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Christian Individualisation in the Context of Roman Imperial Social Geography
Christian Individualisation in the Context of Roman Imperial Social Geography

Proposal for Research

Max Weber Kolleg

University of Erfurt

January – December 2012

This proposal takes place within the context of a broader research prospectus (see the description that follows below) developed by Professor Robert Daum, Director of the Iona Pacific Centre for the Inter-Religious Study, Social Action and Contemplation at Vancouver School of Theology and myself. Professor Daum and I secured research funding for collaborative research in Spring 2008  and then again in 2009/10 to study the roles of Roman imperial visual and material culture in shaping religious self-identity and self-definition in emergent Jewish and Christian culture. Our focus has been to direct our attention to appropriations of imperial material culture to shape characteristic responses of resistance, accommodation, and negotiation. Our aim has been to locate these emergent traditions in the spaces of civic culture and to show how differing aspects of civic material culture helped to shape differing responses and definitions of religious self-identity. Our approach has been a critically empiricist orientation to ancient imperial culture, supplemented with the help of theories of visual culture advanced by both ancient and contemporary theorists of civic/urban culture.  With a view to this we are developing a seminar for the Winter Semester 2011 and have conducted research trips to libraries in the United States, as well as research trips to Italy. A research trip to the cities of western Asia Minor is anticipated for the Spring of 2011.

            My aim in working in collaboration with the Professor Jörg Rüpke on the theme of “Religious Individualization in Historical Perspective” is to bring the focus of my research to date on the question of modes of individualization in Roman imperial civic culture. My main interest is in a socio-historical and interdisciplinary avenue of investigation. My research career has been informed by the application of social scientific models and methods in the study of early Christian texts and culture. While I have tended to avoid a too wooden application, I have found that theoretical orientations when held lightly and used adeptly yield very promising results not attained through more traditional modes of the investigation of early Christian data. I share with the “Religious Individualization” proposal a desire to bring a wide repertoire of methods and insights drawn from varying disciplines, but especially from the work of the social examination of Antiquity.

My most recent interest has been in researching differing ways in which emerging Christian communities appropriated the imperial material culture around them in civic contexts and in doing so created unique means of conceiving the self in the civic arena, and engaged in processes of transformation and redefinition of existing traditions and their idealization.  I have already discovered a promising avenue of investigation by relating the visual language of Julio-Claudian and Flavian monumental culture and its visual idealizations in the study of deutero-Pauline texts. Too often New Testament and early Christian texts have been read through a strictly lexicographical or historical critical mode and ignored broader forms of communication in the ancient civic arenas where much of the New Testament was formulated, namely visual means of communication. Not only do New Testament authors adopt the vocabulary of universalizing Roman imperial political ideals, they also translate into words the visualization they saw around them so as to bring to speech and writing their teachings and ideals.

While working in collaboration in Erfurt I aim to focus this approach more precisely on the role of civic space, visual culture, and social geography in shaping the self in the gathering spaces of emergent first and second century Christian cultures. To date insufficient attention has been given to questions of social geography in the investigation of social constructions of a Christian self in this period. We may consider social geography for example under the three aspects of hypothesized early Christian gathering places: the oikos, the insula, and the collegium. Ample evidence exists of earliest Christians gathering in all three spaces, but scholarship tends to favour one location over another in a totalizing theory of social geography, or to develop one model of sociality and apply it generally. Hal Taussig (In the Beginning was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009]) offered useful models of meals and meal gathering to identify the importance of the intimate space of the triclinium in shaping Christian identify and communal formation. Similarly, Philip Harland (Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003]) has considered the impact of the rules and regulations guiding the innumerable collegia of the first century in considering the self-regulation and sociality of early Christian gatherings. Finally, Robert Jewett, especially in his most recent Hermeneia Commentary on Romans (Fortress, 2008), and reinforced by the empirical data furnished by Peter Lampe (Die stadtrömischen Christen in den ersten beiden Jahrhunderten [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987/89]) on the Roman context of Christianity and Judaism in the first two centuries, has considered the place of the impoverished Roman tenement or insula in shaping group identity. Each of these has been treated from a larger sociological perspective that focuses on communal identity, but not individual identity per se.

Accordingly, we may constructively consider these spaces as three important ways of imaging the social space for achieving individualization and self-identity. It does not necessarily follow that any single site is a measure for others, or even that they are complementary; it may be that the social processes of individualization are specific to their social location. For differing social spaces require specific forms of socialization in order to guide behaviour relative to the places where individuals perform themselves in their specific social worlds. Thus one may hypothesize that with differing social gathering places come their respective means of appropriating social space, the appearance of differing forms of social networks, and differing idealizations of social life so as to realize common goals and to socialize adherents into characteristic articulations of belief. If we place these social modalities in the larger arena of imperial monumental and local civic culture and spaces, the hypothetical treatment of modalities of a self specific to differing location takes on a broader significance. Now we are considering the self appropriating both the local social space and the larger civic identities promoted by the monumental visual semiotics of the larger social world. patterns of gathering and patronage to realize common goals and to articulate beliefs. In total, this offers an avenue of investigation that takes up the work I have already been doing in visual culture and its role in fashioning communal religious urban identities, and now focuses this work more precisely on the research focus of the project at the Max Weber Kolleg.


 

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