This is the first in a series of posts on Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter.—ed.

For the context of The Immanent Frame, I’d like to draw out two themes in Christian Moderns: the moral narrative of modernity and the problem of agency in its relation to materiality. Both of these enter into the largely implicit portrayal of secularism that runs through the book. I argue that the moral narrative of modernity is a projection onto chronological time of a view of human moral and pragmatic self-transformation. This narrative, and the concrete projects it entails, runs into certain ubiquitous problems that arise from the material dimensions of human sociality and subjectivity. Protestantism was, historically, one major source of practices and concepts that express and try to control these problems. It was also a force for their circulation well beyond the Protestant, or even the religious, sphere as such.

This moralization of history—a largely tacit set of expectations about what a modern, progressive person, subject, and citizen, should be—has become so woven into liberal common sense that it can be hard to discern. In order to make the taken-for-granted more visible, the book focuses on the especially sharp contrasts found in the encounter between Dutch Calvinists and ancestral ritualists on the Indonesian island of Sumba. But the core argument is that, for all the particularity of this historical and ethnographic context, it sheds light on matters of wider concern. Listening to participants from across the spectrum in this encounter, I argue that they both reveal and challenge commonplace assumptions about materiality and freedom that run through both mainstream Protestantism and secularism in the Euro-American North.

My treatment of modernity merits some clarification here. I do not try to define modernity as an objective aspect of a period of history, but rather as a feature of people’s historical consciousness. That is, regardless of the practicability of the many and contradictory definitions of modernity currently on offer, we can probably at least agree on this: people around the world think there is such a thing as modernity. They are asking things like: Are we there yet? How do we get there? What will it cost us? How can we get out of it? Why are others not as modern as we are? Are they going to drag us back? And when people ask these questions, they are usually not taking modernity as a neutral description of the world, surveyed from afar and with indifference. This normative, and often desire-saturated, view of history, is one key to its religious sources. In the moral narrative of modernity, progress is not only a matter of technological mastery, economic organization, scientific knowledge, environmental disaster, or certain forms of governance. It is a story about human emancipation and self-mastery. If, in the past, humans were in thrall to illegitimate rulers, rigid traditions, and unreal fetishes, as they become modern they realize the true character of human agency. According to this moral narrative, modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with the times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns.

What makes this a specifically Protestant story is that the narrative tends to link moral progress to practices of detachment from and reevaluation of materiality (thus the Calvinists of Sumba, like Protestants in many mission fields, often see the apparent materiality of Catholic practice—everything from verbal formulae to icons—as evidence that their rivals are thinly veiled pagans). Materiality and dematerialization are, of course, recurrent issues in religious reform movements across the historical record. But these were often restricted to the domain of intellectual elites or religious virtuosi. Protestantism played a major role in building the project of reconfiguring materiality into the everyday practices of ordinary people; thus it entered into mainstream sensibilities in the Euro-American West and their mission fields. The religious attack on semiotic form converges with other ideas, such as Enlightenment thought about morality, autonomy, and freedom, which became central to later secular institutions and habits.

A great deal of contemporary academic and political work tends to presuppose the moral narrative of modernity. Arguments about agency, rationality, or freedom, for instance, are often tacitly informed by the assumption that self-transformation is not only a central aspect of historical progress, but also a good that exceeds local systems of value. Those people who reject the claims of modern agency—those non-moderns who defer to (excessively material) gods, scriptures, or traditions, for example—are subject to accusations of “fetishism.” To accuse people of fetishism is to indict them for misunderstanding their own capacities. When people impute agency to entities that the outsider does not recognize, such as an interventionist God or a concretely efficacious ritual, they are not only mistaken. They are morally and politically troubling, even threatening. The moral narrative of modernity characteristically demands that they recognize their own agency. But this demand, at least as it has been formulated within the liberal tradition, may be impossible to reconcile with another demand of the same tradition, that we accord others their due recognition.

The encompassing story within which I situate Christian Moderns is thus a long history of Euro-American efforts to escape some of the implications of the ways human subjects are embedded in social and material worlds. These efforts, which have important religious sources but extend beyond explicitly religious domains, often focus on semiotic form as a source or symptom of moral trouble. Much of the substance of the book is meant to show how problems of agency, language, and objectification are apparent in the concrete details of practical activities. Attempts to sort out proper relations among, and boundaries between, words, things, and subjects are often driven by the question “what beings have agency?” But these problems are not merely theoretical, and not only the special concern of elite thinkers and makers of grand narratives. In many respects, attention to details in the treatment of money, changes in speech pragmatics, disciplines of sincerity, different ways of objectifying the house, or the handling of meat during feasts reveal more about how large conceptual problems enter into everyday life than do theoretical texts or utopian models. It is through such concrete activities both that ontological and moral systems become inhabitable and that their impossibilities become apparent.