Contemporary visual art that uses themes and symbols of particular religious traditions has the potential to alienate both those who are adherents of those traditions and those who are non-adherents. Such art is often characterized as sentimental, superstitious, naïve, exclusivist, or triumphalist by modern standards of judgment. At the same time, efforts to avoid exclusivism or triumphalism in contemporary visual art can render the meanings of works so vague that it is hard to identify a work with any particular religion. For these reasons and more, the art world tends to disparage the benign use of religious themes and symbols in art and tends to accept works that are transgressive—that is, art that transgresses the boundaries of religious decorum. Material and visual culture studies provide ways for the art world to find value in and analyze the use of religious themes and symbols in contemporary visual art. These approaches have widened the scope of works that might be identified as contemporary visual art: popular, mass-produced, and folk art are all within the purview of analyses of contemporary visual art. These studies examine how religious themes and symbols function in religious communities and in the wider communities of which they are a part. Even when studying the function of visual and material culture within a particular religious tradition, these studies tend to identify common or essential themes in different religions. The contemporary preference for being “spiritual but not religious” emerges in the identification of common religious themes and symbols. Contemporary theological approaches to the study and appreciation of contemporary visual art are “insider” methods that religious adherents use to assess critically the value of the use of religious themes and symbols in modern culture. These insider methods identify orthodox uses of religious themes and symbols in contemporary visual art, not only to identify negatively that which is unorthodox or heterodox, but also to identify works of art that celebrate religious beliefs, make traditional beliefs relevant, and help to shape new ways of engaging the wider community. Theological methods often incorporate the work of material and visual studies scholars. Like these scholars, theologians seek to affirm the value of unique religious beliefs in an increasingly pluralistic world.
Contemporary Visual Art and Religion
Paul L. Gareau and Molly Swain
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge that represents the complex ways of understanding the world. It is defined as a systemic and reasoned discernment that generates a “justified belief” or “truth” distinct from “subjective opinion” and is based on ontological understandings of one’s existence or the “nature of being.” Epistemology and ontology for Indigenous nations/peoples is recognized as a holistic and plural concept of onto-epistemologies whereby understanding and being are shaped by experiential knowledges in traditional, storied places where distinct collectivities of humans and other-than-human nations/peoples intersect, interact, and coexist. Indigenous onto-epistemologies or knowledges are often referred to as lifeways to better describe the relational ethos of Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing. However, these relational knowledges are systematically overlooked and/or denigrated in settler societies, which position Indigenous knowledges as cultural opinions rather than reasoned truth. This discrepancy reflects a long history of settler colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism rooted in Western European values of moral exclusivity, possessiveness, logocentrism, anthropocentrism, and androcentrism. These values and worldview continue to be deployed onto Indigenous nations/peoples and communities/collectivities through colonialism and racialization in ways that impede kinship relations and storied knowledges. Indigenous knowledges can be understood as the multivariate experiences of thinking, being, and relating between sovereign Indigenous nations/peoples and communities/collectivities. Based in critical Indigenous theory—itself largely shaped by the experiences of Indigenous scholars and Indigenous nations/peoples living with and resisting colonial nation-states in the Global North and Oceania—this discussion is about framing the definitions of epistemology and ontology in ways that are meaningful and resonant to Indigenous nations/peoples’ relational ethos and worldviews. This can be accomplished by situating and unpacking the dominant definitions of epistemology through modern Enlightenment values, settler colonialism, and White possessiveness, followed by outlining an interpretative framework called a hermeneutics of relationality. This hermeneutical framework is a generalizable and critical approach to encapsulating an understanding of Indigenous knowledges as relational, situated, collective, and co-constitutive.
Religious Parades and Processions in America
Rodger M. Payne
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.
Spatial Constructions of the American Secular
Secularization and secularism are interpretive narratives and analytical systems of locative naming that co-construct the category of religion in spatial relationship to the idea of the secular as not-religion. These approaches were developed in the 19th century to make sense of the social restructuring of industrial societies. They begin with the assumption that religion is spatially identifiable as Christian church space, as readily recognizable in built congregational structures. And they consider the secular, in the most literal sense, as that which is not. That is, the secular is everything physically outside church space. But secularization theorists often do not adhere to this literal interpretation of spatial difference. They also use space metaphorically in their understanding of “disestablishment” as referring to more than just the physical state-expropriation of church land, but also to the separation of spheres that results from nation-state legal sovereignty, particularly focused on the spatial division between secular culture and church subcultures. Whereas secularization theory offers narrative frames to orient a historical trajectory of religion in relation to not-religion, the study of secularism describes attempts to understand the political and legal regulation of religion in relation to sovereign nation-states. Methodological distinctions between secularization and secularism invoke a long-standing problem in the study of religion: the ability of the scholar to discern the difference between the metaphorical map of religion in relation to the idea of the secular, and the state governance of physical territory. Classical secularization theory was constructed within the colonial context of the 19th century, and it carries within itself the spatial distinctions that define an Enlightenment conception of the Western nation-state, as a secular sovereignty set apart from and transcendent of the revelatory particularity of religious authority. More recent versions of secularization theory in the United States still assume that only the secular state can transcend physical space and still control its boundaries and borders. Religious transcendence, by contrast, is viewed as otherworldly. The reason for this is because unlike secular authority, which is self-evident and universal, religious authority is revelatory and particular. Within secularization theory, religions then are limited in their ability to physically enact, in every sphere of life, their revelatory mandates. They can do so only as long as they maintain a high level of orthodox belief and practice, to the extent that there is no distinction between religious and cultural authority. Secularization theory thus assumes that religious pluralism of any kind results in a competition to see which religion can control all aspects of life. The nation-state then is viewed as the transcendent mediator of religious claims to civic life and public space. And while secularization theory considers this mediation in the spatial terms of public practice and private belief, studies of secularism give more attention to the historical and contextual limits of nation-state transcendence, as well as the ways in which nation-states physically bound religion as a category, whether as located in the legal limits of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, or a congregational building with a street address. Though the term secularism has been a co-generative concept in classical secularization theory, theories of secularism have been more fully developed since the late 20th century. Some of those approaches have extended the spatial concerns of secularization theory, particularly as related to the question of religious endurance as measured in terms of public practice and private belief. The mere difference, which has garnered quite a bit of writing, is to shift the interpretive gaze away from the individual challenge of Protestant Christians to maintain a comprehensive religious meaning-making system, a “sacred canopy,” in the midst of increasing religious diversity, to the ability of “orthodox” religious subcultures to maintain religious authority in the midst of a pervasive secularism that is antagonistic to the possibility of any totalizing religion, one that is lived out in all spheres of life. Other theoretical approaches to secularism, however, are more directly engaged with post-colonial scholarship, and are more focused on the role of the nation-state in the categorical construction of religion, than they are worried about the social loss of traditional religion.
This article details spirituality and the three main approaches that are found in academic and popular literature—theological, historical-contextual, and anthropological. It traces the etymology of the term and how thinking on it has developed. It offers carefully chosen case studies that show its use in the anthropological approach—the largest and fastest growing category.