Book Launch in context of ‚Akademische Jahresfeier’ of the Max-Weber-Kolleg

Religious Individualisation: Historical Dimensions and Comparative Perspectives

ed. by Martin Fuchs, Antje Linkenbach, Martin Mulsow, Bernd-Christian Otto, Rahul Parson und Jörg Rüpke, Berlin: de Gruyter 2019, 2 Vol., 1416 pages

Presenters during the book launch were Jörg Rüpke and Martin Mulsow as speakers of the Kollegforschungsgruppe ‘Religious Individualisation in Historical Perspective’, and Martin Fuchs and Antje Linkenbach as long-term participants in the project. Bern-Christian Otto and Rahul Parson were unfortunately unable to participate in the event.

Jörg Rüpke introduced both the topic of the KFG and the publication. Following this Martin Fuchs, Antje Linkenbach and Martin Mulsow gave a summary overview of the key theoretical and comparative aspects of the publication.

Martin Fuchs

Starting point of the KollegforschungsgruppeReligious Individualisation in Historical Perspective, which came to an end in December 2018 after ten years of intensive work and discussion, and of the book publication launched today[1] has been the combined critique of modernization theory and of Western-centrism still prevailing in conceptualizations in both, the Social Sciences and Religious Studies. Individualization is not a privilege of the West, or even the modern West. This implies that, instead of regarding individualization as a drawn-out, linear and teleological process which reaches its climax in the modern, post-Christian West, we have taken the lens of individualization instead to uncover, and look closely into, a plurality of different processes, across several world-regions and across various religions. From a historical perspective, religious individualization appears as a discontinuous development, covering processes of short- or medium-term durée, and processes that are reversible.

The concept of “religious individualization” can thus be described as a polythetic umbrella term, a heuristic tool that permits engaging with multi-facetted phenomena. Dimensions covered include: the enhancement of religious self-determination, the pluralisation of religious options (or the emergence of spaces of choice); the facilitation of religious deviance; the development of elaborated notions of the self; or the realisation of intense experiences.

Such experiences can denote an inner strength, which allows voicing outspoken critique of social besides religious conditions that affect one’s life, or they can give the strength to mobilise and organise for a betterment of such conditions. Such elements of critique are not exclusive to modern, and meanwhile often non-religious forms of individualization. We actually do encounter moments of critique, of dissatisfaction with religious regulations and dogmas, or with social rules and practices in a wider sense, as well as with the structures of power within religious as well as political contexts, in many modern as well as pre-modern settings; and we regularly discovered that processes of critique connect with increases in religious individualization.

We should perhaps specify our procedure here in two ways: Firstly, individualization should not be mistaken for individualism, or even methodological individualism. One rather has to differentiate between the ideal of individualism; the ontogenetic process of individuation (as the flipside of socialization); and historical processes of individualization. Secondly, individualization refers to more than just individual cases of deviance and difference. What is particularly interesting, as it can also become paradoxical, are the diverse modes of institutionalisation of religious individualisations. This includes the institutionalization of (social or cultural) imaginaries as well as behavioural patterns (patterns of bodily, emotional, spiritual self-practices), but also institution building: modes of conventionalization; processes of group formation; of standardization and ritualization of certain ways of communication, including communication with something beyond direct human grasp; establishing textual canons and traditions; or even the establishment of ‘regimes’ of religious individualisation. Thus, individualization can have paradoxical consequences, can result in its contrary, de-individualization. Or one can see both forms side by side. But, one also encounters cases of creation of forms of sociality or community that provide relatively unconstrained social (including religious) spaces for enabling the development of personal options or paths’.

In this publication, ‘self’ stands as a placeholder for the practices, experiences and representations of humans circumscribed in different ways as person, even persona, identity, individual, in part also subject and actor or agent, respectively as ‘patient’ of someone else’s actions. What has to be emphasized: we understand the concept of Self or individual, like the other concept of Religion, as inherently relational:

Regarding religion, talking of religion or religiosity firstly means talking of a relationship people think to have to something else, something beyond, or something felt inside, but in every case something that is not immediately available. At the same time, secondly, no religious individual can neglect his or her relationship to other people, and there are various religious positions that equally give this relationship prominence. Finally, the concern of an individual for him- or herself is often also conceived in relational terms, as ‘self-relation’.

Regarding the notion of “self”: in a way, religious individualization underlines the pragmatist insight into the “primary sociality” of humans, and of selves. What many regard as the very core of religiosity, self-transcendence, is essentially relational. We distinguish three dimensions of self-transcendence: (i) Rather conventionally, the experience of something beyond direct human grasp, something often substantialised as ‘the’ transcendent, but something with which individual actors want to connect or feel connected. The beyond (which may be a ‘within’) can be experienced as deepening or widening the (everyday) self, or even as contributing to its actual and authentic formation. (ii) In a wider and at the same time more profane sense, reference is to a self, or the image of a self, that reaches out to the world beyond him- or herself and experiences some powerful connectivity to something larger or broader in which it feels included, but which, on the face of it, can equally denote non-religious contexts – as in cases of ‘collective effervescence’, to employ Émile Durkheim’s much quoted term. (iii) The phrase refers to those social relations of a self that impact and connect him or her directly and inwardly with others, and become in this way adjuncts of a self. Under the last auspices, ‘transcending selves’ then relates in an emphatic sense of the term to what a person or self shares with significant others, what we have included under the concept of “dividuality”.

Antje Linkenbach

When we understand individualisation (here religious individualisation) as contingent possibility of freeing oneself from social constraints and given authorities, we have to acknowledge that there are always moments that counteract individualisation.

Firstly: conditions, which stimulate individualization (often in form of deviance) can – in the long run – solidify and allow for stabilisation and institutionalisation of individualisation. It can even happen that in this process new constraints emerge – in form of new authorities, formation of new traditions, or standardized, stereotyped behaviours, a process that could seriously undermine individualization.

Secondly: Individualization does not mean that we shed away all forms of social bonds or moments of relationality – with fellow beings, things / objects and manifestations of the transcendent, and that we have a clear-cut and one-dimensional identity. Far away from being a closed, a buffered Self – to speak with Charles Taylor – even in modern social constellations the individual person is porous and permeable, as it is also partible. Individuality is always paired with dividuality.

The first aspect was subject of studies engaging in the search for ‘institutionalisation’, “conventionalisation”, and de-individualization (Part III of the publication). Scholars asked: How do processes of religious individualisation in all their multifacetedness gather stability over time and become relevant not just for a select few but for a significant number of people?  Their agenda was to move away from the analytical focus on individual actors in favour of broader social dynamics that indicate processes of enhanced dissemination, stabilisation (e.g., through ritualisation), standardisation (e.g. through the canonisation of texts), or even the establishment of ‘regimes’ of religious individualisation. Of interest were also processes that eventual relapse into de- or non-individualisation. The case studies cover different religious environments and historical scenarios, but also approach the research problem from two different angles.  One part traces the institutionalisation of religious individualisation with a focus on ‘practices’, particularly ritual practices, but also economic and legislative practices. Other studies analyse the institutionalisation of religious individualisation by looking at ‘texts and narratives’, especially taking into consideration the nexus of authorship, texts, and audience.

The second aspect evolves around the concept of dividuality. Dividuality was made prominent in Melanesian anthropology to indicate that persons are multi-authored and composite beings. However, the researchers of the Kollegforschungsgruppe use ‘dividuality’ not in an essentialist way that confronts western and non-western ideas and realities of personhood. Moreover they understand it complementary to the concept of the individual and thus underline the co-existence of relational/dividual and individual aspects of the human Self. Human beings are constituted by both dividual and individual qualities. Therefore, dividuality is an umbrella concept that has an ontological and a historical dimension: The ontological perspective brings the (primary) relational sociality of the human being into focus. Relationality, as conditio humana, implicates openness, partibility and vulnerability of the human subject even in its fully individuated form and in all social constellations, including modernity. The historical perspective brings into focus that dividuality is a lived social reality and concrete social praxis and allows exploring ideas and realities of permeability and partibility on the one hand, of closeness and boundedness on the other, in particular historical and socio-cultural contexts as well as in particular areas of life and particular situations.

The contributions on ‘dividuality’ are compiled in Part II of the publication and engage with the different aspects of the concept: dividuality as relational pre-condition of humanity and human sociality; as partibility, and as porousness or permeability. It covers – as the other parts of the book – debates and practices in different historical periods and geographical spaces – it moves between ancient Rome and Greece, medieval, early modern and modern Europe as well as the Near East, India and the Pacific.

Martin Mulsow

The investigation of the history of religious individualisation is in many cases, as it turned out, an investigation of the history of interconnections, of cultural entanglements, onewhich examines the different ways in which cultural boundaries have been crossed. By ‘history of interconnections’ the KFG means an inquiry in the sense of ‘entangled history’ or ‘histoire croisée’, which analyses the reciprocal interactions and transfers between different cultural contexts, regions, religions, and reference systems. It therefore picks up new developments in history and applies them to our concern with individualisation.

Such an inquiry involves an increased focus on ‘boundary-crossing’ interactions and exchanges, in which diverse cultural and religious traditions encounter one another and in which ideas and practices that strengthen or trigger individualisation processes are transferred. We could see that migrations of ideas and practices created complex interactions with consequences for religion long before the great breakdowns of tradition within and outside Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Seen from this angle, the insights gathered by the KFG can be used to trace the vertical, or ‘deep time’, dimension of these processes of transformation.

In our volume, we consider two types or conditions of interconnections, on the one hand through individuals or groups of cultural brokers and on the other hand by structural relationships of exchange. Cultural brokers can be religiously deviant individuals – in Europe for instance ‘Beguines’, ‘visionaries’, ‘spiritualists’ or practitioners of ‘learned magic’, who were not always aware of the diverse transnational paths that their sources had taken, but also religious entrepreneurs, including missionaries such as the Jesuits in China, Japan, and India, merchants, soldiers and researchers across highly variegated cultures. Such people are found across periods and continents, beginning with ‘Chaldeans’, ‘sorceresses’, ‘magi’, ancient astrologers, entrepreneurial ascetics in India and elsewhere, prominent bhaktas, gurus, or saint-poets. Often they are members of the elite but sometimes also of subaltern classes, like Roman military personnel. Again it is important for our volume that these impulses are by no means to be found only in Europe or from the early modern period onwards, but also in ancient and medieval as well as non-European societies. In the context of religion, such processes emerge above all when they coincide with phases of religious pluralisation. Then these encounters – for instance between the Portuguese Jesuit Monserrate and the Mughal ruler Akbar – provide proofs of the crosscivilisational circulation of ideas, concepts and practices.

As for structural relationships of exchange and interconnection across cultural and religious boundaries, we speak of ‘interconnectional regimes’. That means network structures in which structural conditions like principles, rules, norms, and expectations – on both sides – make long-term interconnections possible. Examples for these structures are religious orders, missionary societies but also imperial formations like the Roman, Ottoman or the Mughal Empire, in which various religious strands, ethnic groups, and also particular officeholders interact.

These are the basic assumptions of our volume. And now we would like to invite you to leaf through the table of contents of the publication. You will surely find topics or aspects that interest you and that you can address with your own questions.

[1] Just to add: this publication is not the only result of the work of the KFG, there are several other publications of the research group.

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