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Location/Space/Place

Studies of “location/space/place” are crucial to vigorous understandings of religion and embodiment. Religion is very much an embodied phenomenon – bodies ascribe, and are inscribed, and arranged with particular meanings that are dependent on understandings of space and time. For instance, in first century Judeo-Christian religion, it is significant that certain gendered bodies were not allowed in certain spaces of the temple: only the high priest was properly trained and equipped for the “holiest” or most “sacred” spaces according to the tradition. In short, it can be said then that this male, priestly figure realized a different embodied religious experience, one to which women and other laypersons were not accessible.

Though this entry relates three terms – location/space/place – it is important to note that scholars have not always used these terms interchangeably. For instance, Mircea Eliade (1957) argues that space helps to delimit the sacred. Jonathan Z. Smith (1987), however, uses place instead of “sacred” space and contends that these “places” are central to understanding religious realities, particularly as it relates to ritual. Smith adds that one should think of “space” as fluid and non-permanent.

Here we refer to “location/space/place” as any arena in which bodies convene in ways that foster meaning and identity making. Whether or not one regards spaces as ‘sacred’ or ‘profane,’ they are still consequential places for this purpose. Traditional scholars interpret the profane as that which pertains to things that take place in the realm of the ordinary and the everyday; whereas the sacred deals with the extraordinary, memorable, and momentous (Eliade 1957, Pals 2006: 199). Hawlbachs (1992) further argues “… our habitual images of the external world are inseparable from our self…” (1). In other words, just as much as a building, region, or locale can point to the ways that an individual identifies herself, private domiciles also provide comforting images of one’s community or social situation. Hence, places and locations signify understandings of belonging. Having a “home” or community in which to situate oneself becomes important to the way that person understands herself (Hooks 2009).

Analyses that consider place and location also provide a way of understanding how bodies play a participatory role in creating and preserving social memory. They seek to account for how individuals or collectivities to perform rituals that foster this memory, or meaning, for particular groups. As bodily practices and rituals are the reenactment of certain cultural mores, interpreting these cultural values will require attention to the importance of the space in which they take place. The way one occupies or venerates a space shows how they understand themselves in relation to their material world.

A study of embodied spaces cannot be limited churches, mosques, or temples, however. Spaces that are considered “profane” can be made meaningful through the performance of ritual which creates alternative sites of the “sacred” (however groups or individuals may conceive of this term). In instances where a space of one’s own is nonexistent, or where a community is displaced from sacred locations, new spaces may be fashioned in which persons are able to create new meanings.

As an example of how attending to space/location can enrich studies on religion and embodiment, one can think about studies on the “hush harbors” of early black Americans. During the antebellum period, “hush harbors” became religious meeting sites for enslaved Africans in the US to worship outside of the supervision of their slavers. These hush harbor meetings were worship spaces, locations where ritual practices maintained retentions from African traditional religions, as well as spaces where black slaves were able to construct their own unique form of Christian identity (Raboteau 1978; Wilmore 1972). Examples like this are useful to understand how bodies utilize  and occupy locations/spaces of various sorts in order to carve out meanings and wrestle with the complexities and absurdities of life which is a crucial element of what religious expression entails.

Works cited

Eliade, Mircea, and Willard R. Trask. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. 1st American ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.

Eliade argues the ways in which humans come to understand aspects of their existence in terms of the sacred or the profane. He explores the connection between construes of the sacred and human experience and the manifestations of these designations in time, space, place, etc.

Halbwachs, Maurice, and Lewis A. Coser. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

On Collective Memory explores the ways in which humans use images of the present in an effort to reconstruct the past. Halbwachs argues that the construction of human memory primarily takes place within the context of a collective, that is selective of the memories that take primacy in the construction of the collective’s identity an socio-historical narrative.

Pals, Daniel L., and Daniel L. Pals. Eight Theories of Religion. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

In Eight Theories of Religion Pals gives an overview of the ways in which scholars have engaged questions of religion in the 19th and 20th centuries. Highlighting scholars working within social sciences, Pals offers at various theoretical approaches to the study of religions.

Pinn, Anthony B. Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theology examines the ways in which the physical body are important to the theological inquiry. Pinn interrogates traditional theological source material in effort to create a multidisciplinary approach that uses embodiment as its starting point for theological study.

Raboteau, Albert J.. Slave Religion: the “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Slave Religion argues the ways in which enslaved Africans in Africa constructed their own religious beliefs and practices. He is particularly concerned with the ways that African Traditional religions evolve into evangelical Christianity practiced by enslaved Africans, and later free African Americans.

Smith, Jonathan Z., To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: an Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People. 2nd ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983.

Wilmore argues that there is an inseberable thread within African American religious history that is tied to the struggle for freedom and justice. By charting a trajectory that spans African Traditional Religion through religious  developments of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, Wilmore explores the ways in which African Americans have, and continue, to interpret their religiosity as part of their resistance to modes of systematic oppression.