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History and Presence
     

History and Presence

by Robert A. Orsi
 

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Beginning with metaphysical debates in the sixteenth century over the nature of Christ’s presence in the host, the distinguished historian and scholar of religion Robert Orsi imagines an alternative to the future of religion that early moderns proclaimed was inevitable.

The question of “real presence”—the Catholic doctrine of the literal,

Overview

Beginning with metaphysical debates in the sixteenth century over the nature of Christ’s presence in the host, the distinguished historian and scholar of religion Robert Orsi imagines an alternative to the future of religion that early moderns proclaimed was inevitable.

The question of “real presence”—the Catholic doctrine of the literal, physical, embodied presence of Christ in the host—coincided with early modern global conquest and commerce and shaped how Europeans encountered the religions of others. The gods really present, in the Catholic sense, were translated into metaphors and symptoms, and into functions of the social and political. Presence became evidence of superstition, of magical thinking, of the infantile and irrational, the primitive and the savage. History and Presence radically confronts this intellectual heritage, proposing instead a model for the study of religion that begins with humans and gods present to each other in the circumstances of everyday life. Orsi then asks what it would mean to write history with the real presence of special beings restored. With reference to Marian apparitions, the cult of the saints, relations with the dead, and other Catholic instances of encounters with the gods really present, Orsi elaborates a theory of presence for the study of both contemporary religion and history.

The unseeing of the gods was a foundational requirement of Western modernity. Orsi urges us to withhold from absence the intellectual and spiritual prestige modernity encourages us to give it, and instead to approach history with the gods fully present.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/08/2016
Orsi (Between Heaven and Earth) argues that God’s presence in the world—seen insistently in Catholicism’s emphasis on the real presence of Christ in Communion—has been devalued since the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking routinely privileged the symbolic over the real, linking the corporality that characterized Catholicism to “savage” religions practiced by indigenous peoples. Since then, Christian thinking has relegated presence—Virgin Mary sightings, for example—to phenomena that must be explained away. To counter this, Orsi recaptures God’s breaking into the world through stories that range from tales of saints, such as Bernadette, to common people who directly experienced divine intervention. In one particularly compelling chapter, Orsi describes the shattering effects of priest abuse on survivors, for whom holy presence has collided with evil. Overall, the book does an excellent job of explaining both the difficulties and values inherent in recognizing God in the world. Though Orsi does not need every example he uses, he builds a dense and compelling case for embracing a God walking beside humans, and deftly weaves story with theory to support his points. (Mar.)
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
A fiercely inquisitive book on the heart of Roman Catholicism…The bulk of History and Presence concentrates on…the perception phenomenon at the back of worldwide cults of saints’ relics, holy shrines, saints’ cults, apparitions of Mary, and the like. Through very nimble and wide-ranging research, Orsi lays bare the complex intermingling of faith and psychology that has been a key element of Catholicism for five hundred years. One of the persistent strengths of the book is its keen awareness of the day-to-day meaning of its mysteries for the ordinary people involved.
Catholic Herald
With reference to Marian apparitions, the cult of the saints and other divine–human encounters, Orsi constructs a theory of presence for the study of contemporary religion and history. Many interviews with individuals devoted to particular saints and relics are included in this fascinating study of how people process what they believe.
Choice - A. W. Klink
[A] brilliant, theologically sophisticated exploration of the Catholic experience of God’s presence through the material world…On every level—from its sympathetic, honest, and sometimes moving ethnography to its astute analytical observations—this book is a scholarly masterpiece.
Reading Religion - Sonja Anderson
This book is classic Orsi: careful, layered, humane, and subtle… If reformed theology has led to the gods’ ostensible absence in modern religion, History and Presence is a sort of counter-reformation literature that revels in the excesses of divine materiality: the contradictions, the redundancies, the scrambling of borders between the sacred and profane, the dead and the living, the past and the present, the original and the imitator… History and Presence is a thought-provoking, expertly arranged tour of precisely those abundant, excessive phenomena which scholars have historically found so difficult to think.
Peter Brown
This is a meticulously researched, humane, and deeply challenging book. It concerns the people and the groups for whom heaven and earth, life and death are not separated by absolute boundaries. ‘Gods’ (to use Orsi’s term) cross these boundaries. Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and the beloved dead remain real presences to many, in a modern world that finds no place for them. The story is set against the background of postwar American Catholicism. It has searing moments of desperate hope and unexpected comfort. It also has moments of sheer horror—as when Orsi explores what sexual harassment by priests means to those who saw in priests human gateways to heaven. The men and women studied in this book do not belong to ‘a world we have lost.’ They belong to a world we have lost sight of.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674047891
Publisher:
Harvard
Publication date:
03/29/2016
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
319,574
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Related Subjects

Meet the Author

Robert A. Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.

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