Social Analysis, Volume 52, Issue 1, Spring 2008, 79–94 © Berghahn Journals
Embodiment and Immanence in Catholicism
Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
Abstract: This article argues for belief, suggesting that the reason why
anthropologists might have moved against belief is their persistent
attachment to a linguistic model of religion that sees the job of the
anthropologist of religion as being one of translation. In such a model,
the absence of the word ‘belief’ signals the absence of the process. We
argue for the enduring utility of belief, not as a linguistic category, but
as a description of experiential processes at the heart of religion. Using
examples from popular Catholicism and Mormonism, we contend that
such processes are rooted in the body. Through bodily practice and
performance, religion is generated as an immanent force in the world—
people come to believe.
Keywords: belief, Catholicism, embodiment, immanence, language, Mor-
Rodney Needham begins his complex but suggestive Belief, Language and Expe-
rience (1972)—the longest anthropological treatise on the nature of belief—by
recounting a dream. In the dream, he was trying to discuss the statement ‘I
believe in God’ with one of his Penan informants from Indonesia. The discussion
caused such unease that he woke up, unable to conceive of how a Penan could
make such a statement. Needham (ibid.: 1–2) sums up the problem as follows:
It was certain that the Penan spoke of the existence of a spiritual personage named
Peselong; his attributes were well agreed, and these gave him an absolute pre-
eminence in the universe to which the English language the designation ‘God’ was
appropriate. But the Penan had no formal creed, and so far as I knew they had no
other conventional means for expressing belief in their God. Nevertheless, I had
80 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
been accustomed to say, to myself at any rate, that they believed in a supreme
God. Yet it suddenly appeared that I had no linguistic evidence at all to this
effect. Not only this, but I realized that I could not conﬁdently describe their
attitude to God, whether this was belief or anything else, but any of the psy-
chological verbs usually found apt in such situations. In fact, as I had glumly to
conclude, I just did not know what was their psychic attitude toward the person-
age in whom I had assumed they believed.
In describing these thoughts, Needham was articulating what has come to be
a common feature of anthropological discussions of belief. A number of com-
mentators have questioned its utility as a cross-cultural analytical category,
pointing simultaneously toward the roots of the term ‘belief’ in a very particular
Western—even Christian—tradition, and to its absence in contexts ‘other’ than
this tradition (Asad 1983; Pouillon 1982; Ruel 1982). Where belief as a category
does not exist, they contend, we cannot legitimately say that people believe.
In this article, we argue that this reluctance to maintain the notion of belief
in anthropological inquiry as a description of religious experience within, and
orientation to, the world is derived from an overly linguistic theorization of
religion—and indeed of culture and society more broadly. In this logocentric
mode, the job of anthropology becomes one of translation—ﬁnding the most
appropriate correspondence between the socio-cultural categories of the indi-
gene and those of the analyst.1 From this position is then built a model or map
of the classiﬁcatory structure or cultural system being analyzed. What emerges
is a largely static model of socio-cultural systems—in this case religious sys-
tems—that is seen as stable and integrated, with a given internal consistency
and logic. However, such an approach fails to address a number of key issues
for the anthropology of religion. First among these is the question of where
these systems come from. In his critique of Geertz’s (1973) account of religion
as a ‘cultural system’, Asad (1983) proposes a shift away from the systemic
metaphor to that of discourse, to take account of the political processes through
which particular versions of religion become authoritative at particular histori-
cal junctures. Religion in this view is seen as the outcome of social and political
processes, rather than simply ‘given’. Second, and consequently, the systemic
model largely fails to account for the processes whereby religion is reproduced,
practiced, and performed. There is a surplus of langue in the model at the
expense of parole. Stromberg (1993), in his analysis of conversion to evan-
gelical Christianity, seeks to redress this imbalance by focusing on conversion
narratives as constitutive speech acts that produce conversion—the process of
coming to believe—through performance. However, and third, the linguistic
model of religious belief neglects the important roles of the body, experience,
and emotion in religious processes—processes of belief.
Here we examine belief processes in two contrasting Christian contexts—
European popular Catholicism (in France and Malta) and British Mormonism.
We argue that the body is central to the practice of these and other religious tradi-
tions and, more broadly to our understanding of religious belief, is conceived not
as a linguistic or categorical phenomenon, but as a bodily and experiential one.
For Belief | 81
The recently emergent anthropology of Christianity (Cannell 2006) has begun
to question the assumption that Christianity is primarily a religion of transcen-
dence. This assumption had pitted not only Christianity but also more broadly
Western religiosity, modes of thought, and concepts of the person against
non-Western contexts, which were seen as characterized by immanence. It is
this polarity that informed Needham’s—and others’—arguments against the
suitability of belief as a cross-cultural category (see also Asad 1983; Pouillon
1982; Ruel 1982). Belief, it is argued, presupposes a separation between the
immanent material world and transcendent spirituality, which frames a radical
disjuncture not only between person and god, but also between body and soul.
That these distinctions do not exist in other contexts raises doubts about the
utility of belief in those contexts. However, as Cannell argues (2006: 41–43),
just as transcendence is commonly a feature of non-Christian religious con-
texts—so much so that it is central to Bloch’s (1992) account of the politics of
religious experience—so too is immanence a common feature of Christianity.
Characterizing Christianity as a religion of transcendence ignores millennia of
debate within Christianity about the relationship between transcendence and
immanence (Cannell 2006: 41–42; see also Daly 1980). It also prioritizes theo-
logical or doctrinal conclusions about the nature of Christianity over more con-
textual or localized understandings of Christianity as practiced, and therefore
privileges elite rather than popular understandings of Christianity.
We argue that both popular Catholicism and Mormonism are characterized as
much by immanence as they are by transcendence. Central to both is the experi-
encing body, which serves as the key site for the acquisition and incorporation of
religious knowledge and orientation to the world—a process that we argue might
legitimately be called belief, as it takes place beyond the linguistic ﬁeld within
which the translation of the concept becomes problematic. In short, we suggest
that belief be seen as a process through which primarily non-linguistic knowledge
is produced and reproduced to generate a distinctive orientation to the world.
What’s in a Word?
Pouillon (1982) argues that the Christian notion of ‘belief in God’ brings
together three aspects of the verb ‘to believe’. The ﬁrst is that the existence of
God is held to be true—we have faith in God’s existence. The second is that our
relationship with God is characterized by trust and conﬁdence—we have faith
in God’s beneﬁcence. The third is that God’s word and His works are accepted
as true—this is the principle of dogma and is central to the notion of credo.
Belief is therefore premised on a distant and transcendent God whose exis-
tence is not self-evident, but who (if we accept that He does exist) must also
be accepted as a source of truth about the world. This assumption combines
the two elements of belief that are seen as problematic when used outside
Christian contexts—a transcendent God and the potential that God might not
exist. Faith in His existence is seen as a matter of personal conviction, an inner
orientation of the soul.
82 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
Ruel (1982) also interrogates Christian understandings of belief, concluding
that Christianity is unique among religious traditions in its orientation to belief
(ibid.: 18–19). He notes in the ancient Greek word pistis, the etymological pre-
cursor to the Christian ‘belief’, an element of trust in and obedience to the gods
and oracles, but argues that it is not until the writings of the New Testament
that we arrive at a version of belief that signals personal conviction and conver-
sion of the inner person to join a religious community (ibid.: 12). Christianity
is thus presented as a radical discontinuity from the past, in which not only a
new religious movement but also a new mode of religious being were invented.
Over time, this idiosyncratic mode of belief became the central marker of Chris-
tian identity—Christians were believers.
Like Pouillon, Ruel points toward the particular combination of meanings of
belief in the Christian version of the category. He argues (1982: ???) that its par-
ticularity is in combining what one might term a ‘professional’—in the sense
of ‘to profess’—account of belief (‘belief in’ or ‘trust in’) with a ‘propositional’
‘belief that’. His point is that in contexts other than the Christian, this combina-
tion does not exist. Indeed, in most of the contexts within which anthropolo-
gists usually discuss religion, people neither ‘believe in’ God or other spiritual
entities, nor ‘believe that’ they exist or have certain powers. They are simply
there—immanent in the world.
While Ruel focuses on the professional and propositional nature of belief
statements within Christianity, he eschews an analysis of the language of
belief—and indeed of belief as a whole—as performative. The difference
between professional and propositional belief statements, on the one hand,
and performative statements, on the other, is that the former posit a relation-
ship of correspondence between the statement and an ‘inner state’ of the
speaker, while the performative posits a relationship between the statement
and another—another person or another statement. Much of Needham’s book
concerns the relationship between belief statements and the inner state of the
person to which they are supposed to correspond or refer. He concludes that
this inner state is chimerical, beyond analysis. Rather, belief statements should
be understood as primarily social performances: “Like the promise, belief is an
artiﬁcial contrivance for the convenience and advantage of society, and to the
furtherance of these interests men have indeed ‘feigned’ a new act of the mind”
(Needham 1972: 150).
In his reference to a ‘feigned’ act, Needham suggests that behind the public
performance there is no referent or signiﬁed, and that belief statements are
‘mere’ performance—conceived as inauthentic action that is fundamentally
untrue. However, as Austin (1975) argues, this focus on the truth or falsehood
of performative speech acts is problematic. The promise, to which Needham
likens the belief statement, is the classic Austinian performative or illocutionary
speech act, in that it not merely describes something but actually constitutes
it in the world. Stating ‘I promise’ is not representing or describing a promise;
it is promising. Such illocutionary speech acts, argues Austin (1975: 133), are
judged not according to their truth or falsehood but the degree to which they
are happy or unhappy. In other words, they are subject to social rather than
For Belief | 83
empirical judgments and are focused on performative effectiveness rather than
truth or untruth. Moreover, this illocutionary force may be present in any form
of speech, such that the belief statement, which is the object of Pouillon’s,
Ruel’s and Needham’s critiques, might also be considered in the context of its
illocutionary force rather than its representational truth.
Our point becomes clearer when we move away from the context of the rela-
tively ‘passive’ belief statements, which are intended to signal a state of being,
and focus instead on more ‘active’ processual contexts of belief ‘in the mak-
ing’—namely, contexts of conversion. In his analysis of evangelical Christian-
ity, Stromberg (1993) signals a more ﬂuid relationship between states of being
and states of becoming and between representational and constitutive lan-
guage within conversion narratives. He sees the relationship between the inner
state and the narration of changes within that state (conversion) as a two-way
process, with the conversion narrative moving from what he calls the canonical
mode to the metaphoric and back again in the course of the narrative. Within
the canonical mode, referential language becomes constitutive, while within
the metaphoric, the constitutive becomes referential, such that statements
within the conversion narrative come to constitute a change within the inner
state (canonical), which is subsequently described as conversion (metaphoric)
(ibid.: 14). By this reckoning, belief statements—which are the stuff of con-
version narratives—only describe or represent an inner state once they have
themselves generated it. The transformation of the inner self then, such as it is,
is achieved through narrative performance: “The conversion narrative is itself
a central element of the conversion. The way round the evidential problem
is to abandon the search for the reality beyond the convert’s speech and to
look instead at the speech itself, for it is through language that the conversion
occurred in the ﬁrst place and also through language that the conversion is
now re-lived as the convert tells his tale” (ibid.: 3).
Stromberg (1993: 36–54) gives us the example of Jean, a 35-year-old convert
whose narrative is oriented around the motifs of separation and connection.
Within it, she effectively redescribes a largely inchoate sense of unhappiness
with her earlier family life, through the metaphor of separateness (ibid.: 39),
which becomes constituted as such alongside and through the canonical use of
‘connectedness’ to describe her new relationship with Christ (ibid.: 37). This
connection, in turn, is described as having been initially experienced as a series
of mysterious miscommunications, which become redescribed and hence con-
stituted as connections with God: “Jean’s conversion can be understood … as a
grasping of the full impact of the canonical image of ‘connection’ to God. Jean
uses this idea to draw within the boundaries of referential communication aims
that previously had found expression only metaphorically in the broad sense
of the term, that is, in uninterpretable communications that probably manifest
themselves for the most part as disturbances in communication” (ibid.: 54).
84 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
The conversion narrative, then, becomes a technique through which uncer-
tainty and ambivalence become reconstituted as conviction, this reconstitution
occurring within and through the performance. In the context of evangelical
Christianity, narrating is converting, just as among the Baptists described by
Harding (1987), speaking is believing. If this is true of performative speech
acts, we argue, it is also true of non-linguistic, bodily performances.
The move toward a focus on the performative, rather than on professional or
propositional belief statements, entails a rethinking of the relationship between
the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self, as signiﬁed and signiﬁer of belief. It suggests a
performative self in which inner and outer are mutually constituted through
performance. Csordas (2002), in elaborating an ‘embodiment paradigm’ for
anthropology, suggests a similar rethinking of the relationship between self and
body, in which the body is no longer seen as the object of self or society but as
its subject. In doing so, he goes beyond an earlier ‘anthropology of the body’
(Blacking 1977; Douglas 1970) that saw the body primarily as a representation
of something other than itself. He suggests, like Stromberg for speech acts, that
bodily acts should be seen not as outward material manifestations of something
else—in our case, belief—but as generative processes that constitute belief.
For example, Csordas (2002: 64–69) demonstrates the role of the bodily in the
constitution of demons within charismatic Christians. He cites a healing service
conducted by a Reverend Prince, in which the sin of masturbation becomes
reconstituted as a demon possessing those who practice this act. They are
asked to stand, and when the preacher begins to perform the ‘casting out’ of the
demons, they spontaneously raise their arms high, and bend their hands back,
feeling something like a “mild electric shock” (ibid.: 66). This spontaneous
bodily act and associated feeling is informed by a shared cultural conception of
demonology and a shared gestural repertoire, or habitus. Nevertheless, it occurs
at a pre-objective or pre-conscious level, which puts it prior to interpretation,
and is therefore not a representation of the presence of a demon but rather a
constitutive performance of it. The point is that the demons do not exist as such
until their casting out. The performance thereof and associated feelings consti-
tute the demons as an experiential reality. They constitute ‘belief in’ demons.
Csordas’s approach takes its cue from a broader rethinking of the nature of
body in society, brought about partly by the rehabilitation of Marcel Mauss’s
(1973) piece on “Techniques of the Body” and particularly the adoption and
expansion of the notion of habitus by Bourdieu. For Mauss (ibid.: 73), habitus is
fundamentally social and transcends mere habit or custom (ibid.: 73) to describe
“the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bod-
ies” (ibid.: 70). In a famously opaque statement, Bourdieu (1977: 73) redeﬁned
habitus as “[s]ystems of durable dispositions, structured structures predisposed
to function as structuring structures, that is, the principle of generation and
structuration of practices and representations which can be objectively ‘regu-
lated’ and ‘regular’ without in any way being the product of obedience to rules,
objectively adapted to their goal without presupposing the conscious orientation
towards ends and the expressive mastery of operations necessary to attain them
and, being all that, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the
For Belief | 85
organising action of a conductor.” His aim was to construct a non-deterministic
sociology that somehow would account for a mediation of social structure and
modes of individual agency or instrumental rationality. Habitus describes the
central mechanism of this dialectical process and is—critically—located in the
body. But this is not a straightforwardly imitative body, nor is it a body whose
primary characteristic is representational—it is not a body-object. Bourdieu’s
focus on dispositions rather than obedience to social rules or laws conﬁrms
the status of the body as subject, rather than object, of social determination.
Moreover, Bourdieu’s (1990: 72–73) explicit rejection of the social psychological
focus on ‘body language’ takes us beyond the simplistic Cartesian dichotomy
of mind-subject/body-object to suggest an embodied social process that locates
the body in a “dialectic of incorporation”:
Social psychology is mistaken when it locates the dialectic of incorporation at
the level of representation … [rather] … the process of acquisition—a practical
mimesis (or mimeticism) which implies an overall relation of identiﬁcation and
has nothing in common with an imitation that would presuppose a conscious
effort to reproduce a gesture, an utterance or an object explicitly constituted as
a model—and the process of reproduction—a practical reactivation which is
opposed to both memory and knowledge—tend to take place below the level of
consciousness, expression and the reﬂexive distance which these presuppose.
The body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief. It does not
represent what it performs, it does not memorize the past, it enacts the past,
bringing it back to life.
Somewhat controversially, given Bourdieu’s (1977: 81–83) adamant dis-
avowal of phenomenology, Csordas (2002) combines his approach to the body
and habitus with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Like Bourdieu, he rejects
the notion of the body as object, stressing instead the pre-objective state of
‘being-in-the-world’ that for Merleau-Ponty demonstrates the inﬂuence of the
body qua body over human existence—the body’s own ‘subjectivity’. It is
this combination of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty that informs the constitutive
approach to charismatic Christian demonology, raising to central prominence
the importance of the body and feeling in processes of belief.
Learning to Believe: Holy Communion and Popular Catholicism
Bourdieu contrasts what he calls practical faith with Kant’s ‘pragmatic faith’ (which
corresponds to Needham’s notion of an empty, ‘mere’ performance of belief).
Bourdieu (1990: 68) argues that the generation of practical faith—an unquestioned
and spontaneous bodily orientation to the world—characterizes people’s ability to
participate in any particular ﬁeld of social activity: “Practical faith is the condi-
tion of entry that every ﬁeld tacitly imposes … by so shaping things, in practice,
that the operations of selecting and shaping new entrants (rites of passage,
examinations etc.) are such as to obtain from them that indisputed, pre-reﬂexive,
naïve, native compliance with the fundamental presuppositions of the ﬁeld.”
86 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
Thus, to be religious—to believe—one must acquire the necessary ‘practical
faith’ or repertoire of bodily and emotional orientations to the world that con-
stitute the habitus of a particular religious ﬁeld. Hérault (1999) describes this
process among children training and rehearsing for their First Communion in
Catholic rural France. The postural technique for taking Communion is heavily
circumscribed but entirely arbitrary. Hérault (ibid.: 5) observes, with Mauss,
that the attitudes and gestures prescribed for Communion “have nothing to
do with technical efﬁcacity.” Rather, they are geared toward the demonstra-
tion—indeed, generation—of deference toward the consecrated host.
Children of eight and nine years old are brought together to learn these
techniques in advance of their First Communion, which, like all subsequent
enactments, involves them leaving the church congregation to approach the
altar and receive the host from the celebrant priest. While lining up to receive
the host, they must walk “gently, slowly” (Hérault 1999: 5) in line, upright
with their hands joined together in front of them in a gesture of “respect and
veneration” (ibid.). There is an emphasis on collectively choreographed group
activity as the children approach the altar, which is also signaled by standard-
ized dress, predominantly white in color. As they reach the altar, the children
should either open their mouths or—more commonly—lift their hands with
right hand crossed on top of left, to receive the host and respond to the priest’s
“The Body of Christ” with “Amen.” The host is then presented by the priest
and received by the child—as with a gift—and taken into the mouth in a single
smooth movement while standing still in front of the priest. When they have
ﬁnished, the children must return to the congregation quietly and modestly.
The practices described by Hérault in rural France are, broadly speaking, the
same as those that prevail in Malta. There, too, children dress in white for their
First Holy Communion, with boys in white dress suits and girls in white, veiled
dresses that resemble bridal or bridesmaids’ gowns. Their gestural practices
during Communion are similarly reverential and deferential. They are taught
to approach the priest with eyes lowered in humility and to bow at the knees
after the host has been ingested, avoiding eye or other contact with their fellow
communicants until they have ﬁnished a prayer of thanks and returned to their
seats in the congregation. We argue that the reverence with which these Catho-
lic communicants act does not demonstrate an inner orientation to the host in
Communion—a ‘belief in’ its capacity for salvation—but actively constitutes it.
Their performance of deference is deference, not a representation of it. They
are not ‘acting out’ belief, but performing it. As Hérault (1999: 7) puts it: “The
children are not merely allocated a particular role … [in Holy Communion] …
but have imposed on them, through correct bodily postures, the expression of
an appropriate internal attitude.”
The Holy Communion and its rehearsals, then, teach children “the existence
of proprieties and their signiﬁcance” (Hérault 1999: 7)—principally, the power
of the consecrated host. As such, they are central to the generation of ‘practi-
cal faith’ in transubstantiation. Maltese communicants, like the older French
described by Hérault, learn not to bite the host, to let it melt on the tongue
before ingesting it, and to fast before taking Communion. Fasting increases the
For Belief | 87
effectiveness of the host, while biting or swallowing it enacts an inappropriate
and potentially sinful violence, not on a symbol of Christ, but on Christ him-
self. The acquisition of this practical faith generates experiential manifestations
of the immanence of Christ in the host. Like the casting out of the demons of
masturbation, the power of the host is felt. Informants report a tingling sensa-
tion or feeling of warmth as they ingest the host and so internalize Christ. This
is a pre-objective and spontaneous consequence of the successful embodiment
of Catholic habitus, generated within and through bodily performance.
This ‘belief in’ transubstantiation was the subject of a somewhat heated
debate in the course of ﬁeldwork in Malta, during which devoutly Catholic
informants emphasized that “for us, the host is the body of Christ—not a
symbol.” Their purpose was to emphasize the difference between their own
Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Signiﬁcantly, their claims did not use
the language of ‘belief’ (nemmen), but rather ‘for us’ (ghalina), and when
pushed, they simply stated: “L-ostja hija il-gisem ta’Kristu!” (The host is the
body of Christ). This claim demonstrates an orientation similar to that of
Needham’s Penan, in which people do not ‘believe in’ religious truths—the
latter simply are. As Evans-Pritchard noted of the Nuer, they do not ‘believe in’
God; he is simply ‘there’. To this extent, the religious processes of Christian and
non-Christian can be seen as similar, but not in their transcendence. Rather,
they are similar in their immanence.
For Maltese Catholics, Christ is immanent not only in the host but also in
other material manifestations of him—statues, reliefs, icons, cruciﬁxes (see
Mitchell 1997)—to which healing powers and powers of spiritual protection
are attributed. The gestural repertoire of performative deference is extended to
these manifestations of Christ in the world. When a cruciﬁx is worn around
the neck for protection, kissed for good fortune, or acknowledged by a bow of
the head, its identity with Christ—its embodiment of his presence—is being
constituted. These material manifestations of religious entities are not lim-
ited to those of Christ but also include Mary and the other saints, generating
a landscape of spiritual immanence. In his exploration of ‘ritual feeling’ in
Catholicism, Perniola contends, after Greeley (2001), that Catholics live in an
“enchanted world” (Perniola 2003: 310). He considers “the experience of the
world as an essential aspect of Catholicism” (ibid.: 311), arguing that the world
is redolent with the presence of God. Catholics, he maintains, tend to accentu-
ate the immanence of God. For Catholics, God “lurks” (ibid.: 313).
Embodying the Temple: Bodies and Garments in Mormonism
While Perniola and Greeley emphasize the difference between the immanence
of Catholicism and the transcendence of Protestantism, we have found a simi-
lar immanence among British Mormons, who also generate a bodily orienta-
tion to the world that is at the center of Mormon belief. In conversation with
non-Mormons, including Catholics, belief is deﬁned as a commitment to a set
of fundamental values, including beliefs in doctrine as well as commitment to
88 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
bodily practices such as abstinence from tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco: “In
our Church, we believe in …/believe that ….” However, within the Mormon
community, people speak not of ‘believing’ but of ‘coming to know’ their
religion to be true. This process is bodily through and through, involving pro-
hibitions and restrictions placed upon the body, interpretations of bodily sensa-
tions, and the incorporation of the powerful symbolism of the Mormon Temple
into the experience of the body.
The Temple is considered divine in origin and purpose. It represents the
“other-worldly heritage” (A. Mauss 1994: 3) of Mormonism as manifest in the
‘restoration’, the ongoing engagement between God and humans that began
with the ‘ﬁrst vision’ of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s ﬁrst prophet, and contin-
ues through visitations by angels and modern-day revelations. The Temple as
a whole embodies Mormon cosmology, providing a means of incorporating the
individual Mormon into it.
Few and far between, Mormon Temples are set apart from the more numer-
ous Chapels—the place of regular worship—as the only legitimate site for
rituals central to the production of the Mormon person. There are only two
Temples in Britain, built in 1958 and 1998. Before then, British Mormons were
required to travel to Utah, which is referred to as the Kingdom of God or Zion.
Davies (1987: 38) considers the Temple a “root metaphor” of Mormonism,
providing an arena for ritual action that allows material bodies to engage in
works essential to their progression to the eternal dimension (ibid.: 35). As
such, we argue that it is more than mere metaphor, serving as a locus for the
bodily process of believing, rather than a representation of what to believe.
Within and through the Temple, Mormon bodies are appropriated, regulated,
and reshaped so that the meaning of devotion can be felt in the body itself
(Levin 1985: 181).
There is a long association of temples with bodies in many religious tra-
ditions. Temples may be said to represent the body of God, the body of the
Church, the human body, or the embodiment of the universe. In Mormonism,
the Temple is associated with the body in three main ways. First, the design of
the Temple is an iconographic representation of the Mormon cosmos, through
which individual bodies move. Second, the Temple and the human body are
compared, especially in relation to ideas of bodily purity. Third, the Temple
rituals are incorporated into the Mormon individual’s experience of the body
through the wearing of sacred clothing, both during the rituals and afterwards
at all times. In addition, restriction of admission into the sacred space of the
Temple through the implementation of strict behavioral requirements allows a
powerful control over Mormon bodies outside the Temple, as well as within it.
Bodies and Temples are homologous. Both can be polluted by the breaking of
the ‘word of wisdom’, which prohibits alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
While Mormon Chapels are used for Sunday worship and are open to all,
Mormon Temples are used for the performance of ‘sacred ordinances’ and
are open only to ‘worthy’ adult members. The Temple can be entered only by
Mormons who hold a ‘Temple recommend’ (a kind of passport) issued by their
Bishop (local Church leader). The issuance of a Temple recommend assumes to
For Belief | 89
some degree an ideal Mormon body, since criteria that must be satisﬁed include
keeping the word of wisdom and being ‘morally clean’. All Mormons are sup-
posed to live their lives so that they are eligible for a Temple recommend. The
Church can also stipulate that only Temple recommend holders may work for
its institutions, such as Brigham Young University in Utah. In this way, the
Temple serves as a powerful control over bodily behavior and inﬂuences what
bodies can wear, ingest, and do in a very immediate and intimate manner.
Participation in the sacred rites of the Temple is considered essential for
exaltation to the highest echelons of Heaven after death. All members of the
Church must be baptized by immersion, receive their ‘endowment’, and be
‘sealed’ to a spouse. Endowments and sealings can be performed only in
Mormon Temples by those deemed worthy to do so. Church members are
also charged with the sacred duty to perform these ‘ordinances’ by proxy on
behalf of deceased relatives, as they can only be performed on earth by those
with bodies. The central ordinance is the endowment, which is ‘received’ by
worthy adult members of the Church. For men, this usually occurs immedi-
ately preceding missionary work, and for women, before marriage. The core
of the endowment ritual involves performing the ritual drama of the creation
of the world and the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden (Dolgin 1974: 536).
During this drama, participants are given (or endowed with) the necessary
knowledge to be able to re-enter the presence of God after death and proceed
to the Celestial Kingdom (the highest order of Heaven) (Laake 1993: 77–91). It
is performed in rooms representing aspects of earthly and heavenly existence,
such that movement through the Temple and between the rooms enacts the
movement between different stages of salvation (see Talmage 1966: plate 54).
The Celestial Kingdom is manifest in the Celestial room, which is entered
through a veil after one has repeated to the gatekeepers the proper signs and
oaths endowed earlier in the ritual. These are revealed to participants “under
speciﬁc penalties of bodily harm that will befall the unfaithful” (Dolgin 1974:
536) and are acted out by ritual functionaries who make cutting motions across
their throats (Laake 1993: 90).
Although this ritual of endowment, and the Temple space in which it is per-
formed, can be seen as a representation of the Mormon cosmos and the human
passage through it, it is more than merely representational. By ‘going through’
the Temple—as individuals call it, emphasizing their active participation—they
engage in a metaphysical performance of fundamental gospel truths. They also
incorporate these truths into an intimate and bodily experience, particularly
through the acquisition and use of special, and secret, ritual clothing.
After the preparatory ordinances of washing and anointing, individuals are
dressed in sacred underclothing known as ‘garments’. These are worn by men
and women and are marked with sacred symbols sewn into the cloth. The
same symbols appear on the veil that leads to the Celestial room, making the
garments an embodiment of the veil itself. Only those who have been through
Temple endowment are permitted to wear the garments, which are made by
Church-authorized manufacturers to speciﬁed patterns and are purchased only
at Church distribution centers located at Temple sites.
90 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
The garment symbols are given a speciﬁc symbolic exegesis during the Temple
rituals. There are four symbols, explained as follows (Buerger 1994: 154):
A. The square: Honor, integrity, loyalty, trustworthiness.
B. The compass: An undeviating course in relation to truth. Desires should be
kept within proper bounds.
C. The navel: That the spiritual life needs constant sustenance.
D. The knee: Reverence [sic] for God, the source of divine guidance and
Clothing readily lends itself to symbolic analysis (Sahlins 1976: 179–204). How-
ever, as Connerton (1989) argues, the symbolic analysis of clothing tends to
focus on the perceiver rather than the wearer. Speaking of nineteenth-century
gendered dress, he suggests we redress this balance to view clothing as an
embodied reality: “The apparel worn by Victorian women not only conveyed
decodable messages; it also helped to mould female behaviour. Clothes were
signs. They also constricted … Tight skirts and sleeves, crinolines and trains,
ﬂoor-length petticoats—they all arrested her locomotive powers” (ibid.: 33).
While the Mormon garment is symbolic of the Temple, its signiﬁcance, simi-
larly, is that it is worn at all times, not just inside the Temple. Garments ensure
that the experience of the Temple is felt at all times, through the feel of the
garment fabric on the skin and through the consequent restrictions on behav-
ior. Hamilton and Hawley’s (1999: 46) North American Mormon informants
link the garments to modesty and morality, arguing that their main purpose is
to discourage intimacy and nudity. Fieldwork among British Mormons, how-
ever, revealed widespread conviction that the garments give both physical and
Protection is also afforded by spiritual entities, which are said to ‘be with’
Mormons, especially those who have ‘been through’ the Temple. Indeed, the
proximity of these entities is constituted through the rituals of Temple endow-
ment, which endows male Mormons with the priesthood, whose esoteric
knowledge is needed for salvation, and in which female Mormons participate
through their husbands. If, for Catholics, the immanent presence of God is
such that He ‘lurks’ in the everyday trappings of religious material culture,
for Mormons His presence is assured by the Holy Ghost, who is ‘with them’.
Mormon hierarchies are based on the principle of an authoritative trio, with
the head, or President, of every stratum assisted and supported by two coun-
selors. This structure applies not only to the worldly structures but also to
the heavenly, such that the Trinity is imagined as a Godhead—the Heavenly
Father—supported by Jesus and the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost can manifest
Himself in everyday life at any time, usually in the form of a voice that warns
against potential danger, either physical or spiritual. However, for those who
have been through the Temple ritual of endowment, the Holy Ghost is per-
manently ‘with them’ as itself a holder of the priesthood, indeed, its ‘second
in command’. It offers protection and advice to priesthood holders and, as an
immanent presence constituted in the Temple rituals, is subsequently experi-
enced as an enduring feature of the Mormon world.
For Belief | 91
Mormons come to experience a shared social reality wherein garments,
Temples, and the enduring presence of the Holy Ghost are taken for granted
and incorporated into the experience of being a believer. Like the Holy Ghost,
the garments offer protection from attack by spiritual adversaries—demons
and the Devil—and a constant bodily reminder of the endowment. Attachment
to the garment goes alongside an attachment to the ‘covenants’ made in the
Temple, because the Temple ritual becomes incorporated into the experience
of the body. This embodied belief—or ‘coming to know’—increases in signiﬁ-
cance when we consider that speaking about the Temple rituals is forbidden
outside its walls. By necessity, then, the memory of what goes on in the Temple
is the result not only of a private and intimate experience of Mormon religiosity
but also of embodied feeling rather than language and symbol.
Just as lapsed Catholics state that they cannot see an image of Jesus without
feeling an emotional response, so too former Mormons who have left the Church
say that they feel naked and vulnerable without their garments, such is the
enduring hold of these embodied religious processes upon their subjectivity. We
suggest that it is here, rather than in belief statements, that we should locate the
processes of religious belief.
While language and language-like phenomena are clearly important, limiting
the exploration of belief to language leads, paradoxically, to the abandonment
of the concept of belief altogether. Such is the conclusion of Needham, Pouillon,
Ruel and others, who question the legitimacy of applying the concept to non-
Western and particularly non-Christian contexts. They argue that in these con-
texts, religious entities are not a matter of belief but are simply there—immanent
in the world. This line of reasoning effectively sets up a polarity between tran-
scendent Christianity and immanent non-Christianity that the new anthropology
of Christianity has questioned (Cannell 2006). While some of the practitioners
of the anthropology of Christianity risk reproducing this polarity by emphasizing
the particular immanence of non-Western Christianities, we argue that Western
Christianities are equally immanent. Although church authorities frequently
underplay, deny, or even suppress the pursuit of religious immanence, emphasiz-
ing instead the linguistic or doctrinal content of Christianity, at a popular level it
is through immanence that religion is experienced, learned, and reproduced.
Investigating this immanent Christianity requires an orientation toward a
notion of belief that focuses not on language but on bodily practice and perfor-
mance as the locus of the production and reproduction of religious knowledge.
Through bodily performance the world becomes reconﬁgured as one within
which religious entities dwell: God ‘lurks’ and the Holy Ghost is ‘with you’.
These bodily processes are not limited to European popular Catholicism or
British Mormonism, however. In other Christian and non-Christian contexts,
embodied processes are also central to belief (Boddy 1989; Coakley 2000; Col-
lins 2002; Mahmood 2005; Southwold 1983).
92 | Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
While it may be possible to relativize belief as a linguistic or cultural phe-
nomenon, it is more problematic to relativize bodies. While it may be true
that not all societies have a concept of belief, to deny commonalities of bodily
process effectively racializes difference, suggesting that when different people
‘do’ religion—whether we call it ‘belief’ or something else—they do something
different because they are bodily presupposed to do so. We ﬁnd this problem-
atic and argue instead that the bodily processes at the center of belief must be
considered a human universal, even though the results of these processes and
people’s understandings of them differ. To this extent, our model of an embod-
ied process of belief is a universalist one, capable of being applied across
Christian and non-Christian contexts alike. The model enables us to reclaim
the notion of belief from the logocentric skeptics and to describe the bodily,
experiential, and emotional processes through which people constitute a par-
ticular—religious—orientation to the world. To this extent, we are ‘for belief’.
Jon P. Mitchell is a Reader in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. His main
research is on Malta, where he has examined politics and national identity, social
memory and historiography, and ritual and religious experience. He is the author
of Ambivalent Europeans (2002), “Ritual Structure and Ritual Agency” (2004), and
“Performance” (2006), and the editor of Powers of Good and Evil (2002), “Modernity
in the Mediterranean” (2002), and Present Ethnography (forthcoming). He is cur-
rently developing an anthropology of religious charity with colleagues at Sussex.
Hildi J. Mitchell completed her PhD on contemporary Mormonism in the UK and
the US at the Queens University Belfast in 2000. Her thesis focused particularly on
questions of embodiment and activity in Mormon practice. Her publications include
“‘Being There’: British Mormons and the History Trail” (2001), “Postcards from the
Edge of History: Narrative and the Sacralisation of Mormon Historical Sites” (2002),
and “Good, Evil and Godhood” (2002). She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Sus-
sex University and is currently working as Lead Behaviour Consultant for Brighton
and Hove Education Authority in the UK.
1. Despite having a much longer provenance, logocentrism is most commonly associated
with Derrida’s (1976) critique of meaning, in which he questions the tendency within
Western philosophy to see the word—logos—as a central guarantor of meaning. While
for Derrida this leads to textual deconstruction, for others it has led to a rehabilitation
of non-verbal forms of communication as central to socio-cultural processes (Chandler
1994; Classen 1993; Synnott 1993).
For Belief | 93
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