become his student, he didn’t give me an immediate answer. “Come to my house. My wife will feed us lunch and then we’ll see what happens.”

We took a taxi to what was then the outskirts of Niamey and walked to a dusty compound of three grass huts encircled by a three-foot fence fashioned from dried millet stalks. We slipped into Soumana’s hut and sat on palm frond mats. His wife brought us a bowl of rice smothered with a chunky meat sauce, which we ate with gusto. After the meal Soumana looked at me.

“So you want to study with me?” he asked.
I nodded.
“It’s not my decision.”
I stared at him in confused silence.
“Because I am a do (master Niger River waters and plants) I must ask the ancestors if they accept you.”
He then engaged in a ten minute give-and-take with his ancestors. He described my history with Adamu Jenitongo and said positive things about my trustworthiness. I, of course, could not hear the voices of his ancestors, who, after some cajoling
from Soumana, gave their consent.
“They like you,” Soumana told me. “They think I should teach you about plants and about the river.”
“But,” I said, “I couldn’t hear their voices, couldn’t hear what they said.
“Of course not,” Soumana said with a broad smile on his face. “You need to learn how to listen before you can hear the voices of the ancestors.”
* * *
Uttered in a dusty straw hut in 1988, Soumana Yacouba’s comment underscores a major premise in Tanya Luhrmann’s wonderful new book, When God talks back. How can a person, she wonders again and again throughout the pages of her illuminating text, claim to hear the voice of God? How could Soumana Yacouba or, for that matter, Adamu Jenitongo claim to have conversations with ancestors?