We may hasten to escape from the regions of transcendental philosophy and theology, to start on a more hopeful journey over more practicable grounds … It is with a sense of attempting an investigation which bears very closely on the current theology of our day, that I have set myself to examine systemically, among the lower races, the development of Animism … In these investigations, however, made rather from an ethnographic than a theological point of view, there has seemed little need of entering direct controversial argument, which indeed I have taken pains to avoid as far as possible.(Edward Burnett Tylor, quoted in Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 65, 76)
Edward Burnett Tylor, once a committed Quaker, espoused a vision of anthropology that at once avoids theology (not without resembling it), escapes transcendence, and expounds animism. Commonly regarded as the first to define an anthropological concept of culture and to describe the discipline of anthropology as essentially ‘a reformer’s science’, Tylor charged the modern study of human diversity with the following mission: “Theologians all to expose,—/’Tis the mission of Primitive Man” (quoted in Larsen 2014: 30). Whether anthropologists deign to avoid or expose it, theology—by marking exceptions to anthropology’s disciplinary norms and normality—has designated paths for modern anthropology to avoid and to follow, wittingly as well as unwittingly. However, today’s ‘hopeful journey’ of modern anthropology, which since its inception has been studying others, may require recognizing the Other from which it dissociated itself over a century ago: theology.
Imagine the modern discipline of anthropology as a bustling caravan of thought traversing the great desert of the modern intellect. It typically treads routes marked by rationality, science, logic, and reason under the bold skies of secular norms that have designated the ways in which anthropology could, should, or must proceed and have warned of byways that should be avoided. Yet, as with shifting desert routes, it would be a mistake to suppose that these norms alone have charted the way for anthropology. So have their exceptions, those disavowed detours that could derail a profitable sojourn with ‘theological meanderings’, those modes of inquiry that have become inadmissible or at least of questionable residency within secular anthropological reason. This article thus proposes that anthropology should rechart its journey, that it should explore the secular bounds that have thus far marked its routes by duly recognizing its complex and compelling relation with theology, rather than considering the latter beyond its purview. In other words, this relation—in its past, present, and possible future formulations—is a subject worthy of study for anthropology’s sake.
A note on the use of ‘theology’ is necessary here. I employ the word as a family concept—encompassing faith, religion, and belief, yet reducible to none of them—that furnishes a place where theistic reason finds a home. I further select theology as my working term because it is the domain of inquiry from which anthropology, seeking acceptance in Enlightenment thought, explicitly dissociated itself, as we see in Tylor, on the way to becoming a legitimate enterprise within the modern secular academy. I thus consider it a shorthand for the theological field in both its institutional and epistemic registers. I use theology to signal not only the academic discipline but also what goes beyond the human—a ‘transcendent object’ as well as an ‘excess’ purged from secular reason on its way to establishing Enlightenment claims to sovereignty and self-sufficiency, as when Marx (1977: 69) famously declared that “theology itself has failed.”1
Despite efforts both intentional and inadvertent, the purge of theology from anthropological reason has been far from absolute. I argue that rather than non-existent, the relation between anthropology and theology is complex and vital, whereby the former ‘forgets’ yet is enabled by the latter in multiple ways. My argument considers what this relation has been in official disciplinary accounts and anthropologists’ personal records of their professional engagements, and speculates as to what it could become.
I advance this argument by first locating the impetus in Talal Asad’s (1973, 2003) work, that is, the need to comprehend the condition of anthropology’s own secularity. Then I examine the forgetting and continuation of theology as they occur in the ways anthropologists conceive of and practice their discipline. After discussing what the relationship has been, I speculate as to what it could become, the potential that theology offers anthropology as grounds for critique. Such a critique could provide, among other avenues, a possible means by which anthropology takes measure of the distance or proximity between it and secular state power, through which it operates.
I must stress that this article does not aim to ‘unmask’ secularism as an illusory ideology of domination (Asad 2003). Nor is my argument about transcending the secular or reinstituting the theological (or about reconciling with it), as one might commonly hear in post-secular formulations.2 I also wish to note that this article does not offer a genealogy of the anthropology-theology relation. Instead, I explore three modalities that this relation can take: forgetting, sustaining, and critiquing.
Anthropology and the Secular Encounter
Anthropology does not merely apprehend the world in which it is located, but the world also determines how anthropology will apprehend it.(Asad 1973: 12)
More than four decades have passed since the watershed publication of Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1985), which signaled the ‘crisis of representation’, yet to this day anthropology’s ‘encounter’ with the secular has largely remained outside the purview of its introspection.3 This oversight has persisted despite anthropology’s concern with sundry other powerful formations—capitalism, imperialism, historicism, and, of course, colonialism—and in spite of the fact that some of today’s anthropologists maintain that the critical possibilities emanating from the crisis of representation and the resultant preoccupation with power have begun to wane (see, e.g., Lambek 2010; Robbins 2006; Sahlins 1999). Anthropologists have indicated that the time has arrived for taking note of anthropology’s secular formation, especially given that “it is the emergence of the secular that enables the possibility for anthropology” (Lambek 2012) and in light of anthropology’s now well-established interest in secularism within the lives that it studies.4 Indeed, anthropologists have begun to recognize that the study of the secular or secularity can and ought to go beyond inquiry into state governance to include the very formation of anthropological concepts and practices. As Lebner (2015: 66) states: “It was from the secular that secularism emerged, and it is to the secular that attention should turn.”
Such introspection began with Asad (2003).5 He planted its seed when he called on anthropology “to grasp more fully what is implied in its being at once modern and secular” (ibid.: 22), a call to which this article essentially responds.6 Other appeals for due recognition of anthropology’s secularity appear in engagements with Stewart’s (2001) proposition that anthropologists rethink their commitment to secularism (see, e.g., Kapferer 2001; Pina-Cabral 2001; Yalçin-Heckmann 2001). However, this rethinking largely focuses on comprehending and mitigating aspects of the dissonance between anthropologists’ secular creeds and their subjects’ religiosity, which they study but to which they generally do not ascribe.
Crucial as these efforts are, my aim is to push engagement with anthropology’s secularity beyond attempts to mitigate its effect on discrete ethical stances, methodological procedures, or analytical positions to include considerations of the ways in which anthropologists’ secular reason shapes their own complicated encounter, actual or potential, with ‘excesses’ outside secular reason’s limits. Understanding how the secular world into which anthropology emerged conditions the knowledge it produces, with implications for anthropologists’ self-understanding (Lebner 2015: 67),7 requires that we inquire into the discipline’s relation to what its self-evident secularity placed outside the grammar, as it were, of its respectable speech, namely, theology.
Over a decade ago, Joel Robbins (2006) noted an ‘awkward relationship’ between anthropology and theology, an awkwardness he considers vital to inducing a recommitment among anthropologists to the study of Otherness. My inquiry joins what Robbins (2013: 329) has more recently described as “a nascent engagement” of anthropologists with theology and assumes the vitality of this engagement, affirming the need to question the received wisdom about the loci of, as well as the boundaries between, these two domains. A group of Christian anthropologists and theologians have initiated a dialogue between Christian theology and anthropology in order to “provide a broader and richer understanding of humanity” (Meneses et al. 2014: 86). Also, more recently in the ‘dialogue’ line of exploring anthropology-theology relations, a group composed of mostly Christian anthropologists addresses the question of ‘reciprocal profit’ between the two fields in a collection titled Theologically Engaged Anthropology (Lemons 2018). However, their view of dialogue and a concern with “the least controversial way to move forward” (ibid.: 5) largely posits the anthropology-theology relation as awkward or even contrarian, thereby obstructing a vision of the complex mistrust between these two fields—one that can accommodate a multiplicity of relations.
Writers on the anthropology-theology relation have generally aimed at ‘taking religion seriously’ and thus go on to find theology, or rather theologies, in the ethnographic field. This emphasis on theologies has anthropologists locating intellectual orientations, and thus truth production, in religious lives previously thought to lack them, whether Aboriginal Australians (Morton 2013), pagans (Morgain 2013), Malaysian Muslims (Hoffstaedter 2013), or Hare Krishnas (Haddon 2013). In distinction, however, I aim to take the secular seriously, which, following Asad (2003: 25), entails a recognition that its identity is neither stable nor sealed and consequently abstains from calls to fashion a ‘post-secular anthropology’ (Fountain 2013; see also Fountain and Lau 2013).
This article therefore attends to the secular orientation (or perhaps lack thereof) in the lives and works that anthropologists, not their subjects, have pursued. Pleading to take pause with Robbins’s call for recognizing and keeping an awkward relation between anthropology and theology, I propose that we shed this awkwardness and move past it. For one thing, keeping the relation awkward appears hardly reconcilable with Robbins’s exhortations for “cross-fertilization” (2013: 329) and embarking on “a really open encounter” (2006: 287) between the two domains. In addition, reducing our concept of the relation between theology and anthropology to awkwardness will preclude us from probing into the adroitness that perforce inhabits the relation when anthropology channels theology or when the latter mobilizes a critique of the former.
Robbins (2013: 336) notes that one source of awkwardness between anthropology and theology stems from the two domains “find[ing] it difficult to agree on fundamental issues. That is to say … they find they are others to one another in the strong sense.” Of course, anthropologists are typically trained to acknowledge the limitations of assuming the Other to be a total foreigner; since its inception, their discipline has observed that the Other always is and is not different from the Self. In the following discussion, I illustrate the ways in which anthropology paradoxically stands as both estranged from and a courier of theology. I now turn to forgetting, the first modality in my observations on this relation.
Observing a thing forgotten, suppressed, confined is far from an easy task. One must answer what has not been asked and read what is yet unwritten. Thus, a full comprehension of the shadowy anthropology-theology relation necessarily remains beyond the scope of this inquiry. However, I will attempt to unravel some of this relation’s strands, revealing it to be complex, dynamic, and ultimately valuable.
The most immediately graspable aspect of the anthropology-theology relation is that anthropologists, committed to the secular enterprise of modern science, ‘forget’ the theological, by which I also mean that they repress, deny, and sequester it into their private lives, safely segregating it from their scholarly work. This forgetting is evident in anthropology’s foundational moments and in what has since been avoided or omitted in disciplinary works. In their professional writings, anthropologists display glaring omissions, circumspections, and substitutions for the unspeakable words relegated to theology. Tylor’s exhortations appear to have found generation after generation of adherents. In his 1959 Thomas Aquinas Lecture, E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1962: 36) notes that leading anthropologists before and during his time “hold that religious faith is total illusion … Religion is superstition to be explained by anthropologists, and not something an anthropologist, or indeed any rational person, could himself believe in.” In the event anthropologists did in fact practice religion, their beliefs and commitments would necessarily remain outside the discipline’s sanctioned memories.
This kind of disciplinary forgetting has made improbable the textbook introduction of the American anthropology matriarch Margaret Mead as an Anglican Christian who played a considerable role in drafting the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Also, inconceivable would be disciplinary remembrances of converting to Catholicism, such as those by Evans-Pritchard, the Lienhardt brothers, David Pocock, and Mary Douglas, or memoirs such as Franz Steiner’s and M. N. Srinivas’s reactivation of their Jewish and Hindu religious lives, respectively. In her volume Heart of Lightness, Edith Turner (2006: 5) speaks of anthropology “as a discipline [that] walled off poetry, magic, and religion.” She describes the ways that anthropology disciplined her and Victor Turner’s ability to speak openly about their own embrace of religion (ibid.: 88–90). Upon learning of their religious conversion, a fellow anthropologist told them: “You have betrayed us. You have let us down” (ibid.: 79).
The omission of theology is apparent in official descriptions of the discipline. James Clifford (2003: 58–60) enumerates the fields that have influenced anthropology and later astutely observes that the discipline has an “assembling and disassembling” relation with sundry fields (Clifford 2005: 25). On both occasions, he lists literature, feminism, history, sociology, cultural studies, biology, linguistics, psychology, and geography—but not theology, even by way of disassociation. This omission is especially striking coming from the scholar who investigated the contributions of a missionary, Maurice Leenhardt, to the development of modern anthropological thought and who also points out that “a discipline most actively defines itself at its edges, in relation to what it says it is not” (ibid.). It is apt that I also recall here that in their late-eighteenth-century encyclopedia, Diderot and d’Alembert classify anthropologie as a theological term signifying the attribution of human qualities to God (cited in Wolff and Cipolloni 2007: 11).
While anthropology’s official annals seem to sequester and forget theology, cracks in the secular edifice become evident when turning to anthropologists’ personal accounts. These reports provide a refuge for remembrances of things theistic. Leach (1984: 22) cautions: “Of one thing I am quite certain. Unless we pay much closer attention than has been customary to the personal background of the authors of anthropological works, we shall miss out on most of what these texts are capable of telling us about the history of anthropology.” Indeed, only in their personal writings and speeches do anthropologists reveal beliefs or religiously laden affiliations and recall self-censorship along the boundaries erected, although perhaps never imperviously, between anthropology and theology. In 1926, Franz Boas, the secular-humanist German immigrant founder of American anthropology, writes: “Because I was a Jew … I found myself free of many prejudices which restrict others in the use of the intellect: as a Jew I was prepared to be in an opposition and to renounce agreement with the … majority” (cited in Cole 1999: 283).
I see this testimony as illustrating that, despite efforts to the contrary, anthropology’s disciplined boundaries may not be completely secularly sealed. Boas seems to imply that a certain usage of his intellect, engaged in the secular discipline of anthropology, is enabled precisely by that which is relegated to its exterior—theology. To the extent that Judaism supplied Boas with a natal religion, he could ascribe to it in only a figurative and metamorphosed sense when appearing as a proper anthropologist. Nonetheless, it would be rash to conclude that Boas was without religion. According to his biographer, if Boas had a faith, it would be science (Cole 1999). While Boas’s Jewishness enabled his freedom in the way he used his intellect, that very intellect could make it through the discipline’s discursive checkpoints only if arriving at a faith in humanism, which is how it did in fact arrive.
Turning to Boas’s intellectual heirs, Margaret Mead (1972) opens her autobiography with an epigraph she recalls from her adolescence. On the walls of her town physician’s clinic hung the New Testament words: “All things work together for good to them that love God” (ibid.: 1). To recollect this faith-affirming epigraph, and to use it to open a self-account after a long and full career, expresses a sequestering of theistic reasoning into ‘extra-disciplinary’ considerations, such as when writing memoirs or, in the case of Ruth Benedict, poetry, all safely quarantined from scholarship. Like Boas and Mead, Benedict expressed having the “faith of a humanist in the advantages of mutual understanding between men” (cited in Mead  2005: 75).
Yet while Benedict’s humanist faith policed her proclivities for the theological, as it has with others, this policing was far from straightforward. In a complicated turn, the humanism appearing in Benedict’s academic pronouncements appears more complex when we learn from Mead ( 2005: 75) that faith in humanism did not preclude Benedict from composing poems engaging with supra-human subjects, such as “The Eucharist” and “Light.” A supra-cultural, transcendent pattern that differs markedly from her disciplinary accounts of cultural patterns emerges in Benedict’s poem “Myth”: “A god with tall crow feathers in his hair …/Dances all night upon his dancing floor/Tight at his breast, our sorrows, one by one” (ibid.: 24). Benedict also permitted a transcendent note in her Patterns of Culture by opening with a Native American proverb: “In the beginning … God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life” (ibid.: 4). Benedict’s demonstrably scholarly work could not truly accommodate her own reasoning about God, gods, or the Eucharist, because for anthropologists before and after her the discipline is viewed as a home for reason, a vast space of non-belief in the theistic sense of belief.
Thus far I have discussed ways in which anthropology forgets theology. As a secular enterprise, the discipline has been engaged in quarantining theistic reason as something other. But attention to the anthropology-theology complex must also consider the ways that anthropology sustains theology by other means.
Sustaining Theology in a Secular Age
Since its birth (that unsurprisingly coincided with the absconding of Europe’s monotheistic God) science’s self-portrait was painted using the monotheistic palate.(Bauman 2011: 138)
To the extent that anthropology is a science, I contend that it is no exception to Bauman’s description of modern science. Like other modern enterprises unfolding under the rubric of ’science’, anthropology has utilized theology’s language for its own purposes, conceptions, self-conceptions, and practices. Moreover, an adequate understanding of the theology-anthropology complex demands that we do not stop at recognizing its existence but also analyze the suppression that is involved (typically of theology by anthropology). In what follows, I examine ways in which anthropology in fact sustains theology.8
To start with foundations, theologically enabled anthropology begins with the Quaker-cum-Anglican and perennially anti-Catholic critiques that went into Tylor’s “reformer’s science” (cited in Larsen 2014: 26) and the founding of the Royal Anthropological Institute.9 It also includes a paradigm of divine resurrection formulated in the notion of the ‘slain god’ standing at the center of the late-nineteenth-century cultural icon authored by James George Fraser, The Golden Bough. It could also encompass Evans-Pritchard’s predominant theological engagements, notably with the work of theologians Anders Nygren and Rudolph Otto, in The Nuer, years after Evans-Pritchard was received into Catholicism at the Cathedral of Benghazi, Libya.10
Mary Douglas holds that Evans-Pritchard’s attempt to demonstrate Nuer beliefs as theology, not as irrationality, was part of his effort to accord religious knowledge a higher status than is generally bestowed. Douglas herself, raised in a convent, found use for various theological sources on Hebrew scriptures and medieval Christianity in her Purity and Danger, and her Thomas Aquinas Lecture serves as a foundation for her iconic work, Natural Symbols. Recall as well the theological orientations in the joint labor of Edith and Victor Turner, culminating in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture.
These few instances hardly do justice to an adequate understanding of the multiple ways that anthropology has been historically enabled by theology, as is evident in anthropologists’ biographies. Such a review must be reserved for a task beyond the scope of this article. Here instead I focus on how anthropology continues the theological through its foundational, if contestable, concepts (e.g., culture, humanity) and its constitutive practice of ethnographic fieldwork. As a result, theology does not end with anthropology; rather, it becomes reconstituted within the latter’s secular syntax.
In this secular discipline’s concepts and practices, theistic faith retreats, making way for the emergence of faith in culture and humanity. The ascetic’s ethics of self-renunciation is in a certain sense reconstituted as ‘ethnographic immersion’. Thus, the very concept of culture usurps a notion of universality, previously relegated to God, whereby the difference that remains to be observed is cultural within the exclusive humanism of a secular age (Taylor 2007).
This contraction to humanism occurred when anthropology adopted a synthesizing or integrated vision of the world (formerly associated with the theistic study of God) above this or that specialization (MacIntyre 2011: 175). Eric Wolf (1964: 88) replicates this integrative understanding in his comprehension of the discipline, while making no correlation with theology: “Anthropology is … less subject matter than a bond between subject matters. It is in part history, part literature, in part natural science, part social science … In an age of increased specialization, it strives to connect and to articulate them … It thrives on the very heterogeneity of its subject matter.” As though translating the shift that occurred in their prefixes during the move from theology to anthropology, Wolf attributes to his modern discipline a unified subject matter that essentially substitutes man for God: “The unity of man is due neither to an ultimate biological homunculus inherent in each, nor to a unitary process located in the mind of God. It is a process of the involvement of man with man, through the medium of human culture” (ibid.: 95). Thus, in the thicket of humanism, Wolf articulates for his discipline a conception of itself that is analogous to theology’s logic about its subject’s unity, that is, God’s oneness. In Wolf’s perception, reasoning about God is more appropriate for the natives to entertain, not for the anthropologist. Monotheism thus morphs into mono-homo-ism, or perhaps homo-theism.
Therefore, reconjugating the theological entails anthropologists evoking ‘man’ or ‘the human’ or ‘cultural diversity’ or ‘culture’ as a way to speak of an exclusive, definitive order of reality beyond which there is none to study. It is in this expanse—where the secular becomes self-evident and the theological unthinkable—that the ultimate good is cultural, beyond which there is no difference or Other to study, appreciate, or even perceive. Marshall Sahlins (1999: xx) identifies anthropology’s emergence as predicated on the valuation of cultural diversity, even as he notes its loss: “No-one can deny that the world has seen an overall decrease of cultural diversity in the past five centuries. Indeed, anthropology was born out of the consciousness of the decrease as much as the appreciation of the diversity.”
Aiming to question other sacred categorizations in the discipline, anthropologists Dan Segal and Sylvia Yanagisako (2005a: 2–3) unwrap the ‘sacred bundle’ of the discipline’s unity, based on the four-field approach practiced in the United States. The sacredness that remains unwrapped, all desacralizing intentions notwithstanding, is the category of the human itself, for humanism (and kindred categories such as culture and cultural diversity) is a mode of replacing theology and a means of policing this other category by directing attention to humanity (and related beings in their evolution). Thus, Segal and Yanagisako write: “We, by contrast, embrace the very dispositions that have made cultural-social anthropology both an unsettled and an unsettling science. This is to say, we embrace cultural-social anthropology as a ‘queer science,’ rather than a ‘normal’ one—that is, as a science whose greatest achievements have been to sustain and deepen the struggles against a range of mainstream dominant ideas about humanity” (ibid.: 13). Segal and Yanagisako propose to question dominant ideas about humanity, but not the dominant category of humanity itself.
[Anthropology] broadens the historical point of view and teaches a greater tolerance towards foreign forms of culture, and a higher appreciation of the accomplishment of foreign races. (cited in Cole 1999: 276)
The emancipation from current thought is for most of us as difficult in science as it is in everyday life.
The emancipation from our own culture, demanded of the anthropologist, is not easily attained, because we are only too apt to consider the behavior in which we are bred as natural for all mankind. (Boas  1962: 206)
[In a letter to his fiancé:] I believe one can be really happy only as a member of humanity as a whole.(cited in Lesser 2004: 10)
Allowing humanity to become an “ultimate horizon” (Clifford 2005: 39) and mankind a ‘transcendent object’, wherein definitive happiness resides, as it does for Boas, is a means of transmuting theology into anthropology. Boas’s students reveal the various ways this bequest became manifest in their own work.
Alfred Kroeber recalls that his bourgeois milieu of American German families at the turn of the nineteenth century “took for granted that one did not believe in religion” (see Kroeber 1979: 26). A non-believer as he may have been coming out of that milieu, Kroeber was sufficiently interested in the Bible that he taught a course at Berkeley titled “Anthropology of the Bible.” Wolf (2004: 40), seeking to explain Kroeber as a “natural historian” with a relentless interest in the principle of creativity within human cultures, relates an analogy: “At the bottom of the iceberg stands—God; and it is perhaps in this sense that Kroeber once said—… just before his death—that anthropology was his religion” (ibid.: 41). Theodora Kroeber (1979: 234) provides corroboration, stating that Kroeber found in culture “the commitment and faith which another person finds in religion.”
In addition to this transmutation of theology in anthropology at the conceptual register lies the practical. If anthropology is anthropologists’ religion, the practice of ethnographic immersion could arguably be seen as analogous to practices of the theistic self seeking immersion in the divine. Clifford Geertz (2000: 11–12) insinuates as much: “I saw the concept of culture looming immediately large, both as a way into the mysteries of the field and as a means for getting oneself thoroughly lost in them.” He further states: “I enjoyed fieldwork immensely … and the experience of it did more to nourish my soul, and indeed to create it, than the academy ever did” (ibid.: 19).
Anthropologists have long spoken about the “intimate field experience” (Firth 2004: 78) that enables ‘identification’ of the knower with the known wherein the former attains “capacities for ego effacement” (Geertz 1983: 70). Meyer Fortes (1978: 7) explains his attraction to the Tallensi: “Thus open to us and receptive of us, they made it easy for us to discover that we could identify with them sufficiently to have some appreciation of their ways of life, their values, and their troubles.” In Fortes lies an instance of a modern anthropologist seeking identification as a mode of knowing, the way in Platonic theology the philosopher does not merely seek to represent the truth but identifies with or even loves it. Likewise, in Christian theology the faithful identifies with Christ, or more broadly speaking a theistic believer ‘unites’ with God as a way of exploring ‘the goods’ for which life’s ends could or should be oriented.11
Looking at ‘healing’ as a possible derivative of fieldwork, Stanley Diamond reminisces on the vision of his teacher, Paul Radin, that fieldwork provides practice in doubling. In this view, the knower and the known converge while melding, philosophically speaking, discourses of ‘the truthful’ with discourses of ‘the good’. In Diamond’s (2004) testimony about Paul Radin, himself a student of Franz Boas, there lies a sense of anthropology as a means of coming to terms with oneself, a mode wherein anthropologists are implicitly assumed to be submerged or immersed in the primitive, without which no understanding and thus no refashioning of oneself is possible. As Diamond puts it: “Anthropologists then were expected to be grounded in their own culture before being considered fit for the study of another. But this grounding was, in Radin’s view, the basis for an understanding of his own alienation from the prevailing values, without which ‘the task of understanding the primitive could not be accomplished’ … He emerges then as a kind of self-liberated intellect, a shaman who cured himself “(ibid.: 54).
As the above examples illustrate, if anthropologists, in fidelity to the Enlightenment’s secular reason, take their Other always to be another culture, then embarking on fieldwork entails infidelity to the Enlightenment project at whose apogee stands Kant, insisting on separation between the knower and the known. Thus, whatever moorings Enlightenment anthropology may have procured in forgetting theology, it loosens them in promoting immersion in the field. For that is where anthropologists learn to “get into the field, somewhere …[and] garner meanings from the process” (Smedley 2001: xxiv). In affronted Kantian eyes, a breach is thus committed against the secular bounds of reason when anthropological fieldwork betrays this separation. In its “alchemy” (Rabinow 1977: 3) as a “peculiarly intensive and interactive” method (Clifford 2005: 38), as a “metaphysical marker which separate[s] anthropologists from the rest” (Rabinow 1977: 4), fieldwork allows an ‘excess’, a transgression of bounds that secular reason, when sovereign, otherwise seeks to fortify.
Both humanist and anthropologist have shared a wish to escape from the reality that surrounds them, both have attempted transcendence. The anthropologist … has escaped from the humdrum world of his civilization to walk among headhunters, cannibals, and peyote-worshipers to concern himself with talking drums, magic and divine kings. Anthropology has shared in the wider characteristics of romanticism … from a desire to find the supernatural within the natural, in other words, to achieve an emotionally satisfying fusion.
If, in respecting the bounds of reason, Kant separated the discourse between truth and goods (i.e., fact and value, ought and is), anthropologists from the get-go can be seen as soldering them. Thus, fieldwork builds not only on the immersion of the knower in the known, but also on a conflation between what is truthful and what is good. Fieldwork thus engenders a place where knowing, becoming, and even healing are said to happen at once. Looking closely at their epistemic grammar, fieldwork practices not only enfold a critique of Enlightenment thinking. To the extent that a theistic reason undergirds them, they can also provide a critique of an Enlightenment inheritance, namely, of their very own scientific discipline of anthropology.
Theology as a Critique of Anthropology
Prompted by Asad’s (2003: 22) reminder of the need to more fully grasp anthropology’s own secular formation, my interest in the relation between anthropology and theology as a way to comprehend the former’s secular making has been driven by the desire to examine it from its exterior, as it were. I have assumed that venturing into a relation with this exterior could lead to rethinking disciplinary matters of form (relations with other fields outside anthropology) and substance (internal domains of inquiry). I stress that my call to take the relation with theology seriously is not aimed at unmasking as illusory the secular making of the discipline. Rather like the anthropological exercise par excellence of examining the Other to learn something about oneself, I contend that examining the relation with anthropology’s other, theology, can help us learn where the discipline has been going along its secular routes and where it could still go—both along and beyond them. I aim at a theological critique that pushes anthropological thinking to and past its extremities. I propose that such a critique can also reveal anthropology’s vitality at its edges, where both inhibitions and ambitions reside. While thus far in this article I have focused on what the relation between anthropology and theology has been, I now wish to begin envisioning a theological critique of the discipline by considering one form that such a critique could take: scrutinizing anthropology’s epistemic entrapment in the powers of the secular state.
This critique could examine the ways in which, after the Enlightenment, whereby “nothing at all may remain outside” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997: 16), the concept of culture shapes or, as Milbank (2006) would likely say, ‘polices’12 anthropologists’ interest in difference, restricting it to languages of finitude (e.g., humanism, historicism).13 This article thus explores the ways in which anthropologists’ commitment to the cultural constitutes an idolatry that conflates the finite with the infinite, whereby its transcendence coincides with and conforms to that sanctioned by the modern nation-state and its attendant forces. Its prized differences must align with those that the state condones, manages, polices, or encourages in its administration of populations within and without its regimes of inclusion and exclusion.
To begin understanding anthropology’s possible complicity with conditions it seeks to criticize, consider the following comments by leading anthropologists who evince faith in humanism. I find valuable in these testimonies the sense of triumph or accomplishment that guides their authors and likely represent the perspectives of their fellow disciplinary disciples. As Colson (1989: 5–6) states: “It is difficult to remember, however, what it was that made us love anthropology other than the fact that it seemed to provide a powerful critique of the world as we knew it—particularly of the social rules that confined us. But we could also believe that anthropology had an important role in encouraging difference and in combating racial and ethnic differences.” For Colson, anthropology is not merely about knowing the cultural Other. It is also about letting knowledge of that Other ethically change the self pursuing it. A self thereby changed would be able to both appreciate cultural multiplicity and combat cultural prejudice. As an academic discipline peopled by such culturally critical selves, anthropology could thus comprise an ethical accomplishment: daring to be otherwise, defying prevailing norms in its own society, polity, and culture.
Juridically put, ‘the right to community’, that is, the right to legitimately, authentically, and meaningfully inhabit a social fabric or tradition that anthropologists have invariably documented and even defended as inalienable among ‘natives’, appears to be what they deplore within their own societies in the name of ‘cultural differences’. To the extent that this kind of difference and this kind of critique in anthropology are “freedom toys thrown for injecting sedatives and comforting norms in the iron cage of secular reason” (Furani 2018: 77), anthropologists sufficiently introspective toward their discipline as a particular cultural event would do well to examine the scope and consequences of its entrapment by the modern state, as well as the entrapment forged by both the state’s and anthropology’s secularity.
Indeed, the promise known as the concept of culture manifests a secular entrapment. As a concept, it has undoubtedly had and continues to have numerous careers, ranging from Renaissance to post-structuralism. Critiques directed against it within anthropology (e.g., Wagner 1975) notwithstanding, Wolf (1964: 23) identifies its lasting salutary promise: “The concept of unlimited human variability … gave many people the feeling that their own lives could be recut upon other patterns, that new different possibilities were in the air.” The optimism betrayed in Wolf’s observation may quell skepticism toward valued diversity, whereas genuine engagement with theology may arouse it.
Criticism from the theistic exterior as I imagine it—pushing our thinking to the edges—demands that we remain alert to the fact that ‘cultural’ diversity, irrespective of how the culture-nature relation is conceived and lived, remains but one kind of diversity. Moreover, a theology-inspired criticism demands that we not only investigate difference as inexhaustible by the categories of nature and culture, but also recognize a loss, not only an accomplishment, enfolded in a certain ‘vision of the world’. I speak of ‘vision of the world’ purposefully, for as Geertz (1995: 97) explains, “of all the human sciences, anthropology is perhaps the most given to questioning itself as to what it is and coming up with answers that sound more like world views or declarations of faith.”
If anthropology furnishes us with worldviews and declarations of faith, and if we recall that humanism serves as the bedrock of this faith, then Diamond’s (1972: 408–409) reflections can induce doubt toward its fiat: “We study men … because we must, because man in civilization is the problem. Primitive peoples do not study man, it is not necessary.” The necessity of studying man as stemming from a problem, rather than aiming for a noble achievement, has led me to consider the culture concept as an idol congruent with, not dissonant from, the transcendence that the state has authorized for observation. Walter Benjamin (1968: 242) cautions: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” I want to suggest that culture has been modern anthropologists’ aesthetic, ethical, and epistemic experience of that destruction.
Accordingly, the idolatrous concept of culture is always shifting in relation to the changing battles of anthropology and the state power in whose epistemic configuration it is made to operate. Culture has come to redeem anthropologists from a slew of ill thoughts having to do with evolution, nature, racism, historicism, patriarchy, and, most recently in our age, ‘post-ideological’ power. The hardly theistic, evidently annoyed words of Sahlins (1999: vi) furnish an example: “So nowadays all culture is power. It used to be that everything maintained the social solidarity. Then for a while everything was economic or adaptively advantageous. We seem to be on a great spiritual quest for the purposes of cultural things.” Sahlins’s evocation of a spiritual quest highlights an apt route for revitalizing anthropology via open conversations with theology. Insofar as culture has been and remains the good—noting differences in only the finite realm, without connecting them to God, First Principles, the Absolute Being, ‘the ground of all possibilities’, or whatever else signifies the incalculable, the unknowable, the infinite—it may be condemned to a slumber that hinders its taking measure of the distance between its purposes and those of the modern state.
In keeping with Asad’s (2003: 22) exhortation, this exploratory article has offered one means by which anthropologists can turn the tables around, as it were, and comprehend the secularity of their own discipline, not merely that of those whom they observe. It has sought to grasp this secularity by attending to anthropology’s complex and vital relation to theology, which, I repeat, should not be confused with the recent arrival of post-secular formations. After examining anthropology’s emergence out of the secular Enlightenment world, I draw upon professional and personal accounts of its practitioners to trace the discipline’s forgetting as well as sustaining of theology. I then propose theology as a means to critique anthropology, offering an example that tracks epistemic conformity to secular state powers.
Taking measure of the distance between anthropology and the state—a planetary embodiment of sovereignty in the modern era—by way of attending to the relation between this secular discipline and its theological other, may open a space for unsettling categories, vocabularies, and questions that have been unnecessarily, and for no intrinsic reason, suppressed from investigation. It strikes me as necessary to propose new tasks for twenty-first-century anthropology beyond those it acquired from the Enlightenment, which have run out of credible premises and promises (MacIntyre 1984; Milbank 2006).
In these tasks, anthropological thought could evolve to address the separation between truths and goods, as well as between ethics and aesthetics. This anthropology would seek to realign what Kant had divided and what the state has cordoned off or fragmented while establishing a sovereignty for secular reason as a home, albeit not a comprehensive one, to reinforce its own categories. Anthropology could thus become curious about its own alienation from theology. It could open up to vocabularies of revelation, invisibility, death, the infinite, the abyss, martyrdom, the unknowable, fate, the miraculous, the unspeakable, God, all of which exceed the humanist gaze and can never be contained within human willing, knowing, or being. Beyond questioning the irrelevance of these concepts to critical inquiry, an anthropology critiqued by theology might question the disciplinary arrangements with secular institutions that sustain their inconsequentiality, secure professional entrenchment, and abort searches for new grammars of integrative inquiry into the human condition.
Fearing for the sovereignty of reason (as it immures anthropological quarters and beyond), suspecting an assault on our secular sense of intellect and criticism, we have unnecessarily learned the irrelevance or menace of these ‘excesses’ and have either demoted them or rejected them outright. This banishment of the theological, which contemplates an Other exceeding the cultural, awaits a quintessential anthropological task: investigating anthropology itself as a secular effect whose freedom as a discipline and for unwarranted reasons has required alienation from its theological Other. Further recognizing who we are and what we could still become when committed to studying difference to the fullest, unmuffled by a discourse of finitude, awaits an anthropology encountering rather than evading theology.
I wish to express my gratitude to the following individuals for providing critical commentary on this article: Hussein Agrama, Joan Alpert, Talal Asad, Helene Furani, Don Handelman, Haim Hazan, the late Ben Hollander, Michal Tovi-Cravel, John Milbank, Joel Robbins, Dan Segal, and Shai Lavi. I also thank conference participants who engaged with this work at the Israeli Anthropological Annual Meeting in 2011, at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Montreal in 2011, and at the Anthropology Workshop of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University, in 2013.
Although evoking the philosophical sense of the term ‘anthropology’, Feuerbach’s opening statement in his Principles of the Philosophy of the Future explicitly articulates the ascendency of ‘Man’ deriving from the descent of theology: “The task of the modern era was the realization and humanization of God—the transformation of and dissolution of theology into anthropology” (cited in Geroulanos 2010: 4).
Building on Asad’s (2003) notion of the secular as an epistemic category, I have elsewhere argued about the secular entrapments inherent in any formulation claiming to ‘transcend’ the secular, as the post-secular typically does. For a detailed survey of post-secular formulations and a necessary questioning of them, see Furani (2015).
I invoke ‘encounter’ in reference to Asad’s (1973) seminal work, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.
See the following ethnographies, which in attending to Christianity or Islam (for the most part) note the ways that the secular affects anthropology’s observations of religious practices: Agrama (2010), Asad (1993, 2003), Bialecki et al. (2008), Bowen (2010), Bubandt and van Beek (2012), Cannell (2005), Dole (2012), Elisha (2011), Engelke (2009), Fernando (2014), Fountain (2013), Giumbelli (2013), Green (2005), Hirschkind (2006), Keane (2007), Luehrmann (2011), Mahmood (2005), Navaro-Yashin (2002), Özyürek (2006), Rutherford (2009), Selby (2012), Starrett (2010). For a review of the state of anthropological literature on secularism, see Cannell (2010).
Lebner (2015: 63) writes that Asad is “widely recognized to have initiated and defined” the field of anthropological engagement with secularism. For critiques of Asad’s engagement, see Bangstad (2009), Scott and Hirschkind (2006), and Starrett (2010).
I wish to emphasize that in this article I am not directly examining the secular. Rather, I focus on a particular secular effect of anthropology—namely, its complex relation with theology. This approach may be just one of many ways to address Asad’s (2003: 16) concern that the secular is so difficult to grasp directly that “it is best pursued through its shadows, as it were.”
Masuzawa (2005) argues that it is not only the self-understanding of anthropologists that is at stake in the vast and persistent concern with the ways that religions outside the West have been intimately linked to secularization processes within it. Studying differences and similarities between religions in the world and Christianity in Europe has “provided opportunities for modern Europeans to work out the problem of their own identity and to develop various conceptions of the relation between the legacy of Christianity on the one hand and modernity and rationality on the other” (ibid.: 18).
According to Amos Funkenstein (1986: 360), anthropology’s assumption of theology historically began with theologians taking nature as the locus of their discourse, which led to “anthropocentric theologies down to our century” of which anthropology is arguably one.
Tylor, among the first to give the endowed Gifford Lecture on natural theology, was a lifelong friend of Thomas Hodgkin (1798–1866), a deeply devout Quaker who founded the Ethnological Society of London, out of which would later emerge the Royal Anthropological Institute (see Larsen 2014: 13–37).
Godfrey Lienhardt, a fellow anthropologist and convert to Catholicism at Oxford, points out that the Nuer’s religion was discussed from an “explicitly theistic view.” Evans-Pritchard once admitted in a posthumous New Blackfriars issue: “I have no regrets. Bad Catholic though I be, I would rather be a bad one than not one at all” (cited in Larsen 2014: 92).
For example, Plato (1987: 267, 269) denotes philosophers as “those who love to see the truth … [The philosopher] feels affection for it as a whole, and does not love part of it to the exclusion of the rest.” And St. Augustine (1993: 4) confesses: “O God, I should be nothing, utterly nothing, unless You were in me—Or rather unless I were in You.”
See also Milbank (2006: 106) for his claims about the modern discipline of sociology as a “policing of the sublime.”
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