Conference Panels

ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEOLOGIES

Co-convenor: Philip Fountain (contact person), Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University
Email: philip.fountain(at)anu.edu.au
Co-convenor: Sin Wen Lau, Asian Studies, University of Sydney
Email: sinwen.lau(at)gmail.com

This panel responds to the question recently posed by Joel Robbins (2006): ‘what is or should be the relationship between anthropology and theology?’ Recent scholarship has addressed how the emergence of the discipline of anthropology was constituted through a rejection of theology. The traces of this negation continue to haunt anthropological theories and practices. However, the expelling of the theological remains inherently incomplete. Indeed, the imagined secularity of anthropology is repeatedly transgressed by theological seepages, intransigent religious subjectivities, and uncanny fieldwork encounters. Further, theologian John Milbank (2006) has argued that anthropology and other social sciences are themselves ‘theologies or anti-theologies in disguise’ and should be analysed as such. There is a need, therefore, to critically interrogate the (anti-)theologies of anthropology.

In this inquiry we are interested in exploring disciplinary intersections, reassessing anthropological theory and practice, and questioning the effects of the embrace and/or rejection of particular religiosities. Engagement with a diverse range of theologies (Christian, Islamic, agnostic, etc.) is encouraged. Accordingly, papers are invited to explore the following concerns:

  • The ways in which the secular and the religious continue to inhere in each other within the discipline of anthropology;
  • Genealogies of anthropology/theology;
  • Anthropological critiques of theology and theological critiques of anthropology;
  • Reappraisal of the mantra of ‘methodological agnosticism’ with its implicit assumption of (superior) neutrality;
  • Analysis of fieldwork encounters which challenge, rework and/or reinforce ‘secular’ anthropological subjectivities;
  • Discussion of ‘spirited’ classroom exchanges and writing practices;
  • Biographies of anthropologists which illuminate how their (a)theological dispositions informed their theorisations;
  • Negotiations between the hermeneutics of suspicion and hermeneutics of inspiration.
  • SESSION 1     Room: G59 ARTS (FOX)     Wed 6/7/2011     Time: 11.00-12.30     Room Location Map
    • Paper 1: Fragments of a Post-Secular Anthropology
      • Philip Fountain, The Australian National University
    • Paper 2: Secular State, Religious Lives: Clash of universalisms in Malaysia
      • Gerhard Hoffstaedter, La Trobe University
    • Paper 3: Anthropology, Theology and Heresy: An unlikely trinity?
      • Jenny Norris-Green, Deakin University
    • Paper 4: Society, Culture, Nature: Fragments of an Anthropological Theodicy
      • John Morton, La Trobe University
  • SESSION 2     Room: G59 ARTS (FOX)     Wed 6/7/2011     Time: 13.30-15.00     Room Location Map
    • Paper 1: Islamic Anthropology: Presenting God in Anthropology
      • Faried F. Saenong, The Australian National University
    • Paper 2: Butting heads? An autobiographical exploration of the relationship between anthropology and theology in an ethnographic setting
      • Regina Ryan, University of Southern Queensland
    • Paper 3: Theological constraints on Evangelicals as Anthropologists
      • Doug Hayward, Biola University
  • SESSION 3     Room: G59 ARTS (FOX)     Wed 6/7/2011     Time: 15.30-17.00     Room Location Map
    • Paper 1: Drinking tea with God: Anthropological notes on the search for a Melanesian theology
      • Deborah Van Heekeren, Macquarie University
    • Paper 2: Unindividualistic Christianity? Rethinking of the relationship between individualism and Christianity
      • Qi Liu, East China Normal University
    • Paper 3: Faithful reproductions: ethnographies of (and as) proselytisation
      • Malcolm Haddon, Macquarie University
    • Paper 4: Will You Pray With Me? Negotiating participation and observation when praying in the field
      • Natalie Swann, University of Melbourne
  • SESSION 4     Room: G59 ARTS (FOX)     Thurs 7/7/2011     Time: 11.00-12.30     Room Location Map
    • Paper 1: Le Président Fétiche: Charles de Brosses and the French Enlightenment Beginnings of the Anthropology of Religion
      • Tom Ryan, University of Waikato
    • Paper 2: Free of beliefs or enslaved by 'doxa'?
      • Inge Riebe, Sydney University

    SESSION 1

    Chair: Sin Wen Lau

    Paper 1: Fragments of a Post-Secular Anthropology

    Philip Fountain, The Australian National University

    In her seminal work on the anthropology of Christianity Cannell (2006:3) argues that the discipline has been dominated by a "secular analytical approach". This tradition has required the bounding and privatisation of the 'religious' as constituting non-legitimate forms of anthropological ways-of-knowing, a move premised on a particular understanding of the discipline as scientific, rational and modern. While these norms are now routinely critiqued within the discipline, 'religion' remains peculiarly marginalised; excluded from (the discussion of) anthropological epistemology and methodology. This paper seeks to probe the contours of an anthropology beyond the secular. Such an anthropology does not yet exist and this effort, therefore, is tentative. Yet there are ruptures in the secularity of the discipline, fragments of the post-secular (with apologies to Graeber 2004), which suggest avenues forward. A post-secular anthropology will challenge methodological agnosticism as premised on the illusion of neutrality. It will critique the hermeneutics of suspicion as being, in and of itself, inadequate. Such anthropologies will engage with theology, not just as material for analysis, but as potential influences shaping ways of perceiving and knowing. Attention will also be focused on the practices of fieldwork and the alternative relationalities embodied religiosity can engender. Post-secular anthropology is not mere withdrawal into private religion but rather the expansion of the public space in which the conversation of anthropology takes place. It is therefore concomitant to a more plural anthropological project.

    Paper 2: Secular State, Religious Lives: Clash of universalisms in Malaysia

    Gerhard Hoffstaedter, La Trobe University

    Debates on secularism in Malaysia often revolve around the legal, especially the constitutional, framework. To this end several NGOs organised a road show in 2006 to debate issues surrounding freedom of religion. Not only were these events mobbed by angry crowds, the state intervened and shut down these and future discussions on the topic of religion, deeming such debates sensitive. This paper addresses the particularities of secularism in Malaysia vis-à-vis largely Western definitions thereof. Secularism is proffered by the universalist human rights agenda and in this context faces a universalist counternarrative, one of religious truth claims and an Islamic world view. Both sides have a particular reading of their position and tightly guard both their founding texts and historical experiences. There is also an underlying problem of understanding each other and the concomitant ideologies. Both the divine and the secular lens thus create their own internal logics and positions. A key question remains: How can the anthropologist approach both sides of this debate without either appropriating one or creating their own? Indeed the anthropologist, too, is often implicated, be it bias for or against certain position, a shared faith or political commitment. Especially as religion receives a renewed interest from anthropologists, we must ask how we can better understand that, which is unspeakable and yet undeniable - religiosity.

    Paper 3: Anthropology, Theology and Heresy: An unlikely trinity?

    Jenny Norris-Green, Deakin University

    South Australia was founded as a convict-free British colony which promised, among other things, freedom of worship. In particular, it welcomed dissenters and those who suffered religious persecution in their homeland. Among those who arrived in the first few years of European settlement in South Australia were a small number of Quakers and Unitarians who were attracted by the promise of religious freedom, as well as the many opportunities offered by the new colony. Quakers and Unitarians have historically belonged to the broad Protestant tradition, but dissented from dominant Protestant theologies and/or practices. As rational dissenters, they placed strong emphasis on social reform and scientific enquiry. Both groups also stressed their 'difference' or 'otherness' from mainstream Christianities, in both their practices and theologies. Whilst valuing their Christian heritage, both communities now embrace diversity of beliefs and for Unitarians this means endorsing a comparative religious project which encompasses humanism. Anthropologists have tended to displace Christian theologies and have adopted humanism as the universal principle against which their comparative project could proceed. This paper addresses the disciplinary intersections of anthropology and theology by exploring the extent to which Unitarian and Quaker theologies, as practised in South Australia, can be considered an anthropology.

    Paper 4: Society, Culture, Nature: Fragments of an Anthropological Theodicy

    John Morton, La Trobe University

    Émile Durkheim (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) famously equated society with God, but at the same time recognised that the devil was part of society's sacred repertoire, albeit with a purely negative value. In a related vein, Christopher Herbert (Culture and Anomie, 1991) demonstrated that the modern ethnographic idea of culture generally functions as the antonym of some terrifying notion of unlimited human desire  a notion which is aligned with a concept of nature which Marshall Sahlins has dubbed 'illusory' (The Western Illusion of Human Nature, 2008). This paper considers some of the dynamic contradictions involved in anthropological ideas about society/culture/nature and treats them as fragmentary meditations on the problem of good and evil, suggesting that anthropological discourse is implicitly articulated as a range of theodicies.

    SESSION 2

    Paper 1: Islamic Anthropology: Presenting God in Anthropology

    Faried F. Saenong, The Australian National University

    Islamic anthropology is exceptional as the proponents of this trend are trained anthropologists who systematically and theoretically propose the presence of God in anthropology. By this way, they conceptualize what people and culture according to Islam. In contrast to anthropology which looks at people and culture from fieldwork in the first instance, they formalize what the ideal Islamic society is. Albeit they recognize diversity of Muslim societies to some extent, their imagination of ideal Muslim societies is always present. Meanwhile, Redfield's account of "great tradition" (1956) and Asad's notion of "discursive tradition" (1986) has in some ways given them a new energy to go on. While very few anthropologists react on this "Islamic anthropology" trend, in this paper, I will critically examine it. As both anthropologist and theologian, I will conceptually and practically criticize what Islam and anthropology should be. I argue that Islamic anthropology is theoretically fragile and flimsy to defend.

    Paper 2: Butting heads? An autobiographical exploration of the relationship between anthropology and theology in an ethnographic setting

    Regina Ryan, University of Southern Queensland

    Robbins' discussion of the awkward relationship between anthropology and theology proposes three approaches that anthropologists can take towards theology  to uncover and critique theology's influence on anthropological thought; as data read alongside other fieldwork data influencing the people under study; and to examine how 'the encounter with theology might lead anthropologists to revise their core projects' (Robbins 2006:286-287). In my doctoral research on the way in which Australian Catholics are experiencing, and responding to, the declining availability of active clergy to serve in parishes, in the Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba, this second approach provided the means by which I utilised the work being done by the people most keenly attuned to this issue  theologians. This paper discusses the way this work guided the identification of these same trends in the experiences of Catholics in regional and rural Queensland. The utility of these 'theological seepages' lay in the harnessing of insightful scholarship that is particularly relevant to the issue I am examining. Drawing on twelve months fieldwork in the Toowoomba Diocese, together with my own limited theological studies and status as a fully initiated member of the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church, these theological insights also influenced the evolution of my research project. Comments and responses by informants, though less scholarly in their articulation, regularly echoed theological literature, with one often informing my use of the other.

    Paper 3: Theological constraints on Evangelicals as Anthropologists

    Doug Hayward, Biola University

    In 1954 the venerable Eugene Nida, linguist and Bible translator, wrote a groundbreaking work entitled Customs and Cultures. In the preface he wrote "Good missionaries have always been good anthropologists" and as a charter member of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and leader in the American Bible Society promoted anthropological studies for missionaries throughout his life time. As a consequence, interest in anthropology has become a growing phenomenon in Christian circles, particularly Evangelical Protestant missionaries. Anthropology courses for missionaries are now offered in most major seminaries that offer missionary training programs, and Christian Bible schools, colleges and universities offer courses and degrees in anthropology. The results have been the sending out as missionaries literally scores of new recruits with at least some level of training in anthropological sensitivities. The focus of most of this training in anthropology is on the narrower field of applied anthropology or even more specifically upon what has become known as "missiological anthropology." There is, nevertheless, a growing interest in Evangelical circles to the total field of anthropological inquiry and increasingly students and scholars with a Christian faith perspective are beginning to make their presence evident in anthropological circles. In my paper I explore the manner in which Evangelical theology places certain parameters around Evangelicals who seek to engage in anthropological inquiry. As a consequence I believe this could open the door to more reflective dialogue and understanding among academics regarding their academic limitations, potential biases or even possibly positive contributions to the study of people and cultures.

    SESSION 3

    Paper 1: Drinking tea with God: Anthropological notes on the search for a Melanesian theology

    Deborah Van Heekeren, Macquarie University

    This paper suggests some anthropological answers to questions about Melanesian theology. It takes as a starting point the idea of a theology of practice which is evident in the arguments William Burrows (1977) and John Kadiba (1989) make for a theology which comes from the concrete experiences of the people. The people I discuss here are the Vula'a of south eastern Papua New Guinea who became Christians under the influence of the London Missionary Society more than a century ago. The ethnography of Vula'a Christianity which I have undertaken over the past decade suggests an appropriate anthropological beginning for a Melanesian theology of practice. It brings together the anthropology of food, with its well-established credentials in the study of religious rituals and traditions, and Melanesianist anthropology which has highlighted the social and cultural significance of food for understanding many aspects of existence; from gender to exchange and warfare, to complex cosmologies and ontology. For the Vula'a communal ceremonies which in pre-Christian times offered pig meat, bananas and coconut oil to the ancestors are nowadays enacted as Christian tea drinking ceremonies and the most important events in the Church calendar are marked by the sharing of food. While Kadiba might well ask why there is not more Melanesian art and music in Church services (1989:145), perhaps we have not seen the theology right there in front of us in the tea and food.

    Paper 2: Unindividualistic Christianity? Rethinking of the relationship between individualism and Christianity

    Qi Liu, East China Normal University

    Individualism is commonly thought to be connected with Christian faith, in which conversion is seen as the establishment of personal relationship between God and 'self', and it is this relationship that will lead the believer through his everyday life thereafter. In this paper, however, I question this link between individualism and Christianity. How do people imagine their relationship with God if they do not see it as individualistic? I illustrate such a case from my research with an immigrant church in contemporary China. I argue that both in church member conversions and their 'new lives', intimate relationship with God is not the primary concern, instead, they practice Christian faith through 'collective life'. Conversion is the beginning of participation in collective services; living in Christianity does not require inner change, but following the exterior rules of the church. This church embraces the Christian faith but rejects individualism which is thought to be a natural consequence of it. By giving such a case, I argue that as anthropologists, one way we can contribute to the critiques of theology is to point out the fact that there is more than one kind of Christianity. It is true that anthropology as a discipline is undergirded by (western) theological presuppositions, however, I believe this can (at least partially) be overcome by observing different Christianities and theologies in diverse cultural background with an anthropological eye.

    Paper 3: Faithful reproductions: ethnographies of (and as) proselytisation

    Malcolm Haddon, Macquarie University

    Talal Asad in a famous essay reveals a sacred dimension to the ethnographic task of 'cultural translation' when he introduces it to Benjamin's philosophy of language. For Benjamin, the 'special mission' of translation calls not for a 'faithful reproduction' but 'a transformation and a renewal' of the original, the language of translation needing to 'let itself go' and be itself 'powerfully affected' and transformed in the process. Translation, like conversion, holds out the promise of revelation and re-birth through submission, the surrender of the self to the other. This paper re-examines the 'special mission' of ethnography as cultural translation by reflecting on the particular theoretical and theological consequences of writing about a religious movement devoted to its own translation mission  the international Hare Krishna movement. Hare Krishna theology is not an 'alien discourse' that needs any 'anthropologist-translator' to communicate its coherence or compulsiveness to Western readers (cf. Asad). It is itself, I will show, a theology of and in translation, a discourse whose compulsiveness is constituted in its intention to translate and to compel and convert others  including this anthropologist and his readers. Is the anthropologist who 'gives voice' to this kind of evangelistic intention selfless or susceptible? Is he now writing about, or still participating in, an act of preaching? And does the concept of 'cultural translation' actually imply or demand some form of 'conversion' in the reader?

    Paper 4: Will You Pray With Me? Negotiating participation and observation when praying in the field

    Natalie Swann, University of Melbourne

    Participant observation, or observant participation, is the bedrock of ethnographic field method. This paper explores whether it is possible to both participate in and observe the Christian practice of prayer. It questions whether it is possible for unbelieving anthropologists to claim full participation in the activity of prayer, and whether it is possible for believing anthropologists to fully observe the practice of prayer while participating. Marcel Mauss describes prayer as a phenomenon in which ritual is united with belief (Pickering 2003). As such, without ruling out the possibility of studying prayer, I contend that unbelieving anthropologists may only be able to participate in the ritual aspect of prayer. Conversely, full participation in prayer as a believer may preclude observation. Without denying prayer to be horizontally as well as vertically relational, I contend that Christian prayer is primarily oriented to God. Re-orienting away from God towards another person for the purpose of observation and analysis may move the believing anthropologist out of an authentically prayerful space. Being invited to pray with a research participant is a powerful expression of having effectively created rapport and is a rich source of data. The implications of whether such data is collected primarily through observation, or through experience require exploration and acknowledgement. This paper will draw on Christian theology of prayer as well as anthropological treatments of praying in the field and, if possible, integrate early fieldwork experiences of the author.

    SESSION 4

    Paper 1: Le Président Fétiche: Charles de Brosses and the French Enlightenment Beginnings of the Anthropology of Religion

    Tom Ryan, University of Waikato

    In his influential two-volume 1756 work L'Histoire des navigations aux Terres Australes, the Dijonnaise parliamentarian and savant Charles de Brosses observed that the indigenous tribes of the Philippines worship rocks, trees "and diverse other species of fetishes", much as is reported for African negroes and other "modern savages", and also for the Egyptians other "ancient peoples". Four years later  soon after the public burning in France of Helvetius' work De l'espirit  de Brosses had published anonymously in Geneva a small book titled Du Cult des Dieux Fétiches, ou parallèle de l'ancienne Religion de l'Egypte avec la Religion actuelle de Nigrite. While this work was highly praised by like-minded Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume and Diderot, from a malevolent Voltaire it earned for its author only the moniker "The Fetish President". Since then de Brosses' work has been credited variously with having pointed the way to Comte's theory of religious stages, Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, and Freud's notion of psychosexual fetishism; some scholars even suggest that de Brosses deserves full credit for one or other of these ideas. Historians of anthropology, meanwhile, claim that The Cult of Fetish Gods helped lay the foundation of our emergent discipline, especially for its subfield of anthropology of religion. This paper will re-engage with de Brosses' original text and review its diverse trajectories, including its place in the genealogy of anthropology.

    Paper 2: Free of beliefs or enslaved by 'doxa'?

    Inge Riebe, Sydney University

    The are two moments which faced me with the agnostic:believer dichotomy. The first when a much loved young Kalam man well known to both myself and Ralph Bulmer died while I was in the field and Ralph was not, and we exchanged letters as to the causes of death. I summarised some of this in an article 'Do we believe in Witchcraft'. The second was when as a practicing Buddhist having studied Buddhist philosophy in a traditional Buddhist context, I was drawn into a discussion of the theme and range of a thesis on an aspect of Buddhist philosophy in a western academic context. Both of these moments presented me with two realities, each compelling but not compatible. In each pair there is an 'agnostic' 'neutral' position, that nevertheless is deeply embedded in a world view, facing a 'believers' position that claims a field of knowledge it believes to be opaque to the agnostic. I think the lack of an anthropology of Christianity may relate to an unwillingness to make light of the believer's field of knowledge, which is a necessary step in 'methodological agnosticism'. This raises general issues about anthropological practice. By going into these two issues and their relation to the concept of 'reality' and 'truth' I want to explore the anthropological exercise.

    Discussant: Tomlinson, Matt, Monash University