Conference Concept

Under construction – Religion as Practice and Process

We invite you to consider topics and objects of research in the study of religion from a process-oriented perspective. We want to encourage you to examine the dynamics and practices in and through which religion is constantly constituted, created, shaped or rejected. The central focus is not on the constructs themselves, but rather on the (work) processes and actors involved; on the agencies, materialities and forces that continuously manufacture — or seek to manufacture — what is or should be considered religion in specific social contexts. It is an attempt to discover the dynamics in and through which new things emerge, as well as the constant change that constitutes our research "objects", even when considering matters of tradition, order, essence, certainty or continuity. If we direct our attention to processes and practices, then it becomes clear that stability is not a natural state but the result of constant work. At the same time, this perspective creates an opportunity to engage with effects, emergences and the unforeseen in relation to religious practice, as well as references and referents, preconditions and material affordances that guide or elicit these practices. Accordingly, understanding religion as "under construction" does not assume its meaningful givenness, essence and planned development, but rather its ongoing production and transformation. Furthermore, the image of religion as under construction or as a construction site refers to the materiality of what emerges as "religion" and to the physical embeddedness of its production.

This perspective is inspired by different social and cultural studies research, such as the post-structuralist focus on discursive processes, diverse approaches that emphasise practice, actors/agencies, materiality and/or relationality, as well as post- and decolonial debates that challenge epistemological hegemonies and powerful categories, and thus also affect the foundations of religious studies. Without giving us a closed theoretical framework, these sources of inspiration point to ways in which we can examine dynamics, processes and practices and understand discourses, bodies and objects as aspects or components of practice. At the same time, they challenge us to critically reflect on our own actions.

The conference concept thus builds on the Leipzig conference 2021 and its non-essentialist view of religion in relation and combines it with the focus on practice, relationality and post/de[BK1] colonial approaches at Bayreuth.

To make this perspective more tangible, we propose three overlapping entry points: Structure and Plasticity, Continuities and Ruptures, Inside and Outside. These critical entry points emphasize different phases and possibilities of "religion" in continuous processes of change and, at the same time, challenge us to reflect critically on the work being carried out in the study of religion. The terms used here do not mark an either/or but rather hold open space for critical and conceptual reflection.

Structure and Plasticity

Religion is considered an individual and social force for ordering[BK2] . In this respect, the history of religion features numerous examples of how structured blueprints are designed and discarded. The heterogeneity of these plans leads to coexistence and dialogue, but also to tensions and conflicts. At the same time, building projects are not to be understood simply as the implementation of an intended plan, but as complex processes of production, negotiation and adaptation, from which in turn new practice formations emerge. This continuous dynamic, for all its claims to (eternal) order and coherence, is also characterised by improvisation, chance and plasticity. Multiple networks of constantly changing relations of actors and materialities emerge, into which religion is woven or from which it is constituted in the first place.

This entry point invites us to apprehend religion in ways that foreground processes of shaping and producing order, on material and ideational preconditions, as well as unexpected emergences, improvisations and the change or dissolution of order. Thus, imagination and creativity are addressed here, but also infrastructures, patterns of order and power relations that shape religious practice or are shaped by it — and which may also provoke unforeseen consequences.

Continuities and Ruptures

This entry point emphasizes the temporal dimensions of processes of constitution, formation, transformation, or rejection of religion and religious traditions. Temporality can refer to (assumed) permanence, simultaneity and repetition, as well as to new beginnings, reconfigurations or revolutions. Religious practice, whether in plural contexts or not, can also have contradictory references to past, present and future.

In religious traditions, different temporal references are intertwined. In addition to quiet transformation processes, it is not uncommon for the interpretation of a designed past and its significance for the present and future to become a field of conflict. Practices on a building site can be classified, among other things, as repairs or attempts at reconstruction, as refurbishment, modernisation, conversion or new construction — changing tastes and lifestyles can be just as much the reason for this as damage caused by environmental events, problems of statics or aging materials. Continuities and breaks are created, conveyed and interpreted in different ways. In the process, the question arises again and again whether the past provides suitable models or whether the vision should break with what has existed or been discovered. Such questions, however, are not only answered by the architects: power of disposal and interpretive authority are often negotiated in the neighbourhood and in public.

Inside and Outside

This entry point focuses on social and spatial localizations and the accompanying possibilities and limitations that constitute religion as a practice and process.

Images of self and others, the relationship of belonging and exclusion shape religious traditions and practices, as do lay and expert perspectives. The building site represents the ongoing negotiation of these different positions and roles and is subject to different spatial and temporal access possibilities and restrictions for the private and professional actors involved. The construction of the interior space follows other structural conditions than the exterior space, which functions as a visible transitional area between the private and the public. Localisations refer to complex relations of power and inequality that are mirrored, (re-)produced or questioned in the division of labour. Processes of inclusion and exclusion do not only run along the category of religion, but also intersect with categories such as knowledge, gender, origin or class. They also affect the position and work of religious studies scholars: the discipline can be understood as an uninvolved observer, a deconstructing wrecking ball, a building inspector or a person directly involved in the construction project.

These three entry points do not provide a closed theoretical framework. Rather, they are intended to motivate empirical and historical research on actors, institutions, texts, objects, different fields of action, discourses and ideologies regarding the possibilities and limits of a processual, practice-oriented perspective.

All three entry points invite us to consider practices of power and processes of producing or perpetuating inequality. In this sense, they always include the question of both the position and agency of scholars of religion and their discipline. Therefore, the dynamics of knowledge production in the study of religion and our participation in the processes that produce what is or should be considered religion need to be addressed. This cannot be done without also critically reflecting on the manifestations of inequality and coloniality that influence research, theorizing, teaching, and publishing policies in the study of religion.

We look forward to contributions with different spatial and temporal scopes, as well as those that explore different methodological approaches and positionings within the field of study of religion.

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