Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Religious Studies

First Advisor

Smith, Frederick M

First Committee Member

Curley, Melissa A

Second Committee Member

Schlütter, Morten

Third Committee Member

Griffiths, Paul J

Fourth Committee Member

Keen, Ralph


This dissertation applies ethnographic research to answer a question in the field of religious studies: to what degree does the prevailing world religions paradigm illuminate the interpretation of religious material that cannot easily be fit into a single major religious tradition. Indian Catholicism generally and Tamil Catholicism in particular have been deeply neglected both by scholars of India (who generally assume that Christianity in India is a "foreign" religion more-or-less indistinguishable from the Christianity of European missionaries) and by theologians and historians of Christianity (who often treat non-Western expressions of Christianity as somehow "compromised" by influence from alien religions such as Hinduism). By interrogating the early modern origins of the world religions paradigm and questioning its applicability to the particular case of Tamil Popular Catholicism, I intend to bring about a shift within religious studies and allied theological fields that will allow popular Catholicism to take a more central place within scholarship.

The major issue I pursue in this dissertation is the manner in which European expectations about the nature of Christianity as a world religion impede the understanding of non-conforming expressions of Christianity, such as Tamil Popular Catholicism. My primary research agenda is a matter of ethnographically surveying a representative Tamil Catholic site to determine the characteristics of Tamil Popular Catholicism which most differentiate it from European expectations, and later to integrate these these findings with the theological self-definition of Catholic Christianity. Methodologically, my approach combines ethnography with oral history, aiming at a "thick description" of Tamil Popular Catholicism in its various manifestations which can be later used as a basis for theological reflection. Drawing on extensive field research at the St. Antony Shrine at St. Mary's Co-Cathedral in Chennai, I argue that popular, non-Western expressions of Christianity in Tamil Nadu differ from elite interpretations primarily with respect to the questions of exclusivity, openness to other communities, and the place of "magical" or supernatural healing traditions.

There are concrete social and political consequences to the proliferation of Western religious categories in India, namely, the unraveling of the previously integrated Tamil religious culture into separate "Catholic" and "Hindu" identities and the social and political marginalization of Tamil Catholics. At the St. Antony Shrine, the local expression of Tamil Popular Catholicism defies description in terms of the prevailing world religions paradigm, which differentiates absolutely between "Christianity" and "Hinduism" and posits the existence of two hermetically-sealed religious communities ("Catholic" and "Hindu") where I argue there is but one (the popular religion of the Tamil people, in which "Hindu" and "Catholic" differ primarily by virtue of caste rather than religious classification or practice). The usual strategy within the world religious paradigm for describing non-conforming Catholic sites is to appeal to the concept of "syncretism," which refers to the mixture of two or more of the world religions into an incoherent third. This term carries heavy pejorative overtones and marginalizes religious phenomena so described, redirecting scholarly attention to religious phenomena that can be described using existing categories. By demonstrating how Western religious categories impede the understanding of a typical, non-eccentric Asian site, I show that the prevailing categories used by Western scholars to analyze religions are Orientalist in origin and logic and in need of drastic redefinition, which I provide in my conclusions by taking recourse to a premodern, Augustinian construction of "religion" which rejects the pluralization of "religions" in favor of a singular definition, circumventing the theological charge of "syncretism" and the legitimization of nationalist or communalist factions formed on the basis of pluralized religious identities.

Public Abstract

This dissertation combines detailed ethnographic description of the beliefs and practices of Hindu and Christian visitors of the popular St. Antony Shine at St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral with theological argumentation that this material cannot be understood using the standard world religions paradigm which essentializes Christianity as monotheistic, exclusivistic, and unwilling to take recourse to so-called “magical” practices. Drawing upon the visual and material culture of the shrine and the emerging method of ethnographic theology, I argue that the beliefs and practices I document must be allowed to inform both descriptive and constructive accounts of Catholic Christianity. My overall thesis is that Tamil Popular Catholicism functions primarily as a caste substitute rather than an ideological identity, which allows individuals to form a stable Catholic identity which persists no matter which beliefs or practices they share in common with Hindu or Muslim neighbors or their active participation in others’ worship. The primary disciplinary intervention I seek in this dissertation is to caution comparative theologians and methodological religionists against essentialist constructions of Christianity and analogous traditions which treat these entities as mutually-exclusive systems of belief and practice rather than complicated, interpenetrating cultural complexes, and thereby re-prioritize the study of South Asian Christianity, which is often marginalized for being “syncretistic.”


publicabstract, global Christianity, inculturation, Indian Catholicism, Indian Christianity, popular Catholicism


xiii, 233 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 223-233).


Copyright 2015 Patricia Raeann Johnston

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