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Unsaying Anthropology and Theology

…dialogues between these two disciplines have revolved around anthropology’s socially situated “is” and theology’s normative “ought,” asking how these disciplines can take what they are allegedly missing from each other. In this way, anthropology and theology recapitulate a much broader divide between religion (as a moral realm) and science (as a purely descriptive domain). This division is fairly recent, growing up since the late nineteenth century (Numbers 2010), but it is now part of our common-sense. I want to question this division in what follows.

I want to close this very fruitful exchange among anthropologists and theologians by considering what these two disciplines share. Usually, accounts highlight the complementary differences between anthropology and theology rather than their commonalities.

As Sara Williams so cogently summarizes, dialogues between these two disciplines have revolved around anthropology’s socially situated “is” and theology’s normative “ought,” asking how these disciplines can take what they are allegedly missing from each other. In this way, anthropology and theology recapitulate a much broader divide between religion (as a moral realm) and science (as a purely descriptive domain). This division is fairly recent, growing since the late nineteenth century (Numbers 2010), but it is now part of our common-sense. I want to question this division in what follows.

Surely, anthropology can be prescriptive, and theology can be descriptive; science involves ethics and religion describes worlds. Rather than simply showing how a divide between “ought” and “is” falls flat, I want to consider a common move that anthropology and theology both make.

As disciplines that bear intertwined Western (and Christian) genealogies, they both often claim to reveal transcendent universals (whether culture or God) through discourse. If theology has sought to articulate God, then anthropology has enacted its own secularized God-move through a concept of relativism dependent on a universal idea of culture that anthropologists decipher and decode. While it is true that theologians often achieve such transcendence through normative assertions about the good and anthropologists more often transcend context through theory, both enact a certain universalizing move through written representations. Such a cataphatic conception of transcendence has meant that the dialogue between anthropology and theology has often revolved around discourse on ethics and ethical training rather than moments of divine rupture—what Valentina Napolitano calls immanent singularities.

In the face of these tendencies, what would it mean to introduce the divine as the disruption or upending of human discourse into this dialogue between disciplines? Drawing on the accounts of this forum, I ask how Napolitano’s call for an apophatic approach to the divine, Zora Neale Hurston’s theology of not-knowing , and Dorothee Sölle’s political theology could unsettle this common footing in discourse and discursive formulations of ethics.

As Sara Williams shows in her contribution, the dialogue between anthropology and theology has revolved around morality and ethics—a dominant framing that Williams painstakingly complicates.  According to this framing, the ethnography of everyday life can ground and contextualize the abstract moral reasoning of theologians. Ethicists have been far too preoccupied with abstract thought experiments, according to this story, and anthropology provides the social description to contextualize ethical claims.

Yet, as Williams shows, the picture of an abstract moral theology and a descriptive ethnography (the “ought” and the “is”) is only a partial one. Engaged, activist anthropology, Williams shows, has made normative claims about the good. Liberation theologies have made contextualized claims about ethics rooted in the particularities of the everyday lives of the oppressed.

However, it might be worth taking another step back, showing not simply how anthropology can be normative and theology situated, but asking why their dialogue is framed around discourse on ethics in the first place. Such a dialogue assumes that religion is essentially a framework for moral normativity that produces ethical universals (or, at least, these norms are universal for the faithful). As I have argued elsewhere, such a conception of religion is limiting and exclusionary, laying what I have called the “moral-racial” foundations of modernity (Crosson 2020).  Alongside an over-emphasis on neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, it is worth noting that some strands of the anthropology of ethics have critiqued this approach by paying attention to the common moments of doubt, conflict, and not-knowing involved in everyday ethical decisions (e.g., After Virtue James Laidlaw). Ironically, these are the moments that many of the abstract thought experiments—such as the trolley experiment—serve to highlight. Rather than monolithic ethical normativity, a picture of existential conflict, struggle, and ambivalence arises.  Anthropologists have also begun to realize that the opposition between abstract duty ethics and embodied virtue ethics—an opposition that has framed the turn toward virtue ethics in the anthropology of religion—has limitations (see Mittermaier 140-141). The dialogue between theology and anthropology has replayed this opposition between abstract duty and embodied virtue, but it is also internal to anthropological discussions of ethics. A cataphatic conception of the divine revealed through the word lends itself well to positive discourse on ethics, but the apophatic approach that this forum’s other contributions urge may call for ethical negation and unknowing.

However, it might be worth taking another step back, showing not simply how anthropology can be normative and theology situated, but asking why their dialogue is framed around discourse on ethics in the first place.

Ethical conflict and ambivalence are well-elaborated in many traditions, including forms of Christianity. After all, God asks Isaac to kill his son (and God eventually sacrifices his own son in the New Testament). In the Yoruba-inspired traditions that have spread through the Americas, moments in which ethically good intentions backfire on humans (and on the gods themselves) are part of an elaborated moral discourse. Divine will or oracular fate can make good intentions tragic. In these moments, ethical imperatives (“thou shalt not kill” and obedience to God, for example) can be at odds with each other. In Yoruba mythology, such moments highlight the fragility of ethical conceptions and their need to be tempered by counterintuitive oracular truths (see Eyiogbe, Babalawo).

In a resonant way, Walter Benjamin (1986) elaborated a justice-making “divine violence” that upends and annuls ethical laws. While modern religion and law are based on the myth that they supersede or rationalize violence, Benjamin points toward moments of divine violence that rupture the mythos of the law and ethical rules. In these conceptions, the power of a transcendent force is rooted less in ethical injunctions or ethical disciplines and more in exceptional moments of rupture or inscrutability.

These moments of rupture bring us away from a cataphatic conception of the divine revealed through discourse and toward what Valentina Napolitano calls an apophatic “dis-imagination” of the divine. Napolitano shows how such dis-imagination, rather than fleeing from materiality, is a material practice that draws one toward “immanent singularity.”  If the divine is approached through immanent singularity rather than discourse on the transcendent, then embodied intensities are the register of dis-imagination. This “mystical” register complicates the idea that religions are simply “discursive traditions” through which subjects attempt to approximate and live the contested ideals of an authoritative text or set of ethical principles (Asad 1986). As I read Napolitano’s response, I sought to apply the idea of immanent singularity to African and African diasporic examples with which I am more familiar. Against the authoritative structures of a discursive tradition, I was struck by the authority of spirit manifestation as an immanent singularity. The early eighteenth-century anticolonial movement led by Beatriz Kimpa Vita in the Kingdom of Kongo rose as a salient example. Manifesting Saint Anthony of Padua in her body, Dona Beatriz inverted colonial Christian hierarchies, proclaiming that Jesus was born in the Kongo and that his mother was a Congolese slave. The immanent singularity of Saint Anthony speaking through Dona Beatriz, rather than the weight of a discursive tradition, gave this rupture force and inspired tens of thousands of followers. This was one example that came to mind to answer Napolitano’s call to “think active dis-imagination as a grounding political force.”  The authoritative European Catholic image of Saint Anthony was dis-imagined by Dona Beatriz to produce an immanent, embodied singularity that animated political action.

 Of course, charismatic authority might produce less palatable results for readers. Thinking with immanent singularity, at least, destabilizes the terms of anthropology and theology’s engagement over ethics. Revolving around an opposition of duty and virtue ethics, this engagement forgoes the ethical complexities and divine ruptures that a more “mystical” approach affords. How can we conceive of the divine as disruptive rather than discursive?

In Todd Whitmore’s intervention for this forum, Zora Neale Hurston offers what I read as one such disruptive conception of the divine:

“All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped.  Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion…Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”

Here is an open acknowledgement of divine violence, undomesticated by Benjamin’s alignment of divine violence with justice and revolution. Embodied suffering becomes the inscrutable mark of divine presence—a less hopeful “immanent singularity.” 

In an additional passage, Hurston’s theologizing again emphasizes divine inscrutability:

“I find I know a great deal about form, but nothing about the mysteries I sought as a child …I do not pretend to read God’s mind.”

Hurston’s theology of not-knowing seems to lean more toward an apophatic conception of the divine than one that can be revealed through discourse. Rather than a particularist claim, Hurston’s theology makes grand propositions that are nevertheless irreducibly mysterious.

Alongside (a certain conception of) ethics, much of the dialogue between anthropology and theology has revolved around an assumed opposition between universal and particular. Theology, so the story goes, makes universal claims about God (here assumed to be the Christian God), while anthropology makes particular descriptions of culturally specific contexts.

Ulrich Schmiedel’s contribution to this forum goes beyond this story of a universal God and particular cultures to ask what escapes both anthropology and theology. Theology risks codifying a cataphatic idea of god as universal, while anthropologists risk codifying cultural difference.

Drawing on theologian Dorothee Sölle, Schmiedel urges us to consider “experiences of transcendence” that cannot be codified. “Theologians,” he writes, “have no special access to the transcendence around which experiences of transcendence revolve, but they run a special risk of defining and domesticating it.”  While Schmiedel does not turn his gaze to the domestication that anthropology risks, the idea that anthropologists have domesticated cultural difference is the key complaint of reformers in the discipline allied with the “ontological turn” (see Holbraad and Pedersen). A turn toward “experiences of transcendence” resonates with some anthropologists’ turns toward “ontology” as an ultimately untranslatable grounding in radical difference. Rather than premising solidarities on a common conception of god(s) or a shared culture, such moments of radical difference afford political alliances “connected not by saying God, but by unsaying God.”  This apophatic stance toward the divine makes room for connections across and through difference in Schmiedel’s reading of Sölle.

Rather than premising solidarities on a common conception of god(s) or a shared culture, such moments of radical difference afford political alliances “connected not by saying God, but by unsaying God.” 

Together, these interventions point out the contours of the existing dialogue between the anthropology of religion and theology while suggesting new modes of engagement. The dialogue thus far has been dominated by discourse on ethics, reflecting a certain conception of religion as a morally ordering paradigm. Yet, work from within anthropology has begun to critique this emphasis on virtue ethics and discursive traditions, highlighting everyday moments of ethical ambivalence, mystical revelation, and unknowing. My own work has highlighted the ruptures with ethical norms and discursive traditions that justice-seeking “spiritual work” often entails (Crosson 2020). These contributions push us toward a relationship between anthropology and theology that unsays some of the previous terms of engagement.

Disciplinary crossings

Symposium Essays

The “Sigh of the Oppressed Creature” in-between Theology and Anthropology

Combinations of theology and anthropology have been criticized for losing track of what theology ought to be about. Yet this loss might be precisely what enables scholars to understand political practices which point towards that which escapes both the theological and the anthropological grasp—a pointer which could be crucial to fashion solidarities that connect faiths in the pursuit of justice.

Immanent Singularity

This intervention invites to think active dis-imagination, in mystical and contemporary traditions, as a grounding political force.

From Disciplinary Transactions to Political Practice: Moving Past Theology and Anthropology “in General”

A common denominator among most scholarship on the relationship between theology and anthropology is lack of specificity around which and whose anthropology and theology we’re talking about. This overly generalized frame has privileged white, male, Eurocentric intellectual traditions and misses the generative possibilities of a more specific interdisciplinary exchange.

Learning from Zora Neale Hurston

The best place to begin in bringing theology and anthropology closer together is with someone who did not write as if the two were separate, even opposed disciplines. Zora Neale Hurston carried out ethnographic fieldwork on behalf of Franz Boas, and yet, writing in multiple genres, articulated a theological vision that meshed the universal God with particular human experience: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.”

Unsaying Anthropology and Theology

…dialogues between these two disciplines have revolved around anthropology’s socially situated “is” and theology’s normative “ought,” asking how these disciplines can take what they are allegedly missing from each other. In this way, anthropology and theology recapitulate a much broader divide between religion (as a moral realm) and science (as a purely descriptive domain). This division is fairly recent, growing up since the late nineteenth century (Numbers 2010), but it is now part of our common-sense. I want to question this division in what follows.

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