I would like to continue the discussion of modernity and the problem of belief, which, like Danilyn Rutherford, I do not regard as a no-fly zone.
The gist of this fine book recounts a story of modernity that is imagined as a process of human liberation from false belief and drab materiality through the encounter between Dutch Calvinists and the inhabitants of Sumba, some of whom are Catholic, and some not. The Sumbanese use scripture for divination, presume that prayer produces material results, and think that words have real and inherent power to act in the world. The Calvinist reformers do not—they insist that language is the pure and transparent expression of inner thought, and believe in sincerity, not in magic.
At issue, Keane says, are different semiotic ideologies. For the reformers, there is a commitment to mastering one’s thought and a fundamental distinction between thought and word. For the Sumbanese, there is a fundamentally non-dichotomous engagement. Lucien Levy-Bruhl might have called it “participation.” Words act in the world by virtue of their inherent authority, which they acquire through their history and prior use by mighty beings. The Dutch reformers aimed to free the Sumbanese from these false beliefs, promulgated by illegitimate clerics and their feeble rites. They would liberate the Sumbanese by teaching them how to encounter the divine directly.
Yet they can’t, Keane says. Transparency is impossible and the project of purification doomed. We will never be liberated from the material entanglement of words.
But I don’t think that Keane believes that this dour vision of modernity is all we have. Smack in the middle of the book there appears an impish hero whom our author seems to really like, who neither abandons his magic nor rejects his Christianity, and who seems to be content in his skin.
I should back up and remind readers that the plot of the missionary encounter Keane recounts hinges on an awkwardness encountered in actually converting the Sumbanese. For the Sumbanese, the words which summoned the pagan spirits were still powerful. By contrast, the Dutch reformers didn’t believe that words in themselves could summon anything. They understood that their role was to transform the local custom and to draw in and convert the unredeemed, so they used local words and ritual phrases to convey the meaning of their new and different God. This made the Sumbanese Christians exceptionally uncomfortable, and they did all they could to avoid these local reminders on the grounds that they might bring the pagan spirits back to mind and possibly into active life. By the same reasoning, those who were not yet converted found it difficult to believe that it was possible to speak directly to a creator god. To reach that God you needed to travel by the paths of the ancestors, which prescribed the words and practices necessary to get through. As a result, it was not easy for the Protestant missionaries to achieve their goal.
Except, that is, for our puckish hero, Umbu Neku, who used the ancient rites which invoke supernatural powers in a way which did not, in fact, replicate them, and so could not really be thought to make the spirits angry. Umbu Neku did not attempt to be a pure and liberated soul—he was not bothered that he was caught within his tradition, his impure semiotic net, and his nonchalance disarmed both sides. Keane cautiously presents this case as a third semiotic ideology and I think that in his heart, as a modern Christian might say, he prefers it to the other two.
More to the point, I think a lot of Christians prefer it too. As this audience will know, many Americans describe themselves as born-again or evangelical. The current figure averages out at over 40 percent of all adults. (This includes about one fifth of all Catholics. Slightly less than 30 percent of Americans are white, Protestant, and evangelical.) About half of these born-again or evangelical Christians accept the reality of the so-called gifts of the Holy Spirit, identified in First Corinthians and elsewhere in the scripture, in which the Holy Spirit courses through the body and manifests itself in prophecy, vision, miraculous healing, tongues, and other supernatural phenomena. They want to experience God personally, to feel the Holy Spirit in goosebumps and spreading warmth, and to hear God speak to them in their hearts, or sometimes through their ears. Bob Fogel, who speaks with the Nobel Laureate’s authority, if not with God’s or the National Opinion Research Center’s, estimates that one in three Americans are involved in an experiential spirituality.
These are my people (I speak in the ethnographic register) and many of them are deeply involved in what could be described as a “let’s pretend” spirituality. By this I do not mean to diminish the seriousness of their intent or the depth of their commitment to their beliefs. Instead, the style they adopt is meant to remedy what they perceive to be the failure of modern fundamentalist spirituality, and they understand that failure in almost the same way that Keane does. These Christians position themselves between fundamentalists and traditional Pentecostals, although an outsider looking in might easily confuse them with both. They describe the fundamentalists as “dead,” because they think that no one can find God through simple inner assent anymore, and they claim that Pentecostals merely promise magic because they believe that prayer will always work. For these evangelicals, sometimes God gets through and sometimes he doesn’t, but the supernatural is nonetheless real and accessible in the everyday world. One might call this the “flickering lightbulb” theory of God: because Christ has not come again and the world is not yet redeemed, God is not always present in the present, although he is always present in the eternal (Christians would call this the theology of the “now/not yet”). God is really real, and you should practice hearing his voice by asking him what shirt you should wear in the morning. But if he tells you to wear the blue shirt and it’s really in the wash, it was probably just your own imagination. Try again tomorrow.
These evangelicals are both embracing modernity and reacting to it. They share with Keane the skepticism that an ordinary person can shake off the entanglements of the everyday and reach beyond to God. That is why they invite the “let’s-pretend” engagement, an explicit invitation to suspend disbelief, in order to persuade themselves to take seriously the God that they believe modernity has written out. In effect, they are doing what Umbu Neka has done. They are taking the traditions of the faith but using them nonchalantly, relaxed about the referential relationship between the word, the world, and the God who transcends them both. They enjoy being entangled in the web so long as they can make it one in which their God is also embedded. These choices are not so much an alternative to Keane’s bleak modernity, but created by it: created, that is, by the self-conscious perception that true transcendence is not possible for such materially earthbound beings as we are.
We really shouldn’t put belief in a no-fly zone. It’s far too interesting.