Thursday, December 20, 2012

Urban Religion

More on Harvie Conn's last published work - written with Manuel Ortiz - Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God  (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001).

In chapter 9 Harvie Conn investigates the relationship of religion and the city. I think this chapter is excellent. Conn rightly criticises Emile Durkheim (the founder of the sociology of religion) for his reduction of religion to “a merely functionalist role in society” (p. 176).

It is tempting when reflecting on the modern city to suggest, as some have, that the modern city is a secular phenomenon. Conn reports that religion has traditionally been very significant in the development of the city. Cities in Swaziland, for example, though little bigger than villages, are 'regal-ritual' centres (p. 174). Thailand, likewise, is a place where ‘cities were the moral and social center of society, the peak of its hierarchy culminating in the king’ (p. 180). In this they were very similar to the medieval Hindu cities of South Asia as I discuss in Caste and Kinship in a Modern Hindu Society ( 

But it is not just traditional cities that are religious. Far from being a place devoid of religion, the city today continues to be very religious. Conn very helpfully uses Ahern and Davies’ (1987:32) typology to catalogue the all-absorbing religious commitments of urbanites including those that have no apparent supernatural reference points. There are four nodes around which “religion’s ‘magnetic points’ may cluster” (p. 185). Each of the nodes is shaped by two fundamental dimensions: organized/nonorganized and supernatural/empirical (though lines are blurry).

The supernatural and religion common and conventional
1.      Conventional or institutional religion
This is the form of religion most easily recognized by the traditional student of religion in the city. Weber and Durkheim among others spoke of the urban erosion of such traditional beliefs and morality by the city.

2.      Common or folk religion
This is much less tied to a sophisticated or geographically universal institution. “Its formulations are more thematic than systematic, not a fully coherent whole but a large array of separate elements” (p. 185). It is more instrumentalist, responding to local and immediate questions. It is predominant in tribal and peasant societies (cf. Hiebert and Meneses, Incarnational Ministry, 1995) but persisting in modern cities. Astrology, occult, and superstition are characteristic beliefs and practices and New Age phenomena with their decentralized networks pervade many Western cities. “Frustrations with the organizational can turn the participant away not from the supernatural but from the organizational. And sometimes the movement is in the opposite direction—from nonorganizational to organizational” (p. 186).

The empirical and religion invisible and surrogate
3.      Invisible or diffused religion
This may have the vocabulary of the Christian faith in lands in which Christianity has been dominant but it is neither organized nor supernatural. It could be the feelings generated by music, art or dance. “Verbal symbols without Christian trappings also surface, pointing to the same nonorganized religious orientation, the same nostalgic quest for meaning outside the boundary lines of the supernatural” (p. 187).

4.      Surrogate religion
The organized equivalent of conventional religion but without any explicitly supernatural reference points. Organizations and associations may adopt symbols that perform as quasi-religious rituals. National days, civil religion, and ideas of manifest destiny express surrogate religion. In the middle of Britain’s urban revolution between 1879 and 1914 sports became a surrogate religion for many urbanites. “It ‘did for some people many of the same things that religion did for others’ (McLeod 1996:199). Sport was not an alternative to religion but one of its examples” (p. 190).

 This is a brilliant typology and one that we need to take very seriously as we seek to engage our cities with the gospel.

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