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What is Living Religion?

What is living religion? We're so glad you asked!

Those who study "living religion" attend to how ordinary people engage, express, create, and otherwise "do" religion and spirituality in their everyday lives. We look not only at how religion is lived in formal, institutional settings, but also at how people use and make religion at home, at work, and in their neighborhoods.

Traditionally, the study of religion has focused largely on texts—scripture, doctrine, and the interpretation of both, as well as the life stories ("vitae") of celebrated religious and spiritual figures like saints, mystics, prophets, and other spiritual superstars. Likewise, the study of religion focuses extensively on what people believe rather than what they experience or what they do that they understand as "religious" or "spiritual." And, the perspectives considered by scholars and students of religion are typically those of élite, clerical or academic people. This can all be quite fascinating, but it misses much of what constitutes "religion" or "spirituality," especially in the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Living religion scholars examine how spiritual practices, objects, conversations, and other concrete experiences and things color everyday life in recognizably religious or spiritual terms.

 

These mosaics of Jesus and Mary are surrounded by flowers and stone chairs to sit on. The mosaics are located at the back of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in the Washington-Guadalupe neighborhood of San Jose. [Photo by Elizabeth Drescher, 2020.]

These mosaics of Jesus and Mary are surrounded by flowers and stone chairs to sit on. The mosaics are located at the back of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in the Washington-Guadalupe neighborhood of San Jose. [Photo by Elizabeth Drescher, 2020.]

 

The study of living religion is, thus, active, engaged, collaborative, dynamic, and creative. It calls us to pay attention to the places where religion happens and to the things—including human bodies, other animals, natural settings, spiritual objects, special foods, religious clothing, etc.—that make religion real in our lives.

We explore the relationships that shape and are shaped by religious rituals and other practices. We consider all the ways ordinary people use religion in their lives, and we reflect upon the ways everyday religion changes what we think of as “official religion.”

This way of understanding religion and spirituality relies on methods that are called ethnography. Very simply, ethnography is the study of people in their own environments—“in the field,” ethnographers would say—through empirical methods such as observation, interviewing, and photographing or creating videos. This gives us detailed, first-hand accounts about how ordinary people practice religion and spirituality in local communities around the Santa Clara University campus. It also gives us a sense of how our students—young adults—experience the local religious and spiritual landscape, as well as its diverse inhabitants.

Throughout the Living Religion Collaborative website, you’ll find examples of students’ ethnographic fieldwork on living religion in Northern California.