Christianity as a cultural system

My Christmas present to myself (well, who else was going to give it to me?) was Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. Although I’ve often seen references to his works, I hadn’t read him before, and I’m enjoying it a lot, especially since he writes well. I’m particularly interested in his work on the anthropology of religion, and his chapter: ‘Religion as a Cultural System’ has got me thinking a lot. (Whether I can incorporate his ideas into my own work, I’m not sure: medievalists have used some anthropologists such as Mary Douglas and Marcel Mauss a lot, but that’s rather more specific stuff than Geertz is talking about).

Geertz defines culture (p 89) as ‘an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.’ The emphasis on religion as a meaning creating activity seems to me to offer a way of exploring the reasons for religion that fills in some of the gaps offered by psychological and sociological theories of religion.

I’m not personally convinced by psychological explanations of religiosity, because they don’t seem to me sufficient to explain why some people in the modern world believe and some don’t (let alone trying to apply them to past societies). If you look round most churches or other religious institutions you find people with very different psychological make-ups, and it’s equal common for me to meet people (such as some of my family members) with whom I share considerable psychological similarity, but not my beliefs. Sociological views of religion seem to me have more merit, but they’re still too coarse-grained, especially when there’s an emphasis on class. Yes, Christianity in the pre-modern period supports and legitimates royal rule, but that isn’t its only effect, and false consciousness or split consciousness alone doesn’t explain the religiosity of lower social classes.

Geertz uses the idea of religion as a cultural system mainly at the level of a society/a people, which gives me twinges of uneasiness, since it ignores the issue of power. (Maybe it’s more appropriate for the relatively small, non-specialised societies that anthropologists specialise in). But the idea of religion as a cultural system producing meaning also potentially makes it useful at far smaller scales, right down to the individual family. (Geertz would probably not want to take it down to individual level, since to him meaning always involves communicating the meaning to others via symbols). There is nothing like seeing one’s own relatives at Christmas to make you realise how family customs and ethos are both transmitted down the generations, but also changed. Your siblings may have the same background and current socio-economic status, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they still share the same culture. (The changes are probably more marked in a modern society, but the same process is visible as far back as the novel goes, at least). Religion as part of an individual family’s tradition/culture needs to be thought about more seriously (as studies of crusaders have started to do), though we often lack the data for the early Middle Ages.

Seeing Christianity as a cultural system is particularly useful for considering Christianisation in the early Middle Ages. I went to a paper about a month ago on the Christianisation of Bavaria (which Jon Jarrett has already ably summarised). What I was thinking about then was how the Christianisation of Bavaria involved a web of new relationships being created between Bavarians and monasteries, Central Carolingian power and the saints (who themselves were being changed retrospectively: the rewriting of Bavarian saints as missionaries was particularly striking). When you combine that with Geertz’s comment (p 5): ‘Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs’, then you can see Christianisation as the reweaving of a complete culture, that has to displace an existing religion. That early medieval Christianisation involved a complete re-ordering of the cosmos (new sacred geography, new sacred history, new chronology etc) has often been recognised: what Geertz’s ideas suggest is that all of that process is necessary. In his view:

sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos – the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood – and their world view – the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order.

If you have to change both the ethos and the world view of a society (even if it’s just from Bavarian to Carolingian Christianity), you have some pretty heavy conceptual work to do. Conversion of a whole society is not just a scaled-up version of the conversion of an individual in a society which already has that religion as an accessible cultural system. (If I converted to Judaism today, for example, I would need to find a Jewish community to plug into quickly if I was going to retain my Jewishness).

Which explains where monasteries come in: they’re not just prayer powerhouses, they’re also meaning powerhouses, spinning these new webs of significance for their vicinity. They connect people with the saints, they provide a vision of religious order (never mind the buildings, there is no equivalent well-ordered team of people in the West between the Roman army and the Exchequer), they write and rewrite history etc. You can’t do this kind of meaning creation at this stage with wandering preachers or parish priests (although this was possible by the late Middle Ages, judging by Eamon Duffy’s ‘The Voices of Morebath’). If you look at it in this way, it’s not the pastoral, practical work of the monks that is key in these newly Christianised societies: it is their symbolic role. And whatever else monks do, they do symbolism very, very well.


6 thoughts on “Christianity as a cultural system

  1. I managed to blow up my Firefox session in the middle of a previous response to this, which is probably a lesson to me for adding quibbles rather than thanking you for links. (Thankyou, by the way.) I think your main point is perfectly fair, and to an extent there to be drawn out from a lot of Barbara Rosenwein or even Sharon Farmer’s stuff about how monasteries relate to their communities, or even, dare I say it, my EME paper about how they mediate political power.

    That wasn’t what initially struck me, however, because as you may know I’ve been associating quite closely with an anthropologist in recent months, one with their own copy of Geertz too indeed. I could point them at this if you would like, but first I think you might need to take out the phrase “the relatively small, non-specialised societies that anthropologists specialise in”… A lot of key anthropological work was done on primitive societies and small ones and often both, but the discipline is now, I think, getting away from such work because of recognising that they do not as was once theorised reflect a universal simpler state of man, but all have their own complex and messy histories too because of having spent as long in development as any of our societies, albeit with different opportunities and contexts. SO what you get now is as much projects on subcultures within big, complex societies: I could mention one local to me (this is not, by the way, my anthropologist contact, but she has her stuff on the web) on political protest in El Alto in Bolivia, which is neither small nor simple.

    this link about him a useful bit of positioning.


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