Introduction to Spatial Theory

What is Spatial Theory?

Spatial theory is the study of space and place. It involves, but is not limited to, geography, material objects, the built environment, social institutions, the body, imaginary sites, and ideological positions.

Definitions of “Space” and “Place”

The following definitions are taken from Robert W. Preucel and Lynn Meskell, “Places,” in A Companion to Social Archaeology, edited by Lynn Meskell and Robert W. Preucel (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 215.

Space: The physical setting in which everything occurs.
Place: The outcome of the social process of valuing space; a product of the imaginary, of desire, and the primary means by which we articulate with space and transform it into a humanized landscape.

It is important to note, however, that not all scholars adhere to or accept these definitions. Some view place as a more general concept from which space is derived. Others view both “space” and “place” as social constructs. The latter view shifts the focus from the distinction between the two terms to the means by which they are produced. Nevertheless, these definitions suffice as a basic starting point for these contested terms, whose definitions may be amended and modified as the need arises.

The Spatial Turn

The 1991 English translation of Henri Lefebvre’s pioneering 1974 book, La production de l’espace, heralded a new interest in the study of space. Lefebvre challenged traditional notions of space as an abstract arena and passive container, proposing a theory that unified physical, social, and mental conceptions of space by emphasizing its continual production and reproduction. Lefebvre’s work influenced a generation of postmodern thinkers, including Edward Soja and Kim Knott, who carried Lefebvre’s work forward, adapting and reworking it for their particular areas of study. Lefebvre’s influence triggered what has become known as “the spatial turn,” a period in the early 1990’s when continental theorists and postmodern geographers produced a swell of work in which they attempted to think about and understand space in new ways. Since the spatial turn, space is no longer viewed as static or inert background action, but as an arena of struggle that shapes ideas, beliefs, principles, and values. Modern spatial theorists understand space as dynamic, relational, and agentive. Space is intertwined with embodiment and lived experiences, touching every arena of social and cultural life, including, of course, religion.

Spatial Theory and Religious Studies

Since ancient times space and religion have been intertwined in cosmologies and geographies. For instance, in Geography, the Greek geographer Strabo traces the topography of the ancient world using a religious imagination. In a similar fashion, the cosmology of the Judeo-Christian tradition grounds space in scripture. This tradition carried forward into the middle ages as Medieval scholars and theologians searched for and pronounced correlations between scripture and the natural world, assuming that the Bible accurately dictated spatial order. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries scholars began to attempt to harmonize scientific thought with scripture. This produced a new genre of geography, one that emphasized divine providence and a Christian teleology. Within this new genre, Gottlieb Kasche first coined the term “geography of religion” in his 1795 book, Ideas about Religious Geography. Kasche joined space to religious missionary interests to produce a comprehensive ecclesiastical geography.

Besides the typical theological understanding of space, no attempt was made by the early scholars of religion (e.g. Tylor, Frazer, Müller) to assess space and geography in religion in a non-confessional setting. This began to change in 1933 with Gerardus van der Leeuw’s publication of Religion in Essence and Manifestation, which catapulted the topic of sacred space to the forefront of the study of religion. Yet, it was Mircea Eliade who cemented sacred space as an object of theoretical study with his book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1957). Whether a fan or a critic, Eliade’s axioms concerning sacred and profane space became foundational for future discussions of space in religious studies.
The theoretical study of space was ushered into contemporary studies of religion by Eliade’s student and toughest critic, Jonathan Z. Smith. In “The Wobbling Pivot” in Map Is Not Territory (1978) Smith proposed “a locative vision of the world (which emphasizes place) and a utopian vision of the world (the value of being in no place)” (p. 101). With these maps of the world Smith furthered the study of space in religious studies by demonstrating that place is more than natural or material space. Rather, space is lived and socially organized, from which sacred or profane space is produced. This study was followed up by To Take Place (1987) in which Smith removed sacred space from the phenomenological foundation created by Eliade and inserted it into an anthropological and sociological framework. Smith argues that places are created through ritual – a process by which people make their world (the space they inhabit) meaningful.

Smith’s work, preceding the spatial turn, was in many respects a precursor of it. Smith aimed to think about (sacred) space through new lenses, according to new maps. The spatial turn enabled scholars from a variety of fields to reevaluate the production of space in human life, and many of them contemplated the imbrication of space and religion. For instance, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Fredric Jameson recognized religious discourses in their work and the impact that such discourses had on the production of space. More so, all noticed a relationship between space, time, and history. Foucault wrote of the discourses of power in religious institutions and how these institutions contributed to the historical production and shaping of space. Jameson observed that the postmodern world was dominated by categories of space rather than time. Lefebvre wrote about the role of Christian bodies in the production of religious space and their appearance in urban landscapes. As the spatial turn gained more momentum thinkers began to further pick up on the implications of spatial representation in religion. Subsequent scholars thus found space in nearly every aspect of religion: sacred places, landscapes, pilgrimages, ritual practice, and embodiment.

By and large the study of space in twenty-first century religious studies has moved beyond studying the confines of sacred space. For instance, Lily Kong calls for an analysis of new religious geographies in her article, “Mapping ‘New’ Geographies of Religion: Politics and Poetics in Modernity” (2001) that encompass “global, national, regional, local” and bodily spaces differentiated according to gender, age, and sexuality (p. 226). Kim Knott and Thomas Tweed have also called for an evaluation of space in religious studies beyond the sacred. In her book, The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (2005), Knott offers a spatial methodology for examining religion in modernity. Through an investigation of secular places and objects Knott aims to offer a new perspective on the relationship between religion and the physical, social, and cultural arenas in which it is situated. More specifically, Knott highlights the role of the body in the experience and representation of space in a case study: the location of religion in the left hand. Similar to Knott, Thomas Tweed aims to reorient the study of religion according to spatial theory in his book, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2006). Tweed theorizes religion in relation to three themes: “movement, relation, and position” (p. 5). He also constructs a definition of religion according to spatial terms: “Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (p. 54). Tweed’s theoretical model allows us to consider religion as a spatial entity, to apply spatial concepts to the material, social, and cultural locations of religion.

Thinking about religion through the lens of spatial theory provides new perspectives and insights into various aspects of religion. More so, spatial theory highlights an awareness that religion operates at many levels: within the body, at places of worship, or through national or global connections.

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