Unbecoming individuals: The partible character of the Christian person

Mark S. Mosko


According to the received wisdom in Melanesian ethnography and elsewhere, Christianity is “unrelentingly individualistic” (e.g., Robbins 2004: 293). In this article, drawing upon the notion of “dividual” or “partible personhood” of the New Melanesian Ethnography and implicit in the classic Van Gennepian model of rites of passage, I revisit Louis Dumont’s, Kenelm Burridge’s, and Max Weber’s authoritative conceptualizations of Christian personhood. I seek to demonstrate that in the early Christian church and the later Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin, the person, whether human or divine, qualifies instead as a dividual—a kind of agent radically distinct from the canonical “possessive individual” of Western political and economic discourse. Following Dumont, Burridge, and Weber on close reading, I argue that the seeming “individuality” of Christian persons consists merely in singular moments of overarching processes of elicitive detachment, gift-transfer, incorporation, and reciprocation whereby the constituent parts of total or overall dividual persons are transacted. Christian “individualism,” in short, is nothing less than an instance of dividual personhood and agency, fundamentally distinct from the possessive individual of modern secular society.


personhood, agency, Christianity, individualism/individuality, dividuals, ritual process, sacred/profane alternation, Melanesia

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.017