Moments of "grace": exoreligious experiences of the numinous 
Jonathan Miles-Watson (Durham University)
Paramita Saha (Artsforward)
Patrick Laviolette (Tartu Univ.)
Moving bodies: Shamanism, Spiritualism and Reliogiosity/Corps mouvants: Shamanisme, spiritisme et religiosité
TBT 0021
Start time:
4 May, 2017 at 16:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

We explore ethnographic accounts/enactments of exoreligious experiences of the numinous using Bateson's concept of 'grace' (1988) as a key theoretical driver. Through this we seek to reconfigure the current debate and introduce ethnography to an arena dominated by quantitative data.

Long Abstract

Religion has always been hard to define (cf Tylor 1891, Geertz 1966, Kunin 2003,) but there is a growing sense that we need to move beyond this formal category in an age that has seen the rise of religious 'nones' (Woodhead 2016) and recognition of the spatiotemporal limits of past formulations. In this seemingly new reality the old concept of the experience of the numinious (Otto 1917) finds fresh life as a way of understanding the phenomenon outside of formally identifiable religious structures (physical, processual, theoretical). This panel seeks to explore these exoreligious numinous experiences through engaging the Batesonian concept of 'grace' (1988), especially the interconnectedness of being, with diverse ethnographic accounts/enactments; reconfiguring the current debate and shifting the focus away from categories of belonging/believing towards empirically grounded phenomena.

In particular, we seek to understand the ways that movement (over, under and through) is central to numinous experiences involving the dissolution of a fixed and bounded self, which is always implicit in the notion of grace. How, for example, does a focus on physical movement (such as walking, playing, crafting, farming, dancing and the transposed movements of cyberspace) reshape ethnographic accounts of grace? We therefore invite papers that blend empirical accounts (and embodied performances) of grace in an exoreligious setting to collectively thicken the concepts, deepen understanding of the phenomena behind the statistics/debates and either develop new or redevelop old frameworks of analysis.

Accepted papers:


Lucinda Murphy (University of Durham)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores ethnographic observations from my experience of working as a Christmas Elf last December at Crook Hall in Durham. Drawing upon Bateson's notion of grace, I seek to understand the nature of the delight parents enjoy when sharing in their children's experience of 'Christmas magic'.

Paper long abstract:

'Christmas is just for the children', or so the saying goes. As I began to research experiences of Christmas in Britain, it dawned on me that I may just need to become an Elf. This paper explores ethnographic observations from my experience of working as a Christmas Elf in December 2016 at Crook Hall & Gardens in Durham.

Watching tiny faces light up with gleeful excitement as they glimpsed Frosty the Snowman padding towards them, or glow with bashful delight as they gazed inquisitively up at me while I carefully spooned out reindeer dust, a sense of the numinous undoubtedly came to mind. For the children, this was a fantasy-land; a haven of magic. But it was a magic that was as alive in the parents' eyes as it was in their children's. It was a magic that was playfully enacted, communicated and suspended between elves, adults and children alike. It was hurled about in our newspaper snowballs, excitedly torn open in alluring parcels, and creatively conjured up in stories, songs, costumes, and decorations.

Drawing upon Bateson's notion of grace, I seek to understand the nature of the innocent delight parents enjoy in sharing in their children's experience of 'Christmas magic'. I consider not only how physical enactments in this setting enable the self to connect with a sense of the numinous; but also how internal movements of the self, back and forth through the unconscious, may enable a suspension of time, reconnection with nostalgic memories, and integration of consciousness.


Nicole Zaneti (Catholic University of Brasilia)

Paper short abstract:

We present a comparative, phenomenological, investigation into the sexuality and spirituality of Brazilian and English practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan. In particular we consider the way that these movements generate a spiritual experience through a sense of connectedness with both self and other.

Paper long abstract:

As part of an in-depth study of the integrated experience of spirituality and sexuality, we carried out a phenomenological investigation of the way that this binomial is experienced by Brazilian and English female practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) - A Chinese martial art that is widely practiced for its health benefits. In this paper we will present a phenomenological reading of two interviews, one performed with a Brazilian woman and the other with an English woman. The data drawn from these demonstrates that the different ways that the concepts of spirituality and sexuality are employed by the Brazilian and English informants rests on a distinction between the integrated experiences of seemingly diverse arenas. This leads to a consideration of the role that TCC plays in either the integration of, or the awareness of the integration of, female sexuality and spirituality. This, in turn, prompts the suggestion that in geographically disparate areas the practice of these controlled movements generates spiritual experiences that raise awareness of female sexuality and improve wellbeing.


Jonathan Miles-Watson (Durham University)
Vivian Asimos (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

We use a discussion of spirituality and reality on a cyber-pilgrimage, which lacks the moors and constraints of an established religious corollary, to unlock the processes by which individual experiences are collectively woven together by the pilgrim's movements through chimerical sacred space.

Paper long abstract:

During a cyber-pilgrimage laboratory that we ran in 2016 one of the participants commented that while they had found the experience uplifting they also felt a sense of guilt about spending so long doing something that was essentially not real. In this paper, we examine ideas of the real and the authentic in relation to accounts of spiritual experiences during a cyber-pilgrimage that lacks the moors and constraints of an established religious corollary. Comments about a feeling of the illusory nature of the experience are balanced against comments that interpret the experience as hyper-real to open understanding of the complexity of collectively as experienced on the trail.

We use a blend of visual ethnography and classic thick description to explore how these exoreligious forms of pilgrimage can be both experienced as a more authentic spiritual experience than traditional pilgrimage and a fake (or diminished) experience, which in turn leads to both a complicating of current cyber-religion discourse and a rethinking of classical pilgrimage theory.

Using the concept of 'grace', we explore the consequences of multiple physical actions being transposed into a single avatar, the similarities and differences between solitary and collective experiences in the cyber-pilgrimage trail, and the way that life lived in symbiosis with cyber-simulacra can simultaneously divorce us from contact with the Real and open new possibilities for sacralisation of life.