Robert Orsi on History and Presence [MIPodcast #80]
How can scholars of religion explain religious faith without explaining it away? Over the centuries many scholars have come to discuss religion as a purely human phenomenon, leaving no room for “special beings” like God, Jesus Christ, angels, or departed loved ones. Robert Orsi confronts such scholarship in his new book History and Presence, inviting scholars to take the experiences of religious believers more seriously.
But it’s a risky proposal. “Scholarship entails risk,” Orsi explains, “for the person whose world has been entered by the scholar, but for the scholar, too, whose own uncertainties ought to be on the line in the encounter.”
Orsi recently visited the Maxwell Institute to talk about how scholars should take special presences more seriously. We talk about it in this special 80th episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. He has also taught at Fordham University, Indiana University, and Harvard Divinity School. He is former president of the American Academy of Religion. He studies American Catholicism and also writes on theory and method for the study of religion. His latest book History and Presence is an ambitious intervention into the field of religious studies.
BLAIR HODGES: As a word of caution: This episode contains a discussion of sexual abuse in the context of the Catholic Church, so please listen with discretion.
It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
David Hume predicted the day would come when modern women and men would read about religious believers in history books and be baffled that anyone ever thought the gods were real or present. That they could appear in groves of trees or statues or dreams. Hume was a philosopher who predicted a steady advancement from primitive belief, to civilized rational belief—from ideas about gods interacting with humans to a recognition that it was all superstition. It’s been hundreds of years since Hume made that prediction. How has it held up?
In the words of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, “the future that Hume envisioned for the human race has not happened yet. The gods were not turned back at the borders of the modern. The unseeing of the gods was an achievement; the challenge is to see them again.”
Robert Orsi recently visited the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship to talk about how scholars should take special presences more seriously—whether they be God, angels, and other divine figures. How can religious studies scholars study religion without discounting or explaining these presences away? Orsi wrote a new book on the subject, it’s called History and Presence, and we’re talking about it in this interview.
But before we get to that I want to thank some of the people who recently reviewed the show. There’s zach0002, gnrmormon, and wallywall. Each left reviews on iTunes and you can do that as well. I really enjoy reading each review. You can also send questions and comments to me directly at email@example.com.
We’re joined by Robert Orsi, one of the foremost religious studies scholars working today, on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: Robert A. Orsi joins us today. He’s the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. We’re talking about his new book, History and Presence.
Can I call you Bob?
ROBERT ORSI: Absolutely.
HODGES: Thanks for coming in to the Maxwell Institute.
ORSI: Thank you for having me, Blair. It’s a pleasure to be here.
HODGES: Let’s dive right in with a big question here. We might as well start with one of the biggest questions of all, which is how do you, Robert Orsi, a scholar of religion, define religion?
ORSI: Yes, that is the biggest question of all. Well first of all let me say that I define it reluctantly. So maybe we could proceed by a series of dicta I follow myself. One is that any time the word religion is used the historical context of that particular use must be understood. So, in other words, the term has no essential meaning, but the meanings are always defined in place. So when someone says you are religious or not, religious at a particular time and place, I think it’s important to query that.
That said, the other dicta is that religion as the word is used today has a particular modern history to it, and we have to be very mindful all the time of that history. The word religion has been used in a disciplinary way to create certain disciplinary boundaries. So when you hear the word “religion” you also are hearing “not magic,” “not superstition,” “not other things.” I think it’s important to be aware at any moment of the disciplinary work that the word is doing.
HODGES: If you had to define it on the back of an envelope how would you do that?
ORSI: Well, I’d begin with special beings. I’d say that religion has to do with human beings’ relationships with special beings in the context of particular worlds of meaning—so in terms of Catholicism, these special beings would be Jesus, Mary, in a very special way, the saints. It’s special relationships with these beings in the full lived reality of everyday life, which includes politics, which includes families, which includes all of that. Sso religion is not separated in my understanding from all of those things; it is absolutely a part of it.
That does not mean, however, that religion can be explained by those things or explained away by those things. That I think was the burden of History and Presence was to, in a sense, set religion free, recognizing its social implications and imprecations, but not seeing that as a sufficient approach.
HODGES: The temptation of some scholars, then, is to reduce religion to something that just humans do. They sort of bracket out the broader questions of transcendence or supernatural, if you want to use those words.
ORSI: Or even when the supernatural comes in, they rush towards—I mean if they pay any attention to it at all—they rush towards functional interpretations.
HODGES: “What does it do for that person?”
ORSI: “What does it do for this person?” Or “how is it functioning in this society?” As if that’s a scientific equation that you can say, “See? A religion does X.” I think that once you set it into this dynamic inter-subjective relational context, which includes special beings, it becomes much more complicated to trace lines of direct function because things get complicated in relationships. There’s conscious, unconscious dimensions, and then of course as you know in History and Presence I also say that these special beings come with their own intentions and with their own volitions, so they meet human beings. All the people in my book felt that they were being encountered by these beings who—especially in the case of the woman in Detroit during the second World War, when Mary had an agenda very different from what this woman thought her agenda as a woman should be.
HODGES: This is Mary, Mother of Jesus.
HODGES: I can’t wait to get into some of those specific examples. Your book fits into a genre of academic writing where the scholar is part of the story. So you’re part of this book; instead of speaking from a distant position of objectivity you come in and out of the stories that you tell because you researched these people, you talked to a lot of the people you write about.
You actually start the introduction by talking about your mother’s devotion to Christ in the Eucharist, or what Mormons would call “the sacrament.” Let’s talk about your mother’s relationship and your relationship to your mother and the Eucharist.
ORSI: Well, the particular story I was telling—When you say that I come into the story, I don’t think it’s me so much as I think it’s more what you see is my perception and understanding. But mostly what I’m trying to do is show that I come from a particular world, that world is the world that has shaped my reflections. I think about that world and I want that world to be put in relationship to scholarship and to other religious environments so there can be comparative work. So it’s very important to me that people see that I come from a specific place, that I’m not a kind of disembodied mind.
The story about my mother is, my mother only went to high school. She was a very smart woman, but she wasn’t an educated woman. She had a very strong belief in the reality of Jesus in the Eucharist, an absolute reality. The story I tell there is that the cardinal of New York, I forget the date, it was when Clinton was president. When Clinton was president he visited the Catholic church in South Africa with Hillary Clinton. And the priest, the pastor of that Catholic church in South Africa, gave the two of them communion. This proved to be scandalous in the mind of the cardinal of New York, so the cardinal of New York at the time gave a searing sermon during Easter week, during Holy Week, gave a searing sermon condemning the priest in South Africa for giving communion to these two people who the cardinal said view it as a symbol.
HODGES: Yeah, “they’re not Catholic.”
ORSI: They’re not Catholic. She was a Methodist, I forget what he was. A Baptist I think.
HODGES: Baptist I think, yeah.
ORSI: Yeah, a Baptist. So the cardinal made it clear they don’t think the Eucharist is real, they think it’s a symbol, they think it’s a metaphor. My mother just called him on that in a letter to the editor of the New York Daily News. She said, “No, Jesus is really there. No one should be kept away from that table.”
HODGES: Because he’s really there.
ORSI: Because he’s really there, because he’s really there.
So I was struck by a couple of things in that story. One, by the cardinal’s insistence. After five hundred years he was still using the language of the Catholic Reformation, he was still using the language that they view it as unreal, for them it is only a symbol; so he was a cutting a very sharp line there between Protestants and Catholics. And my mother senses the reality of this sort of really troubling such normative distinction. As far as she was concerned, Protestant, Catholic, it didn’t matter because Jesus was really there. So this is a sort of radical interpretation of the Eucharist.
HODGES: Yeah, this battle over the real presence involving the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, whatever different traditions call it, kind of hinges on this interpretation of a scripture where Jesus says, “Take and eat, this is my body.” This verse is, you say, one of the greatest sources of violence in Western history. The question of what Jesus meant by “this is my body.”
ORSI: Yes, this Catholic/Protestant violence which goes throughout the five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation. I’m at great pains in the book—and I’m sure this is clear to you—not to say that Protestants don’t have concepts of presence. That is not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying, however, is that it behooves us pay attention to that moment in history when that question was so fiercely and violently debated with this widespread sense that there was a Catholic sense of presence that was different. Catholics thought that. Protestants thought that. Catholics thought that Jesus was there in flesh and blood and that that reality was also true elsewhere.
So Catholics—I call them “people of presence” at one point because that idea suffuses Catholic reality. So relics, statues, images, places. Presence is part of the experience of all these other phenomena as well, the saint is present in the relic, you could kiss the relic and by kissing the relic you’re kissing the holy figure. That’s a very consequential distinction. It’s a very consequential distinction. Part of it has to do with materiality, part of it has to do with embodiment, part of it has to do with authority. But nonetheless, Catholics have this particular notion of presence.
Then this debate, I argue, gets carried around the world in the Age of Exploration with Protestant and Catholic missionaries. It becomes a template for approaching other religions. So you have “good religions” and “bad religions.” “Bad religions” are religions like the variety of South Asian religions we now call Hinduism—
HODGES: —Which also had shrines and presences and things.
ORSI: Absolutely. Pilgrimages, and so forth. That’s “bad religion.” Buddhism, as it was construed by French Rationalists in the nineteenth century, Buddhism was a “scientific” religion; it was a religion of the mind.
HODGES: It was contemplative spirit.
ORSI: It was contemplative spirit. I think I awoke slowly to this when I read the famous “stages of faith”—
HODGES: James Fowler?
ORSI: James Fowler’s book on stages of faith and I realized . . . Fowler claims—and he himself is at pains to say that these are not normative, but it’s hard not to see them as normative because—
HODGES: —Right. He’s saying there’s like primitive low-level religion—
ORSI: Stage one.
HODGES: It’s like flesh and presence, and he would even say it’s superstitious, and then you graduate, you become enlightened, to the higher spiritual things—
ORSI: Absolutely. When you’re at the top it’s disembodied, it’s mostly ethical, and so forth. As a Catholic, that meant that to study religion was to contribute to boundary making.
HODGES: Yes. We’re talking with Robert Orsi. He’s the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic studies at Northwestern University and the author of History and Presence.
Bob, most Catholics believe in a community of people here on earth that’s connected to a broader community of saints and angels; the living and the dead are all interacting with each other in Catholicism. Chapter five of your book is called “The Dead in the Company of the Living.” I want to set this up a little bit.
In part of this chapter, you yourself visited a Catholic home where a little boy had died at age five after several years of suffering, and in his bedroom hung a lithograph of the tortured and bloody crucified Jesus. This is an image of Jesus there. The boy’s parents welcomed visitors after his death from around the world to visit the boy’s little room. Tell us about that experience.
ORSI: Well what happened was the mother—who was of course distraught with grief after her five year old son died—she says at one point in something she wrote or maybe something she told me that he had spent most of his childhood in hospitals because he was very sick. Anyway, he died when he was five and she was sitting in his room on his bed—a little room, which is important in the story later—looking at an image of a crucifix. It’s important that it was actually kind of a lithograph thing. She was sitting there and she was asking God “why did this happen?” and she began to pray that she could see her son one last time, which of course as anyone who has lost someone knows that is a very understandable desire, and she looked up again at the image and a little dot had appeared in one of the corners of the image, and over time the next couple of days the dot grew larger and it turned out to be the face of her son in the image.
So she kept this to herself for a while. Then after a few days she invited her husband in to see it. He saw the boy too, so now they had sort of confirmation that it wasn’t just her. One of the points that I make in the book is she really did struggle to understand what kind of experience this was and where it fit in within Catholic teaching. Anyway, they both see it and then they decide to go to their pastor and he comes over—and here there are different versions of the story. In one version he crumples the image and then smooths it out and the little boy’s face is still there. In another—for reasons that are escaping me now I trust this story—in a second version he asks to see another image in the house because he wants to compare this image with another holy image. He looks at them and he says, “No, this is clearly something miraculous.” So from that point on they got this kind of . . . This was never officially approved by the church, but they were eager to have their parish priest at least tell them that they were not doing anything wrong.
HODGES: Right, this wasn’t unorthodox in some way.
ORSI: This wasn’t unorthodox in some way, right.
So then gradually, by word of mouth only, the word went out and people began to come. And soon people began to see their own dead in the image. They saw the little boy, but they also saw their own dead. Then one day somebody saw a living member of their family, and this was very frightening because they were expecting to see only the dead. So the couple who ran the shrine in their home, they had to figure then, “why a living person?” They finally decided that God wanted the people who come to the shrine to see the people in their lives who most needed prayer or most needed attention.
That’s where I come in now, because I decided to go with a group. A friend of mine had found out about this—I forget how he did—we called up and I asked if I could come out. We set an appointment very far in advance actually because there was such a stream of pilgrims.
HODGES: About what year was this?
ORSI: About 1987.
HODGES: Okay, so it was in the 80s.
ORSI: Yeah, ’87. So we went out, me and a group of friends—the friend of mine who found it, his mother who was in her late sixties at the time, his girlfriend who was Jewish, his sister, his brother-in-law, and me. So we all piled into this car and we went out. We found the place and the woman told us the story and she welcomed us. Then we went up into the room. So she brought us into the room and she said “here’s the image,” and again it was very small and there were six of us or so, “here’s the image”—
HODGES: Was it dark in there at all?
ORSI: No. I don’t remember clearly, but I think it was lit.
ORSI: I mean it wasn’t brightly lit, but there was a lamp of some sort.
ORSI: She was very encouraging, but she said, “You might see something, don’t be afraid, this isn’t something weird, this isn’t something creepy; this is something from God so don’t be afraid.” Then she said, “I’ll come back in half an hour or so or forty five minutes.” So she left and closed the door and we were all in this little room.
Then suddenly people began seeing things in the image. As I write in the book, I saw something too. I was not expecting to see it, although I did grow up Catholic, so this was not an unfamiliar world to me. I saw sort of a tall skinny nun in one of the corners of the image.
HODGES: Did it move? Was it just sort of—
ORSI: No, she just stood still.
HODGES: This wasn’t a trick of your eyes? You saw this with your own eyes.
ORSI: Yeah, so it seems. Again we were looking around, we were leaning over each other, looking over each other’s shoulders, so there was a lot of movement in the room. But I definitely saw something.
HODGES: So you tell this story in your book. How do you think your approach to telling that story might differ from other religious studies scholars? Particularly the type you’re trying to sort of push back against or sort of shift the conversation with. How would their telling of this account differ from what you’re doing?
ORSI: Well first let me say that anthropologists, I think, this would be familiar to them, this kind of involvement. Although let me note that the famous participant observation anthropologists do, it doesn’t mean they have to participate in ceremonies. But it’s an option. And I decided to go into this. I mean, I didn’t see myself as participating in a religious ritual so much but, in any case, I went in. So I don’t think anthropologists would be surprised, but I think religious studies as a discipline—the academic study of religion—really tried to build a firewall between scholars of religion and such experiences. And there’s a danger I think—and this has changed in the last ten years or so, it’s changing—but there was a danger that you would not be believed, that you’d be seen as credulous, when in fact, quite apart from any supernatural explanation—and I’m not inclined to make supernatural explanations, but just in terms of a human explanation, having grown up in the tradition, being there with friends, being in this room, having been prepared for this, I mean you can see how it’s not that mysterious that I should come to this point.
HODGES: That’s really interesting, because in other stories you do treat—for example visions of Mary. You treat Mary almost as a historical actor, which some scholars would say then that you are allowing the supernatural to play a role in your work.
ORSI: Well I want it, I mean absolutely. Because it plays a role in these people’s lives, and it’s not for them a metaphor, it’s not a function. And when we turn away from the really realness of these figures in people’s lives, we lose something of the power of these religious moments.
So for example, as I tell it, I situate the story of this boy in the context of changing Catholic burial practices following the second Vatican Council, which was 1962 to 1965, which was Catholicism’s moment of modernization when they tried to bring the church into the modern world. There was a real de-emphasis on praying by the corpse at wakes—
HODGES: Wakes changed, yeah.
ORSI: There was a de-emphasis on wakes; there was a de-emphasis on saying the Rosary at wakes; they changed the colors of the funeral liturgy from black to white. These are enormous changes that people are asked to accept at a very painful moment of their lives, one of the most painful moments.
So Catholic burial practices were changing in terms of Catholic cemeteries, I talk about how cemeteries were being more carefully administered in this period. A kind of institutional framework had developed and it became clear as they got deeper and deeper into this little boy’s life that he was not happy with these events. I think, however you want to talk about this—and I think that’s part of the challenge is to come up with a richer repertoire of theories and understandings to understand this—that little boy had ideas about how he was to be treated in the afterlife.
HODGES: You use new language, for example “abundant events” is one of the terms that you came up with in the book. How do you describe an abundant event to someone, like how would you have described it to your mother who was a practicing Catholic, and you said she’s an intelligent woman but she’s not necessarily academically inclined. So how would you present abundant events to someone like that?
ORSI: Well, it’s an encounter with a holy figure in the context of ones life, in the circumstances of ones life, it’s an encounter which is experienced by the person as absolutely real, as real as you and I are sitting here across this table talking to each other. It’s not always anticipated.
What struck me and kind of what led me into this project in the first place was the language that people use. They always use the language of “it came to me.” “The Virgin Mary came to me.” I thought that needed to be addressed, it needed to be attended to. What does it mean then in these moments when a human is approached by a holy figure in that human’s religious pantheon, what happens then? I try to suggest theoretical possibilities. I try to suggest that these figures come and confront people with other possibilities.
HODGES: How do you separate the stories of what they tell from the event itself? There’s a way that people say these things come to them—for example the Virgin Mary might appear to someone, and they talk about it. But the talking about it, do you differentiate the talking about it versus the actual event that they experienced?
ORSI: Well you know, so much of modern academic life, so much of modern intellectual thought, is premised upon a series of such distinctions you know, between the object and the language. There has been the “real” and the “interpretation.” And there has been a movement, there’s been a turn in recent years to collapse the distinction between the discursive and the experiential—
HODGES: The thing that’s talked about and the thing that happened, yeah.
ORSI: The thing that’s talked about and the thing that happened. So obviously the people I spoke to, having grown up Catholic—all of them except for the Jewish girl—were raised in a particular discursive tradition, and they were using the language of that discursive tradition. But that said, I guess I’m a linguistic realist in some ways, which does not mean that I am saying that the thing that is referred to in language is ontologically separate from the world of human experience. What I am saying is if people say “this figure came to me,” we as scholars of historical, cultural phenomena must attend to that language without trying to explain it. We have to hear it. This is what they are saying. Now let’s think about this experience in history.
HODGES: You mentioned the people who were with you and most of them had a Catholic background as you did, but there was also someone with a Jewish background. Was there any sense at all of—a sense of voyeurism in this experience, or this feeling of sort of invading a space that some people would see as a very sacred space, and to go in there and analyze it, it’s sort of like dissecting a frog. The frog has to die in order for you to do that.
ORSI: Well I wasn’t dissecting it while I was there! I mean, the frog and I had a moment together before I got to work on it. And I wouldn’t have been able to analyze it had I not been there and seen what happened and been part of that event. That was very important.
But voyeurism? No. One of the things that struck me was how carefully the couple constructed a respectful environment. I have to say, this was a working class community, these were recognizable—to me—working class, formerly working class people. There was nothing spooky about it, there was nothing Halloweenish about it. The house was a very plain, suburban, working class kind of home. There was a living room. The husband of the woman who was leading us through this all, he was watching television the whole time and smoking cigarettes. It could not have been more normal actually for that particular moment of time. So it wasn’t like we were going into a heavily marked space. So there was nothing that would have called for a sort of voyeurism.
Having said that, I have to say one member of our group, for various reasons of his own that I’m not sure, he was in a very kind of cranky and satirical mood, and he kept up a pretty steady banter as things were going on.
HODGES: In the room.
ORSI: In the room. After the woman had left. It didn’t seem to affect anybody. Certainly it didn’t affect the young Jewish girl who, as I described, saw her deceased father in a tuxedo, who was dancing with someone and she kept saying, “Like Fred Astaire, like Fred Astaire…”
HODGES: It’s such an intimate space and you have people having such different experiences in there. I mean, you are kind of skeptical sort of analytical, versus the Jewish woman who seemed pretty open to it, versus someone who sounds quite cynical, and all of you are packed into this little space where this abundant event—
ORSI: Literally crawling all over each other.
HODGES: Where does the “abundant” come from? What does that word exactly refer to when you’re talking about abundance? Is it something above and beyond what you can wrap your arms around or what is that?
ORSI: I thought for a while about calling it “excessive empiricism,” because abundant is hooked to not only event but to empiricism, so I talk about how an abundant empiricism.
HODGES: That’s definitely more jargony. [laughs]
ORSI: Which one?
HODGES: Empiricism. Like you went from “empiricism” to “event.”
ORSI: Right. But what I meant by that was simply a radical attention to the world as the world is experienced by the people among whom I go to study or to understand, and not making translations immediately from their language, not transposing their—It’s not up to me to decide what are important things in this environment until I hear from them. And I cannot dismiss their interpretations.
I quote a scholar of religion in the book who says somewhere that if you want to understand a religious experience the last people you go to are the people who actually had that experience because they’re going to be the last ones to really tell you anything about that experience. And that’s just—I just can’t get behind that kind of sentiment.
HODGES: To have a specific example, in the book you talk about young children that are having visions of Mary, like all of these Mary visions happen and previous treatments of that experience will explain it sort of historically. They’ll say, “Well in this particular area there was these other types of visions that were happening so these ideas were in the air,” and scholars will want to sort of reduce things down to that explanation, that the people who experienced it wouldn’t have been able to tell you that history necessarily.
ORSI: Maybe not, but I do want to emphasize—and I keep emphasizing this—that I am not suggesting that these events should or could or ought to be approached apart from a thick historical explanation. I talk about this in my brief discussion of Lourdes, where the railroads were running, it is important that there was a kind of controversy in the church at that time about something, all of that is absolutely true and you cannot, I am not proposing to take these events out of history. If anything I see myself as sticking them even more deeply into history.
HODGES: By paying more attention…
ORSI: By paying more attention to…
HODGES: To even what they say about what happened.
ORSI: —to what they say. So once the Virgin Mary comes, now I want to say “now the Virgin Mary is here. How does this change the circumstances? How does this change local dynamics?” Without assuming that, “well, this is a political trope.”
HODGES: Yeah, you do the same thing in the book with the woman in Detroit around the time of World War II. Maybe spend a second talking about that story and how you do talk about the context of these visions that happened, but you also allow space for something abundant, for something more.
ORSI: Well that’s a really great example. So here’s a woman towards the end of the Second World War, she has several brothers in the armed service, she learns that they’re in the Pacific, her correspondence with them is censored and intermittent so she’s not getting a lot of . . . But what she is reading, she’s reading newspaper accounts of how atrocious the war in the Pacific is. And she feels a great concern and responsibility to do something to protect her brothers, or to take care of her brothers. But she feels now, of course, utterly powerless.
She’s in the middle of these conflicting emotions and at one point she prays to the Virgin Mary and says, “I will do anything. I’m going to save more tin. I’m going to save more string. I’m going to sell more war bonds. I’m going to give more blood.” That’s when she hears a voice that says to her, “None of that is going to make any difference. That is not going to help your brothers. Don’t do those things. What you need to do is gather women together like you who are worried about their loved ones and pray to me and I will be there with you in the midst of prayer.”
HODGES: Wasn’t this especially unusual, because Catholics at this time were really trying to prove their American identities, right? So they were supposed to be selling war bonds, and doing all that—
ORSI: And also, as I think I quote in there, there was a very strong sense—I mean historians of the home front point out that war bonds and scrap metal drives and so forth were targeted to women in particular to give them a sense of connectedness to the war front. This was a way both literally and psychologically for women to stay in touch. Mary was saying “no, that’s not how it works.” It was not uncommon in the papers in those days and on the radio to hear people say “if you don’t buy war bonds, if you don’t give blood, you are contributing to the death of our soldiers.” So the woman was being challenged in a very subversive way.
HODGES: Why not leave it at then, right? Scholars could just say, “look, this is a woman who had a lot of pressure and this could be a release valve. She could have sort of even hallucinated this experience to take off the pressure and let her do something else rather than all the things she’s being pressured to do.” Why not just leave the story at that then?
ORSI: I just don’t see what the language of hallucination gets us. It doesn’t take us into the intimacy of the experience, it doesn’t take us into the reality of the experience in this woman’s life, it doesn’t take us into the consequences of the experience. I mean this was the whole point, in some ways, of modern intellectual culture—it was precisely to explain the miraculous, to come up with naturalistic explanations for such phenomena. But in the process I think a violence was done, not to religion but to history, to the study of history, and to people’s religious experience. Again, I try to approach these experiences as they are talked about and as people say they experience them.
HODGES: Was that violence then—this reduction—like having an automatic skepticism for, or dismissal of people’s experiences—
ORSI: Yeah, or “translation.” I use the language of translation—to translate them from one world of meaning into another world of meaning and then to assert that this world of meaning is the superior world of meaning.
HODGES: To a believer, to the woman in Detroit, she would experience that description as a dismissal.
ORSI: Absolutely. Of course church authorities in Michigan were not happy with this vision because, as you say, they were trying to become American, although until the 60s and actually afterwards there have been Marian apparitions, lots of Marian apparitions all over the world, including in the United States. There was a famous one in the Bronx in the later 40s. So they wanted to make sure this was kept under . . . It’s always a challenge for the church, which on the one hand encourages such beliefs, and on the other hand is confronted with the challenge of controlling such beliefs because it’s a little bit akin to Weber’s institutional charismatic dichotomy—
HODGES: This is Max Weber, the German—
ORSI: The German sociologist. One of the things I try to say is that these kinds of binaries—living and dead, charismatic and institutional—just don’t work because it’s the institutional church that makes possible the experience. That’s a part of why it’s there; it’s the encouragement of the institutional church that creates the grounds on which that experience grows, so it’s hard to draw the kind of sharp line that Weber was suggesting between the charismatic and the institutional.
HODGES: The institution, then, sometimes also has difficulty with abundant events because of their abundance, because they’re sort of overflowing. You talk in the book about ways the Catholic church has sometimes tried to rein in things like cleaning up shrine sites, or things like that.
ORSI: Absolutely, absolutely. For lots of different reasons. One, for the danger that they’ll get out of control, but also the danger that they will be taken in directions that the church can’t approve of. Of course this happens. People pray for things that perhaps the church has not sanctioned.
One of the examples I use in another book of mine, Thank You, Saint Jude , is women praying to Saint Jude after the Second World War to help them get jobs. He’s the patron saint of hopeless causes. And the Catholic press and the American press were encouraging women not to work, to give up their jobs. To give their jobs to returning servicemen and to stop working. And Catholics had a very strong moral impetus against women working. So they were praying to Saint Jude to give them something that went against the din in the popular media. When Jude granted them that request they felt that their decision had been sanctified, or gratified.
HODGES: That’s Robert Orsi. We’re talking today about his book History and Presence. He studies American Catholicism and he also writes a lot on theory and method for the study of religion.
Bob, in an interview that you did with the LDS historian Richard Bushman and Susanna Morill you said that scholars’ personal background plays a role in their scholarship. You said that you think it’s “critically important for scholars to be really clear about the anxieties and commitments that they bring to their work.” So what are some anxieties and commitments that you bring to your work?
ORSI: Well this changes over time, of course. I’m sure the anxieties and the commitments have changed as I’ve gotten older and as my work has taken different directions.
Certainly one of the first anxieties that I had to struggle with was I wanted to be endorsed within the academy, and there are certain things you can say and certain things you can’t say. I’ve gotten much bolder as life has gone on in pushing those boundaries.
HODGES: What’s your most bold academic heresy?
ORSI: Well I don’t know about the boldest, but the very fact that I use “I” and the fact that my own experience is part of this—again not unusual in anthropology, very unusual in history, in the study of history there are still tremendous prohibitions against the singular personal pronoun. Also the mixing of ethnography and historiography, the mixing of the present and the past, the suggestion that the present and the past are not as sealed off from each other as we are led to believe from certain historical canons.
HODGES: Let’s talk about what you brought to your work—you say it kind of changes over time—what about to your latest History and Presence? Was there something you brought along there?
ORSI: Well there, you know, the final chapter is about the Catholic sex abuse crisis approached through the perspective of survivor’s own stories and their own voices and their own experiences. There my anxiety was that I would not get their stories right. I’m open to challenging people, but my goal is not to destroy people’s worlds. That isn’t what I’m out to do. I felt I had to be very careful and thoughtful about how I talked to people and what questions I asked them. So that was an anxiety.
HODGES: That final chapter on sexual abuse scandals is difficult. It’s a troubling chapter. Talk about the decision to address that in this book. How did you come to that?
ORSI: Well I wanted to talk about the ways in which . . . I noticed that as I spoke to more and more survivors—again this is not about all survivors, because there are thousands and thousands of survivors around the world and in the United States, I’m talking about a very small subset. I was particularly interested in survivors who remained in some relationship with the church, however tormented, or with their Catholic inheritances, prayers, and sacraments, and so forth.
I learned that for many of them presence was both a problem and a challenge. The abundance of presence created a risk of their boundaries being broken again and they were afraid of a violating kind of God, they didn’t want this violating God. On the other hand—
HODGES: Because the person who abused them was connected in Catholicism to the person of God—
ORSI: Oh, intimately.
HODGES: Priests stands in for God.
ORSI: The alter Christus, the other Christ.
HODGES: This makes it different—not to say anything is less or worse or better—but different from an athletic coach or someone else abusing someone. It’s a priest abusing someone.
ORSI: Absolutely, absolutely. People have said to me, like the gymnastics coach, he stood between these people and their children’s Olympic ambitions. Okay, well that is serious. That ambition is a good, and that good made everybody vulnerable. That made the parents vulnerable to manipulation and so forth. But it’s not the same as having the power to forgive, or not, your sins or having the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, which you can then approach on the altar and consume. That is ontologically so far beyond what a coach does.
HODGES: Which, you know, it’s terrible however it goes, but one of the things your chapter did for me was to show me the way . . . You’re coming from a Catholic background, so a person might expect you to be almost apologetic or sort of try to give a context for that kind of abuse that casts it in a light that sort of eases some of the pain. But what you show, I felt like, was how that abuse being rooted in Catholicism actually made it even more painful for the people involved.
ORSI: Absolutely. To be abused by the man who affects the sacramental miracle, I mean that’s a very powerful and painful thing.
HODGES: Was it hard to talk to victims of abuse, or to survivors of abuse I should say? Was that difficult?
ORSI: It was difficult. It was difficult for them certainly to talk to me. We talked beforehand about any conditions that they would require and I checked in with them constantly to see if all was going well and if our conversation was proceeding in a comfortable way. I had a rule that I needed to be transparent about anything I asked them. I really tried to give them as much control over the conversations that we had over time as possible.
So I even said—and no one has ever taken me up on this—but I even said that after we had completed our conversations together and we had done this final—
So my method was to have a series of conversations, five, six, seven conversations of varying length, and then when we finally decided we’d explored the experience enough and we had talked about their lives and their childhoods and their adulthoods and their marriages that I would have one final conversation with them—although there was always a possibility of coming back—I’d have a final conversation the purpose of which was to get down with particular clarity their own special language for talking about this, the words they used. And so I would go back over my notes and say, “You said . . ., This is how you expressed this. Can you help me understand one more time what you meant by this phrase?” Then I gave that to them so they could take that away.
HODGES: Some of the fascinating stories were from people who, despite the incredible amount of pain that they had undergone as Catholics, some of them would drift from the Catholic church, they would have resentment toward the Catholic church, they would leave the Catholic church, and some of them later on would just find themselves drawn back in some ways. Part of the story, then, is about how some of these people were trying to return to a Catholic register of worship, or even some of them seemed they couldn’t help but return to that in spite of themselves.
ORSI: Absolutely. One of the things that my last two books have been concerned with—actually it’s a theme that goes through all my recent work, which is how deeply and how systematically Catholic children in the United States were formed in the faith by an army of nuns and priests and religious brothers who were at varying degrees of sophistication prepared with a whole technology of formation—
HODGES: So like the catechism that they would recite, the lessons they would learn—
ORSI: Their toys, and dolls, and little priest dolls that you could move around, and cut outs, and coloring books, and fairy tales, stories, lives of the saints—
HODGES: Comic books you said, even.
ORSI: Comic books, adventure stories, there was a whole world that contributed to this formation.
HODGES: You yourself experienced some of that growing up.
ORSI: Oh yeah, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx and I went to Catholic school from kindergarten to senior year of high school.
HODGES: We talked a little bit earlier about Fowler’s “stages of faith.” How do you characterize your religious beliefs today? Do you notice any parallels with Fowler’s stages? Where are you at today with your religiosity?
ORSI: Well first I do want to remind us that I’m intensely critical of Fowler’s stages of faith because I find them to be . . . —
HODGES: Protestant-centric? Condescending a little bit?
ORSI: Condescending. And look at what’s at stake. They present themselves as a developmental road map—
HODGES: To the pinnacle of religiosity.
ORSI: And health, and psychological health! So you go up these stages—And I remember discovering at some point I was reading this book again and I was thinking, “Okay, where does my family fit on this?” They’re like a 2.5 or something, precisely because of their understanding of the real presence and saints and statues and so forth. So it’s a normative model masked as a developmental model.
So where do I fit? I often say to my students when I get to the discussion of the variety of Judaism in the United States that if I had my druthers I wish that Catholicism had an option like conservative Judaism, which would be a deep respect for the lived tradition in all its variety and all the ways in which it might be acceptable to me and unacceptable to me, a deep respect for the piety of ordinary people, and at the same time a progressive political politics. But you know, Catholics don’t have that option. We don’t really have the option of choosing the particular form of our Catholicism. Necessarily. We won’t get it approved, I’m not a Catholic in good standing at this point—
HODGES: But are you a religious believer? Do you have a sense of personal worship or connection with God or some above and beyond? Something abundant, I guess?
ORSI: I have a sense of abundance, absolutely, I do have a sense of abundance. I wouldn’t call it belief and I don’t use the language of “practicing,” as in, do I go every Sunday, the answer to that would be no. But do I have some deep connections that are existential, emotional, aesthetic, spiritual, all tied up. Absolutely, absolutely.
HODGES: Is it uncomfortable to talk about that? Or is that something that just doesn’t usually come up in the context of your work?
ORSI: Well it comes up all the time in the sense that people ask me, do I believe that a figure that I’m talking about—like the Virgin, do I believe that the Virgin really—and at that point they’re asking me a question about my belief. They’re also framing it within a particular model of religious phenomenology, which is “either it is real according to the conditions of natural science, or it is unreal,” and those are the only two options. I reject that trap.
HODGES: That’s the hardest thing, I think, for most people to wrap their heads around, is what you mean by that rejection. So what is it then? I’m reminded of a story that you talk about in the book where there’s a young Catholic boy who’s kind of a problem, Dennis-the-Menace-type figure in a way, and the Protestant kids are giving him a hard time and they’re trying to make him say, there is no real presence there in the church, in the Eucharist or whatever, and he’s desperate but says “I can’t say there’s no there there!” Because he thinks there’s the real presence of Jesus in that church, and the Protestants are making fun of him for that.
ORSI: They threaten him. This is fiction, this is a piece of thoroughly mid-twentieth century fiction, written by a Jesuit priest for boys. They Protestant boys want the Catholic boy to say there’s nobody in the tabernacle, and they threaten that if he doesn’t they’re going to beat him up, dunk him in the river, which eventually, as you know, kills him and so he actually dies. He’s a martyr because he refuses to say that it’s not there.
HODGES: So do you feel like people are ever trying to do that to you? Like, “Bob, you’ve got to say! Tell us it’s there!”
ORSI: In all of these conversations there is this . . . Both epistemologically and experientially I have always seen myself as an in-between figure. In my earliest work where I was trying to talk about the unique place of the scholar of religion, I talked about that person’s in-between-ness. That person has one gaze on the world of religious practice and another on the academic environment. This person occupies this sometimes-somewhat uncomfortable ground between them. I would say the same about my epistemology, that it’s an in-between epistemology, it neither speaks to the realness or the un-realness, but I want to talk about the realness of it, but within a particular philosophical framework.
HODGES: I think that’s the hardest part about getting through this book, for people who check it out, is trying to pin you down. People will want to pin you down in categories that you’re actually actively trying to get around.
ORSI: Subvert. I know. The whole project of the book is to subvert these categories, subvert these binaries, to try to come up with a richer way to try to conceptualize human imagination and human experience, and then I’m continually being asked to abandon what I consider the theoretical scaffolding of this book and its larger point.
HODGES: One of the things that you’ve said in History and Presence is that “scholarship entails risk for the person whose world has been entered by the scholar, but also for the scholar whose own uncertainties ought to be on the line in the encounter.” So where were your uncertainties challenged in History and Presence?
ORSI: Well all the things we’re talking about. I grew up Catholic but I was trained in an intellectual environment. I know my Kant, I know my Plato, I know my Descartes, and I know my philosophical traditions. I know the value of those and what they were trying to do.
HODGES: What would you say to Catholics who say, “that’s your problem, all of that eroded away your connection to what we as Catholics see as the abundant”?
ORSI: I would say, you don’t get to choose where you live in history, and it’s not like after we can just say “well we’re going to ignore all of that critical theory, we’re going to ignore all the critical philosophy, we’re going to ignore psychoanalysis, and we’re just going to affirm these things as if none of that ever happened.” You don’t really get to do that.
HODGES: So the other side of that coin, then, is scholarship also entails risk for the people whose world is being encountered by the scholar. So what kind of risks are there for those people?
ORSI: Well, that we’ll misuse their world, that we’ll take it away from them in some way, we’ll transform it into some other register, we’ll tell other stories about it that aren’t their stories, and we won’t be adequately respectful with what the boundary is between what we’re thinking and what they’re thinking, and we’ll sort of absorb their narratives into ours.
Yeah. The risks of exposure. Of being recognized in books. I tell the people I speak to that there are all kinds of ways in which I honor and respect their anonymity if that’s what they want, but, you know, they have to trust me.
HODGES: That’s Robert Orsi. We’re talking today about his book History and Presence.
Let’s talk about reactions to your work. Have you ever been called an apologist for what you do because you’re trying not to bracket out abundant or divine presences?
ORSI: No, I don’t think anybody has ever called me an apologist. I think the worst that it’s gotten is they’ve called me an “Eliadian,” and that has been a sufficient denunciation. But for the most part my work has been respectfully received as it’s talked about.
HODGES: What would that mean for most—Like Eliade the scholar, what did they mean by that accusation?
ORSI: Well I think the misunderstanding of Eliade is that he thought there were these events which he called “hierophanies” akin to what I’m talking about as “abundant experiences” or abundant events, but there’s always a sense that he reduced all of this to a singular plane so that he could look across vast terrains across geography and time and say “that experience is like this experience.” I’m clearly not doing that because I’m a social historian so I’m utterly preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of particular worlds.
HODGES: Yeah, he was much more macro, sort of trying to make connections, sort of almost colonial.
ORSI: Absolutely, where I’m much more micro and sort of building this up from pieces of these worlds.
HODGES: When you’re doing that you’re personally interacting with people, religious people, and talking to them about their lives and really personal experiences. Has anyone that you’ve interviewed in the past, is there anyone in particular that has stuck with you now that this project is completed? Are there any presences, you might say, sort of lingering in your mind or that come to mind?
ORSI: Obviously the ones in this most recent book are very strong to me. To think about that question—
I think it really was the women I spoke to when I was doing my book on Saint Jude, who were an incredible group of women. And they were very honest—at times brutally so. Transparent, they challenged me, they tested me, they asked me questions. And I think that group was where I really learned how to do ethnography, because they were the ones who—I realized that I was really entering a world of relationships and they were not going to just let me be a kind of invisible figure. They wanted to know about my life and what I thought about Saint Jude and did I share this belief, and I would say “no I don’t,” and then they would have to react to that. That, I think, led to a richer and more honest engagement, exchange.
HODGES: So maybe they’re still there in the back of your mind sort of keeping you focused on how you interact with people subsequently.
ORSI: One woman—I think I cite this in the Saint Jude book or someplace—but one woman said if I revealed her name she would rip my nose off, she’d find me and rip my nose off.
HODGES: And what’s her name? [laughs]
ORSI: Yeah. Right! It was also from them that I learned how much people think about these things. I think that, along with that sort of normative gridding of experience, there’s this sense of almost that certain kinds of religious experiences are mindless, you know? That’s why the word “belief” is so bad. It implies a kind of closure. Do you or do you not? And if you do then it’s like all of your critical questions have gone. But what I have found in people who would define themselves as actively engaged in their religions, I have found that they’re thinking, and the more they think questions come up and they have to work with those things.
HODGES: And those things affect how they live. It’s a lived thing.
ORSI: Absolutely. And how they think about those things arises from their lived experience.
HODGES: That’s one of the things I feel like you’re really struggling to do in the book, in ways that I don’t find in many other books, is trying to find—Not to cover one side of that equation without leaving the other side of that equation.
ORSI: That accounts for something of the poetics of the book.
HODGES: Yeah, the book is a series of vignettes, so you’ll talk about a story and then you’ll do some analysis or discourse.
ORSI: I try to weave them together in a way that I think connects the religious to the social and to the theoretical much more intimately and immediately.
HODGES: It’s a wonderful book, History and Presence. Before we talk about your upcoming projects, there’s one other question I have about the sort of gifts that scholars of religion—especially if they’re taking your approach—can offer to human society, and perhaps kind of curses or drawbacks that can come from your kind of approach.
ORSI: Well, I think one of the things we can offer is what I’ve called elsewhere a “disciplined attention” to a world of religious practitioners. It’s actually quite difficult to discipline yourself in such a way that you are capable of attending to a religious world without anxiously translating it into your world, without dismissing it, or without passing judgment on it—that you have the training and the discipline to pay attention.
I also think that we challenge people to move away from essentialism. So you’ll never get a scholar of religion talking about “Islam.” This came up recently when Loyola made the NCAA Final Four, a Catholic school made the Final Four. There was all this talk about, “why are Catholic schools”—
HODGES: Go Retrievers!
ORSI: Right, right! “Why are Catholic schools good at basketball?” All these ideas started coming up, “well because of this, because of that.” The popular press was like looking for a Catholic answer to that. I’m open to that obviously, but you know it has to do with the fact that Catholic schools have become richer over the last twenty-five to thirty years. They have huge endowments now and they are able to buy basketball players, they’re able to compete in the market for basketball players. It was hard for me to listen to, “Oh Catholics play basketball more than anyone else” when I spent fifteen years teaching in Indiana and I think Hoosiers would take an exception to that.
HODGES: That’s right. So some of the gifts that scholars can offer religious believers then is this disciplined attention and thoughtful engagement. How about on the other side of that? What kind of gifts do you think you’ve received from religious believers as you’ve done your scholarship?
ORSI: I’ve been impressed by their thoughtfulness, their generosity, their humor. I’ve learned in a very visceral way—and I think Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, says this in his famous 1973 essay on religion as a cultural system, he says there isn’t a single religious emotion. There is laughter, there is bitterness, there is sorrow, there is joy, there’s exhilaration, there’s humor. And I think that one of the things I’ve learned from the people I’ve been among in their contexts—because I try to get into the interstices of their lives as much as possible—is that that’s really true. That’s a profound essay and I think that’s one of the profound comments in there. So I’ve certainly seen that.
HODGES: That’s Robert A. Orsi. He’s the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. He’s a specialist in American Catholicism and writes books on theory and method for the study of religion. We talked about his latest book today, History and Presence.
What have you got on the docket right now? Do you have any new projects that you’re working on?
ORSI: Yes. I’m working on a—it’s changing actually as we speak—but I’m working on what I am now thinking of as a history of Catholic sexuality, American Catholic sexuality in the twentieth century, with a particular eye on the sex abuse crisis. I’m trying to contextualize the sex abuse crisis historically and in terms of sort of Catholic understandings of sexuality, Catholic practices and so forth, while at the same time trying to bring the survivors who I’ve gotten to know along and sort of allowing them to be my guides through this history a little bit. So it’s, again, mostly a historical work, but I’m continuing to do my conversations with survivors. I’m continuing to meet survivors and hang out with them.
HODGES: How far out do you think that project is?
ORSI: It’s a few years out.
HODGES: Cool. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today, Bob.
ORSI: Thank you so much. It’s really a pleasure, really a pleasure to be here.
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