In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

Reflections on the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

The 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History is over.  As program chair, I spent most of the weekend pinch-hitting for folks who were unable to come and making sure our plenary speakers were comfortable.  This is what program chairs do.  If I passed you in the hallway at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College and did not stop to chat please forgive me.  I hope we can catch-up soon.

I wanted to blog a lot more than I did this weekend.  I got off to a good start on Thursday night, but then fell silent.  If you want to learn all the cool things that happened this weekend check out the conference Twitter feed: #cfh2018.  I am sure Chris Gehrz will eventually have a wrap-up post at The Pietist Schoolman.

Here are some of my highlights:

On Friday morning I chaired Session 12: “Christian Historiography: Kuyper, Ellul and O’Donovan.”  As I listened to Richard Riss’s excellent paper on Jacques Ellul, I realized that I should have read more of this French philosopher as I prepared to write Believe Me.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University.  Elisabeth’s plenary address, “The Art of Living, Ancient and Modern,” challenged us to consider the third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus as a way of countering the therapeutic culture of modern life.  Lasch-Quinn pushed us to move beyond the pursuit of the “good life” and consider what it might mean to live a “beautiful life.”

Lasch Quinn

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn delivers here Friday afternoon keynote address

Following Lasch -Quinn’s lecture and before the evening banquet, I got to spend time with my favorite Calvin College history major

Ally at CFH

Beth Allison Barr of Baylor University is the new president of the Conference on Faith and History and the organization’s second female president.   Her presidential plenary drew heavily on medieval sermons on the roles of women in the Church as a way of thinking about the place of women in the today’s church and the Conference on Faith and History.  She encouraged the conference to respect the past and move toward the future by listening to the voices of the record number of women in attendance.

Barr

Beth Allison Barr delivering her 2018 presidential address

On Friday evening, I got together with some old friends at a Grand Rapids funeral home that has been converted into a bar and grill.  As you see from the photo below, much of the stained glass from the funeral home chapel was preserved.

Bar

With Eric Miller (Geneva College), Jay Green (Covenant College), and Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)

Saturday began with a panel on Messiah College’s Civil Rights bus tour.  It was a great session and it made me proud to be part of Messiah’s work in the area of racial reconciliation.  It was also a privilege to chair a session with three of my Messiah colleagues.  Next time I won’t put them at 8:00am. (Sorry guys!)

After the Civil Rights session I had coffee with our latest sponsor of The Way of Improvement Leads Home PodcastBob Beatty of the Lyndhurst Group.  If you are a community leader, a historical site administrator, or a museum professional, the Lyndhurst Group can help you with your public history outreach.  Bob is a great guy with lot’s of energy, enthusiasm, expertise, and experience. We are so happy that he is sponsoring the podcast.

After the CFH board meeting, I dropped in on Robert Orsi‘s plenary address, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.”  Orsi argued that scholars of religion must learn to pay attention to the relationship between religion and “horrors” such as pogroms, crusades, slavery, racism, misogny, and other “brutalities of everyday life.”  He suggested that “there may come a time when the human being who is also a scholar of religion reaches a limit of disgust.”  Beyond this limit, Orsi argued, “distinctions, qualifications, countervailing evidence, parsings, and other theoretical or hermeneutical subtleties fail.”  Orsi spent most of his time reflecting on “disgust” as a category of analysis in the context of the Catholic sexual abuse scandals.  It was a tough session to sit through, but many felt it was necessary.

Orsi at Calvin

Late Saturday afternoon I chaired a session that may have been one of the best CFH panels I have ever attended.  Session 53, titled “Theology and Spirituality in the Doing of History,” included three magnificent papers on the place of love and Christian spirituality in the doing of history.  Wendy Wong Schirmer, a newcomer to the CFH, argued that Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love can help us think Christianly about the historian’s craft.  Brad Pardue of College of the Ozarks talked about how he integrates Christian practices into his history courses.  Mark Sandle of The King’s University (Alberta) delivered a powerful paper on loving the dead in the context of the archives. I hope all three of these papers will be published in Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.

It is not easy putting a 56-session conference together, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Joel Carpenter, Ellen Hekman, Jay Green, Eric Miller, Devon Hearn, and Robin Schwarzmann.  Thank you.  I am now going to take a nap.

The Conference on Faith and History Comes to Grand Rapids in October 2018

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The Fall 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) will be meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan from October 4-6, 2018.  This year’s conference theme is “History and the Search for Meaning: The CFH at 50.  Mark your calendars!

I am happy to report that we have secured the following keynote speakers:

Thursday Night Plenary: Peggy Bendroth, Congregational Library—“The Spiritual Practice of Remembering”

Friday Afternoon Plenary: Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Syracuse University—Title TBD

Friday Banquet Speaker: Beth Barr, CFH President

Saturday Morning Plenary: Robert Orsi, Northwestern University, “History and Presence”

I hope to see you all there.  Let’s have a record turnout for our 50th anniversary conference.  Stay tuned.  The Call for Papers will be released in a few months.

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!