Cultivating Mystery: Miracles and the Coptic Moral Imaginary


Shenoda, Anthony. “Cultivating Mystery: Miracles and the Coptic Moral Imaginary.” Anthropology and MES, 2010.

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


An ethnographic account of Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, Cultivating Mystery argues that an anthropological study of miracles can help to explain the social world of a religious minority that perceives itself as beleaguered in the midst of a Muslim nation. Miracle accounts are one way by which a religious community constructs itself along moral lines and maintains, contests, and negotiates the social boundaries between self and other. An emphasis on materiality is intended to make a critical intervention in ongoing debates about belief by illuminating how religiously charged objects and language are constitutive of the relationship between inter-religious politics and faith as embodied practice.

The dynamic of miracles and materiality is further complicated by the mystery that emerges and is cultivated in this intersection. I employ the concept of mystery as an umbrella term for encounters with things not seen, or seen but not quite understood, encounters that seem always to elude capture in semiotic form, and yet can only be captured in semiotic form. A revelation is made in material form, yet the revelation itself conceals something from the religious practitioner. Gestures toward a largely invisible world, made by signs of the miraculous, are used to create relationships between heavenly beings and those on earth. These relationships, in turn, are taken by pious Copts as reflecting their moral superiority in the context of Muslim Egypt.

After introducing the concepts of mystery, materiality, and miracles in Chapter One, Part I of the dissertation examines the historical background that frames the current investment in the miraculous that one today finds among Copts. Chapter Two discusses the figure of Baba (Pope) Kyrillos VI (pope 1959-1971) who is widely considered a saintly man by contemporary Copts, and the current Coptic Pope, Shenouda III (1971-present) with a particular emphasis on the changing Church-State relationship over the last four decades. Chapter Three offers an analysis of the 1968 apparition of the Virgin Mary in a neighborhood of Cairo highlighting how the current political atmosphere, especially in terms of Muslim-Christian tensions, is imposed on a retrospective view of the apparition.

Part II explores the materiality of difference and piety. Chapter Four examines the increasing Coptic mobility around Egypt to Coptic holy sites and the ways in which the places visited and the very materiality of these places shape a particular mode of moral being all the while discreetly cultivating, on the one hand, a sense of mystery in encounters with the relics of holiness (such as the bones of saints), and, on the other hand, a sense of difference from the Muslim Other. Chapter Five expands on the previous chapter by specifically looking at two Coptic interlocutors' encounters with saints and the Devil through material objects. Of particular concern are the signs that for some Copts are taken to be indications of their piety.

Part III consists of one chapter (Chapter Six), which is a theoretical reflection on the relationship between faith and skepticism wherein I argue that not only are these facets of religious practice two sides of the same coin, but that it is perhaps in the space between them, between one's simultaneous embrace of the tenets of her religion and the skepticism that creeps up behind her, where mystery resides. To invoke, with a twist, a popular Biblical passage, faith without skepticism is dead.

Publisher's Version

Last updated on 04/23/2020