Urban religion and objects

Jörg Rüpke

The summer school “Roman rituals: dynamics, topography and objects: Introduction to Roman religion through the prism of its materiality” – co-organized by the “Religion and Urbanity” group in Erfurt with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, La Sapienza, Rome, and the Université catholique de Louvain in cooperation with the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, the Ecole française de Rome, the Academia Belgica  and the Museo Nazionale Etrusca Villa Giulia in September 2023 – has addressed the questions of urbanity as being reflected in and constitutive for religious objects. The discussions were opened by some conceptual and methodological reflections. How can we understand objects and practices related to them within the larger framework of religion is one of them.

The summer school having its lunchbreak in the Ecole française de Rome on Piazza Navona. Image: Jörg Rüpke

1.   Introduction

Religions have made cities and cities have made religions and they continue to do so. That, in a nutshell, is what the research of the Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations” likes to propose as one of the analytic perspectives for our look into the places and objects of Roman religion during this week. Cities in general and Rome in particular are not simply places where religion also happens to be done. Religions are not simply beliefs that also exist in cities. If you want to understand why religion and religions at Rome developed as they did , you have to drop the widespread image of religion as tenacious communities of traditions and belief. And anyone who wants to understand why cities have developed into the various forms that accommodate today the majority of humankind, must drop the usual notion of the city. This includes the relation of gods and cities. Cities are not the strongholds of rationality that would have driven religion away through early rationalization and later secularization – quite the opposite: for many places, religion was the key to shaping the coexistence of many in such a way that this living together was special, was different, was precisely: urban. And this form of imagining living together changed the communication with and the belief in superhuman powers in such a way that in some cases such practices became religions in a plural. Religion became an urban power, that is, a factor for dominating cities. And cities turned religions into forces of coercion and into an instrument of rule far beyond cities. Or into a tool of political opposition.

Religion is the human attribution of capabilities and agency to superhuman actors, which one tries to share with other humans (but, as we will see, also uses to gain superiority over other humans and maybe their gods). In this way, one creates a reality that allows for alternative experiences and interpretations of the everyday or even of the extra-ordinary. This opens a unique creativity. Nowhere else but in religion does human action create such different and diverse worlds (notwithstanding all those worlds of fantasy that often build on religious narratives and establish religious figures). Nowhere else do the formation of mutual trust even in large groups and radical isolation stand so close together. Religion is profoundly ambivalent: anchoring in the here and now and crossing borders, allowing recourse to the past and orientation toward the future, inviting rejection of the mundane and expressingto be overwhelmed by the world of the material and non-humanly created.

A cultural form comparable to religion is also what is called “urbanity” in German, without being about snooty city people, but in English-speaking research is rather discussed under the term urbanism, urbaneness or might even be called a constructive, urbanistic attitude. It is the desire and the manifold actions and thoughts of wanting to live differently than in traditional forms of settlement that renders large settlements, trading places or sanctuaries “città” (to avoid the permanent English pairing of “towns and cities”): a form of commonality that does not feed on kinship or common dependence, but seeks a better life in the conscious togetherness of people who are pursuing very different activities and have been shaped by very different experiences. This, too, is deeply ambivalent: urbanity (as I will continue to call this urban auto-reflexivity constitutive of “cities”) thus defined, encompasses the compulsion for coordination as well as central administration and the possibility for nonconformism and opposition. It encompasses concentration on one’s own place and the building of far-reaching networks. It encompasses the recognition of diverse pasts and the attempt to create a common present and shared past. Finally, it includes the massive artificial transformation of the narrower living space and the cultivation of a radical counter-image of nature and idyll.

Let me introduce a further conceptual clarification. The study of religious change is not an easy task. History of religion is not a given. Religion, as hinted at already, is not an object that is simply there. The notion of religion is an instrument that makes dissimilar things comparable. Only in this way, despite and precisely because of the differences, can one speak of something as changing and combining continuities and discontinuities, tradition and innovation. Only in this way can we write a history of something treated as religion. What do I understand as the defining core of what can constitute a useful object as religion? People address not-so-human actors whom they assume to intervene in the world: sometimes actors like humans, but differently, more powerfully or more quietly, loudly or silently, influenceably or arbitrarily, proactively or yet only observing. These interlocutors were once people, ancestors, were ghosts and demons, or immortals from their very beginning, whenever that was. They react to attempts at communication – or rather not. They are somehow present – or yet quite far away. They are God or gods, forces or demons, ancestors, or the universe.

If one summarizes all this under “religion”, if one observes an area of human action and culture in such a way, the observer creates an object of research which is almost endless: ways of acting, ideas, routines, organizations up to global connections called “world religions”. We might look at all of this (regardless of whether those concerned have ever called it religion or would call it religion) in order to better understand an important side of human existence and human coexistence. On this condition we have created something that very well has a history. Now we can identify countless changes, variations, and developments, we can tell countless stories of cultural developments. These can also include stories of “religions” in the plural thereby attempting to grasp group formations and lines of tradition in this diversity of changes. In this sense, there is a history of religion after all, a history of religious practices, of ideas, indeed of religions (on the concept of religion proposed here, Rüpke 2021b; on the problem of the historiography of religion, Otto, Rau and Rüpke 2015).

2.   A model of religion

It is the fundamental insight of classical sociology that “the human being is determined in its whole being and all its expressions by the fact that it lives in interaction with other human beings” (Simmel 1908, 15). The neo-classical sociology, which no longer wanted to limit itself to the question of individual calculation and the rationality of human action, connected this with the question of the foundations and the quality of these interactions. Humans are constituted as beings who want to live together with others. The human being seeks recognition and is itself concerned about others, it wants to enter dialogue and experience resonance; it is not a being that primarily seeks power and its own advantage, but gifts, it offers, accepts, expects (Caillé and Vandenberghe 2021, 41-44) – and expects others to also give, accept and expect. And sometimes it wants to be left alone and disconnect, to do Entnetzung, de-networking. This is part of the ambivalence of religion and the urban, too.

I propose to speak of religion when this disposition is extended to non-human givers. This extension happens in – then: “religious” – communication, in addressing or invoking others beyond fellow human beings. The other or others, the ancestors, the spirits, the gods, are ascribed agency or responsibility in the communication and by the very fact that it is communicated at all. The use of special forms of communication, shouting, singing, dancing, and special media of communication, wine, incense, slaughtered animals, is intended to attract attention and signal relevance. Or what is presented in this way can be understood, with Marcel Mauss, as a gift that one hopes will be accepted, because this allows one to cultivate the expectation of reciprocation, that is, reciprocity (Mauss 1925/Mauss 2002 und Hubert and Mauss 1964). 

If the addressees transcending human sociality are specifically addressed, this is nevertheless done under the fundamental condition of continued interpersonal relations: Religious communicators also remain in dialogue with other people, care for them – perhaps precisely through their religious action – or seek recognition and resonance – perhaps precisely through their religious action. Religious action thus always takes place in contexts, even if it is occasionally used to compensate for a lack of sociability or to seclude oneself. These contexts must be broken down by our model. But first, religious action, considered in isolation, needs to be broken down further. Communication with partners who are assumed to do things differently is not easy if it is to be successful.  After all, the aim of addressing them is dialogue. It is experienced as a relationship that is supposed to be “resonant,” even if the interlocutor is only created through communication, through addressing as well as through a listening search (Rüpke 2021a).  

Yet religious action does not stop at mere addressing, mere words or variations of the voice, that is singing, or bodily movements, dance. This brings in the second focus of my short introduction, objects. For religious communication, people do not only fall back on patterns of interpersonal communication, but also make an effort to create specific preconditions and to tie in with successful communication of others as well. This, too, can still be seen as the use of media or gifts, but in the act itself it is the attribution of a particular character. This character connects such objects, but also places and times temporarily or permanently with the Other, with that which in a simple sense transcends the everyday and the unquestionably given. Here the concept of sacralization, of making sacred, fits. And this sacralization of instruments, of places or times, of altars, temples, and feast days, can encompass very different forms and associations. From the perspective of religious communication, it is about optimizing the conditions of communication, it is about increasing plausibility for the participants and spectators by emphasizing the linkage with and reference to previous (and remembered as successful) religious communication. Religious action is oriented to traditions, to established knowledge, becomes part of a way of life, part of institutions, if we apply the insights of practice theory (Reckwitz 2021, 53-65). And these are stabilized and recalled by material reminders, that is, by objects.  

Despite all reliance on earlier successes and the human propensity to routinize, the religious relationship also enables innovation in a special way. Communication into the invisible favors experimentation. After all, anyone who wants to communicate religiously wants to attract the attention of the addressee. Creating relevance for the latter, to make my communicative intention important and relevant for her or him, is primary, even if it contributes – secondarily – to social distinction, to make me more important than those other fellow-humans who are not in touch with the divine right now. This attempt to gain attention, to be important, relevant to the divine addressee may generate new gifts, new rituals, new objects, and even newly formulated addressees, that is, new gods (Rüpke 2018, 216-7, 262-295).  In the absence of any immediate negative feedback, creativity is favored by the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecy: The particularly solemn ritual and its splendid architectural environment and exquisite objects have not only made me particularly happy, but also my God! Behind such processes, however, there are also processes of converting economic and political capital into religious power: It is always about the use of scarce space, scarce time, and scarce resources and the mobilization of third parties who are involved in religious communication as participants or spectators. But here, too, it is not simply a matter of ascribing value and power, but of relationships that are established, of affects that can be associated in the long term with things and places that touch, remind, and motivate me. Thus, certain forms of religious action become institutionalized and habitualized. Specifically religious roles are formed, that the Romans for instance called sacerdotes or flamines and the like. Yet, the ascription of value was not the least aspect. Certainly, you use for the gods what is valuable, but this works also the other way round: What is used in communication with the gods must be valuable, even if exotic or rare and out of all mechanisms of the creation of prices by market exchange. Miniaturization for instance is given value, even if the gods are the only collectors.

Let me conclude by briefly pointing to a third dimension of religion, even if this is not at the center of what we are doing this week. It is present nevertheless and informing and distorting our notions of Roman religion far more than we tend to admit.  Alongside a) communication and b) the sacralization that embeds it, there also occurs c) reflection on both. Forms of communication and their media, that is, “rituals” and “objects” (gifts and tools) are systematized are subjected to rules, as are the conditions of successful communication and its choice of addressees. White female sheep for Juno, no touching of beans when in contact with Juppiter. Such reflections, perhaps even in written form, sometimes combine with professionalization. Alongside texts that represent communication – prayers or revelations – spring up other texts and textual practices that explain rituals, or names of gods: meta-communication, meta-sacralization, meta-institutionalization. At Rome from the second century BCE onwards. And these, too, can become religious practices and instruments of sacralization, for example, when reflections on the transcendent or the copying of religious texts are understood as pious offerings, or when the presence or application of such texts serves to sacralize places (and times). This, too, can change one’s relationship to such texts and their contents, make them themselves indicate the presence of the very Other, and make the viewer glad or humble. In a city speckled with literates and semi-literates, temples have inscriptions, and even illiterates enjoy dramatic performances. Admittedly, it will take another few centuries to see people copying manuscripts talking about Jesus Christ to gain a heavenly future. Here, a new class of religious objects is born as part of a specifically urban religion.

Further Reading

Caillé, Alain and Vandenberghe, Frédéric 2021. ‘Postition paper: For a new classic sociology, reassembling social theory, the Studies and moral philosophy’, in Alain Caillé and Frédéric Vandenberghe (eds.), For a New Classic Sociology: A Proposition, Followed by a Debate, London: Routledge. 1-54.

Hubert, Henri and Mauss, Marcel (1964). ‘Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function’, (Midway Reprint 1981: University of Chicago Press), 165.

Mauss, Marcel 1925. ‘Essai sur le don’, Année sociologique ns 1. 30-186.

Mauss, Marcel 2002. The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies (Routledge classics), London: Routledge.

Otto, Bernd-Christian, Rau, Susanne and Rüpke, Jörg (eds.) 2015. History and religion: Narrating a religious past (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 68), Berlin: de Gruyter.

Reckwitz, Andreas 2021. ‘Gesellschaftstheorie als Werkzeug’, in Andreas Reckwitz and Hartmut Rosa (eds.), Spätmoderne in der Krise, Berlin: Suhrkamp. 23-150.

Rüpke, Jörg 2018. Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rüpke, Jörg 2021a. Ritual als Resonanzerfahrung (Religionswissenschaft heute 15), Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Rüpke, Jörg 2021b. Religion and Its History: A Critical Inquiry, London: Routledge.

Simmel, Georg 1908. Soziologie: Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.


All images by Jörg Rüpke



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, September 27). Urban religion and objects. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3gn

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