Blog post on Robert Orsi’s History and Presence (2016). By Evgeniia Muzychenko

Robert Orsi’s History and Presence (2016) is an ambitious project to rethink history in relation to the human experience of divine ‘real presence.’ Drawing upon human experiences of God present in the Eucharist, the apparitions of the Virgin, or the worshipping of saints, Orsi claims that human-divine encounters (what he calls ‘abundant events’) are crucial for understanding modern religious history ‘at all levels.’ (73) Orsi’s ‘logic’ of how ritual works is one of Asad’s when he criticizes Geertz’s Protestantism-based view of culture as highly symbolic. For Orsi, the ritual affects and directs human interaction with the world; moreover, the presence of saints makes one “more efficacious in their actions upon the world.” (67) Orsi is not at ease with the modern understanding of religion that treats divine presence as merely symbolic, and his book tries to debunk that image, drawing upon the lived devotional practices of Catholics. 

Orsi is audacious in his attempt to theorize the experiences of Catholics in history by drawing upon the data he had gained talking to contemporary Catholics. Listening to the Catholics’ accounts of their encounters with the supernatural, Orsi translates those contemporary experiences into the historical past – going as far as the events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (17). Orsi is well-versed in Catholic doctrine and his assessments of human experiences are affected by how Catholicism as a system of beliefs interprets those experiences.

Drawing on multiple instances of human experiences of divine ‘real presence’, Orsi makes an important point: history narrates human experiences. The ‘real presence’ that the Catholics encounter in their relationship with the divine is one such experience that must be taken into account when we construct narratives of religious history. However, Orsi writes about Catholics and from a Catholic perspective, which creates a very specific way frame of understanding human experience, human understanding of the divine, and the relationship of the divine with the mundane. It is obvious that Orsi is not trying to make totalizing claims of what constitutes the divine-human relationship; he is aware of his commitment to talk about Catholics, which is evident even in his distinguishing between the terms ‘real,’ ‘present,’ and ‘real presence.’ Orsi intentionally uses the term ‘real presence’ to talk specifically about the experiences of Catholics and within the framework of what Catholicism considers as really present (8). Orsi makes more universal claims about including the accounts of lived devotional experiences in historical writing, especially the ‘modern’ one that denies divine presence. I gained from Orsi’s narrative that he does not account for the dynamism of history and religion. I had an impression that he assumes that the devotional experiences of Catholics are the same or at least similar in all historical epochs (though, he hints at the dynamic nature of religious experience when talking about Vatican II and his mother on pp. 210-11). The book left me wondering whether it is feasible to do an ethnography of the past (Orsi is not the only author who attempted to do that).

Based on this reflection, I invite you to think with me about the following questions: 

  1. How do ‘theological considerations’ (i.e., making sense of human relationship with the divine) inform the construction of historical narratives? 
  2. When an ethnographer tries to describe the believer’s experience of the divine (based on the believer’s account), how does the use of such words as ‘real’ and ‘present’ limit our narrative? 
  3. How does an ethnographer separate their religious beliefs/commitments from their work? 
  4. How applicable is the ethnographic data gained from the contemporary interlocutors for constructing the experiences of historical actors?