The commentaries on Christian Moderns posted over the last few weeks have been both generous and insightful. A brief post can only touch on some of the more salient issues they raise. I’ll start with a comment about my own angle of approach. There is of course no view from nowhere, and it is one task of the commentators to point out the blind spots that any perspective inevitably brings with it. As an anthropologist, my aim was not originally to construct a critique of modernity or of Christianity. The book emerged out of a long series of attempts to grapple with the challenges my research in Sumba presented to certain common sense assumptions about persons, materiality, and language. I came to see those assumptions as characteristic products of the liberal and secular world that produced the habits and disciplines within which many of us live, and thanks to which, in part, the book itself was written. This angle certainly orients—and limits—the book’s treatment of Protestantism and modernity.
One of the core themes of Christian Moderns is an effort to denaturalize the privilege often accorded to a particular idea of agency in contemporary academic discourse and its neighbors. As many others have pointed out, this privilege has made it hard for us to take seriously people whose views of agency differ from our own, from which follows a host of political consequences. I am not a moral philosopher and my goal is not to establish a normative claim about what agency really ought to be. But as Philip Gorski’s comments make clear, there does tend to be an underlying ethical impulse to anthropology, and it does place a high value on self-consciousness. To the extent that Christian Moderns itself is, as Gorski says, “captive” to this value, it fails to escape its own implicit normativity. I accept this much: my own work does not aspire to a transcendental position. It has a genealogy, and as the book tries to make its case, it consciously and, no doubt unconsciously, presupposes certain epistemic values of the world within which it speaks. To acknowledge this openly is, I think, in accord with the style of critique that insists, for instance, that secularism is a discipline and liberalism a tradition. This is also consistent with a certain kind of pluralism: to admit that this tradition doesn’t supersede or encompass all others is to find, rather, that it takes its place amidst them. If there’s a paradox here, it’s in subjecting oneself to critical self-scrutiny, the universal pretensions of which rest on local justifications.
Gorski is certainly right to point out that there are competing semiotic ideologies, rival visions of moral agency, and multiple turning points within Euro-American history. Christian Moderns shouldn’t be taken as making the excessively strong claim that there is only a single possible semiotic ideology in such a complex world. So the book shouldn’t be reduced to a new version of “the West versus the rest.” Nor does it pretend that the moral narrative of modernity is sufficient in itself. Quite the contrary: the notion that history might be accounted for within a totalizing and unilinear narrative is itself a characteristic ideological feature of the moral narrative of modernity. Moreover, not all possible historical narratives eventuate in modernity. In that respect, those who turn to Thomist and Aristotelian traditions seem to me not so much to be working within liberal secularism, as Gorski puts it, as trying to establish counter-traditions to it. I would draw one point of contrast between historical-ethnographic work and the philosophical and theological texts he invokes. Those texts work within genre constraints that usually impose demands for consistency and coherence on their arguments that are quite distinct from the quite different kinds of demands (pragmatic, economic, political, emotional, cognitive, and so forth) imposed by the contingencies of social existence. Communities exist with degrees of logical and even moral contradiction that few purely theoretical formulations would permit.
Michael Warner pushes the argument of Christian Moderns in extremely valuable directions. First, by stressing the spatial dimensions of evangelical discourse, he productively generalizes the case beyond that of colonialism per se. The addressivity that is built into the pragmatic structure of proselytization is a fundamental basis for the modularity that facilitates both self-expanding publics and self-cultivating subjects. This observation situates the specifically evangelical project in the context of other mediated publics and “counter-publics,” to use Warner’s own term. Thus Warner helps draw together two threads of the story by suggesting how the mutual production of subjectivities and communities works. One outcome, he notes, is the denominationalist imaginary, in which we are surrounded by “others who believe otherwise.” This is certainly true, but it’s worth stressing something that I think Warner leaves only implicit. As is well known, colonialism inspired a host of typologies of human bodies, minds, moral and social orders, which usually involved varying degrees of invidious comparison. But the evangelical project is supposed to view that world of otherness through the lens of possible conversion. Therefore, those “others” who surround us are, at least in principle, if not always in practice, potentially “us.” (As Stephen Berkwitz suggests in his post, conversions may destabilize the relations of similarity and difference that colonial projects had to negotiate.)
Warner then raises the question of ethical agency. I fully agree with his two points about purification: that it cannot account for the whole story and that it inevitably results in new hybrid forms of subjectivity. (Perhaps the neo-traditionalisms that Gorski mentions might be considered in this light.) However, when he says that new hybrids are equally modern, I think he shifts the definition of “modern” away from its initial formulation in the book. If one defines modernity not as an objective description of the world at a distinct chronological moment, but rather in terms of a historical consciousness formed in relation to a certain moral narrative projected onto linear time, then those hybrids are by definition external to that ideological formation. They may, to be sure, point us to the existence of alternatives, such as counter-modernities. But I would resist calling them alternative modernities as some people do (though, it should be noted, Warner does not), for to do so would shake the idea of modernity loose from those totalizing claims that I take to be among the defining features of the narrative of moral progress. Not everything new should be called “modern.” If, as Warner proposes, the key is not purification but, rather, “the creation of modular, extractable, translatable forms”, then we might ask not just what produces those forms but also what gives them their normative weight. Purification, then, would be one way of describing both a key feature of that process of creation and the normativity that underwrites it. And one might say, with Warner, that the category of purification may ultimately be most useful not as an explanation but, rather, as a way of bringing together apparently disparate phenomena, and thence undertake a closer analysis of the forms, their metapragmatic presuppositions, and their conditions of circulation.
Stephen Berkwitz correctly notes that my attention to nineteenth and twentieth century Protestantism comes at the expense of very different themes apparent in the Catholic missions of several centuries earlier. Of course the Calvinists of whom I write were quite aware of the latter, against whom they explicitly defined their own ideology of moral progress. (In fact, one could also mention another omission, eastern Orthodoxy, which produced both its own iconology and iconoclasm, as well as its own mission strategies in the Russian east. And there are, in addition, the various Pentecostal and other evangelical missions that are thriving today.) But my goal is not to account for all colonialisms or all missions. Berkwitz has identified a crucial difference between two distinct periods of European colonialism, one dimension of which is the role played by kinds of missionary enterprise that differed markedly in their doctrines, organizational structures, financial bases, and relations to states. Indeed, states themselves were quite different sorts of things in these two historical periods. I justify my focus on Protestants working during the high imperial age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the angle of approach mentioned above. Furthermore, history makes a difference in how that negotiation of similarity and difference described by Berkwitz could be carried out. This negotiation was a persistent feature of colonial encounters, and could be especially destabilizing in projects intended to transform subjectivities. By the late nineteenth century, the newly emerging anthropological sense of the concept of “culture” was available as one way of sorting out differences among people, and thus of defining “religion.” The peculiar relevance of this historical moment, in contrast to the first wave of imperial expansion, lies in the way that effort continues to shape our discussions today.
Berkwitz also rightly observes there is inevitably a political dimension to the hierarchies that missions and other colonial regimes of truth produce. If I fail to elaborate on this theme, it’s not only because that has been the predominant focus of most previous anthropological discussions of missions, but also because that focus often takes so much for granted in its own political common sense, its own grasp of the players and their stakes. In choosing what to emphasize in Christian Moderns, I was trying to reflect on that very common sense, and hoping to elude the teleological narratives to which it can unwittingly give rise.
Like Gorski, Danilyn Rutherford hones in on the ways in which I seem to have been unable to entirely escape the very habits and assumptions on which I am trying to reflect. In her exemplary close-reading of the text, she shows how persistent the vocabulary of belief can be. So let me grant that the word “belief” may cast too broad a net. Perhaps we could speak of metabelief to identify the ideological privilege that certain traditions accord to the giving of assent to propositions, which is then taken to define a religion (thus Asad). But it seems this narrow definition tends to expand into a more general psychologism, by which a postulated inner state is required for any explanation of practices, which are themselves therefore seen to derive from it. As a general account of mind, this is peculiarly intentionalistic and self-objectifying. As an account of religion, it’s empirically dubious (for instance, it tends to ignore the bored pupil in confirmation class in favor of the pious and passionate) and politically suspect (it makes some people judges of the interior states of others).
But as Rutherford shows, it may be impossible to eliminate talk of assumptions, thoughts, and presuppositions altogether from our account of people’s actions. Thus, we need more complex and nuanced accounts of the relations between thought, imputed thought, unconscious presuppositions, and action. These accounts should remain suspicious of the inclination to grant primacy to interiority. Indeed, as Rutherford wisely suggests, careful attention to linguistic pragmatics and other aspects of signification will confound any effort to draw a clear distinction between inner and outer. My inclination is dialectical, that is, to say that tacit understandings help produce material practices, to which people respond with new understandings. This means we have to link the varieties of belief to the different material modalities they imply. We can displace to primacy of belief from our accounts and sort out its varieties. By attending to the materiality of words, objects, and practices, if we don’t eliminate the inner/outer distinction altogether, we should at least put them into more dynamic play with one another. Practices may be only one dialectical moment of a process of objectification that will also include beliefs, but it is the moment that gives religions both their sociality and their historicity.