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SIEF2015 12th Congress: Zagreb, Croatia.
21-25 June 2015


Almost heaven: vernacular utopias and the culture of belief

Location A229
Date and Start Time 23 June, 2015 at 10:30


István Povedák (Hungarian Academy of Sciences - University of Szeged) email
Leonard Norman Primiano (Cabrini University) email
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Short Abstract

This panel focuses on ways of perceiving and studying utopian religious ideas. Papers include both historical and contemporary perspectives on concepts of vernacular utopianism found within established denomination religions, sectarian religions, and individualized spiritual beliefs and practices.

Long Abstract

A utopia has been defined as a space or place of idyllic perfection. Utopian imaginary concepts have been integral parts of denominational religions, sectarian religions, and individualized spiritual beliefs and practices in the Judeo-Christian West for centuries, certainly stimulated by the mythology of Adam and Eve in the grace-filled, God-filled Garden of Eden. Utopian ideals have also served as distinctive platforms for individuals to create their own original religious ideas and practices. This panel would like to examine such manifestations of religiosity through the special emphasis of vernacular religion on the negotiation and creation of religion in everyday life.

The main focus of this panel is on the expressive culture of utopian religious communities worldwide within established denominational religions, unstructured religious traditions, sectarian religions, and the utopian belief and practice of individuals. Concentrating on the manifestation of such forms of utopia in art, song, foodways, costume, architecture, narrative, etc., the panel will examine how such vernacular creativity works to preserve, stimulate, and strengthen belief in the perfect life. What happens to the quality of such expressivity when related vernacular theologies conflict with reality? Is it possible to tell the story of utopians communities and religiosity through ethnographies of expressive culture? Do utopian ideas connect themselves to and try to preserve the religious tradition or rather reject the religious heritage?

Papers which combine theoretical approaches with ethnological case studies are especially encouraged, but dynamic historical approaches are also appreciated.

The panel is organized by the Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

Chair: Istvan Povedak, Leonard Norman Primiano

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


"A world set apart": the emergence and sustenance of Utopian space through expressive culture

Author: Leonard Norman Primiano (Cabrini University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the emergence and sustenance of religious utopian and perfectionist spaces through expressive culture in the context of an abundantly expressive “indigenous” American religion centered for the last seventy years in the city of Philadelphia, namely Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement.

Long Abstract

Influenced by the work of spacial theorists Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Casey among others, ethnologists of religion have focused on the study of how collaboratively produced and continually reproduced forms of artistic expression and communication generate a "sense of place," that is the subjective and emotional attachment individuals have to a place (Rosina Miller) both religious and non-religious. This paper examines the emergence and sustenance of religious utopian and perfectionist spaces through expressive culture in the context of an abundantly expressive "indigenous" American religion centered for the last seventy years in the city of Philadelphia -- one of the most fascinating urban and African American religions of the twentieth century - namely, Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement. My paper will give specific attention to the ways the Peace Mission has worked to establish this space as sacred both for the followers and for the outside world, how they have used artistic expression and communication to generate a sense of religious utopian and perfectionist place through songs, through a food tradition, and in a tradition of ordered perfection, ornamentation and decoration, especially with flowers. All of these expressions emphasize a consistently creative conception of Peace Mission spaces and places as "A World Set Apart."

"The Golden Generation": a modern/conservative Muslim utopia

Author: Thorsten Wettich (University Göttingen)  email

Short Abstract

The Gülen-movement tries to bridge the gap of a conservative Muslim utopia relating to the time of the prophet and (post-)modern society by investing in a to-be-formed "Golden Generation" of young professionals.

Long Abstract

The Gülen-movement is of one of the largest international Muslim networks that consists both of informal alliances of civil engagement as well as ties of economic and political associations. With his mentors of the Naqshibandia Order and a good part of Islam in general, the movements leader and eponym Fetullah Gülen shares the image of the time of the prophet as an ideal society (arab. "al asr-i sa´adet"). In opposition to the conception of history since the prophets appearence as a constant decline and in dependence on the thought of 20th century theologian Said Nursi, Gülen considers the present as a chance of culmination on the path to a this-worldly utopian society. His movement invests in the recruitment and education of a future intellectual intelligentsia, consisting of young modern professionals that are grounded in conservative Muslim ethics and orthodoxy. This to-be-formed "Golden Generation" (turk. "altin nesil") is supposed to at least partake in the future politics of the Turkish Republic and civil society in general. Theologically speaking this Golden generation as the peak of divine creation (apart from the prophet) would bridge this- and other-wordly conceptions of utopia by converging their own actions and Gods will. The paper invests in concrete steps on the move to this modern/conservative utopia by analysing local activities of Viennese Gülen-branches that have been accompanied by participant observation and ethnographic interviews.

Communal Utopia within nature-based spiritualities in the post-Soviet region: socio-cultural alternatives of Anastasians

Author: Rasa Pranskevičiūtė (Lithuanian University of Health Sciences)  email

Short Abstract

Paper discusses New Age Anastasia movement and its process of sacralization of nature, utopian visions of prospective heaven on Earth, subcultural daily life and festive activities, which serve as a basis for establishment of alternative social, based in natural space, projects – love spaces.

Long Abstract

The paper presents a research into the implementation of environmental and spirituality ideas of alternative communitarian movements through the establishment of quickly spreading nature-based spirituality communities and their settlements in the post-Soviet region. It focuses on the Anastasia "spiritual" movement, classifiable as New Age which emerged in Russia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and since has spread to East-Central Europe and beyond - concerning expressions of nature-based spirituality in the movement.

In the presentation I will discuss how Anastasian process of sacralization of nature and utopian visions of prospective heaven on Earth serve as a basis for establishment of alternative social, based in natural space, projects - love spaces. Construction of ideal world is being implemented through Anastasian organization and membership, nationalistic and traditionalist ideas, daily life and festive activities. One part of the research has been focused on the relative importance of social and ideological contexts in the construction of the alternative religious identities of Anastasians. The paper also explores the meaning of religious identity and how it influences - and is influenced by - local and global cultures ultimately producing a religious subculture. Particular attention is given to the role of these dynamics in the development of post-Soviet cultural heritage in Eastern Europe and in the communication of Western cultural influences on the religiosity in the region.

Findings are based on data obtained from the fieldwork in 2005-2014, including participant observation research and interviews with respondents in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic countries.

Conflicting Utopia: discourses of ideal life, religion and economy in one of the new religious movements of the Carpathian basin

Author: László Koppány Csáji (PTE (University of Pécs), Hungary)  email

Short Abstract

Based on anthropological fieldwork among an NRM in the Carpathian basin, I examine with discourse analysis the members' and the leader's concepts and narratives of a utopia (and the caused conflicts).

Long Abstract

From 2010 I have conducted anthropological fieldwork among current religious groups in the Carpathian basin. One of them was organized by Prophet Denis (emic term is "dénes…Próféta"). He established a fundamentalist Christian community (network of individuals and groups) in Serbia, Romania and Hungary in 2008, when he got the "status of a prophet in the Heaven at the golden throne of the Heavenly Powers". Their missionary - with benediction, prayer and healing - is among Gypsies, Romanians and Hungarians.

I analyze the group's discourses about their utopia. Prophet Denis has very detailed instructions how to build the ideal world, and get vivid contact with the Holy Spirits (he says there are many); but these are not accepted uncritically among the group's members. I study the coherency and the contrast between the prophet's ordinance of the ideal everyday life, economy, moral values, soul transmigration, said to be inspired and sometimes even expressed by the Holy Spirit, and the members' vernacular concepts and practice.

I argue that the idea of the prophet (as an instruction of the power) does not totally overwrite the vernacular religion of the members; they interfere in the group's inner discourse. The group is not isolated: members keep their own personal discursive horizons, too. The outer world and the subgroups both cause incoherency at the discourse process. Conflicts, arisen from these disagreements, can end in a skip off by some, or in a change of the group's heterogeneous façade.

Coping with disaster: vernacular religion in post-Chernobyl Belarus

Author: Elena Romashko (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)  email

Short Abstract

This paper describes the ways in which people in Belarus resort vernacular religion in overcoming the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. It gives an outlook on the approaches and interaction between official and vernacular religion in the process of coping with the ecological and worldview crisis.

Long Abstract

The given paper analyses how vernacular and official religions in Belarus approached the challenge of the radiation contamination and connected with it religious, medical and bioethical issues. I demonstrate the usage of the objects of material religion in the emerged rituals of purification for food and houses, as well as veneration of icons with allusions to radiation. Moreover, I attempt to analyse how the interplay of forces between official and vernacular tradition is represented in issues such as coping and healing.

I argue that women in Belarus (in the situation of the prevailing Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) are still playing a considerable role in the stability of the religious system in contemporary communities, even though they cannot express their religious piety and worship through priesthood or representative positions in ROC administration.

I plan to demonstrate with empirical data how women take ad hoc ways of worshipping, through the roles of vernacular religious specialists (as healers, folk ritual performers and counsellors) and material religion keepers (by keeping knowledge about healing power of religious artefacts and providing control over a 'proper' attitude and interaction with shrines and sacred objects).

Thus, the aim of the paper is to demonstrate the inclusiveness of vernacular religion and the role of women as its main agents in coping with the changes of daily life caused by the Chernobyl disaster and constructing social security in the issues of radiation.

Idiosyncratic behaviours in urban mixed communities in Portugal: how some utopian religious understanding is partly achieved

Author: Maria Santa Montez (Univ. Lusófona)  email

Short Abstract

How do different religious and social communities interact in some modern urban environments in Portugal - how former resentment becomes utopic and the role of the new Observatory for Religious Freedom as an important link for a good understanding.

Long Abstract

The new Observatory for Religious Freedom has the mission to observe, study and support the initiatives of various religious traditions of different communities aiming at achieving a peaceful exchange among the people.

During the first public session of the Observatory, somebody asked the leader of the Islamic community in Lisbon if Portugal is a "paradise" as for the freedom of religion and the good understanding among different religious groups. It was stressed that although perfection is a utopia hard to achieve, the reality of the Portuguese society shows that it is not just tolerant but also open to other ways of worship.

This paper is based on a research conducted among some communities living in urban centers, with field work performed through interviews to local leaders and lay people - Christians, jews, hindus and muslims as well as to members of this new Observatory. Among those we studied the muslim "Fula " community from Guiné Bissau who came from this former Portuguese colony and settled in Portugal after the independence in 1974.

The Fula culture has rather homogeneous features : they share a common religion, Islam, a common language, the Pulaar and therefore a common culture, customs and habits. There is no conflict so far between this community and the surrounding Christian or the increasing atheistic environment.

The religiosity of these utopian communities is therefore the core subject of my research as well as the field work which I would like to share with those interested on this issue .

Last Testament Church: Utopian endeavours of the followers of Vissarion

Author: Joanna Urbańczyk (University of Warsaw)  email

Short Abstract

Presentation is the result of 9-month participant observation fieldwork in the Siberian centre of the Last Testament Church conducted in 2012-13. It will focus on the movement's attempt at establishing a model society of the future based on the eclectic teachings of Vissarion.

Long Abstract

I will devote my presentation to Russian new religious movement founded in the beginning of 1990s - community of Vissarion also known as the Last Testament Church. Vissarion's followers, estimated at 4-5 thousand people, migrate to their Siberian "Promised Land" in the south of Krasnoyarski Krai from all parts of Russia, former states of the Soviet Union as well as Western Europe to establish a model society of the future - focused on spiritual development, living in harmony with the natural environment and independent of the global economic system. For the last 20 years the community has gone through different stages of development - from the initial lifestyle strictness to the later more flexible attitude towards the organization of community life. I will focus on the movement's attempt at establishing new quality of social relations based on the eclectic teachings of Vissarion undertaken in the specific context of the post-Soviet Siberian countryside.

The presentation is based on the 9-month participant observation fieldwork in the Siberian centre of the Last Testament Church in the years 2012-2013.

Lilleoru - a successful social utopia, religious community or ecocommune

Author: Mare Kõiva (Estonian Literary Museum)  email

Short Abstract

I am going to discuss the Lilleoru commune, aspects related to the emergence and maintenance of a successful social and spiritual utopia, including the establishment of an original religious landscape.

Long Abstract

In 1992, just as Estonia became independent from the Soviet Union, the Lilleoru commune was established near Tallinn. Work began on erecting commune buildings, and a commune began to take shape. The commune included notable artists and other cultural workers. The commune has taken different names at times, most recently the trendy "Lilleoru ecocommune", but at earlier times cloister, sect, ecovillage, lifestyle centre. Their latest self-definition describes "a study and living center that supports conscious and holistic human development."

The spiritual leader of Lilleoru is Ingvar Villido (53 years old, consecrated as Iscwarananda). When he first delved into martial arts in 1982, he became interested in hidden human potentials. He went to study raja and buddhi yoga at the Vladimir Antonov school (in St Petersburg), and after graduation received the permission and blessing to start teaching in Estonia. Lilleoru is a peculiar social utopia and a distinct blend of religious and ritual practices. Ingvar Villido started instructing raja and buddhi yoga classes. In time, his teachings have been influenced by Native American traditions and assimilated practices, as well as Kriya yoga and Tibetian rituals, not to mention Estonian


In my presentation I am going to discuss the commune, aspects related to the emergence and maintenance of a successful social and spiritual utopia, including the establishment of an original religious landscape.

Miracles in an imperfect world: contemporary Romanian narratives on Saint Nektarios the Wonderworker

Author: Irina Stahl (Institute of Sociology, Romanian Academy)  email

Short Abstract

The devotion of saints is an essential part of Orthodox religion and devotees have a special relationship with the saints. Analysis of over 300 miracle narratives reveals the relationship of Romanians with Saint Nektarios, a 20th century Greek, in a post-communist era.

Long Abstract

Communism in Romania promised an ideal, egalitarian society; an utopia that would provide people with everything they needed. Today, twenty-five years after the events that ended communist rule, Romanians confront a different world. Lost in the rapidly changing society, many have chosen to turn towards the other-worldly, seeking help, guidance and support, as they struggle to make sense of an imperfect reality. Belief in miracles and divine intervention allow them 'to cope with the stresses and strains of life' (Stringer, 2008), providing them with miraculous solutions to the problems with which they are confronted daily.

The veneration of saints is an essential component of current lived Orthodoxy in Romania, especially within the urban environment. Devotees develop a special relationship with saints, whom they relate to as close friends and protectors not just in religious confines, but as a constant of everyday life.

Shortly after the first relics of the 20th century Greek Saint Nektarios, were exhibited in Bucharest, in 2003, testimonies of miracles started to appear. Many of these narratives were posted on the internet and later published. In this paper, over 300 of them were examined to gain insight into how Orthodox Romanian devotees understand, interpret and make meaning of their experiences with the world around them within their religious context and the nature of their relationship with the saint.

Quantitative analysis provided descriptions of the testifiers, while a qualitative process identified significant themes inherent in the miracle narratives. The paper reports these themes and contextually discusses their meaning.

Narratives of an idyllic past: correctives for an uncertain future

Author: Bea Vidacs (Institute of Ethnology HAS )  email

Short Abstract

I will examine the idyllic narratives followers of a Hungarian visionary tell of the group’s early days. Faced with problems of recruiting and retaining members these idyllic presentations reinforce the members’ religious faith and at the same overwrite the group’s potentially endangered future.

Long Abstract

This paper will analyze the idyllic picture the community of faithful surrounding a Hungarian visionary paint of the early days of the group. The visionary relives the suffering of Christ every first Friday of the month and every Friday during Lent. She has been doing this for the past twenty-one years. A strong community has come into being around her, however, the group faces considerable problems of continuity as the original faithful are getting old, some have died and others are no longer able to attend due to ill health. Thus recruiting and retaining members is among the most important priorities of the group. The paper will take stock of the various methods the community uses to hold onto established members and make itself attractive to newcomers through recourse to narratives of its own idyllic past. The most important of these are: the monthly retelling of the origin story of the group. Retelling the same by Jesus Christ (through the visionary 'under vision') over several hours and in much more detail on the occasion of the so called Anniversary of the visionary, recalling the history of the group from the beginnings to the present. Personal reminiscing both as 'witnessing' and as casual conversation between congregants. I will analyze these materials with a view to seeing how the idyllic presentation of the group's history reinforces the group's religious faith and at the same time is used to overwrite its potentially not so rosy future.

Saints in Seto religious narratives: past utopias and validation of identity

Author: Andreas Kalkun (Estonian Folklore Archives / University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

Localisation of saints and attaching importance to their golden past have played an important role in the vernacular piety of Setos. The utopia of the sacred past and Setos’ perception of themselves as the chosen people have merged together individual narratives and the heterogeneous lived religion.

Long Abstract

Setos are a Finno-Ugric people settled in the border area between Estonia and Russia. Since the Middle Ages, the western border of the Seto region has served as the line separating the Catholic (later Lutheran) and the Orthodox world. Orthodoxy had a tremendous impact on the Setos' worldview and laid a foundation for their cultural uniqueness. Owing to their peripheral location and linguistic isolation from Russian religious and literary culture, the Setos' religion and folklore retained several archaic features.

My paper discusses this part of religious heritage of the Setos, recorded in the late 19th and early 20th century, which seems to have served the function of strengthening Setos' ethnic identity and establishing the borders of their area of settlement. Seto tradition contains a surprising amount of mentions of a utopian past—a time when Christian saints were active in the Seto region. Setos used to believe that the Mother of God, St. Anne, John the Baptist and many other Christian saints travelled around and performed miracles on their land. They also perceived themselves as a people chosen by the Mother of God and believed that the traditional Seto women's clothes were the same as worn by the Mother of God. Localisation of saints and attaching excessive importance to their golden past have played an important role in the vernacular piety of Setos. The utopia of a sacred past and Setos' perception of themselves as the chosen people have merged together individual narratives and the heterogeneous lived religion.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.