A very Good Friday

The late Mary Douglas is among my favourite researchers and thinkers in one of my least favourite disciplines: “social anthropology.” As it is a day to put last things first, let me suggest that Dame Mary gave the lie to anthropology’s pretensions, once the adjective “social” is affixed to it. A product of the British colonial service (and also of a mother and father), she was brought up in Subcontinental surroundings where social anthropologists were dominant. Fortunately, she was also raised a Catholic, and curiously, did not forget.

It is from her writings that we, or at least I, ceased taking religious affiliations for granted: assuming that they do or do not exist, at any point in historical time. The most savage aboriginal tribesman, concealed in “heathen darkness,” may be unambiguously religious; or he may actually be utterly indifferent to religion. We cannot guess which without intimate evidence. At the extreme of modernity, we may encounter real piety, or an escape from it.

What is not progress isn’t regress, either. There is, in this important sense, no difference between decadents and primitives. What we respectively worship is essentially unknowable to science; although anthropology can produce some entertaining illustrations of what we don’t know.

But as its domination becomes more complete (in university faculties, for instance), social anthropology still contributes nothing to what is commemorated by some of us, on this day. The facts can only be expressed as facts. (As the poet Auden, an opponent of bigotry and ignorance, patiently explained to anti-Semites: “Christ was crucified by the Romans. … Or, to bring it up-to-date, by the French.”)

In the larger scheme, Christ was not crucified because he was a Jew, or not a Jew, or defectively Roman, or unFrench, but in response to apparently presenting himself as the Son of God. What made this bestowal the more disquieting was, that it was true. And it was demonstrated, as the Paschal Triduum unfolded.

This is a fact that can be confidently affirmed, or denied. Or, if one is thoroughly modern, it is a fact to be ignored even before it is avoided. But it is not a fact of social anthropology, in any of its compartments. Rather, it is the circumstance in which, whether we know it or not, we live and have our being.