What is “lived religion”?


Lena Liepe, Linnaeus University

Our project is called Mapping Lived Religion. The meaning of the “mapping” part of the title should be fairly clear since the entire project is premised on the creation of an interactive map to places connected to saints’ cults in medieval Sweden and Finland. But what about “lived religion”? In the following, I will outline the concept of lived religion, or LR, in brief and give some examples of how it has been applied in previous scholarship on religious experiences historically and today.

The choice of lived religion, as the theoretical platform of the project implies a conception of saints’ cults not merely, or even primarily, as a manifestation of an institutionalized framework for religious observance managed by the Church in compliance with a predetermined set of creeds and rituals. Instead, the focus of the LR approach lies on religion as a practice that unfolds in the everyday life of the individual. Religion is seen as something that people do, not just something they believe in. The interest is directed towards the individual practitioners and the way they “make” religion by embracing various customs and practices and putting them to use according to their own needs and priorities. LR takes little interest in “belief” as an articulated internalisation of tenets of faith according to the teachings of the Church. The religious usages of common people in the Middle Ages are better described as an adherence to local practices, resulting in highly varied strategies to establish contact with the sacred in order to secure the welfare of people, cattle and crops.

In a useful survey of late medieval religious attitudes and the changes they underwent in the course of the Reformation, Meredith McGuire underscores lay religiosity in the late Middle Ages as a matter of practice rather than belief in a confessional sense. The conventional privileging of belief (as opposed to praxis) as the principal form of religiosity conforms to a Western, Protestant, historically situated and fairly narrow conception of religion (McGuire 2008: 39–41; see also Bowman & Valk 2012: 5; Meyer, Houtman 2012: 2). Following an LR perspective of the Middle Ages, religion can instead be seen as something that transpired in the day-to-day life of individuals that choose their own devotional options from a large repertoire of acceptable practices. In this process, the sacred intermingles with what would today be seen as belonging to the profane spheres of life: a distinction that was largely irrelevant then. For instance, the saints’ feasts listed in the calendars of the Church year – an important source material for the Mapping Lived Religion project – served to structure sacred time in a way that flowed into daily life, providing a temporal framework for the routines of mundane activities and creating a communal sense of shared temporal regularity. “Rather than diminishing the quality of experience of the sacred, such diffusedness in everyday life made the sacred more useful.” (McGuire 2008: 31).

The roots of the LR approach can be traced back to the 1920s when sociologist Gabriel Le Bras joined the Annales school and argued that the study of canon law needed to take in la religion vécue as an integral facet of the development of the church law in order to chart why, for whom, and under which conditions the laws were created and how they were received and applied in the society for which they were made (Arnold 2014: 31; Desroche & Le Bras 1970: 16). Despite these early efforts, LR was slow to catch on in theology and church history, whereas it has played an important role as a conceptual tool in contemporary religious education and for empirical research in the branch of theology that deals with the religious life of today’s multicultural, multireligious and secularized society. A central name here is practical theologian Hans-Günter Heimbrock who picks up on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl in a recognition of the religious experience as something that springs from the life world that exists as a subjectively perceived present for each and every one of us individually (Heimbrock 2005, 2007).

In the conclusion to her chapter on lay religiosity in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Meredith McGuire calls for an increased awareness of religion as a historically and culturally changeable phenomenon. Religion is not a given, institutionally defined entity with more or less fixed distinguishing features, but a lived experience that can take multiple forms depending on the individual’s needs. It extends beyond the adherence to formalized creeds and normative patterns of behaviour prescribed by religious institutions (McGuire 2008: 43–44). As the database of the Mapping Lived Religion project grows and more and more cult manifestations appear on the map, McGuire’s wish will be rewarded. A broad spectrum of devotional practices and ways of addressing the saints will emerge on the map and in its connected entries, in a testimony to the multitude of forms that the appeal to the saints could take in the Middle Ages.



Arnold, John H.: “Histories and historiographies of medieval Christianity”. Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014: 23–41.

Bowman, Marion, Ülo Valk: “Introduction: Vernacular religion, generic expressions and the dynamics of belief”. Marion Bowman, Ülo Valk (eds.): Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. Sheffield: Equinox 2012: 1–19.

Desroche, Henri & Gabriel Le Bras: “Religion légale et religion vécue. Entretien avec Gabriel Le Bras”. Archives sociologie des religions 29 (1970): 15–20.

Heimbrock, Hans-Günter: Livsfrågor–religion–livsvärld. Bidrag till en kontextuell religionsdidaktik ur ett tyskt perspektiv. Rune Larsson (övers.). Uppsala–Lomma: RPI Arbetsgemenskapen för religionspedagogik 2005.

—: “Reconstructing lived religion”. Hans-Günter Heimbrock, Christopher P. Scholtz (eds.): Religion: Immediate Experience and the Mediacy of Research. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Objectives, Concepts and Methodology of Empirical Research in Religion. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2007: 133–157.

McGuire, Meredith: Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008.

Meyer, Birgit, Dick Houtman: “Introduction: Material religion—how things matter”. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. Dick Houtman, Birgit Meyer (eds.). New York: Fordham University Press 2012: 1–23.