Religion in Social Context in Europe and America, 1200-1700

By Richard C. Trexler | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Go to class and ask students what is their religious affiliation. Then discover in the course of, say, lectures on the Reformation that virtually none of them understands the first thing about the teachings of their particular religion. It has always been so. The fact is that none but a whimsical minority of the devotees of any religion have any concept of their group’s teachings or of how they are different from any other. And yet those who go to a church, temple, or mosque can describe to you their devotional practices and perhaps even how others’ practices are different from their own.

Go to any bookstore and seek out the “religion” section. You will discover that what is contained in such sections are books about the teachings of different religions and works on so-called spirituality, or lucubrations of particular understandings of how the authors love and need their God, in other words, precisely those things our students know nothing about. What you will almost certainly not find are works that deal with the practice of religions, either past or present, which the same students are most likely to know about. The few books on that subject are found under “social science.”

Finally, consider the power of the word “religion.” Some years ago I was perplexed to find that William A. Christian’s book Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain had been translated into Spanish with the title La religiosidad local en la España de Felipe II (1992). On my next visit to Spain, thumbing through the “religion” section in bookstores and dictionaries, I discovered that the Spanish word “religion” referred to clerical liturgy and dogma, while “religiosity,” which has a definite negative denotation in Spanish as in English, refers to lay religious sentiments and practices.

The thread that links the previous observations is that a predominantly clerical understanding of religion as reflective still reigns, one that has never penetrated to the body of the laity, whose own (allegedly non-reflective) behavior is belittled as something less. The thread that unites most of the articles in this book, on the other hand, is the author’s belief in the fundamental importance of what people—both laity and clergy—do in the religious sphere. This sphere is much more vast than the space within any house of God. It recognizes profanation as the step before and after

-xi-

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