Ambivalences of Religion: The Constitutive Tensions Within Religion in Urban Space

Ambivalences of Religion: The Constitutive Tensions Within Religion in Urban Space

DFG Centre for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779), Erfurt University
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
15.11.2023 - 17.11.2023
Mirjam Wien, Max-Weber-Kolleg, Universität Erfurt

Dealing with ambivalence, i.e. the simultaneity of opposing tendencies leading to tensions, is a task for scholars and societies alike. This conference brought together experts from various disciplines to discuss papers both with a theoretical focus and on case studies from Europe, the Mediterranean and South Asia. In the concept note, the existence of ambivalences was understood as a default condition of both religions and cities. Successfully dealing with these constitutive tensions was shown as being of vital importance for the survival of both and at the same time fostering creativity.

As SUSANNE RAU (Erfurt) pointed out in her introduction, ambivalence as a concept is neither established in History nor in Religious Studies. By giving several historic examples of social tensions and conflict, however, she showed how the concept can fruitfully be applied to understand processes of change.

In the first panel on Religious Plurality, Encounters and Selfhood, BIRGIT MEYER (Utrecht) presented contemporary Madina, a neighbourhood in the Ghanaian city of Accra, as a case of religious co-existence. She employed the concept of the interstice to show how Muslims and Christians navigate religious difference in the fields of alimentation, beauty and religious rituals and festivals. Meyer showed the pragmatic behaviour of the inhabitants in a shared space that does not match their religious ideals, e.g. by actively ignoring traditional shrines to avoid creating trouble. The discussion revolved, among other topics, around the social importance of religion in providing welfare. The relevance of international connections, especially to the Islam of the Arabian Peninsula and to US Pentecostalism, was stressed, posing challenges to the current strategies of conscious indifference through rigorous religiosity.

ANNE MURPHY (Vancouver) investigated several Early Modern collections of texts from the Punjab working through the question of what it meant to be Sikh. By examining some recent scholarship, she argued that Islam must be understood as a lived religion and a common underlying language in Early Modern North India. On this ground, she opted for introducing the term “commonality” replacing both “syncretism” and “influence”. In the subsequent text analysis, she pointed out that despite of the respective texts decidedly being Sikh, they still showed an ambivalence or fluidity of religious identity. She stressed both the importance of encounter and the role of emerging urban centres for Sikh tradition. The discussion on early Sikh history and iconography showed the romanticization of the rural to be an urban phenomenon and additionally treated the role of dialogue which was encouraged and valued but concurred with a clear articulation of religious identity.

The second panel shed light on ambivalences within and beyond the urban. EMILIANO R. URCIUOLI (Bologna) made use of Jonathan Z. Smith, Pierre Bourdieu and others to develop a heuristic grid incorporating different types of incongruities; rectifications; the terms of here, there and anywhere; as well as locative, utopian and incongruous mapping. He identified incongruities as a central feature of urban religion dealt with in creative, playful ways without being able to resolve the tensions. Applied to Christian martyrdom accounts such as the Martyrium Polycarpi, grammatical incoherences suggest that the original layer of the text referred to Judaizers which have been replaced subsequently by Jews, thereby erasing a common Jewish-Christian history and solidifying current order through a locative approach. The discussion stressed the need to understand the genre of martyrdom accounts as comedy. In relating Urciuoli´s paper to Murphy´s, it became clear that in Early Christianity, commonality across what was to be established as religious borders was mostly perceived as a problem and not as an urban resource.

ANDERS KLOSTERGAARD PETERSEN (Aarhus) attempted to employ a bio-socio-cultural evolutionary approach to investigate religious change in the longue-durée, focussing on the transition from Urban to what he calls “Kosmos Religion” during the rise of empires in the Axial Age. According to Klostergaard Petersen, Kosmos Religion emerges from selection pressures within an empire and emphasises a different world while aspiring for a universal reach. He exemplified this in the idea of dual citizenship in the heavenly realm and on earth which can be found, among others, in the Pauline letters. The following discussion on the supposed self-centred, despotic, and promiscuous ape nature was characterized by the absence of natural scientists.

In the third Panel on Materiality, ELISA IORI (Erfurt) showed through archaeological findings how pre-Buddhist traditions were modified in the early Buddhism of South Asia. She identified tensions between Buddhist ideals and traditional spirit-deity worship against the backdrop of anti-urban sentiments of early monastic communities and the association of spirit-deities with the space conceived as unordered wilderness. Iori presented the incorporation of translocal deities as a means to enlarge and remap the geography of Buddhism and showed how the transition towards an urbanisation of Buddhism took place through narratives re-fixing spirit-deities in the urban space. Finally, she presented three case studies on urban wine culture, the incorporation of a spirit-deity as Bodhisattva and the treatment of the dead. In the discussion, especially the role of nunneries as actors with specific urban competences in the urban space came to the fore. It also became evident that in early Buddhism, two religious strands ran in parallel which incorporated iconographies of either wine-drinking or the Bodhisattva.

JÖRG RÜPKE (Erfurt) presented an analytical model of what can fruitfully be investigated as religion. He based the model on an understanding of religion which focuses on expanding communication beyond the human, attributing permanent qualities through sacralization and systematizing and reflecting upon both actions. Rüpke systematized the observation that religion is fundamentally ambivalent, e.g. by simultaneously rejecting the world and embracing it, in the four dimensions spatiality, temporality, materiality, and sociality. He showed how these dimensions contribute to community formation, e.g. through points of reference in history, transcending the geography, touching objects and commonality in rituals, but also lead to separation by reserving them to specific groups. The discussion touched upon the question whether Latour´s actor-network theory can be incorporated in Rüpke´s approach.

VOLKHARD KRECH (Bochum) put semiotics at the core of his reflections on how landmarks are proclaimed boundaries of Buddhist monasteries. He shows that religion as a semiotic space is at first independent of physical space, but when it localizes itself, it folds in physically determined space and ascribes a religious meaning to it. Due to the symbolic character of this process, multivalence is created. Accordingly, religious space oscillates between metonymy, i.e. naming something a sacred site, and metaphor, i.e. ascribing an additional meaning to a sacred space, thus resulting in a tension. The discussion touched upon the evolution of religion which achieves quality through quantity, i.e. by accumulation and selection featuring structural jumps such as scripture, icons and symbols. Furthermore, the necessity of distinguishing between different forms of transcendence was stressed for nothing but absolute transcendence is able to solve contingency.

Panel four dealt with Nature, Empire and State as contexts of Ambivalence and started with ROBERT YELLE (Munich) sharing his analysis of Early Modern thought on Church-State relations. Yelle argued against the common notion that thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke had opted for a separation of church and state. Departing from the earlier idea of the “Two Swords” as dual sovereignty, Hobbes claimed in his Leviathan that church and state are the same: a commonwealth of men. This monopolization of sovereignty by the nation state does not allow for legal plurality but collapses religion back into the state, supposedly returning to earlier, pagan models. By comparison, Locke propagated the preservation of religious associations as subordinated to state authority. Therefore, Hobbes resolved ambivalence by eradicating religion as an independent source of authority. Afterwards, the role of the city assembly as a model and ideal for the nation state was discussed.

KATHARINA WALDNER (Erfurt) shed light on Christian and Jewish Literature in the context of Roman imperial violence. She unfolded her reflections starting with the ambivalence between economic power and autonomy of cities and the claim to rulership of the Empire, resulting in necropolitics (Achille Mbembe) and martyrdom. She argued that the surviving intellectuals could benefit from an increasingly turbulent situation as it allowed them to strengthen their position, e.g. by invoking the topos of barbarian wisdom to promote their narratives. Waldner showed that martyrdom texts have no interest in topography, instead focusing on the universality of the story. This allowed for an individual trauma to become a collective one. The texts themselves are ambivalent in displaying a powerful rhetorical position while being powerless in terms of political agency. The discussion focussed on the role of emotions in the text and the need to both regionalize and universalize narratives.

IRENE BECCI (Lausanne) investigated perceptions of urban nature in contemporary francophone Switzerland. Becci showed how city administrations aspire to display themselves as eco-cities while responding to the growing need for housing and densification in their city planning – with the cutting of trees evoking emotional responses of inhabitants. In looking at eco-spiritualities, Becci observed a neo-romanticized image of an enchanted nature attempting to merge spiritual and scientific topics and terminology and incorporating both local experiences and exoticized perceptions. She stressed that people are willing to put themselves at risk through experiences in nature in the context of serious leisure. In the discussion it became evident that people do not connect directly to 19th century romanticism as they mostly consider current issues of climate change, using religious terminology such as sin to talk about it.

In the final panel, dealing with marginalization, MARIAN BURCHARDT (Leipzig) showed how Pentecostal and state actors compete in providing security to Cape Town´s inhabitants and discredit the other through narratives of crime and evil. He shed light on religious competition as well as practices which commercialize religion through notions of a prosperity gospel, undermining and reinforcing neo-liberal thinking and evoking responses of state commissions attempting to define the boundaries of legitimate religion. According to Burchardt, through the privatization of security, a religious community becomes just another urban actor in the secular domain. The discussion stressed the need to understand practices through the idea of witchcraft and made clear that religious actors compete for followers based on what they offer in the specific urban context.

MARTIN FUCHS (Erfurt) presented Ambivalence in the Dharavi slum of contemporary Mumbai as a fundamental condition fuelled by precarity. He showed that a population majority of Dalits provides an opportunity for relative autonomy and self-governance while the city administration aims at transforming the place into a middle-class neighbourhood, partly resettling inhabitants to the outskirts. Fuchs stressed the importance of migration as people live in an urban context while still maintaining ties to their region of origin. He highlighted the relative ease of interreligious co-habitation with Dalits only occasionally serving as perpetrators in anti-Muslim pogroms instilled from outside in order to be recognized as Hindus. During the discussion, it became apparent that Dalits above all strive to be recognized and respected by other city inhabitants. Furthermore, it was emphasized that the urban context enables the crossing of boundaries which would not be possible in the rural sphere.

In the final discussion, led by Elisa Iori and Jörg Rüpke, participants stressed the stimulating variety of disciplines and topics with a multitude of conceptual frameworks. At the same time, this pointed towards the challenges of interdisciplinarity which requires a common terminology or at least an awareness of different understandings. This ties in well with the observation that ambivalence is already well-established in linguistics – although less so in the study of (religious) history. Participants agreed on the need to differentiate levels of ambivalence when investigating them and called for flexible models sensitive to the respective contexts – whose analytical importance was especially underlined from a post-colonial perspective. In the face of a broad thematic scope, the need for both justifying the relevance of a topic and making implicit comparisons explicit was emphasized. Participants critically examined Zygmunt Bauman´s alleged link between modernity and totalitarianism. They raised methodological questions whether social cohesion or conflict should serve as a starting point of inquiry and directed the attention towards a tolerance for ambivalence which can reach tipping points in times of growing tension. Discussions had just started when the conference had to draw to a close. However, acknowledging the ambivalence between a boundless topic and the boundaries of a conference (report) would perhaps be a bit too obvious.

Conference overview:

Welcome and Introduction to the Conference

Jörg Rüpke (Erfurt) / Elisa Iori (both Erfurt)

Urban Ambivalences

Susanne Rau (Erfurt)

Panel 1: Ambivalences in Context of Religious Plurality, Encounters, Selfhood

Birgit Meyer (Utrecht): Madina: Thinking the Religion-Urbanity Nexus from the Interstice

Anne Murphy (Vancouver): Naming Sameness: The Ambivalence of Religious Difference and Identity in Early Modern South Asia

Panel 2: Ambivalences Within and Beyond the Urban

Emiliano R. Urciuoli (Bologna): Locative, Utopian… and Urban: Ancient Christian Martyrdom as Urban Religious Insight into Incongruity

Anders Klostergaard Petersen (Aarhus): Urban Religion Moving Beyond Urbanity: From Urban Ethnic to Kosmos Trans-Ethnic Types of Religion

Panel 3: Multi-dimensional Ambivalences: Materiality and Beyond

Elisa Iori (Erfurt): Material Ambivalences in Early Buddhism

Jörg Rüpke (Erfurt): Religious Ambivalences in the Dimension of Spatiality, Temporality, Materiality, and Sociality

Volkhard Krech (Bochum): The Religious Semiotization of Physical Space

Panel 4: Contexts of Ambivalence: Nature, Empire, State

Robert Yelle (Munich): Civil Religion and the Ambivalence of the Church-State Relation: A Constitutive Tension for Secularism

Katharina Waldner (Erfurt): The Ambivalence of Empire and the Trauma of (Religious) Intellectuals

Irene Becci (Lausanne): Urban Nature Between Enchantment and Valuation Under the Current Circumstances of Climate Change

Panel 5: Marginalised Urban Spaces

Marian Burchardt (Leipzig): Religion, Ambivalence and Urban Insecurity in Cape Town’s Urban Fringes

Martin Fuchs (Erfurt): Ambivalence as Condition and Opportunity: Dharavi and the Relationality of Social Space

Chairs: Elisa Iori / Jörg Rüpke

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