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Anthropology of CatholicismA Reader$
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Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, and Maya Mayblin

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520288423

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520288423.001.0001

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Excerpt from “The Dinka and Catholicism”

Excerpt from “The Dinka and Catholicism”

(p.63) 4 Excerpt from “The Dinka and Catholicism”
Anthropology of Catholicism

Godfrey Lienhardt

University of California Press

Like Julian Pitt-Rivers, Godfrey Lienhardt (1921–93) was a student of E. E. Evans-Pritchard at Oxford. His great ethnography Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, published in 1961, is regarded as one of the great social anthropological studies of religion. In his research (1947–50) on this southern Sudanese nomad population (neighbors of the Nuer, the people researched by Evans-Pritchard), Lienhardt approaches religious symbolism, imagery, and leadership as informed intimately by the Dinka’s own everyday experience of the world. He altered dominant social anthropological perspectives on religion of the time by drawing attention to the discrepancy and contradictions that existed between people’s everyday experience of “religion” and their conscious, reflexive articulations about those practices. The attention to skepticism and ambiguity is evident in this essay (first published in 1982, and reproduced here almost in its entirety) that reflects on the interaction between the Dinka and Italian Catholic missionaries, who had been in the Sudan since the mid-nineteenth century. Lienhardt begins by asking, “What kind of translation, as it were, of experience is required for a Dinka to become a nominal or believing Christian?” He responds to this question with circumspection, stressing the challenges in any missionary encounter, which he aptly characterizes as not one of simple straightforward instruction and conversion (or rupture), but one fraught with gaps in understanding and divergent intentions on both sides. Many of these gaps inhere in language, both idiomatic and semantic terms, with many ideas being “caught in translation,” leading Catholicism to “stick” unevenly and in unpredictable ways across the Dinka world. Thus the Dinka accepted the Church mostly, Lienhardt suggests, through ideas of progress and mostly material development that were quite foreign to Dinka experience and, somewhat ironically, also to the ideas and principles taught by the missionaries. Catholic doctrine and eschatology were thus absorbed into the Dinka life-world through a kind of “linguistic parallax” (a displacement or change in the perception of objects in space from different points of observation). Lienhardt erroneously characterizes the church as “the bearer of a theoretically unified body of theological and social doctrine”—a portrayal similar to widespread views even today. But the acuity of his attention to the intricacies and uncertainties of the exchange of meanings that is part of missionization—and to the political economic realities shaping the encounter—distinguishes this work as a pioneering study in the anthropology of missions, especially in colonial Africa. In this respect Lienhardt’s essay might be seen as a precursor to a great tradition of poststructuralist works on African religious missionaries, postcolonialism, and social transformation.1 His focus on Catholicism, however, provides us a glimpse of the dynamics of “syncretism” in situ as a process that cannot be understood outside its social, historical, and political context.

Keywords:   Lienhardt-Godfrey, Catholicism, Dinka, Missionization, African-anthropology, Conversion, Translation

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