Come one, come all. Welcome to a new series that we’re hosting: Tuesdays with Orsi! The series will feature posts that highlight each chapter of Robert Orsi’s new and provocative History and Presence, and I have the honor of kicking it off.
Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religion at Northwestern University. He is a prominent scholar of American religion and one of the foremost theorists/methodological innovators of the field. His scholarship has provoked us here at JI to think about what a Robert Orsi might look like for Mormon Studies, how “abundant events” might be used for Mormonism, and a highlight of a chat with Richard Bushman about abundant events. It’s no surprise that his newest work prompts us, yet again, to engage, digest, and grapple with truly provocative narrative and theory. The implications of the book are monumental. But enough gilding the lily. Let’s get to the introduction.
The introduction to History and Presence opens with an anecdote about Orsi’s mother. During Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1998, he and first lady Hillary Clinton received Catholic Communion. He was a Baptist, and she a Methodist. This event drew criticism from some Catholic cardinals, including one John O’Connor, who argued that Communion should be reserved for Catholics. Orsi’s mother wrote a letter to a New York newspaper decrying O’Connor’s critique of the Clintons because she couldn’t imagine anyone being prevented from experiencing God’s real loving presence. The debate here is symbolic of the history that Orsi tells. Orsi writes, “Everything at stake in this story: the cardinal’s authority; my mother’s dissent; the difference between Catholics and others, including other Christians; Catholic superiority; the distinction between the symbolic and the real; the global extension of the dispute; its implications in contemporary politics and in questions of Church-state relations is rooted in the violent debates that exploded in sixteenth-century Europe over what Jesus meant when he said, ‘this is my body,’ ‘this is my blood,’ ‘take and eat,’ and ‘do this in memory of me.'”
This style is indicative of the rest of the book. Peppered with insightful stories, all of them personal to Orsi and evocative to the reader, the pages that follow the Introduction trace the history of the study of religion which “is or ought to be the study of what human beings do to, for, and against the gods really present, using ‘gods’ as a synechdoche for all the special suprahuman beings with whom humans have been in relationship in different times and places, and what the gods really present do with, to, for, and against humans.” But the modern study of religion contains some fundamental assumptions about religious experience and scholars’ approach to it. Orsi continues, “modern theories of religion were written over the accounts of the gods really present, submerging them in a theoretical underworld, while on the surface the gods were reborn as symbols, signs, metaphors, functions, and abstractions.” In other words, as modernity progressed from the transubstantiation debates in the Protestant Reformation, religion assumed divine absence and associated presence with the inferior other: Catholicism and paganism. By the twentieth century, the study of religion assumed as its object of study only religious functionalism (how religion functions to, say, help humans cope with death, or attain wealth) and internal experience. The study of religion missed “the gods really present.”
Now, it’s important to note, Orsi is not proposing providential history. This is not a call for a narrative where God intervenes in the world with lightning bolts and laser eyes to turn the tide of history down a particular road. Rather, Orsi proposes the study of religious people in relationship to their deities. Their experiences dictate a thereness, there. To ignore the reality of deity on human experience is to write reductionist religious history. Doing so is also an act of buying into a Protestant modernity. Orsi asks that we drop our skeptical guard, if only for a moment, to consider how history might be rewritten with religious presence included. History and Presence simultaneously rewrites history with presence included and tells us how historical scholarship came to exclude it in the first place.
Each subsequent chapter, and each Tuesday with Orsi, will highlight some aspect of this grand narrative. I found each chapter better than the last. In highlighting the book on Juvenile Instructor, we hope to foster a discussion about how History and Presence can contribute to Mormon History. I also think it prudent to ask how studies that adopt a history of presence might do so, or what they might look like, more broadly. Here’s to future Tuesdays!
 Robert A. Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 2.
 Ibid, 4.