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Lived religion is the ethnographic and holistic framework for understanding the beliefs, practices and everyday experiences of religious and spiritual persons in religious studies. The term comes from the French tradition of sociology of religion, or "la religion vécue".
The concept of lived religion was popularized in the late 20th century by religious study scholars like Robert A. Orsi and David D. Hall. The study of lived religion has come to include a wide range of subject areas as a means of exploring and emphasizing what a religious person does and what they believe. Today, the field of lived religion is expanding to include many topics and scholars.
Robert A. Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. He researches, writes, and teaches about religion in the United States, in the past and in contemporary contexts, with a particular focus on American Catholicism. Orsi’s book The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith And Community In Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, won several prizes including the Jesuit National Book Award and is an example study of lived religion.
Orsi defines lived religion as including "the work of social agents/actors themselves as narrators and interpreters (and reinterpreters) of their own experiences and histories, recognizing that the stories we tell about others exist alongside the many and varied story they tell of themselves". Orsi understands lived religion to be centered on the actions and interpretations of religious person.
In order to study and write about lived religion Orsi suggests a broad field of study in terms of topic matter and methodology. Orsi describes his own process of studying lived religion for Madonna On 115th Street as wide in scope. "I came to realize that I was learning as much from how people were to me as from what they were telling me, as much as what was going on around the stories as from the stories themselves." Rather than a narrow archival study, Orsi’s focus on non-traditional forms of research demands that scholars give attention to institutions and persons, texts and rituals, practices and theology, things and ideas. In order to study lived religion, Orsi advocates for a complex academic lens where almost anything can hold meaning and serve as a source or text for study.
In The Madonna Of 115th Street, Orsi studies the lived religion of Catholic Italian immigrants in Harlem New York. Orsi focuses on a particular religious celebration known as the festa for The Madonna and the social structures that create and layer the event. Through observations, story telling, conversations and research Orsi weaves a picture of life for this immigrant community. In his book, Orsi explores and explains various internal traditions, cultures, and power and social dynamics in order to illustrate the various religious meanings and significance for community in Italian Harlem.
Orsi talks about the importance of dynamic subject matter covered by the study of lived religion. "The study of lived religion is shaped by and shapes the way family life is organized, for instance; how the dead are buried, children disciplined, the past and present imagined, moral boundaries established and challenged, home constructed, maintained and destroyed, the gods and spirits worshiped and importuned and so on."
Orsi's critique of popular religion
Orsi critiques popular religion as being a limited framework and method for studying religion. Orsi claims that popular religion is “unclear, misleading, and tendentious”. Orsi notes that popular religion is concerned only with the practices of "common folk" and distinguishing popular religion practices as separate from “official religion”. In his introduction to The Madonna on 115th Street, he writes, "Popular religion served to seal off certain expressions of religious life from unspecified but obviously normative religion." Orsi is concerned with the limitations of popular religions because he sees it as potentially authorizing legitimacy and boundaries in religious practices and beliefs. For Orsi, the implied intent in popular religion is to highlight the primitive, ignorant, and often marginalized practitioners of popular religion as a means of "policing religion". Orsi’s scholarly move to lived religion as a theoretical framework was an attempt to provide a more holistic approach to religious studies and also highlights the perspective that "religious practices and understandings only have meaning in relations to other cultural forms and in relations to the life experiences and actual circumstance of the people using them".
David D. Hall
David D. Hall has been a faculty member at Harvard Divinity School since 1989. Hall was Bartlett Professor of New England Church History until 2008, when he became Bartlett Research Professor. Hall writes extensively on religion and society in seventeenth-century New England and England. Hall edited a series of essays titled Lived Religion In America: Toward a History Of Practice, which is a foundational compilation in the study of lived religion. Hall’s book covers topics including gift exchange, cremation, hymn singing and many other essays on lived and practiced religious belief. Many of Hall's students have gone on to become notable scholars in the field of lived religion.
Hall defines lived religion as "rooted less in sociology than cultural and ethnographical approaches to the study of religion and American religious history". He instead sees lived religion as the study of the context and content about the practices of religious laity and their "everyday thinking". Hall believes that using lived religion as an approach to the study of religion allows for a wider interpretation of meaning and also provides an opportunity for historians to examine the past and present from many angles. For Hall, lived religion "does not depend on any single method or discipline".
Hall also acknowledges the limitations of lived religion. Hall suggests that as a field, lived religion is "fluid, mobile, and incompletely structured". Hall calls lived religion an "imperfect tool" noting that even with a dynamic study of laity it is impossible to fully understand any one person’s religious practices, especially when summarizing from a single location be it time or place.
Hall's critique of popular religion
Hall distinguishes the study of lived religion from popular religion by saying that popular religion is concerned with hierarchy and opposition in religious beliefs and practices. Hall writes, "Popular religion has therefore come to signify the space that emerged between official or learned Christianity and the profane (or ‘pagan’) culture." Hall critiques popular religion as imposing normative perspectives on practices.
Other notable scholars
- Danièle Hervieu-Leger
- Anne S. Brown
- Leigh Eric Schmidt
- Stephan Prothero
- Cheryl Forbes
- Meredith McGuire
- Michael McNally
- R. Marie Griffith
- Nancy T. Ammerman
- Rebecca Kneale Goul
- Hall, David (1997). Lived Religion In America: Toward A History Of Practice. Princeton University Press.
- Orsi, Robert (2002). The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith And Community In Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. Yale University Press.