Questions of discipline are, today, no less ubiquitous than when under Foucault’s renowned scrutiny, but what does ‘discipline’ in diverse religious systems actually entail? In this article, we take ‘lenience’ rather than discipline as a starting point and compare its potential, both structural and ideological, in religious contexts where disciplinary flexibility shores up greater encompassing projects of moral perfectionism as opposed to those contexts in which disciplinary flexibility is a defining feature in its own right. We argue that lenience provides religious systems with a vital flexibility that is necessary to their reproduction and adaptation to the world. By taking a ‘systems’ perspective on ethnographic discussions of religious worlds, we proffer fresh observations on recent debates within the anthropology of religion on ‘ethics’, ‘failure’, and the nature of religious subjects.
Abstract: This article cautions against an ‘earnest turn’ within the anthropology of religion, pointing up the tendency for anthropologists of religion to over-emphasize the role of discipline in the construction of the religious subjecthood over mechanisms of leniency and compromise. Taking the Catholic Church as an example, I show how discipline andlenience have been co-constitutive of Christian subjectivities, as different movements in a gigantic choreography which have spanned and evolved over several centuries. By looking at certain technologies of lenience that have emerged over the course of Catholic history, I trace an alternative genealogy of ‘the Christian self’; one in which institutional growth, power, and survival depended not only upon the formation of disciplined bodies and interior dispositions but also upon a carefully managed division of labour between clergy and laity, as well as upon a battery of legal commutations and practical avoidances aimed at minimizing the effort and pain of the ascetic approach. Taking the concept of ‘lapsedness’ as cue, I ask to what extent the ‘lapsed Catholic’, rather than indexing an ever-increasing tendency towards secularism, might already be contained and accounted for within Catholicism as a living, evolving form.
Part I: Review Forum, “Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”
Christianity and Gender
By: Ruy Blanes (University of Bergen)
Unlike other, previous ‘nation-building’ endeavors, Current Anthropology’s special issue on the ‘Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions’, edited by Joel Robbins and Naomi Haynes, is particularly valuable due to its explicit tackling of the epistemological limitations and potentialities of this disciplinary project. It congregates many protagonists of the emergence of this subdiscipline, with the identified goal of producing what could be called an ‘angelus novus move’. When Walter Benjamin wrote his theses on the philosophy of history (1968), he began his reflections with Paul Klee’s famous painting “Angelus Novus”, in which an angel appears, ‘moving forward but looking backward’. Benjamin interpreted this movement as the inevitable ‘storm of progress’ (1968: 258), in which we are involuntarily pushed into the future while looking back at what is left. This issue can be seen as one in which a similar looking back while moving forward takes place. Continue reading
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.
Mayblin, Maya. 2013. The Untold Sacrifice: The Monotony and Incompleteness of Self-Sacrifice in Northeast Brazil. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology (early digital release DOI:10.1080/00141844.2013.821513).
Abstract: There is no such thing as an accidental sacrifice. Sacrifice is always pre-meditated, and if not entirely goal-oriented, at the very least inherently meaningful as a process in itself. This paper is about how we might begin to understand sacrifices that do not conform to these rules. It concerns the question: does sacrifice exist outside of its (often) dramatic, self-conscious elaboration? Within the Brazilian Catholic tradition everyday life – ideally characterised by monotonous, undramatic, acts of self-giving – is ‘true sacrifice’. For ordinary Catholics, the challenge is not how to self-sacrifice, but how to make one’s mundane life of self-sacrifice visible whilst keeping one’s gift of suffering ‘free’. In this paper I describe, ethnographically, the work entailed as one of ‘revelation’ and use the problems thrown up to reflect upon both the limits and advantages of Western philosophical versus anthropological understandings of Christian sacrificial practices to date.
Abstract: While contemporary philosophers have been content to declare the logical possibilities of sacrifice exhausted, to have finally ‘sacrificed sacrifice,’ for many people around the world the notion of sacrifice – whether religious, secular, or somewhere in between – remains absolutely central to their understanding of themselves, their relations with others, and their place in the world. From religion to economics, and from politics to the environment, sacrificial tropes frequently emerge as key means of mediating and propagating various forms of power, moral discourse, and cultural identity. This paper lays out reasons for retaining sacrifice as an analytical concept within anthropology, and argues for the importance of a renewed focus on the ‘other side of sacrifice’, as a means of understanding better how sacrifice emerges beyond ritual and enters into the full gamut of social life.
Abstract: This paper examines a preference among rural Catholics in Northeast Brazil to treat generalized forms of malaise with isotonic solution administered intravenously, even where such treatment goes against biomedical advice. It situates this practice within a nexus of local ideas about the value of blood and sacrifice, which emerge out of socio-historical and environmental factors particular to the region. In this context blood is merely one in a sequence of substances linked to the regenerative martyrdom of Jesus, to the agricultural cycle, and to the economic struggle for existence in a drought-affected region. The materialization of blood, sweat, and tears on the surface of the body indexes social relationships built on sacrifice. The appearance of such substances, often between categories of close kin, are ideally characterized by the loss or flow of substance in a single direction. In such contexts replenishing the blood with isotonics maintains a uni-directional flow, preserving the value of sacrifice.
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.