Earlier today I posted some thoughts on the first few chapters of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence. I did a little more digging and found some of Orsi’s early thoughts on the subject in a 2007 American Scholar essay titled “When 2+2=5.”
The imagined story of Orsi’s grandmother in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderful illustration of the difference between “presence” and “absence.” It further illuminates Orsi comment about museums in my previous post.
This difference of theological interpretation is fundamental to the identities of these two divisions of the Christian world (the history of the Orthodox faith is another matter), and it is the pivot around which other differences, other identifications, accusations, lies, and hatreds have spun (and in some places at some times still spin). Catholics in the United States in the middle years of the 20th century, for instance, claimed that Protestant support for birth control was yet another expression of corrupted and disembodied Protestant modernity. What do you expect from people who think the Host—the Communion wafer, which is, for Catholics, the real presence of Christ—is nothing? Catholics I have spoken to who grew up in Catholic towns in rural Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s told me they were deeply ashamed of their large farm families because they knew the children in nearby Protestant towns made fun of their parents’ fecundity, associating Catholics with the body and sex in a nasty schoolyard way. Catholic statues weep tears of salt and blood, they move, they incline their heads to their petitioners; recently in the diocese of Sacramento, California, which is near bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse lawsuits, the eyes of a statue of the Blessed Mother leaked what believers saw as blood. Religious historians in the last decade or so have taught us that Protestant popular culture is also replete with images and objects and that there are divisions among Protestant churches over the meaning of the Eucharist. But still the basic differences between a religious ethos that is based on the real presence and one that is not are deep and consequential.
This divide between presence and absence, between the literal and the metaphorical, between the supernatural and the natural, defines the modern Western world and, by imperial extension, the whole modern world. Imagine one of my Italian Catholic grandmothers going to see a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She climbs the museum’s steep steps rising up from Fifth Avenue and pushes through the crowds and into the rooms of medieval art, where there are many lovely statues of the Blessed Mother, whom my grandmother knows and loves. My grandmother wants to touch the statues. She wants to lean across the velvet ropes to kiss their sculpted robes or to whisper her secrets and needs. But this is not how modern people approach art. For them, the statues are representations, illustrative of a particular moment of Western history and the history of Western art, and are to be admired for their form and their contribution to the development of aesthetic styles over time. There’s nothing in them, no one there. The guards rush over and send my grandmother back out to the street.
This is a parable of two ways of being in the world: one associated with the modern (although this is complicated, clearly, since my grandmothers lived in the modern world after all, and you can find believers in cathedrals throughout the world today petitioning statues); the other with something different from the modern. One is oriented toward presence in things, the other toward absence. As the guard rushing over shows, the difference is carefully policed—as carefully policed as the difference between Jesus in the bread and wine and Jesus not in the bread and wine was policed on that August morning in Paris or at the base of Campion’s scaffold—although with less dire consequences. Certain ways of being in the modern world, certain ways of imagining it, are tolerable and others are not. Especially intolerable are ways of being and imagining oriented to divine presence.
Read the entire essay here.