I have just spent three enchanting days at a conference on Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (SPEL) – one of the culminating points of the religion and society research programme, directed by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. This £12 million programme was created to respond to, and I quote ‘a shortfall in knowledge’ about what is happening in the UK and beyond in terms religion.
Whilst I’m not a scholar of religion, the notions of the everyday and the sacred appealed to me and it seemed like the perfect place to share my work on spirituality and the everyday. But without a background in theology or religious studies, it came as a surprise to me in the opening plenary that to adopt the word ‘everyday’ seemed for many to bring with it connotations of ‘folk’ religion which – it was then implied – were somewhat ‘lesser’ forms of practice. For me, my appropriation of the term everyday was specifically to celebrate that which lies beyond the religious spaces we know so well, to shed light on the hidden, yet equally legitimate and illuminating aspects of what it means to be a spiritual person in the world.
One of the overriding sentiments of the conference was the need to engage as social scientist with the worlds we explore on a more reflexive level. Many of the papers started from an assumed level of knowledge about what it is important to study – we know Islam is on the rise in the UK, but do we know how young people engage with it? We know pilgrimage is making a comeback for some religious communities, but do we know what people expect from such pilgrimages in the modern world? We know there is religious conflict in Northern Ireland, but do we know how the architecture of religion influences understandings and experiences of being religious in Northern Ireland? All fascinating questions, but there were other questions which we could have been asking but very few of us were.
We know, for example, that people are claiming to be increasingly ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, but can an academic gaze, coming from a perspective of ‘studies of religion’ really engage with what that means? We know that a growing number of people talk to angels and spirit guides on a regular basis, but can frameworks of understanding which seem to deny a place for the otherworldly in modern Western spirituality really understand the implications of that?
What was problematic for me about the conference was this sense of always having to come back to some strangely amalgamated but acceptable notion of a ‘rational’ approach to theological beliefs and experiences, which then delimits what we allow ourselves to see. And on the whole, this meant that there seemed to be a continuing assumption that we have to frame spiritual experience somehow with the religious frames available to us. But to start from that point of view means we may never get to see the things that really matter; because we won’t know to ask the right questions which will shed light on these hidden spaces. We can pose some interesting areas for study, but then we should engage much more with how people we encounter in those areas want to direct and define the questions we ask – we should be asking them to frame the picture and to help determine the direction of the light we shine on it. If we think we already know where the sacred is, and what it looks like, we will fail to see the sacred hidden in the shadows.
So what became clear in the final panel discussion was that whilst the programme had certainly filled some gaps in the knowledge we have, it had also served to open up new questions, and thereby create new gaps. And with this in mind, perhaps the most illuminating for me, therefore, was the work of a young photographer from Italy. Daniele Sambo is not a theologian or a scholar of religion, but someone who sees the ‘sacred’ – whatever that might be (and certainly not confined to a religious framing) – in empty places, disused spaces and forgotten corners of the urban landscape. And upon finding such potentially interesting instances of the sacred, he has invited people to work with him to bring their energy to that space, literally and metaphorically, shedding light on it in ways which reflected their interpretation of what he was doing as much as the expertise of his photographer’s gaze.
Quite apart from producing some beautiful images, for me Dan’s work highlighted precisely where a lot of social science work fails. Despite years of post-postmodernism, it still privileges the ‘expert’ gaze, to the extent that we sometimes fail to even see what is right in front of our eyes.
But of course Daniele Sambo has the freedom as an artist to do that. But as social scientists the whole process of research funding seems to prevent such an organic approach. We have to carefully frame our research concepts, drawing on the existing knowledge in the field, and present it in such a way that it will convince funders that we know what we are talking about. But there is the danger that this framing immediately closes down so many potentially interesting things we might like to do if we could simply wonder around with a torch and see what we find hidden in the corners of everyday spiritual practice.
But maybe we can do that as well? I’m not saying I got it perfectly right in the research for my book, but at least I tried. I went with few preconceptions – and on reflection perhaps a lack of expertise in the sociology of religion was a good thing – because it meant I had to let the people I spoke to show me where to shine the light. And this produced a very different picture – although admittedly still partial and partisan – to one which might have been framed by ‘religion’. It did free me up to change the relationship between the observed and the observer, the one who held this hidden knowledge and the one apparently tasked with shedding light on it. I let my research participants show me the way and joined with them as they framed their own spirituality. But as I’ve said on this blog before, academic reception to such an approach isn’t always very positive. It seems the social science community is much more happy to accept someone experiencing mainstream religious practices as part of their participatory fieldwork, but if that fieldwork involves ‘dabbling in spookery’ (to quote Carl Jung) then people become suspicious…
Anyway, frustrating as these academic conferences always are, there was also something truly spellbinding about SPEL and I hope, as Desmond Ryan said in his closing words, that we continue to engage with the wholeness and holiness of what the spiritual (whether or not religious) means in the modern world. In order to do that, we need to continue to shed light on the new gaps in knowledge becoming apparent, as well as those neglected everyday spiritual spaces that are just waiting for an open-minded academic to stumble across and stop long enough to begin a collaborative process of shedding some light…