The Dialectic of the Popular and the Erudite

That, however, is far from the whole story, for side by side with the ethos of abnegation and sacrifice Christianity exhibits an intricate dialectic of popular and official religious practices. If the exchanges managed in official rituals are extremely opaque for individuals, popular religion amply compensates. The promise of salvation is hard to sell to individuals, but the rites which are attached to it (namely, Holy Communion, baptism, fiestas, saying the rosary, etc.) and communal activities like maintenance of church buildings and servicing its many activities and charitable works both create multiple mechanisms of common identity among the faithful and also reward contributions of time and energy with status, respect and the pleasure and pride of collaborating with a great institution.

Thanks to popular religion the Church has been able to go well beyond (or below) the austere mission of saving souls and focusing on the after-life. It sponsors, maybe oversees, but rarely directly manages pilgrimages and local fiestas, it welcomes prayer groups in its churches, celebrating and venerating local saints, Corpus Christi and the like, but with some notable exceptions (see below) leaves all these to be self-managed by the laity and sometimes the organizations in charge have large memberships and substantial resources -like the fraternities (cofradias in Spanish) which manage fiestas (Molinié 2004; Brandào 2007: 55).

Of particular interest to us are activities and rituals which are a response to hopelessness or which provide hope. In Catholicism these follow the pattern of exchange: votos and ex-votos, and pilgrimages. But there is sometimes complicated negotiation with the hierarchy, as at Lourdes where a young girl's story about 'that thing' (acqueyro in the local dialect) she had seen in a grotto in the Pyrenees developed into a worldwide cult (Harris 1999). On the one hand the French bishops and the opponents of anti-clericalism seized upon the incident to transform this obscure village into a world centre for divine healing. But on the other the hierarchy has gone to great lengths to maintain control during the 150 years since Bernadette's vision, establishing an office to certify miracles and setting such a high standard that in 2006 a bishop called for it to be relaxed in the light of competition from Pentecostals and their healing industry (Le Monde, 25 March 2006).[1]

A similar pattern developed around Padre Pio, a Franciscan friar in a tiny convent in the Southern Italian village of San Giovanni Rotondo (Puglia): after he received the stigmata in 1918 a cult grew up around him attracting pilgrims from all over Southern Italy who came to attend his celebrations of

Mass, which tended to last for many hours (Luzzatto 2007). But for decades the Vatican remained sceptical, sending inquisitorial missions to the monastery and subjecting the friar to periods of withdrawal when he could neither say Mass nor preach nor hear confession - the three activities for which he was most sought after. All sorts of political and even financial scandals arose in the little village, especially during and after the Second World War when it became the beneficiary of the combined support of the Christian Democratic Party and Marshall Plan assistance - both interested in countering the strong influence of the Communist Party in Southern Italy at that time (Tarrow 1967). This patronage led to the construction of a very large hospital which continues to function. The friar was meticulously obedient and orthodox: he never said anything controversial apart from the claim to have received the stigmata - whose lesions have indeed been documented, though of course their cause remains forever a matter of controversy. He simply 'stood there' and allowed the cult to develop. Eventually John Paul II, well known for having multiplied beatifications and canonizations on an unprecedented scale, and himself a devotee of Padre Pio, beatified him and then elevated him to sainthood in 2002.

The case of Padre Pio shows the hierarchy struggling to control a cult which might get out of hand: control over the shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo was first transferred from the Franciscans to the local bishop and later the renowned architect Renzo Piano was commissioned to design a vast sanctuary which, while perhaps better adapted to receive pilgrims in large numbers, is utterly out of keeping with the needs of visitors who continue to prefer the older church where the saint had been buried and which offers the niches and intimacy which they seek (Mesaritou 2009). In 2008 Padre Pio's body was exhumed for reburial in the sanctuary and his hands and chest were found to be intact.

Exchange with the supernatural involves a dose of ambiguity, manipulating the balance between hope and despair and insuring against failure. But with institutionalization the ambiguity becomes less threatening, more reutilized, more consolation than cure, more discipline or doctrine than manipulation of an individual's state of mind. We see this in accounts of pilgrimage sites where a routine is established for visitors who are inclined, as if programmed, to believe that visiting is a matter of following a routine, of participating in notionally set rituals of touching certain objects or places, of doing what they assume has to be done. Stadler and Luz describe the careful control of pilgrims' movements through the tomb of Mary in Jerusalem (Stadler and Luz, 2014), while Bax's account of Medjugorje, for example (Bax 1995), describes pilgrims being taken off by a tour company on a preset route, making confession and attending Mass. Medjugorje, located in a particularly contested part of Croatia, is the site of several instances of visions of the Virgin Mary by seers in 1981 who have remained there and continue to receive messages from her which they convey to the public in daily sessions. The content of the messages, at least as filtered by the Franciscan friars who manage the site, is inoffensive and in conformity with Church doctrine. By touching objects in the vicinity of the site, by taking home stones, rosaries and other trinkets, and by physical contact with the seers, to whom they attribute quasi-medical powers (p. 39), pilgrims return home armed with the power of the site. Inevitably, visitors have introduced healing into their routine, while the persons responsible try to strike a balance between that pressure and the risks of sanctions by the authorities in old Yugoslavia, for illegal practice of medicine. Unlike Lourdes, the Medjugorje claims of visions, ongoing ever since 1981, have not been endorsed by the Vatican, so there is no certification procedure. On the other hand, the Franciscans (who have a long and combative history of involvement with Croatian nationalism) have not been punished for their involvement. In San Giovanni Rotondo, on the other hand, they have been marginalized by the bishop, to whom the Vatican has granted control of the Padre Pio sites. The visits to Medjugorke incorporate much standard Catholic ritual - Mass, confession - thus adding to the reutilization effect and tempering hopes of instant solutions. To illustrate the flexibility of meaning beside the constancy of ritual, John Eade, author of numerous important contributions to the literature on pilgrimage, has provided an up-to-date account in an unpublished paper, of how the rituals of Lourdes now begin to transcend Catholic identities and acquire a dynamic all of their own for people of different obeisance (Eade 2013).

The difficulty represented for modernism by the exchanges which lie at the heart of popular religion is well illustrated by the late Olivia Harris's account of a young Spanish priest schooled in post-conciliar (i.e. post-Vatican II) modernism and social commitment trying to perform his duties properly in a highland Bolivian parish: he drives away in his jeep overloaded with corn and potatoes and much besides, after enduring an interminable Mass - interminable because of the votive offerings, promises and exchanges which had to be dealt with individually (Harris 2006: 56). He is embarrassed by what he sees as gifts - gifts pressed upon him despite his insistence that the Communion is offered freely, and that all that is required is for a person to be in a state of grace. But for the faithful these are precisely not gifts because they form part of the reciprocity which is essential to their relationship with the supernatural. They, after all, are heirs to 500 years of coexistence between Catholic divinity and their 'own' mountain spirits.

The substratum of popular religion is evident in Catholicism worldwide, but it is also present in Judaism and in Islam. In Judaism the most visible expression of Ashkenazi popular religion has been in the Chassidic sects which arose in Eastern Europe in the late eighteenth century and flourished thereafter until the Shoah - since when they have had a worldwide renewal. The Chassidim developed from a movement following a particular mystical figure (the Baal Shem-Tov, d. 1760) into a movement of millions of followers of pious or righteous men (tzaddikim) who had 'collapsed the distinction between normative and popular religion' (Sharot 2011: 77). The tzaddikim were not precisely intercessors, in the manner of Christian saints, but rather a channel to God. The usual term used in English is that they 'cleaved' to God, they were people possessed of a 'higher', more mystical religiosity which brought them close to the divine, and their followers cleaved to them in the same way. The tzaddik was 'able to capture divine power and channel that power down to his earthly dependents' (Sharot 2011). But they also looked to him for cures and blessings as well as advice: the tzaddik somehow managed to combine 'the high status of the mystic with engagement in popular religion', and he would receive a 'redemption fee' when followers came to ask for his intervention (Sharot 2011).

Yet this apparently uncontrollable effervescence, which encountered fierce internecine opposition from the learned centers of Vilna (today Vilnius) especially, eventually was institutionalized in dynasties in the nineteenth century, and this continues today.[2] The followers of the Talmudic scholars of Vilna came to be described as the opponents (mitnagdim), associated with an austere religiosity centered on study of Rabbinic texts and today known as Lithuanians. So one might suppose that the popular religion of the Chassidim, whose dynamic core was composed of business people rather than the unlettered masses (Dynner 2006), has been tamed or neutralized, but there is another interpretation which sees a continuation of popular religion in Torah study, for all its erudition.

Today the practice of Torah study, which has become a mass phenomenon (Friedman 1986; Soloveitchik 1994), is itself a type of popular religion, justified in terms of keeping a tradition alive, and even of saving the state of Israel. Torah study has many of the attributes of popular religion: it follows rhythms of the day, the month and the year; it rests on esoteric story-telling and the combination and recombination of elements from a vast corpus, it is oblivious

to modern scientific scholarship, it relies heavily on oral communication, and its leading lights, who are honoured with rituals of deference and never retire, have an extraordinary array of esoteric and linguistic learning. Yeshiva students learn, typically, in pairs which stage ritualized disputes on abstruse points. This is not study in the secular sense of learning to master a body of knowledge, let alone of acquiring a certificate, not in the sense of training for the priesthood - which is secular learning: for yeshiva students, examinations are a formality and the resulting qualifications are more an entitlement than an achievement, counting for less than the recommendation of the yeshiva head and the opportunity to find a suitable wife (Lehmann and Siebzehner 2009).

So in Judaism the culture of learning, for all its esotericism and erudition, does not count as an official culture in the way that Catholic seminaries or Anglican theological colleges might: it is too much subject to unwritten and uncodified habits and customs which are variously certified and debated by rabbis who forever reach differing conclusions. Only in Israel is there something like a codification because of the official character of the Rabbinic Courts, but the scope of their rulings covers only the narrow issue of qualifying people for citizenship under the Law of Return, plus kosher certification and the yeshiva heads and dynastic leaders have little respect for the state's Chief Rabbis, even though they have a preponderant voice in their appointment. The puzzle for outsiders accustomed to a theologically driven notion of religious adherence arises from the embeddedness of Jewish strictness and Orthodoxy in daily life. Ultra-Orthodoxy is immersion in a life suffused with habits and rituals which consist of automatic, almost compulsive, practices. If you ask about their 'origins' or justification, you may be given an esoteric interpretation buried in the mists of time, but it will be vague and the interlocutor will regard it as a silly or irrelevant question: touching the scroll on a doorpost as you enter a room; washing left and right hands before a meal in a specified order, pouring water three times over each hand using a two-handled jug; keeping one's head covered at all times; maximizing the number of children ... the list is endless, and is constantly being augmented. In addition, it is by no means clear that the apparently unending tightening of stringency in contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy derives from pressure from the rabbis: it may well be that it comes from 'below', from anxiety among followers, especially those newly returned to strict observance (t'shuva, or 'repentance', 'return').

Aside from this merging of the popular and the erudite, Judaism also exhibits the classic exchange relationship with the supernatural mediated by tzaddikim of various kinds, especially in North African and Middle Eastern (Sephardi) traditions. These fit more with the model of exchange, and are very similar to that of the neighboring Muslim populations, to the point that according to Issachar Ben-Ami out of '656 Jewish saints' in modern Morocco '126' were venerated by both Jews and Muslims (Ben-Ami 1998; Sharot 2011: 74), before the Jewish culture of the Maghreb was destroyed by mass emigration in the wake of Israel's creation and the subsequent wars. It survives in modern Israel, in the form of cultural celebrations and veneration of rabbis of distinguished lineage (Bilu and Ben-Ari 1992).

Many practices which are standard in the ultra-Orthodox world fit well with the model of relating to the supernatural or fending off misfortune described earlier. In case of illness, people may say 'check the mezuzah': this refers to small devices attached to doors in many Jewish houses, for these contain tiny scrolls on which a prayer is written: the sick person or their kin are advised to check that the prayer does not contain a mistake. If a child misbehaves parents or others concerned are advised to check into the background and see whether perhaps there is not a mixed marriage in the genealogy somewhere, or a liaison with a non-Jewish employee. Of course people consult their doctors, but not always and they also consult rabbis on these matters, or several rabbis if the opinion or ruling they hear is not to their liking. They owe less to expected rewards than to the pressure to keep on the right side of 'the law'. This law is inherently uncertain, subject to multiple interpretations, whose obedience is unforgivingly enforced by gossip. Indeed, most customs are derived from tradition and no 'system' or set of principles is invoked to encompass them. Not for nothing did Isaac Bashevis Singer once write: 'the first words I can remember hearing were "It is forbidden"' (Bashevis Singer 1979: 11).

The Abrahamic traditions have institutionalized religion and as a result they can create relationships of trust which underpin a postponement of salvation or redemption until an unknown and unknowable future. The devotion of their followers thus does not seem to have an immediate return. However, this official religion exists in a dialectic relationship with a popular religion which is concerned with this-worldly rewards, with the ties of community and with a built-in message that those ties are ancient, have 'roots'. The idea is very similar to Linda Woodhead's terms strategic and tactical religion and indeed she also uses the word 'dialectical':

strategy and tactics form and shape one another dialectically. The strategist cannot merely impose, for the tactical will find ways over, under, through, and around strategic plans, targets, rewards and sanctions. But if the strategist plans for such things, his plans contain the impress of the tactical, and the tactical inheres in the strategic. Likewise, the tactical may anticipate and try to foil the strategic, thereby internalizing it and bowing to its logic. And the strategic, when it resorts to trickery and deception, dissolves into the tactical. Thus the tactical and strategic form the conditions of the other's possibility, the potential pathways of realisation, and the horizons of one another's dissolution - within an unequal exchange. (Woodhead 2012)

If my concept is different from hers, it is in its addition of the dimensions of time, or history, and of the ways in which popular religion creates ties of interdependence among people who live together in neighborhoods, villages and so on. So to some extent it is a dated concept which may require recasting in contemporary conditions. But whereas Woodhead, in a lecture at the 'New Forms of Public Religion' conference in Cambridge later in 2012, focused on personal spiritualities which exhibit a highly fragmented and dispersed organization, characteristic of Western Europe and North America in particular, I will present a rather different, parallel, evolution dynamized by Pentecostalism in Latin America but which also is widely observed in Africa, and in Europe among immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

  • [1] Sixty-eight miraculous cures have been recognized by the 'Bureau des Constatations Médicales' whose rulings must themselves be confirmed by the Comité Médical International de Lourdes. The last miraculous cure took place in 2002 but was only confirmed in 2011. In 2012, according to the website of the Comité, a miracle was confirmed which had taken place in 1964. See serge-francois-guerison-remarquable and guerisons-et-miracles/68eme-miraculee.
  • [2] The notion of dynasty though is relativized in the sense that since they usually have many children, and since both sons and sons-in-law compete for succession, much 'politics' accompanies the succession process.
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