Global Christianity, Global Critique, taken together, is a collection of essays that casts Pentecostalism and leftist continental philosophy as fellow travelers, bound by a fascination with Paul the apostle and by a desire to change the world, as well as by being the objects of much recent anthropological interest. Reading through this wide-ranging set of essays by European and North American anthropologists and theologians, I wondered at times whether Badiou—or, alternatively, the spiritual energy of Pentecostalism—is providing a means for Christianity to shed its colonial skin and to emerge as the new hope for contesting a world of domination and capitalist inequity. Where a century ago liberal Christians (and even some anthropologists) were citing Marx and Bergson in the hope of transforming their tradition into an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movement of revolution and revitalization, the current merger of continental philosophy and what Ruth Marshall has called Pentecostal “political spiritualities” seems driven more by anthropologists’ theoretical musings than by a broad Pentecostal reception of Žižek or Badiou (although this, too, is changing). With this earlier liberal Christian engagement in mind, I was particularly struck by a metaphor common to several of the essays, in which liberals—both secular and Christian—are diagnosed with blindness, or, more broadly, with a sensual deficit that disables them from seeing the distorting effects of their own triumphalist rationalism.
James K. A. Smith, seeking to trouble what he calls the “tidy and triumphalistic divide between secular critique and religious irrationality,” cites Saba Mahmood’s argument that what secular “critical reason remains blind to is its own disciplinary formation, its moral and structural unconsciousness.” In a more broadly sensual register, C.J.C. Pickstock suggests that “liberal theologians,” exemplified by Karen Armstrong, end up unwittingly underwriting a desensitized “modernism [that] denies the cognitive relevance of emotions, desire, commitment, and ritual performance.” And in an argument with very different—and not expressly theological—goals, Birgit Meyer names a “Protestant lens,” shaped by liberal Protestant thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Max Weber, that misreads Pentecostalism because it is “blind to the importance of sensation.” There are many good reasons to critique liberalism in its various guises, but anthropologists of Christianity should be particularly wary of too easily assuming that theological critiques of liberal Christianity—whether from the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy or from that of Pentecostalism—are the same as anthropological or historical analyses of liberal Christianity, or that liberal Protestants and Catholics have not had their own robust, if imperfect, traditions of global critique.
That the metaphor of blindness should come so easily to scholars writing in relation to contemporary theorizing about the apostle Paul, himself traditionally portrayed as having been struck blind on the road to Damascus, might be understood as the latent effect of a powerful story. But in these scholarly narratives, the blindness of Protestants, of adherents to secular reason, and of liberal theologians is not redeemed by a visionary encounter—instead, their blindness persists as a position of handicap or ignorance, diagnosed by those critics who have the eyes to see.
For Pickstock, this means writing, not in the ethnographic present, but in the theological present, to effect a “recovery of the Christian liturgical tradition.” She seeks to demonstrate at once the uniqueness and the universality of Christianity and its ongoing liturgical blend of the senses and reason. Beginning with a seemingly offhand description of Christianity as a “great religion,” Pickstock does not catalogue any other religions among this group. In a meditation that is largely theologically declarative within a Christian scope, one of Pickstock’s few comparative statements contends that the “principle of solidarity” effected by Christian ecclesia disturbs worldly hierarchy and maintains a balanced tension between individual and tradition: “The spiritual does not obliterate the political, as for Hindu caste hierarchy, nor does the loyalty to the sovereign political center obliterate the dignity of the person, as for modern secular post-Hobbesian politics.”
Obliteration—the blotting out, rendering invisible, or annihilation of something—is a strong word to encapsulate both Hinduism and the modern secular in opposition to (an idealized) Christian solidarity. Obliteration, however, is not a word or image that fits well with what anthropologists such as Nicholas Dirks have shown to be the highly articulated and visible historical relationship among caste, the modern secular, and Christianity. Can the categories of spiritual, political, sovereignty, and person really obliterate one another, or are we ourselves responsible for what we see and the practices of recognition and illumination that we cultivate in conversation with a diversity of others?
With a focus on Pentecostal challenges to the “self-congratulatory,” “cool rationality of secular criticism,” Smith also argues with ritual to hand. Smith contends that paying attention specifically to Pentecostal worship, in which “bodies matter,” illustrates the hopeful and prophetic critique implicit in Pentecostal social imaginaries, compared to the rest of the world: “In many ways, the broader culture lacks the imagination to imagine the world otherwise, and it is the Pentecostal vision of a coming kingdom that can both contest and loosen up the petrified imagination of a world culture bent on consumption, violence, and the pursuit of power and exploitation.”
It seems that not only secular liberals are living with blinkers on—indeed, the entire world culture, Pentecostalism excluded, suffers a fate worse than physical blindness in its inability to see with its mind’s eye anything other than rampant greed and destruction. Working with rather tightly bounded categories—in which, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., can only be understood as theological, and not as secular—Smith’s goal is not to think through an “anthropology of the secular” but to use the liberal secular as a container for all that is not prophetic, not sensual, and “unquestioned.”
In stark contrast to the varieties of Christian universalism offered by Pickstock and Smith, Birgit Meyer suggests her concept of “sensational forms” as a path to understand how all “politico-religious formations,” and not just Christianity, are processes of mediation. This, too, one could argue, is a kind of universalism, working with (anxious) commitments to the categories of politics and religion, instead of dogmatic commitments to Eucharistic rites or Pentecostal eschatologies. But, with my admittedly disciplinarily focused eyes, Meyer’s is the universalism I best recognize as my own, even if I do not entirely agree with her account of what she calls the “Protestant lens” (largely because much early liberal Protestant “Religionswissenschaft” was obsessed with feelings, emotions, and bodily tremors, even if the desire to evaluate “good” and “bad” religion was not one in which Catholic pieties or newer Protestant “enthusiasms” fared well).
As Goldstone and Hauerwas suggest, the scholarly “lexicon” for analyzing Christianity has been profoundly shaped by “dominant strands of Protestantism”—a legacy of categorization with which all scholars of religion must contend, as Meyer shows. A diagnosis of liberal, secular blindness does not countenance the ways that anthropologists and religious studies scholars—some Protestant, some Catholic, some Jewish, some Muslim, some “secular,” etc.—have long been pointing to the historical and political situatedness of such intellectual categories as religion, magic, Christianity, and the senses in the course of acknowledging the limits of any attempt to categorize human commonality and diversity. Scholars with such different disciplinary formations and agendas as E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Stanley Tambiah, Robert Bellah, Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, and Leigh Eric Schmidt have undertaken this task under various rubrics and influences, including secular reason, anthropology, and liberal Protestantism. As Simon Coleman contends in his contribution to the volume, the Christian underpinning of anthropological discourse, while formative, “is not the only possible genealogy to trace.”
Anthropologists, dedicated as they are to a project of thinking about local knowledge and cultural difference undergirded by a commitment (again, an anxious one) to a notion of a “universal” human being, should be immediately suspicious of concepts such as “world culture,” or of any wholesale dismissal of a group—including liberal theologians and liberal secularists—as blind or otherwise sensationally challenged. Quite apart from how such generalizations and dismissals ignore the multiplicity of what blindness can mean in the sensorial life of an individual, the rhetoric of blindness seems too easy—and too categorical.
In this regard, Goldstone and Hauerwas’s argument about “disciplined seeing” might offer a more helpful perspective. Clearly rooted in a theological commitment to “the Church,” Goldstone and Hauerwas offer the proposition that “aspect-blindness,” what Wittgenstein called the condition of “human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something,” is a kind of partial seeing with potentially devastating consequences. In the case of the rationality of the modern bureaucratic state, they argue, “aspect-blindness turns out to encompass more than a debased ethical disposition; it turns out to name an indispensable modality of effective governance.”
In the close reading of Luke-Acts (largely contra Badiou’s Paul) that follows, Goldstone and Hauerwas propose that aspect-blindness might prevent anthropologists who are not themselves Christian from being able to adequately narrate Christianity in a manner that Christians themselves could recognize. Quoting the work of Kavin Rowe, they concur: “The resurrection of Jesus actually creates a new mode of seeing—‘light.’ To miss the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, is to forfeit the ability to see.” In their conclusion, however, Goldstone and Hauerwas suggest that despite its damaging and obscuring effects, “aspect-blindness might well be our normal condition.” Though Goldstone and Hauerwas may not agree, I contend that in a world in which Christianity is one way (really, multiple ways) of seeing and sensing amidst many others, the task of the anthropologist is not only to “faithfully” recast that vision but to place it in global, local, and temporally comparative perspective.
Being aware that we all have elements of aspect-blindness, but also that through the responsible exercise of disciplined seeing we have something worth saying—or worth exposing to the critique of others—is a starting point that anthropologists have long endorsed, if only imperfectly practiced. In this regard, anthropology as an academic discipline shares a common disposition with the “critical liberalism” described by political theorist Courtney Jung: “The intuition that lies at the core of critical liberalism is that blindness to injustices, in which even people fighting to right wrongs fail to recognize patterns of unfairness all around them, is a permanent feature of social and political life.” The temptation to return to Paul being too great, I close with a reference to one of Paul’s letters that has been of profound importance to Pentecostalism, which, while acknowledging aspect-blindness, promises, as I cannot, that such impaired vision will be overcome: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”