Lived Religion

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Lived Religion

The term "lived religion" denotes an approach to the question of what religion is as it exists in society or in a social field. From this perspective, religion is understood as doing, or practice, but in a distinctive sense. In the collection of essays Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. David D. Hall (1997), where this approach is pursued programmatically by historians and sociologists, practice signifies something more than mere doing: it refers to the forms of action by and through which any tradition, "church," or community works out the nature and boundaries of what it is to be religious.

Thus defined, this approach has three main aspects: (1) Lived religion understood as practice is a means of acknowledging the differences that so often open up between official doctrine or norms of behavior and what adherents of a religion or a church actually "do." Historians of lived religion take for granted that religious actors—be these clergy or laity, "professionals" or amateurs—adapt, appropriate, resist, or improvise in response to regulating, systematic, or formalized constructions of what constitutes religion. Rather than censoring such differences or excluding them as nonreligious, the historian of lived religion seeks to map these processes and especially to explore how the relation between the official and the unofficial is always being negotiated. (2) Lived religion as practice is a means of recognizing that religious actors behave in patterned ways. Practice is not random or aimless but takes on a structure or shape that we commonly designate as "ritual." Accordingly, the historian of lived religion is interested in every aspect of worship and liturgy—that is, what happens inside those spaces that receive official designation as the approved sites for religious practice. But the rituals that occur outside or on the margins of that space are no less interesting: church suppers, family reunions, saints' days. Mother's Day, healings, gift-giving, pilgrimages to shrines, to name but some of the many possibilities. The centrality of ritual in the description of lived religion is paralleled by the importance of ritual theory, especially as rethought by Catherine Bell in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992), where ritual is recast as "ritualization" (that is, always open-ended and in process). (3) Lived religion is about the framework of meaning that is embedded within any given practice. The chapter in Robert Orsi's The Madonna of 115th Street (1985), "The Meanings of the Madonna of 115th Street," where he explicates the multiple, overlapping, even contradictory meanings of a symbol, exemplifies a mode of analysis that connects practice to the play of meaning.

What then is practice? As I have suggested in Lived Religion in America (p. xi), it "encompasses the tensions, the ongoing struggles of definition, which are constituted within every religious tradition and which are always present in how people choose to act religiously. Practice thus suggests that any synthesis is provisional." Not only is this perspective of great importance in understanding contemporary religion; it can also yield new understandings of the past.

See alsoLiturgyand Worship; Practice; Ritual; Sociologyof Religion.


Orsi, Robert. Thank You, St. Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. 1996.

Peacock, James L., and Ruel W. Tyson, Jr. Pilgrims ofParadox: Calvinism and Experience Among the Primitive Baptists of the Blue Ridge. 1989.

David D. Hall