Durkheim, Freud and I in Aboriginal Australia, or should Anthropology contain theology?



If it is true that ‘all of social theory is a breakdown product of a decaying theology’ (Robbins on Milbank), then social theory might be said to be both discontinuous and continuous with the theology. In this article I reflect on how anthropology distances itself from religion, yet retains broadly theological concerns. Taking my cue from Christopher Herbert's observation in Culture and Anomie that anthropological ideas about culture have evident, if difficultly acknowledged, religious origins, I reflexively consider this issue in relation to my own writing and anthropological encounters I have experienced with Indigenous informants and students. I discuss two instances of my secular-rationalist embarrassment in the presence of divine revelation and relate these to my anthropological modelling of Aboriginal religion, suggesting reasons for the problematic disjunction between my ability to analyse this religion and my inability to properly experience it (or something like it). I also make a case for the legitimacy of Durkheim's search for ‘the elementary forms of the religious life’ in order to clarify what is essential (‘sacred’) about all morality, rejecting Milbank's characterisation of it as ‘perverse theology’. There is, I suggest, nothing intrinsically ‘perverse’ about this search, so long as we follow Robbins' suggestion and relativise the Christian mythos in order to look to a more broadly-based anthropological conception of what it means to live gracefully in the presence of some ‘holy spirit’.