Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality

Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality

Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality

Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality

Synopsis

That relation has long been conceived in antagonistic terms, privileging spirit above matter, belief above ritual and objects, meaning above form, and "inward" contemplation above "outward" action. After all, wasn't the opposition between spirituality and materiality the definingcharacteristic of religion, understood as geared to a transcendental beyond that was immaterial by definition? Grounded in the rise of religion as a modern category, with Protestantism as its main exponent, this conceptualization devalues religious things as lacking serious empirical, let alonetheoretical, interest. The resurgence of public religion in our time has exposed the limitations of this attitude. Taking materiality seriously, this volume uses as a starting point the insight that religion necessarily requires some kind of incarnation, through which the beyond to which it refers becomes accessible. Conjoining rather than separating spirit and matter, incarnation (whether understood as "theworld becoming flesh" or in a broader sense) places at center stage the question of how the realm of the transcendental, spiritual, or invisible is rendered tangible in the world. How do things matter in religious discourse and practice? How are we to account for the value or devaluation, the appraisal or contestation, of things within particular religious perspectives? How are we to rematerialize our scholarly approaches to religion? These are the key questions addressed bythis multidisciplinary volume. Focusing on different kinds of things that matter for religion, including sacred artifacts, images, bodily fluids, sites, and electronic media, it offers a wide-ranging set of multidisciplinary studies that combine detailed analysis and critical reflection.

Excerpt

This book has grown out of the international conference Things: Material Religion and the Topography of Divine Spaces, organized in Amsterdam on June 11 and 12, 2007, on behalf of the research program The Future of the Religious Past, funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Most of the contributions are based on papers presented during the conference, but we have added a number of essays to enable an even richer and more profound discussion of the topic than the conference already allowed. This topic is the relationship between religion and materiality: more specifically, the flawed notion that the relation between religion and “things” is inherently antagonistic. This notion, which has long informed the modern study of religion, has recently begun to be questioned, giving rise to a timely turn to matter and materiality in the humanities and social sciences. Religion cannot persist, let alone thrive, without the material things that serve to make it present—visible and tangible—in the world. The image of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris—Sacré Coeur, built as an embodiment of a conservative moral order in the aftermath of the Commune—on the cover of this book powerfully evokes the politicoreligious use of material registers.

Even a simple comparison of our own disciplines, sociology (Houtman) and cultural anthropology (Meyer), suffices to reveal that this material turn is, nonetheless, not occurring everywhere equally. Whereas anthropology of religion is one of the major driving forces behind it, sociology of religion has remained by and large untouched until the present day. One can even argue that sociology has moved in precisely the opposite direction, becoming increasingly interested in “interior” aspects of religion that it had traditionally neglected. Due to this change in perspective, sociology’s long-standing focus on religion’s “external” institutional manifestations (the churches, in particular), an emphasis Thomas Luckmann influentially critiqued as early as the 1960s, is now waning, with attention shifting from “religious belonging” to “religious believing,” from “churched religion” to “unchurched spirituality,” and from “religious belief” to “religious experience.”

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