Rather than start off by speaking directly about my contribution (though that is something I’ll touch on here before I’m done), I’d like to start by addressing the risks and rewards of the idea animating this discussion in the first place. Whether this issue of South Atlantic Quarterly succeeds or fails, it will do so on the basis of its core gambit: that the post-Marxist explosion in Pauline literature, by authors such as Badiou and Žižek, and the post-cold war explosion in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity have, if not some kind of commensurability, then at least enough intelligibly contrasting elements to serve as the crux of a discussion. This is already a dicey proposition, given the gulf between the abstract rigors of philosophy and the populist accessibility of most modes of contemporary religiosity. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not locating the identity and difference between these two conceptual objects, however, but instead agreeing preliminarily that they both have referents of some sort—that we can speak intelligibly of either a “Pauline Turn” or “Global Christianity” in the first place. We must start out then, it seems, with the question of categories, at least as a preliminary grid to be abandoned later.
For this issue’s authors, it is “global Christianity” that is the more suspect of these two classifications. As Robbins and Engelke observe in the issue’s introduction, many of the authors here sidestep any invocation of this term—that is, when they do not openly reject it. Badiou is a proper name, but “global Christianity” is not. This reticence may be in part thanks to the role that anthropology as a discipline has had in framing this discussion. While there are exceptions, especially for those anthropologists who prefer to think in terms of global epochs and macro-economic forces, ever since the self-evaluative and critical moment of the nineteen-eighties, anthropology, for the most part, has become increasingly dominated by a kind of nominalist reflex. This has taken the form of striving to see every case as distinct, and constricting what counts as a case from large-scale objects such as “cultures” and “societies” to events, moments, and even individuals. Even though this “object dissolving critique” is less of an issue among those who study Christianity, there is still an impetus to take the particularities of the ethnographic case at hand as controlling. This is perhaps with good reason, for when one compares various objects labeled ‘Christianity’ by anthropological informants, the differences seem to be vast. Take, just as an example from this volume, the apparent gulf between two clasificatorily “Pentecostal” groups, the sensation- and spectacle-orientated Ghanaian Churches described by Meyers, and the ethically and eschatologically centered community that Joel Robbins reports. The contrast elements in these two cases may be reducible to their respective contexts—the gulf between the cosmopolitanism of West Africa and a small, isolated Highland New Guinea linguistic community is no small matter—but understanding the social realities behind these differences does not make these differences go away. Stepping outside of this issue and turning to the wider Anthropology of Christianity literature, how are we to make commensurable some of the other divergences out there, between, say, Malagasy Seventh-day Adventists dutifully studying their Bibles late into the evening by dying candlelight and Zimbabwean Friday Johane Masoewe members who completely reject the Bible as a material object, likening it at times to toilet paper? Or, to operate at the level of grosser generalities, the disjunct between pre-early modern forms (and, increasingly, post-modern forms as well) of Christianity, in which disciplinary techniques crafted a soul by working on the body, and high modern Christianity, which is framed primarily as interiorized belief? The variation seems to foreclose any possible claim of commonality.
Of course, there are ways of making this variation go away, such as hypothesizing that some ethnographers have simply gotten their objects wrong, that they have somehow misunderstood their Christian informants despite years, if not decades, of attentive listening. This is a move that some anthropologists have taken, aghast at the multitude of differences and dizzying change found in the ethnographic record. Correcting “imperfections” in the record, they leave only the aspects of practice and representation that are palatable to their sensibilities and theoretical predilections—usually those rooted in a pre-Christian ontology. This seems like a churlish way to clear the boards, however, insuring that one only has to conjure with evidence that is to one’s liking; it is a foreclosing of multiplicity rather than a coming to terms with it, and a rejection of the capacity for ethnographers to engage, however imperfectly, with their informants.
A much more forthright way to speak about the variation in “global Christianity” as some form of collectivity is to make a vertiginous variation that would appear to preclude such a grouping itself from reifying the object of inquiry. The goal of such an analysis would be to think of the cases, each of which crowded with differing forces and representations, as linked in some abstract, genetic way, and to ask what mode of thought would account for this creation, and would allow us to speak of this as a multiplicity. Here, I would like to suggest that what is in order is a turn to the virtual, though not in the sense of some technically mediated, otherworldly representation, or of some universal capacity of the human imagination. Rather, I am thinking of the virtual in the Bergsonian-Deleuzian sense. Following Bergson, Deleuze has described the virtual as an aspect of reality that is a pure past contemporaneous with the present; quoting Proust, Deleuze has also described the virtual as that which is “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.” The best way to harmonize these seemingly unrelated descriptors is to think of the virtual as a generative collection of vectors and axes that trace out the trajectories from the past to the present as constantly reforming objects continually reinstantiate themselves as actual entities. Here, the virtual would be something like the possible, but different, inasmuch as the virtual is not merely an inventory of what is viable under the circumstances, but instead comprises the various arcs and directions through which something can be actualized, thought of not as outward restraint or license but rather as a part of the object itself. As this process of continuous recreation occurs, each of these actualizations, separated in time or space, can and will differ, with the differing virtual aspects hyper- or hypotrophied as dictated by circumstance and chance. This means that aspects of the virtual, as they are expressed in the actual, while sometimes barely nascent, at other times will be developed to exquisite extents as actualizations diverge and individuate. Such a conception of the virtual, therefore, is about difference twice over—difference in the permutations and torsions that the idea as a virtual object engenders, and then difference in the ways in which, as triggered by the larger circumstance in which it is invoked, the idea is made in the world. The goal of the virtual is not to make a trans-historical essence, but to show the unlimited manners in which, during its peregrinations, something can shift and change.
The notion of the virtual as the complement to, yet still part of, the actual may seem too metaphysical, perhaps, for a problem articulated in the empirically-orientated domain of social science. At the very least, the breadth of what Deleuze considered to be adequate exemplars of the logic of the virtual (the biological, the linguistic, the social, the artistic, and, most of all, the mathematical) may make the virtual appear to be overly broad, not tailored enough for the situation at hand: a tool used to account for everything, and hence, nothing. If everything actual has a virtual double, then what good does the virtual do in discussing the specifics of the problem of actual Christianities? The word “problem,” though, may actually be key in dissolving this challenge. In addition to the language of axes, tangents, and vectors used to discuss the virtual, Deleuze also described the virtual as a problematic, with the various actualizations of the virtual as varieties of “solutions” to the problematic. It is at this level, as the problematic works its way to problem, specifically posed question, and then solution, that the concept of the virtual provides some traction for the ethnographer. Investigations along these lines, though not cloaked in this Deleuzian metaphysical language, have already been taken up, and have proven quite productive, in the anthropology of Christianity. Discussions that see local Christian practice and thought as structured by a problematic, in fact, seem to dominate some of the best works in the field. Both Engelke’s A Problem of Presence and Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns can be read as charting out the differential ranges of representation inaugurated and catalyzed by Christianity. Likewise, Joel Robbins’s Becoming Sinners can be seen as an instantiation of a collective-individual problematic traced in Christian thought; and, in a not unrelated vein, William Garriott and Kevin O’Neill have argued for unpacking Christian groups by studying the variations in how they actualize the contours and circumscriptions of Christian belonging. At a more abstract level, even the core list of Christian dramatis personae can be seen as containing differential, crosscutting vectors that sketch out a problematic. For example, the intellectual historian Mark Lilla has noted that the ideas of the incarnation and the Trinity have introduced an instability in the Christian concept of divinity, allowing for God to be depicted as transcendent or immanent, remote or near, depending on which aspects of the Trinity are taken up and how these are worked out. Taken collectively, these cross-cutting vectors of immediacy-mediation, openness-closure, individuality-collectivity, and immanence-transcendence could be thought of as the generative field for a host of orthodox and other Christianities (or at least the practices and imaginaries that constitute and sustain them); and there is no particular reason to think that we have exhausted all the relevant vectors in this discussion. Bricolage-like, these attractors in virtual Christianities capture the found material in the site of their invocation and make it conform to a diverging and individuating pattern as it is actualized. Here, “global Christianity” would be the objects informed and produced by a diverging “virtual” problematic, to which they are particular localized solutions—as well as the virtual problematic itself, inextricably a part of the object as well.
Since these problematic-orientated studies were all carried out without any recourse to an idea of a Christian virtual, one may rightly wonder what one gains by recourse to this concept, other than a unity-despite-diversity attained through a metaphysical mode of thought that some skeptics may dismiss as a sleight-of-hand. As a response, two things come to mind. First, the virtual does some additional work in articulating other facets of Christian religiosity. It gives us a language for the larval aspects of certain phenomena, such as the liberatory aspects of favela Pentecostalism-cum-criticism that James K.A. Smith addresses in this issue, and which Ruth Marshall has noted in her writings on Nigerian Pentecostalism; in other words, it gives us a way to account for aspects of Christian practice that seem to flicker in and out of view, and yet somehow seem to have a consistency beyond that of the merely ephemeral. The virtual would also grant us another avenue of attack in ongoing discussion regarding the embodied and sensual aspects of Christianity that have been observed by anthropologists, like Meyer in this issue and Thomas Csordas in many other venues. Deleuze, with his claim that the virtual is selectively actualized by perceptions and affective intensities, could allow us to take these vital phenomenological insights and fold them into other narratives of how social and economic forms shape the landscape.
This brings us to a point that is more centrally connected to this issue of SAQ. The second benefit of framing “global Christianity” in the idiom of the virtual is that such an articulation helps to adjudicate the relationship between the New Paul crafted by the likes of Žižek and Badiou and the new forms of Christianity rapidly materializing worldwide. My SAQ essay uses the anthropological record regarding the contemporary efflorescence of Pentecostal Christian practice as a testing ground for the claims about praxis found in Badiou’s account of Pauline militancy. In my essay, I suggest that while Badiou’s vision of subjects created by their fealty to the rare and exceptional event captures certain aspects of Pentecostal Christian practice insofar as it describes committed collectivities crystallized in the wake of peak experience and fervor, there are ways in which this approach is incomplete. Here we must turn to Deleuze, one of Badiou’s chief interlocutors and opponents, to account for the combinatory and experimental aspects of this form of religiosity—in other words, to understand the flows, chance, and cross-pollinations that gave birth to these vital events in the first instance, and that continue to subsist afterward. There are ironies in using Deleuze, who was inveterately hostile to religion, Christianity, and Paul, in increasing order, to think through religious praxis, particularly a religious practice that is being interrogated for its Pauline edge. But placing these ironies aside, the centrality of affect, of transformation, and of decentralized and, at times, acephalous forms of autopoiesis in both Deleuze and Pentecostal Christianity is, I argue, too manifest to deny. If we are to look for models of successful praxis, and we are to count what has occurred with Pentecostalism in the last half century as an instance of success, then it seems that we cannot look to Badiou alone.
The idea of Christianity as having a virtual aspect—or rather, the idea of each instance of a phenomenon that is nameable as Christian as having an aspect that must be thought of as purely virtual, as I have just put forward in this discussion, suggests to us why the homology between Badiou’s praxis and Pentecostal practice can be only partial. Badiou rejects the virtual as a back-door totalization, a grounding for being that goes against the combinatory possibilities that he believes he has found in an ontology of pure multiplicity founded in set theory. For the most part, anthropologists make poor philosophers, and I will not pass judgment on the underlying validity of Badiou’s claim here. Rather, I will simply note that regardless of how the world may actually be constituted, if the dynamics of fast growing, transformative social movements, such as Pentecostalism specifically, and Christianity in general, appear to be living out the logic of the kind of fluid, self-positing variance that Badiou dismisses out of hand—rather than taking the form that he endorses, that of collections of articulable and countable discreet entities delimited to a situation—then Badiou’s account cannot be a complete one.