Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The power of God. A lecture

Update: the long written version is now online: Samuli Schielke. 2019. "The power of God: Four proposals for an anthropological engagement." ZMO Programmatic Texts, vol. 13.

Social scientists usually find it much easier to talk about religion than about God, and yet religious people often talk much more about God, and religion is for them not just a human business; it is a relation humans have with divine beings. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt, in this lecture I make four proposals about how anthropologists may account for the monotheist God as a social reality, embodying and enacting a form of power that makes us, and through which we make ourselves - in manifold and also contrary ways. This is something that social scientists can study regardless of their theistic, atheistic, or other ontological commitments.

The first proposal is to pay ethnographic attention to the way different specific powers of God are present in human interactions through linguistic references and the search for guidance and sustenance. The second proposal is to consider more systematically the forms of relational or relationship power God commands over humans. The third proposal is to pay attention to the productive tensions and conflicts that arise from the encounter with a God who is both harshly punishing and merciful, disciplining and sustaining, a life-giver and a dead-maker. The fourth proposal is to think of secularity or “the secular” as a reconfiguration of the human-God relationship in which humans are empowered, and whereby a triadic relationship where God acts as supreme mediator between humans is weakened, transformed, or partially replaced by separate relationships.

A longer article on which this lecture is based will be published soon as a ZMO programmatic text. This lecture was delivered as a keynote lecture to the workshop “The 'Ethical' and the 'Everyday': Interrogating analytical turns for/in the study of Islam and Muslims in Europe” organised by Amin El-Yousfi and Zubair Ahmad at Cambridge University, 29-30 November 2018.

The first 10 minutes of the talk are introduction related to the conference. The actual four proposals begin at 9:40.


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