Can we begin to think about unexplained religious experiences in ways that acknowledge their existence?
By Robert Orsi
“Yet there was a time when the gods were not just a literary cliché, but an event, a sudden apparition, an encounter with bandits, perhaps, or the sighting of a ship.”
—Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods
One of the greatest sources of violence in Western history has been the question of what Jesus meant when he said at the Last Supper, “This is my body.” Catholics take this phrase literally and Protestants do not, and rivers of blood have flowed over this theological difference. During the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, the Seine turned red from the hundreds and hundreds of brutalized Protestant bodies thrown into it as it flowed out of Paris into the countryside. The youngest daughter of a Huguenot couple who were among the first to be murdered in the streets of Paris was dipped naked into her parents’ blood, in a perverse rite of baptism, and warned not to become Protestant or suffer the same fate. Catholics endured equally horrible deaths. Among the more than 300 Catholics martyred in England between 1535 and 1679 was the Jesuit priest Father Edmund Campion. Hanged from a scaffold in 1581, Campion was disemboweled while still alive—his steaming entrails, flung by the executioner into a pot, splashed blood on the crowd crushing close. Then he was beheaded and quartered, and pieces of his body were shown at the four gates of Tyburn to warn off other Catholics.
The crime in these cases, in France and in England, was treason, but it is impossible to separate religious motivations in this period from political motivations. Catholic and Protestant missionaries, each determined to conquer the world for the true faith, carried this violence with them to the rest of the globe, including North America, where the question of what Jesus meant when he said “This is my body” got taken up in local histories and local conflicts.
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.
So Catholics have been ill at ease in the modern world. This does not mean, of course, that Catholics have not succeeded in contemporary societies, but it does mean that, until recently (and perhaps still now), Catholic life was lived askew to the modern world. Askew means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “obliquely, to one side, off the straight, awry, also fig. cross, untoward . . . unfavorably,” and among its examples the dictionary cites from the works of John Wesley, “your looks in speaking should be direct, neither severe nor askew.” But askew is how Catholics lived. Askewness is neither radical antipathy nor complete contradiction (although at times it has become such). It is an acute and deeply consequential angle of difference to the modern world.
Living “to one side” has been the source of both good things and bad things in the Catholic relation to modernity, depending on where you stand. For instance, Catholic resistance to progressive child-labor legislation in the United States in the early 20th century seems a particularly perverse expression of this askewness, but to resist these laws was for many Catholics to resist the overweening power of the modern bureaucratic state.
One of the great, although now largely forgotten, figures of modern American Catholic history was the sociologist and priest Paul Hanley Furfey, a friend and advisor to Dorothy Day and with her the founder in the 1930s of a loose movement of committed young Catholics known as the “new social Catholicism.” Although they were committed to material improvements in the living conditions of the poor, their approach to social questions was spiritual, not sociological. In an opening manifesto circulated in 1936 (probably written by Furfey), proponents of this movement declared that “in developing a Catholic social theory the data of divine revelation are incomparably more important than the data of scientific sociology” and that “in the reformation of society, political methods are important and are by no means to be neglected[,] but much more important are such spiritual means as the sacraments and prayer.” Furfey argued in another work that religious persons should secede from the modern world, or else live in it—and against it—as exiles from a different reality.
I have come to realize over the years, or perhaps I have only recently come to admit, how deeply formed (in the sense that Catholics once used the word for raising children) I have been by this askewness and how much my thinking about history and culture has been shaped by it. This should have come as less of a surprise to me than it did. I went to Catholic elementary and high schools where first Franciscan friars and nuns of the order of Saint Vincent Pallotti, the Pallotines, taught me, and then the Jesuits. The little blue blazer I wore in the lower grades proudly proclaimed my school’s name, which also happened to be the name of the doctrine that most separated Catholics from the modern world: the Immaculate Conception, promulgated in 1854 by the fiercely reactionary Pius IX. When I finally left this Catholic environment to go to college, my first encounter with the modern world was not a good one, especially in my religion major. Although I admired and loved my professors, I simply could not recognize in any of my religion classes anything that my family and I knew in the old neighborhood as religion. My world was either absent from what was being called religion in academic scholarship and theology or else it was identified as primitive, atavistic, folkloric—something of the past, not of the present.
Consider the phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious,” which serves as a mantra of modern men and women in the United States. What does it mean to juxtapose “spiritual” and “religious” in this way? It means my religion is interior, self-determined, individual, free of authority; my religion is about ethics and not about bizarre events, and my ethics are a matter of personal choice, not of law; I take orders from no one. In the context of Western history, this means, “I am not Catholic.” People who identify themselves this way are not anti-Catholic; many Catholics say it about themselves too. But buried deep in this phrase is a historical memory of the profound theological difference with which I began this essay, a memory marked by the violence that once sealed this difference so effectively.
The same can be said of religious studies as an academic discipline. The study of religion is a modern endeavor. As the theorist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes: “The term ‘religion’ has had a long history, much of it, prior to the 16th century, irrelevant to contemporary usage.” Religion as we use the word today came of age at the dawn of the modern world, in the period of religious violence I have alluded to. Religion was fundamental to the modern world as it took shape in the West. But what is religion? The most influential contemporary account is that of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who died recently. He defined religion in all times and all places as the human quest to live in a meaningful and ordered world. Meaning and order are enacted in the various religious rituals of different cultures, and participation in these rituals gives fundamental emotional and cognitive orientation to the lives and imaginations of men and women. But how did we get from baptisms in blood and entrails hurled across an executioner’s scaffold to religion as moods, motivations, and meaning?
In the entry on “religion” in his 1764 philosophical dictionary, a central text of the modern age, Voltaire imagines being taken by an angel to a desert heaped high with piles of bones. Whose are they? Voltaire asks the angel. I will tell you, the angel replies, “but first of all you must weep.” Then the angel says that the bones are of those massacred for how they worshiped and what they believed, and among them are “the bones of Christians slaughtered by each other in metaphysical quarrels.” European intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries, exhausted by the long Christian blood feud that had consumed the continent in the previous century, sought an account of religion that would be conducive to civic peace, amenable to reason as reason was coming to be defined, and compatible with economic prosperity. Out of violence, in other words, came “religion” as we know it today: private, interior, ethically predictable, the guarantor of social order, rational, this-worldly, and not supernatural. Religion defined this way became a central component of modern Western societies. (Think of the foundation of the new American state.)
But there are a few things to be said about this modern account of religion. First, as political theorist Anthony Marx has recently written, religious toleration was possible as an idea in the 17th century because the newly tolerant societies had already been purged of anyone in need of tolerance. It was not such a big deal to promote toleration in England after all the Catholics had been killed off, driven underground, or made to flee the country. Liberal theories of toleration, moreover, excluded those who had been purged or else exempted them from the rule of tolerance, as John Locke exempts Catholics in his famous “Letter Concerning Toleration.” Religious toleration meant we will tolerate those whom we will tolerate.
Second, religion, as it came to be defined, was constructed on the denial and repression of memories of religious violence. This has meant that modern theories of religion have been remarkably unable to consider religious violence, as was evident after 9/11. Willfully forgetting its origins in sacred savagery and ignoring the implications of its establishing and enforcing religious boundaries, religious theory stands mute before religious violence.
Finally, the modern Western account of religion, especially as it developed in religious scholarship in England and northern Europe, embodied within its questions, theories, and methods a deep and enduring anti-Catholicism. Early British scholars of Asian religions, for instance, described them in the image of the Protestant/Catholic divide, identifying those features of Buddhism and Hinduism that resembled Catholicism either as corruptions of a pure original or as atavistic survivals. Fundamental to religious theory, in short, was the insistence on the absolute pastness of Catholic religiosity. The Catholic Middle Ages, in particular, had to be denied and forgotten, sealed off in the past. The so-called Dark Ages, that period between the purity of the early Christian church and the recovery of that original purity by 16th-century reformers—all that violence and authority, the obscene profusion of images and statues, relics and blood, monks and nuns, all that money in holy places, pilgrims on the roads, poor people praying for things, all that kissing and licking of sacred things, all those bodies doing things to themselves and each other in churches—all this needed to be exorcised from the notion of “religion.”
Consider a sentence from one of the founding texts of religious studies (not read so much anymore but still deeply influential), the 1897 On the Elements of the Science of Religion by the Dutch Protestant scholar of religion Cornelius Petrus Tiele. The book’s argument is that religions develop along with societies on a universal evolutionary trajectory that ascends from the primitive to the advanced. But the basic human religious impulse, Tiele says, is the same in all times and in all places. He identifies the source of this impulse as “an original, unconscious, innate sense of infinity” and defines religion as “those manifestations of the human mind in words, deeds, customs, and institutions which testify to man’s belief in the superhuman and serve to bring him into relation with it.” The expression of this impulse varies from culture to culture, age to age, and takes more sublime or cruder forms depending on social conditions and history. The Hebrew prophets gave the clearest ethical expression of the human religious impulse; Greek artists, its most beautiful aesthetic expression. But the impulse at work in them is the same as—and this is the important phrase for me here—that of “the savage who bedecks his poor idols with gauzy cloth and all kinds of finery” and “the simple-minded votary of Rome, who bedizens his Madonna with gilded crowns and showy drapery.”
Being Catholic turns out to be a good place from which to view culture and religion within the modern academy. Catholic experiences and practices that the modern world finds especially bizarre—the appearance of Mary on a hillside in southern France, a nun in modern America telling children the story she claims is absolutely true of a boy who puts a stolen consecrated host in a pot of boiling water and turns it into a cauldron of bubbling blood, or the written notes asking for better jobs or a happy marriage or a healthy child that petitioners leave near (and sometimes on) the statues of saints or the Virgin Mary—these things invite us (and compel me) to ask questions at odds with the assumptions and expectations of the intellectual disciplines of the modern world.
I, too, was trained in these disciplines, in a second formation no less profound than the first Catholic one, and I continue to operate within their constraints, even if restlessly so. My work is obsessed with boundaries, with what can be learned precisely from careful, critical attention to what happens when different worlds, different ways of imagining the world, different ways of being, cross each other. And yet the Blessed Mother on a hillside, a child imagining a cooking pot overflowing with blood, a prayer to Mary for a better job—these things draw me on, and I wonder how to understand such realities within the limits of modern historiography and cultural studies. More to the point, I wonder how I can approach the reality of presence, so crucial to Catholic life, with the tools of modern intellectual culture, when it is precisely presence that modernity and modern religious theory most necessarily deny. This denial of presence is true for all religions that come into the purview either of theory or practice in the modern West. A student at Harvard is working on the loss of presence in the movement of Tibetan Buddhism from Tibet (where humans interacted with deities thought to be really there before them) to the West (where such practices of presence have been expunged or metaphorized).
We think we know the answer to this already. Experiences of presence are delusions; children are susceptible to scary stories; desperate people do whatever they need to do to get comfort or relief. Furthermore, such experiences are shaped by class, race, gender, and by power generally. If you’re poor and lack access to good health care, you’re going to turn to the saints. We know this about religion. Among the poor and the marginal, who are more likely to experience presence than the rich and powerful, presence serves fatalistically to endorse and sustain the status quo. Sacred presence means the absence of real power. This response is for me an instance of what philosopher Jonathan Lear calls “knowingness,” “the demand to already know . . . as though there is too much anxiety involved in simply asking a question and waiting for the world to answer.”
So, we do know that certain dimensions of religious practice, imagination, and experience are central to the study of religion, as are issues of power (broadly defined). But the transposition so characteristic of modern analysis—religious practices are distorted refractions of the real circumstances of life (which are social, political, and economic)—eviscerates the reality of religious imaginings and experiences, and of religious presence, as it denies the accounts religious people give of their own lives.
Women I have interviewed, who called on Saint Jude in times of crisis, approached him as a real figure acting efficaciously in their lives. Can we find the critical language to talk about Jude’s realness in history, and about his real effects in history, his thereness? These women told me that they had prayed to Saint Jude and . . . something happened. Can we enter into this ellipsis? Historicist interpretations give us predictable accounts of religion and culture: culture shapes religion, which in turn reflects culture, or, more radically, culture and religion are in symbiotic relationship, each constituting the other. But can we find the critical language to talk about how religious practices and imaginings can subvert this “given” that everybody knows, elude the limitations of our prejudices about social power, confound expectations, and transform lives and societies, for better and for worse?
In a stunning book of sermons, Oxford theologian Marilyn McCord Adams writes:
Saint Paul says, the Spirit groans within us with sighs too deep for words, and we respond with babbling, even unconscious acquaintance. Like motherlove, the Spirit’s presence strengthens, empowers us to grow and learn. Our Paraclete and inner teacher, the self-effacing Spirit, is ever the midwife of creative insight, subtly nudging, suggesting, directing our attention until we leap to the discovery that “2+2=5.” Human nature is not created to function independently, but in omnipresent partnership with its Maker.
These sentences provoked me. I think of myself as an empiricist, but I want an empiricism capable of the world Adams describes in Saint Paul’s words. I want an empiricism up to “the powerful reality of non-existent objects,” in psychoanalyst Ana-Maria Rizzuto’s phrase, an empiricism that takes history “to its limits in order to make its unworking visible” (meaning those experiences at the edges of culture and self that defeat what modern historical study is capable of) as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty writes. What I am searching for is a radical empiricism of the visible and invisible real.
This leads to a category of experience in history and culture that I will call “abundant events.” Within the term “abundant events,” I include relationships, responses to objects (such as a corpse or the Host), sense perceptions (the smell of sanctity, for example, or the feel of blood), relations with special beings (among them the dead, ancestors, imagined-desiredfeared persons, both real and imaginary), the experience of the body (such as it is experienced by sick people, for instance, or by the disabled, or by children, and by those experiencing the bodies of these others), and the work of memory.
Abundant events are characterized by aspects of the human imagination that cannot be completely accounted for by social and cultural codes, that go beyond authorized limits; by the “more” in William James’s word (which got him into so much trouble with positivist psychologists); by the “unthought known,” a cultural experience of déjà vu or uncanny awareness of something outside us and independent of us, yet still familiar to us. Abundant events are saturated by memory, desire, need, fear, terror, hope or denial, or some inchoate combination of these.
What identifies an abundant event in history and culture? I will give five characteristics, in no particular order and not meaning to be exhaustive (with the proviso that these are ideas still in development).
First, such events present themselves as sui generis: people experience them as singular, even if they are recognizable within cultural convention—for instance, even if a culture prepares us for an encounter with witches, when the encounter happens, it is considered out of the ordinary.
Second, abundant events are real to those who experience them, who absolutely know them not to be dreams, hallucinations, delusions, or other kinds of sensory error, even though others around them may and often do contest this. All languages provide such categories of unreality and all cultures define boundaries among the real, the not-as-real, and the unreal, but people explicitly reject these words in describing the abundant event. They experience the abundant event as something outside themselves, really in the world, and out of their control. Indeed, they may, and often do, experience themselves as being in the control of the abundant event.
Third, abundant events arise at the intersection of the conscious and the unconscious and draw deeply on the resources of both.
Fourth, they arise at the intersection of past/present/future (as these really are or as they are dreaded or feared or hoped for). At the moment of such an event we have a new experience of the past while at the same time the horizon of the future is fundamentally altered.
And fifth, abundant events arise and exist among people. They are intersubjective (although this intersubjectivity may include the dead, for instance, or saints).
It is customary in the study of religion when we encounter people who have had experiences like this to say that these people believe what happened to them to be real and their belief in its realness is all that interests us. But belief has nothing to do with it, and in any case I want to move across this border in order to think about how the really real becomes so. The challenge is to go beyond saying “this was real in her experience” to describe how the real—whether it’s the Holy Spirit at a Pentecostal meeting or the Virgin Mary on a hillside or a vision of paradise so compelling that people will kill for it—finds presence, existence, and power in space and time, how it becomes as real as guns and stones and bread, and then how the real in turn acts as an agent for itself in history. An abundant empiricism of the real allows us to probe the conditions of such creativity in culture, where 2+2=5, for better or worse, meaning that the sum of 2+2 can also be cruelty and violence, cultural dissolution as well as cultural innovation. Any understanding of such events is going to be incomplete and frustrating, and any analysis has to be honest about this.
To return to Saint Edmund Campion’s last days: at the very close of his interrogation, his questioners tried to get him to deny the real presence, to which Campion replied, “What? Will you make [Christ] a prisoner now in Heaven? . . . Heaven is his palace and you will make it His prison.” We might ask the same of historicism and the discourses of modernity. Must they make of their critical frameworks a prison for presence? Or can we find in the languages of modern critical inquiry a way to understand the power and reality in history and culture of real presence?
Robert Orsi is Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard University. His most recent book is Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.
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