Keane’s account is convincing, but it is important to contextualize the semiotic ideology he defines. I could be misreading Keane here, but it struck me that he reads Calvinists’ views of the Lord’s Supper to glean how they imagined Christian truth. But I would argue that in the hands of Calvinists, this semiotic ideology would only be employed to explain other people’s false religions. The Lord’s Supper was downgraded to the status of metaphor because, like all works, it could play no instrumental role in salvation. What Catholics and idolaters shared in their formal prayers and ritual performances was an overvaluation of human agency and institutions at the expense of the sovereignty of God and the surprising work of the Holy Spirit, which could not be contained in any external institutional, material, or linguistic forms. Against empty forms and rituals, Calvinists sought the real, active, vital presence of the Spirit that animated and invigorated the human body and the social order. To this end, the Holy Spirit worked through what can be described as a metonymic operation that stressed immediate contact and presence.
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.
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.
If the idea of purification is to retain broad currency across the colonial landscape, it may need to be defined differently, more in terms of separating out truth from falsehood, or the divine from the diabolical, than of fixing boundaries between the spiritual and the material. While questions of ontological difference could be salient in Sumba and certain other mission fields, the distinctions drawn between persons and things in acts of purification fail to account for other important distinctions drawn between persons themselves.
The topic I want to pester Professor Keane about is belief. Christian Moderns uses the missionary encounter on the Indonesian island of Sumba to illuminate the contradictions inherent in the modernist project of “purification,” which separates out the materiality of words and objects from their symbolic meaning, and the social entanglements of human subjects from their transcendent souls. Where does belief fit in this picture? On the one hand, the book is all about belief: talk of belief is a key target of Professor Keane’s analysis. But belief is missing from the book’s toolkit of analytic terms. Professor Keane builds his argument using vocabulary drawn from contemporary linguistic anthropology. His treatment of belief is akin to his treatment of fetishism: he keeps his distance.
Like Webb Keane, I have come to see some metapragmatic elements in evangelical culture as bringing about some important and related consequences: projects of translation that make religiosity into a portable content; modular conceptions of subjectivity and conversion; rhetorics of agentialized belief, and so on. Like him, I see many of these as processes that mark evangelicalism as a system of modernity, having perhaps even more in common with structures of the public sphere or scientific inquiry than with some rival modes of religiosity.
Christian Moderns stands apart in at least two respects: in method and in conceptualization. Whereas earlier works on liberalism, modernism and secularism mainly employ a historical and critical approach that contrasts the modern West with its premodern self and its heterodox variants, Keane works mainly comparatively, using the Indonesian mission encounter to unearth the doxa of modern Euro-American culture. Further, whereas Asad relies mainly on the genealogical strategies of Foucault and Nietzsche, Keane adds Latour’s theory of “purification” and “hybridity.”
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.