History and Presence, Ch. 1: “The Obsolescence of the Gods”

By January 25, 2017

Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues this week–on Wednesday. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. See the first installment here.

As Jeff discussed in last week’s post, Robert Orsi’s ultimate purposes in History and Presence are grand; he aims to fundamentally challenge the norms of contemporary religious studies and, indirectly, aspects of modernity as a whole. Through prolonged historical processes, he argues, ontological assumptions of “absence” and not “presence,” have surreptitiously come to typify the way that modern scholars approach and analyze religion. Presuppositions of “absence”–above all the assumption that the divine and human do not enter into intimate and consequential relationships–has produced an impoverished view of religion in general, and especially of Catholicism. Such is the endpoint of this powerful, complicated, and often elegant book.

Much of this critique appeared (in various terms) in Orsi’s previous work. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (2004), for instance, gestures in an embryonic way to concepts of “presence” and “abundant events” and the need to reevaluate the interpretive posture of religious scholarship. In History and Presence, these assertions have been tightened up considerably so that they now provide, as Orsi believes is necessary, “a new language” for talking about a dimension of religion that does not fit within the parameters of modern discourse. Most chapters of the book also engage with the subject matter that Orsi has analyzed for the entirety of his career–the lived religion of twentieth-century Catholicism in the United States.

On the other hand, much of what is new in History and Presence comes in the first chapter, “The Obsolescence of the Gods.” Here Orsi–who perpetually oscillates between the historical and the theoretical–presents us with a historical narrative designed to illustrate why his intervention is necessary. The chapter represents an attempt to set the force of his theoretical critiques in a historical frame.

Orsi’s narrative follows roughly three stages of ideological evolution. The first and perhaps most critical of these locates the genesis of this deep problem of the “absence” of “presence” in the Reformation period. Relying heavily (perhaps too heavily) on the Reformation scholar Lee Palmer Wandel, Orsi contends that the profound ontological divide separating Catholic presence and Protestant absence emerged from intense debates over the nature of the sacraments. The conflict turned on the words of institution in establishing the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Jesus said: “here is my body.” During this period, however, the all-important question became “What does is mean?” For Orsi, the essence of Reformation conflict hinges on this two-letter word. Catholics and Protestants acquired radically different understandings that pointed to radically different metaphysics. Like Wandel’s scholarship, Orsi’s account of these conflicts between Catholics and Protestants over the metaphysics of the sacraments is as fierce, visceral, and totalizing as he can make it.

This history is engagingly told, but it is not unconventional. By and large, it represents a rendition of the conventional narratives of secularization symbolized by Max Weber. Weber wrote of a “disenchantment of the world” emerging with Protestantism which evacuated the world of its magical qualities, disallowing any interpenetration between the sacred and material realms. Orsi’s narrative also runs parallel Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, where Taylor describes a process of “excarnation” in which modern ontological concerns and assumptions left the realm of the material. A number of other parallels could be drawn. [For a brief comparison between Orsi and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, for instance, see footnote 1].

The latter phases of Orsi’s narrative are a bit sketchier–he will return to them to some extent in later chapters. Stage 2 contends that the ontological prejudices against Catholic bodily practice and belief were transposed onto Protestant European colonial encounters with native peoples. Venturing outward, that is, European colonizers carried their militancy against the sacred “really present” into their interactions with foreign cultures, and this ideological difference provided an important element of distinction (and grounds for European assertions of superiority). Finally, in Stage 3, Orsi argues that this orientation toward “absence” was taken up into the emerging academic study of religion, and since has supplied some of the “hidden normativities” that define religious studies. These developments occurred when, as Orsi puts it, absence “slipped its confessional bounds” and became something much more universal. Together all of these developments represent something like a Foucauldian genealogy of the study of religion, not unlike those undertaken by Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, and others. In an interesting way, then, what Orsi has really done is to bring together a form of the secularization narrative with the history of religious studies as a discipline.

But what are the implications for Mormon studies of the grand narrative that Orsi provides? To me, at least, that’s not immediately clear. In the process of conceding certain forms of “presence” among Protestants in Chapter 1, Orsi gestures briefly toward Mormonism as existing, along with Pentecostalism, among the “recondite” margins of Protestantism. In passing, he notes that Joseph Smith saw visions that also seen in company with others. Of course, that hardly exhausts the ways in which “presence” matters for Mormons. Orsi might have said considerably more, since Mormonism also contains a powerful strain of theological materialism. Orsi seems unaware of the material “presence” and the really real in Mormonism that he might get from many sources, including, say, Richard Bushman’s work on the Gold Plates. Yet the ways that Mormon notions of “presence” relate to Orsi’s historical narrative, to the metaphysics of Catholicism, and to the ideological conditions of “modernity” still need a great deal of unpacking. History and Presence is a provocative book, though; it may prompt scholars of Mormonism give those questions some thought.


[1] Orsi’s book of course deserves to be read on its own terms, and in the context of his broader oeuvre, but there are also other useful points of reference. Brad Gregory’s recent and controversial book, The Unintended Reformation, for instance, makes for an excellent conversation partner. Like Orsi, Gregory (also Catholic) uses a sort of Foucauldian genealogy to interrogate the normative ideological conditions of modernity. Gregory’s project is somewhat different; he is not particularly interested in the contemporary study of religion but in a number of broader (and he thinks, worrisome) trends in modern life. The style is radically different also; Gregory adopts a more conventional analytical approach whereas Orsi himself uses an exhibitive, narrative style that is both moving and maddening. Like Orsi, Gregory is in conversation with Weber and Taylor, among many others. Both are tracing deep and profoundly complex ideological transformations. Both see things as having gone terribly awry in the Reformation era. In Orsi’s account the gods (personal supernatural presences) are rendered “obsolescent.” For Gregory, God is “excluded” from the world. Both studies are elements of a powerful Catholic reprisal against what is perceived as the longstanding ontological repression of a secular contemporary world.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Perhaps the importance of Orsi’s narrative on Mormon studies comes into play when examining the entire history of Mormonism. Modern day Mormons are required to live with a foot on both sides of Orsi’s divide. On the one side, Mormons are constantly reminded of the presence of gods through the Book of Mormon. Its existence is grounded in an historical claim that Joseph Smith received it from heavenly beings. It requires Mormons to agree with Orsi that something really present intervenes on human activities, altering the way people behave and ultimately altering the direction of history.
    On the other side, most Mormons live in a world dominated by Western culture. As Orsi argues, it is a culture heavily influenced by claims from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. They are claims directly designed to counter Catholic claims of saints and the miracles they perform. So the concept of absence exists strongly in twentieth century Mormonism. Modern Mormons worship more like Protestants than like Catholics or like their nineteenth century Mormon forebears.
    Because of the divide between absence and presence, modern Mormon orthopraxy is confusing. Joseph Smith saw God, but Mormons should not expect to have a “Joseph Smith” experience. Mormons believe in the gift of tongues, but they often deride the Pentecostal practice of tongues (despite identical practice in Mormon past). And perhaps most pertinent to the modern day, Mormons believe in a prophet called of God, but they seem at odds about whether or not a prophet of God interacts with a God who is really “present.” A dissonance exists on the point of presence, and it is difficult for an observer to identify the place of Mormonism in Orsi’s divide.
    It is true that Orsi’s ideas are not entirely new. They are however, a needed course direction in religious history and religious studies. Mormon practice and Mormon spirituality cannot be fully understood without broaching the concept of the real presence of gods in the daily lives of Mormon people.

    Comment by Alan Clark — January 25, 2017 @ 9:38 am

  2. Thanks for the post, Ryan. And I agree with Alan’s comment and the ambivalence of Mormon religious experience

    Comment by Jeff T — January 25, 2017 @ 10:06 am

  3. I haven’t read this yet, Ryan. You mentioned them, but does Orsi directly engage JZ Smith, Asad, and Taylor?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 25, 2017 @ 10:15 am

  4. Some great thoughts here, Alan. I agree wholeheartedly, like Jeff, about the ambiguity within Mormonism. I might differ somewhat on worship, just to say that Mormons have a somewhat schizoid conception of worship, as well–a tension that appears in the divide between church and temple worship. I’m not quite sure yet whether that Orsi’s conception of presence can be applied to Mormon studies in anything like the way he presents it, but it certainly resonates, and the resonance could be very productive.

    J: JZ Smith, Asad, and Taylor are mainly my gloss. Orsi gestures occasionally toward figures like this, but he generally works in his own way and terms. I think he’s primarily invested in developing a new terminology and doesn’t seem particularly inclined to situate himself. (That said, he’s very much in conversation with and influenced by social psychologists, trauma theorists, and others with ideas that help him unpack the dynamics of the divine-human relationship.)

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 25, 2017 @ 10:46 am

  5. Thanks, Ryan. I thought a lot about Taylor as I read this chapter, too. I think Orsi would have done better to think about “presences” in the same ways that Taylor thinks about “secularisms.” I think that would have made his work more, um, useable to those that aren’t already Robert Orsi.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 25, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

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  7. J Stuart with the zinger!

    Comment by BHodges — February 1, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

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