Jason Bruner on Timothy Larsen’s The Slain God
Is anthropology inherently inimical to the truth claims of the Christian faith? In The Slain God, Timothy Larsen offers biographical profiles of six eminent British anthropologists to contend that it is not — at least not necessarily. He does this by focusing on anthropologists themselves, as opposed to their work, because he argues that there has been a long-standing tendency within the discipline to comment on an individual’s intellectual contributions, not on their life. (One suspects that anthropology is not unique in this sense.)
Larsen’s overriding interest in the topic is in establishing what counts as evidence in the intellectual discrediting of “orthodox” or “traditional” Christian theological claims. In this sense, The Slain God continues the intellectual trajectory of one of his previous monographs, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians. But The Slain God is not an examination of particular points of evidence that have arisen through anthropological research and debate or cases that have been presented and used to undermine Christian theological claims. Instead, Larsen examines the intellectual and spiritual portraits of six leading British anthropologists, demonstrating how their research reflected their religious beliefs. Larsen begins with a chapter each on Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and James Frazer (1854-1941), both of whom moved away from personal religious commitments as a result of their anthropological study. E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) follows chronologically, though not religiously, as he converted to Catholicism during World War II. That pattern would be followed by Victor Turner (1920-1983) and Edith Turner (1921 -), while Mary Douglas (1921-2007) was raised Catholic and remained so to the end of her life.
The result is a book that is clear and accessible, refreshingly free of jargon, and full of interesting (and, in some cases, unique) biographical detail about these scholars’ lives. He contends that when Edward Tylor, who was raised Quaker, analyzed Mexican Catholicism in Anahuac, he gave “a Quaker critique of Catholicism,” showing that “Catholicism was like paganism and paganism is like Catholicism.” Tylor, however, later lost his faith because “he could not find a way to think anthropologically and as a Christian at the same time.” His notions of “superstition” and “survivals,” therefore, were ways for him “to think anthropologically about spiritual matters” after he had resigned his Quaker membership in 1864. Larsen is interested in Tylor not just because he helped to form the nascent discipline but also because of the basic intellectual pattern his experience established: anthropological evidence leads to unbelief.
The heart of Larsen’s project, however, is about finding exceptions to the so-called rule that the discipline of anthropology tacks easily onto a simple narrative of secularization. What Larsen seeks to do is to demonstrate that key anthropologists in the twentieth century were not only not “bad Catholics” — to use a recurring descriptor throughout the book — but adhered to and even intellectually agreed with “orthodox Christian” statements of faith. Their Christian faith, in other words, was not just about “aesthetics,” but shaped the very nature of their contributions to the discipline.
For example, Larsen observes that Victor and Edith Turner’s notion of “liminality” coincided with a challenging time of transition as they moved from Manchester to the US, a move which owed some of its impetus to the fact that the Turners had been received into the Catholic Church, placing them at odds with the head of the Manchester anthropology department, Max Gluckman. And Larsen cites Edith’s later commentary that the Pentecost scene from the New Testament (Acts 2) served as the paradigm in their minds for “communitas.” Or one could look to Larsen’s discussion of Mary Douglas, which highlights the fact that her work on symbolism emerged from the categories of Catholic theology, while her work on hierarchy held that of the Catholic Church as the emblematic example.
The larger story that Larsen wants to tell through the careers of these six major British anthropologists hinges on Evans-Pritchard. It was Evans-Pritchard, argues Larsen, who critiqued the developmental theories of religious stages as formulated by Tylor and Frazier, arguing that so-called “primitive” societies were not theologically unsophisticated nor were European religious practices categorically more “civilized.” But even as he adamantly made the case for the theological complexity of the thought systems of people like the Nuer and the Azande in eastern Central Africa, Evans-Pritchard found that this complexity, and even his anthropological research in general, did not conflict with his Catholic faith. A faith, it should be noted, which he entered in 1944 after having done substantial fieldwork in the Sudan and published Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940).
Evans-Pritchard, Larsen contends, “actually believed the creed.” He was well-read in medieval theology, mystical texts, and the Bible, references to which can be found in his analysis of Azande and Nuer religion. Furthermore, Evans-Pritchard claimed that “anthropologists of religion would not have developed such misguided theories if they had studied ‘Christian theology, history, exegesis, apologetics, symbolic thought and ritual’.” He helped cultivate Oxford as a place of anthropological research that was not inimical to religious faith.
The Slain God, then, is not an attempt to counter particular evidence or arguments about the theological truth claims made by “orthodox Christianity.” But neither is The Slain God a screed against the academic discipline of anthropology, and it does not seek to discredit any particular anthropologist or anthropological work (though Edmund Leach appears throughout as a kind of antagonist). For Larsen, the core function of the book is to insist that the “slain God will not remain entombed,” and he takes aim at this goal by “mischievously” problematizing “the complacent, secularist myth of linear progression” that he believes characterizes the field of anthropology.
Larsen moves the book toward an argument that Christianity in anthropology is not just about “survivals” — to use a term from the Victorian-era founders of the modern discipline. Rather, Larsen argues, there is a recurring utility that Christian categories, theology, and history have given to anthropologists. He thinks this is so because anthropology is about grappling with the basic stuff of life that people use to give it meaning. Certainly Christian theologians have wrestled with the questions of existence and meaning, the reality of spirits, the relationship of the person (or people) to ancestors and spiritual realities and, if one is looking at the Scholastics, just about everything else.
There are many scholars who would critique such presumptions, particularly in the field of the anthropology of religion. They would argue that Evans-Pritchard’s admonition that anthropological researchers would have made fewer mistakes had they been more well-read in medieval Christian theology or the Bible is part of the problem, not part of a solution. Recurring questions at this juncture might be: In consistently privileging or utilizing Christian concepts, theology, and texts as paradigmatic or comparative examples, is one enhancing or inhibiting one’s knowledge of the Other one is studying? And is such a practice not an illicit Christening — an unhelpful occlusion of what is there? Is there not some form of destruction in any translation?
Further, one might ask, are Christian theology, mystical texts, and vocabulary uniquely well-suited? More so than, say, Islamic theology? Or texts and insights from other societies or traditions? And is comparison possible without translation of some sort? I do not intend to resolve the significant debates that surround these, and related, questions. But in raising them in relation to Larsen’s arguments, I do want to question his larger assumption about the presumed beneficence — or, more theologically, providence — of anthropology’s indebtedness to Christianity.
In addition to the intellectual indebtedness of anthropology to Christianity that Larsen foregrounds, there are also practical influences that have become the focus of historical scholarship in recent decades. As has been repeatedly observed, the epic comparative and assimilationist projects of Tylor and Frazier are filled with examples taken from missionary writings. And John Roscoe, the missionary-turned-ethnographer from early twentieth-century Uganda is but one of the more recognized examples of how missionary and anthropological goals overlapped. The work of historian David Maxwell has made visible similar, fascinating examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where missionaries contributed directly and intentionally to the construction of anthropological and ethnographic knowledge.
The Slain God comes at a time when the sub-field of the anthropology of Christianity itself is being established in its own right, due in no small measure to the excellent research done by people like Joel Robbins, Matthew Engelke, Birgit Meyer, and Simon Coleman, among many others. This development is an outgrowth of shifts within the discipline of anthropology, whereby Christian communities, beliefs, and practices are now seen as worthy of anthropological study in their own right, not simply as obstacles that the anthropologist needs to get around in order to access something more “authentic.”
While earlier anthropological work of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was often taken as challenging Christianity’s truth claims, the research for this was almost entirely based upon the study of the so-called Primitive Other in Exotic Lands. The turn away from this “exotic” focus was foreshadowed in the work of Douglas and the Turners. One sees a maturing of this line of inquiry in a recent edited volume by Simon Coleman and Rosalind Hackett, The Anthropology of Global Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism.
But the academic establishment of the anthropology of Christianity has itself raised interesting questions about the applicability of using Christian terminology. For example, Jean and John Comaroff have argued that the notion of “conversion” was inapplicable to the case of the nineteenth-century Tswana in Southern Africa because it connoted a Euro-centric moral economy. Similarly, disciplinary debates around concepts such as “individual”/ “dividual” have also raised important questions around the universality of Christian personhood. So if Christians themselves are the subject of the anthropological gaze, does the nature of the perceived attack on Christian faith or theological claims change?
While Larsen has helpfully problematized simplistic narratives within the discipline of anthropology, anthropological treatments of Christianity have problematized singular (simplistic?) constructions of “Christianity.” This point takes us back to Larsen’s initial question: what counts as evidence against “orthodox Christian” belief? Anthropologists of Christianity might ask in return: just whose Christianity are we talking about in the first place?