Modes and Models of Religious Attraction

Location: Musisches Zentrum, RUB / „Situation Kunst“, Bochum-Weitmar

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Proceedings of the annual conference on “Modes and Models of Religious Attraction” of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg Research Consortium on the “Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe”, 15 – 18 November 2010

At the heart of the annual conference 2010 of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg on “Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe” was the term “attraction” or “attractor” and its derivatives – a term which boasts a rich tradition and has been put to the test in physics, sociology and media theory. Various aspects of religious “attraction” were discussed under the heading “Modes and Models of Religious Attraction” from the perspective of the dimensions “materiality” and “experience”. The aim in this context was not to expose “attraction” as a psychological category or as a factor in identity within a subject-object dialectic, but rather as a specific dynamic factor in the context of religious densification, delimitation and repulsion. Our interest therefore did not focus so much on individually identifiable charismatic figures or on a diffuse agency as the starting point, nor on their followers as identifiable recipients of attractive messages, but instead on the religious intrinsic dynamics of these continued processes of exchange, which significantly determine the formation and dissolution of religious networks of tradition. Particular topics of discussion were the interplays which lead to the creation of religiously efficient material and thus to the formation of attractors, and furthermore religious interactions from which various auratisations of bodies or objects emerge. These include religiously encoded elements which gain or lose attractiveness due to shifts in power within the religious field, and which can transfer their charisma synchronically onto other elements (for instance, holy oil onto a religious symbol anointed with it) or diachronically restore it (for instance through the reinterpretation and incorporation of former places of worship). What was particularly instructive here was the way in which the media work which not only accompany religious bursts of attraction but also codetermine their direction and efficiency and which can act as transformers or generators within the inter and intra-religious communication processes. Beyond this, the specific conditions and possibilities of religious attraction, which  is perceived and conveyed as individual experiences of transcendence, were discussed in greater detail, for instance the suggestive power of alternative offers of salvation in situations of religious competition or the forces of attraction which can manifest themselves in the various forms of mysticism or mystical experiences. It became clear that the various effects of linguistic, visual, audio and performative media and their respective religious encoding play a key role in the dynamics of the religious field.


The first section entitled The Conceptualisation of Aura, Charisma and Transcendence, chaired by Gesche Linde (Frankfurt a.M., Germany), explored the terminological and conceptional environment of religious attraction and repulsion, in particular in terms of its material and media context. At the heart of the debate was the question of to what degree definitions of aura, charisma and transcendence can contribute to  theoretical clarification, above all of the relational aspects of intra and inter-religious dynamics.

At the start of the section, in a contribution entitled Sacrifice, Martyrdom and the 'Nachleben’ of Religion, Martin Treml (Berlin, Germany) highlighted the aesthetic dimension, which anticipates and refers back to religious practice, and which also and especially becomes apparent in the “Nachleben” of religious aura in the secular aura of works of art. The cultural techniques described by Aby Warburg as “pathos formula”, which condense religious experience, process it by forming and shaping it, thus enabling its transmission and possibly re-use in other religious or secular contexts, seem to be of particular significance for religious dynamics. Explicit reference was made to the significance of the – as yet insufficiently incorporated –  approaches from the early phase of the Warburg school for religious research in general and specifically for the concept of a relational form of research on religion.

As is well known, the term “Nachleben” has proven extremely productive in the diachronic observation of ancient art history, and indeed not just in terms of its many Christian and later secular “renaissances”, but also – as illustrated in the lecture by Ioannis Mylonopoulos (New York, USA) on The Beauty of Simple Things: Simplicity and the Visual Construction of the Divine in Ancient Greece – for the Greek cult tradition itself. Starting from the striking thesis - “In the beginning there was the image” – aniconic sculptures of early times, colossal statues, “classical” humanisations of idols and experimental and historicising tendencies of Hellenism were used to describe different strategies of religious attraction through visual constructions of the divine. The dichotomy developed by Mylonopoulos between two differently oriented charismatic interactions appeared to be particularly revealing in this context : between a communicative dynamic, which formed out of directly sensuous factors of attraction (through shaping the human body into beautiful forms) or out of decidedly simple, archaising forms (which thus suggest dignity).

Knut Martin Stünkel (Bochum, Germany) then undertook the promising attempt in his lecture on Aura as Propensity. Towards a Non-Intentionalistic Description of Attraction to render the concept of religious attraction more concrete by converging Benjamin’s theory of the aura and Popper’s “propensity” concept, to then go on to link both approaches to Bruno Latour’s blueprint of hybrid networks. The advantage of this initially surprising constellation is above all that it can grasp phenomena of attraction in their specific dynamic between convergence and distance. Religious attraction would therefore not be defined as a state or trait of an auratic cult object, but rather as a continued “unfolding”, whose condensations appear neither predictable nor controllable, and so cannot be explained by the intentions of the subjects or collectives involved either.  Aura, charismatics and religious material thus are not in a causal but in a relational relationship which results from a sequence of processes of attraction and repulsion.

The general discussion highlighted once again that with regard to the communicative dynamism between statues of the gods and the community worshipping them, especially from relational points of view, it is virtually impossible to imagine a clear separation between cult and art objects. Furthermore the point was made that it is necessary to take into account the relevance of description or textualisation or even visualisation, and consequently the translation into another medium as a factor of self-reflection and self-reassurance of religious aura.

Picking up on the initial deliberations on terminological clarification, the second section, chaired by Arie L. Molendijk (Groningen, Netherlands) on Creating Typologies for Charisma and Transcendental Experience aimed to differentiate more precisely between the different fields of forces in which aura, charisma, transcendence and transcendental experience can take on concrete form. Here the question was also what significance the translation and communication of religious experience through media would have in a typology of religious and non-religious attractors. Dimitri Drettas (Erlangen, Germany) demonstrated in his contribution on Dream Divination and Dream Exorcism in Chinese Household Encyclopedias the significance of soothsaying using the example of predictive techniques in China, whilst showing how the interpretation of dreams and apotropaic means, which have a long tradition in Daoism in warding off evil spirits, can converge. Dreams are understood in this context as a multifaceted interaction between various spirit beings, ancestors, divinities and demons which temporarily enter into an exciting dialogue with the dreamer, which later is continued in the process of interpretation of dreams. The experience of transcendence and the reflection of transcendence, as they manifest themselves in the corresponding books of dreams, appear in all of this as complementary factors of attraction which can both cancel out as well as intensify the dynamics of charisma and transcendental experience.

Naomi-Feuchtwanger-Sarig’s contribution (Tel Aviv, Israel) entitled Between Mundane, Sanctified and Holy: Re-Defining Jewish Ritual and Ceremonial Objects continued the discussion on a differentiation and possible typologisation of aura and charismatics with a series of specific examples from the Jewish tradition, which – ranging from Dura Europos up to the present – highlighted different ways of dealing with auratic objects or different purity rules and procedures to secure ritual status. Whilst on the one hand the speaker showed how the rules handed down from generation to generation, for example on the production and inscription of Torah scrolls, continue to be observed in the minutest of detail, on the other hand she noted that from a Jewish point of view, ceremonial objects, cannot actually be rendered profane at all as their status is after all defined by God’s word and thus their material aspects as well as their possibly being endangered are of secondary importance. With regard to inter-religious spheres of contact and conflict, several notable cases of the conversion of Jewish cult objects merited particular attention, which – in what circumstances it is unfortunately unclear – had been used in Christian liturgy.

Real or virtual inter-religious conversions were also discussed in the next contribution by Sven Bretfeld (Bochum, Germany). Under the heading of Materiality of Religion and the Aesthetic Dimensions of Orientalism, the speaker concentrated on two prominent examples of religiously loaded Orientalism from the 19th century. Starting with a precise description of Arthur Schopenhauer's study and the significant positioning of a Buddha statue, first the oscillating powers of attraction and repulsion of the then little-known Eastern religions on the atheist philosopher and his theological opponents were discussed and then contrasted with the esoterically influenced convergence with Buddhism by the American attorney, journalist and first president of the of the “Theosophical Society”, Henry Steel Olcott, half a century later, who after his conversion wrote an - in terms of intra-religious reception - rather controversial Buddhist catechism according to Western criteria. In both cases, the complementary - and in itself certainly contradictory – relationship between experience of transcendence and transcendental reflection is a constitutive factor in inter-religious attraction.

In the general discussion on the section’s contributions there was an emphasis on the need to start less with auratised objects or the people affected by them when creating a typological distinction and instead to focus on the processes of attribution, the forms of communication and the media involved in these.


The third section Re-Constructing Auratic Material, chaired by Marion Steinicke (Bochum, Germany), dealt with processes of loading with religious meaning, reinterpretation, re-evaluation as well as the reclaiming of cult objects and sites; at the fore was the search for specific processes which lead to the distinction between religious and secular material as well as the special factors of attraction of religiously loaded material. The section opened with a lecture by Carmen Meinert (Essen/ Bochum, Germany) Striving for Perfection in Central Asian Buddhism: Non-Conceptionality in Medieval Daoism on Dunhuang on the Silk Road, once a prominent place of worship for Buddhism and its intra-religious confrontations, whose significance manifests itself in its architectural and visual art design - particularly interesting in terms of the media aspects of religious attraction – as well as in extremely rich text production. The speaker concentrated on the idea of “non-conceptionality” which is constantly a central theme in the writings as a soteriologically decisive experience concept in Buddhism, which on the one hand (in the direction of Tibet) exerted a remarkable pull, and on the other was received with remarkable indifference (in the direction of China). Especially against this – and not least also politically explosive – backdrop, Dunhuang is a significant example of the interaction of different attractors which condition the genesis, condensation and dissolution of a religious centre of gravity, without – regardless of the various secondary modes of reception (interventions, restrictions or attempts to control) – identifying primary intentional steering or ordering structures.

Following on from this, in her contribution on Embodied Transcendence: Energetic and Physical Cultivation in Medieval Daoism Livia Kohn (Boston, USA) used an in-depth discussion of the Daoist concept of physicality to highlight that the “occidental concepts” of spirituality and materiality, of immanence and transcendence (irrespective of their many differentiations, especially in the context of religious and philosophical debate) have always been the subject of controversial discussion with regard to Daoism. Although the terminology appears to be problematic, in the Chinese context, too, there are traces of “notions of Western-style transcendence” to be found, notably in the form of Dao as an otherworldly god and creator. In “medieval Daoist culture” these different dimensions are activated through the medium of the body. The human body as a mirror of the cosmos can thus be understood as a sacred topography within which immanence and transcendence complete one another as part of a process and thus transform the human physis itself into a primary field of forces of different religious factors of attraction and repulsion.

In the following contribution on Recreating an Ancient Attraction: The Buddha’s Cave and the Sixteen Pilgrimage Sites in Sri Lanka, Kevin Trainor (Burlington, USA) used a specific case study to describe the restoration of lost, forgotten or forsaken Buddhist holy relics in Sri Lanka and the attempts to revive past pilgrimage sites connected with this. The speaker analysed a series of legitimisation strategies which intended to both legitimise and increase the concrete topography of the restored pilgrimage network and its religious attractiveness. This includes the supernatural manifestations transmitted in various ways and communicated through media which characterise a specific cult site, the corresponding legend literature which tells of this and also the non man-made religious images belonging to a particular cult site. Exhibitions of reproductions of such archaic or even only archaising visual works made it possible to authorise the respective location of a restored holy site.

In contrast to this, in Making Attractive what is Already Attractive: Roman Catholicism in Early Modern South India, Between Missionary Accommodation and Grassroot Syncretism, Paolo Aranha (Florence, Italy) investigated various Christian mission strategies in the area of the Indian subcontinent, notably in Goa. The missionary activities carried out by the Roman Church with significant involvement of the Inquisition are characterised by three diverging, and because of this very fact, efficient trends, which the speaker subsumed under the terms “repression” (of existing ritual acts and destruction of places of worship), “adaption” (absorption of non-Christian religious customs, forms of worship or festivals into Christian cult practices) and “attraction” (specific coordination of Christian cult practices with indigenous traditions). Of particular relevance in this context is the principle of “accommodation”, which proves to be a key attraction factor in the India mission – thus differing from the missionary endeavours in other parts of the world. Here, within the new Christian communities, common ethical and social concepts – such as the caste system – are tolerated as is the continuation of archaic ritual acts or their discrete integration into the Christian mass through inter-religious reinterpretation or conversion. Furthermore, the participation of non-Christians in Christian processions is allowed and membership of a community of worship is not determined by a rigid inclusion and exclusion procedure.

With her paper on Creating Transcendental Feelings: Fantasies of the Milky Way in the Contemporary Japanese Organization World Mate, Inken Prohl then drew attention in the final part of the section to the different conditions, prerequisites and specificities of “World Mate”, a version of new religiosity in contemporary Japanese society, whose “transcultural events”could raise important questions on the margins and interfaces of religious and secular attraction. The paper concentrated on the two-fold question of  “How people are bound?“, and “How people react?” In answer to this question, numerous examples of cult objects were presented which, according to certain concepts in the history of art, would have come under the category commodity aesthetics and that the speaker herself dubbed “Walt-Disney-Style”. The “customer-orientation” of this community of worship was consequently underlined, which in an attempt to attract new members evidently makes use of tried and tested marketing strategies.

The lecture offered opportunity for terminological self-reflection in several respects. In the section’s closing discussion, on the one hand, the difficulty of defining “religious feelings” or religious experience without social or cultural contextualisation was broached, whilst, on the other hand, the need to distinguish between the terms transcendent and transcendental especially from relational points of view was underlined.


The subjects of the fourth and final section Inter- and Intra-Religious Dynamics of Transcendental Experience, chaired by Heinz Georg Held (Pavia, Italy), were the processes of attraction and repulsion, which, on the one hand, determine the fascination of transcendence and, on the other, motivate the discursive reflection and media propagation of transcendental experience. Up for discussion first and foremost were the questions of the specific role of individual media as well as of the intrinsic dynamics of religiously determined communication or its significance for the turbulences and emergences of the religious field. To start, Christophe Nihan's contribution  (Lausanne, Switzerland), entitled Qumran and the Dynamics of Religious Attraction in the 2nd Temple Period, described the intra-religious differentiation process between “Tora” and “Temple” –  which - apparently paradoxically – contributed in reciprocally and also socially encoded delimitation and exclusion towards an increasing auratisation of both institutions and beyond that towards the establishment of a host of also politically significant in-group practices. It is in specifically this field of conflict that the speaker sees the source of Jewish mysticism, which breaks through the clerical privilege of interpretation of the Torah and offers what is historically, too, a long-term “alternative attraction” with the complementary phenomena of the individualisation of religious practice and the textualisation of religious experience characteristic of the Qumran. Nihan underlined the significance, not just for the intra-religious development of Judaism, but also from a comparative perspective, of ritual and liturgy as key factors of attraction and also potentially of repulsion.

The contribution by Ada Rapoport-Albert (London, UK) 'Dropping out’ into Hasidism extended the line of tradition dealt with in time and space to the Hasidim movement, which evidently in the present day in particular, seems to be exerting special appeal. In this special manifestation of Jewish mysticism, which, on the one hand, unmistakably has messianic traits, but, on the other, also shows inter-religious influences, for example, from Sufism, the omnipresence of God in nature or in the material world is presupposed and thus themselves are given their own aura and perceived as a spiritually fulfilled reality. The characteristics of this movement, which the speaker was able to illustrate through several striking examples, include the mutual (and not, as in comparable constellations, one-sided) attraction which must exist between a charismatic leadership figure and his or her pupils and followers. The relationships within this intra-religious network therefore are determined through active as well as reactive processes of convergence and also possibly of distancing between individuals. In terms of cult practices, too, individualisation plays a key role as a factor of attraction.

On the basis of a concrete case study - Connecting Transcendent Attraction and Attractive Objects: The Case of Elisabeth of Schönau - Anne Clark (Burlington, USA) then moved on to the tradition of Christian mysticism, which she above all discussed from the point of view of its liturgical inclusion, and thus in the media context. The visions of the Benedictine nun in the 12th century, according to her thesis, cannot be understood without the direct link to ritual practice, in equal measure as material as well as a motive of mystic attraction. In addition to visualisation and textualisation, the speaker pointed to the central role played by music in the meditation and ecstasy techniques of mysticism. Overall, according to the speaker, in the Christian tradition mystical experience was the highest and most extensive articulation of religiosity and would thus represent a decisive factor of attraction within monastery life as the condition for making this transcendence and transcendental experience possible.

Under the heading Enchanted by Intra’s Net: Some Random Reflections on Textual Images of Transcendence and their Role in Religious Contacts Jörg Plassen (Bochum, Germany) used the example of the Avatamsaka sutra and its reception within various Buddhist currents as well as the interpretation by Western philologists to investigate structural influences of visual language forms which relate to transcendent spheres and which due to their special suggestiveness, their aesthetic qualities or their illustrative power of persuasion exert a lasting attraction in intra and inter-religious contact. The speaker, citing inter alia the work of Lakoff/ Johnson, Blumenberg and Taureck , explicitly emphasized the ambivalence of metaphors, which in part can trigger very different, certainly opposite, and thus even contradictory reception processes by transferring religious ideas to other religious or secular areas or connecting with other religious or secular contents. With his fundamental deliberations on the status and meaning of rhetorical figures, metaphorical language and metaphors, Plassen drew our attention once again to significant shortcomings in the differentiation of terms and the heuristic evaluation of intra and inter-religious translation processes.

Then, finally, the contribution by Christoph Auffarth (Bremen, Germany) on Innerwordly Transcendence as the Attractiveness of the – Material – World to Come: The Third Reich brought together some of the most important questions of the conference once again, highlighting their complexity as well as their reach in terms of cultural history. At the same time, the speaker extended the largely historical thrust of the discussion into the 20th century, not just to underline the current pertinence of the debate on “religious attraction” beyond the limits of the specifically religious field, but also to thereby explicitly take into account the decisive relational aspect of the observer perspective. Using the example of the millenarian concept of the “Third Reich” and its terminological history,  Auffarth demonstrated the intrinsic media dynamic of religious terminology, which due to its manifold semantic links has been subject to new or re-interpretations. Evidently we are looking here at something more and different than intra-religious reception behaviour (as is shown for instance in the adoption and interpretation of the concept by puritans, radical pietists, adventists etc.). Auffarth focussed his talk on the multifaceted topic of the role and status of religious prophecies and their expected fulfilment within secularised societies, such as in the “Sattelzeit” between 1750 and 1850, which transformed the religious concept of the thousand year kingdom of peace into a revolutionary utopia of the human race, or in the first half of the 20th century that seized its for totally unholy purposes and ends, and finally in the present, which was able to integrate it into its political and military logic of confrontation.

The explanation of this strange persistence of religiously loaded notions, which– in particular through their intra and inter-religious migration potential – become largely autonomous attractors and can gain new dynamism time and again by being associated with current ideas, is one of the key tasks in a relational form of research on religion, the specific objective of which was made clear once again by Volkhard Krech (Bochum, Germany) in his closing summary and thematic situating of the different conference contributions. Krech underlined the consortium's research interest in the energetic conditions of an inter and intra-religious power play, which, on the one hand, auratises ritual sites and objects, attributes them religious impact and increases their charismatics through discursive, figurative and performative forms of attraction, and which, on the other hand, allows individual and collective experiences of transcendence  to emerge before a religiously charged horizon of expectation and forms new religious networks through their media interdependence.

Affiliated Persons

Photograph of Prof. Dr. Volkhard Krech

Prof. Dr. Volkhard Krech


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Dr. Marion Steinicke