Religious Practices and Urban Resilience

— Jörg Rüpke

Resilience is on everyone’s lips. There is an exponential growth of the term as a component of book titles after 2000, following some earlier peaks around 1880, 1910 and 1990. Dorothee Brantz and Avi Sharma open their book on Urban Resilience in a Global Context, published in 2020 with the statement: ‘In the early 21st century, resilience has become the preferred policy constellation to address futures that are extremely uncertain but that are likely to be extreme’ (11). The concept of resilience, although it can be traced back to the 16th century, is comparatively new in its broad use. In the 1980s and 1990s, the term was typically applied to materials and only occasionally to societies, economies and – most notably – individuals in the context of their physical or mental health. Before 2008/09, the term was very rarely used in discussions about cities. Almost always, then, it was about the risks of climate change. In the last decade, however, as just noted, ‘resilience’ emerged as a key category in discussions of urban management and planning, modifying and in some cases replacing concepts such as sustainability and stability. Similarly, resilience had found its way into archaeology a few years earlier, where its relevance was reinforced by far-reaching hypotheses about the ‘collapse of societies’ (Jared Diamond). The article ‘Resilience theory in archaeology‘ focuses on understanding ecosystems in terms of an adaptive cycle, positioning episodic change, discontinuities, multiple equilibria and the loss of resilience through adherence to fixed rules. In these adaptive cycles, phases of remembering and returning to earlier phases are just as common as revolutionary major leaps to completely new phases and the resulting precarious life cycle assessments (C.L. Redman, American Anthropologist 107, 2005, 73).

Such complex argumentation has done little to account for the rather loose use of the term in other disciplines and especially in religious studies. Resilience is usually seen as a property of social and material constellations. With regard to the ancient Mediterranean, resilience has been attributed not only to cities such as Constantinople (and especially its mighty fortifications and impressive infrastructure), but also to literary genres and specific deities. Religion contributed to resilience by increasing resilience through providing an element of additional social interaction that was not essential but brought people together in a positive atmosphere and thus strengthened the resilience of a society (I. Hodder , Entangled, 2012, 200).

No wonder, the recent annual congress of the European Association for the Study of Religion at Pisa has focused on the topic of ‘Religion and Resilience’, inquiring into very different types of resilience and related religious practices or beliefs. Within that context, we have organised a panel focussing on urban actors, their resilience as urbanites and their city’s resilience as a consequence of these actors’ religious practices. Thus, the general topic of the congress was narrowed down in both respects, namely a) what type of behaviour is analyzed for being more resilient – determined as spaces defined as urban by their users and constructors – and b) which religious phenomena strengthen this resilience – determined as religious practices (rather than specific beliefs or symbols). The panel was made up of case studies covering a range of different practices like spatial, temporal, ritual, hidden or open practices. The contributions ranged from Mediterranean antiquity to contemporary constellations. Each case study started from a brief reflection of how resilience can be conceptualized in the specific case and ended in reflections about the possibility to generalize the case and the limits to such generalization.

Cristiana Facchini (Bologna) focused on ‘Secrecy as urban resilience: hidden religious practices in the city’. She started from the observation that cities are ideal sites to perform and observe religious rituals, both as temporary or repeated ceremonial or structured types of actions that may be activated according to both civic and liturgical calendars, or in the aftermath of traumatic events. Public and collective rituals are, however, accompanied by less visible types of rituals, which might be individually or family oriented. In her contribution she followed a particular lead. Instead of exploring how religious rituals were performed and defined by different religious minorities within specific urban environments, she reconstructed how invisible rites took place in the interstices of urban lives. These ‘hidden rituals’ are recorded in a number of different sources, from private memoirs and correspondence to external records. They reflect strategies of ritual survival performed by individuals and small groups of people in urban contexts that were somehow under surveillance. The historical focus was on ‘crypto-rituals’ of Jewish Conversos and Protestants in some Catholic cities of the early modern period.

Dionigi Albera (Aix-en-Provence) dealt with ‘Algiers: interreligious practices and urban resilience after the civil war’ and in particular with the role of Muslim devotion at the Notre Dame d’Afrique sanctuary both during the civil war in the 1990s and after, in contemporary Algiers, when the basilica has increasingly become a symbol of peace and religious dialogue.

Francesca Prescendi (EPHE Paris) looked into ‘Resilience seen through a girls’ dance in the heart of Rome’. During a long war against Carthage, the Romans, exhausted, were particularly sensitive to bad signs. The birth of a hermaphrodite in 207 B.C. at that time seemed a disturbing prodigy for which the Roman authorities created a new rite: a procession in which 27 young girls take part, singing a hymn composed especially for the occasion and dancing in the Forum, the heart of political and economic life. The religious authorities join the girls in the procession that travels through different parts of the city. This rite, which has the character of protecting the entire urban space, will later become traditional to expiate similar prodigies. This rite is itself an element of resilience, and its performance helped to re-establish a good understanding with the gods. Prescendi’s analysis of the ritual described by the historian Titus Livius opened a dialogue with other ancient authors writing about processions and framed in the topography of Rome.

Irene Becci (Lausanne) analysed ‘A Resilient Spiritual Re-valuation of Urban Nature: Forces and Limits’ in Swiss cities. During the COVID19 pandemic the extent of the ecological disaster humanity is facing has become uncontestably visible in European Western cities. In this context, calls for increasing green and natural spaces in cities are getting louder and so is the request for a change in the relation to space through an intensified use of local green areas and urban agriculture. Such changes are meant to contribute to strengthening urban resilience to the environmental crises. Based on a study of ecological practices including a religious (or in emic terms, spiritual) dimension in urban public spaces in Switzerland between 2016 and 2020 as well as during the lockdown periods in 2020 and 2021, she discussed how natural space becomes a ‘physical, emotional, and cognitive dimension of the experience of transcendence’ (Thurfjell). The increasing awareness of the ecological disaster has intensified a longing for care for ‘ordinary’ urban nature – trees on squares, lawns between houses etc. – now qualified as valuable ‘wild urban nature’. Former markers ‘of spatial disorder’ (Gandy) are now re-classified as valuable (Graeber 2001) forms of nature in the city, creating new natural ‘urban atmospheres’ (Löw). “from the activity of experiencing objects as relating to one another” (Löw, 2008: 44). Her contribution illustrated these processes and concentrated in particular on how such spiritual practices and discourses rely on space to construct analogies between intimate and cosmological scales, and how they thereby often fail to spot the cultural and economic inequalities the ecological crisis implies.

Finally, Jörg Rüpke (Erfurt) focussed on ‘Temporal practices in big and small cities of ancient Italy’. He started from the assumption that the religious structuring of time is typical for urban religion in small towns as well as in big cities, an assumption made plausible in the introductory part. The body of the contribution was dedicated to arguing the claim that such religiously articulated temporal structures (“calendars”) increase resilience. For that purpose, resilience is defined as the collective clinging to the urban space and/or urban society even under ecological, military or social pressure. The argument was built on observations about the appropriation and creation of urban spaces in calendrical, that is, annually recurrent, rituals characterized by a widely distributed agency, testimonies about the appeal to such rituals in times of crisis, and the longevity of local temporal arrangements. The broad reflection on the concepts of resilience led into the discussion.

(Quotes taken from the abstracts provided by the authors named.)

— Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.


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