“Lived Religion” vs. Formal Religion

“Lived Religion” vs. Formal Religion November 8, 2023

Philip Jenkins of Baylor’s Institute for the Study of Religion continues to amaze me with the scope of his prolific scholarship, ranging from studies of Christianity in the ancient world through its growth today in the global South.

At the Patheos blog Anxious Bench, where he is one of the Christian historians who posts there, he tells about his latest project:  “Lived Religion,” which is “the study of religion as it is actually practiced by ordinary people, rather than as is laid down by organized institutions, faiths or churches.”

From Lived Religion and Default Faith:

Imagine for example that you are trying to write a history of religion in the modern United States. I quote an excellent review by Ancient historian Peter Thonemann in a recent Wall Street Journal. Yes, says Thonemann, you could count all the institutions and their formal rituals, all the formal adherents of the various churches:

Or, instead, you could choose to start from the rich, chaotic mishmash of practices and rituals that make up most people’s day-to-day religious experiences. My religious life might include formal daily prayer; but it might also include reading newspaper horoscopes, yoga, charitable giving, putting flowers on relatives’ graves, erecting a fir-tree totem pole in my living room in mid-December, knocking on wood, dressing as a witch for Halloween, or making a wish while blowing out candles on my birthday cake. My own reasons for attending synagogue might be profoundly meaningful to me—loyalty to my wife, dealing with personal grief, an instruction in a dream—while bearing no relation whatsoever to the ritual’s official “meaning.”. . .

Once you get into this Lived Religion approach on a wider comparative scale, you notice that people around the world, in totally separated cultures, tend to do very similar things, whether or not these have any formal linkage to institutional religion. Some motifs are so widespread that they seem to arise naturally and intuitively, and prolifically. Those commonalities would include ideas about sacred space and charismatic individuals; about the proper ways of showing respect to holy things; about ideas of pilgrimage; about the quest for spiritual healing; about using portable objects to enhance benefits and protect against evils; about the power of fasting and regulating foods; and about various forms of divination. Those elements appear naturally, whether or not they are absorbed in some larger agglomeration of beliefs, and still less of formal credal statements.

He goes on to give examples, such as the impromptu shrines set up at sites of tragic deaths after school shootings, terrorist attacks, or auto accidents.  The photos, messages, flowers, teddy bears, and candles are heartfelt offerings to the departed. And they mark a place that has been made “sacred” by their deaths.

I would add some other examples:  The patriotic aversion to burning or desecrating the flag is surely a kind of respect for holy things.  The controversy over whether athletes stand or kneel for the national anthem has a religious flavor, whether of honor or protest.  Both kneeling and standing are religious gestures.  Non-Christians persist in celebrating Christian holidays, as in giving gifts, decking the halls, and becoming especially thoughtful at Christmas.

I daresay such behavior persists even in highly secularized countries.  In fact, I know it does because I have seen it.  When I visited the Soviet Union, for example, I was intrigued to see flowers left at statues of famous authors and at historical monuments, a practice said to have originated with Communism, which considers religion the opiate of the people.  I learned that when Russian couples got married by signing documents at the matrimony bureau, the first things the newlyweds do is to bring flowers to the local war memorial.  These  practices continue today.

If religion is defined not just as belief but as rituals, attitudes, customs and feelings that relate to a sense of transcendence and meaning, that would suggest that “secular” societies are not as secular as they think they are.

Is all of this just a remnant of human beings’ natural religious impulses, hard-wired into us at our creation?  Or, from a Christian point of view, are they remnants of paganism best put away?

Let me throw in one other possibility.  The word “piety” derives from a Latin word for “dutiful conduct, sense of duty; religiousness, piety; loyalty, patriotism; faithfulness to natural ties.”  That suggests there are different kinds of piety, with different objects, though similar enough to have a common name.

We still use the term “filial piety,” the love, honor, and obligations that children have for their parents and grandparents, often associated with Confucian cultures like China, but also taught in the 4th Commandment.  Such practices as putting flowers on the graves of deceased family members is not necessarily ancestor worship, but is an expression of family piety.

There is also a kind of patriotic piety, the love, honor, and obligations for one’s country.  The rituals, symbols, and emotions of patriotism are powerful and meaningful, but they are not necessarily religious, something both Christian Nationalists and their critics would do well to realize.

Then there is religious piety, the love, honor, and obligations to God.  The meaning of “piety” has narrowed to that sense, but we need not confuse the different “duties” and “loyalties” that continue to pull on our hearts.

Still, we can reflect on what “lived Christian religion” looks like.  How do we handle sacred space, respect to holy things, and the other constants Jenkins gives us?  (My wife will never stack another book or put any other object on top of a Bible.  That strikes me as a very “lived” way of honoring God’s Word–not a requirement for everybody, not a superstition, not a good work, and failing to do so is no sin–and I’ve started trying to do that myself.)

What about those other examples of lived religion?  Should some elements be Christianized, for example, substituting prayer for “good luck” rituals?  Or are all or some of them, at least, harmless?


Image: “Sympathetic Woman Leaves Flowers at Roadside Memorial for Victims of Crime,” designed by Wannapik.  

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