Thursday, September 15, 2016

The real presence of the gods

Some books are more present than others. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press prints books, with an emphasis on the print. Belknap has printed Robert Orsi's new book, History and Presence, in such a way that there is so much "there" there.

For example, the endsheets are colored and ridged, offering a tactile experience as soon as the boards of the book are opened. Even prior to handling the book block, which is squared and carries a heft, the book draws you towards its attentive intentionality and presence.

The book block itself is printed on a high grade, almost bond grade paper, so the text prints crystal clear and almost levitates off the page. I don't know the name of the font, but it's lovely. I do know the name of the book designer--Graciela Gallup--and if she reads this review, I want to thank her.

Now, to be honest, when I bought the book, I thought Orsi had written a theological treatise on "real presence," and I was looking forward to reading that book.

But what Orsi offers is something more than a book about the theology of real presence. He wants us to encounter real presence as it functions in religious community. So instead of multiple chapters on the theology of Christ's presence in the Eucharist (which would be a book about more books, a simulacrum of real presence), Orsi invites us into an ethnographic study of real presence, with a particular focus on Marian devotion in the Catholic tradition.

There are a couple of reasons for Orsi to go in this direction. First, and most important, scholars of all types have been shifting towards ethnography in their intellectual inquiry, and they do so because they seek to pay attention to life from the ground up, from the lived world. This is not an anti-intellectual or anti-book stance. Far from it. Orsi has written a book after all, and his endnotes are long. He mentions other books all the time.

But to get at real presence, you have to attend to where presence happens. Scholars, the hierarchy, etc. have frequently felt compelled, in order to maintain certain doctrinal positions or ecclesial structures, to protect against religion from the ground up. As Orsi writes, "The precincts of presence needed to be guarded against the faithful who were endlessly resourceful in breaching them" (29).

Real presence of Christ is typically a destabilizing force, even a source of resistance, against authority and ecclesiastical power.

Often this fear of real presence is related to a concomitant fear of those who carry around such notions of real presence. So Orsi also observes, "Fear of fecund Catholic bodies circulates in the public debate over migrants coming into the United States from the Catholic south" (31).

Essentially, Orsi charting the religious history of what didn't happen. Theologians, scholars of the West have for centuries argued that increasingly, because of the Enlightenment, the gods were going to recede and be more absent. Yet on the ground, in popular piety and devotion, nothing quite like that has happened at all.

So Orsi conducts his inquiry on two fronts. He is a rigorous scholar, and engages the literature. He's also an indefatigable ethnographer, and has conducted interviews over about a twenty hear period as preparation to write this book. Along the way, he's collected material history as well, examples of real presence in popular piety and devotion, and pictures of comic books, collector cards, and more, pepper the book (including one entire graphic book depicting the life of Saint Maria Goretti)

I love his concluding paragraph, which I take as inspiration for continuing to discover how complex the inter-relation of the sacred and the secular is on contemporary life.

"The future that Hume envisioned for the human race has not happened yet. The gods were not turned back at the borders of the modern. The unseeing of the gods was an achievement; the challenge is to see them again. If the presence of the gods in the old Catholic sense is an absolute limit that contemporary scholars of religion and history refuse to cross, then they will miss the empirical reality of religion in contemporary affairs and they will fail to understand much of human life" (252).

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