Review: Klimova on “Christian Institutions”

Part V: Review Forum, The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, and New Directions

Christian Institutions: Church, Denomination, Schism

Barker, John. 2014. The One and the Many: Church-Centered Innovations in a Papua New Guinean Community. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s172-s181.

Hann, Chris. 2014. The Heart of the Matter: Christianity, Materiality, and Modernity. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s182-s192.

Bialecki, Jon. 2014. After the Denominozoic: Evolution, Differentiation. Denominationalism. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s193-s204.

Handman, Courtney. 2014. Becoming the Body of Christ: Sacrificing the Speaking Subject in the Making of the Colonial Lutheran Church in New Guinea. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s205-s215.

Humphrey, Caroline. 2014. Schism, Event, and Revolution: The Old Believers of Trans-Baikalia. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s216-s225.

By: Julia Klimova (University of California, San Diego)

Each author in this section makes a case for the importance of studying Christian institutions, which thus far has been avoided in the anthropology of Christianity, in order to move the discipline forward. While dealing with different strands within Christianity – Protestant missionaries in Papua New Guinea (Barker and Handman), a charismatic “nondenominational denomination” in the United States (Bialecki), and two variants of Eastern Orthodoxy (Hann and Humphrey) – authors tackle familiar themes within the anthropology of Christianity (continuity and rupture, tradition and modernity), and introduce new frameworks for the study of Christian institutions.

Barker explains the neglect of institutional studies by appealing to the tendency to treat Christianity as a coherent whole. As a result, theoretical preoccupations have focused instead on constructions of personhood and gender, language ideologies, morality and meaning, all done within the overarching theme of continuity and rupture of known cultural forms (172). While those studies offered many productive insights, they did not address, in Barker’s opinion, “the way that most Christians experience their religion,” that is “within church institutions” and through ritual practices and doctrinal texts (173). It is within church structure that believers get the opportunity to engage in universal Christianity, no matter how diverse they are locally. Barker proposes to consider Christianity as One and Many by offering an ethnographic study of its institutional aspects in the Anglican (missionary) church of the Maisin people in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Barker suggests three dimensions in which to explore the relationship between missionary church structures and local life: accommodations, repurposing, and adaptations (174). The first dimension refers to mutual accommodations made by villagers and missionaries, in which villagers’ adherence to sacraments and material support of the church and priests indexed to missionaries the sincerity of their faith, while villagers viewed the relationship with church in terms of reciprocity and asymmetrical exchange, i.e. repaying missionaries for their services and Christian education. The second dimension includes repurposing by locals of mission’s goals and presence. Examples of those repurposings are utilizing church authority and spiritual powers in purging local sorcery, and making the church “into a symbol of village unity” (176). The third dimension is termed spandrels, or “postconversion adaptations approved by church authorities,” which becomes part of the institutional structure linking innovation with the established church order (174, 177). Barker discusses two types of spandrels: “those that incorporate elements of indigenous culture into church practices,” for example using indigenous elements in decorating the church and running church festivals, and “those that extend the church presence into different sectors of the community,” such as organizations of youth fellowship and the Mother Union for women (177).

In discussing the ethnographic material Barker makes interesting conclusions (with implications for studying institutions and culture), such as that church structures provided local Maisin people with a means of self-definition and cultural renewal (180), and introduces an apparent contradiction: while Christianity came as a revolutionary force into the local society and became an “icon” of modernity, in the past century it became one of the most familiar and conservative institutions, synonymous with stability and tradition (173, 179). The interaction of continuous church structures with the local environment produced new forms, at once recognizable and bearing local specificity, which, in Barker’s view, makes studying church institutions a “nexus of the one and the many” very promising (180).

Like Barker, Handman notes that in search of a coherent unit of analysis anthropologists of Christianity became preoccupied with the individual subject, or as she calls it the “sacred speaking subject.” This was largely due to both influences of Weberian sociology and to Protestant influenced missionary realities on the ground – such as efforts of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in PNG to translate the New Testament in every local language, thus enabling an individual believer to develop “biblically inspired individual speech” (206). The focus on the individual’s relationship with the sacred text and the overall distrust by Protestants of church hierarchy, pushed away the importance of attending to various expressions of religious sociality.

However, as Handman rightly observes, endless separations and schisms in Protestantism point to the persistence of concerns about church organization. The visible church in the world, also the church militant (concepts of theology developed further by St. Augustine and of dispensionalism respectively) is engaged in constant struggle for perfection, for coming closer to the church invisible and triumphant. This cannot be achieved by the individual alone, but only by the church, the Body of Christ, in its “enactment of Christian unity” (207, 208). In PNG this unity, Handman argues, was possible to achieve only by sacrificing the “sacred speaking subject.”

Instead of translating the Bible into every local dialect, the Lutheran missionaries instituted three lingua francas for interethnic sacred communication. This was mirrored by complex organizational efforts to connect numerous ethnic communities through congregations, circuits and districts, “aimed at getting local people beyond ethnic boundaries and into the universalism of Christian faith” (210). The Christian unity, and the Christian church, in the PNG became possible only after suspension of the ethnic and creation of sacred Christian groups. Handman, working with the missionary writings of Koschade, uses the concept of the remnant church to identify these sacred groups.

Handman argues that the concept of the remnant is better suited to understand the Christian groups that are in the process of reconstituting themselves vis a vis society, culture, language and tradition, and that Christian remnant groups are always “organized around critique” (212). The remnant is useful in grasping the differences and divisions within the universal faith, and in allowing “the church as an institution to recognize but also exist between the individualism of the Christian on the one hand and the universality of humanity on the other” (212). The Christian remnant churches in PNG, according to Handman, do not seek permanence and stability, qualities often ascribed to institutional formations. As spaces for critique, they are in a constant process of “separation and reunification,” of creating new groups, which are “organized around events rather than ethnic identities” (213).

While in Handman’s case the remnant groups are constantly working to eliminate connections between church and society, and undoing their attachments to ethnicity, language and tradition, Humphrey’s historical ethnography of another Christian schism presents, what at first seems, a strikingly different picture. Set in the woods of Siberia, it deals with the 1666 schism (the Great Schism) from the Russian Orthodox Church of the group now known as the Old Believers. Like the remnant Christian groups, discussed in Handman’s piece, wary of overlaps between church and society, the Old Believers protested what they perceived to be the worldly nature of the church reforms initiated by the Patriarch Nikon. However, unlike in the PNG remnant churches, maintaining the purity of faith was seen not in perfecting church institutions and subjecting them to an ongoing critique, but in preserving traditional institutions (the already actualized form, to borrow from Bialecki), in which keeping the rites pure and unchanged was the key.

Schisms tend to be wrapped in the language of ruptures, and while Old Believers indeed broke from the official church and the world, they maintained continuity in their attachments to traditional ways of their faith, and in their “fidelity to the event,” as Humphrey terms it (219). She argues, evoking Agamben (2002), that by staying true to the old content of their faith and enacting it in the present, the Old Believers made old into new “in the sense that it partakes of a newly defined messianic time,” when “[E]ach element of the past becomes an allegory or figure of the present time and finds its fulfillment in it” (218). Entrance into the messianic time allowed Old Believers to remain in the world and not be part of it by to reconceiving their worldly activities as reenactments of the past heroic models, such as martyrdom and self-sacrifice (exemplified in lives and deaths of their first martyrs, Protopop Avvakum and Boyarina Morozova). By continually remaking the break with political and religious authorities (i.e. demonstrating the fidelity to the event) and by adhering to the drawn boundary with the outside world, Old Believers manage to maintain their religious, cultural and ethnic identities (here it contrasts Handman’s observation about Protestants who form their groups around events and not ethnic identities).

However, while the reasons for breaking from the official church were to preserve and not to change Russian Orthodox faith and traditions, the processes that took place after the schism are not unlike those of remnant churches discussed by Handman. Being left without priests was one of the most challenging aspects in the life of Old Believers, since having institutional hierarchy (responsible for ordaining future priests who can perform sacraments) is imperative for the church tradition they were willing to uphold so dramatically. Old Believers did not confront this challenge uniformly: some saw it fit to enlist priests from the official church, while others adamantly refused, preferring instead to rely on their own resources, with women and various charismatic leaders coming to forefront at different points (220). These searches for purity of form in the absence of traditional structures that were deemed polluted by the spirit of Antichrist resulted in numerous further splits, each new group offering a new platform for launching the critique.

There is yet another framework that Humphrey offers in looking at the Great Schism – the revolution. Giving the Russian revolution of 1917 “an alternative genealogy,” from her point of view, will “enable us to think about the kind of historical ruptures that have occurred within Christianity and investigate their potential both for social theory and for societal transformations” (217). In developing her argument, Humphrey brings in the work of Kharkhordin, a Russian scholar of religion and society. Citing Dostoevsky, Kharkhordin identifies the religious basis of the Russian conception of society as “a spiritual transformation of humanity and the reconstruction of the entire world on the religious principles” (217). Taking this idea a step further, Humphrey suggests that the Russian revolution of 1917 could be seen as “a revolution in some sense within, not against, an encompassing “religious” conception of society” (217), with historical antecedents for it to be found not in the West, but within Russia, and particularly in the Great Schism of 1666. In her view, Old Believers who left the official church to protest liturgical and ritual reforms, were the staunchest advocates of the spiritual transformation, and prioritizing religion over the state.

Bialecki’s piece takes us from spiritual revolution to institutional evolution, and in the offered framework schism does not necessarily indicate rupture. He starts with the critique of the dominant sociological framework in studying denominations, that of a “unilinear social evolutionary logic” (193). The sociological treatment of denominations, according to Bialecki, is locked into viewing their development as “an endless compulsive cycle,” when small breakaways go through generational growth and change only to become “yet just another iteration of the full-scale, society-endorsing church” vulnerable to new separations (193). Or, to use language from biological sciences, that this piece heavily employs, the sociological treatment of denomination “starts out as a parasite only to itself become a parasite ridden itself by its own young” (193). This is not unlike the processes of charismatic routinisation, and Bialecki addresses Weber’s account of charisma and its applicability to the current project in his concluding thoughts (see below).

Anthropological evidence, on the other hand, presents a strikingly different picture. Growing ethnographic work suggests that denominations are vibrant and dynamic, and as an analytic category are quite productive. Bialecki argues that theoretically anthropological intervention into the dominant sociological models should include reimagining them, instead of denying, and in doing so embracing the concept of social evolution and taking a stance “of anthropological-denominational natural history” (195). The language employed in the anthropological studies, that of “vying, transforming, competing, autopoesis, continuation,” already indicates a process of evolution, however not the unilinear one, but “a parallel working through of a core set of problems, with different responses opening up different horizons where these problems can be further worked through” and as “an evolution predicated on the continual transformations” (195, 196). Bialecki goes into a condensed ethnographic picture of the evolution within the Vineyard churches in California to support his theoretical point.

Since 1975 the churches under the Vineyard umbrella presented a variety of those actualized social forms on which, according to Bialecki, denominational studies should focus. Each new offspring demonstrated either a “continuing intensification of previously existing tendencies,” or “an acceleration of differentiating tendencies,” or “the development of new traits,” or a combination of those (200). With gradual increases in the Pentecostal-styled spiritual and charismatic practices, there was an emergence of new forms of collectivity, such as the Toronto blessing conference, a steady production of new leaders and pastors, and both quantitative and qualitative transformations of the groups. Another characteristic of this evolution was its rapidity, when groups’ mutation happened through “several waves of mutagenic transformations occurring during the life of a single believer” (201). Increases in charismatic practices bring to mind Weber’s theory of charisma, which has been taken by some scholars, misleadingly from Bialecki’s point of view, in relation to these groups.

While in agreement with Weber on the fleeting nature of the charismatic authority, Bialecki argues against applying the familiar unilinear logic of the social evolution. He suggests instead to look at “the supposed death of charisma” as transformations carrying “shifts of emphasis and intensity as well,” to view constantly emerging new charismatic leaders as “still the prisoners of form and history,” actualizing the generic potentiality that was already there (202). His final suggestion is to attend to actualized forms of arising virtualities rather than focusing on fading specificities. This echoes Handman’s call not to ignore remnant churches exactly because of their “overwhelming capacity for proliferation” (214) and, we can add, their ability to actualize.

On some level, Bialecki’s point also has parallels with Hann’s suggestion to “pay more attention to the institutional crystallizations” within different strands of Christianity, or “macromaterialities,” rather than on their differences in experiencing individual transcendence, or “micromateriaities” (191, 182). Hann’s suggestion is a part of his bigger project for the anthropology of Christianity, which, in his view, can evolve by having a better defined unit of analysis, as well as by overcoming its either neglect or Orientalization of Eastern Christians. Hann offers for discussion three concepts around which to structure the comparative studies of Christianity, those of civilization, ontology and modernity, and presents the ethnography of the veneration of the Sacred Heart among Greek Catholics, to answer an overarching question: “Do Eastern Christians constitute a distinct civilization, ontology, or modernity?” (186).

The devotion to the Sacred Heart, which started as a popular devotion among Roman Catholics in the seventeenth century as a response “to an increasingly rationalized and secularized Western Europe” and “to puritanical Protestantism” (183, 186), and which was approved by the institutional church by the end of the nineteenth century, was taken up by Greek Catholics, “the liminal Christians of Central Europe” (186). Despite their name, Greek Catholics are of predominately Slav ethnicity, and they follow the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including icon veneration, however they acknowledge spiritual and institutional authority of the Roman Catholic Pope. Being positioned on a borderline, Greek Catholics not only reflect economic and political disparities between West and East (macromaterialities), in the contexts of micromaterialities they also mirror movement towards the West, as can be seen in innovations of their churches: replacing wood with stone, introducing and keeping pews and organs, altering (Latinizing) singing styles and visual images (187).

In the image of the Sacred Heart (Mary, and at times Jesus, holding a thorn-pierced heart), its affective nature and fleshly materiality are emphasized, and it contrasts with the solemn depiction of Theotokos (Mother of God) in Eastern iconography, which is always two-dimensional and intentionally non-realistic. Those differences, however, are matters of theological disputes between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and for Hann, there is not enough evidence to suggest different experiences among Greek Catholics in their veneration of both icons and the Sacred Heart. Therefore “it is misleading to speak of ontological differences” between populations of West and East (189).

In the last statement Hann disagrees with another scholar, Ewa Klekot, who sees the Sacred Heart as belonging to an ontologically different (modern) world, since it embodies “some basic dichotomies of modernity: heart/reason, religion/science, autocracy/democracy etc…” (qtd. in Hann 186). Eastern Christians, for Klekot, are different since they “remain excluded from an ontology that develops uniquely in Western Christianity” (186). Hann juxtaposes Klekot’s arguments with those of Kristina Stockl, for whom “Orthodox Christians are in the same ontological condition as the others” (186). Drawing from the neopatristic theology revived by Russian diaspora in the early twentieth century, Stockl concludes that their “philosophical-ontological critique of modernism” is a necessary part of “an ambiguity and tension that is inherent in the modern project,” rather than being antimodern (qtd. in Hann184). This also includes the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church and its anti-Western stance, which Hann proposes to interpret not as a rejection of modernity per se, but of the particular modernity of Western liberalism (184).

Hann argues that differences between East and West, between Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy “should not be described in terms of modernity or ontology but understood as multiple crystallizations of a single civilization,” and that “nothing is gained by referring to these as contrasting varieties of modernity” (183,191). It is by studying different institutional crystallizations of various strands of Christianity that would help the anthropology of Christianity move beyond differences in micromaterialities, since, after all, it is within church institutions that Christian believers experience their religion (see Barker).

This section brings into discussion a variety of institutional forms, representing the kind of vibrancy uncovered by anthropologists that Bialecki wrote about. All authors want to move beyond classical paradigms from Weber and others, as well as influential models of sociology and political science, to more ethnographically informed theories within the anthropology of religion, and the anthropology of Christianity more specifically. This is a productive attempt to embrace the historical, geographical and cultural richness of Christian institutional expressions, and it demonstrates that with the rightly chosen unit of analysis and theoretical approaches there could be a fruitful comparison done in the, thus far neglected, study of Christian institutions, both Eastern and Western.