• de
  • en

Sacralisation and Desacralisation

Sacralisation and Desacralisation

This research area analyses "sacralisations" and "desacralisations" in politics, religion and society. It thus examines the change, manifestations and differentiation of fundamental values and their societal functions. Under de/sacralisations, the research area understands the processes and practices through which things, people and ideas are communicated as intangible, immutable and ordering authorities, or through which their exceptional status changes.
The projects in this research area pursue three areas of interest. Firstly, they investigate processes of sacralisation and desacralisation that manifest as coping strategies in extreme or marginal existential circumstances, or are triggered by such circumstances. Secondly, the research area is interested in the phenomenon of the sacralisation of concepts of order and the practises connect with them, through which these concepts gained relevance for broader society. The third focus is on varied, historically mutable forms and practices of "sacrality management" and the resulting conflicts.

read more

In all periods of history and in all societies, specific ideas, principles, texts, objects or practices were viewed as superordinate and intangible, and an order-giving function for collective modes of thought and action were attributed to them. These included, for example, religion, political ideologies, war, the nation, progress, technology, the individual and human rights, but also art and nature. In Europe’s past and present, sacrality has been attributed to all of these at different times, or they have produced sacrality.
The discernible plurality of the sacred casts doubt on the idea that an all-encompassing and teleological long-term process of secularisation – understood as the progressive disentchantment of the world – was the dominant trend of modern European history. Instead, we observe an interplay between controversial and partly interrelated processes of sacralisation and desacralisation. The incredibly mutable nature of the sacrad can also be observed, as well as its continuing relevance in different religious, societal and political fields, even outside of institutionalized religions.

Under "sacralisations", the projects in this research area understand repeated acts and forms of attributing, through which sacrality and the "sacred" were produced and distinguished. Thus, the research area analyses processes in which people and actions, but also objects and spaces, are established and perceived as absolute and intangible, normative, constitutive of meaning and community, and stabilizing order. Conversely, "desacralisations" are those processes through which sacralised institutions and phenomena change or lose their status. Thus, at issue is the paradox of the negotiability of that which is supposed to be non-negotiable. Sacralisation and desacralisation are revealed as processes of (de-)differentiation. By making the sacrad absolute, differentiating between it and the profane and that which is everyday and worldly, and by suggesting that this definition is binding, these processes provoke knock-on differentiations in society in the form of adherents and "believers", but also in the form of critics, the excluded and those who have been devalued, and even opponents.

In the context of this broader question, the projects in this research area pursue the following three knowledge interests: Firstly, they investigate sacralisation and desacralisation processes that are coping strategies in extreme and marginal existential circumstances, or that are triggered by such circumstances. This was the case, for example, with the interpretation of experiences of war and relating to the mass, deindividualized dying at the beginning of the twentieth century (A. Hofmann). But already in the early modern period, death and dying prompted the sacralisation or desacralisation of an individual liminal experience for posterity in printed and widely-disseminated publications, such as the funeral literature that emerged in the second half of the 16th century (B. Brunner). The fundamental experience of dying gave rise to entirely different processes of sacralisation and desacralisation in these two cases – on the one hand the sacralisation of the individual life and the desacralisation of death in itself, on the other hand the sacralisation of mass, deindividualized dying in war, which also made necessary other forms of collective self-sacralisation. At the same time, the extremes of the 20th century – mass murder, the collapse of social structures and changes of political regimes – promoted a strong dynamic of sacralisation and desacralisation in other fields.

Consequently, the research area also has a second interest in the phenomenon of the sacralisation of concepts of order and the related practices through which these concepts received societal relevance. Insecure societal structures made it necessary for concepts of order to be more ideologically adaptable, for example in the form of the idea of the "new (wo)man" that was so virulent in many societies in the 20th century. For example, a project on a modernistic factory city in Czechoslovakia analyses how this "new (wo)man" was formed on the basis of rationalized industrial production in the first half of the 20th century, and then desacralized multiple times between 1938 and 1948 (G. Feindt). In other circumstances, for example in Christian intellectual networks, these extremes prompted a renewal of sacrality that was presumed to have been lost. One project investigates how Christian intellectual networks in Great Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War attempted to question the sacralisations of ideals of technologizing progress that were emerging at that time. This also at all times included efforts to re-establish the cultural validity of Christian sacrality, which the intellectuals viewed as having been lost (J. Wood).

While in this example we see sacralisations serving to stabilise societal understandings of the world and concepts of order, in other contexts desacralisations served these same function. The example of the initiatives to promote reconciliation after the Second World War (U. Pękala) illustrates how a sacral understanding of »reconciliation« and the religiously connoted concept of "reconciliation" was desacralized in the course of its transfer from the religious to the political sphere, even if this process was accompanied by religious gestures and symbolic actions.

"Nature" is one of those societal concepts that have historically been sacralised for longest in very different forms and societal formations. More recently in the environmental and nature conservation debates of the 20th century, this occurred through concepts of "wilderness" that is worth protecting, but also of "creation" worth retaining. Taking the iconic Serengeti National Park in East Africa, one project investigates the ritual, scientific and touristic performances that the sacralisation of the national park has given rise to, as well as how native concepts of the nature -god, which is venerated in the Serengeti, were marginalised as a result (B. Gißibl).

Finally, a third focus is on different, historically mutable forms and practices of "sacrality management" and the conflicts that result from them. The insistence that the sacral is binding made rules, ritualisation, discipline and supervision necessary. Public offices and institutions drew power from the sacred, which in turn had to be administered and communicated by "sacral experts". In the case of the spatialization of sacred nature already referred to, this occurred in the form of restrictions on access to, and behaviour within national parks and areas of conservation, though the "believers" were able to bend the rules and establish their own sacrality practices (B. Gißibl).

Modifying the content and form of canonical texts was a form of negotiating the sacred that was historically common both in religious and non-religious contexts. Taking the example of Jewish prayerbooks in Italy in the 19th century, one project in this research area employs a digital comparison to examine how concepts of sacrality changed in the context of Jewish self-perception and against the backdrop of the respective historical contexts. What situations in everyday life were given a religious treatment in these books, how did the content of the prayer cannon change in the course of political developments, and who served as the "gatekeeper" and selection authority for this content, which was presented to congregations of Italian Jews in these books (A. Grazi)?

This understanding of the sacred with a cultural studies emphasis enables the projects of this research area to identify forms of sacralisation in the area of institutionalized religiosity, but also beyond it. In this way, the particular collective and individual binding power of competing and historically mutable concepts of sacrality come into view. Sacrality was structured in a deliberate way; its claim was contested. The sacred exercised its power and its obligation within societal systems of interpretation and order, as well as in the coexistence and competition between these systems. Of interest is the often asymmetrical, but reciprocal interference between religion and other social-political fields, such as those that are often investigated under the term sacral transfer (resp. transfer of sacrality). Finally, an investigation of processes of sacralisation and desacralisation across historical periods also enables the analysis to specifically thematize changes in the significance of religion in Europe in the modern era, while going beyond the proposition of universal secularisation. 

Between Theological Positions and National-Political Interests

Christian Intellectuals in Britain and the Challenge of Modernity, 1945–1963

Drawing Death into Life. Early Modern Ways in Coping with Death in Europe, 1500–1700

A European French patriot? Adolphe Crémieux as a defender of minority rights across imperial lines

"Heiliger Krieg und göttlicher Friede" - Deutungen von Krieg und Frieden in europäischen Predigten der Frühen Neuzeit

Industrial Lifes. Towns, Biographies and the Negotiation of Modernity in Czechoslovakia, 1920–1960

"Minhag Italia": Digital Approaches to Jewish Print Cultures – Nineteenth-century Italian prayer books