In preparing my remarks on Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns, I found myself somewhat disadvantaged by the fact that I am trained neither as an anthropologist nor as a specialist in Indonesia. But it is to Keane’s great credit that he has written a book that has relevance and appeal far beyond its own disciplinary and geographical domain—it is intriguing on a number of levels, even to someone who studies Buddhism in Sri Lanka, rather than Christianity in Indonesia. Keane’s discussion of the colonial and post-colonial encounters between Dutch Calvinists and the Sumbanese in Indonesia offers numerous insights that engage broader issues related to the religious conflicts and cultural transformations that accompanied the colonial project throughout the world. His research in Christian Moderns is, happily, not directed simply at producing an ethnography (i.e. a detailed analysis of religious conversion in the island of Sumba). Instead, his ethnographic work serves to develop a historically informed, theoretical treatment of how missionary encounters involve conflicting ideas of objects, agency, and time, ideas that structure the debates and the subjectivities of the persons involved.
Given that my current research concerns the effects of Portuguese colonialism on Buddhist literature and culture in early modern Sri Lanka, I propose to structure my comments around, first, what Keane’s book teaches me and, second, what my research might, in turn, offer Keane. I will say here at the outset that I find Christian Moderns to be a stimulating and useful book. Its contributions toward theorizing the relationship between religion and colonialism are numerous and substantial. Since I lack the expertise to speak to Keane’s treatment of the exact semiotic nature of language and culture in Sumba, I will restrict my comments to his anthropology of Christianization. This book contains other subjects of significance, but I happen to find Keane’s discussions of morality and purification between and within religious communities to be particularly noteworthy.
One of the aspects of Christian Moderns that I find most interesting is the contested question of agency that resulted from the missionary encounter in Sumba. One often finds studies of missions that focus on the measures by which the missionaries themselves judged their efforts (i.e., the numbers of converts made). Less common are inquiries into the kinds of cultural conversions that take place alongside or in opposition to Christian proselytization. In other words, mission encounters do not simply result in the conversion of the faithful. They also spark debates over religious truth and cultural understandings. Keane astutely points out that one of the flashpoints in the Sumba missions concerned the question of agency. Who is responsible for action in the world? Whose will is made known? And where does agency lie? Such apparently philosophical questions assumed real-world relevance in the mission encounter, as Christians condemned the local ancestral ritualists for locating religious power in material objects—a practice often labeled fetishism by those who sought to replace such traditions with Dutch Calvinism. Keane analyzes how Christians employed the question of agency to condemn the fetishes of the unconverted Sumbanese. In this sense, Christian—specifically Protestant—conversion was thought to free the Sumbanese from their material entanglements to worldly objects. By mistakenly imputing power and agency to things, the so-called “fetishists” were seen as stricken by false understandings of where true religious power lies. Missionaries thus charged themselves with the task of getting the Sumbanese to locate true agency in the immaterial realm, through the power of God and the internal beliefs and piety of the individual Christian.
The issue of agency, in other words, becomes a point of contestation between missionaries and converts on one side, and the ancestral ritualists on the other. Keane’s insightful analysis points to how debates over religious truth may reside in cultural definitions of what makes us human and what humans are able or required to do. I have no doubt that concepts of freedom and fetishism are salient issues in the mission encounter in twentieth-century Sumba. But it is worth noting, and I’m sure Keane would concur, that mission encounters are not always structured around issues of human agency and the objectification of religious power. My work with Portuguese missionaries in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Sri Lanka suggests that different dynamics could also be in play. The Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries sponsored by the Portuguese Crown tended to distinguish the “true faith” of Catholic Christianity from the “heathen” (infiel) traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. While the latter worshipped images (imagens), such practices were condemned as repugnant not for objectifying religious powers per se, but rather for the fact that they were false images linked to the work of the Devil. Early modern Catholic missionaries were perfectly willing to recognize divine power operating through crosses, holy water, and other material objects. And given the work of Portuguese and Spanish missionaries throughout much of the globe, it may well be that “fetishism” was an exceptional problematic in mission encounters more generally.
Another rich area for reflecting upon religion in colonial and missionary encounters is the manner in which language ideologies produce social difference. Keane’s remark that language ideologies “play a crucial role in producing—in objectifying and making inhabitable—the categories by which social difference is understood and evaluated” strikes me as a very fruitful line of inquiry, according to which the capacity that an individual or group possesses to express and describe what is “true” and “correct” can be used to distinguish and privilege some people over others. Keane goes on to point out how Christian missionaries and reformers in Sumba have often utilized acts of purification in order to make separations and distinctions between persons and things. For Dutch Calvinists and their Christian converts, purification entailed teaching people to abstract the immaterial meanings from material objects, to look beyond the fetishism of ancestral rituals, and to find power in a non-physical God and the interiority of individual faith. In short, acts of religious purification entailed denying material mediations of divine agency. And yet, Keane argues that the aim of complete purification always falls short, since the reliance on semiotic forms always entails some degree of material instantiation, whether it be a creed, a scriptural text, or something else.
Once again, I suspect that this analysis is more effective in the context of Protestant mission encounters than Catholic ones. Portuguese missionaries rejected the objects of so-called “heathen” traditions, but they rarely rejected material mediations as a whole. If the idea of purification is to retain broad currency across the colonial landscape, it may need to be defined differently, more in terms of separating out truth from falsehood, or the divine from the diabolical, than of fixing boundaries between the spiritual and the material. While questions of ontological difference could be salient in Sumba and certain other mission fields, the distinctions drawn between persons and things in acts of purification fail to account for other important distinctions drawn between persons themselves. In other words, it would seem that we should also attend to the creation of hierarchies in the context of missions. In Chapter 8, Keane does address how the Christians and the ancestral ritualists cast aspersions against each other—the Christians being seen as arrogant while the ritualists are cast as superstitious. But, in my view, these charges and exchanges also represent broader efforts to purify the religious field, that is, attempts at purification that are not simply or even primarily made with regard to fetishism and material objects. Other aspects of religious practice and expression that are either immaterial or not susceptible to charges of fetishism can become the source of contention and dispute.
Moreover, while the notions of difference constituted between Christians and “fetishists” may have precluded little, if any, similarity or commonality in Sumba, other colonial settings witnessed moments where efforts to construct difference for the sake of purifying and eradicating it became undermined by shared features and characteristics between groups. For instance, early modern Portuguese writers in Sri Lanka noted similarities as well as differences, and these similarities between Christians and Buddhists clearly gave them pause. One Franciscan missionary recounted how Buddhist monks wear robes, preach, give blessing, and receive alms in ways much like that of his fellow Franciscan brothers. And another colonial writer noted in the seventh century that the Buddha left a code of laws that were similar to Moses’s. But when such writers found similarities between Christianity and Buddhism, they quickly tried to reassert other differences in order to snuff out the threat posed by such likenesses of an erosion of the boundary between “true religion” and “superstition.” As such, the negotiation of similarities seems to be just as important to the missionary encounter as the negotiation of differences. So too is the somewhat ambiguous position of the native convert, an individual who appears both like and unlike the missionary, and whose religious and cultural identities can give rise to conflicts as they attempt to mediate between the colonial and local orders.
It is not my intention to find fault with Keane’s book for not addressing, or not addressing enough, the variety of religious and cultural conflicts in mission encounters around the globe. Rather, I find that it is his provocative analysis of what it means to be both “Christian” and “modern” in Sumba that leads me to want to interrogate further the conditions through which colonial and missionary encounters often transform religious practice and cultural understandings in various places and times. Clearly, we will need to use different lenses to examine how colonial agents worked with—and against—local religious practitioners to produce new identities and ideologies that reshaped cultural worlds over the last five hundred years. Keane’s book, however, shows that such scholarly work is both necessary and fruitful.