Spirits as Universal Symbols

By: Stephen D. Glazier  

The discipline of anthropology has often been considered post-religious if not anti-religious, but – as Timothy Larsen points out in The Slain God: Anthropologist and The Christian Faith (Oxford 2014), -- there have been notable exceptions. Edith Turner (1921-2016), who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1958, is one such exception. Turner passionately argued that the mission of western anthropologists is not to explain away religious systems in positivist terms, but rather to see what natives see. Turner wrote, “anthropologists witness spirit rituals; indigenous exegetes try to explain that spirits are present and that spirits are central to events of their society. But ethnographers choose to interpret them differently.” For Edith Turner, spirits were real -- not symbolic. She had seen them with her own eyes. Ethnographers need not question the ontological status of spirits. Rather, they need to discern spirits according to their moral influences. It will be shown that Turner’s ideas about discernment correspond to concerns raised earlier by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), and Jonathan Edwards in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741). Clifford Geertz (1975) in “On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding: Not extraordinary empathy but readily observable symbolic forms enable the anthropologist to grasp the unarticulated concepts that inform the lives and cultures of other peoples” (American Scientist--1975) had a very different perspective on spirits.

Spirits, Edith Turner
2019 Special Focus—Universal Religious Symbols: Mutual Influences and Specific Relationships
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Stephen D. Glazier

Research Anthropologist, HRAF, Yale University, United States
CT, United States