Introduction, Peter Van der Veer
Van der Veer begins with a discussion of the interplay between the gestures of description/testimony and confession/conversion. The confession of truth that comes with conversion is “a very modern truth since it is a personal, autobiographical account of a ‘private’ experience that is not authorized by a social institution such as the Church” (2). In the context of colonialism and conversion, description of the other acts as a foil for thinking about the self and also for experimenting in areas such as secular education (3). Through this discussion, Van der Veer turns to a description of the work’s purpose: examining “conversion to modernity in the interplay between Europe and the colonized world” (4). The authors in the work attempt to “develop an understanding of the interaction between the developments in the colonizing and the colonized worlds [which] should lead us away from the commonsensical simplicities of theories of modernization and secularization in which modern Europe unilaterally modernizes its Others, whose role is limited to reaction” (7). For example, missionary projects led to modern European conceptions of personhood (9). Van der Veer highlights three key themes that run throughout the collection: identity politics, translation, and transformation. Under the heading of identity politics, Van der Veer states that an important accomplishment of this volume is its incorporation of the state into its analysis of conversion (10). Under translation, Van der Veer introduces the relationship between belief, language and experience (15). Lastly, Van Der Veer talks about transformation and how modernity and conversion value change despite tension with religious truth’s claimed stability (18-19).
The Politics of Protestant Conversion To Catholicism in Seventeenth-Century France, Keith P. Luria
Luria opens with the obvious point that the meaning of conversion is relative to context (24). The context that Luria studies in the essay is 17th century France. In the Protestant-Catholic struggles to win converts, the stakes were not just a turn to God but also a submission to a political institution “that represented, indeed that defined, truth” (25). Clergy of both faiths stressed the sincerity of conversion and looked down upon those who deserted their faith for having worldly motives (though the latter were often quite compelling due to family, kinship, commercial, or class pressures) (25). Clergy of each faith presented “a model of conversion that stressed the importance of conscience and deep interior motivation, as well as true doctrine and the role of intellect and emotion in adhering to it” (28). Luria focuses his essay on such a model presented by the Catholics, which he chose in part because of the added political motives for conversion to Catholicism, namely obedience to the king (28). Luria points out, however, that political motives were not the same as “worldly motives”: “Catholic converts and polemicists described the return to political loyalty as prompted by the sincere recognition of a religious as well as a political error. Loyalty to a monarch was not, therefore, another worldly concern or obligation imposed by custom, law, or social interest. Just as true religious feelings of the conscience were to be above such matters, so too was political fidelity. It came from the heart” (29). Thus, Catholics perceived Protestants as politically disloyal (29). Luria describes the example of the Capuchin mission starting in 1617. The Capuchins emphasized the theological without acknowledging the “worldly” (especially financial) reasons for conversion to Catholicism, for acknowledging these non-pious reasons would suggest insincerity, though they did use worldly incentives for conversion (a practice that left them vulnerable to Protestant criticism) (31-3). That the Capuchins denied the validity worldly reasons for conversion but did acknowledge obedience to the king is highly ironic, Luria argues (33). In conversions, a political statement was also made that accepted the convert back as a loyal French subject (34). The association between politics and Catholicism remained intact over the century (37). Luria concludes that the case study of conversion in 17th century France shows that conversion can be a norm not an exception and that interior conversion (in line with Augustine and William James) is only part of the 17th century conversion experience (38-9). Further, Luria suggests that in arguments over forced conversion there is evidence of an understanding that true conversion is the work only of God (40).
A Different Road to God: The Protestant Experience of Conversion in the Sixteenth Century, Judith Pollmann
Conversion narratives are a popular genre in Western culture from the time of Augustine, but they are conspicuously absent in the 16th century conversions to Protestantism. This essay asks what we should make of the lack of conversion accounts from 16th century Protestants in a culture with available literary models and a lot of discussion of conversion by Reformation thinkers (48). After reinforcing why a lack of conversion narratives is surprising; reviewing the literature that has focused on existing conversion narratives that seem to fit the traditional model; arguing that the few accounts of conversion that Reformers left was not to testify but to prove their motives to people who doubted them; and suggesting that conversion narratives that are written are not historical accounts of experiences but are retrospective accounts of what a convert wants people to think he’s experienced (to justify his change) (48-52); Pollmann turns to an explanation of why 16th century converts did not write conversion narratives. Unlike Paul and Augustine, 16th century converts to Protestantism wanted to downplay the revolutionary nature of the change. Change was not positive for 16th century people: “In both the political and the religious discourse of the sixteenth century, the juxtaposition of new (and therefore evil) developments with old (and therefore good) traditions is overwhelmingly present. It is one of the peculiar paradoxes of sixteenth-century culture that despite the enormous changes it wrought, it was simultaneously characterized by a universal dislike for innovation” (52). There were different Reformer and popular strategies for dealing with the new. Reformers denied that their interpretations were new—they were just a return to an uncorrupted version of the Church. Faced with the paradox of needing to emphasize how different their way was without wanting to admit innovation, Reformers would speak in terms of return to and learning of old truths (53-5). Emphasizing learning, new Protestants could feel they were becoming better without suggesting they had been sinning before. This was particularly important to minimize rifts with family members who did not convert and to maintain belief that their ancestor’s were in heaven (56-7). These are the reasons Pollmann suggests that conversion narratives were not popular; however, they became popular in later generations, though many of those narratives were conversion to being a true Christian for people already born within Protestantism (58).
Nineteenth-Century Representations of Missionary Conversion and the Transformation of Western Christianity, Peter van Rooden
This essay focuses on the emergence of Protestant missions at the end of the 18th century (65). Van Rooden states his argument at the beginning: “The mobilization for missions at the end of the eighteenth century was part of a profound shift in the social and discursive place of religion in European and North-American societies. Missionary endeavors are a modern phenomenon, not only in the sense that they presupposed and propagated the modern distinction between a public and a private sphere, but also because they acted to transform Western Christianity itself” (66). To begin his analysis, van Rooden analyzes Dutch missionary society in the early 19th century, which he shows understood its activity as moral work in the private sphere which indirectly transforms the public sphere (66-73). The mission journal examined locates Christianity in the individual conscience, so sincere conversion requires a separation between public and private (70). Beyond the missionary journal, van Rooden also looks at missionary societies and argues that they confirm what the journal shows, namely that Christianity should be voluntary and individual (72). Van Rooden then goes back to early modern religious establishments to show the contrast between them and the missionary ideology of the 19th century: whereas missionaries conceived of the expansion of Christianity as separate from political expansion, early modern thought did not (nor did they have the resources for such expansion) (73-7). By examining English and American missionary work in the 19th century, van Rooden reinforces the same point since these missionaries were taking place in contexts where religion was detached from ecclesiastical and political bodies—religion becomes solidly grounded in a newly developed private sphere in ways it had not been earlier in the European context (78-81). Van Rooden ends by returning to Dutch society and discusses new separation of church and state, which reshaped Dutch society to include new freedoms for religious minorities. Mission societies helped Dutch society cope with this shift, giving people a site to be involved in public religion (81-3). By the late 19th century, missionary societies were well accepted throughout Europe. Missionary societies helped Europeans to understand the new position of Christianity in society (83-4). Van Rooden ends by arguing, “Locating Christianity within a private sphere, expecting it to effect societal change indirectly, the missionary effort was both indication and cause of a fundamental discursive shift in the relation between religion and politics in the West” (84).
Religious Conversion and the Politics of Dissent, Gaura Viswanathan
During the secularization movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, there are at least elements if not origins of modern citizenship, enabled by legislation that allowed for dual allegiance to religion and nation (89). Viswanathan uses two narratives from the time period to investigate “the strains and stresses in community self-identification, especially when community or individual self-perceptions conflict with the definitions accorded them by the nation-state” (90). He uses one example from the metropole (England) and one from the colony (India). In the period under investigation, between 1790 and 1850, the English educational program sought to deracinate Indians so that they were replicas of Englishmen, though still denying them political rights; it was also the same period when non-Anglicans were politically enfranchised in England (90). Viswanathan argues that these two developments, though at first site almost opposite, he argues that there are strong parallels between the two: there was the desire to make colonial subjects (even though non-Christian) and non-Anglicans in England into “good Englishmen” (91). Yet, the situation with respect to religion is not the same for the colony and metropole because of differences in civil enfranchisement (92). The flawed nature of British attempts at secularization in India rests on the fact that despite lack of Christian proselytization, Englishness becomes a replacement for Christianity (92). Furthermore, in struggling for independence, Indians turned religious difference into a political matter (93). Viswanathan turns to the narratives to demonstrate these points. He begins by explaining the comparison: “The point of comparison lies in the fact that both Newman’s conversion to Catholicism and Ambedkar’s to Buddhism sought to reclaim cultural identities located at an originary point (pre-Reformation Catholicism for Newman, the triumph over caste-ridden Brahmanism by Buddhism for Ambedkar), defined as the historical model for enlightened nationhood” (95). He starts with John Henry Newman, who converted to Catholicism in England under the public eye in 1845; this conversion was “less a private event of sudden spiritual illumination than an interpretive index to the main currents of contemporary social legislation and the direction of national consolidation upon which he imagined it to be premised” (96). Newman turned to Roman Catholicism as a way to return to the religious culture of the early Church—a return to national and religious roots—and his vision for a Catholic England was as a world imperial center (97). Viswanathan’s critique of Newman is as follows: “His univeralism seeks to go beyond the nation, but it ends up working regressively, not only by reintroducing religious identity as both contained in and transcending national identity, but also by locating in the authority of Catholicism the foundational structure of true Englishness. Newman’s transnational solution cannot effectively disentangle belief from structures of authority, despite the privileging of popular imagination and intuition over rationality and elite modes of intellectual apprehension. Caught between the demands of secular national identity and local religious differences, Newman turns his back on conversion as a dynamic principle of change to embrace one of self-confirmation and discovery of what is already latently present as religious teleology. The radical revisionist possibility of conversion is reversed, as achieving a point of compatibility between Catholicism and Englishness replaces the earlier challenge to the desirability of nationhood posed by his conversion. The sustained tension between Catholicism and Englishness inevitably diluted the efficacy of Newman’s dissent from Anglicanism and rendered it homogeneous with assent to prevailing secular norms—in short, to the construction of English nationhood, in the service of which his own conversion is then sacrificed” (98). Ambedkar’s politically-motivated religious conversion (he led a mass conversion of other “untouchables” along with him) took place in the 20th century, in an effort to show that the enemy of untouchables, dalit, was Hinduism not the British (99). Following Christopher Queen’s analysis, Viswanathan explains why Ambedkar turned to religious conversion to fight political battles as follows. The act of choosing Buddhism was a move from premodernity to modernity, since religious choice is a hallmark of modernity; yet, he also acted as a postmodern man by crafting his version of Buddhism to fit his needs. For example, he eliminated the Four Truths from his version of Buddhism because he felt they made Buddhism more difficult to accept for non-Brahmins (100-103). Another important aspect of Ambedkar’s postmodern deconstruction and reconstruction of Buddhism was his historical explanation of the rise of the untouchables, which he explains as ostracization arising from a conversion to Buddhism in 400AD (105). This narrative challenged the Indian National Congress’s depiction of dalit demands as antinational while depicting Buddhism as compatible with nationhood before the derailing effects of Hinduism (106). Furthermore, the choice of Buddhism instead of Christianity or Islam suggested that he sought national Indian, not transnational solutions for the dalits (106-7). Despite distrust of the state, which denied the rights of the dalit people, Ambedkar believed the state was a necessary framework for maintaining universal religious freedom (108-9). In the end, Viswanathan describes Ambedkar’s conversion as an act to form a moral community, embedded in the modern, Indian-ruled state purged of the castes (110-111).
The Conversion of Caste: Location, Translation, and Appropriaton, Nicholas B. Dirks
This essay focuses on the view of one colonial observer, a nineteenth century missionary to Southern India, Robert Caldwell, on caste. Caste was invariably portrayed by observers as an essential, transhistorical part of Indian culture that was both religious and political in nature—knowing caste meant being able to know and rule India, as well as to be able to convert its people. The legacy of Caldwell’s work as well as the discourse of other missionaries have had a tremendous impact on social reform movements in the colonial and postcolonial contexts in complex and contradictory ways, which is explored in this paper (115-117). In particular Dirks points to Caldwell’s legacy as a ethnographer, philologist, (speculative) historian of race in reform movements, Tamil politics, Dravidian radicalism and nationalism (118-120). In essence, the paper asks, how did this 19th century British missionary provide “the terms of a colonized discourse and associated politics that has laid claim to both some of the most progressive politics in India in the twentieth century and some of the most provincial and reactionary” (120)? Dirks also points to ways in which Caldwell’s thought has been transformed or ignored for contemporary political purposes (the reason that Caldwell disliked Brahmins, namely their influence on lower castes and resistance to Christianity; the larger context of critique of caste altogether not just critique of Brahmins) (120). Dirks also attempts to present a theoretical argument about conversion as translation:
[T]he politics of location are inseparable from the politics of translation, thus invoking the questions brought to the study of language and history by nineteenth-century British missionaries, and those that frame the evaluation of the appropriations as well as transformations of this knowledge in the work of later political and cultural figures. Conversion, in other words, is not just a social process engaged in by groups such as the missionaries who sought to recruit followers into their own forms of religious practice and belief. Conversion in this paper becomes rather a more general trope for both translation and appropriation, a sign of the epistemological violence implied by myriad efforts to know, domesticate, name, claim, and ultimately inhabit “the other.” Conversion is emphatically intransitive, a one-way street. As such, it is always a relationship of domination, even when the means of domination are much more subtle and even voluntary than in the more general colonial situation. We might recognize the dialectical logic conceived by Hegel in his characterization of the relationship between master and slave (121).
After this lengthy introduction, Dirks relatively briefly sets out to prove his point. Caldwell came to India in 1838. His experience was that relatively few people were converting and that those who converted to Christianity were disdained as a “new low-caste” (122). It was mainly lower caste people who converted, and they did so for material help, though they were often discriminated against. Caldwell wished to have higher classes convert which would change the attitude to Christian conversion, he believed (123). In his time in India, Caldwell wrote extensive ethnographic work on Shanars, who he claimed were racially distinct from Hindus, in which he discussed that the lack of influence from “Brahmanical religion” made it easier for Christian conversion to be effective (later Dirks describes how Shanars vehemently rejected Caldwell’s assertions about them ). He included a scathing critique of Brahman treatment of lower classes within a sociological treatment of caste. He found a correlation between insincerity of conversion and higher caste rank (124-5). In his philological work, Caldwell attempted to create a theory of Tamil origins, which he paired with a conjecture about the history of Aryan migration. In this work, anti-Brahmin sentiment was loud and clear, as was an anti-caste sentiment (though Dravidianist ideologies forget this latter part, thinking he was only anti-Brahman) (128-30). In the Dravidian Renaissance from the end of the 19th century, the Dravidianists drew on Caldwell’s work with language and his anti-Brahmin sentiments (131-2).
In the final section, Dirks examines appropriations of Caldwell: “If it seems peculiar that Caldwell’s Christian understanding of southern Indian society should be adapted to the purposes of an extreme form of secular ideology, it is even stranger that Caldwell’s colonial view of Aryan cultural hegemony should have been so easily converted for the uses of a xenophobic nationalism that substituted Brahmanism for British, Aryanism for modernity, Sanskrit for Hindi or English, and northern India for Europe. Thus, too, the conversion of meanings of caste from precolonial to colonial grammars participated in extraordinary processes of translation and appropriation” (133). Dirks ends with a discussion of translation: conversion is translation, and it comes with the difficulties, violence, transitivity of translation. In Caldwell’s case, the grammar (“a kind of metatranslation”) that he created of Tamil was used for possessing a people, to repossess their souls and their language at once by detatching them from the Tamil context and universalizing them (134). Now, the secular anti-Brahmans participate in another form of translation and repossession (135).
Materialism, Missionaries, and Modern Subjects in Colonial Indonesia, Webb Keane
This article is about Calvinist Christian encounter in twentieth century Sumba (a Pacific Island). He states, “In this paper, I will look at some of the difficulties they face as providing evidence of aporia that arises when a Protestant subject seeks to define itself by delimiting the functions and meanings of material objects. Two sets of practices in particular serve in Sumba as potent synecdoches for the transformations of value and the subject, and occasion a high degree of controversy. Calvinists challenge marapu ritual (as well as Catholicism and Islam), both for what they take to be inauthentic language (formulaic prayer spoken ‘with open eyes’ by priests) and for its apparent materialism (the ritual use of inalienable values, or sacralia, and sacrifical meat). […] I wish to show [through ethnographic work in the late 1990s and early 1990s and examination of Dutch missionary accounts] how the conjunction of pagan practices and Christian evangelism reveals and historicizes some common difficulties in distinguishing signs, objects, and subjects, and how these are to be assigned their proper values” (138). The concept of fetish is used to explain how Christians attribute false value to the objects used by the other, for material things are understood to have objective value which the other misevaluates (139).
Keane’s report of marapu accounts of Christianity highlight how marapu people challenge Christianity on issues of mediation, language, and money. They view Christians as arrogant for addressing God without deferential mediation, i.e. offerings (143). For the marapu, material signs are needed to connect with the immaterial; they think Christians have no proof of their beliefs; and they find it odd that Churches are constantly collecting for money (141-4).
Mission deputies evoke the scientific spirit to show that when marapu convert, nothing negative happens to them, thus indicating there is no truth to their beliefs; scorn the “animistic dependence” of the natives; and find the sacrifices to be a material waste that serves a symbolic and social function (146-7). Keane then turns to the subject of meat and offerings of, which is both a social and religious centerpiece of the society. There is a long, dynamic debate by missionaries about the extent to which converts to Christianity can and should participate in the sharing and offering of meat—is it idolatrous or a necessary part of living in the society (149-153)? With regard to meat, Keane explores three points: “the difficulty Christians encounter in clarifying the distinction between performative language and material object, the problem of social functionalism, and the ambivalently ‘modern’ models of economic matter that result” (153). The Christians viewed marapu life as a political economy of excess or misplaced value, unaware of what things really were worth; they did not recognize the value of performativity in ritual exchange (154-5). Missionaries often developed functionalist reinterpretations of marapu life. The prime example presented is the missionary Louis Onvlee, who broke down aspects of marapu ritual in his ethnographic work into different social functions; his picture of marapu life turns their ritual life into a sort of “commodity fetishism supplanting social relations” (159).
In his conclusion Keane highlights the problems faced by Christians—how to win over converts and how those converts should act—and by natives—how to justify themselves in a changing context. Marapu tend to begin to view themselves in functionalist terms and to constantly reference aspects of their world to the functional equivalents in Christianity (159-60).
Serial Conversion/Conversion to Seriality: Religion, State, and Number in Aru, Eastern Indonesia, Patricia Spyer
In Indonesia in 1977, there were mass conversions leading up to the national election, in which voting required citizenship which required choosing between 5 recognized agama [religions] (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Biddhism). Spyer explains, “This essay takes off from the mutual implication of religion and state in Indonesia to explore how, in Aru, an insistence on a rhetoric of number and accounting in diverse narratives and storytelling moves, traces the contours of a discursive space in which intperpretation of conversion and the elections that compelled them collude in the making of persons and their proper places within Suharto’s New Order regime. My aim will be to investigate one dimension of the complex and ongoing process of Aruese conversion: the significance of ‘the avalanche of numbers’ (Hacking 1990)—and the practices in relation to which they have to be reckoned—that confronted me on a recent visit to these islands. Through selected examples I hope to convey a sense of the immense wave of numbers currently inundating this sprinkling of islands in the easternmost reaches of the Indonesian archipelago” (171-2). She reports on the “serialization of social life,” by which she means the “process by which homogeneously defined and bounded units are created, units such as ‘religion,’ ‘citizen,’ or even adat [traditional] dance…which at least for the practical purposes of rule are regarded as alike, interchangeable, and enumerable; in short, as belonging to a series of like sorts” (172). Under the heading of serialization, Spyer considers “the constitution of citizens defined on the basis of their affiliation to one of the five recognized agamas [religious traditions], the accounting of converts by the Catholic mission, the national program of development, and a phenomenon that I have termed serial conversion” (172-3). The seriality attests to conversion to modernity, or rather, multiple modernities (172).
Conversion in Aru was characterized by competition for souls, influence and incentives from officials, rapid successions of conversion from one faith to another, limits to which of the five accepted religions were options in particular localities, and enumeration of converts and their demographic details (174-7). Modernity must be multiply configured, Spyer argues, and conversion cannot be modeled as a monolithic, teleological “missionary-in-a-rowboat” (177-8). She explores the Catholic mission in Aru in the 1970s, characterized by high rates of attendance to reap the benefits of charitable work but low church attendance, to show the complexity of what religion meant in Aru (180-181). She further explores agama as “a requisite of good citizenship,” as part of religious nationalism (181-3). To explore the meaning of this further, she turns to the Backshore community who converted to Catholicism in three waves in 1976.
She recounts her meeting with an adat [traditional] specialist, a “Stern,” in 1994 (183-9). They talk about an annual ritual centered around the Cassowary bird, which was thought to have special powers. The discussion shows the ways in which the Cassowary tradition and the new Catholic agama were integrated. There was some level of avoidance of any mixing of adat and agama, but there were also complex ways in which the two mutually supported each other: “In Bermun the relations between adat and agama, Cassowary and Catholicism, are very much in flux and subject to intense negotiation. Within this flux, however, what seems most salient at the present time is less the substitutions by which agama comes to replace adat, or, more commonly, something construed as the ‘old’ religion, although the demarcation of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ is certainly effective in some rhetorical context, than the construction of a copresence—sometimes amiable, other times uneasy—of agama and adat” (186). The “conversion to seriality” portrayed in the example of the cassowary is an example of the “larger conversion to modernity” (186). In addition to the Cassowary example, Spyer recounts other aspects of her interview with the Stern, including the prominence of numbers and his comparison of his role to that of a Catholic priest (186-9). Spyer ends her essay with a further discussion of numbers: the use of numbers by the Catholic missionaries to evaluate success and the creation of categories through numbers (as Asad points out) (191-2). Together with religion, instrumental for citizenship, numbers and statistics are key to the modern Indonesian state (192-3).
Modernity and Enchantment: The Image of the Devil in Popular African Christianity, Birgit Meyer
The ideal set out by Weber of increasing rationalization and disenchantment is in tension with the reality on the ground for the Ewe people in West Africa who encountered Dutch Pietist missionaries. In fact, part of Weber that is often forgotten is his acknowledgement that the “official god-concept” exists at the same time as belief in lower spirits and demons in many places (200). Meyer states, “It is the aim of this essay to throw light on the conversions occurring in the course of the mission’s activates among the Ewe between 1847 and 1916. I will try to provide insight into the political, socioeconomic, and religious implications of conversion by way of studying believers’—both missionaries and Ewe Christians—ideas regarding the turn to Christianity. My main concern in this essay, then, is the relationship among conversion, modernity, (dis)enchangment, and the image of the Devil. I will argue that Pietist missionaries’ and Ewe converts’ image of the Devil lay at the base of a popular form of African Christianity that entailed both the modernization and the enchantment of the converts’ world” (201).
Meyer first outlines the Pietist movement including its anti-modernity stance and stronghold amongst those wishing to live rural life styles (though obviously these people are thoroughly modern while they resist modernity and rationality) as well as its belief in the Devil operating in the world (this opens the door for popular religion to be incorporated into Protestantism) (201-203). When the Pietist missionaries arrived, they were modernizers in the eyes of the Ewe; the changes they incited were mostly changes in outward way of life, and ironic twist considering the Pietist missionaries despised outward oriented religion at home (204-8). Conversion brought economic opportunity, mostly for Ewe men who converted, though it also upset the traditional order of society such that the rich no longer felt obligated to care for their poorer extended family members; conversion had mixed results for women, who benefited by some Christian doctrines, like outlawing polygamy, but were disenfranchised from being priestesses and did not gain economic opportunity (208-210).
The final section of the essay deals with the figure of the Devil. The Pietists thought of the Ewe as heathens, decedents of Ham, who were in opposition to the Christians in a long list of ways. The Pietist missionaries believed in the Devil, which they associated with the Ewe religion, and thus lived in an enchanted world themselves. Meyer shows how “[b]y laying emphasis on the Devil, not only popular religion at home but also traditional Ewe religion were declared real rather than superstitious, and became part of the Christian discourse in a transformed way” (211). While many converts abandoned old beliefs, and in fact missionaries considered such a turn away to be a mark of true conversion, the missionaries’ encouragement of such a turn away by showing the diabolical nature of the old spirits ironically led to the preservation of belief in the spirits. The missionaries essentially confirmed the existence of the Ewe spirits by portraying them to be Devil’s spirits (214-5). This was enhanced by translation, since the way sin was translated into the Ewe language was by using a term meaning evil things (215). The continued belief in the spirits led to “backsliding” to traditional practices, especially in cases where spirits were believed to cause sickness and the Christian way of life did not offer any practical solutions to the threat of illness (217). Meyer summarizes this fascinating paradox as follows: “On one hand, the mission intended to abolish the old religion; on the other hand, it was indispensable in order to demonstrate the meaning of Christianity. In this context the Devil was a key figure, because through him the gods and other spiritual beings remained real powers. Hence, the old religion was never abolished but only looked upon from a distance and through a particular filter. Since it remained part of Ewe Christians’ discourse, its power was acknowledged. This implied that the non-Christian religion, though considered Satanic, remained an alternative to Christianity. When spatial, social, economic, and symbolic separation from the ‘heathens’ and mere belief in the Christian God did not prove to be protective enough to prevent serious mishap, and when prayers did not provide satisfying remedies, Ewe Christians abandoned the mission’s dictum that the traditional religion was ‘evil,’ and returned to the traditional priests to counter the evil that had befallen them with sacrifices to the angry tro or by dzo” (218-219).
Meyer concludes by largely agreeing with Horton’s theory of conversion, but critiquing his emphasis on the High God, since for the Ewe, the Christian God came with the Devil and thus the old spirits (220). Thus conversion does not always lead to rationalization and disenchantment (221). The Ewe were ambivalent about modernity, which is reflected in their mixed religious practice and belief (222).
Devils, Holy Spirits, and the Swollen God: Translation, Conversion and Colonial Power in the Marist Mission, Vanuatu, 1887-1943, Margaret Jolly
Jolly begins by drawing on Vincente Rafael to introduce her perspective on Christian conversion: there is overlap between conquest, conversion, and translation, but one must recognize that conquest can mean winning over hearts not just domination by force and conversion can include altering desires not just abandoning what one wants; and conversion can been synonymous with translation, expressing meanings in different contexts and forms (231). In her essay about Marist mission in the Pacific islands of Vanuatu, Jolly “emphasize[s] the centrality not only of the translation of words or of cosmological concepts but of practices embodying contesting ideas of sacred potency, most poignantly in the process of dying and death” (232). Jolly begins with a discussion of scholarship that has posited conversion as dialogue, suggesting that such an approach can be misleading if it does not adequately address hierarchy and hegemony (234-6). Yet, in Vanuatu, missionaries should not be viewed as completely hegemonic because Christian beliefs adopted by converts were essential for gaining political independence in the late 20th century (236).
Jolly then turns to silence, telling of the experience of missionaries with closed mouthed people in Vanuatu: they would refuse to teach the vernacular to missionaries and sometimes refuse to speak (236-7). Yet, there were also many missionaries who did develop close relationships with local people. Jolly tells the story of Father Elie Tattevin, a priest she learned of from her fieldwork in the 1970s. Tattevin is interesting for his work translating words for God, spirit, sanctity, and sacred power. Jolly reports how finding equivalents for words like God in the native language was problematic, and the equivalent he came up with brought a lot of unintended cultural baggage (the name for God he chose was that of a creator being who was one among many, for example) (238-44). After a relatively lengthy discussion of different translations of terms, Jolly concludes, “By using indigenous terms to demarcate the new sacred spaces and objects of Christianity, Marist priests like Tattevin did more than extend Catholic notions of the sacred to island churches. By appropriating an indigenous word, kon [for sacred], and insisting that its true meaning lay beyond ancestral spaces, a struggle was declared. Similar processes of partial translation and appropriation occurred throughout the archipelago. Such acts of translation simultaneously endow the holy with local value and threaten to eclipse that local value in the name of a holier holy” (244).
Jolly then moves beyond translation of words and concepts to embodied practices. She focuses on death, a prominent theme for missionaries and ni-Vanuatu (people of Vanuatu) who were suffering from various epidemics that were threatening to wipe them out: “Given both the sheer amount of dying and its shared religious salience, it is hardly surprising that death was the prime occasion on which the contest and negotiation between missionary and indigenous understandings of sacred power was most fiercely enacted” (246). Jolly recounts deathbed baptisms and fear of holy water as bringing death and competitions between Catholicism and native religion played out in the context of death (247-52). Jolly concludes: “This brief exploration of the Marist project of conversion in Vanuatu suggests the importance not just of translating words and concepts but of translating rival aetiologies of life and death. The epidemiological conditions were clearly conducive to such a contest—the proliferation of mysterious deaths in a succession of several introduced epidemics. The outcome of the combat between the powers of the ancestors and of God was evident in the differential survival of the ‘heathen’ and the ‘mission’ party. Even if missionaries tried to disclaim responsibility for either killing or curing, this contradicted local views that all death was motivated (by living sorcerers/priests or ancestral spirits) as well as their own beliefs in extrahuman agency in the world…The Marists strongly believed in God’s will; they also sometimes believed that they were vulnerable to sorcery attack, refusing gifts of food because they suspected they were ‘poisoned.’ In understanding the centrality of death in the process of conversion, we need also to ponder the new meaning that conversion gave to Christian life. It required generations of ni-Vanuatu, like islanders elsewhere in the Pacific, to detach themselves from their past, to resignify ancestral powers and sites as diabolic and destructive, and to embrace the new powers of the church not just as more efficacious but as bringing light and life in lieu of darkness and death” (252). Jolly highlights, as Meyer did, the continued life of ancestral spirits for the Christian converts (252-3). Jolly ends by adding the complexity that Christian conversion did not just challenge the ancestral past but also challenged colonial domination (253-4).
Comments on Conversion, Talal Asad
As far as I can tell, this essay is a loosely assembled collection of comments on conversion. Asad begins by discussing why religious conversion begs for explanation while secular conversion to modernity does not. Today, conversion to modernity seems to justify itself the way that religious conversion used to, namely that there is no need to justify it, because there is truth in it. Conversion to modernity is a lot like conversion to a religion despite the fact that secular people don’t necessarily recognize it as such since many feel religious conversion is irrational; Asad states that the two are actually a lot alike because both happen based on larger forces that are out of the convert’s control, which change the range of choices available to the convert (263).
Asad next discusses the epistemic changes that result from the encounter with missionaries. Is the syncretism arising from conversion related in the same way to each of its original parts? Asad discusses the concept of consciousness, which appears in a discussion (by the Comaroffs) of Tswana rainmaking and missionary encounter. The concept of conscience is a Christian one, Asad explains. Upon conversion, the subjects had new possibilities for thinking of themselves as subjects. Beyond questions of resistance, one must think of epistemic shifts that occur: “The changed epistemic structure brought about by the conversion to modernity articulates a range of new possibilities not adequately captured by the simple alternatives of passive reception by subjects or active resistance by agents of unoriginal reproduction or synthetic originality. The politics of consciousness, like the politics of personal identity of which it is part, is an entirely modern Western possibility. The self-conscious selection and integration of new elements into that identity (which many anthropologists refer to as syncretism or hybridity) is central to that possibility. That is to say, the centrality of self-constructive action is due to a specific epistemic structure” (265).
Asad then turns to the concept of conversion as a Christian concept which has had variable meanings throughout time. In general, conversion is transitive (divine enablement) and intransitive (self work) aspects, which are intertwined. Since Augustine, there has been a sense which conversion is closely bound to power. In the modern era, there has been some level of embarrassment about the link between Christian conversion and secular colonial endeavors, though some theologians like Max Warren have argued that colonial has been positive because it has prepared the world for the Christian truth. This means that secular conversion to modernity a part of the world willed by God; thus the secular and religious histories of the world are intertwined (265-7).
Asad then turns to “the doctrine of religious toleration in the early modern state in order to think about the connection between external (‘secular’) force and internal (‘religious’) belief” (267). Two key epistemological changes must be stated here: Truth acquires a private status and propositions gain some prominence relative to practice (267). Asad discusses Kirstie McClure’s work on early Locke, especially his understanding of conscience as relativistic understanding of truth, which still must serve as the basis for civil jurisdiction; in later work, Locke deals with religious conflict, which leads him to decide it is necessary to find a non-religious absolute/objective for the purpose of civil jurisdiction. McClure shows how Locke “renders (religious) difference into (cultural) diversity, and prohibits private and public agents from attempting to coerce others into or out of existing religions” (268). McClure argues that difference should be brought back to the political domain, and that compulsion according to principles should be allowed. Asad rejects McClure’s argument for several reasons. He also rejects Susan Mendus’ argument that Locke believed belief could not be willed (269). He concludes, “The general point I am making here is that arguments like those of McClure and Mendus on Locke’s theory of toleration articulate some of the assumptions about the practical and moral limits of forcible conversion. But they do not pay adequate attention to the historical conditions—including changing psychological discourses—that construct those limits” (270-1).
Asad ends with a discussion on agency, especially the common insistence that converts are agents. Again Asad insists on keeping context in mind: “The point is that agency is not a universal property, nor is it a transcendental quality. ‘Agency’ operates through a particular network of concepts within which the historical possibilities and limits of responsibility are defined” (271). He urges us to think, in discussing conversion, about the specifics of the cultural and time of the people being discussed (272).