Last month, a group of anthropologists gathered at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal to convene the latest Wenner-Gren Foundation symposium, “The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”. Since the 1950’s, the foundation has convened more than 140 of these meetings between small groups of invited scholars to foster intensive discussion and debate around key sites of contention within the field, using a rigorous format first developed at the Foundation’s original retreats in Austria. Beginning in 2010, symposia have resulted in special gold-colored supplementary editions of Current Anthropology, with 100% of content freely available as open access scholarship.
While the special issue for this particular symposium will be forthcoming, organizer Joel Robbins of the University of California – San Diego has prepared a statement to capture the thrust of the symposium and offer a glimpse of what to expect when the special issue rolls off the presses.
And in the meantime, listen to an interview with Dr. Robbins conducted by our president Leslie C. Aiello as part of the Annette B. Weiner lecture series at New York University.
The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions
Joel Robbins, University of California, San Diego
This symposium aims to address the question of how an intellectual movement such as the Anthropology of Christianity negotiates the transition from its initial emergence – when the field is wide open and novel insights and arguments appear to be easy to find – to a second stage in which it consolidates its gains while also finding a way to maintain its energy and creativity going forward. Non-existent fifteen years ago, the anthropology of Christianity has rapidly grown into a large and vigorous field of debate. In the last few years, it has also begun to see the emergence of its second generation of contributors, made up mostly of people in the early stages of their careers. These scholars have brought new topics to the fore and have pushed for attention to be paid to branches of the Christian tradition that had been relatively understudied during the first wave. Furthermore, with the maturing of the field has come the growth of conversations between its participants and those from other areas of anthropology. By bringing together representatives of the generation that founded the anthropology of Christianity and younger scholars, by inviting those studying Christian traditions largely ignored during the first wave of work in the field, and by explicitly focusing on conversations with those whose primary research is in other parts of anthropology, this symposium aims both to identify and integrate the most important findings of the field to this point and to develop new approaches and ideas that will allow it to continue to flourish.
As an intellectual endeavor launched with a high degree of self-consciousness, the anthropology of Christianity has arguably been marked by an unusually high degree of coherence and shared sense of key issues. Questions about the specificity of Christian understandings of transcendence, language, cultural change, religious experience, morality, and individualism have all received sustained attention from anthropologists working in many different parts of the world. The tight integration of the field has been beneficial in many ways, allowing cross-regional conversations to develop more quickly and productively than they often do in contemporary anthropology. One urgent task for the anthropology of Christianity at his stage is to consolidate the most important findings from these early areas of shared concern, and to synthesize these findings into a clear understanding of what is unique about the anthropological understanding of Christianity.
Even as the precocious coherence of the anthropology of Christianity has played a critical role in its rapid success, however, there are reasons to suggest that the moment is ripe for the field to begin to open its conversation up by focusing more on the diversity of Christian traditions, identifying new problems for comparative consideration, and further developing the links between the anthropology of Christianity and other areas of anthropology.
The time is right for this effort to open up the anthropology of Christianity for three reasons. First, although calls to acknowledge the diversity of the Christian tradition have been part of the anthropology of Christianity since its inception, in practice too little attention has been paid to this issue. In part this has followed from the need to stabilize Christianity as an object of study around which anthropological discussions could develop, and in part it has been rooted in the fact that most of the research in the first wave of the anthropology of Christianity has been carried out with groups that spring from the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. Both of these obstacles that in the past tended to push issues of diversity to the background have now been removed, and discussions that go beyond simply pointing to the fact of diversity and instead put it to use in the development of new comparative arguments are ready to begin.
The second reason it is a good moment to open up the anthropology of Christianity is that a generation of scholars have begun to enter the conversation that has been trained while the field has already been a going concern, and the interests of its members are less shaped by the demands of getting a new subject off the ground. While attentive to the debates that marked the first generation, they have also begun to raise new questions having to do with such issues as schism and denominational competition, Christian formations of time, space and urban life, and Christian constructions of gender (a topic that despite some early interest has been left surprisingly undeveloped). One of the goals of the conference is to foster dialogue between members of this new generation and those from the original cohort of anthropologists studying Christianity, both to encourage an expansion of the common discussion created by the first generation and to search for novel approaches at the intersection of generational interests.
A final reason that the time is ripe for an exploration of new directions in the anthropology of Christianity is that certain of its key findings have become part of mainstream discussion in other areas of anthropology. This has been true, for example, of work on language, change, religious experience, and morality. In order to further develop such links, conference participants will include several anthropologists who have not studied Christianity ethnographically, but who are conversant with important aspects of the anthropology of Christianity and can explore how they might be deepened by, and contribute to, discussions on related topics outside the field.
The symposium is organized into several kinds of sessions. 1) One set focuses on reviewing what has been securely established concerning topics that dominated early work in the anthropology of Christianity. These papers will not, however, simply take the form of reviews of previous work. Each participant will connect the issue about which they write with emerging debates about Christian diversity, and explore the bearing of their focal topic on one or more themes that have become important in new empirical work. 2) Another session considers head-on the issue of Christian diversity and its bearing on the anthropology of Christianity. Participants here will not only explore the issue of diversity, but also consider its bearing on one or more of the topics of study that have been or are coming to be important in the anthropology of Christianity, and which are the foci of other sessions. 3) Several sessions are devoted to pushing forward comparative conversations around new topics that have just begun to receive attention, and participants will consider potential links between the discussion of these topics and those around more developed themes in the field. 4) A final kind of session invites scholars who do not study Christianity themselves, but who have worked on topics important to the anthropology of Christianity and have shown an interest in the field, to discuss substantial links that have been or can be made to other currents in contemporary anthropology.