This article offers a reflexive and phenomenological response to some of the challenges of the recent ontological turn. It argues, first, that a focus on embodiment is crucial in understanding the formation of ontological assumptions, and, second, that researchers have an ethical responsibility to practice an ‘ontological reflexivity’ that goes beyond the conceptual reflexivity of much recent ontological work. It conceives the anthropological domain as a place of ‘intra-actment’ and maintains that to avoid ontological closure, researchers must contextualize their ontological assumptions by reflexively sensitizing themselves to how these assumptions are shaped by both embodied experience and the contexts in which they are articulated and performed. This article seeks to enact this through an auto-ethnographic exploration of the author’s own embodied experience as it relates to demonic manifestations and the divine.
Abstract: This article explores the relationship between language, experience, and the body. Employing a phenomenological approach that takes the sensory body as its starting point, it focuses on three instances of ‘divine experience’, looking at the ways in which social actors seek to express that experience through metaphorical translation into more familiar, everyday realms. It argues that within this perceptual process – which starts in bodily experience and ends in words – both bodies and worlds are formed: bodies open to (often sensory) aspects of divine experience, and worlds that include the divine, alongside instances of divine agency. Indeed, such bodily conceptual and linguistic work is, social actors claim, the product of divine agency. At the heart of the three instances of divine experience explored here rests the issue of ‘new birth’, itself a metaphorical move employed to express a phenomenon in which the body appears to be transformed into something new, namely a habitation of divine presence. As such presence ‘bubbles up’ from within, it sometimes ‘overflows’ in words. The body speaks. Alongside exploring the metaphorical moves employed to express this type of bodily experience, this article raises the ontological question of what kind of body it is, in such cases, that is speaking, thus providing a phenomenologically inflected response to recent ‘ontological’ debates within anthropology.
Summary: This thesis considers the world of Christian faith, as expressed by a particular social group of which I have been a part since 1998, as an alternative knowledge system. Focusing upon the lives of a number of key agents, including myself, I argue that at the heart of this knowledge system is a charismatic relationship, in the Weberian sense, with a divine Other. This relationship is freely entered into, is conceived as involving movement into or towards an embodied, experiential and relational knowledge of God, and is often expressed by participants through such metaphors as a ‘journey’, ‘adventure’ or ‘quest’. My original contribution to knowledge is in taking a sociological concept, Weber’s notion of the charismatic relation, and innovatively applying this framework to the relation between humans and a transcendent or disembodied ‘Other’. My work responds to a) recent ‘ontological’ challenges within anthropology to ‘take seriously’ other worlds, b) invitations to those with strong religious convictions to practise anthropology without feeling that they need to lose those convictions, and c) recent debates within the anthropology of Christianity concerning how to deal with the agential characteristics of non-human/spiritual beings within ethnographic work. Through a reflexive exploration of experience, I examine how certain Christian people constitute their lives, observing how charismatic devotion to a divine Other implies both a sensorium that extends beyond the corporeal senses, as well as the ‘planting’ of various conceptual seeds that, by providing concrete metaphors of what life is, shape the lives of those willing to ‘receive’ them. As social actors seek to maintain ‘openness’ to this divine Other, a transformational journey results, in which human perception and conception are continually open to renewal. As a reflexive ethnographic account from within such an alternative knowledge system, this thesis makes an original contribution to phenomenological and sensory studies, as well as contributing to anthropological work on Christianity.
Timmer, Jaap. 2015. Being-in-the-Covenant: Reflections on the Crisis of Historicism in North Malaita, Solomon Islands. In Kalpana Ram and Chris Houston (eds), Phenomenology in Anthropology: A Sense of Perspective, pp. 175-194. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Excerpt: Biblical prophecy makes a major contribution to discourses and practices of nation and destiny in Solomon Islands. After discussing its broader context, this article investigates the power of Old Testament prophecies through analysis of the 2010 Queen’s Birthday speech of Solomon Islands’ governor-general Sir Frank Kabui, entitled “Our connection with the Throne of England”… [which] focuses on a British-Israelite theory that claims that Jacob’s pillar stone is kept in Scotland because the kings and queens of Britain are the seed-royal to the House of David…
Dein, Simon & Christopher C.H. Cook. 2015. “God put a thought into my mind: the charismatic Christian experience of receiving communications from God.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2014.1002761
Abstract: The agentive aspects of communicative religious experiences remain somewhat neglected in the social sciences literature. There is a need for phenomenological descriptions of these experiences and the ways in which they differ from culturally defined psychopathological states. In this semi-structured interview study, eight congregants attending an evangelical church in London were asked to describe their experiences of God communicating with them. Communications from God were related to current events rather than to the prediction of future events. These communications were received as thoughts and do not generally reveal metaphysical insights, but rather they relate to the mundane world. They provided direction, consolation and empowerment in the lives of those receiving them. Individuals recounted that on occasion God sometimes speaks audibly, or accompanied by supernatural phenomena, but in the vast majority of cases, the way God speaks is through thoughts or impressions. In all instances, agency is maintained, individuals can choose to obey the thoughts/voices or not. The findings are discussed in relation to externalisation of agency and the phenomenon of thought insertion in schizophrenia.
Abstract: This article explores different phenomenological approaches to understanding one of the central elements of Pentecostal spirituality: the ecstatic experience of the divine (often referred to as the ‘encounter’ of the divine). The article begins with a description, based upon participant observation, of a typical church service at ‘Breakfree’ Pentecostal church in suburban Perth, Western Australia. I then outline two phenomenological categories—one theistic, one non-theistic—which shed light on the significance of this experience. These categories are Rudolf Otto’s ‘numinous’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘limit experience’. It is demonstrated that neither of these can be prioritised, as both require an a priori position on the status of the divine. Instead of choosing one or the other, it is argued that both Otto and Foucault provide a resource for understanding and assessing the Breakfree encounter. The article concludes with the observation that a more playful methodology—one that allows the scholar to draw on theistic and non-theistic categories simultaneously—is required.
Abstract: American Catholic nuns have been found to age more ‘successfully’ than their lay counterparts, living longer, healthier, and happier lives. Two of the key factors contributing to the nuns’ physical and mental wellbeing are the spiritual support they experience from the divine and the social support they provide for and receive from each other in the convent. I argue that by integrating the divine into their everyday interactions, the nuns engage in phenomenological meaning-making process through which mundane care interactions are rendered sacred. This communicative process, I argue, contributes to the nuns’ overall wellbeing by providing an enriched form of care and support, thereby enhancing their end-of-life experience.
Abstract: I focus this study on changes in the prayer lives of U.S. Catholic nuns following Vatican II; widespread institutional change in the Catholic Church that, among other things, transformed U.S. Catholic nuns’ lives. In the article, I combine a phenomenological model of embodiment with narrative analysis to show how institutional linguistic prayer practices transform elderly nuns’ embodied experience as they age. Drawing on naturalistic video- and audio-recordings gathered over three years in a Catholic convent in the Midwestern United States, I show how changing communicative and embodied prayer practices following Vatican II have impacted U.S. Catholic nuns’ (1) understanding of the divine, (2) relationship with the divine, (3) embodied experience of the divine, and (4) how these changes have impacted their experiences of and interpretation of physical states including illness and pain. Overall, I offer insight into how changes in the nuns’ linguistic practice of prayer impact the nuns’ documented success in managing loneliness and chronic pain at the end of life.