Temple of Solomon in São Paulo. Photo: Vitor Mazuco.
Temple of Solomon in São Paulo. Photo: Vitor Mazuco.

Toward a Transnational, Post-Colonial Phenomenology of the Spirit: Pneumatic Religions and Cosmopolitics in the Americas

Specters are haunting the Americas. And while these hauntings are intimately connected with the deepening and widening of neoliberal capitalism, as well as with the movements to resist it, they are part of a new politics of the spirit, the emergence of a complex and variegated religious field that has significant implications for the future of societies in the region.

Arguably, the most visible example of the spectral realities that now populate the Americas is offered by the explosive growth of Evangelical Protestantism. Spearheading this growth is Pentecostalism,[1] a brand of Christianity that places, front and center, the immediate, intensely personal, and embodied experience of Jesus via the gifts of the Holy Spirit—the ability to speak in tongues, prophesy, and, most importantly, to heal and cast out demons who cause the daily trials and tribulations facing vast sectors of the region’s population, from domestic strife and drug addiction to unemployment and gang-related violence.

Every Friday, at the many temples of the Brazilian Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (also known as The Universal or IURD), pastors engage in spiritual warfare as they exorcise the unruly evil spirits that “lean” on people to cause illness, misfortune, and suffering. The IURD is a powerful transnational Pentecostal network that claims to have churches in close to 100 countries across the world, from South Africa to the U.S., from the UK to Honduras. These exorcisms involve a wrestling down and forceful physical expulsion of the possessor spirits, often entities in African-derived religions, such as Umbanda and Candomblé.

The Universal is also famous for having recently completed a replica of King Solomon’s Temple in São Paulo, an 18-story building that seats 10,000, and that cost US$30 million to construct (Phillip 2010).[2]The Church is reported have spent US$8 million to import stones from Israel to build the temple. In the words of Edir Macedo, IURD’s founder and one of Brazil’s billionaires, “We have signed the contract and commissioned the stones that will come from Jerusalem, just like the ones that were used to build the temple in Israel; stones that were witnesses to the powers of God, 2,000 ago…. It is going to be a knock-out, it is going to be beautiful, beautiful, beautiful—the most beautiful of all. The outside will be exactly the same as that which was built in Jerusalem.” When asked why the IURD built Solomon’s Temple, Macedo references Joseph’s dream in the Hebrew Bible that foretold how his brothers would eventually bow before him after having cast him out and sold him as a slave. Macedo declared that he foresees “all religions and nations of the world bowing down [estarão se curvando] before Solomon’s Temple.”[3] Macedo has also stated that he would like the Solomon’s Temple to overshadow the famous Christ at Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro as the image that the world has of Brazil.

The monumentality of Solomon’s Temple and Macedo’s economic clout stand as clear symbols of an emerging geo-politics of the spirit, one that is meant to invert the center-periphery power relations in the capitalist world-system, placing Brazil at the core of a new polycentric global cartography of the sacred.[4] Relying on the work of transnational immigrants and travelling religious entrepreneurs, as well as on the expert use of communication technology—Macedo owns Rede Record, the second largest Brazilian TV network—Brazil has become a key node of religious innovation and production, exporting religious goods to Europe and the United States, flying in the face of the claims of the secularization paradigm, which predicted that modernization would eventually lead to the demise of religion in the public arena. The report prepared by Rede Record on the inauguration of Solomon’s Temple repeatedly pointed to the presence not only of the most prominent political and economic figures in Brazil, including President Dilma Rousseff, but also of delegations from Africa and Latin America, representing a contemporary version of the gathering of all the tribes of Israel.

Igreja Universal is not alone as a leader in Pentecostalism’s growth in Brazil. In fact, according to the last census, the Church actually lost 300,000 members in Brazil. The likely cause is the fierce competition from other churches, which are also furiously engaging with and creating spectral realities through dramatic spectacles and efficacious divine cures and exorcisms. The fastest growing of these competitors is the Igreja Mundial do Poder de Deus (IMPD), founded by Valdimiro Santiago, a dissident of the Igreja Universal. The IMPD has been very successful in selling towels soaked with Santiago’s sweat as he preaches to large multitudes. These towels are reputed to have healing powers, and there have been reports of people actually eating bits of them and being healed from intractable tumors. The church also sells water and oils that have been blessed by Santiago’s powerful prayers. No wonder that, in response to the Igreja Universal’s motto “pare de sofrir” [stop suffering!], the Igreja Mundial do Poder de Deus declares: “Vem ca Brasil! O Milagre esta aqui” [Come here Brasil! The miracle is here].

We should not conclude that Pentecostalism is the only important actor in the new politics of the spirit in the Americas. In response to Pentecostal growth in Latin America and among Latinos/as in the US, the region’s Catholic Church has witnessed the rise of a vigorous Charismatic movement that seeks to wed the anti-structural activities of the Holy Spirit, which can bestow its charismas to anyone regardless of race, class, gender, or legal status, with the structural dimensions of Catholicism, since Charismatics highlight the sacraments, the legitimate monopoly of which is in the hands of the clergy. This is a true dialectic of continuity (with a strong cult to the Virgin Mary) and rupture (a personal relationship with Jesus mediated by the Holy Spirit). Thus the immense popularity of priest-cum-entertainers such as Father Marcelo Rossi, who not only hosts multiple radio and TV programs and “has sold more than 12 million CDs and has celebrated Mass in a soccer stadium filled with tens of thousands of worshipers” (Romero 2013)[5],but is also building the Theotokos Sanctuary (O Novo Santuário Mãe de Deus) in São Paulo with capacity for 100,000, meant to compete with the monumentality of IURD’s Solomon’s Temple.[6]

Nor should we assume that Christianity is the only religion haunted by spirits. Indeed, I would like to argue that Pentecostalism and Charismatic Catholicism are but manifestations of a larger proliferation of the spirits in the Americas. This “diaspora of the spirits” includes the spread and re-Africanization of African-based religions such as Candomblé, Umbanda, Santería, Palo Monte, and Vodou; the revitalization of indigenous traditions as part of a genesis of pan-ethnic identities, liking Lakotas, Mayas, Aymaras, and Mapuches; the creative appropriation of these traditions by Neo-Animistic and Neo-Shamanic movements like religiões ayahuasqueiras (e.g., Santo Daime, União do Vegetal, and Barquinha); the global popularity of Spiritist healer John of God, who attracts thousands of seekers to his house in Abadiânia in Goiás, performing spiritual surgeries with common knives and scissors and without anesthesia[7]; and the best-selling novels of Paulo Coelho. Despite their diversity, all these phenomena are part and parcel of what we may call “pneumatic religions,” religions whose efficacy and capacity to generate powerful visceral experiences among the believers depend on the activity of spiritual forces in the material world.[8]

What explains this powerful and protean phenomenology of the spirit? Was religion not meant to disappear as modernity, informed by scientific rationality, displaced tradition in Latin America? Perhaps going back to Hegel, who used the term phenomenology of the spirit to trace the steps of the humanity’s Geist as it falls into history in order to come back to itself, we can find a plausible answer to these questions.

There is indeed much in Hegel that is helpful, for the movement of the Spirit, as he saw it, is driven by conflict, by seemingly irreconcilable oppositions that are resolved to give way to higher syntheses, in much the same way that Pentecostalism sees human history as the stage for a cosmic war between good and evil, between Jesus and the Devil and his minions, with the eventual coming of the Kingdom of God. Hegel also argued that in order for the Spirit to come back to itself with full realization of all its experiences, it had to suffer, to be not just master but also slave, and in being a slave to confront in the flesh the limits of temporality and materiality. Again, most of the religions of the spirit that I have mentioned make the broken body of the follower the central focus of their attention and practices: the quest is one for wholeness, whether it involves curing tumors through exorcism, spirit incorporation, or spiritual surgeries, or the experience of oneness with nature through the ritual ingestion of psychoactive substances like ayahuasca.

Hegel’s phenomenology of the spirit, however, shows considerable limitations in approaching the plethora of spectral realities that haunt the Americas. For one thing, he assumed that the march of the Geist was teleological, that it was a progressive history of (self)consciousness and increasing rationality that finds its culmination not just in the European Enlightenment, but in his own philosophy, which he understood as a total system, as Absolute Knowledge. That is why he presents his phenomenology as “the science of the experience of consciousness,” leading to a logic in which “what is rational is real; And what is real is rational” (Hegel 1896, 10). In that sense, Christianity has the march toward Absolute Knowledge right, but understands it only in mythical terms, preaching the story of a God who becomes Man in order to bring reconciliation and eternal life. It will take philosophy, namely German Idealism, to grasp the truly rational core behind the naïve, poetic imaginings of religion.

Hegel’s teleological and totalizing view of history is, thus, ethnocentric, seeing manifestations like spirit possessions, divine cures, and spiritual surgeries as the products of naïve, ignorant, or primitive mentalities that must be civilized, educated, in order to understand the inexorable march toward full rationality, as understood in Enlightenment terms. The politics of the spirit that I am highlighting here clearly challenge the naturalized march toward this rationality. Bits of towels that cure diseases that traditional medicine cannot handle, stones brought from Jerusalem that carve out a new sacred space in the heart of hypermodern, dysfunctional, and sinful São Paulo, these objects have a potency that seems to fly in the face of Hegelian rationality, that seems to turn the tables on a failed modernity. But do they really? Could we not see the apparent agency of these objects, their capacity to do things for and to us, as nothing more than the result of the alienation of the Spirit, which in its quest to find itself must separate for itself and project itself into historical materialities, in order to be eventually aware that it was Him after all who animated everything?

Certainly, this is what Religionswissenschaft tells us. Partaking in the Western modernist attitude that regards the agency of supernatural forces as superstition, E. B. Tylor hypothesized the roots of religion lie in the failure by an infantile, primitive mentality to distinguish the animate from the inanimate. Along the same lines, Max Müller, the reputed father of the discipline of religious studies, claimed that religion originated as a “disease of language,” the confusion of nomina for numena, of myth for reality, by our ancestors as they sought to deal with the awesome powers of nature. But we know better than to engage in these simplistic explanations, tainted by our colonial prejudices. We are more sophisticated, drawing from empirically based sociologies and anthropologies of religion, rather than from armchair speculations, right? We can, for example, argue with Durkheim, who seems to challenge modernist prejudices about religion, that “it is an essential postulate of sociology that a human institution cannot rest upon an error or a lie, without which it could not exist” (1965 [1912], 14). He goes even further and states: “In reality, then, there are no religions which are false. All of them are true in their own fashion; all answer, though in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence” (15). Moreover, Durkheim takes the power of religion seriously—epistemologically, the sociology of religion cannot do otherwise. The power of religion cannot be some sort of dream, illusion, or hallucination. After all, “what sort of a science is it whose principal discovery is that subject of which it treats does not exist?” (88).

Thus, when Durkheim talks about religious efficacy, he stresses religion’s tangible, embodied, and material effects, drawing from the language of physics and medicine to talk about forces, energies, fields, currents, and contagion. He tells us that “to consecrate something, it is put in contact with a source of religious energy, just as to-day a body is put in contact with a sources of heat or electricity to warm or electrize [sic] it; the two processes employed are not essentially different” (1965 [1912], 467). And when Durkheim discusses rituals, he constantly refers to heightened degrees of intensity that are produced when human bodies literally rub against each other, producing states of collective effervescence, which “change the conditions of psychic activity.” “Vital energies are over-excited,” he continues, “passions more active, sensations stronger; there are even some which are produced only at this moment. A man does not recognize himself; he feels transformed and consequently he transformed the environment which surrounds him” (469). So, in referring to mana, or other totemic principles, as forces, “we do not take the word in a metaphorical sense; they act just like veritable forces. In one sense, they are even material forces which mechanically engender physical effects. Does an individual come into contact with them without having taken proper precautions? He receives a shock which might be compared to the effect of an electric discharge. Sometimes they seem to conceive of these as a sort of fluid escaping by points” (218).

While, prima facie, Durkheim seems to get the generativity of religion, a deeper examination shows us that he still operates very much with the Hegelian notions of alienation and projection. Despite his critiques of E. B. Tylor and Max Müller, Durkheim ultimately fails to grasp the fullness of religious efficacy, because he sees the power of religion as a projection of the vitality and determining power of a more real reality: society. It is society that is generative, which does things. “It is society which classifies beings into superiors and inferiors, into commanding masters and obeying servants; it is society which confers upon the former the singular property which makes the command efficacious and which makes power” (409). Just as the totem is “a material expression” of society, the clan itself as “personified and represented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as a totem,” so too is religious force “only the sentiment inspired by the group in its members, but projected outside of the consciousness that experiences them, and objectified. To be objectified, they are fixed upon some object which thus becomes sacred” (261). So, in the end, the efficacy of a religious phenomenon or object is “conferred, though purely ideal, act[ing] as if they were real…determin[ing] the conduct of men with the same degree of necessity as physical forces” (260).

The main problem with Durkheim is not just that he contradicts himself, seeing religion reductively as ultimately founded on a misrecognition of the real source of its efficacy, his critiques of armchair Orientalists notwithstanding. More problematically, he fails to be fully modernist, for he himself animates other things in order to explain the visions of animists and the power of totem. In the same way that Hegel hypothesizes the Geist as the abstracted spirit of humanity that animates history, Durkheim reifies society as an organic totality, as a self-sustaining entity functioning behind the backs of individuals to determine their thoughts and actions. Why should we accept the Durkheimian spectrality of the socius over the demonic spirits that Pentecostals claim produce social discontent? Is Durkheim’s society not another totem? Can we unproblematically claim that Durkheimian sociology is more scientific than the appeals to supernatural forces made by the religions that are booming in the Americas?

Perhaps Marx can help us better understand the proliferation and power of spectral realities in the Americas. After all, his analysis of the fetishism of commodities is arguably now more relevant than ever, at a time when we are surrounded not just by a flood of goods but by endless streams of images that seductively urge non-stop consumption. In this “enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world,” it is not just “Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre [who] do their ghost-walking as social characters” (Marx 2007 [1867], 966), but now popular culture, media, and knowledge have become key sources for the extraction of surplus, producing an endless “procession of simulacra,” as Jean Baudrillard (1983) puts, which take over the global scene, creating hyper-realities that blur the distinction between physicality and virtuality.

Is then the proliferation of “spectral encounters” (Goslinga 2013) in the Americas nothing more than the “cry of the oppressed creature,” the projection of the deep longing for fullness, human dignity, and communion of vast sectors of the world’s population that have been dislocated and left behind by global neoliberal capitalism? Is the ubiquity of the devil and his minions a displaced reflection of the contradictions and discontents of modernity? This is, in fact, what John and Jean Comaroff propose in their analysis of the pervasiveness of what they call “occult economies.” In the context of a “casino capitalism,” a “messianic and millennial capitalism . . . that presents itself as a gospel of salvation; a capitalism that, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized and disempowered . . . . Magic is everywhere, the science of the concrete, aimed at making sense of and acting upon the world—especially, but not only, among those who feel themselves disempowered, emasculated, and disadvantaged” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001, 2, 27). “As the connections between means and ends become more opaque, more distended, more mysterious, the occult becomes ever more appropriate . . .” (27) to get rich fast. Thus, “occult economies, including Neo-Pentecostalism’s gospel of health and wealth, are a response to a world gone awry, yet again: a world in which the only way to create real wealth seems to lie in forms of power/knowledge that transgress the conventional, the rational, the moral—thus to multiply available techniques of producing value, fair or foul” (26).

This neo-Marxist perspective definitely offers compelling insights into the contemporary politics of the spirit in the Americas. The growing appeal to supernatural forces has coincided with dramatic economic, political, and cultural upheavals in the region, from disorderly and shallow transitions to democracy to the restructuring of national economies that have connected them more deeply to global late capitalism. These processes have generated widespread dislocation and conditions of uncertainty, insecurity, and vulnerability for vast sectors of the population in the Americas. From unpredictable cycles of economic boom and bust, to massive internal and transnational migrations, to the unfettered growth of “uncivil society,” as dramatized by the violence of youth gangs, drug syndicates, vigilante groups, and state police apparatuses, citizens feel assailed in their everyday lives by “powers and principalities” that they cannot control.[9] And confronted with the state’s pervasive corruption and its failure to provide good, affordable, and accessible health care and education, as well as the lack of legitimacy of the traditional political actors like unions and political parties, even of the Left, as the case of the Partido dos Trabalhadores [Workers’ Party] in Brazil shows, is it surprising that people are turning to supernatural forces to solve their problems and protect from harm? As the emancipatory promises of modernity fail to come to fruition, is it not natural to fall back to tradition, to resurrect the ghosts that scientific rationality thought it had banished?

I think there is much to be commended in this Marxist reading of the sources of the specters that are haunting the Americas. The elective affinities between socio-economic processes and the dynamics of the religious field are persuasive. And why should they not be so? Religion is, after all, like any other human endeavor, an affair of this world, a realm of activity of enfleshed individuals emplaced in history, society, and nature. The growing literature on Pentecostalism in Latin America shows that Pentecostals’ involvement in Politics—with a capital P—is complex, often ambivalent, ranging from withdrawal to support for conservative regimes and, sometimes, progressive causes and movements. Still, as the IURD’s geo-politics of the spirit make clear, there are strong currents of authoritarianism, exclusion, and intolerance in the region’s Pentecostalisms. We saw that IURD articulates a dominion theology that makes Hegel’s dream of the Absolute Knowledge at the end of history seem like small potatoes. More recently, Kevin O’Neill (2015) has documented how, in the acute disorder and widespread violence of post-civil war Guatemala, Evangelical Christians are running for-profit rehabilitation centers (“casas de restauración”) where gang members and drug addicts can be “liberated” from the demons that control them. I put liberated between quotation marks because many of these individuals who are in spiritual chains are committed to these centers against their will. Moreover, their liberation is predicated on their surrender, on the rendering of their bodies docile, and on their normalization as domesticated subjects. O’Neill finds these Christian technologies of subjectivation entirely compatible with the neoliberal project of privatization. Here, we come back full circle to the Comaroffs’ incisive analysis of millennial capitalism’s economies of the occult.

In spite of providing indispensable critical insights into the politics of the spirit in the Americas, even the most astute Marxist explanations persist, to their detriment, in adhering to Hegel’s notion that religion is at best mythical knowledge, a symbol pointing to something more real and rational. At worst, religion is never more than the symptom of a social pathology. Sure enough, the disease is real, but the symptoms are just displaced reflections that obscure their real causes. So, in the end, Marxism’s sophisticated analysis of the current politics of the spirit as the religious logic of late capitalism, to adapt Fredric Jameson’s famous claim about postmodernism, is very similar to Durkheim’s: the logic of religion, the truth about the dynamics of contemporary spectrality, is found somewhere else, in a deeper and more real reality.

A large part of the problem has to do with the fact that, as Hegel’s heir, Marx inherits the Enlightenment’s “denial of coevalness” (Fabian 1983) with other ways of life. For both of them, the secular Enlightenment exists in a different, more advanced time than any other perspective. More specifically, Tomoko Masuzawa has demonstrated that the ambivalence toward the notion of fetishism in the early days of Religionswissenschaft betrays a total denigration of materiality. She notes that fetishism was associated with “absolute materiality,” representing a form of consciousness even baser than idolatry and totally opposite to true spirituality. She observes: “Fetish is materiality at its crudest and lowest; it points to no transcendent meaning beyond itself, no abstract, general, universal essence with respect to which it might be construed as a symbol” (2000, 248). In turn, Webb Keane (2007) has shown how this denigration of materiality was connected to the colonial project, particularly to the work of Christian missionaries seeking to impose a particular version of Protestantism. In his work on Dutch Calvinist missionaries in Indonesia, Keane shows how the inculcation of Christianity involved a power-laden process of purification, namely the subjectivation of the convert, involving the creation of “entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; and that of nonhumans on the other” (qtd. in Keane 1993, 10-11). Conversion to Protestantism meant the realization that only human beings have agency, “freedom” to receive the grace of God. Non-converts and Sumbanese Catholics were fetishists, “surrender[ing their] agency to stones, statues, and even written texts,” thus diminishing their responsibility before God (Keane 2007, 77).

Given the limitations and contradictions of historical materialism, I believe that we need to go beyond Hegel and propose a post-colonial, transnational, and non-reductively materialist phenomenology of the spirit, one that while being comparative is not teleological and totalizing, enabling us to consider the durability, vitality, and efficacy of multiple ways of inhabiting the world. Central to this decentered and experimental phenomenology is the expansion of the notion of agency beyond Hegel’s narrow anthropocentrism. I have argued elsewhere that the potency of Pentecostalism, and by extension of other religions of the spirit in the Americas, lies in a dynamic “pneumatic materialism,” tensile-yet-tight entwinement of spirit and matter, of body and mind, of individual and the group, of nature and culture, that enables believers not only to navigate the tensions between the local and global, but to have vivid and transformative experiences of transcendence within immanence, of alterity within history. Pneumatic religions challenge the spirit-matter dualism behind modernist approaches to religion. They do not see the Spirit as some abstract, disembodied, and other-worldly idea of humanity that only falls into history only in order to go back to itself. Rather, spirits of various kinds are immanently potent, producing material effects in the here and now. In that sense, pneumatic religions, pace Durkheim, are fully materialist, not in the sense of reducing the experience of the sacred to the workings of the economy or even nature, but in their claim that the presencing and efficacy of the spirits is inextricably tied to the dynamism of materiality. Thus,in order to understand the full generativity of this pneumatic materialism, we need to develop non-reductive materialist approaches that re-embody religion and re-embed it in social fields and neural and ecological networks, that enmesh religious practitioners in mixed communities of humans, non-human animals, plants, things, and other beings (Vásquez 2011).

Borrowing from Bruno Latour and other Actor-Network theorists, I believe that it is high time to “make objects participants in the course of action.” It is time to recognize the agency of moving crucifixes, crying images of the Virgin Mary, the healing soil of the Chimayó Santuary, and towels soaked with the sweat of Pentecostal pastors. These things, after all, act upon believers, producing tangible, material effects over their bodies. Building on Latour, Matthew Day (2010) calls for an understanding of various religions as evolving, agentic, heterogeneous networks that may involve not just priests, prophets, monks, missionaries, immigrants, pilgrims, healers, tourists, and scholars, but also texts, relics, icons, money, embodied habituses, architectural styles, and notions of honor and prestige, as well as “transcendental beings” like gods, spirits, and impersonal forces. Understanding religions as dynamic and contested but relatively stabilized multi-agentic heterogeneous assemblages would force scholars to take Latour’s question seriously:

Why not say that in religion what counts are the beings that make people act, just as every believer has always insisted? That would be more empirical, perhaps more scientific, more respectful, and much more economical than the invention of two impossible non-existing sites: one where the mind of the believer and the social reality are hidden behind illusions propped up by even more illusions. Besides, what is so scientific in the notion of ‘belief’? (Latour 2005: 235).

In other words, Latour is challenging us to break with the modernist doxa in religious studies and “grant the gods their agency” (Day 2010, 278; original emphasis). For, “as long as they make a difference in what people do, the gods are real actors with relative existence” (280-281, original emphasis). Thus, scholars of religion need to “start attending to the networks from which these actors emerge and the labor required to make them real and obvious” (281). Day goes on to write that a networks approach to religion can help us overcome the unproductive impasse between emic and etic perspectives. With this approach we can

kick the habit of treating those “non-obvious beings” that fill the pages of books about religion as if they were stand-ins for something else. The gods, ghosts, spirits, and prophets that speak are not ciphers for “Society” (e.g., Durkheim), “Culture” (e.g., Geertz), or “Economy” (e.g., Marx). Rather, they are one of the many non-human actors who circulate within a given network: agents who make their presence felt by sharing the labor required to gather, attach, move, motivate or bind their fellow actors together into a social aggregate (Day 2010, 278).

Todd Ochoa has recently put Day’s suggestion to work very fruitfully in his study of Palo Monte in Cuba. This African-derived religion works with prendas (also called ngangas or enquisos), which are agglomerations of earth, sticks, stones, feathers, bones, and other animal remains, packed into iron cauldrons or clay urns that enable the paleros/as to summon and condense the forces of the dead to perform concrete changes in the situations and fates of the living. Ochoa notes how the provenance and quality of the materials are central to the prestige and power of the prenda. “It’s not unusual to hear of paleros and paleras traveling distance to collect pieces and materials for their prendas, or of placing thing dear to the in the cauldrons, never to be recovered” (141). In other words, materiality qua materiality matters. As to the prenda’s efficacy, Ochoa concludes that they

do not conform to a Hegelian logic that would limit their social capaciousness to the dialectic of object and subject. Far from being an ‘object,’ isolated and determined by a subject as Hegel would have this, prendas-ngangas-enquisos are indivisibly connected with immanent materiality; they emerge from material connection and refuse logical reduction thereby. As such, prendas-ngangas-enquisos are not “objects” and definitely not “fetishes,” which is what European enlightenment discourse calls matter that won’t conform to the designs of a rational subject. They are better thought of as agents, entities or actors concatenated in asymmetrical and realized networks we call “societies” (11-12).

Beyond the methodological payoffs of my proposal for a transnational and post-colonial phenomenology of the spirit—the production of richer, more nuanced and dynamic approaches to religious phenomena[10]—I believe that the call for expanded, more differentiated and flexible notions of agency has larger political implications, especially for a continent in which many, many people continue to be disenfranchised and disempowered. I see this call as part of what Isabelle Stengers (2010, 2011) has called “cosmopolitics,” a more capacious understanding of politics that recognizes the fragility, relativity, and simultaneous viability of coeval ways of presencing the world. Following the so-called ontological turn in anthropology, Philip Descola (2013) has argued that naturalism, our modern worldview in which nature is “the domain of objects that [are] subject to autonomous laws that form a background against which the arbitrariness of human activities [can] exert its many-faceted fascination” (xv), is but one modality of being in the world, existing alongside what he terms animism, totemism, and analogism, each with its own notions of agency and relationality. I do not agree with the strategy of contrasting self-contained ontologies,[11] for it carries its own danger of Orientalism, opening the door for long-discredited structuralist theories about the “separate but equal” logics of primitive mentalities. I prefer to think of porous, often hybrid-yet-binding perspectives articulated by the coming together of networks of agents, materials, landscapes, and events, some of which are shared, some of which are not, allowing thus for compatibility as well as incongruence, coalition-building as well as agonism. Nevertheless, I appreciate Descola’s effort to relativize our taken-for-granted worldview. In “provincializing Europe,” to borrow from Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009), he opens the way for a more transversal politics.

By cosmopolitics, Stengers is not simply appealing to the lifestyle of transnational elites that have the resources to travel at will, while large sectors of the world’s population are trapped in and regulated by panoptical regimes of mobility. “If the cosmos of cosmopolitanism has no place for matters such as trees, marine microbes, phytoliths, mosquitoes, scanning tunneling microscopes, and ghosts, should we call it ‘cosmos’ at all? Given the ethos of disciplinary hyperspecialization across the humanities and sciences today, we increasingly find ourselves adorned with ontological blinders that render invisible the vast majority of today’s planetary (and extra-planetary) organisms and beings” (Watson 2013, 77). Thus, for Stengers, a true cosmopolitics entails a post-national and non-human politics that departs from the possibility that Western, scientific-driven modernity could have it all wrong. Rather than merely tolerating or accommodating the Other, or merely offering Him/Her the possibility to participate in electoral politics, we have to entertain seriously “the troubling and exhilarating feeling that things could be different, or at least that they could still fail” (Latour 2005, 89; original emphasis). Cosmopolitics is a maximally open politics, a politics always impatiently working at the edge of borders that we erect to stabilize our identities and the worlds we inhabit. It is a politics that is always attentive to what has been left out, to the specters that haunt it, not to grab them in a totalizing, ultimately harmonizing Hegelian embrace, but to encounter them as potentially unruly, vibrant, and destabilizing presences that summon us to think and act experimentally, strongly attuned to the possibilities to transcend immanently.[12] I believe that we can learn much about this attunement to immanent transcendence from the pneumatic religions that proliferating in the Americas.

The risks of an experimental cosmopolitics are considerable and the uncertainty about outcomes will no doubt be challenging, but only the destabilizing humility and critical, self-reflexive rigor, which comes from a painstaking, ever-expanding rhizomatic politics of inclusion and dwelling-together that transgresses the limits of Western modernity, can enable us to experience something of the potency of the alterities at the heart of the contemporary politics of the spirit in the Americas.

Manuel A. Vásquez teaches religion, Latin American, and Latino/a studies at the University of Florida, Gainesville. His most recent publications include More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford 2011) and The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions (Brill 2013, forthcoming in Portuguese by Idéias e Letras), which he co-edited with Cristina Rocha (University of Western Sydney). He is currently co-editing the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Materiality and co-writing Introduction to Christianity in Brazil (forthcoming in Fortress Press’s series on world Christianities).


[1] Since 1970, the number of Pentecostals in Latin America has gone from 13 to 151 million, representing close to 20% of the region’s population. In some countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, Protestants now make up more than one third the country’s population. Even in Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, one in four Brazilians are Protestants, with the vast majority of them being Pentecostal. See: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/, accessed 10 December 2015.

[2] Tom Phillip, “Solomon's Temple in Brazil would put Christ the Redeemer in the shade.” The Guardian, July 21, 2010.http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/21/solomon-temple-brazil-christ-redeemer, accessed on 11 June 2013.

[3] Here Macedo is making reference to Genesis 37:8–9. “Then his brothers said to him [Joseph], ‘Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?’ So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, ‘Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ He related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?’”

[4] For a fuller articulation of this argument, see Rocha and Vásquez (2013).

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/world/americas/in-brazil-growing-threats-to-catholicisms-sway.html?_r=0

[6] According to Father Rossi’s website, the sanctuary will have a “a cross 42 meters high, which will be seen from diverse points in the city, symbolizing one of the tourist spots in the Paulista capital. . .” See http://www.padremarcelorossi.com.br/, accessed 10 December 2015.

[7] John of God was even featured several times by Oprah, who travelled to Brazil to experience the healing sessions. See http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/John-of-God-Video, accessed 13 December 2015.

[8] The terms pneumatic, comes from the Greek word pneuma, which literally means “breath” or “air in motion.” In many religions, the word has come to signify the spirit or soul that animates beings. For example, in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is represented as a rushing wind (and as tongues of fire) that enable the apostles to speak in tongues. Pentecostals consider this the originative event of their movement and the paradigmatic model for current wondrous happenings.

[9] The expression “powers and principalities” comes from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 6:12. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

[10] For another interesting empirical deployment, see Ladwig (2013)

[11] To be sure, Descola is careful to stress that the various “ontological parcels” he characterizes are primarily “a handy intuitive way of synthesizing under a simple label (such as ‘the Modern West’ or ‘shamanistic societies’) ‘families’ of practices and mind-sets that seem to display affinities despite the diversity of their concrete manifestation” (2013: 309). Still, his structuralist approach seems to underplay the “links that they weave between one another, the ways the affect one another, and the manner in which they treat one another [which] can all vary through and through” (310).

     [12] As Latour (2004: 454) puts it, in cosmopolitics, “cosmos protects against the premature closure of politics” within a narrow humanism implicated in colonialism and other forms of domination and exclusion, while politics guards against “the premature closure of cosmos.”

Work Cited

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Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? – Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck” Common Knowledge 10(3): 450-462. ———.

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Stengers, Isabelle. 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Vásquez, Manuel A. 2011. More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

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