Disputas: Asle F. Jøssang

Asle F. Jøssang ved Sosialantropologisk institutt vil forsvare sin avhandling for graden ph.d. (philosophiae doctor): Searching for a Powerful Christ: An Anthropology of Religious Conversion in Bolivia


Oppgitt emne:
“Is an understanding of conversion as divinely inspired at odds with Anthropology's secularism?”

Tid og sted: mandag 6. september kl. 14:00-14:45, Rådsalen, Administrasjonsbygningen, Blindern



Ordinære opponenter:
1. opponent: Senior Researcher John-Andrew McNeish, Chr. Michelsens institutt.
2. opponent: Førsteamanuensis Jon Schackt, Institutt for arkeologi og sosialantropologi, Universitetet i Tromsø.

Professor Unni Wikan, Sosialantropologisk institutt, Universitetet i Oslo, er administrator og komiteens tredje medlem.

Leder av disputas:  Professor Halvard Vike, Sosialantropologisk institutt

Veileder:  Professor Sarah Lund, Sosialantropologisk institutt


Searching for a Powerful Christ: An Anthropology of Religious Conversion in Bolivia


Based on a study of Protestantism in Bolivia, the dissertation revisits some central topics in the anthropology of religion; conversion and syncretism, by researching them from a new theoretical perspective - that of embodiment theory. In this light, syncretism is not a pathological case of misguided transformation from one state of being to another, which churches themselves usually claim from a normative point of view. Rather, it is seen to be an inevitable dimension to any and all processes of socio-cultural changes, including conversion, even if the focus is on radical change.

This theoretical take also signifies an epistemological reconsideration of concepts and perspectives widely employed by anthropology to study the growth of Protestantism in Latin America, on a continent historically dominated by Roman Catholicism. The author suggests that the uncritical adoption of Weberian concepts on change and development originally employed in the study of Protestantism in Europe, does not to full justice to understanding the same in Latin America because the larger socio-cultural and material conditions are different. The dissertation sympathizes more with the line of studies that see the remarkable emergence of Protestantism in terms of deep-set cultural-religious continuity.

People do not turn to Protestantism because it is something entirely new, but they transpose their innate cultural-religious understanding unto it and seek what is perceived to be a more powerful means of coping with the challenges in life. Some researchers emphasize this aspect of continuity to the point of suggesting the disuse of the term “conversion”. This author, however, does not subscribe to such a view, precisely because Protestant communities and the believers themselves are very emphatic about the experience and perception of conversion. Naturally, believers get very frustrated with an anthropology that obviates their experiences.

The present dissertation tries to break new ground in the study of Christianity by combining the perspectives of continuity and change. In the anthropological tradition of going to “small places”, while answering “big questions”, the study is mainly based on ethnographic data from a small Pentecostal congregation in Bolivia. The author follows individuals as they get recruited to the church, become socialized as hermanos (brothers and sisters), and gradually redefine the perception of themselves in terms of the powerful rhetoric of rupture and discontinuity with former life. The research finds, however, that pre-conversion religious understandings; especially the logic of reciprocal relations between man and the divine, in which it is the believer who takes the initiative and can influence the amount and quality of returned blessing, survives, but is also “disguised” in Protestant symbols and cloaked in heavy rhetoric of radical change.

A way to make sense of continuity and simultaneous change is to introduce a two-dimensional model of conversion with Vygotsky’s concept of “dialogism” as a mediating factor. The novice cannot but transpose through metaphorical bridging innate needs and understandings into the realm of Protestant practice, where the initial focus is on changing social behaviour according to standards set and guarded by the church leadership. Successful feedback of the church guardians has the effect of defining and confirming change, while inadvertedly “camouflage” the continuity, which has slipped through. The dissertation views conversion and Christian identity as ever evolving hybrid phenomena, even if pre-conversion influences may dilute over time creating the sensation of “pure” forms. Essensialization of conventionalized forms is always part of the socio-cultural dynamic.
This dissertation also aims at being an experiment in applied anthropology; in this case directed towards the religious field. Can anthropology play a role in defusing religious tensions by facilitating dialogue and constructive interaction? Rivalries and mutual recriminations are among conservative Protestant groups in Bolivia common, and this small example speaks to larger and more dramatic situations elsewhere, as religion is claiming more and more space in the contested and multicultural public arena. A contribution from anthropology may be to point out the ecological contingencies of religious forms and beliefs even when they are purported to be essential and pure in themselves.

A minimum requirement for such a task is for anthropology to be trusted by the actors involved. As the author quickly learned in Bolivia, even to be allowed to do research among the believers was a delicate matter due to their precluded scepticism towards this “god-forsaking” discipline.

The believers’ scepticism points to a larger issue of discussing what counts for valid and trustworthy knowledge in a post-colonial and globalized age. The Bolivian hermanos clearly voiced their irritation at repeatedly perceiving to be victims of secular and hegemonic science.

The author’s initial appeal to the anthropological method of cultural relativity was not accepted, prompting him to base his research project on an overarching framework called critical realism. In principle, this perspective allows for the ontological reality of God’s existence and intervention in people’s lives, yet also points out how people’s actual knowledges are conditioned. While intended to build trust, such an approach does not turn anthropology into a docile and complying instrument. Even if science tries to be anti-hegemonic, it must maintain its critical edge. By applying the critical realist approach in the religious field, anthropology cannot be accused of being reductionistic, and it is now the religious communities that are challenged to reflect on how their respective theologies are produced. In an epilogue chapter, the dissertation undertakes the experiment of engaging conservative Protestant theology on the question of the interrelationship between divine revelation and socio-cultural conditioning.


Alternativt antropologistudium av religion

Avhandlingen gjør en gjenvisitt til noen sentrale temaer i religionsantropologien, slik som forståelse av omvendelse og blandingsformene, synkretisme, som oppstår i omvendelsesprosesser. Med utgangspunkt i et etnografisk feltstudium om protestantisme i Bolivia, hevder avhandlingen at synkretisme alltid er en normal tilstand, selv om den ”usynliggjøres” ved å bli uttrykt gjennom aksepterte symboler og praksiser i de forskjellige kirkene.

Teorien som ligger til grunn for avhandlingen; kroppsliggjort kultur, bidrar også til å kaste nytt lys over et spørsmål som har opptatt mange forskere de senere årene, nemlig den store veksten Protestantismen opplever i Latin Amerika.

I Bolivia opplevde forfatteren at hans synspunkter ble avfeid som ugyldige og uinteressante av kirkeledere nettopp fordi de kom fra et fag som oppleves å være ”gudløst”. Dette utfordret til å eksperimentere med å ta noen skritt lenger i å imøtekomme religiøse premisser for forståelse, enn det som er vanlig i den klassiske kulturrelativistiske metoden.

Men dermed blir teologien utfordret tilbake i forhold til spørsmål om forholdet mellom kultur og tro. Slik sett forsøker handlingen å bidra med innspill til protestantisk missiologi. Andre relevante anliggender er å bidra til økt antropologisk kunnskap om spredning og stedegengjøring av kristendommen rundt omkring i verden. Dessuten, ettersom religion blir et stadig mer fremtredende og kontroversielt faktor i en post-kolonial verden, drøfter avhandlingen hvordan antropologi kan delta i debattene på en tillitsvekkende, men kritisk måte.

Publisert 30. aug. 2010 11:31 - Sist endret 4. feb. 2014 09:15