Urban Religion

In the first week of the semester we read Robert Orsi’s introductory essay, “Crossing the City Line,” in his edited volume, Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (1999).  In this reading, Orsi offers a definition of urban religion that we will explore throughout the semester:

“Urban religion” does not refer simply to religious beliefs and practices that happen to take place in cities (and that might as well take place elsewhere). Urban religion is what comes from the dynamic engagement of religious traditions (by which I mean constellations of practices, values, and beliefs, inherited and improvised, in ongoing exchanges among generations and in engagement with changing social, cultural, and intellectual contexts) with specific features of the industrial and post-industrial cityscapes and with the social conditions of city life. The results are distinctly and specifically urban forms of religious practice, experience, and understanding. (bottom p.43)

After this class, the Ramonat Scholars were asked to identify examples of urban religion, past and present.  On their individual class blogs (which can be accessed by clicking on the links below or in the Blogroll to the right), they explored some of the issues raised by Orsi’s essay through the lens of the examples they had selected.  For example,

  • The impulse to build a distinctive religious structure is one of the most common among urban ethnic groups and provides us today with some of the most impressive example of urban religion. But how do those congregations evolve overtime, especially as old groups move away and new immigrant groups arrive?  Andrew, Dan, Susie, Guy, and Claire explore these issues of building and/or adaptation through different examples.
  • Even before they built churches, immigrant groups took to the streets to mark their place within a community. Bianca explores how a century after its members first arrived, Portland’s Polish community is returning to the streets in search of community;
  • Shannon reminds us of the attraction of the immigrant parish for one generation and the challenge posed by the process of walking through the city to another.
  • Brendan wondered why the placement of a religious figure — a representation of the Buddha — elicited very different responses in Chicago and Oakland;
  • Orsi argues that nineteenth-century cities had long inspired fear among the American populace as centers of vice and dissipation.  Olivia explores how that fear catalyzed the creation of a distinctly new form of urban religious institution: the YMCA;
  • Some moved to the city to find religiously likeminded others. Maya explores how one religious groups — Wiccans — can create community in cities that doesn’t exist in rural areas.

Beginning to understand the variety of manifestations of urban religion – and religion in cities – will help us as we move back in time over the coming weeks to explore the conditions in Europe that precipitated the migration of Chicago’s Catholic population and their early efforts at building community in their new homes.


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