Throughout American history, religious people and groups have developed, sustained, or challenged cultural norms around gender, marriage, and sexual purity. Beginning with the earliest English Protestant settlers in the 17th century, American Christians have devoted consistent attention to the proper roles of men and women, and to the proper functioning of families. Throughout American history, religious leaders have assigned men as spiritual leaders of their families. Assessments of women’s piety—and its importance in maintaining social order—have grown more positive over time. Prophetic radicals and political activists have frequently challenged American Christianity by attacking its traditionalism on issues related to gender and sexuality. The ideal of a “traditional family” has, however, proven quite robust. Even as cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality have shifted dramatically in recent years, the presumption that typical American families are heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian has persisted. This presumption developed over time and has remained dominant owing in part to the contributions of American religious groups.
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.
Bo Kristian Holm
In analyzing the role of gift and giving in Martin Luther’s theology, one almost inevitably has to deal with the contrast between Marcel Mauss’s description of archaic gift economy, where gifts and exchange are interconnected and gift exchange a total social fact, and Derrida’s critique of Mauss for talking of anything else but the gift, since only a gift uncontaminated by exchange deserves the proper name “gift.” Accordingly, any reading of Luther relating Luther’s theology to the reciprocity of giving seems, from the outset, to grasp anything but the cornerstone of his theology: the justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. Nevertheless, scholars in the early 21st century have been discussing Luther as a theologian of the gift. Some defend a position according to which Luther’s theology can only be rightly understood by maintaining that the divine gift is free and pure. Others argue that Luther’s mature theology allows for an integration of some kind of exchange as a vital part of the very doctrine of justification.
In both cases, social anthropological gift studies can function as a lens for highlighting the heart of Luther’s theology, either negatively by presenting the absolute opposite of Luther’s understanding of divine giving in justification and creation or positively by revealing the very heart of the same. The young Luther vehemently criticized a piety regulated by economic principles and understood divine righteousness in contrast to human principles for righteousness. However, he soon began integrating reciprocal aspects from the traditional definition of righteousness into his doctrine of justification. This was possible due to an emphasis on the divine self-giving, revealed in Christ and slowly elaborated to cover Luther’s understanding of the whole Trinity. In this move, Luther seemed to have been influenced by Roman popular philosophy, which was widespread in the late renaissance, but biblical passages emphasizing reciprocal justice also played an important role. Advocators for understanding Luther’s theology from the perspective of inter-human gift exchange will argue that Luther’s theology of the gift is intimately related to his use of the figure of communicatio idiomatum, which allows the giver to share his attributes with the receiver.
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).
Russell Jeung and Jonathan Calvillo
In 2010, immigrants represented 13 percent of the United States population, and almost one in four American children lived at home with an immigrant parent. Over half of the population growth in the United States from 2000 to 2010 was due to the increase of Hispanics, and currently, the highest number of immigrants come from Asian nations. This influx of immigrants has not only increased the percentage of people of color in the United States, at 28 percent, but has also dramatically altered the religious landscape of the country. The decline in the number of American Christians signals this shift, as does the growth of the religiously non-affiliated, Hindus, and Muslims. In the past century, sociologists have accounted for religious change by employing theories of secularization, assimilation, and modernization.
For more recent religious change in regard to ethnicity and race, however, four processes are more salient: (1) the religious marketplace, (2) globalization, (3) multicultural discourse production, and (4) racialization. The religious marketplace continues to cater to spiritual consumers who have become increasingly diversified with the influx of new immigrants and the rise of “spiritual but not religious individuals.” The United States has thus remained a religiously vital context, with a strong supply of religious groupings. Globalization has spurred more transnational religious networks, which have increased the flow of religious personnel, ideas, and organizations across borders. New immigrants, furthermore, enter an American host society that is segmented economically. Consequently, ethnic groups do adapt to their neighborhoods, but in different contexts and in dissimilar manners. With the increase in multicultural discourse, ethnic groups may choose to retain their ethnicity and religious heritages for symbolic pride. Finally, race, as a central organizing concept in the United States, is a basis by which religious groups mobilize for spiritual interests. As religious groups become racialized, such as how Islamophobia targets persons with similar physical features, they respond with reactive solidarity.
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.
The contemporary academic study of religion has its roots in conceptual and theoretical structures developed in the early to mid-20th century. A particularly important example of such a structure is the concept of the “numinous” developed by the theologian and comparativist Rudolf Otto (1869–1397) in his work, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1923). Building on the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772–1834), and Jakob Fries (1773–1843), Otto developed the concept of the numinous—a “category of value” and a “state of mind”—as a way to express what he viewed as the “non-rational” aspects of the holy or sacred that are foundational to religious experience in particular and the lived religious life in general. For Otto, the numinous can be understood to be the experience of a mysterious terror and awe (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and majesty (Majestas) in the presence of that which is “entirely other” (das ganz Andere) and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language and other media. Otto conceives of the concept of the numinous as a derivative of the Latin numen, meaning “spirit,” etymologically derived from the concept of divine will and represented by a “nodding” of the head. Otto argues that understanding the numinous in a satisfactory way requires a scholar to draw upon their own experience of religious sentiments, given its non-discursive and direct nature; this becomes a point of contention among later secular scholars of religion. In later works, such as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (1932), Otto gives numerous examples of the ways in which the concept of the numinous can be applied cross-culturally to traditions beyond Christianity, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Otto’s theories regarding the numinous have been extremely influential in the development of the academic study of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the impact they had upon scholars such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, whose works were instrumental in the formation of religious studies as a discipline. Jung cites the concept of the numinous extensively with regard to his theories on the breakthrough of unconscious material into conscious awareness. Eliade’s work The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) takes Otto’s concept of the numinous as a starting point in the development of its own theory; Eliade’s use of the category of the “sacred” might be considered derivative of Otto’s larger conception of the “holy” (das Heilige). Eliade’s work, like Otto’s, has been extensively criticized for postulating a sui generis nature of both the numinous and the sacred, which are viewed by Eliade as irreducible to other phenomena (historical, political, psychological, and so forth). Smart’s influential “dimensional analysis” theory and his scholarship on the topic of world religions is highly informed by his utilization of Otto’s theory of the numinous within the contexts of his cross-cultural reflections on religion and the development of his “two-pole” theory of religious experience. The concept of the numinous continues to be theorized about and applied in contemporary academic research in religious studies and utilized as part of a framework for understanding religion in university courses on world religions and other topics in the academic study of religion. In part through the work of Eliade, Smart, and other scholars—Otto included—who have found a popular readership, the term has been disseminated to such a degree as to find common usage in the English language and popular discourse.
William A. Mirola
Scholars pursuing questions on the links between religion and social class typically examine several distinct sets of dynamics. A main research focus has addressed how religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences vary across different social class contexts. Studies in this tradition draw on quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate such differences. Statistical studies have demonstrated economic and educational differences in patterns of an array of religious beliefs, religious service participation, and other religious behaviors, and especially social and political attitudes on everything from gay rights to gun control to political party preference. Qualitative work typically delves into the lived religious experiences of individuals from different classes as well as examining the ways in which religious expression is itself shaped by class cultures.
A significant portion of this type of research examines how religion impacts the life and work experiences of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, the working and nonworking poor. Here the way that faith shapes how poor people view the challenges of their lives and their views of the larger society are particularly central concerns. Addressing a second related set of questions, researchers also examine how participation in religious communities contributes to forms of social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status indicators. Statistical analyses dominate in this area, illustrating how denominational affiliation and measures of religious belief and practice predict views regarding income and wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choice. Another distinct area of scholarship examines the role religion has played in shaping the history of capitalism and the dynamics of the traditionally understood industrial working classes and the organized labor movement. Here, too, scholars examine how working-class individuals use religion as a way to understand their work and the evolution of global capitalism. Labor historians in particular have examined historical and contemporary instances in which religious leaders and organizations play active roles in industrial conflicts.
Whichever route one takes to explore religion and social class, studying their intersections has been of longstanding interest to social scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians for more than a century. This article bridges these approaches and provides an overview of their complex intersections in contemporary social contexts.
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.
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.