ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Plenary C: Christian global

Webb Keane, University of Michigan

As the ecclesiastical origins of the word 'ecumene' in English suggest, until quite recently a capacity to imagine the global was inseparable from the imagined communities of universalizing and proselytizing religions. If the ontological universality of religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism invites one to imagine totalities, their proselytizing impetus puts into circulation a range of material practices that make their concepts inhabitable in everyday life. In particular, proselytizing religions underwrite practices that aim to be detachable from particular social contexts and available for universal appropriation. In addition, due in part to its relationship to colonialism, the globalization of Christianity has also been linked to certain aspects of the concept of 'modernity.'  Today, one third of the world’s population is Christian. Drawing on the anthropology of Christianity, this talk takes up some themes from the study of religious globalization more generally. They centre on the epistemic space of conversion, the moralizing narrative of modernity, the work of purification, and the idea of agency. The study of global proselytizing religions is an especially rich ethnographic domain for exploring the tensions between abstraction and material mediations.