by Birgit Meyer

Since the turn of the century, the resurgence of religion has been a much debated topic across Europe. The unexpected vitality of religion, associated to a large extent with migrant and post-migrant urban residents, occurs together with a decline of membership and participation in mainstream Christian churches, triggering the rise of atheism, secularism and non-institutional forms of self-spirituality. Major cities, such as Amsterdam, Berlin and London, are highly religiously diverse and secular at the same time. They are prime arenas in which the public presence of religion – through modes of dress, buildings, sounds, rituals and performances - is displayed and discussed. Particular sensitivities have arisen around manifestations of Islam, yielding debates about face veils, circumcision, halal food and “ritual slaughter,” the building of new mosques and the amplified call for prayer. The marked material manifestations of Islam and other relatively new religiosities also call back into consciousness the Christian past that left a structuring imprint on these cities via buildings and spatial arrangements. That the traces of this past are often ignored is at least partly due to the preponderance of the master narrative of secularization, according to which the process of “unchurching” is conceptualized as an abstract process of decline in church membership and attendance; the material implications and tangible remains of this process are simply overlooked. [i]

Visibility does not simply depend on the actual presence of material forms that can be seen, but also on propensities and sensibilities of beholders to see them. Certain things – typically those that are new and foreign, and thus not yet taken for granted as a normal part of the everyday urban environment - strike eyes and ears more than what is taken as ordinary and hence habitually overlooked and overheard. A newly built mosque or Hindu temple strikes the senses more than a long-established church. Enshrining the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, urban space invites us to revisit the past in the light of the present. In so doing, the emergence of new topographies of the sacred and articulation of religious markers can be related to older and presumably more familiar ones. One key message of this exhibition is that a focus on religion in urban space enhances awareness of the myriad ways in which the sacred of the past is (in the) present.

Obviously, the conventional idea of an intrinsic relation between modernization and the decline of the public role of religion, long assumed by scholars and still held as a normative position in public debates, is not sustained by the actual ways in which religion appears to, literally, make and take place in urban space (see Kim Knott).[ii] The recognition that religion does not disappear but is saliently manifest in urban environments via multiple old and new material forms requires alternative ways of thinking about, and studying religion. Against this backdrop, scholars have sought to move beyond approaches to religion that privilege the domain of ideas and belief to those that foreground the concrete ways through which ideas and beliefs are generated, expressed, sustained and transmitted.[iii] In order to come to grips with the co-existence and entanglement of past and present manifestations of various religions in urban space, it is fruitful to adopt a material approach. This means to take as a starting point the practices, objects, images, buildings, sites and other material forms through which religion becomes palpable in the world and in so doing participates in the politics and aesthetics of world-making.[iv]

From a material angle, it becomes obvious that religion does not simply disappear with the decrease in church membership and attendance, as a superficial view of secularization might suggest. As our research shows, processes of “unchurching” do not only entail the declining role of churches, but also the persistence of material forms that are drawn into new imaginaries or become objects of nostalgia. Landmark buildings such as churches witness a shift from old to new owners and users who may employ them for profane purposes or suit them to their own religious needs. They seek to capitalize upon the presumed “sacred residue” that contains the traces of earlier uses and functions in one way or another (see Daan Beekers). Historical religious buildings and sites appear to be vested with a difficult-to-grasp iconicity. Intriguingly, such old buildings and sites are hubs of current religious dynamics, and, exactly for that reason, suitable points of entry for scholarly research and public discussion. They bring back to memory the religious past, and evoke questions about its possible future alongside new religiosities.

Such buildings and sites echo the past in various ways: On the one hand, spots that have hitherto been non-descriptive and barely noticed may be (re)discovered as meaningful traces of a problematic past, as is the case with Crossbones graveyard in London. Long buried in the deep layers of a powerful Christian regime that denied persons categorized as deviant a decent burial, it has recently been reframed as a site to commemorate and celebrate the “outcast” dead in an overall redemptive gesture (see Steph Berns). On the other hand, there is the reframing of church buildings – often on the verge of closure or demolition - as “Christian heritage.” The category of Christian heritage and the recurrent recourse to Europe’s alleged Judeo-Christian tradition have become profiled in recent debates about cultural identity and citizenship in an effort to preserve and value the Christian past under new conditions. This happens in the midst of anxieties and insecurities arising from what to many Europeans is a confusing co-occurrence of unchurching, secularism and the rise of new, non-Christian religiosities. So, the Christian past is not quite as remote as an abstract idea of secularization might suggest.

Apprehending the materiality of religion does not mean its reduction to a flat material phenomenon. Religion, in my understanding, refers to a set of shared practices and ideas with regard to a realm which is not directly tangible and visible, and yet is taken to exist and rendered tangible and visible in the experience of believers. In this sense, religion may well be described as “a medium of absence,”[v] that posits and bridges a gap between the here and now and something “beyond.” “Making visible the invisible,” to invoke Robert Orsi,[vi] religion involves “multiple media” for “materializing the sacred.” Here media are understood in the broad sense as material transmitters across gaps and limits that are central to practices of mediation. Understanding religion as a practice of material mediation implies that practices and material items are indispensable for a sensation of transcendence to arise in the here and now, the immanent.[vii] This is what I want to convey by the notion of tangible transcendence. This is at the core of what we mean by a religious icon: a building, object or picture that is vested with a sacred surplus (see also Volkhard Krech).

A sense of tangible transcendence emerges from the encounter between people and religious artefacts. Partaking in shared religious practices ties believers together, moulds them as religious subjects and envelops them in a shared common sense. The specific aesthetics deployed in a religious tradition (see also Susanne Lanwerd) induces particular sensations, emotions, values, and meanings that underpin a sense of personal identity and collective belonging. In this process, the material items that render the transcendent tangible – for instance a holy book, a sacred building, the Eucharist - play a key role. Of course, these items do not generate a sensation of transcendence by themselves, but do so in the framework of a specific religious regime that authorizes them as suitable harbingers of the divine. Such items are subject to different interpretations and generate a variety of emotions. A newly built mosque is valued and experienced differently by Christians or atheists – who may experience it as a token of the threatening upsurge of Islam – than by Muslims who may regard it as a sign of their recognition as full citizens and of Islam as part of Western society. A church turned into a mosque bears witness to the superposition of a Christian sacred and an Islamic sacred, and may trigger quite mixed sentiments and opinions. A secularized church building may be taken as a welcome sign of the end of religion or may invoke a sense of loss and nostalgia on the part of liberal Westerners. Alternatively, it may stand as a gloomy testimony of a godless society for born-again Christians from Africa. And even if people do not – or no longer – participate in a religious tradition, they may still perceive a religious building or site as somehow iconic.

In sum, one of the guiding ideas of our research is that a material approach is well suited to unravel the divergent ways through which buildings and other religious items in a shared and yet highly diverse urban environment convey a sense of tangible transcendence to believers and yet feature as something else for outsiders. In other words, old and new religious icons in urban space are fruitful entry points to spotlight multiple viewpoints, sensations, sentiments and meanings in the shared urban habitats of the three cities that stand central in this exhibition, and beyond. Bringing together such multiple perspectives is, we believe, a necessary step towards mutual understanding across differences, and hence a precondition for living together in a diverse and democratic society.


[i] Daan Beekers and Birgit Meyer (2014), Nieuwe vormen van het heilige. Nederlands Dagblad, 28 October 2014, https://www.nd.nl/nieuws/opinie/nieuwe-vormen-van-het-heilige.937210.lynkx?s=Zfx9Ms-jT2igf4kTeaaJAw%3D%3D

[ii] Jochen Becker, Katrin Klinghan, Stephan Lanz, and Kathrin Wildner (eds) (2013) Global Prayers: Contemporary Manifestations of the Religious in the City, Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers .

[iii] Asad, Talal (1993) Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[iv] See the journal Material Religion (http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rfmr20)

[v] Weibel, Peter (2011). Religion as a Medium—the Media of Religion. In B. Groys & P. Weibel (eds.), Medium Religion: Faith. Geopolitics. Art, 30–43. Cologne: Distributed Art Publishers.

[vi] Orsi, Robert (2012). Material Children: Making God’s Presence Real Through Catholic Boys and Girls. In G. Lynch, J. P. Mitchell, & A. Strhan (eds.), Religion, Media and Culture: A Reader, 147–158. London: Routledge.

[vii] Meyer, Birgit (2014) Mediation and the Genesis of Presence (reprint of inaugural lecture), with a response on comments by Hans Belting, Pamela Klassen, Chris Pinney, Monique Scheer, Religion & Society: Advances in Research 5: 205-254.