More “Abundant History”

history-and-presence-199x300Earlier 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.

A Historiography With the Gods as Agents

Back in August we featured Orsi’s History and Presence in the Author’s Corner.  You can read that interview here.  Over the last few weeks I have finally gotten a chance to dig deeply into this book.  I am taking it slowly.  It is a thought-provoking work.

Orsi wonders what the practice of history might look like if “the transcendent broke into time.”  How might we envision a historiography in which “the gods” are active agents and we, as historians, make an effort to try understand what they are doing.  What intrigues me the most about this suggestion is that it comes not from David Barton or some other providential historian of the Christian Right that we criticize here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but from a Professor of Religious Studies and History and the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.

Unlike the aforementioned providential historians, Orsi is not suggesting that we try to discern the workings of Providence in the world.  Instead, he starts with the assumption that God and the gods are present and have been present to millions of people in the past.  (He draws the word “presence” from the Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist).  He writes: “I am inclined to believe that presence is the norm of all human existence, including in religion, and absence is an authoritative imposition” (p.6). He is asking his readers “not to make the move to absence, at least not immediately, not to surround presence with the safeguard of absence, but instead to withhold from absence the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual prestige modernity gives to it, and to approach history and culture with the gods fully present to humans.” (p.8).history-and-presence-199x300

Orsi calls for an “Abundant History” that rejects the secular inclination to interpret “presence”–such as a Marian apparition or a pilgrimage to a shrine or a vision–according “to the authorized interpretive categories” of the political, sociological, ideological, technological, scientific, and economic.  He urges us to avoid explaining religious phenomena as social constructions.  Orsi adds:

In an intellectual culture premised on absence, the experience of presence is the phenomenon that is most disorienting, most inexplicable.  This puts that matter of “translation” and “bracketing” into a new light.  Constraints on the scholar’s imagination become, by means of his or her scholarship, constraints on the imaginations of others, specifically those whose lives the scholar aims to present and understand. There is a double intellectual tragedy here, for once their reality is constrained by ours, they no longer have the capacity to enlarge our understandings of our imaginations.  This is the price of ontological safety. (p.64).

Orsi concludes this chapter by wondering:

The past may act upon us in such a profound way as to erase our intentions of remaining outside of it.  This is the vertigo of abundant history.  It comes upon historians as a result of their training and disciplining.  But it may be that this is what abundant historiography is: approaching events that are not safely cordoned off in the past, that are not purified, but whose routes extend into the present, into the writing of history itself.

I am about halfway through the book and it is giving me a lot to think about.  I recently took a break from reading and listened to Ed Linenthal‘s interview with Orsi on the Process Podcast produced by the Organization of American Historians.  You can listen to it here.

There is one section in the podcast in which Orsi talks about museums as places where “figures of presence are gathered.”  These sacred objects–Orsi gives an example of a Buddhist deity–are meant to be touched and spoken to, but the practice of museum protocol means that they must remain behind glass walls.  This, Orsi notes, enforces a “code of absence” in the museum.

The conversation with Linenthal is fascinating since he is not only the outgoing editor of The Journal of American History, but he also has a background in religious studies and has written a lot about sacred spaces in American civil religion.

Orsi admits that there is “little tolerance” in academia for the kind of abundant history he is talking and writing about.   He claims that he doesn’t know how to convince his colleagues that this kind of “real presence” is part of the “empirical world.”

I’ll keep reading.  Stay tuned.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Orsi

 

history-and-presence-199x300Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.  This interview is based on his recent book History and Presence.

JF: What led you to write History and Presence?

RO: Whenever I’ve said in a lecture that I believe religious history and contemporary cultures are constituted as webs of relationships between human beings and the various special figures of their respective religious traditions (gods, saints, ghosts, ancestors, the dead, etc.) present to each other in the circumstances of domestic and political life, with the special beings as agents in their own right, invariably the question arose what such a historiography would look like. History and Presence is my response to this question.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of History and Presence?

RO: History and Presence makes two interconnected arguments: The first is historical, (1) that the lived reality of special religious beings, their efficacious presence (in wartime, for example, or within families, or as agents of social discipline or of resistance), has been not only a bitterly contested matter since early modern debates between Catholics and Protestants over how Jesus is “present” on earth after his ascension into heaven; it has been constitutive of modernity itself, with the parties of presence—Catholics and those with Catholic-like understandings of relationships between humans and gods—relegated to the past of the species and the infancy of each individual. The second (2) offers a historiographical theory of presence and then uses it to explore how a concept of the “real presence” of the gods (an intentional borrowing of a Catholic theological term for theoretical purposes) provides an alternative to normative modern epistemologies and ontologies for the study of religion and history.

JF: Why do we need to read History and Presence?

RO: The critique of secularism as a religious project has inexplicably (to me) coexisted with the failure to conceptualize “religion” in any way other than on the terms of the normative modern or the secular. The normative modern/secular is like a finger trap; there seems to be no way of getting out of it, and the more we struggle, the tighter it gets.

I ask readers of History and Presence to try the thought experiment with me of approaching history and culture through what I call a “matrix of presence,” to see how such a perspective may surface and challenge their methodological and theoretical “unthought knowns,” the deepest level of their understandings of what the real is, and perhaps be generative of new insights in their respective areas of inquiry or reflection. This is explicitly to repurpose a concept (“real presence”) that was essential for establishing hierarchies and boundaries in modernity, among peoples, for instance, between civilizations, races, and classes, and among ways of being in the world, as a theoretical wedge to pry open those boundaries and disrupt these hierarchies.

If we do not examine the fundamental role of the denial of “real presence” in constituting so many domains of modern knowledge and practice, among them constitutional law, conceptualizations of religious freedom, strategies and disciplines of nation building, approaches to art and hermeutics, as well as the study of history and religion, then we will be destined to reproduce these limits and hierarchies over and over again, in this way contributing to the normative work of modernity in endless repetition.

If we already always know that religion: 1) is a medium of social coherence, although in “cult” or “sect” form occasionally media of social disruption; 2) that certain ways of being religious are irrelevant to the study of modern history other than as data; 3) that special religious beings are figments or fragments of something else but unreal; 4) that religion’s historical and cultural role is functional and that religious practice and experiences grids neatly onto other social categories (race, class, gender among them as well as the public/private distinction)—then why bother studying it?

This is another answer to question one: I wrote History and Presence because I was frustrated by the always already known quality of so much writing about religion, history, and culture (although there are exceptions), their utter predictability.

The theory of abundant presence offered in History and Presence may contribute as well to altering the place of religious studies and theology in the humanities and social sciences, from being always the dependent variables to disrupting the unthought knows of these various domains of inquiry and in this way produce new knowledge about history, experience, and culture.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RO: I’m a scholar of religion in history and contemporary practice with Catholicism as my case study for developing theoretical approaches to history, religion, human subjectivity, and culture. Pretty quickly it became apparent to me that Catholicism was a potent vantage point from which to look at modern history and religion more broadly. Catholics are surprisingly absent from US history.  A recent history of New Orleans, of all places, references Catholicism only on a couple of pages and ignores the role of Catholic orders of women and men, such as the Ursulines and the Jesuits, in the making of the city. This is hardly anomalous: although Catholics comprised the largest populations of modern US cities, they are all but absent in histories of US cities and theories of urbanism. This absence, as I argue in the book, is one of the long enduing consequences of those early modern debates about real presence, as Catholics and others whose religious imaginations resembled the polemical version of Catholicism, were written out of history. But again to look out from this place offers a revealing perspective on what is always already known in the study of modern history and culture, and to challenge it.

What is your next project?

RO: As of September for the academic year 2016-2017, I will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, where I will be working on a study of the implications of real presence in the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up in modern Catholicism, looking in particular at how many (not all) men and women abused by priests—who in Catholic theology are closely aligned with the real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints—struggle with this ontology over their lifetimes. This extends the work I begin in the last chapter of History and Presence, called “Events of Abundant Evil.” (The Catholic author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, once wrote that if there are demons, there must be angels, and I go on the assumption that the reverse is true as well.) I want to set the CSA crisis in relation to wider historical, cultural, sexual, theological, and religious environments, again not to fit it snugly into them, but rather to see how it may complicate what is already known about religion and sexuality, for instance, the boundaries and excesses of religious bodies, the sexual understanding of children and adolescents in 20th century US history and in Catholicism, and the place of the gods in sexual and religious violence.

JF: Thanks Bob!

Evangelicalism and the "Third Great Awakening"

Over at The American Interest Crawford Gribbon of Queens University, Belfast has written a nice little historiographical essay on American evangelicalism set in the context of what he calls the “Third Great Awakening” of American Christianity that occurred in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He argues that during this period evangelicals brought “born-again” religion to the United States even as evangelicalism weakened as a religious and theological movement.  He writes:

To outsiders, at least, the evangelical transformation of America has been one of the most startling and significant of all modern social changes. Millions of Baby Boomers were “born again” during what may fairly be called the “third Great Awakening”, a spiritual revival that extended from the 1960s until the 1980s and that appealed to presidential candidates, Bay Area “Jesus freaks”, and just about every kind of person in between. This mass religious movement was driven by a hunger for community and for moral certainty in a world that suddenly seemed to lack both; the Cold War crises of mid-century fueled fears of global apocalypse, while the collapsing social consensus of the 1950s and 1960s mirrored changing attitudes to privacy, race, family, and reproductive rights. At the same time, the political scandals of the 1970s raised questions about the integrity of trusted institutions.

Evangelicals responded to this multifaceted cultural change with a heady cocktail of condemnation and self-confidence. Drawing on the lessons of Scripture and American history, they sought to understand the significance of what seemed to them the self-evident crisis of contemporary American civilization. Their most prominent preachers and best-selling prophecy writers convinced believers that the sudden social changes could be explained. Audiences of hundreds of thousands attended sermons in sports stadia, while tens of millions of readers consumed popular prophecy books like The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). As their minority print culture expanded into a burgeoning and occasionally scandalous media empire, evangelicals honed the interpretive tools to offer moral and political certainty to millions of Americans.

The new evangelical movement transformed the lives of its adherents and shaped the social and political condition of the nation, helping to fuel the electoral successes of almost every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. It provided an almost universal language of political aspiration and national exception at the same time as it drove the bifurcation of American ideals and values between believers and, presumably, everyone else. It provided the cadences of hope in the speechmaking of Presidents Clinton and Obama, while offering their critics a powerful and often implicit vocabulary of protest. But the character of evangelicalism changed as its influence extended, and as a newer focus on sentiment overtook the older emphasis on dogma. The movement’s impact can be measured in the paradox that its success was made possible by its failure: Evangelicalism divided and weakened as America itself was born again.

Gribben touches on recent books on the history American religion by Molly Worthen, Steven Miller, Darryl hart, Michael McVicar, Julie Ingersoll, Matthew Stewart, Matthew Sutton, Grant Wacker, Tod Brenneman, and Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel. 

The Author’s Corner with Jay Green

Jay Green is Professor of History at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.  This interview is based on his new book Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Baylor University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions
JG: The book is in many ways a culmination of more than twenty years of thinking about and wrestling through the relationship between faith and history in my own life and work.  I’ve been teaching our survey of Historiography (required course for junior-level majors) for about a decade, and working within a Christian institution means dealing squarely with the implications of faith for historical study as a necessary component of the class.  Over the years I began to develop the five-part typology I explore in the book as a template to get my students to think about the fact that different people have meant a variety of different things when they aspire to do history “Christianly.”  It occurred to me that laying this out in a more formal way might make for a useful book. 
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Historiography?
JG: There is no such thing as a single “Christian interpretation of history.”  Instead, a series of sometimes conflicting, sometime complementary “versions” of Christian historiography have developed among contemporary scholars and writers during the past few generations, some of which are more worthy of emulation than others. 
JF: Why do we need to read Christian Historiography?
JG: I hope that the book finds an audience among Christian laity, students, history teachers, or working historians striving at some level to reconcile their identities as both believers and interpreters of the past.  To the extent that historiography is species of intellectual history, I think a good many non-Christian observers might also have an interested in becoming better acquainted with the contours of this rich and varied conversation on faith and history.  It’s my hope that the book will serve as a kind of primer that offers a “lay of the land” for how contemporary Christian historians have worked through the challenges of their dual identities.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JG: I was obsessed with American history since the day my grandmother gave me a picture book of American history when I was five years old.  It was always my favorite subject in school, and I never really seriously considered majoring in anything else when I got to college.  I studiously avoided the path of teacher certification in college, making graduate school almost inevitable.  Meanwhile, I began to note the lifestyle of my Taylor University professors who seemed to fill their days with reading books, talking with one another and with their students about books, and writing books.  It wasn’t until then that the “historian’s vocation” really became clear in my mind.  While I never once took it for granted that I would ever become gainfully employed doing this sort of work, I became convinced that it was a path that I wanted—even needed—to follow. 
JF: What is your next project?

JG: I am working on a new book that looks at Christian dimensions of public history.  It explores the centrality of memory in Christian experience, theology, and practice, the transcendent features of public commemoration, the religious significance we impose on material artifacts, and our moral and religious obligations to preserve, interpret, and recount collective memories in publicly accessible ways.  
JF: Thanks, Jay!

Keeping Up With Work on Capitalism and Religion

Over at the blog of the American Society of Church History, Northwestern graduate student Jeffrey Wheatley has a useful historiographical post on some recent scholarship at the intersection of American religious history and the history of capitalism.  Here is a taste:

Not to be left behind, scholars of Christianity and religion generally have also been especially interested in business, wealth, and trade. This interest, of course, is not unprecedented, but I want to list some of the more recent works for this post. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, which was noted in The New York Times article, explores the rise of “Wal-Mart Moms” and the political impact of their faith in God and market. Kathryn Lofton has already given us Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, which explores the relationship between modern American religiosity and consumerism. She is also working on a project that does something similar with the financial practices at the Goldman Sachs Group. Thomas Rzeznik’s Church and Estate revels in the Gilded Age by looking at the intersection of religious claims and business practices among the Philadelphia elite. Christopher Cantwell’s essay over at Religion & Politics sketches out some of the links between big capitalism and big Christianity in Illinois.

Christopher Graham on "Religion and the American Civil War"

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent Christopher Graham offers some notes on this star-studded panel on religion and the Civil War. –JF
The turnout for the Religion and the American Civil War: History and Historiography panel exceeded the organizers’ expectations. So many showed up that we all migrated to a larger room, and participants still overflowed into the hallway, where additional chairs were set up. Mark Noll presided and Allen Guelzo, Harry Stout, George Rable, James McPherson, and Laura Maffly-Kipp spoke. The title of the panel suggested a broad reconsideration of the historiography of religion and the Civil War but the individual papers did not amount to as much.
Stout discussed how his interpretation of Lincoln’s relationship to God has changed since the publication of his On the Altar of the Nation. Guelzo explored the historiographical view of Lincoln’s religiosity and concluded that because of scant and contradictory evidence, Lincoln disappoints all doctrinaires. McPherson spoke on evangelical efforts to sponsor freedmen’s schools, and Maffly-Kipp considered religion’s place in the African American interpretation of the Civil War as a battle in a longer warfare waged by slavers on the enslaved. In short, the combat over bodies also was a combat over souls.
George Rable recognized the considerable wave of scholarship on religion in the war that has been produced in the last ten to fifteen years, and sketched out seven topic areas that require further examination. They go something like this:
1. The relationship between the Bible and the American Civil War. Politicians, editors, preachers, and soldiers all utilized scriptures as a justification for war and a comfort for its victims. He said that if there is an American Jesus, there just might be a Civil War Jesus, and suggested that such a title would sell.
2. The role of military chaplains is unexplored, from the problem of their recruitment, to their performance, to the often-fraught relationships between chaplains and soldiers. He suggests that there are loads of unexplored sources on this.
3. Some attention has been given to wartime revivals, but more needs to be done. Further study might reveal conflicting religious views between officers and men, or soldiers and civilians. To that end, Rable called for more research on how the war changed attitudes toward piety, including communion, baptism, and the idea of blood sacrifice and atonement of sin.
4. How did civil religion change? How did days of prayer and thanksgiving and attitudes toward them change?
5. In a catchall on “society and war,” Rable asked how the war touched domestic religious ideals, what activities the religious undertook, how the print culture changed, or rises or declines in church membership. He even suggested there might be value in doing good old-fashioned denominational histories, which produced some bemused groans from the audience.
6. He called for an examination of the international aspects of religion during the war.
7. Finally, he wants further work on the relationship between religion and larger social issues during the war. He admits that this work is already underway, but the more the merrier.  
The discussion produced a few interesting nuggets. For instance, the panel generally agreed that millennial thinking largely did not appear in the rhetoric of religious people during the war. Stout thought it was because to have a millennial construction, a rhetorical anti-Christ is necessary, and the war was simply seen as a Protestant-on-Protestant fracas. Guelzo suggested that participants simply could not articulate a good expression of millennial thinking and when they tried, the results were often muddy.
Guelzo contended that the Civil War ate away at religious people’s confidence in revelation. After watching carnage, many people found it impossible to believe again in Godly order. Even folks who did not witness carnage, like Charles Hoge and Charles Finney, felt the same way. Rable disagreed and suggested that the war did not cause a shattering of belief but instead drove people further toward a reliance on God’s promises.
Finally, one questioner asked how religion figured into the memory of war. Inexplicably, no one in the room mentioned Ed Blum’s Reforging the White Republic. Myself included.

Academics and God

Over at U.S. Intellectual History blog, Ray Haberski tries to explain what he calls the “tsunami” of scholarship on religion.  He connects it, among other things, to the work of the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at IUPUI and its Young Scholars in American Religion Program.  Here is a taste:

If I want to understand why so many of us in academia have found religion so fascinating, I wonder if a big part of the story is not that we are enamored with the subject because it at once satisfies our interest in the physical construction of history and our desire to want to write about people who take seriously how they find meaning in their work of constructing history.  To use an example readily at hand, David Chappell’s book A Stone of Hope seems so convincing to me because he welds together a history of a crucial social movement to the ideas, ideals, and metaphysics of the people who created that movement.  To wit: my students are tired of hearing me ask, why did these people in the movement believe in what they were doing? They took their faith seriously, constructing a physical historical movement that we take seriously.  But, Chappell asks, why haven’t we taken their faith quite as seriously as the construction of the historical movement for which they are known?

As a gesture toward investigating my own question, I am interested in doing research on a program that I think gets close to the center of this religion tsunami: IUPUI’s Young Scholars in Religion Program.  Its director for the last decade has been Philip Goff, a historian of modern American religions and the editor of one of the most indispensable books on American religious scholarship: The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America.  While I have come to know personally a number of the people who have gone through the YSR program (my colleague Marian, William Mirola, was in the first couple of groups in the 1990s), I think many of us have great respect for the many of fine books and essays of the people who have been part of this program.  You can peruse the different classes of YSR over the years through the link above.  I have a hunch (that needs testing) that one of the keys to the success of these scholars has been offering a place where they get a chance to explore how to be both savvy and serious about a subject that they will offer to the ostensibly secular academy. 

Read the entire post here.