Damascus Road or the Renewal of Your Mind:
Anthropological and Theological Reflections on Radical Openness in the Field

Natalie Swann

University of Melbourne

Before I start I want to set myself a low bar. I have been in a mix of maternity leave and part-time fieldwork for two years and I am woefully out of touch with literature - whether that’s the ‘current’ literature, or ‘my’ literature, in light of which I hope your feedback will help point me in useful directions once I return to the books.
In this paper, I hope to present you with a few snapshots of my fieldwork experience and frame them for you somewhat organically, somewhat loosely – both anthropologically and theologically. I am hoping you will let me experiment a bit with presenting theological content that may be unusual in the discipline and help me figure out how to take these thoughts further.

Let me explain; I am a practicing Christian and I am doing research with Christians. Specifically, I am looking at the interplay between faith and migration for migrant Christians here in the suburb of Preston. I deliberately shunned the idea of presupposing ethnicity....”the Sudanese in Australia” .... instead focusing on a locality (Preston) and the multiplicity of denominational and ethnic intersections it is home to.

I have spent six months in each of three congregations;

In locating myself in these churches I am at once an insider - a fellow believer. And an outsider; denominationally and congregationally these churches are different from my own. The church I am most theologically ‘at home’ in - the Arabic Baptist Church - is the one I am most distinctively an ethnic outsider.

As an open, practicing Christian, I have felt distrust from some academic quarters - both indirectly from the literature and directly from at least one colleague - about whether I could adequately adopt a posture of openness, making myself open to the possibility of conversion, to be able to adequately interrogate my own cultural presuppositions because of my commitment to a Christian faith. Could I put my beliefs to one side and become adequately ‘open’ to this kind of conversion?[1]

But I want to challenge the notion of openness to conversion on two fronts. First, I think all of us have pretty deep-seated commitments to our way of viewing the world. While there are accounts of anthropologists who ‘go native’ for good, converting to their field communities, they are in the minority. Most of us come home, returning to life as we knew it. Second, every anthropologist is affected by the field, stretched and pulled, reshaped.

And so, if anthropologists engaging in radical openness results in a ‘stretching’ rather than conversion, I suspect that that the idea that I need to be open to conversion has to do with two things; first that I have converted to Christianity in the first place and second that my Christianity is somehow opposed to this “stretching”.
Christian discourse is itself to blame for creating this narrative of conversion in many ways; “Repent [literally, ‘turn around’] and believe”. The most dramatic such conversion being that of the man Saul into the Apostle Paul. Here is how he describes himself,

…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Philippians 3:5-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

Saul was a Jew – a very ‘good’ Jew. And he worked very hard to protect the Jewish flock from an upstart cult that followed a crucified philosopher that they claimed was the Jewish Messiah; overseeing the stoning of the first recorded Christian martyr and making “havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison (Acts 8:1-3).

Until, that is, on the road to Damascus, when he is blinded by a light and sees a vision of the risen Lord Jesus. This vision, followed by three days of blindness, a three day fast, and the intervention of a terrified Christian named Ananais, resulted in the conversion of Saul from persecutor to disciple.

This vision has formed something of a model for popular understandings of conversion. A blinding light. A radical about face. And yet, the same man, when he writes to the Christian church in Rome has this advice:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
Romans 12: 1-3 (New Revised Standard Version)

And a little later:

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are..
Romans 12:16 (New Revised Standard Version)

And then he moves to this almost ethnographic example, which I’ll reflect on in a moment:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s..... Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
Romans 14:1-8 and 13-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

Paul is here, I think, acknowledging multiplicity. He is suggesting that the priority of love calls for Christians to submit to one another’s ideas about appropriate worship. If someone thinks it is wrong to eat meat, he says, then in order to love them, you should not eat meat either. Submit to their ontology. If someone thinks that something is unclean, then it is so. Here, if anything, is a precursor to the idea of possible worlds and cultural difference. Paul does not suggest that our call as Christians is to remake others into our likeness, but rather that the Christian is called to unmake himself to love the other. In light of teaching like this, I feel absolutely no tension between my Christian faith and a commitment to radical openness.

And so, let me give you an example from each congregation I have worked with, of how my own faith journey, the emphases of my own theology have been stretched.

In the faith tradition I have inherited - White Anglo Saxon Protestantism - there has been a push over the last few decades to a kind of ‘casualisation’ of the Sunday worship service. This casualisation coincides with a casualisation of interpersonal relationships more broadly in the West, but within the church I am aware of theological explanations for the shift, some facets of which include;

None of these facets are universal features of all White Anglo Saxon Protestant churches, nor are they exhaustive, but they set the scene to expose the contrast with my experiences in a Catholic church and an Adventist church.

Let me start with how I was stretched into a more Catholic shape. The Catholic church building is beautiful; an imposing red-brick Romanesque church sitting high on a hill on the major Melbourne road Bell Street.  Walking thorough the front doors, I was surprised by how light and airy it is inside—so much of my experience of old Protestant churches is that their interiors are dark and dank. The internal walls of Sacred Heart are white painted plaster, the ceilings are high, and there is a glass wall rather than a brick one between the foyer and the body of the church, all of which contributes to a bright and open atmosphere. It is a big space with room for what must be upwards of 500 people. The altar is prominent as are two shrines, one to Jesus and one to Mary.

While I had been warmly greeted by a priest in the foyer, passing through into the church proper I am struck by the quiet. Congregants sit without engaging in conversation. Many adopt the postures of prayer in their seats or on their knees. The service is remarkably casual for a Catholic church - the priest roaming the front of the church, jokes are cracked, the musical accompaniment is a small band of guitar and singers - but there is still a strong commitment to the liturgy. There are powerful physical habits of crossing and kneeling, speaking and staying silent that take me weeks to settle into.

There is a physicality to the vertical relationality of worship - that is, the relationship between person and God - that I have not practiced week in and week out before. These habits of kneeling and of silence remind me of my smallness and creatureliness. I am particularly struck by the potency of kneeling in prayer; its mild discomfort, its vulnerability and humility. I am not silent because I think God is somehow more present here than He is anywhere else (although that might be the conviction of some I sit beside). But these physical disciplines - ones that my own flock have largely abandoned - help me to embody not just Catholic theology, but my own theology as well.

My Adventist reshaping was similar. Adventist life is a highly disciplined one. On one of my first visits, I attend a Sunday School class for young teens in which the point of the lesson is to teach the following lifestyle principles:

A healthy lifestyle has been one of the foundational blocks of Adventism since it was established in the 19th Century as an offshoot of Baptist and Methodist churches in the USA. One of its founders, the prophetess Ellen White, was committed to this as part of the distinctively Adventist character. Adventists went on to found Sanitariums, Hospitals and Sanitarium Foods.

I find this focus on lifestyle theologically uncomfortable. It is completely alien to my more mainstream Protestant upbringing. But for Adventists there is no distinction between their health message and their theology. And while I cannot bring myself to share their reading of Scripture that leads them to advocate for vegetarianism, I am compelled by their commitment to this body as a gift from God that ought to be protected and cared for with discipline and labour. It helps me see in my own tradition a willingness to abdicate responsibility for the wellness of the body, and an instinctive turn to modern medical science to fix what could have been prevented. In the theology of bodily discipline of the Adventists I find gratitude; a gratitude that takes hold of the gift of the body and takes responsibility for looking after it.

In conclusion, you may have noticed that in these cases I pick and choose. I have not converted to Catholicism or Adventism (though some Adventists have tried).  And indeed, my new Catholic and Adventist contours are ones which resonate with my already-held-theological position. Theologically, I am comfortable with allowing God to speak to me through these brothers and sisters in this way, moulding and shaping and refining me. Anthropologically, however, I fear that there is an arrogance to this picking and choosing. And yet I do not know what an alternative would look like. Must a true openness result in either conversion to the whole system or nothing at all? How else does one get shaped by the field except by adopting new practices that you become persuaded of? And is it possible to become persuaded of something in any other way than from and through the beliefs you already hold about the world?

I have just spent two days in a workshop trying to get my head around the ‘ontological turn’. I am drawn to its politics and feel its political potential - its desire to help us really get radical alterity. And yet, I cannot help but feel that in positioning the other as ontologically apart from myself, the presumption that I could ever hope to understand them or to represent them in an academic setting requires clothing myself in a new kind of arrogance; that I - the anthropologist - can cross the void to the unknowable other.

I would rather suggest, following Levinas and Milbank, that to meet the other face-to-face and engage in creative, responsive dialogue is the only possible, ethical way to encounter the other, Milbank puts it this way,

Since we cannot be in their position save by falsely feigning an absolute sympathy which secretly seeks to displace them, our true attention weaves further the interval ‘between’, such that we most accurately sympathise by creatively responding with our own perspective.
Milbank, John (2006) Theology and social theory: beyond secular reason (Second Edition), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pxviii.

Because what confronts and challenges me in multicultural Preston is not that there is systematic failure to understand one another (although that may be happening), but the curiosity that communication and community are possible despite alterity. And so my concluding challenge at the end of these reflections is to wonder, whether, what I will do as I write is to represent ‘them’ to ‘you’ or, rather, whether that what I am representing is ‘us’.


1. And yet, I can’t help feeling that a believer with a conversion experience has proved themselves more capable of such a positionality than some of our unbelieving colleagues.