EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Religious intimacy: collaboration, collusion and collision in ritual communication

Location T-314
Date and Start Time 03 August, 2014 at 09:00


Laur Vallikivi (University of Tartu) email
Eva Toulouze (INALCO Paris) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The panel will focus on the expressions of religious intimacy in contemporary religious movements. We will discuss how in human communities as well as in relations between humans and non-humans intimacy becomes a key cultural value and rhetorical device through ritual communication.

Long Abstract

Michael Herzfeld has called the collective space that unites the members of a nation-state into a fellowship 'cultural intimacy'. This space is hard to grasp for outsiders, being dynamic, heterogeneous and often tacit. Partly inspired by Herzfeld's concept, the panel will focus on the expressions of religious intimacy in contemporary religious movements. Intimacy among humans as well as between humans and non-humans is the key value and the main rhetorical device in various ritual settings. For instance, Christianity, like most other 'world religions', is known for its model of transcendence according to which humans have only limited options for using the resources of the distant divine realm in this world. This model is a source of considerable tension. Next to ascetic movements in Christianity, there have always been movements that value the material presence and immediacy of the divine. We would like to discuss how in religious communities and individual lives the verbal and non-verbal ritual acts create the presence of the divine and demonic. We ask how religious intimacy inside a group is achieved and sustained with or against the claims of transcendence. What kind of religious intimacy exists in the religions that do not make a radical distinction between the transcendental and the mundane? How do bearers of animistic, shamanistic and other local traditions create intimacy with the non-human agents in ritual communication? How is social intimacy achieved in mission encounter in which moments of collaboration, collusion and collision are frequent?

Chair: Art Leete (University of Tartu)
Discussant: Toomas Gross (University of Helsinki)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Was it God that brought us here? Intimacy between lay members of evangelical churches in Austin, Texas

Author: Aleksi Knuutila (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

Intimacy defines American evangelicals' experience of god, and intimacy between believers has become the main product of evangelical churches. Based on fieldwork in Austin, Texas, the paper describes the creation and experience of intimacy between lay members, and its religious function.

Long Abstract

Intimacy is the defining feature of contemporary American evangelicals' experience of the divine, in what they call a personal relationship with god. At the same time, the creation of intimacy between church-goers has arguably become the primary function of many evangelical churches. The weight of religious practice has shifted from Sunday services to interaction in bible studies and so-called "small groups" during the week. This paper describes the meaning of intimacy between people for evangelical religious practice, and its interplay with conception of a god that is both always present and not of this world. It draws on ethnographic detail focusing on small group meetings, gathered during 14 months of fieldwork in an evangelical intentional community in Austin, Texas. In a manner that resembles a practice of confession between lay members, the groups suspend everyday norms for discussion and prayer in which participants share private shortcomings and moments in which god acted in their lives. Such intimacy creates attachments that make possible the experience and instinctive exercise of the Christian virtues of godly love and charity. Since intimacy comes about in a spontaneous and indeterminate manner, the space of the small groups stands in contrast to the codified functioning of the church institution. As such, the intimate group both reproduces and challenges church culture. It is a site of both transmission of and reflection on doctrine, and it allows for a personalised religious experience, while still maintaining a collective identity of a body of believers.

'You call out "grandfather" and it is just like you call to God': intimate collaborations between God and the ancestors in ritual healing among Anglican Christians in the Central Solomon Islands

Author: Johanna Whiteley (London School of Economics and Political Science.)  email

Short Abstract

For Anglicans from the Central Solomon Islands one-to-one healing provides a ritual space in which their ancestors and the Christian God 'collaborate'. Through the mediation offered by diverse semiotic forms, both these sources of efficacy are brought into intimate relation with human existence.

Long Abstract

A practitioner of ancestral healing (fanitu) and a dedicated Anglican, once explained that his ancestors had no access to a hospital (suga fogra), instead, they used the plants and trees that God had created in order to cure illness. Like this man, many residents of West Gao - a rural region of southeast Santa Isabel in the central Solomon Islands - possess ritual healing techniques transmitted by their deceased forbears, and used to provide one-on-one aid to the sick. The efficacy of these embodied techniques had been, in many cases, augmented by Christian blessing (fablahi) undertaken by agents of the Anglican Church of Melanesia.

For these Anglicans fanitu provides a ritual space in which their ancestors and the Christian God - both sources of power/efficacy (noilaghi, mana) - can be drawn into a relationship of collaboration. This collaboration is achieved through the mediation of diverse semiotic forms such as powerful words (kinship terms and uttering the Holy Trinity) and sacred objects (plants from ancestral sites - padaghi - and Holy Oil).

Ethnography of fanitu suggests that, as in more formalised ritual contexts in West Gao, Christian power possesses 'materialistic' properties (Busby 2006): it is susceptible to augmentation; to transfer; and has actual effects upon the world. However, in the intimate and somewhat secretive domain of one-to-one healing, God can be experienced as immanent to the everyday lived world through the simple act of picking a sprig of plant, or calling the name of one's deceased grandfather.

Speaking, sincerity and spiritual authority among Nuba Christians in Sudan

Author: Siri Lamoureaux (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will show how Nuba Christian women in the Sudan establish new forms of authority through their expression of sincerity in public praying and preaching, but how notions of sincerity of faith are debated, gendered and subject to situational intimate confirmation.

Long Abstract

Conflict-related Christianization happened for Moro Nuba in the space of ten years and in a radical fashion. The politicized forces which drove the need to break from 'things of the world' (i.e. Moro culture) paradoxically also drove a patriarchal indigenous movement that seeks to preserve this very culture. The tensions between these two movements are heavily debated, and largely expressed through moral guidelines on women's behavior. Nuba women's religious activities in the Church are relegated to a separate "women's day" women's special activities, spaces of intimacy where both confirmation and critique (Boltanski 2012) which often come in the form of "metapragmatic" comments (Silverstein 1993) on the male patriarchal religious agenda are expressed. A woman preachers' ability to index her sincerity in her speaking - that is - the power of the Holy Spirit - is the mark of her faith. While faith in Protestantism is thought to be a personal experience, these events are nonetheless public and performed; speaking is an accomplishment which is crucial for her authoritative social role. Outside the church, however, the speaker is subject to critiques and evaluations as to her rhetorical ability as a faithful Christian. I will present ethnographic data from two speakers, who represent two debated ideologies of sincerity: one is based in the notion of Moro pre-Christian femininity, the other based in the importance of being clear and articulate in a way "that men speak" indexing local notions of masculinity.

Distant words and religious intimacy: mission encounter in Nenets reindeer herders' camps in Arctic Russia

Author: Laur Vallikivi (University of Tartu)  email

Short Abstract

The paper will explore the role of language in an encounter between Russian Protestant missionaries and Nenets reindeer herders in Arctic Russia. The bulk of religious conversion goes through the introduction of new speech practices and a new language ideology based on an ideal of truthful speakers.

Long Abstract

Missionaries' words do not arrive into a wordless universe. Both evangelical missionaries and Nenets treat various kinds of words as powerful, although their understandings about the origin and economy of word potency differ considerably. While Nenets see words as extensions of personhood or semi-independent agents that change relations in the world, missionaries believe that only the divine word is a true deed, as it takes place in the Creation. Human spoken words can have desired impact only as far as they are sincerely willed by a speaker whose aspiration is to become close to God. Nevertheless, in some instances of formalised speech, the demand for sincerity tends to wear off and all attention is on the act of speaking as such. For instance, this can be seen when a Baptist preacher examines (or interpellates) a candidate for baptism in the water or cajoles a reluctant old man to utter a few saving words. In these situations, evangelicals assume that sincerity is not only expressed but produced. I shall argue that negotiation with and over words can be seductive, but can also make Nenets sense their vulnerability to undesired consequences.

The intimacy and sharing of food: animist ceremonies by the Bashkortostan Udmurts

Authors: Eva Toulouze (INALCO Paris)  email

Short Abstract

The paper looks at the role of food as a symbol of the spiritual communion of the people involved and of communication with the divine.

Long Abstract

Relying on the author's fieldwork, this paper concentrates on the core of the animist ceremonies that are present in the Bashkortostan Udmurts' everyday life, the making of lamb porridge at different times of the religious calendar of this community, living compactly in a cluster of 19 villages in Northern Bashkortostan. The ceremonies revolve around the cooking of the porridge, which implies cooperation between families or whole villages, lamb sacrifice, ceremonial eating and distribution. Thus, worship is both communitarian, through action, and deeply individual, through the absorption of food. These are the lines the paper explores through comparative analysis of different ceremonies in different village communities.

Jimilta: shame as the guardian of respect

Author: Stephan Dudeck (Arctic Centre, University of Lapland)  email

Short Abstract

The paper describes practices of hiding and avoiding called jimilta among the Khanty of Western Siberia that regulate the relationship between different patrilineages linked by marriage and how they form nested spheres of intimacy.

Long Abstract

Recent research revealed that jimilta practices among the Khanty are not based on the concept of female impurity but regulate the relationship between different beings belonging to different status groups within the Khanty society. Similar forms of communication and interaction based on veiling, silencing, and physical distance can be observed in the interaction with the deceased, with animals, supernatural beings and representatives of powerful political and economic actors like the state or the oil industry. These practices deal with social borders that surround the individual and groups in a concentric but intersecting way. They are based on specific ideas of personhood and the communicative functions of the human body. The paper employs the notion of language ideology introduced by Suzan Gal and her idea of nested spheres of privacy to come to an understanding of the interplay of personal intimacy, religious practices and political developments associated with the development of extractive industries in the region.

Beyond spirits? The new "materiality" of ritual intimacy in Tuvan Shamanism

Author: Ksenia Pimenova (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes)  email

Short Abstract

We explore the transformation of the notion of spirits as agents of ritual intimacy in the contemporary shamanic therapies among Tuvas of South Siberia, and study the new gestural and material means that make up for the weakening of this notion, long regarded as central for Shamanism.

Long Abstract

Our proposal focuses on the transformation of the notion of spirits, both as support of shamans' power and source of misfortunes, in the contemporary shamanic therapies among Tuvans. This South-Siberian population has witnessed since the 1990s the renewal of their "traditional" Shamanism. However, the sociological context in which shamans perform today has changed dramatically from the nomadic one of a century ago. Rituals are performed in collective and urban contexts, and shamans must deal with new kind of requests, which affect the place and role of spirits.

The "direct contact with the spirits" (Hamayon) has been systematically associated with Shamanism. Indeed, in Siberia "helping spirits" would act during the ritual "in place" of the shaman, while the harmful spirits would have to be destroyed or taken away from the body of the patient. Yet, in today's Tuva the growing influence of esoteric, Buddhist and scientific ideas modifies the representation of shaman's helping spirits, while the proliferation of discourses on witchcraft (Stépanoff; Buyandelgeriyn) makes the notion of harmful spirits rare and out-dated. Under these conditions, can we still consider spirits as agents of intimacy linking the shaman to his patient during the ritual? The presentation will show that the idea of "direct contact" subsists in Tuvan shamanism insofar as new gestural and material means are employed to provide "materiality" to the new entities that have taken the place of the spirits in the rituals of post-Soviet shamans.

The agency of the divine: Maya intimacy with mountains and crosses

Author: Jan Kapusta (University of Hradec Kralove)  email

Short Abstract

The paper considers the intimacy between humans and non-humans in contemporary Maya religious movements. It is argued that their mutual ritual communication is a practice of cosmos where the divine agents are perceived as being-in-this-world, and operating in a religious field and network of actors.

Long Abstract

The importance of mountains and crosses persists among contemporary Maya, be it syncretic traditionalists, cultural activists, or even Protestants. The intimacy between humans and non-humans, such as "spirits", "guardians" or "owners" of mountains and crosses, is not only represented by Maya shamanic ceremonies (costumbres), but also restored by Pentecostal energetic rites (ayunos). But why does this ritual communication endure throughout all of these religious movements of current dynamic and globalized world? Cognitive anthropologists like Boyer or Bloch seek the origin of the human pervasive affection related to the divine in "counter-intuitiveness" or "false consciousness", respectively. On the other hand, political anthropologists like Taussig or Nash consider spiritual beings as expressions of colonial dominance, subordination or resistance. From my point of view, however, there is a third way of how to deal with the problem, drawing on cultural phenomenology which concerns a particular cosmology embedded in the everyday experience of the world. The Maya perceive deities as visible, tangible and living agents, analogous and complementary to humans, who participate together in the cyclical course of the world. Their mutual intimate ritual communication is the way the world works and, thus, the collusion or collision of society and cosmos rest on that. Following Bourdieu's understanding of the religious field which is not completely overlapped by the political one, and Latour's conception of the network which does not discriminate non-human actors, I consider deities as non-reducible agents perceived as being-in-this-world, and operating in a religious field and network of actors.

The dynamics between spirituality and politics in a newly reformed indigenous religion: a case study of Rangfraism amongst the Tangsa in north-east India

Author: Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh (University of Goettingen)  email

Short Abstract

I take a closer look at the Tangsa people iving in north-east India with respect to their newly reformed religious practices to understand the subtle link between religious reform and ethnic identity politics on the one hand, and individual spirituality and community based religious practices on the other.

Long Abstract

Tangsa is an umbrella term for a collection of small ethnic communities (related to the Naga) who have migrated to north-east India from Myanmar. In the course of time, many Tangsa have embraced world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, while others have continued their indigenous practices. In recent years there has been a move amongst a section of the educated Tangsa to rationalise and institutionalise their older practices under a new name, Rangfraism, in order to maintain continuity but also to prevent further conversion to Christianity.

I take a closer look at Rangfraism to ascertain how much of the old has been retained, what new has been added, and for what ends. Using old Tangsa mythology as a base and intermixing older rituals and cultural practices with attractive features from both Hinduism and Christianity, the leaders of the Rangfraa movement have partly succeeded in stemming the wave of Christian conversion, but it has also brought them in direct confrontation with the Christian Tangsa, especially those radical groups aligned with the Naga Baptist church. This has created serious fissures in Tangsa society, and has been a set-back to recent efforts made by some sections to create a new pan-Tangsa identity. I will also discuss the spirituality of the keychus (shamans) and their intimate relationship with their new God - Rangfraa. This has led to tensions between them and those leading the community-based practices of Rangfraism at the village level, aggravated by the fact that most of these keychus are young girls.

Oracular speech and the efficacy of the body: towards a semiotics of intimacy in the Japanese possession rituals of Ontake

Author: Tatsuma Padoan (SOAS, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

My paper will try to discuss the semiotic dimensions of intimacy in spirit possession, both as a process of subjectivation and of group-making, through an ethnographic analysis of ritual interactions in the Japanese pilgrimage of Ontake.

Long Abstract

This paper stems from a fieldwork conducted in 2009 within a devotional community devoted to the cult of Mount Ontake (3067m), a semi-active volcano located in central Japan, between Gifu and Nagano prefectures. This mountain enshrines numerous Shinto and Buddhist deities, and stages several pilgrimages and ritual activities performed by groups of followers organised in confraternities (kō). The groups are guided by one or more religious leaders who repeatedly enter a state of trance during the pilgrimage, acting as abode for the deities of the sacred mountain, and giving oracles to the believers. Through an ethnographic analysis of ritual interactions between leader, ascetics, pilgrims and deities, I shall try to trace the connections between human and nonhuman actors (Latour 2013), set along the climb by specific mechanisms of bodily enunciation and memory. Investigation of these processes will give me the possibility to explore semiotic and communicative dimensions of intimacy under a double perspective: (1) intimacy within spirit possession, concerning different subjectivations experienced by the medium; and (2) intimacy within the collective, concerning processes of group-making. More specifically, I shall explain how the body-voice of the medium enunciates an oracular discourse which, by triggering affective and intersensorial mechanisms of cohesion (Landowski 2004), has the effect of producing a heterogeneous social body, namely a collective of people, divinities, natural elements, artefacts. Finally, I shall try to demonstrate how, paradoxically, the production of intimacy can also give rise to controversies concerning the survival of the pilgrimage itself.

The agency of ritual objects in Afro-Brazilian Umbanda

Author: Eleonora Riviello (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines materiality as part of knowledge production and learning in Afro-Brazilian Umbanda. Agency, subjectivity and the ontological status of ritual objects owned by the spirits are discussed within ethnographic material collected among three Umbanda temples in São Paulo.

Long Abstract

For the followers of Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, the ritual objects, such as costumes and amulets, have a strong personal value. Many of these objects, in fact, belong to the peoples´ non-human spiritual companions, who can use them either spontaneously or in structured religious ceremonies.

Among contemporary umbandistas the human-like spirits are considered as members of the same world as people, however, the spirits are believed to "work" at the spiritual plane (plano spiritual), leaving us humans mainly in the material side (plano material) of the twofold universe. According to umbandistas, a good life is achieved through the process of learning, in which one becomes aware of the world's wholeness through individual experience, while dreaming and through intuitive knowledge related to things, persons, places, situations and different temporalities. Furthermore, dreams and intuition function as channels, revealing the spiritual truth of the lived worlds.

In this paper I will concentrate on materiality in the processes of knowledge production, examining the ontological status, subjectivity and agency of things that belong and are used by the spirits, such as clothes, accessories, tools, beverages and aliments. I will give an ethnographic identification for some of these objects trying to perceive their relatedness to the process of individual future transformation, where according to umbandistas: "the world becomes known". The analysis is based on ethnographic material collected among members of three Umbanda temples in the metropolitan area of São Paulo in 2011.

Searching the form of God: the intimacy of sound and music among Krishna devotees in Mayapur

Author: Marje Ermel (Estonian Institute of Humanities, Tallinn University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper will explore the sonic expressions of religious intimacy in international Hare Krishna community in Mayapur. The paper will argue that through sound and attentive listening devotees create an intimate relationship not only between themselves but also with Krishna.

Long Abstract

Krishna devotees believe that one has to have a desire to hear, only then one can see Krishna's form. This is an intimate knowledge of God and can be acquired mainly by hearing the transcendental sound. This paper will address the meaning of sound and music in religious intimacy among Hare Krishna devotees in Mayapur, West-Bengal.

According to Hare Krishna discourse the sound of the Holy Name and Krishna himself are the same. However, God appears in his name only to those who are chanting the name without offences. I will explore how devotees learn to chant and hear the Holy Name on japa beads in appropriate way to create an intimate relationship with Krishna. I will also explore the meaning of 'the right mood of kirtan' by which devotees are creating the space of intimacy among themselves and with Krishna while singing his name in a communal prayer. I will argue that even though transcendent and mundane appear as separate realms in Hare Krishna discourse, through attentive listening and knowledge of the Holy Name a devotee can feel Krishna's presence in 'mundane' things and daily life.

Through this discussion I will also show that Krishna devotees can be seen as 'acoustic designers' who, while simultaneously singing and listening the 'Holy Name', create the intimate place to meet God in their everyday life. As a result, I will highlight the central and dynamic role of sound and music in the expressions of religious intimacy among the Krishna devotees in Mayapur.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.