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What is the matter with transcendence? On the place of religion in the new anthropology of ethics★

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Robbins, J 


© Royal Anthropological Institute 2016 A focus on ordinary or everyday ethics has become perhaps the dominant concern in the rapidly developing anthropology of ethics. In this article, I argue that this focus tends to marginalize the study of the ways in which religion contributes to people's moral lives. After defining religion and transcendence in terms that make them less uncongenial to the study of ethics than many proponents of ordinary ethics suggest, I examine values as one sometimes transcendent cultural form that often informs ethical life. I draw on Victor Turner (along with Durkheim) to develop an account of how rituals often both present people with and allow them to perform transcendent versions of values. These encounters, in turn, shape people's ethical sensibilities, including those they bring to bear in everyday life, in ways we cannot understand unless we accord religion a more central role in the anthropology of ethics than it has played to this point. I illustrate my arguments with material drawn both from Turner's Ndembu ethnography and from my own research on Christianity in Papua New Guinea.



4301 Archaeology, 4401 Anthropology, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology, 44 Human Society

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Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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Wiley Online
This article was delivered as the 2015 Marett Memorial Lecture at Exeter College, Oxford. I thank Marcus Banks for the invitation to deliver the Lecture and I thank him and Exeter College for there generosity in hosting me. I am grateful to many members of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford for their feedback on the lecture. An earlier version was delivered as the Presidential Lecture at the 2015 Meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. I also thank many of those in attendance at that meeting for their comments. Rupert Stasch, Maurice Bloch, and Jon Bialecki read early drafts and I think them, along with five very helpful anonymous JRAI reviewers, for their comments, while retaining all responsibility for the errors that remain.