Striking changes are afoot in the way intellectuals address Christianity. Long seen as a largely Western tradition steadily losing its cultural influence in the West, Christianity has recently been re-installed at the center of debates that concern academic specialists and public intellectuals alike. In this TIF book blog discussion, a range of contributors examine Christianity’s return to prominence via responses to a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly entitled Global Christianity, Global Critique, edited by Matthew Engelke and Joel Robbins.
Global Christianity, Global Critique
There is no doubt that anthropology needs new approaches for understanding dramatic change, a new way of figuring the relationship between structure and subjectivity (often abusively assimilated by anthropologists to consciousness or the individual person), which I take to be part of the gambit of the project of an anthropology of Christianity. There is also a real need for a renewal of critical thought on the problems of exploitation, oppression, injustice—on the devastating ravages of late neoliberal capitalism on the masses of the Global South, which are also the populations most engaged in the new wave of conversions. Nothing testifies to this more dramatically or poignantly than the recent wave of self-immolations that has swept across North Africa in the past weeks, nor, might I add, to the ongoing force of a sacrificial politics. But can we really claim that something called Global Christianity (a shorthand, here, for its Pentecostal or charismatic forms), if not able to provide a model for emancipatory action, might, in dialogue with the atheist, post-foundational left, give us something better to think with?Read Falling on the sword of the spirit.
In the midst of the interdisciplinary enterprise that Global Christianity, Global Critique undertakes, I want to suggest that the challenge of interdisciplinarity—and, at the same time, the source of what value it may have—is the problem of locality, constraint, and limit. In other words, following Jean-François Lyotard (The Postmodern Condition), legitimation is local; it is a function of the language-game, which in the scholarly context means a function of the the discipline. Read with the themes of limit, border, and locality in mind, these treatments of global critique and global Christianity reveal the prominence of this problematic.Read Seeing disciplines.
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 Global Christianity, Global Critique), 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.Read Blinded by the light, or, Why can’t liberals see?.
Matthew Engelke is right: religion is about mediation. Ironically so, because it is about the divine; but because the divine is never directly available, religion must instead be about how the divine is indirectly manifest. . . . Because religion is about mediation, it naturally refuses any duality of nature and culture. Reality, as the true nature of things, is sacred, but it must be mediated by particular human relations and practices. Culture, therefore, can be neither merely arbitrary nor totally opposed to nature, since it is what truly discloses the latter.Read Culture, nature, and mediation.
My sense is that the most important cross-fertilization between contemporary Pauline scholarship and trends, like the so-called anthropology of Christianity, that seek to appreciate salient aspects of the unfolding of global Christianity would not be through the new insights, via Paul, into the supposedly Promethean self of modernity, secularism, and its many post-prefixed after-runners. This seems to be the Paul celebrated by Badiou, Agamben, and Žižek—a Paul that, as Elizabeth Castelli notes, is decidedly not one that biblical scholars today emphasize.Read Paul and today’s emerging Christianities.
The salience of ideas and practices that emphasize rupture from previous social settings and modes of thought should not blind us to the fact that Pentecostalism arises as a new social-aesthetic formation. Next to the indeed remarkable emphasis placed on rupture and newness, as well as on the possibility of miraculous divine intervention in Pentecostal accounts, we should not overlook that Pentecostal religiosity also entails authorized and socially shared practices and techniques that are required for the event of divine intervention to occur. In other words, the call for a “break with the past,” deliverance from “evil spirits,” taking “Christ as personal savior,” being “born again” and “filled with the Holy Spirit,” all of which emphasize newness, rupture, and an immediate encounter with the divine, is voiced—over and over again—in an established manner that is characteristic of Pentecostal religiosity.Read The indispensability of form.
Globalization, Chalmers Johnson says, is just a new word for what used to be called imperialism. He is partly correct, but I do think there are some differences. Cultural globalization, at least, is what the world looks like from the point of view of an imperium in decline.
Christianity has been spread around the world for many centuries now. In the sixteenth century, the conquistadores brought Catholic Christianity to South America and the Philippines. In the seventeenth century, Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican missionaries brought it to India, Japan, and China. In the nineteenth century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries planted the faith in the colonies established throughout the world during the age of European imperialism. But this dissemination of the Christian faith was not called globalization. It was called “propaganda fidei” or “Christian mission.”Read The many globalizations of Christianity.
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.Read Virtual Christianity.
In the nineteenth century the new disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities were ‘emancipated’ from Christian theology. To an important extent these new forms of inquiry were connected to the rise of modern, industrial society and the nation-form. They were secular in nature—that is, they were part of a secularization of the mind and a de-clericalization of science and scholarship. The most important aspect of this transformation was, obviously, the study of religion itself. This is perhaps clearest in the development of a “science of religion,” an attempt to create a scientific study of religion without Christian theological suppositions. Its claim to scientific truth was based mainly on comparative linguistics and evolutionary theory. Religion was no longer left to Christian theologians but was now the province of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and “scientists of religion.”Read Christianity and its others.
Striking changes are afoot in the way intellectuals address Christianity. Long seen as a largely Western tradition steadily losing its cultural influence in the West, Christianity has recently been re-installed at the center of debates that concern academic specialists and public intellectuals alike. In the last few years, it has suddenly become possible, maybe even fashionable, to ask whether Christianity might be a leading force of change in the contemporary world. Even more surprisingly, scholars who self-consciously stand outside what they think of as religious circles now find themselves promoting episodes in Christian history as key models for the way important social changes ought to occur.Read Global Christianity, Global Critique.