Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the second chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. See the first installment here and the second installment here.
As Ryan wrote last week, Orsi’s writing in the past dozen or so years has focused on the need to write about “presence” and “abundant events” in scholarship on religion. Following up on his first chapter arguing for an academic way of studying the presence of “the gods” as they appear and operate in the lives of individuals and religious groups, Orsi’s second chapter argues that scholars should take “abundant events” much more seriously. In doing so, Orsi seeks to help scholars overcome the methodological issues inherent to studying religion. As JI emeritus and scholar Steve Taysom puts it, “how [can] scholars of religion account for experiences that are simultaneously irrational and real?”[i] Orsi contends that the abundance of events surrounding when the “transcendent breaks into time” means that scholars must account for the “presence” of supernatural occurrences and beings in the lives of those they study. This necessarily draws upon anthropological and historical methodologies.
To illustrate his point, Orsi speaks to Marian apparitions at Lourdes and worshipers of the Virgin of Guadalupe in World War II to point out how scholars study these phenomena through the narrow lenses of “modern” scholarship, which declares the presence of supernatural beings and events to be irrational, and thus, not real. He argues that scholars try to show the absence of the gods by relying too much on context, removing the personal and messy bits of religious people’s lives, that move beyond proscribed practices of worship or devotion. Indeed, Orsi’s argument is designed to account for the religious experiences of people without suggesting that they can be proved to have happened.
Orsi believes that scholars’ reliance on absence means that academics cannot properly broaden their views to account for lived worship experiences. For instance, at Lourdes, there had been a tradition of women appearing in the woods to children before the Marian appearance and the apparition happened during a time of sickness and disease. Orsi doesn’t discount the need to contextualize, but asserts that bracketing presence does not allow scholars to see the importance of the event. They miss the forest for the trees because they separate themselves from the lived experience of historical actors and thus view the event too narrowly. In other words, it closes the scholar off from discovering deep, important discoveries that can only be found through learning to see the transcendent break into time–taking the experiences of historical actors seriously. Of course, Orsi’s ethnographic work relies on him taking his interviewees’ words seriously. Otherwise, he would not been able to write Madonna of 115th Street, or, indeed, History and Presence.
This emphasis on absence necessarily removes what Orsi calls the “excesses” of religion, an excess of materialism, an excess of emotion, and an excess of community that extends religious experience beyond the individual that religious bodies try to (unsuccessfully) regulate. Orsi uses bracketing, or using the tools of modernity, in another sense. He argues that the term is used to explain away the “excesses” related to Marian apparition and other abundant events, and that it also works to separate the scholar from his subjects. This bracketing of absence leads to all sorts of problems-and possibilities-for the study of religion that I haven’t completely wrapped my head around yet. I think it’s important to recognize that Orsi is pushing for a Catholic view of religion, wherein God is present, “really there.” Protestantism, he argues, argues for absence and the explainable. Although he admits that “presence = Catholic and absence = Protestantism” oversimplifies things, he successfully shows how the dichotomy can be useful to scholars.
I’ve been thinking about Orsi’s arguments regarding presence and abundant events for several weeks now and am still intrigued and frustrated by his conclusions. No doubt his thinking has pushed me to think about the ways I engage the religious actors I encounter in the past, but I also have no idea how my writing should change to incorporate these ideas, either. Who else but Orsi could insist on speaking to the presence of the gods or the narrative experiences of those that experience abundant events without slipping into providential history? There are precious few scholars that have succeeded at writing lived religion, much less the history of “the transcendent breaking into time,” without sounding like they’re incorporating a providential view of history into their work.
Orsi’s employment/reliance on ethnography also complicates his call for critically examining the presence of abundant events. Historians rely on texts that tell particular narratives–ethnography gives the benefit of follow-up questions in real time.
Furthermore, even Orsi, with all of his writing talents, theoretical sophistication, and stature in American religion must continually remind readers that he is not reading providentially. After all, Orsi always manages to slip in paragraphs that provide the traditional, modern way of reading events based on the historical milieu and the benefit or adverse effect propagated by the religious experience.
It is important to reiterate that Orsi recognizes the importance of contextualization and thinking about the ways that events, even occurrences documented at the time they’re experienced, cannot be separated from absence. I appreciate that Orsi speaks to the importance of remembering that abundant events occur within social ecosystems constructed by a myriad of influences and discourses–how every scholar with his salt grounds his scholarship. This discursive/Foucauldian reading made me feel more comfortable with what he was saying. But why? I think that’s something I’ll be wrestling with for some time.
Orsi’s ideas are big and a little unwieldy on their own–that’s often what important ideas look like, though. In his later chapters he incorporates his theories into a series of case studies that make application seem less intimidating and paradigm-altering. I’m excited to digest those chapters with the rest of our authors in coming weeks.
[i] See Stephen C. Taysom, “Abundant Events or Narrative Abundance: Robert Orsi and the Academic Study of Mormonism,” Dialogue 45, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 1-26. You can also read Ben’s excellent overview of Taysom’s article here.