Kaell, “Seeing the Invisible: Ambient Catholicism on the Side of the Road”

Kaell, Hillary. 2016. Seeing the Invisible: Ambient Catholicism on the Side of the Road. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfw041

Abstract: The public role of religious objects is highly contested in Quebec, epitomized by the Charter of Values in 2013. In this heated political atmosphere, rural Catholics continue to create and care for more than 3,000 wayside crosses. They note that these colourful, fifteen-foot devotional objects often remain invisible to passersby, unless a cross “calls” someone to it. Proceeding from this observation, this article unites studies of mate- rial culture with recent work on secularism to argue that the crosses exemplify a form of engagement with secularism that corresponds to what anthropologist Matthew Engelke calls “ambient faith”: religiosity that filters in and out of sensory and conscious space. Extending this idea, I argue that ambient objects exert an authority often missed in stud- ies of public religion, which still focus largely on political discourse and legal codes about marked objects (e.g. the hijab). As ambient objects, wayside crosses are powerful because they ‘act’ on human beings, thereby mediating a dichotomy between “modernity” and traditional Catholicism by laying claim to both at once.

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