A focus on individual religious actors might easily be combined with the assumption that the accumulated effects of individual actors quickly grow together, or ‘syncretize’, as it were, into stable institutional frameworks. These accumulated effects would then be the origins of traditions, forming structures that de facto reduce agency to assent and reproduction. However, such a view is impossible to reconcile with the evident diversity, and even super-diversity, in religious practices and identities. To address this theoretical gap, I propose to use and develop the concept of ‘lived religion. Again, my emphasis is on the trans-historical suitability of a concept that was introduced to capture a core interest of the modernist bias.
Lived religion in the contemporary world
The concept of lived religion was initially developed in the late 1990s and has been drawn on in increasingly broad contexts ever since. Instead of analysing expert theologies, dogma, or the institutional setting and history of organized ‘religion, the focus of the lived religion approach is on what people actually do. More precisely, it is not interested in inquiring into how individuals reproduce a set of religious practices and the intellectual tenets of a ‘faith’. The concept of lived religion does not address thriving religious communities or the latest theological fashions. Instead, it suggests that religion is to be reconstructed as everyday experiences, practices, expressions, and interactions, which define religion as practice, idea, and community ever new. Without falling into the fallacy of methodological individualism, which is clearly untenable given the inter-subjective and relational character of the individual (Fuchs and Rüpke 2015; Fuchs 2015), lived religion focuses on the individual’s ‘usage’ of religion.
Nevertheless, religion should not be seen as existing independently of individual practice. Lived religion does not ask how, over the course of their lives, individuals replicate a set of religious practices and beliefs preconfigured by an institutionalized official religion - or, conversely, opt out of adhering to a tradition. Instead, lived religion focuses on the actual everyday experience, on practices, expressions, and interactions that are related to and constitute
Lived religion 67 religion. Such religion is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications that hinge on human communication with superhuman or even transcendent agent(s), usually conceptualized as ‘gods' in the ancient Mediterranean world. Material symbols, elaborate forms of representation. and ritualization are called upon to secure the success of communication with these addressees (Bell 1992; Riipke 2010).
Communication of this sort at the same time implies the forging, or sometimes the rejection, of human alliances. Thus, it is not possible to deny the existence and importance of culturally stabilized forms of rituals and concepts, or of people who are invested in developing and defending them. Right from the start, the lived religion approach was in danger of focusing on issues that are also addressed by concepts such as ‘everyday religion' or ‘popular religion' (Bender 2016). Robert Orsi and Meredith McGuire, two of the initiators of the approach, focused, respectively, on religious practices encountered on the streets of an Italian neighbourhood in New York and on religion in American living rooms (Orsi 1999, 2010; McGuire 2008). They can thus be seen to be following the lead given by Robert N. Bellah decades earlier in his Habits of the Heart (Bellah 1985). As a result, lived religion was seen as something to be considered in addition to official, highly organized religious institutions and the dogmatics of these institutions. Focusing on meaning, however, David D. Hall urged a break ‘with the distinction of high and low’ (Hall 1997; cf. Orsi 1997). Individual practices are not entirely subjective. There are religious norms, there are exemplary official practices, there are control mechanisms. For the historian, lived religion also points to the fact that our evidence is biased. It is precisely such institutions and norms that tend to predominate in the surviving evidence from antiquity. We see the norm, but this is not a description. Rather, it is a communicative strategy on the part of agents in positions of power or who possess greater economic means. If we observe ‘religion in the making’ - as is stressed here - then institutions or beliefs are not simply culturally given but are themselves aggregates of individual practices, as well as of the constraints that impinge upon these practices.
The concept of‘appropriation’, as initially developed by Michel de Certeau and invoked above in the context of religion in the making, is useful for capturing the relationship between the individual agent and the cultural and material environment (Certeau 2007). The specific forms of religion-as-lived are barely comprehensible in the absence of specific modes of individual appropriation of the motives, motifs, and models offered by traditions, up to the point of a radical rejection of dominant ways of life such as we find in asceticism or martyrdom. For the concrete forms, and above all for their survival as evidence that is available today, cultural techniques - such as the reading, writing, and interpretation of mythical or philosophical texts, as well as rituals, pilgrimages, prayer, and the various media of representation of deities in and out of sanctuaries - are decisive.
The idea of agency implicit in the notion of appropriation - far more so than in that of ‘reception’ - is important. Agency, as we have seen in Chapter 3 in this volume, is not about the lonely individual but, rather, the interaction of individuals with structures which are, themselves, again the result of (and constraints on) individual action. In view of the normative tagging of teachings, traditions, narratives, etc., in the field of religion - that is to say, in view of the normative claims raised by some of the agents - the question of how ideas are taken up and modified by others, or, to put it another way, the specification of processes of reception, is of particular importance. Talk of lived religion offers a frame for a description of the formative influence of professional providers of law and other legal norms, of philosophical thinking and intellectual reflections in literary or reconstructed oral form, of social networks and socialization, and of lavish performances in public spaces (or performances run by associations) as they all impact on individual conduct in rituals and religious contexts. This valuation and methodological primacy of the individual is more than a radicalization of approaches aimed at differentiating the practices of ever more narrowly defined groups and communities. Again, institutions are not regarded as ontologically antecedent. The agency of individuals and the structures they both generate and interact with constitute each other. It is important for the application of the concept to ancient religion that the precarious state of institutions and traditions thus comes to the fore. These are as much means of expression and products of the creativity of their inventors and patrons as they are spaces and material for experience and innovation by their users and clients. However, the analysis does not merely describe the contrast between norms and practices or the influence of the one on the other. What is more, even the intersubjective dimension of religious communication can be accessed through the records of the individuals by enquiring into their communication, their juxtaposition, their sharing of experiences and meaning, and their specific usage and selection of culturally available concepts and vocabulary. Thus, meanings constructed by situations are identified, rather than coherent individual worldviews. Logical coherence is secondary to the effectiveness of religious practices for the purposes desired (‘practical coherence’, pace McGuire).