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Reclaiming Hope: Commentary by Webb Keane

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Reclaiming Hope," and reflects specifically on the author's 2012 article "Sincerity, ‘Modernity,’ and the Protestants."

Although my work on sincerity did not start out as part of something called “the anthropology of Christianity,” that has become one context in which it can be read. And that context in turn provides one way to frame the question of hope. This, of course, is because in Christianity hope is one of the triad that also includes faith and charity. If we take this triad as a very rough guide for anthropological work with self-consciously Christian communities, we might consider faith to direct us to truth claims, charity to social relations, and hope to the future. But what might an ethnographic account of the future involve? Current anthropological fashions for prognostication notwithstanding, it seems to me that history should teach us to be extremely modest in our claims to predictive powers. But hope is one configuration of people’s stances toward the future, something that might yield considerable empirical traction, as both Vincent Crapanzano and Hiro Miyazaki have shown so well. Taken as a stance toward the future, hope can entail forms of agency, concepts of the subject, modes of collective action, institutional orders, and forms of political legitimacy, among other things.

I touch on some of these topics in my work on Sumbanese Calvinism, which is most fully developed in Christian Moderns (Keane 2007). My article on sincerity in this Curated Collection directs our attention to the reconfiguration of the subject in response to a certain notion of sincerity. In that article, I try to suggest how the forms of interiority and accountability that are valorized in the Calvinist imaginary and cultivated in practice can also be implicated in economic and political orders beyond the self. In particular, the idea of freedom has been taken up by people in Sumba and elsewhere as a link between the relative autonomy taken as normative for the sincere subject and the forms of collective self-governance identified with modern political orders. The particular ways of conceiving of freedom I discuss in this article can scale up from individual interiority to nationhood, the supranational church, and the transcendent realm it represents.

First, a meta-anthropological observation. The theological imaginary of contemporary Christianity in places like Oceania often forms a persistent inducement to the close reading of scriptural texts and the seeking out of signs in the world (e.g., Robbins 2004, chapter 4), and thus, to reflection and theorization. In many of the Protestant groups I know something about, that inducement is directed, at least potentially, at anyone and everyone. In other words, we cannot expect any easy distinctions between expert and lay person, nor between the subjects and objects of ethnography. Nor, given the universalizing assertions of Christianity, should we comfortably accept any straightforward definition of the local. As I have suggested for Sumba, and so too in many other places, Christianity’s success and people’s powerful identification with it should confound any obvious boundaries between foreign and indigenous or any easy resort to distinctions between what has been imposed and what is authentic, a point elaborated especially well by Danilyn Rutherford (2003).

Like any evangelical religion, Christianity is not only in principle universalistic (its redemptive promises should apply without exception to all humans, its truth claims to all Creation), it is also empirically expansionist (its institutions should eventually enfold all existing communities). One of the sources of Christianity’s appeal, especially for people faced with an ineffectual state (as in Papua New Guinea) or hostile ethnic majorities (as in parts of Indonesia), is precisely its offer of entry into a translocal community. But there is a temporal imaginary built into this spatial one. Matt Tomlinson (2009) has observed in Fiji that this theological-temporal imaginary can have direct implications for political legitimacy by fostering or discouraging the acceptance of the new or the authority of the old. Evangelization’s momentum endows it with a tilt toward futurity itself. And that tilt toward futurity may require any political analyst to take theology seriously. The more dramatic millenarian movements and apocalyptic visions draw our attention. But the moral narrative of modernity that Protestantism imparted to dominant secular historical imaginaries is more pervasive (Keane 2007, 47–55). Ends that may seem utterly unworldly to the more secularly inclined observer can endow people with significant practical capacities, realized with enormous energy. These can include the building of schools and airstrips, institutions of governance within, parallel to, or potentially encompassing those of the state, moral crusades and missionary enterprises, and more (see Tomlinson and McDougall 2013).

Hope may crystallize as political theology. Political theology is not only a way of thinking about the nature and sources of power. It can also constitute the interests toward which it is exercised, shape how people seek to exercise power, and impose limits on what they are willing to do, or even to imagine as doable, in that exercise. Political theology is often an attempt to grapple with the limits of instrumental rationality as a way of understanding what motivates politics and what determines the outcomes of political actions. (In that respect, it displays interesting parallels to cultural theory more familiar to most anthropologists.) In the context of Christian Oceania, the limits to instrumental rationality and the hope that peers beyond those limits often project a future in which governance is guided, above all, by morality. When morality is organized with reference to a transcendental God’s-eye point of view, it can seem to require a totalization of social existence under the rule of a fully knowable, objectified, and self-consistent set of norms. The pressure exerted by the transcendental point of view seems to motivate many of the revival or reform movements through which hope is expressed in much of political life in Oceania today. Religious revivals often seek to reconstruct domestic, economic, and political life under a holistic set of pious principles. The result can resemble Louis Althusser’s teeth-gritting harmony, if not something more paradoxical yet. But being paradoxical hardly disqualifies a political theology from social success, and indeed, may serve as a goad to yet more strenuous efforts.


Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rutherford, Danilyn. 2003. Raiding the Land of the Foreigners: The Limits of the Nation on an Indonesian Frontier. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Tomlinson, Matt. 2009. In God’s Image: The Metaculture of Fijian Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____, and Debra McDougall, eds. 2013. Christian Politics in Oceania. New York: Berghahn.