Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

ingness to give still more. The same gifts, he concluded, awaited me, if only I too would accept Christ. "This is what the whole thing is about."


Conclusion

If conversion is a process of acquiring a specific religious language, and witnessing is an orthodox Protestant rite of conversion, then, if you are willing to be witnessed to, if you are seriously willing to listen to the gospel, you have begun to convert. Listening to the gospel initiates the unwashed into the Word, the language of God.

The single most important unconscious clue I gave Reverend Cantrell that I was "susceptible" to conversion was that I was willing to listen to the gospel. Crises, transitions, and upbringing as such do not lead you to convert; they may make you more likely to listen, and anything that makes you more likely to listen, including the work of ethnography, is actually what makes you susceptible.

"Susceptible" implies passivity, but I was not passively listening to Reverend Cantrell. I was struggling mightily against the grain of my ignorance and incredulity to make sense of what he was saying. His language was so intense and strange, yet deceptively plain and familiar, full of complex nuances and pushes and pulls, that I had no time, no spare inner speech, to "interpret" him, to rework what he said into my own words, as he talked. I just gripped my chair, as it were, and took it in straight. I was willfully uncritical as well, in the sense that I wanted to understand, as best I could, his words from his point of view, to assume his position, to make his speech mine. 7 It was not exactly what Reverend Cantrell said that brought me under conviction; it is that I took it up, merely by listening to him actively and uncritically. 8

The membrane between disbelief and belief is much thinner than we think. All I had to do was to listen to my witness and to struggle to understand him. Just doing so did not make me a fundamental Baptist born-again believer, but it drew me across that membrane in tiny ways so that I began to acquire the knowledge and vision and sensibilities, to share the experience, of a believer.

Believers and disbelievers assert there is no middle ground: You are either one or the other. You cannot both believe and disbelieve. But that is precisely what it means to be under conviction. You do not believe in the sense of public declarations, but you gradually come to respond to, and interpret, and act in the world as if you were a believer. It is a state of unconscious belief, experienced with more or less turmoil and anxiety, depending on how strong your disbelieving voices are. It also depends for the ethnographer on how adamant your colleagues are about the "dangers" of doing "this kind of fieldwork." I was given to think my credibility depended on my resisting any experience of born-again belief. The irony is that this space between belief and disbelief, or rather the paradoxical space of overlap, is also the space of ethnography. We must enter it to do our work. 9

Reverend Cantrell's testimony was a hodgepodge of stories sewn together with "the scarlet thread of redemption," not a series of "logical" or "empirical" argu-

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