But – some of you may ask – why do we need an analytical tool to tell us what Christianity is? Isn’t it rather obvious? Broadly speaking it seems to be a world religion in which members believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and go to church and read the Bible and pray. Give or take some variations.
In other words, anthropological texts do not usually present Christianity as a pyramid, in which the most orthodox or "most Christian" Christianity is placed at the top, and the different forms of Christianity that follow on the lower tiers are viewed as progressively less and less Christian. Within the anthropology of Christianity, particular forms of Christianity are not presented as “Christianity gone wrong” in relation to a hypothetical “real Christianity” – rather, they are presented as Christianity.
(And yes, that does raise other questions regarding how to prevent this form of cultural relativism from slipping into moral relativism, and how to acknowledge the ethical stance of the anthropologist. These questions were on my mind when I wrote about nineteenth-century Christian missionaries who, stated simply, thought European Christians were more Christian than African Christians – with tragic political ramifications. It is presumably unnecessary to say that I disagree with these Christian missionaries’ choices and the way they shaped their Christian practices and beliefs. At the same time, I wish to understand how this situation came about. This means taking their Christianity seriously and trying to see it from their point of view. Or, as Spinoza put it: “Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.”)
So if all kinds of communities are included within the anthropology of Christianity, how do we even know what “Christianity” is? Is it just anything and everything? Is it really that arbitrary?
This brings me back to Bialecki’s article. He argues that anthropologists of Christianity have avoided the task of trying to define Christianity. Partly, he suggests, this is due to the bewildering array of historical and current expressions of Christianity. And partly it is due to what he describes as an anthropological turn toward "nominalism" (individualism / particularism / specificity), which means that many anthropologists, especially from around the 1980s onwards, have tended to shy away from broad generalizations and to distrust anyone who claims that universals / categories / essences exist beyond human thought and use. So, in short (and I don’t think it is necessary to quite agree with Bialecki on the nominalist turn in order to see this), anthropologists of Christianity have tended to describe Christianity on a case-by-case basis – i.e. they have tried to understand a lot of different Christianities instead of trying to understand Christianity.
Therefore, the anthropology of Christianity may leave us with the impression that the label “Christian” is fairly arbitrary. But, Bialecki argues, it is not. And he uses “virtual Christianity” as a model to think about this.
Ok, “virtual Christianity” promises to provide some coherence to the field. What is “virtual Christianity”?
Bialecki draws the terms “virtual” and “virtual idea” from the works of Deleuze (and Guattari). He provides a three-page description of their philosophical concept in his article. The following offers a very brief summary:
“As reworked by Deleuze, the concept of the virtual … serves … as a way of speaking about an unquantifiable field of generative potential in being and thought, a potential intelligible yet specifically undeterminable in advance of development, a potential that is always threatening to run off at times in different and disparate directions, a potential which serves to constantly bring new ‘actual’ entities into being. … [I]t is a means of granting a sort of ontological status of real to both this potential and the objects they engender, and to demarcate this potential as having its own characteristic apart from those of the ‘actual’ world.” (p. 307)
“the virtual is itself attached to, addressing, and predicated upon actual entities, creating a resonance between the actual and virtual as they go through their vicissitudes. … [T]he actual and the virtual run alongside each other … The actual, however, constantly obscures the virtual … Deleuze speaks of seeing the trace of the virtual in what has been actualized as if it were no easy task.” (p. 309)
“[to work] back from various actualized Christianities and, with an eye towards the specific local affects and precepts that ran through the virtual to create those actualizations, [to attempt] to intuit the virtual multiplicity that engendered that actuality. This can be done through working back from ‘solution’ to ‘problem’” (p. 312)
“to ask how each of these problems sketches out various continuums of potential … In short, because we have thought of Christianity in a nominalist way, rather than as a real, though virtual, object, we have not charted what we might call the mutagenic capacity in its diagram, the way in which Christianity may be many things – an *unlimited number* of things – but not *everything* or *anything*” (p. 312-13, orig. emph.)
That gives the gist of "virtual Christianity," but still begs the question – is it really a good analytical tool? Is it good to think with?
To my mind there are two major advantages to this working model of Christianity as a virtual idea. Let me illustrate by comparing it to another working model, namely that of Christianity as a set of bundles, which is the one that I have been using for the past years. (I have also explored Christianity as third space – drawing on Homi Bhabha – but will leave that model to one side for this blog post. For a discussion, see p. 120-25 of Mission Station Christianity.)
First, “bundles Christianity.” In his 1978 article "Buddhism and the definition of religion," Martin Southwold suggested that “religion” should not be thought of as a “monothetic class” in which each member possesses the same bundle of attributes. Rather, he saw religion as a “polythetic class” in which each member possesses a bundle of some of the attributes of the whole. Therefore, he pointed out, “[s]ince different members of the class may possess different selections from the bundle of attributes, there is no guarantee that any one of these attributes is common to all the members” (Southwold, 1978:369). In terms of Christianity, this allows us to think of Christianity as a “class” with an associated “bundle” of attributes (let’s say, for example, Bible, Trinity, worship, prayer, holy communion, church, baptism, etc, etc). Each variant of Christianity is a “member” of the class, but each member only takes up some of the available attributes in their “bundle” – thus resulting in a range of quite different bundles.
Bundles Christianity vs. virtual Christianity (1): The virtual is more productive
The model of virtual Christianity, as opposed to bundles Christianity, gives us a more sophisticated way of thinking about the range of possibilities in Christianity. Bundles Christianity leads us to imagine a fairly static set of attributes, without room for those potential attributes that have not yet been actualized. The virtual, on the other hand, allows us to think easily of problematics that may follow different trajectories and be actualized in innumerable ways – indeed, various problem axes may themselves tilt and change as they fuse with other axes and resonate with the actual. The virtual, then, avoids any fixed essentialism, while also avoiding complete arbitrariness. It provides a sense of arcs of potential or possibility.
Take the Bible, for instance. From the perspective of bundles Christianity, the Bible might be thought of as an attribute of Christianity that is picked up by most Christian communities (in different ways), and rejected (in different ways) by a very small minority. This might lead to comparative analysis on e.g. how different communities read the Bible differently. From the perspective of virtual Christianity, however, we would be pushed to think through this issue more carefully. The virtual might lead us to ask, for example, what kind of problem(s) the Bible solves – let’s say, for some, the problem of intimacy with the divine, and for others the problem of who counts as Christian – and why other Christianities have not solved these problems in this way. Or the Bible might be thought of as triggering problems, such as the problem of materiality, or the problem of reconciling tradition and personal inclination, community and individual. The myriad other ways that the Bible has presented solutions and problems may hover in the background, presenting possibilities that, for some reason or other, have not been taken up in a given community, and this too leads to further questions. This is a very crude sketch, but points to one advantage of the model of a virtual Christianity (as compared to bundles Christianity), namely its productivity: its ability to open up avenues of analytical questioning.
Bundles Christianity vs. virtual Christianity (2): The virtual is more insistent
I think it is fair to say that virtual Christianity is a model that is concerned with what Christianity does. The model gives pieces of Christian material “energies or directionality,” Christianity gains greater autonomy in the analysis, and Christian problems may even “insist” on a response, even if the nature of the response is not determinable in advance (Bialecki, p. 305, 310, 312). When working with the model of virtual Christianity as compared to bundles Christianity – to put it colloquially – Christianity has more "oomph." For example, instead of thinking of the Bible as, let’s say, a focal point for religious exercise that, in the bigger picture, will probably be trumped by the hard-nosed reality of neoliberalism, we start to see the Bible as a problematic that brings its own trajectories to the table – trajectories that cannot simply be swept away.
At a technical level, Bialecki presents the virtual as the field of problems, and the actual as the arena for solutions. However, it seems more precise to me to cast both domains as encompassing problems and solutions. Sometimes problems need to find solutions, and sometimes solutions need to find problems – in order to be integrated into life.
At a big-picture level, I wonder whether it is necessary to describe the virtual as “having an autonomy from the actual” (Bialecki, p. 311). For Deleuze, if I have understood the argument correctly, the virtual in some sense also functions on its own, independently of human life. But I find it difficult, within an anthropological framework, to picture how ideas about potential Christian actions might exist without being imagined, remembered, read, archived, inferred, invented, thought, acted, embodied, etc., by human beings. To state it simply, I do not think virtual Christianity floats freely, i.e. I do not think it exists in and of itself, but I think it is a good analytical tool that helps us to think about Christianity as it actually exists. I suppose in this sense I am a “nominalist” (i.e. a particularist, skeptical of universals). However, to my mind, this does not prevent me from seeing different Christianities as connected in some way, as part of a category.
Finally, I would hesitate to agree with the suggestion that identifying the Christian virtual is “the collective object of the anthropology of Christianity” (p. 295). I am not sure whether it is desirable to attempt to get all anthropologists of Christianity to work towards the same goal, based on the same theory – quite apart from the practical consideration that this would, realistically, be impossible!
So, in sum?
In sum, Bialecki’s article both provokes thought and presents many elements that are good to think with. I for one will be trying out his theory.
[Update: Don't miss Jon Bialecki's response below]