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Processional performances, including parading activities and the ritual procession of holy objects and images, have long been a part of religious practice. Informed by a cultural prejudice that viewed such public forms of religious display as outdated survivals from archaic religious traditions, early scholarly analysis focused on questions of origin rather than interpretation. Only recently have scholars from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—including religious studies, history, anthropology, and sociology—begun to examine such behaviors as expressions of “lived religion” rather than expressions of a “pagan” past. Only with the rise of the phenomenological method in the mid-twentieth century, best represented in the work of Mircea Eliade and his disciples and critics, did the question of the space in which such activities took place develop as a category for investigation and analysis. Eliade’s concept of “sacred” and “profane space,” while significantly criticized in recent decades, raised important concerns regarding the way in which religions created, recognized, and moved through space as a category of human meaning. To Eliade’s contrast between the sacred and profane, recent scholars of American religion have added to their examination of space the oppositions of public and private, religious and secular, although understanding these terms (as well as sacred and profane) as dialectical rather than dichotomous. As public events that take place in religiously neutral space (the street), religious parades and processions raise questions about the phenomenological concept of the sacred center, or even the pilgrim’s goal of the “center out there,” because they represent a moving and ephemeral focus of sacred power. Participants may don special clothing, carry flags and banners, utilize sound (especially music), and transport sacred images and objects as they move from place to place. By visually, aurally, and spatially transgressing various boundaries, whether physical or symbolic, these ritual performances can “reterritorialize” social hierarchies and geographical identities. The “spatial turn” in religion combines insights drawn from cultural geography, the anthropology of space, and philosophical concepts in order to suggest new analytical and methodological approaches in the study of American religion generally, and religious parades and processions specifically.

Article

Since its birth in India about 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has spread throughout the globe. As Buddhism reached new areas, its followers developed their own regional identities and understandings of Buddhist geography. South Asia, and specifically the sites associated with the historical Buddha’s life, remained a conceptual center for many Buddhists, but the near disappearance of Buddhism from the subcontinent in the 13th century allowed Buddhists in other regions to overcome their “borderland complexes” and identify sacred Buddhist sites in their own lands. This involved both the metaphorical transfer of sacred sites from South Asia to new places and the creation of new sacred sites, such as reliquaries for the remains of local saints and mountains seen as the abodes of buddhas or bodhisattvas. By the 19th and 20th centuries, colonial encounters introduced Buddhism to the West and created categories of national Buddhisms, which led to new visions of Buddhist geography and regionalism. In addition to national Buddhisms, regional distinctions commonly applied to the Buddhist world include the mapping of Theravāda in Southeast Asia, Mahāyāna in East Asia, and Vajrayāna in the Himalayas, or the mapping of Northern Buddhism as Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna in East Asia and the Himalayas, and Southern Buddhism as Theravāda in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. These models have some salience, but the history of Buddhist geography and regionalism reveals that the locations and interactions of different Buddhist traditions are more complex. New models for Buddhist regionalism have moved away from static, bounded spaces to foreground processes of interaction, such as network analyses of trade and transmission routes or areas such as “Maritime Asia” or the “East Asian Mediterranean.”

Article

“It is impossible to imagine ancient Greece without its sanctuaries.” (J. Whitley, Archaeology of Ancient Greece [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 134). The same statement could be made for the Roman world. Sacred space was a key omnipresent tenet of ancient Greek and Roman societies—the physical manifestation of the degree to which the ancients dedicated time to the wide spectrum of gods who controlled their worlds. Since the 1990s, the study of sacred space has moved from one primarily undertaken by archaeologists and architects fixated on monumental structures (with the study of religious ritual conducted by scholars of religion mainly through literary and inscriptional sources), to one in which the space is understood as a dynamic and key component in the ritual process, an equal player in the creation of the human understanding and experience of the divine. Yet alongside this reconsideration of the importance of space in the dynamics of ritual, there has also been an increasing appreciation of the multiple roles sanctuaries played, and played host to, within the wider landscape. Sacred spaces are thus key players in the ordering of landscapes, they offer the potential for the development and scope of civic and individual power, and they act as the locus for identity development, civic competition, and the articulation of changing power balances in the wider world. Sacred space has as a result shed its fixed and positivist image: we recognize sacred spaces as everything from natural groves to massive architectural complexes—as places that are constantly changing and constantly being used simultaneously for a variety of sacred and secular activities, experienced and understood simultaneously in a multitude of ways by their different users, and that engage dynamically and heterogeneously with their surrounding secular environments.

Article

Phillip Gordon Mackintosh

American Freemasonry is as much a spatial as sacred practice. Emerging from arcane Enlightenment origins, Masonic theology and practice brim with a spatiality representative of Masonry’s compulsion to make men moral. Moral masculinity reflects in Freemasonry’s “sacred space,” Masonic geography fixed with symbols vital to the moral, social, and spiritual growth of potential and actual Freemasons. Masons have routinely embedded sacred geography in architecture from stylish Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian “temples,” to humble lodges occupying multi-use back rooms or above street-level shops. Masonic historical preoccupation with spatiality evokes Victorian faith in moral environmentalism: the impulse to effect virtuous and civil behavior through orderly manipulations of environment. Indeed, the dedicated employment in the lodge of Masonic furniture and furnishings loosely mimics the Victorian middle-class parlor’s preoccupation with order, design, and moral aesthetics. Masons call this ritual and allegorical décor the lodge’s form, support, covering, furniture, ornaments, lights, and jewels. Such furnishings figure in Masonry’s performance of rituals, and, together, they both produce sacred space in the lodge and substantiate the rites’ moral masculine transformation of Masonic candidate and Mason alike. Masonic spatiality includes a waning penchant for racial and sexual apartheid, originating in early modern American misapprehensions of biology, anthropology, and gender. Accordingly, “black” Masons have attended separate lodges. Prince Hall Freemasonry has existed since the late 18th century and is named for its eponymous founder, although “black” Masons join “white” lodges today. Women Masons or “matrons” are initiated in an appendant Christian rite: the Order of the Eastern Star, which includes a Prince Hall form, was developed for evangelical Protestant women followers of Jesus intentionally to distract them from the deism of the men’s rituals in a milieu of 19th century Christian anti-Masonry. Recognizing the lodge as sacred space contributes to its existence as sacred “place.” Thus, the lodge-as-place becomes a “sacred retreat” for Masons who dwell outside its precincts.

Article

Secularization, or the decline in the authority of religious institutions, became a pronounced feature of Western culture in the 20th century, especially in its latter half. Secularization has affected the history of Western sacred space in four ways: (a) It has helped to shape the concept of “sacred space” so that it designates a space that helps generate a personal religious experience independent of religious rituals and teachings. (b) It has caused many houses of worship to use architectural forms not previously associated with religion in order to link their religious communities to the respected realms of business, science, and entertainment. And it has motivated religious communities to craft spaces that encourage worshipers to recognize God at work in the secular world and to demonstrate to others the continued relevance of religion. (c) Many former houses of worship have been destroyed or converted to other uses. Sometimes this occurred not because of declining membership but in order to relocate to a more favorable building or location. Nonetheless, these changes have created a more secular cityscape. Other times destruction and conversion have been the product of state-sponsored regimes of secularization or a decline in the number of clergy or church supporters. The reuse of these former houses of worship often results in the association of religious symbols with commercial or personal endeavors. It also raises challenges for maintaining public space in dense urban environments and for preserving artistic and cultural heritage. Given the increasing closure of churches, in 2018 the Pontifical Council of Culture issued guidelines to guide Roman Catholics in determining best uses for buildings no longer needed for worship. (d) Spaces which are not linked to religious communities, especially museums and monuments, came to be frequently designed in ways similar to historic sacred spaces. For this reason and others, they are esteemed by many people as places to encounter the sacred in a secularized world.

Article

Brett Grainger

One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.

Article

Pilgrimage, as a type of religious journey, involves embodied movement across geographic, social, political, cultural, and often religious boundaries to a sacred place or landscape. It is arguably a universal phenomenon that can engage individual pilgrims or millions, especially with the onset of modernity, which has facilitated travel over distances great and small. As an aspect of religious life in the United States, pilgrimage is often overlooked. Nevertheless, the country’s landscape encompasses numerous sites of sacred significance associated with organized religions, civil religion, and facets of its cultural religion that attract millions of visitors annually. As a dynamic set of phenomena, pilgrimages to such sites are constantly evolving, affected by factors such as religious and social movements, national politics, immigration, and tourism.

Article

Space is a basic yet complex dimension in American religion. Historically and historiographically, conceptually and in practice, it has been central to believers’ experiences of what they consider “sacred” and to the models that scholars have developed to understand religious practices in the United States. First assumed as an unexamined given by 19th-century scholars, it became recognized as an explanatory factor in its own right during the 20th century and was the focus of ongoing modern and postmodern attempts at conceptualization from the mid-20th century into the early 21st. Until the late 20th century, work in American religious studies conceptualized space as an objectively existing container for human activity, and scholars considered a presumed abundance of it a defining determinant of American religious experience. Church historians prior to the mid-20th century typically argued that the vastness and relative isolation of American space, initially subsumed under the historiographic idea of an American “frontier,” allowed the development of uniquely American religious freedom and revivalism. Although the frontier thesis was challenged during the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of space persisted and proved useful as U.S. religious historians gave increasing attention to pluralism, urban experience, transnationalism, and everyday practice. Religion scholars and anthropologists, meanwhile, proposed from the early 20th century that religious practice involved fundamental spatial distinctions between sacred and profane, inside and outside, center and periphery, and up and down that provided believers with a sense of social, geographic, and cosmic orientation. By the 1970s and 1980s, cultural theorists began conceiving of space as a subjective experience, a situationally located social and cultural construction “produced” through active efforts at definition, appropriation, and control by human beings. According to this newer conceptualization, space comes into being as an inherently contested medium as believers make specific and concrete the meanings of their beliefs through rituals, relationships, and symbols and create distinct physical and geographically located manifestations of their belief systems. This new approach sparked a “spatial turn” that extended across the humanities and social sciences and moved spatial analysis to a central position in American religious studies. Attention to the spatial dimensions of religious practice generated fruitful research on and new studies of churches and other built environments, American “civil religion,” domestic religious practice, urban religion, the dynamics of pluralism, immigrant communities, and global diasporas. The spatial turn has also generated new concepts of space as scholars attuned to postmodern and transnational experiences have rejected standard emphases on spatial separation and fragmentation in favor of an emphasis on continuity and interconnection.