Fenella Cannell: Let us (anthropologists) stop presupposing that Christianity changes everything forever
What difference does Christianity make? What difference does it make to how people at different times and in different places understand themselves and the world? And what difference does it make to the kinds of questions we are able to ask about social process? (p. 1)
Cannell also suggests that the Christian idea of discontinuity may have exerted an unspoken influence on anthropology (for example in much of anthropology’s treatment of modernity as an irreversible break with the past, or in the assumption that Christianity is inevitably a modernizing force). It seems to me that this tendency may even be reflected in the common emphasis in anthropological analyses on the continuities that persist in a person or community’s life “despite” their conversion to Christianity; the continuities are interesting precisely because both the anthropologist-author and anthropologist-readers expect conversion to Christianity to be, as Cannell puts it, modeled on “the event after which nothing is ever the same again” (p. 44).
Cannell ties this idea of discontinuity to the frequent emphasis in Christianity on Christian exceptionalism, which posits that Christianity offers an unprecedented and unique revelation of the truth, and comments:
As anthropologists, we may in part have this expectation about Christianity embedded into our own theoretical expectations. Christianity always makes a difference, but that difference may not be as one-dimensional as we have supposed. (p. 44)
If we can stop presupposing that Christianity changes everything forever, we may be able to begin to see the experiences of Christianity, in all their diversity, complexity, and singularity, for what they are. (p. 45)
Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall: There are no anthropologists who treat Christianity as an exclusively transformative force
Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall, in their introduction, begin with Cannell’s question, “What difference does Christianity make?”, and comment favorably on the provocative nature of the question as well as on Cannell’s edited volume in general. But, they argue, “Cannell’s answer to her own question is ultimately less than satisfying” (p. 1). They quote the last sentence of her introduction, as given above (“If we can stop presupposing that Christianity changes everything forever…” etc), and respond:
There are two problems with this statement: first, it sets up a straw man, the (nonexistent) anthropologist who treats Christianity as an exclusively transformative force; second, it treats the ground of experience as unproblematic – as if seeing things "for what they are" could ever be agreed upon fully […] If Cannell’s conclusion misses the mark, her question nonetheless remains central, and no anthropologist has yet answered it definitively. (p. 1)
The first point is more pertinent here. Tomlinson and McDougall suggest that there are no anthropologists who treat Christianity as “an exclusively transformative force.” I read their phrase “exclusively transformative” as an intentional synonym to Cannell’s phrase “changes everything”, and I interpret their phrase as the sentiment that whatever Christianity touches, it changes; nothing can encounter Christianity and remain unaltered. If taken literally, they are no doubt right that no anthropologists present this type of analysis. (Though if we were to take “everything” as a hyperbolic way of referring to “life in general,” then we might get closer to finding anthropological analyses that do convey this sentiment.)
More importantly, I wonder whether Cannell would accept the phrase “Christianity [is] an exclusively transformative force” as a synonym to her phrase “Christianity changes everything forever.” It seems to me that Cannell is rather trying to grasp that strong drive of much Christian theology to outline how the Christ event changed the most fundamental premise of humanity’s relationship to God, which affects all else in life and death, including people’s relationship with themselves and others and the world, etc. In this sense, the coming of Christianity changed “everything.” And it is in this sense, I think, that Cannell observes that while a Christian viewpoint may often return to a model of radical, irreversible difference in which “everything” – that is, the most fundamental tenet of life – has changed forever, anthropologists should not presuppose that Christianity inevitably brings this kind of change.
This thinking about change returns me to Tomlinson and McDougall’s introduction – and their absorbing ethnographic case(s). They present a story of great changes. Christian missionaries arrived in Oceania during colonial rule in the nineteenth century and turn of the twentieth. Today the Christian population in most Oceanic states is above 90 percent. Indigenous categories, such as a blurring between religion and politics, has meshed with the explosion of Christian adherents, and politics and Christianity are today so entwined that “the two categories [are] inseparable at any level of analysis […] one can only understand what is political by understanding what is Christian” (p. 2). The category of “tradition” has developed “in constant dialogue with Christianity” (p. 7) – ancestral traditions are sometimes rejected, while at other times they are viewed as standing alongside Christianity. Churches are today “the most powerful transnational organizations that penetrate the region” (p. 12), especially since the postcolonial states are markedly “weak,” in aid-speak. These states are plagued by coups, rebellion, civil unrest and conflict, and widespread failure to provide services to their citizens.
While Tomlinson and McDougall begin this story with the question “What difference does Christianity make?”, they – wisely, in my opinion – decline to give an exact answer. The case of Christian politics in Oceania highlights the difficulty: clearly, Christianity has made a substantial difference on these islands – but what difference, exactly? As even the truncated summary I have given here shows, I don’t think there is a precise answer. Or, as Tomlinson and McDougall put it (and I agree): “It may be impossible to answer Cannell’s question in a fully satisfactory way” (p. 4).
Turning the prism: What difference does Christianity make?
“What difference does Christianity make?” is a question that complicates rather than simplifies, and this is one of the reasons why it is great as a research springboard. The question is like a prism – reflecting and refracting light in shifting patterns as we turn it, refusing to show just one pattern. It “provides us with a deepened, complex, thoroughly partial, understanding of the topic. Paradoxically, we know more and doubt what we know. Ingeniously, we know there is always more to know” (Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St Pierre, “Writing: A method of inquiry,” in Denzin & Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed, 2005, p. 963). In conclusion, let me turn the prism of this question a few times.
“What difference does Christianity make?” is a different way of phrasing the question about continuity and discontinuity: To what extent, and in what way, does Christianity introduce something different, a discontinuous element, something that would otherwise not have been there? It is a helpful research question because it focuses on the dynamic movement and process of living Christianity. It avoids the trap of assuming that, in a study of a Christian community, Christianity is a given, which nudges the research focus toward other factors that might be assumed to make a difference to this Christianity (such as gender roles, or cognitive patterns, or inter-cultural encounters). Instead, the question “What difference does Christianity make?” places the research focus back on Christianity and its impact on other factors (such as gender roles, or cognitive patterns, or inter-cultural encounters).
Shifting the emphasis slightly, we might ask: “What difference does Christianity make?”, which draws our attention to the attendant questions: “What difference doesn’t Christianity make (in this instance)?” or “What difference could Christianity make (in this instance)?” This echoes Cannell’s observation that Christianity enfolds such a rich contradiction that there are always possible alternatives lurking at the margins – “the unorthodox position remains hanging in the air” (p. 7). The question allows us to think through how and why certain Christian problematics are experienced as urgent (while others are not) and how and why specific Christian solutions are actualized (while others remain latent) in particular communities at particular times.
Turning the prism slightly again, the question can also be read: “What difference does Christianity make?”, which is a different way of phrasing the question about Christian exceptionalism. Does Christianity, in a given context, make a kind of difference that would not be made by other religions? As Cannell observes, many (but not all) Christian theologies posit that Christianity offers a knowledge of God, or relationship with God, that is decisively different in kind and potential than other knowledges or relationships. A theological analysis in response to this question would therefore often be quite developed, and would probably be presented by the Christians in question to the anthropologist during fieldwork. An anthropological analysis would need to tune in to this, but also respond within its own scholarly framework to the same question as a step in the process of discerning and thinking anthropologically about specifically Christian forms and arcs, as opposed to those of religious life in general (or ritual in general, or gifts in general, etc).
“What difference does Christianity make?” posits Christianity as a generative field, as Jon Bialecki’s Deleuzian “virtual idea.” It allows us to take seriously the proposition that Christianity is not just determined by other forces (modernity, economy, psychology, etc), but is itself a force that generates substantive problems, ideas and actions, constellations of practices, buildings, movements of bodies, etc.
Finally, “What difference does Christianity make?” might helpfully include an addendum: “And according to whom?” Part of the reason why the question “What difference does Christianity make?” is good is that it helps us to shift our perspective and pay greater attention to Christianity as relative to other factors in the analysis of Christian communities (while acknowledging the complexity of Christianity’s merging with social contexts). But the same question may, ironically, be unhelpful to the extent that it causes us to dismiss the points of view of Christians (such as, hypothetically, the view that “Christianity changed everything forever for me/us”) in favor of an analytic position that privileges a secular point of view (“Let us not presuppose that Christianity changes everything forever”). This is not to say that the anthropologist-author should not adopt a thoughtful secular position; it is, rather, to say that we should not unintentionally lose sight of, or intentionally cover over, the potential tension and span between the believers’ points of view and the researcher’s point of view in our analyses.