Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Personhood, Christianity, Modernity

From the individual organism to our entire species, reckoned to have passed the figure of seven billion persons in the Autumn of 2011, different kinds of anthropologist deal with human beings in different ways. Some emphasize factors characteristic of all those human beings. Others are more interested in the variation. There is no consensus as to how to carve up this vast population into manageable, comparable units. Many anthropologists still fall back on “society”, but the most favored term in the twentieth century was “culture” (Kuper 1999). On the basis of prolonged immersion in some localized setting (“the ethnographic method”), socio-cultural anthropologists showed how even the seeming universals of age and sex were modified by the specificities of (a) culture. But this word needs a health warning: the claim that every human biological organism is embedded in culture is not the same as the claim that each human being is embedded in a culture. The difference is pertinent when we come to consider cross-cultural variation in personhood.

This has been a tangled area of theorizing ever since Marcel Mauss (1938 [1983]) first problematized the historical transformation of the personne into the moi. I have much sympathy with Maurice Bloch’s recent attempt to cut through the confusions with his notion of “the blob” (Bloch 2011). Like others before him, Bloch concludes with a dichotomizing synthesis. For Bloch humans are basically the same everywhere; it is just that some of us are more inclined to “meta-represent” than others. He reaches this position by adapting terms from philosopher Galen Strawson. Diachronics are persons inclined to talk about their feelings and “inner states”. Episodics do not share this inclination, but that does not make them a different kind of human. This distinction is merely the result of how different human “blobs” (i.e. persons, selves, etc.) have been formed by history and culture. Bloch avoids a fragmentary relativism by offering instead a broad-brush dichotomy between the “individualist, self-reflexive blob cultures of the West”, crowded with diachronic narratives, and the Malagasy villages of his own fieldwork, where talk of internal states is possible but “rare” (Bloch 2011: 10). It is not that the latter do not experience these mental states as often as the former; it is just that they seldom articulate them. Both diachronics and episodics can be found among both English and Malagasy, but statistically “history and culture” seem to come in two basic types. Bloch’s dichotomy is a sophisticated variation of many previous efforts by Western social scientists to distinguish between chaud vs. froid, Kulturvolk vs. Naturvolk, etc. For Bloch, the key criteria are the presence or absence of reflection on the person, the articulation or non-articulation of internal states (including emotions).

Bloch does not employ the term “modernity” but his contrast is congruent with the hoary binary of tradition/modernity, as elaborated by Western sociologists from Tönnies and Weber to Anthony Giddens. But this no longer corresponds to the macro-sociological and economic realities of today’s globalized world. The “individualist, self-reflexive blob cultures of the West” have been outperformed by the less introvertive cultures of East Asia, first Japan and Korea and nowadays China. On what possible grounds can we deny the modernity of these countries, with their well documented more relational notions of personhood?

In this essay I question widely held assumptions that the emergence of the individualist blob is connected with particular currents of Christianity and, more generally, the invocation of religious ideas to explain changes in societal organization. This is tangential to Bloch’s agenda, but I shall return at the end to his concern with personhood. The assumptions I critique are so widespread that they can be taken for granted by the readership of a new internet journal in anthropology. Mauss himself explicitly invoked the Protestant sects in support of his evolutionist argument linking individualism to modernity. True, some anthropologists have countered these notions. Meyer Fortes and many others reported rich inner states among non-Europeans who had not yet been exposed to Christian missionizing. Not everyone was convinced by Alan Macfarlane’s efforts to locate the origins of individualism in England, or by Louis Dumont’s contrasting of the hierarchies of South Asia with the egalitarian individualism of modern Europe. But these writings have been highly influential, as has Marilyn Strathern’s opposition between the Euro-American individual and the “dividual” of Melanesia. In their very different ways, all these scholars tell stories of Western exceptionalism. Bloch avoids a black and white categorization, but he does not tell us how the statistical difference came about. Is the number of diachronics in Madagascar and elsewhere expanding more rapidly than the global population of episodics? Can we identify tipping points? Is this the Rubicon beyond which we find Bloch’s own version of modernity?

It is widely acknowledged that anthropology was for a long time insufficiently reflexive concerning its own origins in Western social thought and, behind this, in specific currents of Christianity. Much of the discussion has focused on the notion of “belief” (Asad 1993; Cannell 2005; cf. Needham 1972). This essay, too, is concerned to probe long histories of Western bias, including distortions in anthropological work on Christianity itself. I focus on Max Weber rather than Mauss because his contributions have been so massively influential for the whole of Western social science. After giving examples of the shadows he casts in contemporary anthropology, I proceed to note recent criticisms and extensions of Weber’s argument with respect to Catholicism. Protestantism and Catholicism are the largest Christian communities worldwide, and it is therefore not surprising that they have dominated studies of Christianity by socio-cultural anthropologists. Large “Eastern” communities have been neglected.[1] They complicate the familiar models: neither “other” in the sense of a Naturvolk, nor “at home in the West” as we have come to define it. I shall take some examples from the burgeoning literature on Eastern Orthodox traditions with these larger issues in mind. Is there a distinctive Eastern Christian person, corresponding to a unique Orthodox culture or civilization – or modernity?

Click to enlarge

Mandylion icon, 15th century, Sanok Historical Museum

Making good the deficits in studies of Eastern and Oriental Christians is more than a matter of filling gaps in the ethnographic record. The work now getting under way i) exposes distortions in the large corpus of work on Western Christianity; ii) raises more general issues of theory and method in the study of religion; iii) bears directly on larger debates concerning the interplay between ideas and material transformations in longue durée history. My conclusion is that anthropologists should be wary of all attempts to explain a “breakthrough to modernity” in terms of personhood and theologies, whether those of Protestantism or of earlier Axial Age civilizations. The comparative Weberian agenda remains endlessly fascinating; it can perhaps be freed of its most Eurocentric premises and its idealism; but causalities are complex and in future research it may prove advantageous to pay more attention to the ways in which the emergence of churches and sects, asceticism and mysticism, and our notions of interiorized, text-based belief have all been shaped by evolving technologies of production and communication, rather than the other way around.

The Protestant bias

According to mainstream history and the social sciences, as they emerged in Europe and are taught nowadays in most parts of the world, a radical transition from tradition to modernity began in Europe some time between the sixteenth century and the consolidation of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. Most theories along these lines attach great importance to the Protestant Reformation. This is not unrelated to the fact that a Protestant island and its North-American offshoot were the world’s dominant powers in the era in which this globalized knowledge was formed; but the phenomenon is by no means restricted to the Anglo-Saxon literature and the most influential scholarly inputs have been those of a patriotic German liberal called Max Weber.

Weber was by no means the first to suggest connections between commercial prosperity and the nature of the religious community and its doctrines. Others had already made similar observations for the colonies and post-colonies of the United States. In his famous essay The Protestant Ethic, and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05), Weber drew on the writings of Benjamin Franklin and was careful not to advance a strong causal theory. Instead he put forward a subtle argument asserting an elective affinity (Wahlverwandtschaft) between Protestant (particularly Calvinist) faith, asceticism (innerweltliche askese), concern with individual salvation, and the dynamic entrepreneurial economy that he and his historian contemporary Werner Sombart christened capitalism. The links were so subtle that the postulated affinity could not be confirmed at all in later empirical efforts to link the spread of Protestantism with the development of a capitalist market economy (Marshall 1982). Weber seems to have misread Franklin; economic historians of the United States have questioned whether puritan asceticism played any positive role at all in that country’s development. Countless scholars have pointed out the precedents for “capitalist” entrepreneurial behavior in numerous parts of Eurasia from ancient Mesopotamia onwards. Weber himself in later work drew attention to similar religious tensions in ancient Judaism and other churches and sects. Despite a mountain of critical scholarship, however, Weber’s essay of 1904-05 entered the sociological canon and still forms a touchstone in the conceptualization of modernity. Weber’s archetypal Protestant is taken to epitomize the “modern” citizen, who has internalized his faith, and has no need of priests, sacraments and material encumbrances to communicate with the deity. The Reformation is taken to be the caesura, opening new rifts between secular and ecclesiastical authorities, paving the way for the Enlightenment, and ultimately for the more thoroughgoing rational humanism which culminated in the nineteenth century in the work of Charles Darwin and in the birth of the social sciences. Weber himself spoke of long-term processes of “rationalization”. He expressed his profoundly melancholic evaluation of them with the metaphor of “disenchantment”.

For Max Weber, then, the economic ethic (Wirtschaftsethik) of Protestantism was the key to the genesis of modernity, secularity, and European exceptionalism. I argue that this emphasis on Protestantism has distorted not only the “anthropology of Christianity” (Cannell 2006; cf. Hann 2007) but our thinking about “modernity” generally. It is not my intention to deny or belittle Protestant innovations. These churches and sects undoubtedly took the lead in translating the Bible and promoting individualist, text-based faith globally, increasingly freed from the encumbrances of territory and ethno-national loyalties. Protestants also played a key role in shaping Western liberal notions of human rights. But these ideas did not spring from nowhere, and there is no reason to accept them as the template of modernity, both positive and normative. Yet most people do, including anthropologists. Weber may not figure overtly in new fields such as postcolonial studies, but behind new vocabularies the influence of The Protestant Ethic still makes itself felt. For example, the focus of the well-received work of Webb Keane is not the economic breakthrough to capitalism but what he terms the representational economy of language and a broader “semiotic ideology” (Keane 2007). For Keane, modernity is a subjective feeling inhabiting what Bloch might term a hyper-diachronic person. The basic emancipatory narrative is one of self-transformation. Purification and moral sincerity are achieved through the dematerialization of potentially disruptive mediations (objectifications) such as fixed prayers and icons. Keane illustrates his argument with reference to Dutch Calvinist missionary encounters and conversion processes in Indonesia, though he readily admits to being less interested in history and sociological transformation than in conceptual exploration. What links his analysis to that of Weber is the conviction that the Protestant theology of transcendence offers a bridge to secular narratives of modernity. For both authors the religious background is crucial; within Christianity they pay sustained attention only to Protestantism; and even within Protestantism, their focus is very much limited to one church tradition, that of the Calvinists.

While Keane’s work on Dutch Calvinists represents one influential strand in anthropological work on Christianity, studies of Pentecostalists and “salvation theology” have also been numerous in recent years. Confusingly, these too are often aligned with modernity. The new faith arrived at more or less the same time as other radical social changes, but in these new “evangelical” churches innerweltliche Askese typically gives way to the most exuberant rituals and new forms of charismatic mediation. Joel Robbins, one of the most productive scholars in this field, who carried out fieldwork in a small community of recent converts to Pentecostalism in New Guinea, frequently abstracts on the basis of his own ethnography to the entire Christian tradition. He suggests that the emphasis that Melanesian converts place on rupture in their personal lives and social order can stand for a fundamental notion of discontinuity underpinning Christian theology tout court (Robbins 2007). Whereas Cannell (2005) argues that the anthropology of religion has suffered from a Christian bias, Robbins holds that the “continuity thinking” premise of the discipline has to be overcome if we are to do justice to Christian communities. Like Webb Keane, Robbins insists that Christianity has become a global church, of which non-Western converts can be fully authentic members. This is certainly one way to theorize religious modernity. But it seems to me that all of these contemporary socio-cultural anthropologists are oblivious to the Protestant bias which colours their understandings of both Christianity and modernity. In their very different ways, all remain in thrall to Max Weber.

Catholic modifications 

This Weberian model is commonly equated with a unitary “Western” or “Euro-American” liberal civilization. However, Weber himself was careful to draw distinctions within das Abendland. The rituals of Roman Catholics, whether in the Mediterranean or among the Slavs beyond the Elbe, did not differ essentially from the magical polytheistic world of primitive peoples and were incompatible with his telos of rationalization. This view has recently been criticized from Roman Catholic perspectives. Anthony Carroll SJ (2007, 2009) has argued persuasively that Weber’s arguments were distorted by a Protestant “metanarrative”. According to this critique, Weber’s sociological analysis of Lutheranism and Calvinism was heavily influenced by contemporary liberal Protestant theological currents, which banished God’s grace from the natural world. Ritual was excluded from “rational” action in favor of inner-worldly asceticism, which in turn provided the alleged link to the pursuit of capitalist profit. Mysticism, in this account, is equated with other-worldly contemplation and passivity. For Carroll, as a Jesuit, this forecloses recognition of how Jesuit “contemplative action”, and other currents since the Catholic Reformation, have also contributed to the formation of the modern world. In sum, without explicitly referring to theories of multiple modernities (Eisenstadt 2002), Carroll holds that Weber fails to take account of distinctively Catholic modernization movements such as those led by the Jesuits in many parts of the world from the Counter-Reformation onwards. Roman Catholics in contemporary North America have come to behave increasingly like Protestants; they no longer seem in any way handicapped as they compete world-wide on the contemporary religious market (Martin 2011).

Anthony Carroll also addresses the recent work of Charles Taylor, the distinguished Catholic philosopher, who has recently formulated his own version of a Great Divide theory (Taylor 2007). It resembles Weber’s account, but Taylor incorporates Roman Catholicism into a unitary “north Atlantic world” in which the “conditions of belief” have been forever altered, for believers and non-believers alike. The Reformation was important, argues Taylor, but it was merely the culmination of tensions which he traces back through the Catholicism of the Middles Ages to Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century. When he writes of the history of Christendom and even “orthodox Christianity”, Taylor limits his purview to the West and ignores the Eastern traditions traditionally called Orthodox. The reader is left with the impression that Eastern Christendom is a radically different world. In the West, long before the Reformation, in addition to the rationalism of scholastic philosophy, elements of secularity, including doubt concerning the transcendental God and reliance instead an “exclusive humanism”, began to spread in society. Throughout these centuries the rest of the world was still imprisoned in what Taylor calls “naïve”, unquestioning faith.

It is interesting to observe how Taylor privileges the notion of transcendence in his very definition of religion. Whereas some contemporary anthropologists see this as a peculiarity of Protestantism, Taylor recognizes that transcendence opens up a much wider field and jumps to some tentative comparisons with Buddhism. He has been criticized by Hans Joas for drawing his illustrations of immanent, “enchanted” religiosity exclusively from medieval Catholicism, a religion which on his own account was also premised on a theology of transcendence and well on the way to bursting the limitations of “naïveté for all” (Joas 2009). Joas is critical of a Western “culturalist” bias in Taylor’s work, and calls instead for investigation of the more concrete political and economic contingencies which sustained a Catholic vector of reform in the centuries before the Reformation. But on the larger questions, Joas is at one with Taylor. Neither of these Catholic scholars is able to explain how a distinction between immanent and transcendent came to be the defining feature of “our culture” (Taylor 2007: 16) when this is not specific either to Protestantism or to Western Christianity more generally.

Where do Eastern Christians fit in?

So far I have argued that, down to the present day, influential Western philosophers and social scientists have failed to engage significantly with Eastern Christians. Dismissive of Catholic sacramentalism, Weber seems to have judged Eastern Christians to be even further removed from the progressive Protestant sects. Admittedly, there is not much evidence on which to base this claim: Weber wrote little about Catholicism, though his general distaste seems to have softened over the years. He wrote even less about Eastern Christianity. This is surprising, above all in view of the fact that, soon after publishing The Protestant Ethic, he developed an intense interest in Russia (Weber 1995). This was prompted by the Revolution of 1905, which seems to have raised hopes in Weber that this neighbouring non-Western civilization could provide the salutary antidote for the suffocating rationalization processes to which his own civilization had succumbed. His close-up analyses of Russian politics dashed these hopes and he became increasingly unsympathetic to the “Russian drama” in the last years of his life. But what is odd, given the timing of his most intensive engagement with the situation in Russia, is that he focuses almost entirely on recent political developments. He makes no attempt to integrate religion into his analysis, let alone to probe deeper into the Wirtschaftsethik of the Orthodox Church, as he had just done for the case of Protestantism.

Weber’s largely ahistorical approach to Russian religion and society was clearly expressed in his response to a paper given by his friend Ernst Troeltsch at the first meeting of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Frankfurt in 1910. Weber put forward a triangular comparison. He argued that, while the “court of last resort” in the case of the Lutherans was the “Word”, the Holy Scriptures, and for the Roman Catholics it was the Pope in Rome, for the Greek Church it was “the community of the church united in love”. This church, according to Weber, was not threatened by sectarianism but rather “saturated, in great measure, with a very specific classical mysticism” (Weber 1973: 144). Weber seems to have based this characterization on his reading of Khomiakov and the giants of Russian literature, notably Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He concluded that Russian religiosity had an “acosmic … mystical substratum” which differed radically from the this-worldly orientation of the Protestant sects. While the latter were conducive to the production of a modern Gesellschaft, the former were conducive only to Gemeinschaft (Ferdinand Tönnies, the coiner of this dichotomy, was one of Weber’s debating partners at this session of the Frankfurt conference; the others were Troeltsch and Georg Simmel).

In Weber’s argumentation, the sects and mystics to be found in Russia were very different from the modern individualist mysticism which Troeltsch considered the culmination of religious evolution. It was easier to postulate a distinctively Confucian or Hindi “alternative” modernity to that of the West than to consider the interplay between religious and materialist changes among fellow Christians on the West’s doorstep. The long common history seems to have been an impediment to comparison, and this has persisted since Weber’s time. Contemporary anthropologists thus find it easier to attribute “dematerialization” to a theological Big Bang in the sixteenth century than to trace centuries of iconoclastic controversy preceding the Great Schism.

Of course anthropologists are not the major players when it comes to occluding or “orientalizing” Eastern Christians and their histories. It is difficult for any scholars (regardless of discipline) to outline these histories impartially when Orthodox Churches which reject the American model of a strict separation between Church and state are promptly accused of “caesaropapism” and flying in the face of “European values”. Greece, which figures so prominently in Europeanist rhetoric by virtue of the Hellenic past (Herzfeld 1987), is a long-running target of these insinuations. Only recently have researchers inside and outside anthropology begun to explore what new patterns might be emerging in those large Orthodox populations which were subjected to the repressive policies of “scientific atheism” until two decades ago (Roudometof, Pankhurst and Agadjanian 2005). These scholars face a double trap, since the long-term otherness of Eastern Christianity has been compounded by the overlay of the uniquely modern alterity created by the Iron Curtain. Even sociologists of religion as sophisticated as David Martin (2011) find it hard to prevent their distaste for communism from cementing stereotypes of a “ritualistic” Orthodoxy tied everywhere to national identities, in opposition to a globalized Western Christianity in which earlier differences between Catholic and Protestant traditions have been rendered redundant.

Eastern Christianity thus remains mired in ancient stereotypes. It is hard to see how a counterattack analogous to the Catholic counterattack described above could be launched. The greater degree of doctrinal continuity and conservatism in the eastern churches is irrefutable. There is no equivalent to the Jesuit engagement with science and modernization around the world. Orthodox churches may have expanded in recent centuries, notably across Siberia, but they have not become “global sects”, i.e. voluntary associations of believers, in the way that Catholicism and Protestantism compete on the world market for souls. Orthodoxy has remained to a much greater extent a matter of birthright; its presence in North America and Australia tends to be national (Greek, Serb, Russian etc) rather than transnational. These legacies also have a direct bearing on the frequent allegations that Eastern Christian churches have failed to develop modern social welfare policies, to acknowledge religious human rights (notably freedom to proselytize), and indeed human rights tout court.

On the other hand, we should note that Orthodox churches are in principle no more beholden to the state than Anglicans or the state churches of Lutheranism. Their decentralized, conciliar organization is surely more modern than the inflexible hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of Anthony Carroll’s Jesuit strictures against Max Weber can be readily reformulated from an Orthodox point of view. Orthodoxy shares with Catholicism its emphasis on liturgy, its notion of the human person as the image of God, and its integration of the mystical and contemplative into human action. But the bigger question here concerns the significance of theology for the interplay between religion and social transformation. For example, both Eastern and Western Christians view the Church Fathers’ intellectual refinements of the solitary Godhead as a great advance, but Max Weber viewed Trinitarian theology as a relapse to polytheism (McMylor and Vorozhishcheva 2007: 465). Some dogmas in this area remain controversial. Had Weber paid closer attention to the protracted debates about the filioque, still unresolved in the present ecumenical era, he might have been obliged to conclude that, since the Western churches were more committed to the position that God’s spirit passed “through the son” to the Holy Ghost, it was they, rather than the Eastern churches, who deviated more profoundly from rigorous monotheism.

I am not seeking to deny differences in intellectual history and theology. It is correct to associate Protestantism with the elimination of images, medieval Roman Catholicism with the rise of more realistic renderings of sacred figures, and Eastern Christianity with more conservative icon representations. But these developments stem from common sources and the historical record provides no grounds for extrapolating from aesthetics and theology to social institutions and economic expansion. The commercial enterprise of Armenian communities inside and outside the Byzantine and Ottoman empires is powerful evidence that nothing in the theology of the East contributed a barrier to the extension of trade when the conditions were favorable (Hann and Goltz 2010: 3). For more than half of its history the “civilizational” advantages lay with the East: Byzantium was by far the largest city in Europe. London, even after it became Protestant, remained provincial in comparison. That those cities and their respective churches later followed divergent paths surely owes rather little to theological differences. As Vasilios Makrides (2005) has argued in a balanced assessment, the reasons why Eastern Christians have not participated to the same extent as their Western counterparts in long-term processes of rationalization and modernization are better viewed as contingent; we should not attribute them to essentialist, immutable characteristics of their churches and their dogmas.

Recent anthropological work

The contribution of socio-cultural anthropologists to understandings of Eastern Christianities has so far been limited. For reasons of accessibility, the Anglophone ethnographic literature was long focused on Greece. Charles Stewart’s (1991) study of how Great and Little Traditions merged on the island of Naxos was a landmark. Contrary to Robbins’ claim that discontinuity was the hallmark of Christianity, Stewart emphasized the concept of tradition (paradosis) and conservatism. Despite the element of rupture that forms a necessary element in any prophetic religion, the Greek Orthodox Church represented itself in its doctrines as a continuous body of believers; Stewart found this to be confirmed in the practices of its members, whose contemporary demonology could be traced back to pre-Christian origins.

Similar implicit contrasts with an allegedly more interiorized Christianity in the West emerge from recent work on Eastern Christian communities in the former socialist countries. This is of course a context of massive social dislocation, which must be born in mind when local actors emphasize long-term continuities. In the city of Vladimir, named after the Prince who converted the people of Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity in 988, Tobias Köllner (2010) documented a close alignment of secular and religious officials in the decades following the collapse of Marxism-Leninism. He was struck by the propensity of new entrepreneurs to fund the building of churches, to have their offices and factories blessed by Orthodox priests, and to organize trips to sacred shrines for their workers (see also Zigon 2011b). Similarly, in her study of contemporary Russian pilgrimages in another part of Russia Jeanne Kormina (2010) emphasized the external, commercial aspects of the journeys, which she saw as continuing the secular tradition of the works outing of the Soviet era. As in Greece, Eastern Christianity in these ethnographic accounts appears seriously deficient in the Protestant nexus of interiorized belief.

Some anthropologists have applied contemporary cognitive theories to Eastern Christian communities, notably Harvey Whitehouse’s dichotomy between the doctrinal and the imagistic modes of religiosity (Whitehouse 2004). Alice Forbess (2010) found during her work in a Romanian convent that nuns paid little heed to texts and acquired their knowledge primarily from charismatic seniors. Vlad Naumescu, who worked with Greek Catholics in the Western Ukraine, elaborated a more complex historical analysis (2008). While the imagistic mode of religiosity was dominant when this Church was repressed during the socialist decades, he found that the doctrinal reasserted itself after its re-legalization in the 1990s, when formal hierarchical structures replaced the “catacomb” community. However, sensuous performances remained extremely important, as Naumescu found with the efflorescence of exorcism rituals in a newly established monastery, for which there was obviously strong demand in a society severely affected by postsocialist dislocation. Generally, Naumescu argues that Orthodox Christianity maintains a distinctive balance between Whitehouse’s contrasting modes, corresponding to the balance between logos and icon which most Orthodox theologians believe has been disrupted in Western traditions, Catholic and Protestant alike.

The Greek Catholics are a group of particular interest in scrutinizing Great Divide theories. They belong to both East and West, since they acknowledge the Pope as the head of their Church, yet retain the “practical religion” of their Orthodox neighbours, notably the Byzantine liturgy. They were not required to include the filioque in their recitation of the creed, despite its nominal requirement according to Latin theology. In practice there was nonetheless considerable acculturation. Unequal power relations were the key factor in explaining why many features of the Latin Church were adopted in the East, only to be challenged through later attempts at purification (Mahieu and Naumescu 2008). These tensions have continued in the decades after socialism. The existence of such interstitial churches does not invalidate the East-West boundary, but it has led me to question the notion of conflictual civilizational difference as put forward by Samuel Huntington (see Hann 2006a, 2006b).

If there is one feature that is routinely taken to epitomize the otherness of Eastern Christian traditions, it is the “worship” of icons. The theology and materiality of icons have been ethnographically investigated by Gabriel Hanganu in eastern Romania (Hanganu 2010). He finds it helpful to conceptualise human interaction with icons in terms of social relations. Hanganu argues that Eastern Christians elaborate in their theology and practices a version of “distributed personhood” which falls somewhere in between an English notion of the individual self and Marilyn Strathern’s Melanesian “dividuals”. According to theology, one sacred image is as good as any other, but in practice villagers go to great lengths to take particular “highly charged” icons with well-known “biographies” to their fields when praying for rain. These are held to be more efficacious.

The upshot of these recent ethnographic studies, emphasizing the performance of rituals and topics such as icons, demons and exorcism, is that the stream of Christianity which bears the name Orthodoxy looks more like a world in which what really counts is orthopraxy. The implication is that Eastern Christians are somehow different from the West in this respect, just as Weber and his panel members agreed a century ago in Frankfurt. I suggest that we see here the effects of the ethnographic method combining with the legacy that privileges text-based faith and interior states in our very definition of religion. Ritual practice is significant in Western Christianity too, but we tend to overlook or understate this in order to highlight a contrast to the rest of the world. Again, it is not my purpose to deny all differences. But, following Makrides (2005), I see such differences in both theology and practice as sociologically contingent.

Let us look again at some of the above-mentioned ethnographic studies, bearing in mind that it is much easier to observe ritual performance than to gain access to the inner states of the actors and the nature of their faith. Tobias Köllner suggests that the degree of spirituality among some of the businessmen he knew was rather low; but he also notes that some maintained intimate links to a personal confessor. Inna Naletova’s ethnographic study of contemporary Russian Orthodox pilgrims (Naletova 2010) suggested far deeper levels of religious commitment than those reported by Kormina in the same volume. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the difference has something to do with the fact that Naletova writes as a member of the community she studies. This was not the case in Jarrett Zigon’s study of Orthodox Church drug rehabilitation programmes in St Petersburg. Zigon showed how addicts were encouraged to “work on the self” in a manner which subordinated Orthodox theological notions of the person to new notions of what it meant to be a competent modern person in a globalized neoliberal environment (Zigon 2011a). The resulting notion of personhood does not deviate significantly from familiar Western individualism, and Zigon accordingly found it easy to apply the theories of Michel Foucault in this context (see Yan 2011 in the previous issue of this journal for critical discussion of Zigon’s work with respect to the social shaping of morality).

In the study noted above, Gabriel Hanganu shows that the theology of the Eastern Churches has contributed to practices and ideas of the person which differ from those of most Western Christians. But we are surely dealing here with what Bloch terms meta-representations rather than the person as such. Neither Hanganu nor any of the other anthropologists I have mentioned provide any evidence that internal states are different from those of other Christians. Whatever these Romanian villages may believe concerning the invisible tie which the icon establishes to the deity, there is no evidence that Orthodoxy creates a substantively different person. These notions of personhood are no more an obstruction to rational action than the equivalent Confucian rituals in China over the centuries, where a prominent concern with efficacy does not entail a complete lack of concern with meaning and belief.

In contemporary Greece, the contemporary anthropologist who looks beyond the rural parish community soon stumbles upon contemporary phenomena very similar to those found in other traditions, including text-based “rigorism” and the search for new forms of individualized spirituality. Charles Stewart found that, at the time of his research among Naxos villagers, experiences of the mystical and supernatural were actually more widespread among the urban middle classes in Athens. Villagers had evidently internalized modern scientific scepticism toward irrational phenomena, but city dwellers remained one step ahead and thus preserved their cultural hegemony (Stewart 1989). In short, changing social relations can shape the religious field very directly. From this social perspective, the growing individualization described by Hirschon (2010) in Greek family rituals represents a convergence with actual behaviour: no substantive transformation in personhood is involved, since the Orthodox faith has never been a hindrance to the exercise of egotistical agency (Herzfeld 2002).

This is not the place for a fuller review of the expanding literature on Eastern Christians. Let me close by noting Douglas Rogers’ outstanding historical ethnography of Old Believers in the Urals (2009). The persistence of “priestless” communities in this remote location is a reminder that the Eastern Churches are as diverse as the better known Churches of the West. Rogers shows that these Old Believers maintained an ethical continuity through the most dramatic changes in secular regimes. This is most evident in the asceticism of their elders, whose aversion to money is still evident in the turmoil of the postsocialist years. Rogers was a student of Webb Keane and he pays close attention to the materiality of the Old Believers’ faith. But he gently chides Keane and Joel Robbins for their failure to engage with other Christians. Rogers proposes instead a richer, more social understanding of Old Believer personhood, a Maussian corrective to the currently dominant Foucauldian approaches. The further Blochian corrective must be to caution against seeing what Rogers describes as the “ethical repertoire” of personhood as more than representations and meta-representations. Old Believer personhood is a product of Russian history, not its driver.

Generic Protestantism, the Axial Age and Multiple Modernities

I have tried to suggest how investigations of Eastern Christians can help to expose the continuing bias of the Weberian tradition, evident in much contemporary ethnography. Ethnographic studies of Eastern Christians are gradually filling large gaps in the literature, but such micro-level studies secrete a bias of their own – towards ritual and orthopraxy, thereby confirming the myth that meaning and belief are the unique prerogative of Western Christians. Before concluding I want briefly to indicate the stakes at the other end of the spectrum, i.e. world history. In his recent biography, John Hall suggests that Ernest Gellner was in certain respects “more Weberian than Weber himself” (2010: 229). By this I think he means that Gellner recognized the Eurocentric bias of Weber’s emphasis on Calvin, but considered that his historical sociology could be cleansed of this bias. According to this account, the fundamental insight is that the strict morality imposed by the transcendental God created conditions that were favorable for objective, scientific thinking, and thereby the “cognitive revolution” crucial for the breakthrough to modernity. The “rigid and austere deity had no cognitive favorites and would not disclose its secrets capriciously to some. Patient investigation of its rules, as revealed in its creation, would be the only path towards enlightenment.” (Gellner 1988: 101; cited in Hall 2010: 255). Islam fitted these specifications rather well – certainly better than Catholicism. Yet despite the scientific achievements of the early centuries, this particular version of a puritanical scripturalist faith did not lead to industrial society and secularity. Gellner is eventually obliged to fall back on political and demographic circumstances to explain why the “great escape” from Agraria to Industria took place as it did.

Other theorists have followed different paths. Recognizing that mainstream social science has privileged one particular strand of just one of the so-called “world religions”, Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt is one of the most prominent advocates of the “multiple modernities” paradigm (Eisenstadt 2002). He traces these modernities back to the much earlier breakthroughs of the Axial Age in various regions of the Eurasian landmass (Arnason, Eisenstadt and Wittrok 2005). Max Weber himself recognized the significance of ancient Judaism. But problems remain. Hinduism and Buddhism may at a pinch be squeezed in alongside the Abrahamic religions, but “Chinese religion” seems to lack a comparable notion of transcendence. Yet China was at the forefront of economic, scientific, “civilizational” advances for so long, and is moving ever closer to re-assuming that role today. If the multiple modernities paradigm is to include China, as it surely must, then we must surely acknowledge that “this-worldly” Confucian values differ from the transcendent of the major world religions.

This suggests that we should consider the possibility that theological doctrines and religion more generally are not very important factors in the evolution of social and economic institutions. Without engaging explicitly with the theorists of the Axial Age, Jack Goody (2010) has elaborated comparably broad perspectives to oppose what he sees as the Eurocentrism of the Weberian approach. Goody criticises previous diagnoses of a “European miracle” and proposes instead a “Eurasian miracle”, based on material commonalities across the landmass since the urban revolution of the Bronze Age. He objects to Giddens’ notion of modernity and rejects the term as a constantly “moving target” (Goody 2004). What counts in his view is that East and West competed with each other and “alternated” in technological superiority over millennia. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century did the West achieve a decisive breakthrough; religion played no significant role in this achievement.


By subsubsuming self, person and individual under a single conception of “the blob”, Maurice Bloch (2011) emphasizes our commonality as human beings. He acknowledges, however, that some of us indulge in more “meta-representation” of inner states than others. He considers this statistical variation insignificant compared with the brute existence of the universal blob, but it nonetheless lends a certain indirect support to dominant dichotomies in anthropology and the social sciences. The distribution plays into a Eurocentric and idealist conception of history, whereby a breakthrough to individualism and modernity was initiated by one strand of Western Christianity, one that lays particular stress on the internal state of sincere belief. Recent anthropological work emphasizing different, relational notions of the person among Eastern Christians can be interpreted as confirming this Western exceptionalism. But I have argued that notions of belief and individuality highlighted in the theological discourses of particular strands of one world religion are a poor guide to actual differences in the way persons think and behave, let alone the patterns of world history.

If the exercise has thrown up more questions than answers, that is because several inter-related research agendas remain poorly developed. The challenge of integrating cognitive and historical approaches is formidable enough. I wonder if even Bloch’s way of posing the question still reflects that Western Protestant bias. Might there be other ways to grasp the variation in human history and culture than to focus on questions of individualism and inner states? A cultural relativist would suggest that the cognitive approaches of both Bloch and Whitehouse remain too bound by our own contemporary mental repertoires – shaped by the Weberian legacy. Second, we need to recognize the weight of this intellectual tradition in historiography, and at the same time to see how problematic it is to call it Western. The roots of the Protestant nexus lie in Christian theological debates that originate in the “Middle East”, as do the other “Abrahamic” religions, with their closely related notions of monotheistic transcendence. Some scholars connect them further to the transformations of the Axial Age. From this perspective there are no plausible grounds for privileging particular strands or sub-strands of Western Christianity in explaining our contemporary world. The theologies of the Reformation and the impulse to reform and “dematerialization” have ample precedents inside and outside Christianity (cf. Wengrow 2010). But, and this is the third point, the transformations of the Axial Age did not everywhere lead to such notions of transcendence. The enormous contributions of East Asia to the formation of the contemporary world over more than two millennia cannot be squeezed into Ernest Gellner’s ideal type of “generic Protestantism”. Tracing the spread of transcendence, and even of abstruse theological doctrines such as that of the filioque, and mapping how these connect up with both notions of personhood and a range of social institutions, secular as well as religious, is a fascinating and fruitful task. But the biggest challenge of all is adequately to integrate such ideational turmoil into other domains of societal transformation.

Recent contributions in socio-cultural anthropology have shied away from these larger frames. Our reliance on the ethnographic method has led us to emphasize the integration of small communities and practical efficacy, such that the religious tradition known as Orthodoxy looks in our accounts to merit the label orthopraxy. But there are no grounds for a general belittling of “internal” belief in these Churches, in comparison with other strands of Christianity. Devotional practices before an icon may reflect intense beliefs, albeit not articulated in the Protestant style most familiar to us. We can expect to find a lot of individual variety even within small communities. And we should be prepared to find as much variety within Eastern Christianity, even within the Byzantine segment, where the historical and cultural traditions of Greek, Romanian and Slavic speakers differ enormously, as we take for granted within Western Christianity, including the variation inside Protestantism.

But I do not wish to conclude in the manner of a relativist or splittist, opposed to all lumping. Religious ideas evidently do spread and they have the capacity to draw very diverse populations together; we need a more refined vocabulary to help comparative analysis. Perhaps the Weberian concepts of church and sect, asceticism and mysticism, can still serve the goal of a non-Eurocentric historical research agenda: I am not aware of a better toolkit. This is often described as a civilizational programme. Might anthropologists too consider reviving the term “civilization” for a better understanding of complex patterns of difference, somewhere in between our current options of cultural relativism, cognitive universalism, and indefensible “West versus the rest” scenarios? For example, I have argued that the distinctions between Western and Eastern Christianity are best seen as intra-civilizational differences (contra Max Weber, Samuel Huntington and many others), while those between Christians, Muslims and Han Chinese in Central Asia are inter-civilizational (Hann 2012). Anthropologists should join archaeologists, historians, sociologists and others in tracing the contours of the civilizational pluralism which continues to shape the lives of the seven billion, highly mobile persons who inhabit this planet.


This essay was read to anthropology seminars at the University of Copenhagen and the London School of Economics in October 2011. I thank participants for many stimulating suggestions, and especially Maurice Bloch for inspiration over the decades. The arguments concerning Eastern Christians were first outlined in a lecture in German at the Max-Weber-Kolleg in Erfurt in November 2010. For an expanded English version of that lecture with a more detailed bibliography, see Hann 2011.



Asad, Talal 1993 Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bloch, Maurice 2011 ‘The blob’, Anthropology of This Century, Issue 1.

Cannell, Fenella 2005 ‘The Christianity of anthropology’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11: 335-56.

–  2006 (ed) The Anthropology of Christianity, Durham: Duke University Press.

Carroll, Anthony 2007 Protestant Modernity. Weber, secularization and Protestantism, Scranton and London: University of Scranton Press.

– 2009 ‘The importance of Protestantism in Max Weber’s theory of secularization’, Archives Européennes de Sociologie 50 (1): 61-95.

Eisenstadt, Samuel (ed.) 2002, Multiple modernities, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Forbess, Alice 2010 ‘The spirit and the letter. Monastic education in a Romanian Orthodox convent’ In Chris Hann and Hermann Goltz (eds), Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp 131-54.

Goody, Jack 2004 Capitalism and Modernity. The Great Debate, Cambridge: Polity Press.

– 2010 The Eurasian Miracle, Cambridge: Polity Press

Hall, John A. 2010 Ernest Gellner. An intellectual biography. London: Verso.

Hanganu, Gabriel 2010 ‘Eastern Christianities and religious objects: personal and material biographies entangled’ In Chris Hann and Hermann Goltz (eds), Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp 33-55.

Hann, Chris 2006a Not the Horse we Wanted!: Postsocialism, Neoliberalism, and Eurasia, Berlin

– 2006b ‘Between East and West: Greek Catholic icons and cultural boundaries’ in David Olson and Michael Coleman (eds.), Technology, Literacy and the Evolution of Society: Implications of the work of Jack Goody, New York: Erlbaum, pp. 73-100.

– 2007 ‘The anthropology of Christianity per se’ Archives européennes de sociologie 47 (3): 383-410.

– 2011  Eastern Christianity and Western Social Theory, Erfurter Vorträge zur Kulturgeschichte des Orthodoxen Christentums, 10, Erfurt: University of Erfurt.

– 2012 ‘Civilizational analysis for beginners’ Focaal 62.

Hann, Chris and Hermann Goltz 2010 ‘Introduction. The other Christianity?’ In Hann and Goltz (eds), Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp 1 – 29.

Herzfeld, Michael 1987 Anthropology through the Looking-Glass; Critical ethnography in the margins of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– 2002 ‘The European self: rethinking an attitude’ in Anthony Pagden (ed.), The Idea of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 139-70.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the New World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Joas, Hans 2009 ‚Die säkulare Option. Ihr Aufstieg und ihre Folgen’, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie: 57 (2):  293-300.

Keane, Webb 2007 Christian Moderns: freedom and fetish in the mission encounter, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Koellner, Tobias 2010 Entrepreneurship, Religion and Morality in Contemporary Russia. PhD Dissertation, University of Leipzig.

Kormina, Jeanne 2010 ‘Avtobusniki: Russian Orthodox pilgrims’ longing for authenticity’ in Chris Hann and Hermann Goltz (eds), Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp 267-86.

Kuper, Adam 1999 Culture. The anthropologists’ account. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mahieu, Stephanie & Vlad Naumescu (eds) 2008 Churches in between: Greek Catholoic churches in postsocialist Europe, Berling: LIT Verlag.

Makrides, Vasilios N. 2005 ‘Orthodox Christianity, rationalization, modernization: a reassessment’, in Victor Roudometof,  Alexander Agadjanian and Jerry Pankhurst (eds), 2005 Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age. Tradition faces the twenty-first century, Walnut Creek: Altamira Press. pp. 179-209.

Marshall, Gordon 1982 In Search of the Spirit of Capitalism. An essay on Max Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis, London: Hutchinson.

Martin, David 2011 The Future of Christianity. Reflections on violence and democray, religion and secularization, Farnham: Ashgate.

Mauss, Marcel 1983 [1938] ‘A category of the human mind: the notion of the person; the notion of self’ in Michael Carrithers, Stephen Collins and Steven Lukes (eds), The Category of the Person; anthropology, philosophy, history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1-25.

Naletova, Inna 2010 ‘Pilgrimages as kenotic communities beyond the walls of the Church’ In Chris Hann and Hermann Goltz (eds), Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp 240-66.

Naumescu, Vlad 2008 Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity. Religious processes and social change in Ukraine, Berlin: LIT.

Needham, Rodney 1972 Belief, Language, and Experience, Oxford: Blackwell.

Robbins, Joel 2007 ‘Continuity thinking and the problem of Christian culture: belief, time, and the anthropology of Christianity’, Current Anthropology 48: 5-38.

Rogers, Douglas 2009 The Old Faith and the Russian Land. A historical ethnography of ethics in the Urals. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Roudometof, Victor, Alexander Agadjanian and Jerry Pankhurst (eds), 2005 Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age. Tradition faces the twenty-first century, Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Stewart, Charles 1989 ‘Hegemony or rationality? The position of the supernatural in modern Greece’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 7(1): 77-104.

1991 Demons and the Devil. Moral imagination in modern Greek culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, Charles 2007 A Secular Age, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Weber, Max et al  1973 [1910] ‘Max Weber on Church, Sect, and Mysticism’ (edited by Benjamin Nelson) Sociological Analysis 34 (2): 140-49. (Translation of Weber 1924, ‚Erste Diskussionsrede zu E. Troeltschs’ Vortrag über ‚Das stoisch-christliche Naturrecht’ in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik, Tübingen: Mohr, pp. 462-69.)

2001 [1904-5] The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Routledge.

1995 The Russian Revolutions (eds. Gordon C. Wells and Peter Baehr), Cambridge: Polity.

Wengrow, David 2010 What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey 2004 Modes of religiosity: a cognitive theory of religious transmission, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Yan, Yunxiang 2011 ‘How far can we move away from Durkheim? Reflections on the new anthropology of morality’, Anthropology of This Century, Issue 2.

Zigon, Jarrett 2011a HIV is God’s Blessing. University of California Press.

– (ed) 2011b Multiple Moralities in Russia. New York: Berghahn.


  1. [1]Here and throughout this essay “Eastern” is an unsatisfactory shorthand. I focus on Orthodox Christians associated historically with Byzantium. The anthropological literature on Oriental Orthodox Christians, e.g. in Baghdad, or Alexandria, or Addis Abbaba, is even more sparse.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues