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Jonathan Tran reviews an amazing new book about anthropology and Christianity by Professor Joel Robbins of Cambridge University: “Initially, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it, so radical is the idea.” (The review was originally published through New Directions in the Anthropology in Christianity.)

I’m happy to offer here some cursory thoughts about Theology and the Anthropology of Christian Life which began as Professor Joel Robbins’ 2018 Stanton Lectures at the University of Cambridge. While I’m in no position to judge the book’s contributions to anthropology, I shall try to say something about its thesis as well as what I think it does for Christian theology. I’ve recently completed a book, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, significant parts of which might be considered “ethnographic” in ways that bear on anthropology. Still, what Professor Robbins does here far exceeds my book’s forays into anthropological method.

If one is willing to accept a general delineation that places methodology atop both theoretical and practical explanation (i.e., method explains theory and theory explains practice) then it can be said that Robbins aims here for the highest order contribution to his home discipline of anthropology. He has in his sights anthropological method, and seeks to reimagine how anthropology imagines itself.

Initially, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it, so radical is the idea. Robbins’ intervention involves a two-fold move that, first, posits theological concepts as proper subjects of anthropologies of Christianity and, second, reflects those concepts back onto the work of anthropology itself in order to yield “radically new kinds of anthropological analysis that might exist beyond the immanent frame” (158). A close parallel I know of would be Tyler Robert’s Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism. There, Roberts argued that the mapping strategies used by the discipline of religious studies blocks those disciplinary studies from ever being effected by the phenomena they study. Roberts then proposed a more integrated method whereby analyzed phenomena might redound through the analyses themselves. Robbins has something similar in mind, and incidentally describes Roberts’ book as “an important work that in intention parallels this one” (159). Robbins wants the concepts determining the lives of those Christians anthropologists of Christianity study to count in both those studies and in how those studies are conducted, believing that Christian “ideas help us see these data in new ways” and can “provide the basis for more sophisticated anthropological theories” (55).

An example should help to clarify. Anthropologists, according to Robbins, tend to presume in their ethnographic studies a certain temporal framework. Namely, they assume “that cultures and social structures—made as they were out of things like norms, customs, and traditions—were phenomena that endured through time” (39). So when they study community C, ethnographers presume that C has been doing for some time whatever makes C “C”. One can guess the practical reasons for proceeding as such. Capturing an image requires that the subject stand still long enough to offer a decent rendering. Part of the rendered continuity arrives as a function of the study itself. One guesses that the level of coverage and detail rendered is thought to make up for whatever gets lost when stillness is imposed from outside. This doesn’t mean that effective ethnographies are unable to detect and trace discontinuity, but they will do so in service to the broader picture of continuity. There is, insofar as the presented image proves compelling, just one thing being presented, just one story being told.

Yet, this presumed temporal frame makes a liar out of Christianity, which grants pride of place to discontinuity. In its strong emphasis on interruption and newness embodied in conversion narratives, Christianity would seem then to be a poor candidate for anthropological study. This is precisely where the rub comes. According to Robbins, what anthropologists do is instead of taking seriously Christianity’s emphasis on conversion, they shoehorn Christianity into their presumed temporal frames. They impose continuity, which cannot help but render dubious Christianity’s self-image; what Christians say, insofar as they say a lot about conversion, then counts for very little. Anthropology with its presumption of temporal continuity and Christianity with its presumption of temporal discontinuity begin then at loggerheads. Where Christians claim discontinuity, anthropologists claim continuity, and where believers see conversion, ethnographers see only the same old thing.

Again, this follows an analogous problematic in religious studies (see Robbins own mention of this on 94). In Encountering Religion, Roberts worried that the distance ostensibly required for mapping had turned skepticism into religious studies’ default methodological posture. The worry was not simply that such skepticism would get in the way of properly studying what religious studies purported to study. For Roberts, and for anyone relegated to the wrong side of the old theology-versus-religious studies divide, that was obvious. The real worry was the skeptical method’s dehumanizing effects. And dehumanizing not just for the subject matter, which again was obvious enough, but also for the religious studies scholar and the discipline as a whole, which, Roberts thought, had increasingly put itself out of touch with the humanism sitting at the heart of its disciplinary vocation. Religious studies had become, with its ever-intensifying methodological strictures, a mapping machine that could only succeed insofar as it avoided and deflected away from those properties of the human that animated its mission. It thought that in order to study human phenomena, it needed to become less human, and it was Roberts’ bold thesis that in fact some measure of humanity was needed.

Something similar is going on for Robbins regarding Christianity and its emphasis on discontinuity. Robbins thinks that something is amiss with ethnography’s shoehorning maneuver and its skepticism toward Christian claims of conversion. And the problem for him only starts with the ways that the skepticism will miss important features of what ethnographers purport to study. What they also miss is something about life which their study of Christianity might otherwise avail if not for their self-imposed blinders. Robbins finds in the Christian concept of conversion a temporal framework non-Christians might benefit from, and he is suggesting similar possibilities for a wide range of theological concepts. According to the conversion framework, the world is hardwired for discontinuity. Robbins does not develop matters along these lines but those familiar with medieval Christian thought might interject a certain account of creation here. . The concept of creation names for Christian theology contingency, and one thinks here of Aquinas’ formulation about divine existence and essence: God is the one whose essence is existence, whereas the creature is the one whose essence is not existence; God by definition has to exist; creatures, as created, do not. The mere fact of creation speaks of discontinuity, or what theologians under the influence of Augustine have long referred to as the gift-structure of creation (see Robbins 163 for a parallel in anthropology). This, Christian theologians believe, accounts for the air of contingency attending so much human life—that contingency, as sometimes said, goes “all the way down”—and imagines nature as shot through with grace. This allows Christianity to portray discontinuity as ultimately continuous with the way God has created the world, so therefore how God’s creatures flourish within it. This allows the Christian to narrate her story as both discontinuous with her past (say, of harmful addiction) and continuous with what God always intended for her, and hence her conversation as both rupture and fate, both diverting from a previous life and at the same time predestined to it. The results is not only a reimagined account of past and present but also, insofar as she envisions God as the author of her story, the future, where “radical hope” sustains her through life’s many upheavals (52). Christians describe such discontinuity/continuity as partaking in the divine life, where those whose existence is contingent participate in the one whose existence is essential. These insights are available to the ethnographer who takes seriously her Christian subject. Conversely, we might say that one of the reasons she does not take seriously her religious subject, why she defaults to the skeptical posture, is to insulate her from the implications of that which she studies. For Robbins Christian conversion talk serves as just one example in the pantheon of religious concepts that might open things up for the ethnographer willing to lean into them.  

Robbins follows a similar line of thought in the other four chapters that make up the book’s main body, in each case identifying the way ethnographers have been taught to frame certain Christian phenomena (i.e., sin and atonement, the prosperity gospel, millenarianism, and human agency), anticipating what judgements and conclusions those framings avail—and preclude—and then offering how things might otherwise go if the relevant phenomena are allowed to speak for themselves (e.g., see Robbins’ fascinating discussion of normativity, teleology, and moral judgement in relationship to the prosperity gospel on 96-103). The problem of the presumed framing is that it doesn’t allow anthropological research to yield much beyond what is already presumed to be there. Robbins rather wants anthropology’s ethnographers to put themselves in positions of being surprised by what they find, which requires first divesting themselves of their presumptions of what can be found. The work of anthropology as Robbins imagines it might be likened to how one sometimes hears historians describing the deep work of history as involved in the the discovery of difference and hence the powerful reminder that the present might have turned out other than it has. Elsewhere Robbins says as much, enjoining his fellow anthropologists “to recommit ourselves to finding real otherness in the world.”

Accordingly, Robbins wants for the ethnographer of Christianity to not remain at a distance from that which he studies, but rather to participate in and perhaps be changed by the world he has found interesting enough to partake in. To be clear, the outcome Robbins has in mind (for the anthropologist and the reader of anthropology alike) is not so much conversion to Christianity as much as conversion to certain conceptual ways Christians and others view the world, which Robbins thinks can prove salutary beyond their conceptual homes. The goal of ethnographic study is not for the ethnographer to be the same person she was before she undertook her study, thence dutifully carrying out her shoehorning procedures, but instead that she might avail herself to that which she has come to love, as would any human being in the presence of something so interesting to her that she would grant years of her life to it.

Nowhere does Robbins reject the critical distance social scientists need in order to render critical judgement on the subject matter they study (they are after all scientists, not proselytes) but maintaining that critical distance should not be viewed as precluding an intimacy that might permit something more. Indeed, for Robbins like Roberts before him an overly tidy distinction between critical distance and conceptual intimacy is exactly the problem, and rarely the kind of thing that occurs to most human communities making their way in the world.

At the book’s conclusion, Robbins makes mention of the anthropologist Saba Mahmood. I bring my own comments to a close by also discussing Mahmood. I was finishing graduate school when Mahmood published The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminine Subject. I remember the book as a revelation, licensing a mode of reflection I did not think the secular academy allowed. Mahmood helped us see that committed theologies, of the kind she discovered among women’s mosque movements in Egypt, held the possibility of not only upending secular sensibilities but also accordingly enriching our experiences of the world (indeed, following Mahmood’s teacher Talal Asad’s genealogy of secular modernity, it is unclear whether secularity amounts to anything more than a highly programmatic denaturing of our most cherished attunements and attachments). For many scholars, Mahmood opened the door to another world; not so much the world of confessional belief—though its ethnographies of confessional communities did at least that—but an academic world saturated with concepts beyond what academic guilds knew what to do with. Before her untimely death (sadly, Roberts likewise died at midcareer) Mahmood influenced generations of students (see for instance the lineage from Mahmood to Mayanthi Fernando to Milad Odabaei) whose basic disposition about confessional theology was that it should proceed unencumbered, without apology, as if it was just obvious that theology’s primary key was proclamation (see Robbins 162 on this point). For these theorists, the burden fell to the secular academy to explain why theology should dispense with the thick religious concepts and practices that helped communities and individuals make sense of the world. Like Robbins, Mahmood thought that unleashing these concepts, allowing them to do their thing, could have a liberating effect on her discipline of anthropology as well as a whole range of intellectual pursuits. No doubt she understood the dangers these concepts presented for the academic study of anything. But she likely also saw the danger of not making use of them, of what the university had become—e.g., science estranged from the world it deigned to study, scholars on the outside of their own lives, much needed conceptual tools left by the wayside—once shorn of thought’s most powerful motivations.

Robbins is after something similar in his book. One suspects that he would have an easier time of it if he centered women’s mosque movements instead of the evangelical Christians he chose to study. But perhaps that’s his point, that if even the culturally despised have something to teach us then perhaps our skepticism has left too much conceptual money on the table.

Robbins ends things with the statement, “I cannot even begin to speak for what, if anything, the dialogue staged in this book might mean for theology, but I hope it might have some transformative potential in that direction as well” (167). Indeed, Theology and the Anthropology of Christian Life offers proposals from theology to anthropology. Let me suggest one benefit on the theology side. Late modernity has left Christian theology with two large tasks. The first is to find a way forward in the face of all the damage Christianity has wrought on the non-Christian world. Researches into the ethics and consequences of Eurocentrism, colonization, imperialism, racial capitalism, chattel slavery, the conquest of the Americas, and so on have, at least theoretically, closed the door on certain ways of moving forward. After coming to terms with all the damage, supposing we can, how then shall we live, especially where the “we” is constructed in terms of those who believe that the God Christians worship provides a way even when no way presents itself? The other large task has to do with figuring out how theological knowledge interacts with explicitly non-theological knowledge. And here I mean the sciences. When scientists explain without any mention of theological concepts phenomena as diverse as human cell structure and the dietary habits of previously unknown people groups, then God becomes at best an afterthought in the human story. How then do theologians speak of the world as if God created, sustains, and completes it? Notice that these two large tasks are not unrelated to one another. The difficulty of finding a way forward in a world damaged by Christians opens the door for non-theological explanations of the world, including explanations of how badly Christians have damaged the world. The pragmatic nature of human reason makes it that the world begs explanation and few are any longer looking for Christians to provide those explanations.

It seems to me that Robbins offers a way forward for theologians. Recall that Robbins draws from theologians an account of human time as somehow participating in God’s time, so that the discontinuities and ruptures as well as the continuities and hopefulness of the human experience come to something rather than nothing. Robbins in his turn does not try to get those theologians to iron out all of the questions that come with an account that simultaneously posits continuity and discontinuity, or their existential equivalent—hope and despair. Rather he seems as content as the theologians he draws from with letting some things go unexplained. There is no plea here for a God of the Gaps to save us from life’s many disconnects. He seems to have in mind something like what philosopher Stephen Mulhall claimed in his own Stanton Lectures, delivered just a few years before Robbins’. There, Mulhall speaks of “the great riddles” of human existence, and he means the disconnect between the projection of human concepts and their perfected meanings. For Mulhall, explanations of life’s riddles exceed what we can currently grasp. This is as it should be, Mulhall thinks, since the perfection of our projections can only be realized in the eternity of God. Professor Mulhall says, “In the end, then, the sheer existence of philosophy as a mode of human appraisive judgement reveals that human beings aspire by their very nature to a completeness of understanding that they cannot realize. Philosophy constitutes the place at which finite human understanding endlessly attempts, and as endlessly fails, to take itself in as a whole; and it thereby reveals that it is internal to the nature of finite beings to be subject to the mysterious, unsatisfiable desire to transcend their own finitude.” In the meantime—say, the time between riddles and their resolutions—much about our explanations will go unexplained. In this way theological knowledge turns out to be no different than any knowledge: “those who claim there is a solution to the great riddle cannot mean that they grasp how that solution is a solution to the riddle… They can only mean that they know that something is the solution” (39).  Might knowledge of the human, including knowledge of all the damage wrought by humans, work somewhat like this? Christians speak of the world as if it is God’s world, while recognizing that the terms they use (e.g., terms related to causality) still need to be filled out. Read in this light, the usual concerns about appropriation and dilution raised whenever non-theologians (i.e., Robbins) use theological concepts (i.e., conversion) give way to an awareness of the provisional status of all human concepts, and therefore the life of those concepts once radically shared “beyond the immanent frame”—that we are all of us together working our way into meaning.


Fernando, Mayanthi L. The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Mahmood, Saba. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (2001): 202–36.

———. Politics of Piety the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. ACLS Fellows’ Publications. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory : Beyond Secular Reason. Signposts in Theology. Cambridge, Mass., USA: B. Blackwell, 1991.

Mulhall, Stephen. The Great Riddle: Wittgenstein and Non-Sense, Theology and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Odabaei, Milad. “The Outside (Kharij) of Tradition in the Aftermath of the Revolution: Carl Schmitt and Islamic Knowledge in Postrevolutionary Iran.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 39, no. 2 (2019): 296–311.

Robbins, Joel. “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” Anthropological Quarterly 79, no. 2 (2006): 285–94.

Roberts, Tyler T. Encountering Religion : Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism. Insurrections : Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Tran, Jonathan. Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022.

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