Presence in the particular

Reviewed By Ellen B. Koneck
Wednesday, July 26, 2017

In “History and Presence,” religion scholar Robert Orsi tells the history of “real presence” — a claim with doctrinally significant meanings for both Catholics and Protestants — by examining stories of “abundant presence” in the lives of ordinary people. 

Beginning with the debates surrounding the Eucharist that sparked, in part, the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, Orsi traces the “presence/absence” dichotomy from its larger-scale repercussions — in colonialism, schism and violence — to its more intimate ones in the daily lives of believers. He weaves this ambitious project together seamlessly, setting up from the start the myriad consequences of believing in or denying the possibility of divine presence in the world:

“Because of the momentousness of what was being debated — how the divine and human stand in relationship to each other — conflict over Christ’s real presence in the consecrated Host was implicated in other exigent human concerns, such as the relationship between spirit and matter, between past and present, between representation and reality, between one person and another, and between political leaders and those over whom they exercised different forms of authority.”

By giving primacy to experience, telling history through vignettes and in the words of ordinary people, Orsi makes a case for real presence not just in the private lives of individuals, but also in the halls of academia.

In this way, Orsi marries his content to his method, continuing the work he has long been a part of pioneering. In his current position as the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, and throughout his academic career, Orsi has been at the forefront of scholarship rooted in “lived religion.” Lived religion takes seriously the experience of religious adherents, including taking seriously the possibility that God (or the gods, depending on the believer’s tradition) are real actors in the world, not — as modern scholarship tends to think of it — reducible to social and psychological phenomena.

Like Orsi’s previous works — “The Madonna of 115th Street,” “Between Heaven and Earth” and others — this book aims to challenge the trend of contemporary religious studies in which “modern theories of religion [are] written over accounts of the gods really present, submerging them in a theoretical underworld, while on the surface the gods [are] reborn as symbols, signs, metaphors, functions and abstractions.”

This is precisely what makes “History and Presence” so accessible and readable: Rather than relying on “symbols, signs, metaphors, functions and abstractions,” Orsi tells the story of a close friend diagnosed with a rare cancer, who makes a pilgrimage and finds her own hope — and mortality — really present in the dirt she collects from the holy site. His research relies equally on the well-known narrative of Bernadette at Lourdes as it does on hand-scribbled notes on the back of old holy cards; he takes seriously the stories of survivors of clerical sexual abuse and the empowered “Detroit housewife” visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary during World War II.

Implicating himself as a historian and scholar, he writes of his own visit to the site of a rumored miracle and of his father’s presence during his mother’s illness and death. Though all of this, it becomes clear that the consequences of affirming the possibility of presence are at times messy, gruesome, confounding, hopeful or uncomfortable; the effect is gritty — and compelling. “History and Presence” is that rare work of theology, one I can recommend to friends who don’t care much about theology.

Extrapolating from real experiences of presence — stories of the Eucharist, apparitions, medical miracles, funeral rites, devotions, holy cards and even the dead — not only illuminates the history of the presence/absence debate; it sets up Orsi’s final plea: “that we let the gods out of their assigned places and that we approach history and religion through a matrix of presence” — a venture likely to yield a less tidy, but ultimately more accurate, understanding of both history and religion in modernity.