May 24th, 2019
Victoria College, University of Toronto
Nick Howe Bukowski
Interview with Joel Robbins
Nick Howe Bukowski: I am intrigued that the lecture was named after Roy Rappaport because I was thinking about the book published just after he died, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, which is this big broad scale book about religion as sort of a universal concept. I wonder if being at a conference about the anthropology of religion, whether there’s any value remaining in thinking at such a broad scope about religion in the way that Rappaport is doing?
Joel Robbins: That’s an interesting question. There’s been attention now for at least a couple of decades in anthropology most associated with Talal Asad and Jonathan Z. Smith and religious studies about the value of religion as a cross cultural category and that’s always a tension in anthropology, right. Are the categories by which we organize things, or not, the categories by which everybody organizes things…? But Rappaport was pretty frank in his theoretical intent. That book, it’s really a huge book, it’s just not an ethnography. It’s a very very sustained argument about why human beings have ritual and how ritual gets them to religion. I do think there’s a place for that kind of argument [which] is a different endeavor than writing ethnographies and there’ll always be tensions in making those big theoretical projects applicable to ethnography and vice versa, making ethnographic accounts applicable to that. I do sometimes think that there’s a limit to how much value you can get out of deconstructing the category of religion. It’s very exciting at first, but the point is to do better anthropology not to be hygienic about it.
Nick Howe Bukowski: Where does it actually lead you? I’m just thinking about an article you wrote in 2006 that was published in Anthropological Quarterly called “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” and in the paper you’re talking about one difficulty being the question of difference around anthropology and theology. I was intrigued about how that comes into play in this book that I see you’re writing about the relationship between theology and anthropology?
Joel Robbins: That article was a first attempt to think about possible relations between anthropology and theology and you’re absolutely right, it focused on the two different disciplines’ ability to sort of think about and understand various kinds of difference and also to put them into play in the worlds of their readers. Part of what I was arguing is that theologians often have an ability to make their studies of difference have an impact in the communities they belong to in way that anthropologists also sometimes do especially through their teaching, but that they long for even more. The book isn’t just an expansion of that and the question of difference isn’t as central to it, it’s more an attempt to see what kind of theoretical categories might come out of an engagement with theology that then can be useful for anthropology and maybe vice versa, but I am not a theologian. The last chapter, which tries to think about the currently really very live debates about the secular limitations of anthropology and the possibilities of the ways in which that can shape how we study religion and the possibilities of religion opening anthropology to different kinds of understandings, I guess the difference issue comes back in a big way there.
Nick Howe Bukowski: Why did you decide to write a book about the topic?
Joel Robbins: Certain things are contingent. I hope to do an ethnography of theological education soon, I have been wanting to do it for a long time and hopefully I will finally do it. So I was very open to engaging theology more, partially because I want theologians to be part of ethnographic effort later on. I got invited actually to give a series of lectures, something called the Stanton lectures in the philosophy of religion to a divinity school. So there my audience was going to be largely people from theology and on top of that it was in the philosophy of religion, but I’m not a philosopher either. So that struck me as a perfect time to try to think through what on an intellectual level, theology and anthropology could mean to each other but probably without that invitation I wouldn’t quite have written this book. I still would be wanting to engage theology and learn from it, but the possibility to write this book was partially contingent on the invitation.
Nick Howe Bukowski: This interview is for Simon and Valentina’s project, “Entangled Worlds: Sovereignty, Sanctities and Soil,” and I was very interested in your lecture yesterday and I was interested in thinking about how entanglement might work alongside interruption, whether they’re somehow complementary or they somehow suggest different things?
Joel Robbins: Yes. Oh, that’s interesting. I have to confess, I’m not completely sure how Simon and Valentina are using the word “entanglement” just because I haven’t been part of that project, but in one sense maybe partially what interruptions do is momentarily disentangle things. So for instance, and I think this has been very important for a lot of people who convert to Pentecostalism in various places, sometimes it removes people from territory and makes them feel they have possibilities beyond the sovereign confines of their contemporary life. So sometimes I think actually interruption can be a disentangling force, which is part of why it stimulates all this reflection. There was a kind of a bit of a literature early on and Simon certainly contributed to this about the ways to use the language that became more popular later but the way Pentecostalism sort of deterritorializes people.
Nick Howe Bukowski: It’s just interesting because there’s really a move, I guess more broadly, in anthropology to look at entanglement. I think about nature, culture, relationships, things like that from people like Marisol de la Cadena and it seems like a popular word at the moment and I just was wondering what you think about it as sort of like an analytic device, “entanglement”?
Joel Robbins: I think it’s important and very in keeping with other kinds of terms like intersectionality, which are also very important and looking at how things are linked up and connected and I think there’s a deep tradition, this is Mauss’ total social fact which was about entanglement. So I think it is a powerful tool. There’s probably a dynamic in the discipline too, of collapsing boundaries and then rebuilding them only to collapse them again. Somebody I remember, maybe it’s David Schneider, who once said, I don’t think he wrote this, but I heard him say it in a talk or something that the further you pull things apart and the better you distinguish them the more interesting it is when they collapsed together. Do you know what I mean?
Nick Howe Bukowski: I’m interested in this because with sports and Christianity they’d been at such a distance that when they put them together I think it makes it very interesting. I guess to go back to John Barker, I very much liked working with John and just generally his work as it deals with denomination and he’s obviously working with Anglicans so maybe it’s more important in his work. What would you say the place of denomination is within the anthropology of Christianity and do you think sometimes, maybe, it gets avoided in certain ways?
Joel Robbins: Well, I mean, a few years ago I was trying to think about what the anthropology of Christianity really hadn’t done and, one of the things I thought it hadn’t done very well is look at–I’m talking about the anthropology of Christianity and not the sociology–it hadn’t been so attentive to what are Christian social communities and even to use the language we don’t use so much anymore, but what are Christian social structures? I think Courtney Handman, Jon Bialecki have really kind of remedied that gap and shown how powerful an ethnography is that attends to those kinds of issues: how Christians separate themselves, how they use separations to make communities, how that becomes a vantage point for critique in Courtney’s case or transpositions of different problems in Jon’s case. I think it’s really important. John Barker, one of the things that distinguishes him from maybe almost everybody in the anthropology of Christianity is knowledge of the full range of Christian traditions, which is just immense for an anthropologist and that allows him to be able to really work with denominational differences in their histories in a way that a lot of us and myself included, just don’t have the knowledge. We just can’t see that but I do think it’s really important. I think that the sort of Christian social as it were is something that is always at this point going to be a paid more attention because it got a little bit of short shrift in the anthropology of Christianity.
Nick Howe Bukowski: I was wondering how it sovereignty work come into your own work?
Joel Robbins: Give me a definition of sovereignty.
Nick Howe Bukowski: Ah, the ability to act self-determinably. The ability to act politically and make one’s own political decisions.
Joel Robbins: I mean that term itself was not a term to conjure with when I came into anthropology and when I did field work. It can be hard to believe that now, it just it wasn’t on the agenda, but some of those issues were being very, very hotly debated in ideas about agency and things like that. So that meaning of sovereignty, sort of self-possession, self-direction and certainly one of the big debates early on in the anthropology of Christianity was whether people becoming Christian in places where they hadn’t been Christian at all before, not moving from one church to another, what Faye Ginsburg once just called them in conversation, “convert cultures”, was whether this was a colonial imposition or a postcolonial imposition or the imposition of market terms on people or whether it was their own agency, so on that level issues of sovereignty were really, really crucial. Whether Christianity sort of counted as something that contributed to at least a sense of sovereignty or a lack of a sense and again, the deterritorializing qualities of Christianity as something that has been at least for the last 40 years or so, all over the world, a self-consciously global movement. Christians have a sense that they belong to a world bigger than the, which local has been a huge force for people I think sensing an ability to act beyond and in relation to structures that are larger than the political structures that immediately surround them and govern the political groundwork of their lives.
Nick Howe Bukowski: That makes a lot of sense in the sense of that sovereignty might be larger than just the local. The first workshop they had for the project was all about theopolitics. A lot of it was about Carl Schmitt and related issues. Does that come into the book at all, theopolitics, as a term? As an idea?
Joel Robbins: No, not particularly in this book I have to say, just because the theologians I end up reading aren’t part of that conversation. I mean they all know Schmitt. Jüngel knew Schmitt and was in dialogue. A lot of the stuff about interruption, one of the places you can find, there’s an article he wrote about Schmitt actually, oddly enough, but the theopolitical as it’s concurrently understood wasn’t, well it’s an interesting question. Certainly it’s there, there’s a chapter on eschatology, but I don’t think this book is self-consciously contributing to this current moment’s debates about the theopolitical.
Nick Howe Bukowski: I have a question about this idea of interruption, I guess in one sense, does interruption allow for sort of like continuity of newness within discontinuity? Does that make sense?
Joel Robbins: Yeah. I mean I think that is the idea of it, at least as Jüngel is understanding it and I’m saying we should take this as a possibility that we can investigate it in all kinds of situations that certain kinds of changes make people sensitive to and committed to the newness of their lives over and over again. A kind of constant evaluating everything in relation to what they experience as new. So I think that’s part of what it puts on the table for us. Do people live that way? And when they do, what is it like to live that way and what possibilities does it afford them? So yeah, I think that is, I think that’s a good reading.
Nick Howe Bukowski: I was wondering how, and in what ways was interruption a continuation of modernity or is it somehow distinguished someway?
Joel Robbins: Since you know your Carl Schmitt, whether modernity is getting that from say, Christianity or vice versa is a big question, but one of the things that’s really interesting about this theological version is there’s a certain newness in encountering. I mean now we’re just talking in Jüngel’s theological terms, but encountering what he would call the Christ event because it comes out of this existential tradition. Over and over again and if he knew every time, is maybe not the modernity, the newness of modernity, which he might say is very reckless with the past. Not the new being a place to judge and resurrect parts of the past. I mean, that language is there in Benjamin too, about the sparks that fly up from the past in a moment and this is that. And Jüngel knows Benjamin. So they’re engaging that kind of religious critique of modernity’s version of newness as kind of wasteful and destructive as opposed to a kind of newness that’s constantly leading to a sifting of the past, of keeping what’s still valuable in it but definitely all of this is in the mix of modernity and they’re not unmodern themselves.
Nick Howe Bukowski: Thanks for doing this.
Joel Robbins: My pleasure.