Coleman, “Christianity: An (In-)Constant Companion?”

Coleman, Simon. 2015.  “Christianity: An (In-)Constant Companion?.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Anthropology, edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern, 209-226. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Excerpt: This chapter is about the shifting relationship between anthropology and Christianity. Any relationship has different dimensions—some that are openly acknowledged, and some that are concealed; some that may reflect imbalances between two parties, and others that express ideals of equality. Relationships can go through periods of harmony or occasionally descend into mutual incomprehension or enmity. A common view of anthropology is that it developed as a secular discipline, actively distancing itself from theology and the latter’s Christian associations. Up until at least the 1980s it was common to hear anthropologists say that they had encountered Christian missionaries in the field but had tried to ignore them while they studied the “local” culture. Christianity in many conventional fieldwork contexts was seen as a troubling remnant of colonial times, while its presence in Western societies was regarded as of little interest. Nonetheless, these comments do not tell the whole story of the relationship. The fact that for much of the twentieth century anthropology paid relatively scant ethnographic attention to Christianity may suggest a combination of hostility and indifference; but it also reflects a more complex, ambivalent set of interactions. The term “companion” derives from the Latin word companio, which in literal terms means “one who eats bread with another,” implying not merely separate identities but also mutual bonds expressed through proximity, parallel practices and even a hint at consubstantiality. It points in other words to both conjunctions and distinctions. In this chapter, we shall explore examples of both.

What, then, of my use of “constant” and “inconstant”? In its mathematical sense a constant implies a non-varying value, but I do not suggest that either Christianity or its connections with anthropology have remained unchanged. One reason to introduce this temporal metaphor is to indicate how the relationship between Christianity and anthropology has so often been defined by their respective relationships to time, change, and historical process. In his famous work The Golden Bough (1890) the Victorian anthropologist James Frazer tried to consign Christianity to the same dustbin of history that he reserved for other forms of religion; but a century or so later anthropologists have actually been observing striking increases in Christian adherence and practice across large parts of the world. More and more, they have come to understand the need to analyze how the spread of Christianity raises questions over the supposed disruptions of modernity. But this new analytical impulse does not involve a simple assumption that Christian influence produces a uniform, linear modelof Westernization. The task is rather to develop a critical and nuanced understanding of  whether and how encounters with Christianity have produced transformations in cultures around the world. This new focus on Christianity also involves anthropologists taking a more historically informed look at themselves. The aim has been to understand whether anthropological conceptions of cultural coherence, of transcendence, of divisions between sacred and profane time and space, have links with Christian roots in ways that have not hitherto been fully acknowledged.

Following on from such points, categories of time, history and identity will help to form the structure of this chapter. Over the last 15 years or so, a self-conscious sub-field has emerged within the discipline dedicated to studying Christianity. In acknowledgement of this development, I divide my analysis into three periods. The first—with apologies to archeologists—I call “B.A.C.” (Before the Anthropology of Christianity); the second “A.C.” (the era of the Anthropology of Christianity); and finally, I provide some suggestions of possible futures for studies of the religion. However, I invoke such categories with irony. I approach them critically, especially their linear assumptions, and show how they represent only a limited view of how anthropology can continue to approach this religion …