Practice, Identity and Amazonians

Friday’s online edition of the BBC had a report about a fascinating, if somewhat controversial, finding regarding an Amazonian tribe, the Amondawa. According to researchers, the Amondawa’s linguistic repertoire is such that they have no abstract concept of time, such as a day, month or year. Whilst the Amondawa can speak about events or sequence of events, they are unable to speak of time outside those events. For instance, they can relate to an event that happened, but are unable to articulate if that happened a year ago.
This lack of conception of time has also yielded another fascinating dividend when it comes to their identity. According to the report, the Amondawa are unable to state their ages. However, at different stages of their life, they are called by different names, and thus do not have a stable sense of identity that is transtemporal. Interestingly, once Amondawa start to learn Portuguese, where abstract concepts of time are present, only then are they able to articulate notions of time, and their sense of how life is lived, and even concepts of who they are, change with it.
More research needs to be undertaken as to how widespread the linguistic link to the conception of time is, but this report is an interesting follow up to a previous post concerning the natural status of what we Moderns regard as “clock” time. Rather than a natural category, this is one piece of evidence that points to the constructed nature of time, which as Scott Bader-Saye reminds us, emerges from different networks of practice.
As an ancillary to that, this report also touches on a point of great theological significance: that of the relationship between ideas and practice. Many in the secular media, and indeed many Christians, seem content on confining their faith to merely a set of propositions. Important as propositions are, Christianity is not a Modern set of “beliefs”, but is the incarnate Body of Christ. As such, Christianity does not not emerge out of a vacuum. It is intimately bound to networks of bodily practices that implicate our hands, feet and mouths. Thus, in the same way that the Amondawa know of themselves by their linguistic and relational practice, so does the transmission of our faith emerge from what Graham Ward calls a transcorporeal knowledge. We do not know the set of ideas called Christianity, but encounter the person of Christ through our relations with the Christian who is Christ’s body. Even in our speaking, we implicate our bodies in a transcorporeal network. Moreover, we encounter Christ in the Sacraments, which also implicate the material practices of its participants, even as it is initiated by the agency of the Triune God.
Conversely, our participation in the sacramental and liturgical economy ought to be a cultural shock in the most profound sense of the term. If our practice of prayer were genuine, it should knock us out of what Modern secular culture would have us believe are natural or inevitable. What is taken for granted in our everyday lives (such as the necessity to live our lives to the dictates of efficiency, maximise financial control, and the inevitability of warfare with others) should become strange before the word of God.
Moreover, when we encounter God in the practice of prayer, it should change the way that secular culture should make us see our very selves. Before God, we should not consider ourselves part of the assertive race of the sure. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that our lack of certainty as to our very inner self is a constant variable in this life. In the same way that the Amondawa have no stable identity as indicated by their multiplicity of names, those in the Body of Christ cannot boast of being sure who they really are and what they really believe on this side of death.
Thus our participation in the liturgical economy of the Church must be constant, for it is a constant process of discernment if our temporal lives, and the presumptions by which those lives are lived out, are truly changed by having encountered Christ. If nothing has changed, something is wrong. On the flipside, our constant practice of prayer is also needed as an acknowledgement of our dependence of God who is the one that begets us, and is the only one who can call us by our name. Our identity thus comes from the inbreaking of God’s generosity, and our constancy comes from his hold us in the palm of His hand. Thus, any attempts to freeze our identity (often by asserting it against another) merely become pretensions at divinity. We become like the Prodigal son who, thinking he knew who he was, demanded from the Father what is rightfully his.

One thought on “Practice, Identity and Amazonians

  1. Great post Matt. It reminds me of my latest attempt to Read John Milbank's “The word made strange”. I didn't get very far, but the opening is a corker. He says theology is too important because theologians are trying to construct a frame of belief that we can then live out, but, in the modern secular world, we don't know what good Christian practice is like, so our theology is all pretty hopeless. This links in well with what I read by Charles Ringma today on liberation theology. Good LT rest on a hermeneutic of praxis, the community expression of love and grace enabled by the Spirit, and reflection on this practice is what actually produces living theology. The concrete way in which we embody the gospel, a liturgy of shared praxis as the Body of Christ, is the proper source of Christian theology.


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