Religion and Urbanity at the EASR annual conference 2019 (part two of two)

After our first report on our project’s panels at the 17th annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions in the Estonian University town of Tartu, this blod post discusses the second series of panels organised by members of our research centre “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.

The session consisted of two panels organized by Emiliano Urciuoli and Cristiana Facchini and both of them treated the theme “Urban Religion and Religious Change. Intellectualization of Religion and Ritual Invention”. It asked ow and how far religious intellectualization and ritual invention are made possible by the engagement of religious communication “with the conditions of specific urban environments at particular moments in the environmental, political, and social histories of cities” (Orsi)?

Emiliano Urciuoli’s paper “Christian intellectuals in a heterarchical world: Religious changes in the ancient Mediterranean city fabric” discussed the relationship between three aspects connected to the state of early Christ religion in 2nd century Rome as urban religion. Fristly, the phenomenon that religious scholar Heidi Wendt has called the rise of “the freelance religious experts” in the Roman empire, referring to the Mediterranean-wide emergence of “self-authorized purveyor[s] of religious teachings and practices who drew upon such abilities in pursuit of various social benefits and often more transparent forms of profit” (Wendt 2016). Secondly, the reliance of these professionals on a specific kind of capital that the urban concentration of recognized assets was able to grant them in order to win and stabilized a religious clientele: high literacy, networks of literary exchange, and various textually oriented interpretive practices” (Stowers 2011). Lastly, the capacity of the urban space to function as a “heterarchical system” (Crumley 1995), where power can be ranked in a number of ways, shared, or checked. The more densely urban and heterogeneous is the context, the more heterarchical is the system of power distribution, that is, the more various the types of power and the ways of gaining authority over people, the more diverse the manners of ranking, un-ranking or re-ranking those powers, and the more extended the chances to get access to them. Trans-urban networks can be mobilized when power is locally counterpoised. As Allen Brent pointed out (Brent 2010), the events following the outburst of the “Novatianist crisis” in Rome (251 CE) – that is, in the midst of a highly fractionated theological metropolitan reality – show that spiritual leaders lacking of sufficient influence over the local population might try to gain international support via oversea sponsors. This was only made possible by the intellectualization of religious communication via the urban production and inter-urban circulation of doctrinally laden texts.

Harry O. Maier (Vancouver School of Theology), a fellow of the research group, presented on “Ritual and Urban Networking with Ignatius of Antioch“. The paper considered ritual as a means of the creation of networks of urban religion in second century Asia Minor. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written by the prisoner and martyr bishop journeying to Rome during the first half of the second century, express the desires of a religious leader to create and control city networks of affiliated assemblies of Jesus believers. Ignatius ritualizes his journey to Rome as a sacred urban procession and further ritualizes the audiences of his letters as participating with him in his journey toward an anticipated martyrdom. He uses ritual to create competition for urban space, which – with the help of modern urban studies — is best understood within the specular densely populated settings of the eastern Mediterranean urban face-block neighborhood. Ignatius is concerned that meetings only happen under the supervision or knowledge of particular elected officials of the Christ assemblies he endorses. By portraying these urban locations as places where correctly conceived ritual unfolds, Ignatius adds an orthodox valence to cityspaces that they arguably did not possess outside of his letters. Thus the urban and the written conspire to form a spatial and imagined network of urban spaces, complete with ritualized urban space-time configurations. As a point of comparison, the paper examined associations and their creations of networks and modalities of space and time to consider ways in which other groups were using ritual to engage in analogous neighbourhood practices and urban networking, thereby creating cityspaces of their own. By placing Ignatius within the context of such associations the paper argued that we are enabled to recognize emergent Christianity as an urban religion and to consider how belief and city were in a dynamic relation with one another in the creation of group definition, cooperation, competition, and rivalry.

Saint Ignatius of Antiouch, subject of Harry O. Maier’s paper (see here for details).

Arkadiy Avdokhin (Higher School or Economics (Moscow) delivered a paper on Inventing Prayer, Enforcing Orthodoxy: Athanasios of Alexandria’s Project of Bible-Based Devotion. The paper approached a set of Athanasios of Alexandria’s writings about prayer and hymn-singing as a project of inventing ritual orthopraxy in fourth-century urban and rural Christian communities, as well as in individual Devotion. The paper discussed Athanasios’ Festal Letters, epostolographic output (primarily the Letter to Markellinos), and the Life of Antony from the perspective of the bishop‘s concerns about the contemporaneous diversity of devotional and liturgical practices of praying and hymn-singing and his attempt to bring a unifying change. It argued that Athanasios had a coherent vision of the ideal Christian prayer and hymnody. For Athanasios, ‘orthodox’ Christians—lay and ascetics, educated devotees and common believers alike—should derive their practices of devotion and liturgy from the Bible—the Psalter and the Biblical odes—rather than other sources. Athanasios‘ programme of devotional and liturgical orthopraxy centred around the Biblical ideal is part of his broader project of bringing unity to the division-riddled church of Egypt. The bishop conceived of the Scripturally-cued shared patterns of praying and hymn-singing as one of the means to unify scattered Christian communities. Although not as self-consciously formulated as e.g. his polemic against the ‘Arians’ or Meletians, Athanasios pastoral programme of a uniform Biblical devotion surfaces across his writings with consistency. A further Suggestion was that Athanasios’ project of promoting standardized, Bible-based ritual practices of prayer and hymn-singing was an individually conceived regulatory programme that wasenforced through episcopal frameworks of power. This project was targeted against the diversity of modes of prayer and hymn-singing practiced across a variety of doctrinally, ecclesially, and socially different communities. The paper also explored the impact of the divide between urban (Alexandria-based) and rural (chōra-based) networks of parishes and ascetical communities in both promoting and subverting communication of episcopal regulations regarding prayer and liturgy.

The second panel began with Cristiana Facchini, from the University of Bologna and a fellow in Erfurt, and her paper “Utopias and urban imagination in the early modern period”. The paper argued that utopian literature has been generally placed against the backdrop of different Christian undercurrents, and consequently it has been treated as a genre that both speaks about politics and religion. Rooted in ancient Greek thought, this genre became particularly relevant in the early modern period, as one of the consequences of the discovery of new continents. Fuelled by disappointment or sarcasm about political and religious warfare and strife, the idea of utopia unleashed European imagination about ideally planned communities which were parallel to the concrete founding of new urban environments. The paper explored a set of interrelated questions, both from a theoretical and a historical perspective. On the one hand, it investigated what kind of religious environment utopian thought was likely to imagine, especially against the backdrop of increasing religious strife. On the other one, it analysed how utopian thought might have influenced urban projects that were enhanced in new environments, either as idealized utopian polities or new urban projects, mostly visible in some American areas. Finally, some theoretical reflections were formulated in reference to the striking relevance ‘utopian imagination’ played in urban thought, up to the point where it overlapped with dystopian delusion.

Finally, Martin Christ, a post-doctoral fellow of the Project, considered “Rituals of Death in Early Modern German Cities”. The paper considered the ways in which rituals connected to dying and death were invented, performed and perceived by a range of actors living and working in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The paper concentrated on important German towns and cities in the early modern period to assess how rituals of death changed in this tumultuous period of European history. The religious, political and cultural changes of the early modern period had a profound impact on the ways in which men and women died and were commemorated and remembered. The paper took these big changes as a starting point and explored what processes like the Reformation and Catholic/Counter Reformation, changing discourses around medicine and hygiene or the European expansions in the New World did to rituals of death. It conceived of dying and death as a process with many actors and spaces, all of which have to be considered. They included private spaces, like the bedchamber, but also churches or graveyards which shaped the look of a town. The paper illustrated how rituals of death were in a reciprocal relationship with urban spaces, affected by these spaces and influencing them in turn. In this way, the paper asked about the specific ways in which urbanity influenced dying, death and commemoration in a range of German cities and argued that understanding how someone died is a crucial aspect of early modernity.

Collectively, the anels showed that many features of past and present religions were the outcome of specific effects and uses of city-space and their social and cognitive bases rather than as inherent characteristics of a specific ‘religion’. Many religious phenomena, and especially major religious changes, can be better understood by viewing them in spatial terms, that is, as a result of a dialectic of “co-production” (Day) of city-space and urban life, on the one side, and religious representations and practices, on the other. Therefore, change is not conceptualized by presupposing religion and the city as two static entities, but rather implying a “continual process in which the urban and the religious reciprocally interact, mutually interlace, producing, defining, and transforming each other” (Lanz). Designating a process in which religion and the urban are involved, ‘urban religion’ is the formula that defines the state of a religion which is shaped by the interaction with the urban spatial environment and which can periodically crystallize into major changes whose assessment and naming is a responsibility of the scholar. Focusing on changing urban environments against the backdrop of long-term periodizations such as the Roman empire, the rise of Islam, and the European age of explorations (with the Reformation and the development of colonial empires), this panels reflected on forms of connectivity (cooperative or/and conflictual) and targeted religious dynamism through the lenses of religious intellectualization and ritual invention. These are two kinds of religious changes that appear recurrently in the cross-culturally entangled, world-wide history of religion and urbanism.

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