The American Religious Experience

Crossings and Dwellings Cover

Tweed, Thomas A., Crossings and Dwellings: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge, MA and London.  Harvard University Press, 2006, illus., 288 pp. $27.95


Thomas Tweed has written the most important theoretical book of this decade, and maybe this generation, for geographers of religion.  Crossings and Dwellings posits a theory of religion that, while philosophically rich and current, is profoundly geographical.  Tweed describes his theory as “above all, about movement and relation, and it is an attempt to correct theories that have presupposed stasis and minimized interdependence.” (p.77)

"While Tweed’s theory is philosophically detailed, readers will be impressed with the wide array of religions and nationalities represented in the analysis. 

 Following a case study of Cuban immigrants in Miami, Tweed begins his seminal work by voicing his frustration with available theories of religion.  Feeling that “there seemed to be more to say than other theological lexicons allowed me,” (p.4) he searched for a theory of religion that “made sense of the religious life of transnational migrants and addressed three themes – movement, relation, and position.” (p.5)  Tweed’s analysis of current theory and philosophy reveals his expertise and proximity to literature in a variety of fields.  After discussing deductive-nomological, law-oriented, idealizing, constructivist, and critical theory he departs from these types, rejecting “a presupposition they all share - even the constructivist’s theory building and the critical theorists power analysis – that the theorist and the theorized are static.” (p.8)  He describes his own perspective as “pragmatic or representational realism,” making clear that he means “realism with a small ‘r’ – as opposed to metaphysical realism which champions a view from no where and aspires to link concepts with mind-independent realities.” (p.8)  Tweed reimagines theories as “itineraries,” (p.8) drawing on dictionary definitions of this term to suggest “theories are embodied travels (a line or course of travel; a route), positioned representations (a record or journal of travel, an account of a journey), and proposed routes (a sketch of a proposed route; a plan or scheme of travel).” (p.9)

Tweed follows the theoretical analysis with an investigation into the importance of defining constitutive terms in various academic disciplines.  He suggests that “scholars have a role-specific obligation to define constitutive disciplinary terms: art for art history, music for musicology, literature for literary studies … space for geography.” (p.30) Understanding that “religion is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes,” (p.33) he moves on to discuss five classic objections to defining religion.  Refuting each of these, he investigates the use of tropes and orienting metaphors that “direct language users attention to this and not that” prompting “new sightings and crossings.” (p.46)

Having defended the importance of defining the term “religion,” and after suggesting the shortcomings of contemporary theories, Tweed presents the reader with his own definition in chapter three.  Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.” (p.54)  He uses the plural form of his constitutive term in order to clarify that interpreters and theorists never find “religion-in-general,” rather “there are only situated observers encountering particular people in particular contexts.” (p.55) The two major orienting metaphors of his theory, dwelling and crossing, signify that religion is “about finding a place and moving across space, and aquatic metaphors (confluences and flows) signal that religions are not reified substances but complex processes.” (p.59) Hence, each religion is a “flowing together of currents – some enforced as ‘orthodox’ by institutions – traversing multiple fields, where other religions, other transverse confluences, also cross, thereby creating new spiritual streams.” (p.60) Tweeds use of aquatic and spatial metaphors is an attempt to avoid “esssentializing religious traditions as static, isolated, and immutable substances” (p.60)choosing to understand them instead as “the swirl of transluvial currents” where “religious and nonreligious streams propel religious flows (61).”  With this in mind, he describes religions as “sacroscapes,” (p.61)inviting scholars to “attend to the multiple ways that religious flows have left traces, transforming peoples and places, the social arena and the natural terrain.” (p.62) The specific kinds of flows Tweed envisions as religious are organic-cultural, with “both neural pathways and ritual performances” (p.62) joining together as “confluences of organic channels and cultural currents … conjoin to create institutional networks that, in turn, prescribe, transmit, and transform tropes, beliefs, values, emotions, artifacts, and rituals (p.69).”  Recognizing that “religion involves emotion, (p.69) Tweed also suggests that religions intensify joy and confront suffering, meaning that “they provide the lexicon, rules, and expression for many different sorts of emotions, including those framed as most positive and most negative, most cherished and most condemned.” (p.70)  He includes human and suprahuman forces in the definition because, “adherents appeal not only to their own powers but to suprahuman forces, which can be imagined in varied ways, as they try to intensify joy and confront suffering.” (p.73) The final phrase of the definition, make homes and cross boundaries, is described by Tweed as “the heart of my theory.” (p.73) The itineraries that “religions position women and men in natural terrain and social space,” (p.74) and “enable and constrain terrestrial, corporeal, and cosmic crossings” (p.75) are detailed in the last two chapters of the book.

Dictionary definitions suggest that to dwell is “to abide for a time in a place, state, or condition.”  It is “to inhabit.” (p.81) For Tweed, dwelling involves three overlapping processes: mapping, building, and inhabiting.  In chapter four the author considers the kinetics of dwelling, incorporating metaphors of biological and cultural clocks and neural and cultural compasses to further investigate the organic-cultural flows involved in religious homemaking.  Religions situate individuals and communities in time and space, positioning them in four chronotypes: the body, the home, the homeland, and the cosmos.  Religions “position the body in relation to the other chronotypes,” (p.101) as the body itself serves as the “initial watch and compass.” (p.97) The religious also “autocentrically and allocentrically orient themselves by constructing, adorning, and inhabiting domestic space.” (p.103) Hence, the “imagined boundaries of the home contract and expand across cultures and in different semantic contexts,” (p.104) as the religious participate in “finding a space and making a place, however small or large.” (p.105) Homemekaing, however, “does not end at the front door.  It extends to the boundaries of the territory that group members allocentrically imagine as their space, but since the homeland is an imagined territory inhabited by an imagined community, a space and group continually figured and refigured in contact with others, its borders shift over time and across cultures.” (p.110) Religious homemaking, then, “maps social space.  It draws boundaries around us and them; it constructs collective identity and, concomitantly, imagines degrees of social distance.” (p.111) Not only do the religious “map the contours of the terrestrial,” but they also “orient devotees temporally and spatially by creating cosmogonies and teleographies that represent the origin and destiny of the universe.”  (p.116)

Tweed emphasizes, “religions are not only about being in place but also moving across.” (p.123) He details three specific types of crossings that religions enable adherents to make: terrestrial, corporeal, and cosmic.  Terrestrial crossings, including pilgrimage, mission, social space, compelled passages, and constrained crossings, “vary according to the shifts in travel and communication technology.” (p.124) Religions “not only mark… shifting economic and social boundaries, but prompt crossings that traverse social space.” (p.134) Corporeal crossings confront embodied limits and traverse the life cycle, defining the “limit between the embodied self and the natural world,” (p.136) and marking “not only the cycle of the seasons but also the transitions of the life cycle (p.143) including birth, rites of passage, and death.  Finally, cosmic crossings involve transporting and transforming teleographies that “can be analyzed according to the horizon they imagine, the space they highlight, and the crossing they propose.” (p.152) Moreover, in the spirit of Bruno Latour, Tweed suggests that “religions don’t transfer information … they transport persons.” (p.157) In this sense “the near is religion’s domain” rather than the beyond.  Yet, Tweed sharpens Latour’s analysis to deemphasize stasis claiming “religions bring the distant close, as he suggests, but they are flows that also propel adherents back and forth between close and distant.” (p.158)

Tweed closes his volume with a conclusion that assesses theory’s interpretive power, re-approaches the Cuban annual festival in light of his theory, and discusses dwelling and crossing in pedagogy.  He clarifies once again that “this theory does not try to formulate universally applicable laws or trace religion’s historical origin.”  (p.165)

While Tweed’s theory is philosophically detailed, readers will be impressed with the wide array of religions and nationalities represented in the analysis.  He clears the air that “this theory of religion as crossing and dwelling makes sense of Cuban American devotion to Our Lady of Charity, since it is a positioned sighting from the festival and the shrine.” (p.177) Yet, he makes his point that it is a valuable theory for other positioned sightings.  Included in his examples throughout the book are multiple religions and ethnicities, both western and eastern.

The major strength of this volume for geographers of religion is the centrality of geographical concepts.  Tweed roots the definition of the Greek word for theory itself in travel (p.13), suggesting theory is “an itinerary.” (p.164) By imagining theory as “movements across space” he employs “spatial metaphors, which have been so prominent in recent cultural theory.” (p.9)  He also traces space as an orienting metaphor historically defining religion by citing the work of Freud, James, Jung, Long, Kaufman, Durkheim, Van der Leeuw, and Eliade.  He moves on from this historical analysis to utilize spatial concepts for his two major orienting metaphors, involving geographical concepts such as networks, systems, movements, migrancy, and travel as rooted in the writings of Heraclitus, Nietzche, Leuba, Whitehead, Bergson, Serres, Latour, Deleuze, Guatarri, Massumi, Appadurai, Doel, Tsing, Clifford, Carter, Chambers, Merry, Taylor, and Certeau.   The key components of his theory, as revealed in his definition of religion, are geographical in nature: religious (organic-cultural) flows moving through time and space, making homes, and crossing boundaries.  Tweed states, “as spatial practices, religions are active verbs linked with unsubstantial nouns by bridging prepositions: from, with, in, between, through, and most important across … religions designate where we are from, identify whom we are with, and prescribe how we move across.” (p.79)  For Tweed, religion and geography are not just linked, they are inseparable.

Any scholar interested in either religion or geography will find this volume a refreshing and enlightening study.  Those interested in both religion and geography will soon find themselves woefully behind in their scholarship if they have not yet digested it.

Michael Ferber / West Virginia University