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Space, Modernity, and Emptiness: Some American Examples

  • John Corrigan


One of the ways in which Christian groups responded to the challenges of modernity was by positioning themselves differently in space. In the interest of better understanding that process, let us think for a moment about the social system, the social space to be precise, within which groups exist. As one starting point for that, it is useful to acknowledge that social groups define themselves in relation to others. Specifically, groups define themselves by saying what they are not as much as by saying what they are. If we are to believe the German social systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, a leading advocate of the notion of social system, difference is prior to identity. That is to say—and this is the core of Luhmann's “difference” theory—one distinguishes a table from other objects before one indicates what it is (Luhmann adds, paradoxically, that distinction presupposes itself). His grand theory has shortcomings, but his point is that social groups create and maintain collective identity by defining themselves in relation to other groups, and especially by saying what they are not. They push off from other groups in defining themselves. We could extend that approach by stating that groups sometimes behave as if they lack a clear collective self-understanding; that is, they lack a fully formed core identity that they can marshall in a positive fashion against a field of other groups. They accordingly define themselves in relation to other groups, define themselves via negativa, by differentiating—in some cases to a great degree—from other groups. Identity is built through such negative definition. The twentieth-century American theorist of social conflict Lewis Coser described that mode of thinking in The Functions of Social Conflict, an extended mediation on the social conflict theories of Georg Simmel, and sociologist of religion Martin Reisebrodt has observed more recently how Christianity invents itself principally by distinguishing itself from other religious practices and beliefs. The process is evident among Christian groups in modernity as it was in early modern Europe. When we focus on how it has manifested spatially, we see the modern in American church history as a broad spectrum of occurrences demonstrating complexity, multivalence, competition, and differentiation.



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99 Luhmann, Niklas, Introduction to Systems Theory, trans. Gilgen, Peter (Cambridge: Polity, 2012); Coser, Lewis A., The Functions of Social Conflict (New York: Free Press, 1964), 87, 90; Martin Reisebrodt, “‘Religion’: Just Another Modern Western Construction,” Religion and Culture Web Forum, The Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School (December 2003),

100 Orsi, Robert A., The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950, third edition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010).

101 Herbert Muschamp,“Public Space or Private, A Compulsion to Fill It,” New York Times, August 27, 2000, 2.27; Benjamin, Walter, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. Osborne, John (London: NLB, 1977), 138141; Buci-Glucksmann, Christine, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, trans. Camiller, Patrick (London: Sage, 1994), 71; and The Madness of Vision: On Baroque Aesthetics, trans Baker, Dorothy Z. (Athens, Oh.: Ohio University Press, 2012), 27. Fuentes, Carlos, “The Novel as Tragedy: William Faulkner,” trans. Stern, Trude and Tavarellini, Evelyn, The Faulkner Journal 11 (1995–1996), 1331.

102 New York city baroque architecture is in the AIA Guide to New York City by White, Norval, Willensky, Eliot, and Leadon, Fran (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 233, 202, 826–827, 447, 400, 462–463, and elsewhere. The founding of the shrine to Mary served as a strong statement to Buffalo's Protestants who in their various denominations numbered 179 out of 253 churches in the years just after the completion of the shrine. See:

103 Marsh, Margaret, “Suburbanization and the Search for Community: Residential Decentralization in Philadelphia, 1880–1900Pennsylvania History 44 (1977), 102103.

104 Allen, Alexander V. G., Phillips Brooks, 1835–1893: Memories of his Life with Extracts of his Letters (New York: Dutton and Company, 1907), 229; Gough, Deborah MathiasChrist Church, Philadelphia: The Nation's Church in a Changing City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 282; Baltzell, E. Digby, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class (New York: Free Press, 1958), 248, 261; Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

105 Stilgoe, John R., Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), 156.

106 Resiebrodt, Martin, Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran, trans. Reneau, Don (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 22, 62; The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, vol. 4 (Los Angeles: Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1917); The Christian Century 39, March 16, 1922, p. 325; Smith, Christian, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

107 Reisebrodt, 5; Williams, Rhys, “American National Identity, The Rise of the Modern City, and the Birth of Protestant Fundamentalism” in The Fundamentalist City? Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban Space, eds. AlSayyad, Nezar and Massoumi, Mejgan (London: Routledge, 2011), 95.

108 Joiner, Thekla, Sin in the City: Chicago and Revivalism 1880–1920 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 188. Fundamentalists' move to the suburbs in the latter part of the twentieth century is described by Dochuk, Darren in “‘Praying for a Wicked City’: Congregation, Community, and the Suburbanization of FundamentalismReligion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 13 (2003), 167203.


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