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The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith

Timothy Larsen
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Ryan McIlhenny, History, Providence Christian College

Within the last few decades Christian intellectuals have spent many a conference paper and journal article articulating the relationship between their faith and their professional work as scholars. While I enjoy the occasional rehearsal, I find myself, as a historian, more often bored with the question almost as much as I am with discussions about “objectivity.” In his latest book, The Slain God, Timothy Larsen uniquely approaches the issue not by offering a solution to this recurring debate, a final synthesis, but by examining a handful of intellectuals, the pioneers of modern anthropology—Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), James George Frazer (1854-1914), E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-73), Mary Douglas (1921-2007), Victor Turner (1920-83), and Edith Turner (1921-)whose scholarship and discipline were shaped by the existence of the Christian faith.

Sitting on the “fault line where doubt and faith collide,” according to Larsen, The Slain God is in part a study about those pioneering anthropologists who lost their faith while advancing the discipline (10). Tylor and Frazer discredited Christianity in the process of developing their anthropology. Tylor, the “father of anthropology,” abandoned his Quaker heritage “while working on Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization” (17). He held that all religions “were based on the crude animalistic theories of savages” (40). Likewise, in utilizing religious terminology “to describe rituals from across the globe,” Frazer—whose Golden Bough (though sadly not Frazer himself), remains “the most popular and influential book in the history of the discipline”—assumed that his readers would become less committed to Christianity after reading his 1859 Passages of the Bible, a book that endeavored to “destabilize scriptural authority.” Yet his “covert efforts to undermine faith,” especially in the later edition of Passages, “were not effective” (78). Both thinkers examined the habits of societies and the development of cultures from positivistic lenses: beliefs and practices related to the supernatural were indicative of minds atrophied by metaphysics—minds that failed to advance toward a higher more positivistic stage. Religion and science, in Larsen’s words, stood as “competing explanatory views” (56). The latter was destined to replace the former.

Despite the deicidal tendencies of the founders, Larsen contends, “the slain God” would “not remain entombed” (223). Not all the representatives in Larsen’s book lost their faith; in fact, quite the opposite occurred. The turning point came in the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the son of an Anglican clergyman, who discovered anthropology through Tylor’s Primitive Culture and Frazer’s Golden Bough as a student at Exeter College. One of the first to employ observations in the field, Evans-Pritchard, despite the challenges in his own life, including the death of his wife and his love of drinking, which became “a nightly pattern toward the end of his life,” was a devoted Catholic, exhibiting a “genuine intellectual assent to the principal, historical doctrines of the historical faith” (94).

Evans-Pritchard emboldened later anthropologists to take seriously the atoning God. Mary Douglas, “Britain’s foremost anthropologist,” gained comfort knowing that the Christian faith would not necessarily clash with developments in anthropology. Anthropology was used to strengthen her faith: “Douglas was both fully a Christian and fully an anthropologist” (173). Larsen ends the book with Victor and Edith Turner. Although their journey into the faith was far from easy, the Turners joined the communion of the Catholic Church in 1958, much to the great disappointment, at least in Victor’s case, of the Manchester department of anthropology. The opposition from his own department compelled the Turners to move to the United States, where Victor held a position at Cornell and later the University of Chicago.

Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and the Turners shared a belief in the commonality or shared features of all religious practices—the “ur-theology” or “underlying universal” as Edith Turner called it—challenging thereby a hegemonic or imperialistic faith-narrative that elevated one form of spirituality over another or that dismisses all religions. What kept Evans-Pritchard near to Christianity was the belief that in a similar way to “those who are colour-blind or tone deaf” deprived of the ability to see or hear elements of the physical, there were those “deprived of a spiritual sense” unable to hear and see in a spiritual sense (100). Douglas did her major fieldwork in the Congo, confronting directly the depravity of Western imperialism, and articulated the concept of “grid-group analysis” (that is, “the extent to which one’s behavior and options in life are proscribed and confined on the general basis of general, fixed categories of identity” [136]). But what “changed the course of her career most dramatically” was the turn to biblical studies. Surprisingly as an anthropologist, she challenged modern biblical criticism, finding “ways to recast seemingly offensive biblical passages in a more favorable light” (150). The contributions made by the Turners—“pilgrimage studies” and the notion of communitas, as delineated in The Ritual Process—reflected what they believed to be the seamless interaction between anthropology and Christianity. Edith’s own “co-coined” term “actuality” demonstrates this most directly. “Actuality” refers to “something that is discerned to be a spiritual reality in itself rather than being merely a metaphorical reference to a spiritual reality” (206). Another way to say this is that Edith, in particular, believed strongly in the reality of the spiritual. The line between the physical and metaphysical seemed to be fading. When she claimed to see spirits in a hallucinogenic-induced experience, Edith truly believed she encountered spirits. There is no reason, Larsen contends, “to rule out”—nor does one have the right to do so—“the existence of spirits apriori to wonder when Turner thought she saw a spirit she was actually experiencing a drug-induced hallucination” (208). In this way, Edith’s courageous confrontation of anthropological positivism stands as the “undoing of Edward Tylor” (219).

A couple contextual issues came to mind while reading The Slain God—the one relates to Western imperialism, the other to the type of Christianity of the later anthropologists. As an intellectual history, much of the book focuses on individuals and their particular work, but what of the political and cultural milieu? I suspect that some of the changes anthropologists took up post-Frazer related not only to a particular religious commitment but also to the changes in empire in both Britain and the United States. Readers will also notice the importance of Catholicism. In a few places, Larsen shows the appeal of this form of Christianity, which included parallels with indigenous faiths, reinforcing not only commitments to Catholicism but generating a deeper appreciation of their subjects. But did Protestantism conform to the dictates of a kind of modern positivism or that of empire? Further discussion of such a relationship might have added to this already engaging work.

The story that Larsen tells is one that can be applied to other disciplines. The casting off of Christianity has been part of the early developments of professionalization; such efforts have largely—if not ultimately—failed. This should give us pause to consider not so much the place of faith within scholarship, but the juxtaposition of faith in the lives of those engaged in scholarship. It is not the discipline as such that is inherently antithetical to faith, but rather the presuppositions of the scholar. On this note, I am reminded of the great Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and his transcendental critique of the heart, the pre-rational (please do not read irrational) ground-motive that moves individuals, including scholars, in one of two ultimate directions: either submission to God or away from him in sinful suppression. Along with the reliance on intellectual predecessors, scholars must understand that the concentration of being, shaped by an ultimate love, is what guides our intellectual adventures. Academics are never far from conjuring their intellectual forbearers for guidance when contributing to the development of a specific discipline—philosophers commune with Descartes, economists with Smith, theologians with Schleiermacher, historians with Ranke, and so on. In the process, they come to identify what flowed out of the heart of their intellectual ancestors.

Cite this article
Ryan McIlhenny, “The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:2 , 191-193

Ryan McIlhenny

Xing Wei College
Professor of Liberal Arts at Xing Wei College