Sylvester A. Johnson
Beginning with trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced hundreds of thousands of people into what is presently the United States, religion among African Americans consistently featured a complex of efforts toward innovation, preservation, and agential intervention rooted in efforts toward survival against structures of racial domination. Social factors including slavery, black responses to a range of political conflicts, influences of immigration, and the varieties of genealogies that have constituted religious formations among African Americans contributed to the creation of formal Christian denominations, intentional communities of Orisha, and transnational movements of Islam. Also important are the insurgent challenges that African Americans have proffered as a rejoinder to social oppression. But this progressive tendency has been paralleled by sharply conservative religious formations that check any easy generalization of African American religions as being predisposed toward social justice movements. Also important are social sources of autonomous church formation, the role of Black Nationalism, anticolonial forms of religion, and Yoruba revivalism of the mid-20th century.
The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.
Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.
The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.
Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.
Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
In the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, black Christian thought helped to undermine the white supremacist racial system that had governed America for centuries. The civil rights revolution in American history was, to a considerable degree, a religious revolution, one whose social and spiritual impact inspired numerous other movements around the world. Key to the work was a transformation of American religious thought and practice in ways that deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions, infused with Gandhian notions of active resistance and “soul force,” as well as secular ideas of hardheaded political organizing and the kinds of legal maneuverings that led to the seminal court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
The civil rights movement had legislative aims; it was, to that extent, a political movement. But it was also a religious movement, sustained by the religious power unlocked within southern black churches. The historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place. In similar ways, the Mexican-American farmworkers’ movement drew on the mystic Catholic spirituality of Cesar Chavez and brought to national consciousness the lives and aspirations of an oppressed agricultural proletariat that lacked the most elementary rights of American citizens.
American civil rights movements drew from, and were in part inspired by, the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s movement deeply influenced black Americans who visited India from the 1930s to the 1950s and who brought home with them a mixture of ideas and practices deriving from sources as diverse as Gandhi and the 19th-century American progenitor of nonviolent civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. American civil rights movements subsequently became a model for any number of freedom movements internationally, notably including the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. There, religious figures such as Desmond Tutu became international symbols. Also, the black American freedom struggle based in the American South moved protestors in places as diverse as Czechoslovakia under Soviet domination and Chinese students staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the post–civil rights era, some suggested that America had moved into a “post-racial” era, despite the overwhelming statistics documenting racial inequality in American society. Thus, activists who have mined the connection between religion, civil rights, and social justice will have plenty of work to do in the future. The struggle continues through such contemporary venues as the #blacklivesmatter movement.
As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.
What is today known as U.S. “Hispanic” culture is in reality a diverse array of ethnic, regional, national, and religious peoples and communities. Hispanic Americans trace their lineage back to colonial Spain, and Spanish is a unifying language for Hispanic peoples around the world. When we turn our attention to the United States, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Spanish colonizers, missionaries, and explorers alike made their mark in American territories such as Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The focus of this article will be Hispanic religions from the mid-19th century United States to the present. The invention of the designation “Hispanic” by the U.S. government in 1970 was an effort to identify individuals and groups who shared a common language, ethnicity, and cultural heritage. While we can certainly problematize the designation “Hispanic,” for the purposes of this essay we will use the ethnic and cultural designation Hispanic as a rubric to unify Spanish-speaking and ethnically related individuals and groups in the United States. What is useful about identifying individuals and groups as Hispanic is that we are able to focus on shared linguistics, ethnic identities, and experiences that emerge out of the lived experiences of colonization. Yet the story of Hispanics and religions is one of triumph and empowerment too as men, women, and children turned to their families, faith, and communities to combat the ethnocentrically driven colonization in the United States that threatened to overwhelm them. What they received from extended families, faith, and communities was support that gave them strength to persevere and prosper in conditions that were sometimes unbearable.
As long as we keep in the mind that there are vast differences among and between Hispanic peoples and groups, the broad rubric of “Hispanic” can help us understand linguistic, ethnic, and cultural continuities among individuals and their larger communities in the United States. Recent global Hispanic events such as the 2014 fútbol World Cup helped bring attention to the ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic similarities as well as the cultural diversity of Latin, Central, and South Americans. As much as there is a wide variety of Hispanic peoples and communities, so too is there a wide array of Hispanic religions and spiritualities. Latin, Central and South Americans increasingly make homes in the United States and add to the ever-emerging religious and cultural hybridity of U.S. religions. While the majority of U.S. Hispanics still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, there is a growing diversity of Catholic practices as well as broader religio-spiritualities among U.S. Hispanics. In order to understand contemporary lived realities among Hispanics, it is essential that we take a historical approach and study the deeper history of U.S. Hispanic religions and spiritualities. When we do, we are able to understand that openness to hybrid theologies, practices, and ways of being spiritual and religious are central to Hispanics’ histories of perseverance and adaptation to a country that has not been overwhelmingly unwelcoming to them. When we study U.S. Hispanics and their religious and spiritual lives from the mid-19th century to the present, we are able to understand three mutually informing and overlapping historical continuities: (1) A legacy of colonization, transculturation and borderlands existence; (2) The creation of a borderlands religion that responds to the legacy of ethnocentrism and inbetweeness; and (3) The centrality of fe, familia, and communidad (faith, family, and community) that work as an organizing and empowering trifecta for U.S. Hispanics.
The South still commonly appears as the land of the Bible Belt, of evangelical Protestant hegemony. Despite the rapidly increasing immigration from all parts of the world to the region, there is still justification for such a view. To study religion in the South, then, is to examine the influence of a dominant evangelical culture that has shaped the region’s social mores, religious minorities (including Catholicism, Judaism, and non-Christian immigrant religions), cultural forms, charged racial interactions, and political practices. In no other widely dispersed region, save for the Mormon regions of the Rocky Mountain West, does one family of religious belief and expression hold such sway over so many people and throughout such a large area. The biracial nature of evangelicalism in the South, as well, lends it a distinctive history and culture that alternately puzzles, repulses, and fascinates outsiders.
The South may be the Bible Belt, but, like Joseph’s coat, it is a belt of many colors, embroidered with a rich stitching together of words, sounds, and images from the inexhaustible resource of the scriptures. The rigid Bible Belt conservatism associated with the common understanding of religion in the South contrasts dramatically with the sheer creative explosiveness of southern religious cultural expression. Indeed, southern religious influences lay at the heart of much of 20th-century American popular culture. And it contrasts with a rapidly changing contemporary South in which Buddhist retreat centers and Ganesha temples are taking their place alongside Baptist and Methodist churches.
The Sōka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist movement, originating in Japan, that bases its religious practice and worldview on the Lotus Sutra-centric teachings of the Kamakura-era priest Nichiren (1222–1282). Following Nichiren, members of the Sōka Gakkai consider the practice of reciting Namu-myōhō-renge-kyō—the Daimoku, or title of the Lotus Sutra—to a copy of a character mandala (Gohonzon) originally inscribed by Nichiren to be the fundamental means for attainment of enlightenment. Also modeling themselves on Nichiren, the membership takes an active interest in the social and political realities of this world. In Japan, this engagement has taken various forms, including electoral support for a political party made up largely of Sōka Gakkai members, and globally, as activities in the fields of nuclear disarmament, sustainable development, human rights education, and humanitarian assistance.
Founded in 1930, the organization was suppressed during World War II. In the postwar era, its rapid growth, driven by a campaign of aggressive proselytization, as well its ongoing involvement in politics, has generated considerable controversy within Japanese society. Even as the organization has matured institutionally, and in its relations with other faith traditions, an exclusive commitment by members to a single faith practice makes it an outlier within the Japanese religious landscape.
The Sōka Gakkai in Japan currently claims some 8.27 million member families, making it the nation’s largest and most active religious movement. Outside Japan, under the rubric of Sōka Gakkai International (SGI), official statistics give membership totals of 1.75 million in 192 countries and territories, with 94 organizations incorporated under local national laws. More than half of the membership outside Japan—slightly more than 1 million—are said to be in Asia and Oceania, with South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore among the sites of large and active memberships. Other countries with significant national movements include Brazil, the United States, India, and Italy.
While the Sōka Gakkai was originally associated with the Nichiren Shōshū sect, long-standing tensions over the respective roles of priesthood and laity came to a head in a decisive schism in 1991, since which the two groups have pursued independent paths. Following the schism, the Sōka Gakkai has given more central emphasis to the “mentor-disciple relationship,” in particular as this relates to the first three presidents of the organization: Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871–1944), Toda Jōsei (1900–1958) and Ikeda Daisaku (1928–).
Athletic events occur in discrete locations, played by individuals following a prescribed set of rules, leaving behind metrics like wins and losses, final scores, and overall records. So on the surface, the empirical facts of sports are rather mundane. And yet, for devoted participants and observers, physical movements and calculated numbers feed into carefully constructed worlds of mythic stories, potent symbols, and exuberant rituals. The story of religion and sports in America, then, starts with bodies in motion. It continues as these bodies become inscribed with sacred meaning, each mark bearing the traces of a given population’s most cherished values.
Institutional religions have been part of this story. From the “muscular Christians” of the Progressive Era to a contemporary Muslim football team observing the Ramadan fast during a playoff run, Americans have habitually turned playing fields into praying fields. Sports have also figured into the making of America’s civil religious discourse, as athletic expressions of national identity. In these instances, bodies in motion have reinforced or disrupted the boundaries that separate “real” Americans from those perceived to threaten social stability.
Beyond institutional and civil religions, though, religious themes and ideas continue to attach themselves to sports in new and innovative ways. Understanding this process requires an unbraiding of the category of “religion” from notions of “God” and “belief.” Instead, we profit from an understanding of religion that starts with embodied movements, and continues into the material production of the sacred. From here, sports become locations to experiment with, and experience, what it means to be human. And this is where the attraction to sports originates, both in the past and in the present.
Thought experiments are basically imagined scenarios with a significant experimental character. Some of them justify claims about the world outside of the imagination. Originally they were a topic of scholarly interest exclusively in philosophy of science. Indeed, a closer look at the history of science strongly suggests that sometimes thought experiments have more than merely entertainment, heuristic, or pedagogic value. But thought experiments matter not only in science. The scope of scholarly interest has widened over the years, and today we know that thought experiments play an important role in many areas other than science, such as philosophy, history, and mathematics. Thought experiments are also linked to religion in a number of ways. Highlighted in this article are those links that pertain to the core of religions (first link), the relationship between science and religion in historical and systematic respects (second link), the way theology is conducted (third link), and the relationship between literature and religion (fourth link).
Religion has always been a contextually based phenomenon, particularly in urban space. Cities of every size, in every period, and in every region of the country have been defined by the towers and spires of faith traditions. They have mapped cities, providing anchors to religionists who worship there, and contributing to the construction of civil society and a sense of place. Communities of faith have drawn migrants and immigrants to settle in a particular place and provided resources for adaptation and integration. Houses of worship have often defined neighborhood identities and become progenitors of social capital beyond their walls. Increasingly the physical and social forms of religion are becoming more diverse—different accents, practices, music, dress, and even scents pour into and out of houses of worship that may not be grand old structures but more modest structures built for other purposes, blending into the cityscape. Still, religion is influential in shaping its context both spatially and socially.
But the relationship is reciprocal, as context acts on the questions, meanings, and practices of faith groups as well. The city has occupied the religious imaginations of many traditions as an ambivalent symbol, seen as both the locus of depravity and of redemption. Out of these imaginaries religious questions, meanings, practices, and forms of engagement have been shaped. Further, the economic, political, social, and institutional dynamics of the urban space impact the practice and understanding of religion, and how it is expressed and lived out in everyday life.
The interaction of religions and urban space—what can be described as a dynamic synapse in a human ecology—is emerging as a focus of exploration in understanding how cities work. Although religion is often overlooked by many urban theorists, researchers, planners, developers, and governments, it is gaining fresh attention by scholars. Drawing on major schools of urban theory—particularly the modernist Chicago School and the postmodern L.A. School of Urbanism—the spatial dimension of urban religion is being analyzed in research projects from a growing number of contexts. Theoretical and empiric work is enabling a deeper understanding of the relationship of religion and cities; they cannot be considered in isolation. Religious agency cannot be exaggerated or romanticized but should be considered as what two researchers have called “one of the ensemble of forces creating the new American metropolis” (Numrich, Paul D., and Elfriede Wedam. Religion and Community in the New Urban America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.). In the same way, faith groups of all traditions and dimensions do not exist in isolation of their context as bubbles in city space. The intersection of space and urban religion is complex, especially as both religion and cities are in the midst of great change in the 21st century.