Urbanized religion

The significance of religion as a factor in urbanizing processes extends far beyond the occasional growth of some sanctuary into a place of pilgrimage and subsequently into an urban settlement. It also extends beyond the employment of foundation rituals for cities planned as economic hubs or strongholds of political power - rituals employed either in the actual process of foundation or in its later narrative embellishment. 1 do not suggest that these constellations were unimportant. But such religious practices, ideas, and social forms of institutionalization were also changed, or better, were formed, by urban conditions, which is to say by urban space and the further characteristics of urban settlements. A few examples must suffice for the present chapter.

For millennia, religion in all its variety, from its most immanent to its most transcendent forms, has served as a means through which to stabilize or even establish relationships of power. It has been employed in this way by sacred kings (Strathern 2019) and shamans (Jackson 2016). by the leaders of the earliest empires and the rulers of 21st-century states. The continuation of this function in the densely built environment of cities demands visibility, both impressive and lasting. The monumentalization of religion is a widespread phenomenon, now seen in Moscow, Bangkok, Istanbul, and Mecca, as in many other places in the past and present. Against a background of rather dimly perceived divine figures and rather diffused notions of the divine as something found in objects and ancestors as much as gods, monumental sanctuaries not only made religious use of space permanent but also defined divine characters. Divine figures were codified as gods or saints related to specific places and sanctuaries elaborated on their stories, creating images and thus an ever more stable net of material icons, names, and narratives. Such a stable form of complex poly-theisms (whether based on gods or saints) was hard to conceive for members of many pre-urban societies and often flies in the face of more elaborate transcendental concepts of the divine developed later.

European thinkers of the age of massive urban growth from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries stressed the demands of the new environment on the personalities of those living in cities. Urban life demanded and created new forms of subjectivization. The individual was shaped by the many social circles of which he (as the male writers inevitably put it) was a member and it became necessary to manage these by developing a certain distance in social encounters (Simmel 1917). The result was a new type of individualization that was able to deal with the fluidity of the environment as much by ignoring others as by being prepared to have a chance encounter of utmost significance (Russo 2016, 67-164). In religious terms, the subject lost its connection to its ancestors and to the ancestors’ (and their own) place of living (Riipke 2018, 234 47). Religious practices like prayer, meditation, or asceticism helped to develop a new kind of urban self, a process already visible in the ancient circum-Mediterranean cities as much as in other premodern cultures around the world (Riipke 2013, 2019a; Fuchs et al. 2019).

If urbanization lastingly changed both ends of the axis of religious communication. it had even greater consequences for the media employed between them. The challenge of administering urban crowds and complexities - the amassing, storing, and distributing of supplies, for instance - early on created systems of notations, of writing in a broader sense. Relationships and the transfer of property as employed in many acts of religious communication were influenced and developed thereby. Dedications of objects could be lastingly and visibly marked by names of donators and recipients. Complex prayers could be developed in the form of curses that were readable by the powers invoked but remained invisible to all others, especially the persons targeted. The scripturalization of religion goes further, however. The production of texts not only allowed for more precise and repeatable prayers and hymns, but also for the systematization of ritual practices, for the piecemeal ascription of meaning to such practices, and. ultimately, for sacred scripture and a systematic reflection on the character of the addressees, resulting in what we now call theology. Genealogies and historical narratives create sharply defined (and often polemical) identities and claims. Medieval and early modern books of secret rituals made for a virtualization of religious practices that is a precursor of today’s internet religion. Calendars and maps result from the same process, religion being slightly more prominent in the systematization of time than in the systematization of space, where it is more strongly challenged by urban administrations.

All such activities demand specialists. The sheer number of people in the same place, the many different types of exchange, and the necessary (and possible) specialization in the hubs produced a division of labour that had repercussions for religious traditions. Supported by, and contributing to, the processes mentioned above, professionalization was not only developed also in religious contexts but particularly therein. Producing cakes for offerings or for piijct, selling one’s services as a diviner, caring for the soul, administering a sanctuary - religious specialists and priesthoods are among the many producers of urban forms of religious action, and are subjected to similar constraints of gender, social status, education, and wealth. Such specializations and such divisions were easily exported beyond the walls.

Religious specialists often supported a consistent development that many observers today, both academic and non-academic, deem to have been beyond alternatives, namely the institutionalization of organized religions in the plural. Yet such developments were contingent. Urbanization was, I claim, one of the most important factors. From the start, and even more so today, cities were places of high tensions. Support from unseen powers was claimed not only by those in power but was often drawn on to rival or counter the visible power structures and the agents of the powerful by those without any comparable earthly power. Their religious agency could be constituted by tapping into unseen powers visualized in religious communication. Religious action could likewise serve the many smaller processes of group formations, whether in small or extended families, in neighbourhoods, or in networks across cities. Shared religious practices and places played a significant role in the production and definition of such groups (Rebillard and Riipke 2015), indeed even producing ethnicity where unrelated individuals had just come together (Brubaker 2004; Nagel 1994). Such groups, whether imagined or existing, could stabilize religious options developed in the course of individualization (Riipke 2014b, 2016). Religious actions and ideas might be used as a resource for the homogenization of inhabitants as well as for the stabilization of differences between the people living in a city.

If religions are one pervasive legacy of the urban history of religion, the globalization of religion in the form of ‘world religions’ or the universalization of religion is another, to at least the same degree of pervasiveness. If cities are

Urban religion 95 not just an amassment of people, but instead are hubs of internal and external flows (Robinson, Scott, and Taylor 2016, 5). then the discourses that define urbanness - self-reflexive urbanity - always include references to and comparisons with other cities. In such discourses and inter-urban networks, the spatial dimension of religion as practices that focus on the immanent or transcendent Beyond plays out. References to other cities or places, as well as references beyond all localities, to no-places like heavens or netherworlds, bolster the independence of religious agents. They certainly help to build up resilience against urban mischief and even persecution. In this respect, the city is not only a prerequisite for but also the topic of religious discourses. But even here, religion reaches beyond intellectual discourses. Religion and the city are something that is being ’done’.

 
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