Modern societies for many in the West are characterised by the continual flows of people, objects, images, information and ideas. Hypermodernity or supermodernity presents a view of this world as alienating and marginalising, as increasingly the local is displaced by the global. For many, this is heightened in spaces of travel from the airport to the motor vehicle. Travellers are removed from social relationships and a sense of locality. The new mobilities paradigm has responded to this characterisation and, after many years of neglect, the experience of transport has come under the scrutiny of sociologists, anthropologists and geographers. Travel time is understood to be ‘dwelling in motion’, where travellers can use the time effectively for social interactions, working or recreation. This seminar aims to understand how active transport mobilities such as walking or cycling can be used for practice of faith and spirituality, responding to the increased interest of in geographies of religion that are experienced outside of the ‘official’ sites of the church or temple and located in everyday places of the home, parks, streets and other public spaces. We examine such practices, drawing on research from our PhDs, under three overlapping themes outlined below.
Surroundings as spiritual inspiration
Recent studies in transport and mobilities have demonstrated that active transports of walking and cycling are more than simply an act of getting from A to B but can also shape the way the individual interacts with and experiences the world and people around them. Indeed, walking is an embodied act that allows the individual to feel their way through space and connect more immediately with the surrounding environment. Walking or cycling in familiar environments is said to enable the meaning-making of places for the individual as buildings and objects become a habitual sight. The Bible tells of many stories in which Jesus relays his message framed through metaphors borrowed from his surroundings, which act to reinforce and localise his teaching. Today, the urban environment and its contents may stimulate certain patterns of thought or green spaces may act to relax the walker or cyclist. Our research participants have demonstrated the affective capabilities of the environment for inspiring particular acts of contemplation or prayer that draw on faith and help to further individual’s understanding of their spirituality and relationship with God.
Urban therapeutic mobilities
Walking is often considered a good time for thinking things through, and processing problems. Jesus goes to solitary places: in order to pray or to grieve the death of John for instance. He normally seeks out natural places for solitude (mountains, or the garden of Gethsemane for examples). Can pedestrians in UK urban settings find a slower solitary existence where they can pray, meditate or think? Evidence collected suggests people can think about life problems, daydream or think creatively in such settings, but that this activity can be hampered by traffic and other features of cities.
Walking makes us more available, or vulnerable, to social interactions with the people next to us, than cycling or driving for instance. These interactions can be welcome or unwelcome, safe or dangerous. Jesus, as he walked, had a range of encounters ranging from collecting new disciples, to almost being stoned. Contemporary UK pedestrians can have mixed opinions on how controllable the level of their social encounter is whilst walking, and mixed affect relating to uncontrolled exposure to other (known or unknown) people. Jesus displays great approachability and patience with people he encounters whilst walking. However modern pedestrian’s affect towards social aspects of walking can depend on personal characteristics such as gregariousness. Whilst modern pedestrians have similar opportunities to encounter people when walking in the city that Jesus experienced, do they then have a positive attitude toward these, or is there yearning for the more insulated space of a motorised vehicle?
Our seminar at the JRI Annual Environment Day Conference 2018 will explore these themes to understand how faith and active mobilities can enable social relationships between the individual, place and the (often) anonymous mass they encounter everyday whilst moving in the city.
Thomas Calvert & Edward Wigley
Pedestrians walking in Corn Street, central Bristol: Thomas Calvert.
Thomas Calvert is a researcher investigating transport and planning issues, at the University of the West of England, Bristol. His PhD was on the psychological benefits of walking in cities. Since then he has worked on projects about neighbourhood factors influencing the health and happiness of older people, and also Green Infrastructure.
Edward Wigley was awarded a PhD in 2016 from the University of the West of England, Bristol for investigation into the use and influence of everyday mobilities for personal expression of spirituality amongst Baptist church congregations and meditation centre attendees. He is currently working on the ‘Smart Cities in the Making’ project at the Open University.