By February 28, 2017
Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the sixth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous instalments are the Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.
Heaven, like death, grounds us in the temporal world by enabling us to imagine a spiritual world. Imagining heaven enables “our short lives [to] acquire not only purpose but also grandeur and drama when they are set against the horizon of sacred history.” (204) Hope for heaven gives us moral purpose and embeds our everyday lives with meaning. Heaven is a reward for the righteous. Yet, despite the hope and virtue that heaven invokes in us, the idea of heaven has also been used to justify terrible things. Orsi’s chapter captures how heaven manifests itself in both our sacred cosmology and everyday activities. It represents our highest aspirations, our fundamental worldview, and also the most mundane parts of our existence. Orsi’s vignettes throughout the chapter reflect this: he tells stories end of life and childhood stories. He speaks about his respites from the playground bullies, interviews where men told him of their childhood understandings of heaven, and his parent’s relationship as his mother died of cancer.
The next chapter of the book is about evil, which is where he most fully discusses his fieldwork among people who have been abused by priests. Orsi draws out the ways that “predator priests” used sacred presence as an element of their sexual abuse. These horrible and shocking stories are easily framed within the chapter title “Events of Abundant Evil”. However, Orsi seems more reticent to talk directly of the “Happiness of Heaven” in chapter six. While the stories in the chapter on abundant evil reflect horror and trauma, the stories in the chapter on happiness and heaven reflect hope, disappointment, and ambivalence. “Heaven is the dullest and most obvious of religious imaginings,” he writes (204). This may be the most ambivalent statement I have ever heard about heaven, which may account for why the chapter is by far the shortest and most fragmented of the whole book.
Orsi draws upon a 1944 children’s catechism book that helps children memorize statement about heaven and help them make heaven applicable to their everyday lives. He summarizes, “In this way, heaven is brought close to everyday activities on earth and becomes less dull; or perhaps, brought close to everyday activities, heaven becomes duller.” (205) What does it mean to say that heaven is the dullest of religious imaginations? Consider chapter four’s discussion of printed presence, which is full of observations of the mundane ways that presence enters into believer’s lives through print. Clearly, Orsi does not think that the presence imbued in daily material culture or actions is uninteresting. Perhaps the happiness of heaven is not easily studied as a topic in and of itself; instead people’s hopes and fears about heaven continually emerge throughout all the chapters of the book.
Speaking of his late mother’s dying conversations with his father, Orsi goes beyond his initial definition of heaven: it is not (always) a sacred order, or a “banal” arbiter of moral authority. Instead, heaven is “the limit of knowing and an invitation to conversation, recognition, and accompaniment at the extremity of life.” (213) Presence is something that is not experienced in the abstract; people experience the presence of heaven through encounters with others. In other words, heaven can be understood as a justifying power for actions or aspiration for happiness, however Orsi finds these lenses of analysis banal and uninteresting. “The happiness of heaven” is unknowable and the only way we approach it is through meaningful relationships and dialogue.
By February 17, 2017
Imagine this setting: you are a Mormon attending a talk titled “Sacred Spaces, Holy Work: Perspectives on Mormon Temple Worship,” given at Harvard Divinity School by Juvenile Instructor’s own Tona Hangen, who is a professor of history and also a practicing Mormon. The talk is about temple worship, a topic on which Mormons famously do not love to offer details. The event is advertised both at Harvard and in my Sacrament program on Sunday. It is a public event and the room is full of people from diverse backgrounds. Scanning the room, I noticed people from the Divinity School who knew very little about Mormonism, Mormon professors and students from Harvard, three stake presidents (one whose wife brought treats), and people from my ward.
My point is not so much to belatedly highlight Tona’s awesome talk of a few months ago. Indeed, these situations happen all the time. Instead I want to bring attention to the complicated interplay of expectations of what one should say and how one’s audience expects you to say it. The experience of attending Tona’s talk, as well as subsequent experiences, has led me to think about the ways in which our audience (including believing Mormons and people with extensive or little knowledge of Mormonism) and our pedagogical spaces (such as classrooms, academic lectures, and sacrament talks) structure the ways in which we talk about our subject.
As an academically trained lifelong Mormon, I have learned several ways to engage with Mormonism. However, so far my experiences in discussing Mormonism have mostly been in homogenous groups and spaces. In Canada, where I grew up, there was little opportunity for mixed audiences because there were neither many Mormons nor people academically interested in Mormonism. Therefore, when I presented on Mormonism, I grew accustomed to being able to control who my audiences would be and how I would engage with them. Additionally, I could also manage how I presented my own subjectivity to the audience. Tona’s talk interested me because of the hybridity of the audience and subsequent messiness of expectations. Her audience understood Mormon temples in a variety of different ways: some non-Mormons had never heard of Mormon temples, others had participated in the sacred rituals in temples (and had different ideas of what should be secretive about those experiences), and the stake presidents in the room had the power to grant and bar access to temples.
So, as a speaker, writer, or teacher, how do you stay accountable to your hybrid audiences? How do you manage discourses of criticism and sympathy toward Mormonism? How do you frame your discussions in recognizable terms for mixed audiences? How do you manage different pedagogical spaces, such as BYU religion classes, in which learning expectations are both academic and devotional? How does your complicated relationship with the Mormon faith – whether you are a believing Mormon, Ex-Mormon, non-Mormon, or anything in between – enter into your academic discourse?
Please share your thoughts below in the comments.
By January 1, 2017
Happy New Year everyone!
Over my holiday I read On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, which offers readers a keen insight into Richard Bushman’s post-publication thought as Mormon and scholarly audiences reviewed Rough Stone Rolling. Likely many readers of the book will enjoy Bushman’s reflections on his negotiation of the roles of scholar and believer. My favorite part, however, is the window that the book gives into the daily scholarly practices in which Bushman engages, including refining ideas and engaging in dialogue with the public about his book. Luckily for me, Bushman’s book is not the only place to receive such insights: the JI does a great job showing process, sharing resources, and exploring and refining ideas. Here are some of my favorite posts from 2016 that did just that: