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The Danger of Things: Material Religion in the Context of Indonesia

  April 29th 2021

Dr. Kor Grit, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Universitas Kristen Duta Wacana 

Some of the founding fathers of modern religious studies promote that in the study of religion, scholars of religion should consider things that are in their essence immaterial. Emphases on beliefs, experiences, feelings, symbols, and meanings, but even discourse and identities may have dematerialized the understanding of religion. However, certainly, such approaches have already received their share of criticism from scholars like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Talal Asad, Nancy Ammerman, and many others. This discourse ignites the search for an alternative approach to religious studies and considers that material framework in the study of religion may offer a more productive understanding of religious life. This kind of thinking encouraged Kor Grit to research more about the concept and approach namely material religion especially in the context of Indonesia. Grit presented his research at the Wednesday Forum April 7, 2021, a weekly discussion hosted by ICRS and CRCS with the title ‘The Danger of Things: Material Religion in the Context of Indonesia’. Grit is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology at UKDW, Yogyakarta. He obtained his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Utrecht University (Netherlands) in 2019, with a dissertation on interreligious relations in Pakistan. Currently, his research interest is interreligious studies, ecology, modernity, and globalization in Indonesia.

At the beginning of his presentation, Grit explained the concept of dematerialization of religion. He argues that the dematerialization of religion is closely related to European Protestantism. There are traces of dematerialization within Christianity. For instance, there has always been sort of a tense relationship between the body and Christian faith in the thought of Saint Augustine. Interestingly, dematerialization also can be seen in the painting by Franz Hogenberg (1566) entitled ‘The Church of Our Lady Antwerp” in which he described through his painting how in the iconic lessons of the Catholic Church, many religious materialities were destroyed by European Protestants in an attempt to purify the religion because the material forms were rejected by Protestantism. The dematerialization is also influenced by Western philosophy regarding the distinction between body and mind as it can be seen in the philosophy of Descartes who proposes the hierarchy between body and mind arguing that the mind is closer to being than bodies. Kor Grit also finds that the matter of dematerialization is closely related to the contestation between theology or religious studies and natural sciences, European colonialism and mission, and European modernity and secularism in which there was the privatization of religion and the focus of early anthropology and the so-called "strange belief".

On the other hand, in searching for a suitable approach to the study of religion, especially in the context of Indonesia, Grit found that the material approach to the study of religion interesting. It is often abbreviated as “material religion” or “material framework” for the study of religion which to some extent, according to Grit will change our understandings of what religion is because it has a critical potential. In his research about material religion, Grit was asking how the material approach to religion could be useful for the study of religion in Indonesia and how can we as scholars and students of religions add new understandings or new ways of looking at religion through our engagement with this approach. His research also asks to what extent is the religious landscape of Indonesia also adds new perspectives on materiality and religion.

There are some approaches in study of religion that equate religion with beliefs, experience, subjectivity, signification, and meaning, and religion is thus inward and immaterial. However, in the study of religion, there is a great tendency for materialization. "Material things possess a remarkable range of capacities that exceed the purview of the human sense of knowing, and therefore insist that the materiality of material things themselves must be carefully considered, not merely interpreted for their implications on human concerns." (Hazard 2013). Material Religion refers to (1) an investigation of the interactions between human bodies and physical objects, both natural and human-made; (2) with much of the interaction taking place through sense perception: (3) in special and specified spaces and time; (4) to orient, and sometimes disorienting, communities and individuals; (5) toward the formal structures and structures of religious traditions." Furthermore, by quoting Koentjaraningrat (1975) who argues that “it is, of course, always easier for an observer of a strange culture to pay most attention to the outward physical aspects of a culture” Grit also argues that in the context of Indonesia there is a lot of materiality in the study of religion. Grit offers the examples of many scholars who explain many detailed material things related to the various locality as the specific character of religion in Indonesia within their research. Until 1975, there are Clifford Geertz and scholars like H.W. Bachtiar, E.M. Brunner, G.J. Held,  A.C. Kruyt, J.R. Logan, M.Singarimbun, P. Zoetmulder, who are included in this category. After 1975 it is also followed by M.R. Woodward, R.W. Hefner, B.R. Anderson, and A. Beatty. However, according to Grit, these material things are often secondary to the beliefs, experience, subjectivity, signification, and meaning. Nevertheless, material religion in Indonesia has potential for religious studies because material religion is an approach that is open to human and even non-human nature. Therefore, there are at least four examples of topics in the material religion approach in Indonesia. First is ecology and sustainability: non-human nature as religious materiality. Second, agency/power of things: agency and efficacy of cultural material objects. Third, new-animism: agency of "inanimate" non-human nature. Fourth, indigenous religions and world religions: a reconceptualization of category of religion.

Material religion can also be interesting in the fields of interreligious studies and interreligious conflict because of the shifting focus of the study of religion from beliefs about the other to the dynamic of religious materiality between religions and even also becomes more interesting when it is linked with archeology, art, history, and religious studies. Grit argues that Indonesia has great potential for religious studies because there is development in the relation between religion, media, and technology which not only has become a medium for religious life but also as an integral material part of religion. Within the framework of economies of religion/piety, Grit suggests that important gleanings can come from the exchange of religious goods, the value of religious objects, and regulating the sacrality of objects. And regarding religious bodies or dress, it is linked with religious text, ethics, and identity with materiality. Therefore, Grit concludes that, as opposed to linguistic and discursive approaches, a material framework for the study of religion enables us to treat objects, bodies, images, and other forms of materiality as an integral part of religion. The emphasis on a critical engagement with subject-object/human-material (non-human)/material-immaterial (mind-matter) distinctions is what connects the material religion with research to religion, ecology, and sustainability. Finally, the potential of the material framework to reconceptualize religion offers a new lens for the discussion of relations between indigenous and world religions in the context of Indonesia, though this discussion can be linked to questions of modernity, secularism, and globalization.