The Social, Invisible, and Functional Qualities of Religion and Photography in the Age of Contemporary Spirituality

The Social, Invisible, and Functional Qualities of Religion and Photography in the Age of Contemporary Spirituality


The dichotomy between believers and non-believers is at the core of Christian belief. As stated by religion scholar Graham Harvey, “this is belief with a specific focus, so that Christians can define non-Christians as non-believers, and other kinds of Christians as wrong-believers or heretics.”1 As Harvey discusses, Christianity is not a religion as it functions in contrast to the fundamental and universal tenants of religion, none of which are an obsession with how to “believe correctly” or the “object/subject of belief.”2 The foundation of Christian belief explicates the Christian’s, or believer’s, resistance to photography as a medium for religious expression, representation, and symbolism as it aims to constrain the subjectivity of belief and how it is communicated through strict dichotomies between right and wrong. The study of the question “What do we study when we study religion?” through photography and other visual arts exposes Christianity’s influence in traditional theology and the sociocultural impacts of its ability to create binaries and division within religious thought. As revealed further on, the study of photography is necessary within the study of religion, as it blurs the strict dichotomy made between believers and non-believers and directly challenges the notion of incorrect belief through its ability to capture firstly, the feeling of the sublime and secondly, transcendental meaning-making within the physical world.

Christianity’s expression in a vertical architectural style demonstrates the transmission of knowledge as a top-down occurrence, narrowing and strengthening the attribution of authority to an entity increasingly distanced from the body of the believer. It represents a greater distance between the physical world and the transcendent, metaphysical world within Christian belief, mirroring the dichotomous relationship between belief and non-belief. As explained by Thomas Luckmann in his book The Invisible Religion, “with increasing specialization of religious roles laymen come to participate less and less directly with the sacred cosmos. Only the religious experts are in ‘full’ possession of sacred knowledge. The application of that knowledge is the province of the experts and the laymen rely increasingly on the mediation of the experts in their relations with the sacred universe.”3 I argue that the cementing of the vertical transmission of knowledge becomes problematic as it lacks the space for subjective, direct experience with the sacred cosmos and furthers the notion of believing “incorrectly.” The separation between the physical and transcendent world also informs why Christians argue against photography’s representative qualities. According to Christians, the subject or object of belief does not exist in the physical world, but instead, the metaphysical realm of the sacred cosmos, which only God and religious authorities have access to and therefore, correctly represent visually.4

To discuss the inherent religiosity of the sublime through Christianity requires the redefinition of the sublime. Sublimity within religious visualizations is an essential quality of firstly, the sensory experience of the viewer when witnessing traditional Christian iconography and secondly, the materiality of traditional stained glass found in churches or the paint used in traditional Romantic paintings. In her discussion of Kant’s philosophy of the sublime, Ilona Anachkova emphasizes Kant’s argument that the sublime is a subjective feeling, not an objective property of the object presented to us.5 Through the reformulation of sublime as a subjective experience, it can be argued that the sublime is representative of not the religious quality of a work of art, but the subjective, spiritual feeling evoked by the viewer. The sublime, therefore, exists within the interiority of the body, not as a distanced, objective quality attributed to the object before us. Anachkova, pointing towards the universality of sublimity, and therefore spirituality, states, “The sublime is an important feeling because it gives us awareness of our own superiority to nature within us and outside us, that is sublimity gives us awareness of our own spirituality, it helps us see ourselves as part of that supernatural substrate that is the source and the measure of the sublime in us.”6 Additionally, the sublime, contrary to Christian belief, does not represent the accession of the knowledge or presence of God, but rather, an aesthetic feeling characterized by its illumination of our own sacred cosmos not through any specified entity, but through our own subjective capacity to accept both fear and desire, uncertainty, and what Kant refers to as “formlessness, disharmony and chaos.”7 The sublime, therefore, is a fundamental feeling attributed to the human condition and can be applicable when viewing, or experiencing, any medium of spiritual representation.

One of the most pertinent mediums of Christian art and representation is stained glass. Iconically located in the windows of European churches and cathedrals, stained glass often depicts biblical scenes, representing the space between visibility and invisibility through its semi-permeability of light and evocation of the sublime. As explained by Jasmine Allen, in the chapter of her book entitled “Stained Glass as Propaganda,” stained glass was used as propaganda within the nineteenth century to revive western ideologies of nationalism and imperialism.8 Through its sociopolitical and sociocultural implications, stained glass furthered the racial hierarchies curated by European imperialist propaganda through the support of Evangelical revivalists and Protestant missionary movements.9 Utilizing critical race theory, Allen discusses the interconnectedness between Christianity and European imperialism through the racial hierarchies found in biblical representations in stained glass. Allen states, “Nineteenth-century representations of colonial or racial subjects executed by white Europeans or Americans have a representational bias, and often an ulterior motive. Navigating these complex issues not only enhances our understanding of historical representations of human variety in stained glass and other media, but also remains relevant today, in a postcolonial age where racism in Western art history, as well as other historical disciplines, needs to be challenged.”10 Allen concludes that mediums endorsed by Christianity, such as stained glass, which is “almost entirely identified with white Western traditions to portray contemporary African Americans,” must be questioned, especially in conjunction with ideas of belief and the correct way to believe.11 I argue that Allen’s essay raises the importance of studying how western religious art and representations, as the physical form of objective, transcendent knowledge, directly inform the ideologies and hierarchies facilitated by Christianity. 

Photography offers an expansiveness in contrast to stained glass, mediating between the physical and the transcendent. Photography—in conjunction with the rise of what Kelly Beseke, in her essay entitled “Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning,” refers to as the contemporary era of individualized spirituality—questions the assumed standardization and objectivity of mediums of traditional religious representation. Beseke, referencing the communicative and social qualities of both new spirituality and photography, states, “religion in the modern world is well understood not only as a kind of social institution, and not only as an individualized meaning system, but also as a societal conversation about transcendent meanings.”12 Supporting Beseke’s construction of contemporary spirituality as the ultimate communication of transcendence in socialization, Luckmann ascribes sociality as the essential building block of meaning making, stating “we suggested before that the transcendence of biological nature by human organisms is a fundamentally religious process. We may now continue by saying that socialization, as the concrete process in which such transcendence is achieved, is fundamentally religious.”13 Luckmann argues that religion is universal through its inherent presence in socialization, stating that “only if religion is localized in special social institutions does an antithesis between ‘religion’ and ‘society’ develop.”14 Additionally, as Luckmann discusses, the transmission of the sacred universe and its “logic” facilitates the vertical hierarchies of authority and knowledge within religion.15 Therefore, “the relation of religious representations to one another becomes the topic of more or less systematic reflection and interpretation.”16

Photography’s duality is illuminated through studying visual religious representations, specifically its objectivity and subjectivity, temporality, mediation between the invisibility and the visibility of the physical world, and partial-representations of truth. In this way, photography embodies similar qualities of stained glass, yet, as a more contemporary invention, more easily traverses the long-standing separation between the human and the divine, the physical and the transcendent, and centralizes the body, and its sight, as the subjective viewfinder of spirituality. Exemplified through the work produced by American photographer William H. Mumler during the mid-nineteenth century, photography’s ability to challenge objective, institutionalized religions and their Eurocentric political agendas through the presence of ghosts and abstractions of glorified portraiture, politicized the camera as a weapon that could destroy the the hierarchies of authority and power within the church. Mumler’s photographs depict portraits alongside overshadowing, ghostly presences in the background which were said to be the deceased relatives, specifically those who died during the Civil War, of the individuals featured in the portrait.17 Mumler’s most famous spiritual photograph depicted Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. During the late nineteenth century, Mumler was arrested for challenging religious authority and their ascribed objectivity to religious visualizations.18 Whether or not Mumler’s spirit photographs were deceptive, or created using unconventional photographic techniques, the fact that they directly threatened Christianity, and therefore European imperialism, is pertinent to study when ascribing the ideology of religious freedom and flexibility as a deceitful facet of contemporary Christian thought. 

Through the communicative quality of contemporary photography, often deemed as iconoclastic by believers of Christianity, there is the potential to show how spirituality functions to interrogate organized and institutionalized religions, separating religious content from religious function. Luckmann’s book directly informs contemporary spirituality and the importance of its visualization according to his separation between the content and the function of religion.19 Luckmann states, “The authority of religious representations cannot be derived from the content of a given sacred theme taken in isolation. It rests upon the hierarchy of significance of the world view as a whole and, ultimately, upon the transcendent quality of the latter.”20 As stated by Luckmann, religion is not universal if it is attributed solely to its content, that being the objective authority of institutionalized religious symbolism such as crosses, prayer, church, the bible, and sacred texts. Rather, Luckmann cites the functionality of religion as universal through practices of socialization, conversations of transcendence, and subliminal rituals.21 Regarding the functionality of religion he states, “The symbols which represent the reality of the sacred cosmos may be termed religious representations because they perform, in a specific and concentrated way, the broad religious function of the world view as a whole. The world view in its totality was defined earlier as a universal and nonspecific social form of religion.”22 His emphasis on functionality allows for religion to bloom into spirituality through centralizing religion as a process of understanding worldview, not the process of understanding the content of a specified religion. In Rachel Wagner’s book entitled, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality, she discusses the difference between story and discourse and their implications in the creation of narrative. Addressing the use of story, such as the Bible, within Christianity, she states, “What one chooses in this worldview, of course, is to see things in precisely this way: predictable, linear, and preordained. In terms of reading stories, then, the only interactivity encouraged with this perspective is to read correctly, to read in a straightforward manner, and to receive the stories as they are without alteration or unauthorized interpretation.”23 Wagner’s discussion of the functionality of stories follows Harvey’s framework of Christianity as the attribution of authority to objective knowledge from the sacred cosmos and the centralization of belief and believing correctly. Similar to Beseke’s notion of religion as a societal conversation, Wagner offers an alternative to stories, one which aligns with contemporary spirituality: discourse.24 In contrast to stories, discourse offers the possibility of narrative, which “exists not as a single readily recognizable category of ‘thing,’ but rather as a continuum of experience and possibility.”25 Furthermore, Wagner cites Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern who, through the study of games, explain how narrative emerges from discourse through its ability to provide “a rich framework within which individual players can construct their own narratives, or groups of players can engage in the shared social construction of narratives.”26 Photography provides an avenue to visualize these narratives, providing the visual language pertinent in studies of post-colonial visual cultures and the new rise of contemporary spirituality.

The same logic provided by Luckmann can be applied to photography as it engages in the process of relating subjective, spiritual experience to the physical world, providing the same accessibility as socialization. While the content of photography is crucial, as explained by Kant previously, the evocation of the feeling of the sublime within the viewer is subjective and removed from the work of art, not an objective quality of the image or its content. Polish photojournalist Monika Bulaj captures the universality of religion as socialization and discourse through her work, mainly focusing on parallels between various organized faiths.27 Although she photographs communities associated with organized religions, she successfully captures the universal functionality of religion through her utilization of primarily black-and-white photography, long-exposures, and her ability to capture emotion through the movement of bodies. Originally focusing on the documentation of faiths and traditions of religious communities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, her work soon transformed into a journey of uncovering the universal essence of praying and religious ceremonies across separated religious groups, specifically, what she describes as an invisible and archetypal resemblance across all faiths.28 Bulaj’s emphasis on the invisibility of the universal essence she captures is crucial in understanding the multifacetedness of a photograph’s ability to capture and visualize. The photograph I chose to feature in this essay depicts the overlapping of two separate religious ceremonies through an accidental double-exposure. Although the religiosity of the image is immediately recognized through the traditional architecture of both sites of worship—through the intricate design of the windows, rugs, chandeliers, and columns—the photograph reveals something essentially and universally religious according to how the two exposures function simultaneously. The translucent quality of the image evokes the sensory experience of the sublime and while there is not a singular, clear light source, the gesturing of hands in prayer alongside the gathering of people in the same direction demonstrates another universal facet of belief: facing towards an unknown, invisible entity beyond ourselves. The monochromatic double exposure Bluaj captures not only materially symbolizes the overlapping attributes and sensory experience of religion and belief, but also highlights the most prominent commonality between the two shots; humanism and community. Bulaj’s work provides insight into the ways in which photography can be a tool to depict the invisible, metaphysical space that spirituality occupies and how it functions within it, providing an alternative purpose for photography outside its ability to represent solely evidentiary content and the visible, secular physical world.

  1. Graham Harvey, Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life (Routledge, 2013), 52.
  2. Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, 52.
  3. Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (Macmillan, 1967), 66.
  4. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 66.
  5. Ilona Anachkova, “The Sublime and Its Connection to Spirituality in Modern and Postmodern Philosophy and Visual Arts,” (Sofia Philosophical Review, 2017).
  6. Anachkova, “The Sublime,” 71.
  7. Anachkova, “The Sublime,” 71.
  8. Allen, “Stained Glass,” 1.
  9. Allen, “Stained Glass,” 175.
  10. Allen, “Stained Glass,” 175.
  11. Allen, “Stained Glass,” 175.
  12. Kelly Besecke,“Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning,” Sociological Theory 23, no. 2 (June 2005), 81:
  13. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 51.
  14. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 66-67.
  15. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 66-67.
  16. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 65.
  17. Efram Sera-Shriar, Efram. “William H. Mumler: The World’s First Spirit Photographer” February 21, 2022.
  18. Efram Sera-Shriar, Efram. “William H. Mumler: The World’s First Spirit Photographer” February 21, 2022.
  19. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 60.
  20. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 60.
  21. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 51.
  22. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 61.
  23. Rachel Wagner, Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality (Routledge, 2012), 34.
  24. Wagner, Godwired, 34.
  25. Wagner, Godwired, 29.
  26. Wagner, Godwired, 29.
  27. Patrick D’Arcy, “Otherworldly Photos That Show Us What Our Religions Have in Common,”, February 1, 2018,
  28. D’Arcy, “Otherworldly Photos,”
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