Religion as spatial practice

The generic object in which 1 am interested in this book are forms of human action and experience that are set apart from other cultural forms by consisting of or building on communication with special agents, as fully argued in Chapter 3 in this volume. The fact that they are accorded agency, namely the ability to act in this situation, and the relevance of such an action for this situation is not unquestionably plausible. This relates as much to the ascribed quality of the addressees as to the situation of this ascription, and hence its relevance. Religious communication is, thus, a risky form of communication. What 1 try to capture from the perspective of agents can also be aggregated into a systemic view in which ‘religion has to do with the problem of how one can describe the transcendence that cannot be represented in everyday experience with immanent means, so how one can transform the unavailable into the available’ (Krech 2012, 24, emphasis in the original).

Like any other cultural practice, religious communication is a spatio-temporal practice; it is located in space and time and it engages with space and time. The use of a particular space is preceded by a selection. Religious communication recognizes and accepts the character of spaces as defined by previous common or prescribed usage, but it also modifies this space through performance and thus also changes the future memory of the place. Even religious traditions are not simply given; rather, they need permanent reproduction and are altered by the micro- (and sometimes revolutionary) modifications of the users. This is central for any dynamic view of religion.

Such appropriation relates to space as much as it does to time - usage of both can be flexible. This usage can be ephemeral (to use a temporal metaphor) or it can be rhythmical or permanent. Given that its goal is to address the not unquestionably given, to transform the unavailable transcendent into an available, religious communication tends to be massively mediatized, that is, it tends to be material religion. Tools for and used in the communication, namely media, might be more or less, temporarily or permanently, associated with religious communication and thus ‘sacralized’. As such, spaces might be contested by different religious or non-religious agents and they might be invisibly or illegally occupied. Open, accessible space (not always centrally administered and in ‘public’ ownership) might be fought over or occasionally ceded.

‘Place-making’ offers a different perspective on such processes. A similar perspective can also be applied metaphorically to ‘calendar-making’, in the sense of organizing and differently qualifying time. In place-making, the mental maps, the feeling-at-home, and the patterns of actual usage correlating with the experience of a certain atmosphere and an emotional relation to places, above all attachment to places, is stressed. Identifiable relationships, clear marks, or even ownership is central. Religious practices and signs can serve as tools for place-making, but more relevant are processes of grouping, the formation of networks or even closer organizations. Small shrines or blind alleys, a neighbourhood or a widely visible sanctuary, could all be the result of such place-making, sometimes being sacralized in the process, sometimes not. Here, we are more and more concerned with the specifics of practices commonly seen as religion. Yet such places might also be appropriated by others or might be disappropriated by being declared the ’heritage' of some other or larger group (such as the nation) - a widespread trend since the 1980s (Narayanan 2015) - or simply through the invasion of tourists (Stausberg 2010).

The initial definition suggests that there is a specific spatial character to religious communication, a conceptual relationship that is not likewise valid for other cultural practices. If place-making can be equated with ’dwelling’ and is frequently achieved through religious practices, then religious communication is inherently also a practice of ‘crossing’, to borrow Thomas Tweed’s description of this tension (Tweed 2006, cf. Tweed 2011). Religion as used here is defined as action that transcends (in a very simple sense) the immediate and unquestionably given situation. Balancing the relationship of hie and illic is already difficult for the here and there of locative cult in its domestic and public variants, as formulated by Smith (2001). The trans-local references that are inherent to religious communication by way of agency claims need not wait for radicalized axial-age transcendence and subsequent debates on icons, representation and presence, anthropomorphic or non-anthro-pomorphic forms, images or their absence.9

If urbanization is about the densification and differentiation of space, about inclusion (or even trapping) and exclusion on a larger scale, then religion is uniquely conducive to, and clashes in a unique way with, urbanization - or at least иш unique in these regards before the rise of efficient telecommunication. According to this perspective, religious places would be at the same time places in an eminent, super-empirical, sense. They would be heterotopias, in the words of Michel Foucault, but also places that signal, focus, and intensify specific urban identities.10 Ritual can be miniaturized or virtualized; hence the prayer in the heart can take place anywhere. Urban techniques of control via representation have been used to escape place by shifting religious practices to intellectual debate and scripture, commenting on ritual rather than practising ritual. These features need to be taken into account for the development of a complex notion of the entanglement of religion and urbanization.