Christian love has historically been subject of extensive theological study but has rarely been studied within anthropology. Contemporary Coptic society receives growing attention over the last two decades as a minority in Egyptian Muslim majority society. An important bulk of this scholarship involves a discussion of the community’s sometimes self-defined and sometimes ascribed characterization as a persecuted minority. Particular attention has gone to how social and political dimensions of minority life lead to changes in Christian theological understandings. This paper builds on these insights and examines how Christian love is experienced, and shapes feelings of belonging, everyday morality and political sensibilities vis-à-vis Muslim majority society. It draws from ethnographic observations and meetings with Copts living in Egypt between 2014–2017. It focuses on three personal narratives that reveal the complex ways in which a theology of love affects social and political stances. An anthropological focus reveals the fluid boundaries between secular and religious expressions of Christian love. Love for God and for humans are seen as partaking in one divine love. Practicing this love, however, shapes very different responses and can lead to what has been described as Coptic ‘passive victim behaviour’, but also to political activity against the status-quo.
Abstract: This essay presents an ethnographic account of two divorced Catholic women’s memories of praying to the Virgin Mary while seeking illegal abortions under the Romanian socialist regime. These women’s stories focused on troubling memories of being in love, reflections that were retrospectively shaped by divorce. Drawing on Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny, I call these recollections uncanny memories of the self in love. Uncannily remembering one’s self in love combines experiential self-examination and ethical assessment of actions. The notion of the uncanny self in love thus helps bridge the divide between experience- and action-oriented approaches to lived ethics. I argue that the ethical significance of the Virgin Mary’s actions depended on my acquaintances’ approach to love. For one woman seeking to stay estranged from her ex-husband, the Virgin Mary’s actions accentuated his ethical immaturity. My other acquaintance harbored more ambivalent feelings toward her ex-husband; for her, talking about the Virgin Mary helped her relativize feelings of ethical indignation. As a core implication of this argument, I urge greater awareness of the problematic tendency to include the need for greater awareness of tendencies in theories of lived ethics to reify socially situated perspectives on love.
Abstract: Love, I argue, is a demand around which moral experience—and thus moral subjectivity—takes shape. Love entails the struggle to ethically remake oneself, and the response to its unavoidable demand has consequences for both oneself and others. I examine the moral experience of love as it was lived by two former participants in a Russian Orthodox Church–run heroin rehabilitation program in St. Petersburg. My discussion thus contributes conceptually and ethnographically to the growing literature on the anthropology of moralities.
Mayblin, Maya. 2012. The Madness of Mothers: Agape Love and the Maternal Myth in Northeast Brazil. American Anthropologist 114(2): 240-252.
Abstract: In Northeast Brazil, the question of whether motherhood predisposes a woman to love her children, and whether children can be socialized effectively even in the absence of love, is a source of debate. I explore how motherhood references different configurations of the essential nature of things by charting how concepts of mother love map onto the Christian concept of agape. The analogical link between mother love and agape, I argue, offers people a set of conceptual tools for reflecting on a range of problems emerging from contrasting ontologies implicit within local forms of Christianity. Problems include the nature of the human-divine relation, the concept of primal animation, and the profound imbalance of power that a creature-Creator relationship entails. Debates about motherhood can thus be understood in terms of “ontopraxis,” whereby social agents situate themselves in relation to shared ontological categories and negotiate ambiguous and even contradictory cosmological schemes.