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Archive for the tag “anthropology”

Communication without community

In a recent post Bishop Alan’s Blog: Why ordination? Why today? Bishop Alan quotes an author, Eugene H. Peterson as saying:

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shop-keepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shop-keepers’ concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shop-keeping; religious shop-keeping, to be sure, but shop-keeping all the same… “A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.”

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them.

And one of Bishop Alan’s blogging friends, Simple Massing Priest, responded to this thus:

I’ve said before that statistics only tell you what they tell you and that’s all they tell you. Thus statistics about average Sunday attendance or giving by members do tell you something about the vitality of a congregation. But what they’re telling isn’t always clear. And even when it’s clear, it may not be important.

If only we could find some discrete statistical way to quantify the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a community and in the lives of individuals.

He goes on, however, in another post Simple Massing Priest: The Great Heresy(ies) to say:

Historically, Catholic Christianity has always seen the collective expression of the Body of Christ – that is to say the Church – as important. While never denying the importance of individual faith, individual devotion and individual piety, a Christian is properly a Christian because they are part of Christ’s Body, the Church. To treat Christian faith as being an entirely individual undertaking – as seems altogether too common in some circles – is manifestly heretical. The Ethiopian eunuch came to believe as an individual, but it was baptism by Philip which grafted him into the Church. The lot fell on Matthias as an individual, but his Apostolic authority came from being ‘added to the eleven Apostles.’

Now, I agree that there is, as always, a polar opposite heresy – the heresy that would emphasize the collective to the exclusion, diminution and discarding of the individual. That heresy might take many forms, but it would certainly be a heresy.

Individualism and collectivism are both Western heresies, or perhaps I should say heresies of Western modernity. And they are both related to (and are perhaps the root of) the obsession with counting, and the idea that if things are not numerically quantifiable, they aren’t worth bothering with. Things must be “measurable”, and this is often used as a kind of label of approval. “Measurable” is an epithet tagged on to things to make us think that they must be good.

The Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras has a different take on it

In everyday speech we tend to distort the meaning of the word ‘person’. What we call ‘person’ or ‘personal’ designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms ‘person’ and ‘individual’ as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, ‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the
denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man’s common nature, and quantitative
comparisons and analogies. Chiefly in the field of sociology and politics the human being is frequently identified with the idea of numerical individuality. Sometimes this rationalistic process of leveling out is considered progress, since it helps
to make the organization of society more efficient.

One manifestation of this, especially in America, is the failure to understand objections to attempts to expunge the inclusive use of the word “man” from our vocabulary. Some people insist that “man” must refer exclusively to males, and ought not, indeed cannot, include females.

They would demand that the word “man” be removed from a phrase like “reconciliation between God and man, and man and man” and replaced with some impersonal abstract collective term like “humanity”, and fail to see that this changes the meaning, and the reason they fail to see this is because they cannot see the distinction between individuals and persons.

In part this is because a a deficiency in the English language. Other languages have different terms for a person of either sex and a male person. Greek has anthropos and aner, Latin has homo and vir, Zulu has umuntu and indoda, but English has to make do with “man” and “man”. Zulu even has a saying umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu — “a person is a person because of people”. But because Western modernity prefers to see things that are quantifiable and countable, the idea that persons need communities in order to be persons at all seems quite alien. The Orthodox anthropology that Yannaras describes is communitarian rather than aligned with Western individualism or collectivism — and I’ve discussed the economic ramifications of that in another post.

However, another blogging friend, Dion’s random ramblings, writes about using social media:

Build a wide range of relationships. This is where twitter and facebook come in. The intention of these relationships is the create opportunities to interact around common interests and concerns, and particularly to drive traffic to my content! I cannot emphasize this last point strongly enough!

As should be apparent from my previous post, I have grave reservations about simply “driving traffic” without being concerned with the quality of the traffic. For example, on Blog Catalog I have 8 friends. They are people I have interacted with, either face-to-face or online. There are many more who have said that they want to be my “friend”, but they haven’t bothered to read any of my blogs. What kind of idea of friendship is this?

As one writer put it, we live in an age of communication without community. People say that they want to be our “friends”, but they don’t want to talk to us, or exchange ideas. A person is a person because of people, but in individual is an individual in isolation from other people. Occasionally feral children have been found, children that were lost and brought up by animals, and they find it very difficult to interact with other people. They may be individuals, but they find it very difficult to become persons till they have faces, and some people don’t seem to want to have faces. Faces have been replaced by “avatars” and “personas”.

Entities in the land of echoes

I recently finished reading an interesting novel, Land of echoes by Daniel Hecht. It is a kind of ghost story, based on beliefs of the Navajo people in the south-western USA.

One thing I found strange and rather off-putting, however, was that the author kept referring to the ghost as an “entity”. It seemed an odd sort of word to use in the context of the story. Apart from its use by database fundis, I’ve only seen “entity” used with such frequency in American atheist polemics. I wonder if “entity” has a meaning in American English that it doesn’t have elsewhere.

One of the things I found interesting about the book, however, was that the plot revolves around possession by an ancestral spirit, the Navajo term for which is chindi.

At the moment I’m busy editing a book that deals with similar phenomena in Zimbabwe, where Shona-speaking people are often troubled by ngozi spirits. These are angry or vengeful spirits with a grudge, and could include the spirit of a murdered person, the spirit of a servant who was not paid, or the spirit of a relative who had been wronged, such as a mother who had been wronged by her children or a husband or wife who died unhappy.

This is not confined to Zimbabwe, however. A few months ago a woman I know told me of her half-sister and her daughter who were murdered by burglars who broke into their house. A few weeks later one of the murderers confessed to her, saying he could not sleep because the spirit of the murdered woman was haunting him, and she went to the police and the four murderers were arrested.

The parallels go even further, however. The book is a study of Christian healing ministries in Zimbabwe. One Christian healer in particular uses methods very similar to those of traditional (pagan) healers, and also very similar to those described in Land of echoes. This is the method of reverse possession, where the healer allows herself to become possessed by the spirit that is afflicting the victim, and the victim’s family then engage in dialogue with the spirit (now inhabiting the healer). When the healer “returns” from this state, she offers prayers, but has to be told what happened while she was under the influence of the ngozi spirit.

While many Christian healers, especially those in African independent churches, have ways of dealing with the various kinds of evil spirits that people in local cultures believe in, very few seem to adopt this method of dealing with them.

I won’t say too much about Hecht’s novel, as I don’t want to include spoilers for those who haven’t read it. I found it improved towards the end. At the beginning, apart from the strange and frequent use of “entity”, I was also put off by something that had annoyed me about The da Vinci code — supposed experts who seemed remarkably ignorant of their own supposed field of expertise. In this case it was a parapsychologist who seemed to be ignorant of the phenomenon of “possession”. But once those hurdles were over, it was quite an interesting story.

I’d be interested in knowing of any other instances of Christian healing ministries dealing with the same phenomenon, and how they deal with it.

Anthropology – individualism, collectivism or communitarianism

A conservative blog for peace quotes, with apparent approval, an article that denounces communitarians as boring, bossy and fascist.

The mind boggles!

When I hear the word “communitarian” the first person who springs to mind is Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, and anyone less boring, bossy and fascist I cannot imagine.

What is communitarianism?

To quote the Catholic Worker movement

We are working for the Communitarian revolution to oppose both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era, and the collectivism of the Communist revolution. We are working for the Personalist revolution because we believe in the dignity of man, the temple of the Holy Ghost, so beloved by God that He sent His son to take upon Himself our sins and die an ignominious and disgraceful death for us. We are Personalists because we believe that man , a person, a creature of body and soul, is greater than the State, of which as an individual he is a part. We are personalists because we oppose the vesting of all authority in the hands of the state instead of in the hands of Christ the King. We are Personalists because we believe in free will, and not in the economic determinism of the Communist philosophy.

If one sets aside the rather overblown rhetoric, this is not all that much different from the Zulu proverb frequently quoted as an example of ubuntu: “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu” — a person is a person because of people.

There have been a few reported cases of children who have been separated from their parents at an early age, and raised by wild animals, but in spite of the romantic legend of Romulus and Remus, such children usually find it very difficult to relate to other human beings, and are very deficient in personal development.

This is also similar to Orthodox anthropology — see, for example, the following books, passim:

  • Vlachos, Hierotheos. 1999. The person in the Orthodox tradition. Nafpaktos: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery. ISBN: 960-7070-40-2
  • Yannaras, Christos. 1984. The freedom of morality. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. ISBN: 0-88141-028-4

 

Dorothy Day -- advocate of communitarianism

Dorothy Day — advocate of communitarianism

The young fogey often advocates libertarianism, as does the author he quotes. As far as I have been able to ascertain, libertarianism is liberalism on steroids, and libertarians are liberals with attitude. In other words, libertarians have turned liberalism from a political idea for governing a country into an ideology and a complete worldview. I must admit, however, that Stanley Fish has attempted to turn liberalism into such an ideology. Even though I can see what he is getting at, I am in fundamental disagreement with his thesis.

Liberals tend to see things in terms of practical politics, rather than a complete worldview. I was, briefly, a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, at a time when its vision of a nonracial democratic South Africa was under extreme pressure from the government of the day. The Liberal Party had members of just about every racial and religious group in South Africa. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans and Secular Humanists joined together in a common enterprise. Their theology and their anthropology, their understandings of human nature, may have been very different, but in spite of the differences, they were able to join in a common political vision of the kind of society they wanted South Africa to be — with freedom, justice, the rule of law, and a nonracial democracy in which all citizens would have a say in the government of the country.

Libertaranism, on the other hand, if I have correctly understood the article cited by the Young Fogey, seeks to impose a much wider worldview, and one that, as far as I can see, is essentially antithetical to a Christian one, in many ways as much so as the Communist worldview. It is based on a view of man that is fundamentally at odds with Orthodox Christian anthropology.

As Christians we have a model, the Holy Trinity, which is neither individualist nor collectivist. The persons of the Holy Trinity are neither three individuals, nor a collective. But libertarianism begins to look like a heresy.

Poéfrika: Meme findings – what did Jesus look like?

Poéfrika: What race was Jesus? Do we care? and in follow-up posts writes about two pictures of Jesus in a discussion about whether Jesus should be portrayed as black or white, and the notion that Jesus is blond and blue-eyes, because of some recent Western Christian art.

The post also appeared in Black Looks, and for that one the WordPress trackback worked in my Khanya blog, but it seems that the Poéfrika one was the earlier mention, so I thought I would link to it here as well. I think Orthodox Christians would have problems with both the first image and the second image in the meme, and would say that neither looked like Jesus.

For Orthodox Christians the true image of Jesus is more like this (acknowledgements to my daughter, who painted the ikon):

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In Orthodox ikonography Jesus is shown as a Near Eastern man, not Nordic (blond and blue-eyed), nor Caucasian (like Stalin), nor African, nor Aryan (like the first image). Jesus Christ is one person (hypostasis) and so images depicting him according to any artist’s imagination depart from the truth. The “My Jesus” type of Picture, creating a Jesus according to one’s own desires and perceptions and values (whether of colour, complexion, or anything else) depicts a fantasy Jesus.

An ikon, however, is not a photograph. It does not show you what you would have seen if you had been there. It shows, rather, what most people did not see — that this is the incarnate Son of God. Ikons show Christ (and the saints) with elongated noses, not as some kind of aesthetic ideal, but to show that they breathe the air of heaven. They have small feet, because they tread lightly upon the earth. Christ’s clothing is red and blue, to show the divine and human natures, but in one person. But he still looks Near Eastern, just as ikons of St Peter the Aleut show him as Aleutian, and those of St Moses the Black show him as African. Jesus Christ was a real person, not someone’s conception of an idealised type of humanity.

Witchdoctor – a cultural stereotype?

A recent issue of The pagan activist has some interesting articles on Western neopaganism in Africa, and some contrasts with African paleopaganism. I do take issue with the articles on one point in particular — the use and misuse of the term “witchdoctor”. I suppose my time in the Editorial Department of the University of South Africa has made me a bit of a pedant about such matters.

I think the term originally was a clear and reasonably precise description of a specialist, found in many different African societies, whose job, or part of it, was to protect against malign witchcraft. In different African societies these specialists were given different names in local languages, but the English term was clear, and covered them all. In Zulu such a specialist is called an isangoma, and that term has been universalised in the form of “sangoma” to apply to other societies too. Another way of translating “sangoma” into English (though it is well on its way to becoming an English word in its own right) is “diviner”. The diviner is not only a witchdoctor, but rather determines the cause of evils and misfortunes, such as disease, quarrels, accidents, crop failures and the like. The cause, as determined by the diviner, may be witchcraft, but it may also be that the ancestral shades (amadlozi in Zulu) are annoyed because they have been neglected. Witchcraft is not the only possible explanation for misfortune.

If witchcraft is determined as the cause, then the sangoma may put on his (or her) witchdoctor hat, and prescribe treatment. This may include the use of umuthi (Anglicised as “muti”), in which case the sangoma is functioning as a herbalist or medicine man (inyanga in Zulu).

A witchdoctor, therefore, is one who protects against the harmful activities of witches. One of the articles in The Pagan Activist, however, implies that “witchdoctors” are the ones who perform harmful activities uxsually attributed to witches, which implies that witchdoctors actually cause harm, rather than preventing it.

I suggest that there are two possible sources for this misunderstanding.

  1. Hollywood movies, especially those of the mid-20th century, which portrayed “witchdoctors” as a force of evil, tyrants in African societies, and especially likely to turn a tribe against white visitors. Some of this may be based on historical incidents. When the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief visited the Zulu king Dingane in 1838 to negotiate a treaty, the king ordered his soldiers to “kill the witches” (bulala abathakathi). It is possible that a diviner told him that Retief and his companions were witches; it is also possible that he reached that conclusion on his own.
  2. A witchdoctor who “changes sides” and practices as a witch. A parallel can be found in Western medicine with a medical doctor who misuses his knowledge to poison and kill patients. Such cases are not unknown. Also, a corrupt police officer might moonlight as a member of a criminal gang. This does not, however, mean that “doctor” means “poisoner” or that “policeman” means thief”; so it also does not mean that “witchdoctor” means “witch”. And sometimes sangomas may use their specialist knowledge in activities that are beneficvial to some, but harmful to others. In a recent case a four-year-old child was murdered on the advice of a sangoma, and parts of the child’s body built into the wall of a hairdressing saloon, as muti to make the client’s business prosper. Ritual murder, however, is not witchcraft.

I won’t go into the different meaning applied to the word “witch” by many neopagans. That is another discussion, and one that I have dealt with in an article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery.

Neognosticism

The Scrivener has some good things to say and some good links on Neognosticism.

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