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In a Mirror Dimly: Anthropology and Restoring a Sense of Presence to an Empty World

Timothy Helton

Independent Scholar, USA 


In this essay, I argue that, in the anthropology of religion, everything depends on the lens through which the ethnographers gaze at the objects of their study. Scholars that approach religion as an object fit only for analysis discover in it a model of an objectified universe; and those that assume a universe subject only to natural law find in the religions that they study worlds devoid of others–sterile worlds populated only by selves incapable of meaningful relationships. The essay urges that those who see in religions only objects for analysis participate in the construction of worlds inhabited by zombie-like beings devoid of selfhood. On the other hand, those who believe religions depict webs of relationships participate in the construction of worlds supportive of whole human beings capable of more than just physical life; and they offer a hopeful corrective to modernity’s tendency to reduce its world to objects of analysis and manipulation. I support my thesis with the criticisms of anthropological conceptions and methods made by contemporary thinkers. Next, taking the work of E. B. Tylor as an example, I demonstrate the validity of such criticisms. Then, I offer two examples of alternatives to objectifying ethnography before tracing developments in anthropological method in the last decades that have greatly improved the lens used for the anthropological gaze. Finally, I conclude by suggesting the collaboration between anthropology and theology in the restoration of a world capable of supporting life in more than a mere physical sense.


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Science, Religion and Culture


Vol. 5, Sp. Iss. 1 Pages 1-82


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