Welcome to the last installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series, in which we collectively read Robert Orsi’s HISTORY AND PRESENCE (Harvard, 2016)! This post examines the epilogue and offers thoughts on the book as a whole. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and chapter 7.
“It is a dreadful thing to be in relationship with the gods really present,” Orsi says at the beginning of this book. (5) Certainly, a reading of its seven chapters is enough to convince us of that. They show that the gods can be capricious and deceptive as often as they are redemptive and healing. His believers cling to bags of sacred soil, icons, and relics. They experience the presence of the divine in their lives. And yet Orsi is hardly telling Sunday school stories. The presence of the gods fails people, hurts them, and tears them up, emotionally and physically. And yet those people keep coming, pressing their foreheads against the tombs of the saints, because the gods save them, too.
In his epilogue Orsi indicts what we might call an academic colonialism. Official Protestant “absence” has conquered American public life. The “officials” Orsi lambasts remain vague in the text, but we can guess who they are. Protestant “absence” has fostered a definition of religion that privileges the interior, the ethical, and the material. All of us, from scholars who read “religion” as a symptom of “real” financial or material or political or sexual causes, to judges who unintelligibly distinguish between “belief” and “practice” are the victims of this definition, as well as its perpetrators.
And yet, Orsi maintains, “the gods are there.” (250) He wants us academics to think again about what sort of sources we use and how we interpret them. He wants us to stop writing history in which religion is merely a function for other sorts of power. And certainly it’s hard, after reading this book, to guess who might actually believe in the sort of sterile “official Protestantism” he sees in our monographs, a Protestantism of strict theology and dutiful adherence to orthodoxy. He several times has to qualify the “Protestant = absence; Catholic = presence” dichotomy he erects, acknowledging in one quick paragraph the hordes of genetically Protestant believers who have visions, speak with God, experience (or perform) miracles, and treasure sacred relics. That he focuses on Roman Catholicism as the progenitor of presence and Protestantism as its evil twin in the creation of the modern world probably reflects his own predilections as a human and a scholar as much as the messy realities of history he holds so dear, and I wonder if the dichotomy itself might be itself a product of the only-on-paper world of theory and ideas that he holds scholars’ feet to the fire for too often existing in.
But it’s how personal this book is that makes me wonder how easy it might be for somebody who’s not Robert Orsi to replicate. He gracefully weaves academic citation and literary storytelling. In so doing he moves back and forth between the sort of thing academics imagine themselves doing – that is, subjecting human behavior to empirical analysis – and the sort of thing that fiction writers do – that is, evoking far more powerfully than most academics can what it’s like to live inside of somebody else’s skin. Of course either way we remain at the mercy of Orsi’s own interpretive framework, and one point in favor of the academic is that this lens remains more visible than it does for the storyteller.
And yet: the thing that struck me more than anything else about this book is its humanity. Orsi is visibly propelled by a deep charity for his subjects. More than anything else it’s that which drove him to write this book, and score all the rest of us for privileging Protestant intellect over Catholic relationship. The book made me think about the authority and the limits of being an academic, the extent to which our interpretive biases are too often transparent to ourselves, and the extent to which we do – or, really, don’t – value the relationships he places so much weight on. This is an important conversation to have, and for that I’m grateful to Orsi for writing it.