Years ago, that splendid journal about academic politics, Lingua Franca, published an essay that made it sound as if the big intellectual battle within Religious Studies departments was whether a scholar of religion should be a believer or an atheist. I remember reading that essay again and again, picking it up from a stack of journals I left on a side table and thumbing through it when I was supposed to be preparing for class. I just did not understand why a scholar’s belief status could matter so much to so many people.
The same debate engulfed my own field, anthropology, a decade or so before I started my doctoral work at Cambridge. Evans-Pritchard was a magisterial figure in British anthropology when in 1937 he published a book that set not only anthropology but also philosophy on its ears. Witchcraft, Magic, and Oracles Among the Azande argued that sensible, reasonable people (like the Azande, an agricultural community in south Sudan) could believe in magic. In fact when he lived among the Azande, he said, he too had ordered his life according to the poison oracle, which had worked out just fine for him. Then in 1956, having in the meantime converted to Catholicism, Evans-Pritchard published a book about another Sudanese people, the Nuer, in which he suggested that their views about God were as sophisticated as those of the average Englishman (Nuer Religion). In that book he also pointed out that when their religion required them to sacrifice a cow, if they didn’t have the money, they could sacrifice a cucumber.
To an observer, it might seem that these ethnographies were excellent evidence: personal belief mattered little to understanding. Nonetheless, the books touched off a controversy that reverberated for years. Many distinguished philosophers (Alisdair MacIntyre and Peter Winch among them) argued about whether it was essential to believe in order to understand what “God” meant to people—no doubt because the cucumber and the poison oracle pushed the college common room about as far as it could go. The battle sometimes obscured the details. My own supervisor, Ernest Gellner, used to tell a story about one of the debates to which Evans-Pritchard himself was invited. The question was whether it was possible for an Englishman to understand the meaning of cattle to the Azande. At the conclusion of the debate, the philosophers invited Evans-Pritchard to comment. Gellner, who said that he was in the room for the event, reported that Evans-Pritchard rose to his feet and remarked that he had little to add to the philosophical subtlety and depth of the arguments. He did wish to note, however, that there were no cattle among the Azande. In fact, this is true. If you look up “cattle” in the index of Witchcraft, Magic, and Oracles, you will find that the entry reads “cattle, absence of.” The Nuer were the ones with the cattle.
Ernest Gellner would tell this story to illustrate that the debate was silly. These days I see more of its point, which is why I found these terrific commentaries so interesting. I am able to do the work that I do because I believe in what I call the radical otherness of God. I know that this is a phrase used by Karl Barth and others, but I use it more simply here. I think that humans are constrained by human minds and human bodies adapted to respond to the material world. I treat God as beyond the natural—supernatural—and as reached through the natural, through human minds and human bodies. I am exquisitely aware that people make different judgments about what they know of God through their human experience of that reach. As a non-believer, I cannot be a good participant observer among those who think about this differently unless I take seriously the possibility that [End Page 138] God may be real and that those who have experienced God report accurately. Yet as an observer, I know people whose experiences contradict each other and whose inferences, based on those experiences, also clash. I have felt God’s presence in my garden, and...