Childhood as Absence

In “Material Children: Making God’s Presence Real for Catholic Boys and Girls and for the Adults in Relation to Them,”[1] Robert Orsi describes how religious meaning is created for both adults and children through their mutual interactions: “Children signal the vulnerability and contingency of a particular religious world and of religion itself, and in exchanges between adults and children about sacred matters the world is in play” (Orsi, 77). The religious instrumentality of human interaction is an important pillar within Orsi’s theory of religion. Whether it involves children or people with disabilities, the element of difference or “absence” fuels the discourse that generates interior religious identity for all, including those in relation to whom those absences can be said to exist. In a way analogous to the spiritualizing mechanism of the “discourse of the holy cripple” (Orsi, 44), children become sacred sites in Catholic culture by virtue of their “missing qualities” (Orsi, 78) in relation to adults: “Young people and persons with disabilities are assessed against and imagined in relation to normative models of what they are not – adults in the case of children, persons without disabilities in the case of those with them – so that they wind up being defined by absence or by what they lack” (Orsi, 78).

And in much the same way that the “discourse of the holy cripple” produces knowledge within Catholic culture concerning the spiritual status of people with disabilities, that is to say a knowledge that is defined by the power relations existing between people with disabilities and those without them, Catholic adults exercise power through the use of angels to instil among their children a certain knowledge of themselves that becomes ingrained in a form of a moral self-reflexivity: “Children were warned that although they might forget ‘how near your angel is,’ their angels were always attentive to their behaviours and their thoughts – children were meant to know that angels knew what they were thinking and feeling and to understand that the angels knew they knew” (Orsi, 106).

A parallel can be drawn between the effect of angels on Catholic children and that of the panopticon prison design on prisoners, as described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. In the panopticon prison design, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen, thus forcing the prisoners to assume that they are being watched at all times. As a result of this “constant” supervision, the prisoners’ knowledge about themselves and their self-perception changes – in their minds they effectively become the undesirable delinquents of society who have to be watched at all times in order to ensure that they do not revert back to reprehensible behaviour of the kind which got them into prison in the first place. In much the same way that the panopticon allows instances of power and authority to produce knowledge among communities of prisoners through constant oversight, the angels of American Catholicism, through their constant attentiveness to childrens’ behaviours, effectively instil within Catholic culture a certain knowledge among children: “angel lore cast children as fundamentally in need of constant supervision, moral scrutiny, and accompaniment, a need endorsed by the fear of (or the threat of) harm and death. When children moved over to make room for their angels on the seat next to them in church or in school, they were moving themselves ever more securely into the moral and cosmic world that adults were making for and with them in the media of Catholic devotionalism” (Orsi, 106).

Note on methodology: while Robert Orsi’s theories regarding American Catholicism are certainly interesting and creative, his methods can at times seem questionable. In “Two Aspects of One Life,” Orsi provides us with specific details regarding the life of his own grandmother, much of which seems trivial, or at least not directly relevant to the production of theories of religion. For instance, Orsi describes in detail his grandmother’s living accommodations in the Bronx, where “old and demented widows still  shop for themselves in the bodegas and Korean markets that replaced the Jewish delicatessens and Italian groceries in the neighbourhood and forever burn pots they forget on their stoves” (Orsi, 121). It is unclear what any of this has to do with the academic study of religion. Furthermore, Orsi goes to great pains to describe the true nature of the religious bond existing between his grandmother and Saint Gemma Galgani, but admits that in fact his grandmother revealed very little about that relationship to him: “My grandmother and I never talked about her devotion to Saint Gemma Galgani and so there are limits to what I can say about the inner meaning of this bond” (Orsi, 138). This statement would appear to undermine much of the findings he puts forth in this chapter regarding precisely the inner meaning of that bond.  

[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.


The Ethos of Suffering

In “’Mildred, is it Fun to Be a Cripple?’ The Culture of Suffering in Mid-Twentieth Century American Catholicism,”[1] Robert Orsi describes the perverse Catholic association of sickness with spiritual glory: “Physical distress of all sorts, from conditions like cerebral palsy to the unexpected agonies of accidents and illness, was understood by American Catholics in the middle years of the last century as an individual’s main opportunity for spiritual growth” (Orsi, 21). Indeed, for these Catholics physical suffering was the means by which one might encounter the transcendent in a most tangible way: “Pain had the character of sacrament, offering the sufferer a uniquely immediate and intimate experience of Jesus’ presence” (Orsi, 22).  Rather than viewing pain and suffering as necessary evils with no productive value, that is to say purely as sources of interference with respect to humankind’s general quest to achieve and surpass, these Catholics effectively redefined the experience of physical suffering as spiritually meaningful, and as such they made the sick worthy of the utmost respect and admiration.

According to this Catholic ethos of suffering, pain always had a purpose, even for those who did not suffer. Through a convenient mechanism of spiritual transferability, healthy devotees had to ability to tap into the spiritual draw of the sick and handicapped without themselves having to undergo the same degree of physical suffering. The bodies of the sick were understood as “conduits of communications and benefits from heaven to earth” (Orsi, 29), acting as vast storehouses of spiritual power that could subsequently be reacquired by the healthy in a “redistributive economy of distress” (Orsi, 29). Furthermore, from this American Catholic perspective the understanding of sick bodies as spiritual repositories had the effect of granting spiritual relevance to otherwise “bitter” and “whining” sick people, as they were sometimes referred to in devotional literature. By way of this Catholic ethos of suffering, the sick and handicapped were granted a moral standing and social status that might not otherwise have been accessible to them : “the notion of sickness as a source of spiritual energy for the whole church recast the uselessness and isolation of sickness into participation and belonging” (Orsi, 33).

But the assignment of this spiritual status to the sick did not happen by accident. As Orsi explains, the Catholic devotional “discourse of the holy cripple” (Orsi, 44), whereby the sick and handicapped were understood to be closer to heaven by virtue of their infirm physical status, was immediately traceable to the existence of specific power relations between healthy (and thus powerful) Catholic devotees and their physically disadvantaged counterparts. Through the mechanism of this unique religious discourse, the healthy used their power to instil a specific knowledge within the framework of the Catholic tradition regarding the spiritual role and status of the sick and handicapped: “The power of those of us who could walk out the door over those who could not was evident in the fact that we were the ones defining – and limiting – their inner lives for them. Their holiness was the practice of our power” (Orsi, 43). Furthermore, as if to enhance and reinforce this exercise of power, the Catholic devotional ethos of suffering employed Jesus’ own suffering as a means to impose silence among the sick and handicapped despite the strenuousness of their suffering and the discomfort of their predicament: “The ethos confronted the sick with an image of the suffering Christ and then, in a perverse inverted Christology, told them that this image mocked any suffering of theirs: Did Jesus ask for a pillow on the Cross?” (Orsi, 38).

But if Jesus did not ask for a pillow on the Cross, it is probably because a pillow would not have done him much good up there. Still, the American Catholic ethos of the “unfortunate fortune” lent a helpful sense of spiritual meaning to those who needed it most, the sufferers. For the devout, the most perplexing matter was perhaps not so much the experience of suffering itself, but rather the daunting search for an ultimate reason or justification for such suffering. What good, the sick and the healthy alike might ask, does suffering accomplish in exchange for the physical and emotional expenditure it imposes on the body and the mind? Pain surely cannot be a one-way street, so how are we to understand the good that must necessarily return from it in the opposite direction?

[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Essay on Methods

In describing my research interests, I would first circumscribe them to the theoretical or conjectural realms. I would then specify that my core interest is metatheory, that is to say the investigation and analysis of theories, and the creation of theories about theories. The other major qualification of my research interests is, of course, that I am focused on religion and religious phenomena. I have chosen the field of religious studies because religion is, to me, the area where humans contemplate and address the most fundamental concerns about our existence, such as the meaning of life, the nature of ultimate reality, eschatological matters, etc. I am interested in religious phenomena insomuch as they seriously attempt to deal with these fundamental human concerns. Admittedly, not all religious phenomena are intended for such purposes, and so I consider it to be one of my principle tasks to select the appropriate religious phenomena to investigate in the first place.

I do also acknowledge that my interests, as I have just described them, will differ from those of other researchers within the field of religious studies, such as perhaps historians or anthropologists of religion. While historical and anthropological data will be fundamentally important to my research, I will not make it my business to collect, organize and synthesize such data. I will leave this task to others who are more passionately involved with such methodological procedures. But I will be highly attentive to these researchers and their findings, as the data produced will constitute the starting point for my own work. As I am preoccupied with the modern spiritual predicament (the intense popularity of the “New Atheists” and a recent survey showing that “nones” – people claiming to have no religion – is the fastest growing “religious” tradition in the United States (Gilgoff 2009) both appear to symptomize an ominous spiritual deficiency in today’s world), I will try to derive insights from specific findings that may be helpful in deciphering or uncovering humankind’s current spiritual status and direction. In the spirit of Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach to social science, I will consider it my duty to problematize certain existing assumptions about religion and religious phenomena in an attempt to clear the way for innovative thought.

Throughout the remainder of this essay, I will explore how the work of some of the classic theorists of religion such Weber and Eliade, the sociologist Durkheim, as well as the anthropologists Geertz and Evans-Pritchard, will inform my own methodological approach as I pursue the research interests and objectives described above. I will consider each of these theorists separately, starting with Eliade.  

Eliade contends, with his notion of the sacred, that there is something unique and special about the religious experience. For Eliade, “to try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art, or any other is false” (Pals 2006, 197). For Eliade, all these approaches miss the point of the religious experience entirely – they ignore the element of “the sacred” at play in these phenomena. For Eliade, the sacred is “an intuitive burst of discovery” whereby “the religious imagination sees things otherwise ordinary and profane as more than themselves and turns them into the sacred” (Pals 2006, 205). The sacred is the feeling people get of being “gripped by a reality that is ‘wholly other’ than themselves – something mysterious, awesome, powerful, and beautiful” (Pals 2006, 199). Eliade’s notion of “the sacred” provides an important platform or baseline for my own approach to religious studies because it constitutes an acknowledgement of the unique character of religious experience. It is indeed fundamental to my approach to religion that people who engage in religious behavior are understood to be reaching out to something beyond themselves in the hope of grasping what little of it they can with their relatively limited human means. The sacred is a unique and special type of human intuition because it relates to a mysterious other reality that cannot be fully understood or rationalized. Although it will not be my goal to assess the substance or veracity of individual sacred experiences (or religious truth claims for that matter), my approach, much like Eliade’s, will always admit the possibility of humankind’s physical, emotional or intellectual contact with otherworldly forces or entities. With his notion of the sacred, Eliade is in a sense motioning towards something that might be real, ontologically speaking. Without presuming to know the source of the sacred, Eliade insists that, whatever the source is, it is unique, mysterious and powerful since the human experience associated with it is also unique, mysterious and powerful. Eliade is therefore suggesting that some (but certainly not all) religious people might be on to something, and that “something” should be properly understood as the object of our study. The methodological approach that I intend to use for my own work will also allow for the possibility that religious people might be on to something, as I do not find strictly reductionist conclusions all that convincing, or even reasonable, given the sheer complexity of the world as we know it. Eliade’s theory, then, will constitute one of the pillars of my methodological approach, if for no other reason than simply to provide the fertile ground in which ideas and theories pertaining to ultimate reality and the transcendent can grow freely, inhibited by scientific reductionism.

The sociological approach to religion, such as the one employed by Durkheim, is also relevant to my own research project. It is difficult to disassociate religion from society, so the study of society is an important perspective from which to consider religious phenomena. Profound theories of religion can emerge from sociological research, and to the extent these theories provide insight into the nature of religion itself, they constitute important objects of metatheoretical examination. Durkheim pioneered the sociological study of religion, and his work set the tone for later sociologists of religion. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim describes society as the original breading ground of religious sentiment. For Durkheim, society in and of itself produces within its members certain types of feelings not accessible to isolated individuals living outside of society: “within a crowd moved by a common passion, we become susceptible to feelings and actions of which we are incapable on our own” (Durkheim 2001, 157). A social group is therefore to be understood as something greater than the sum of its individual members. Durkheim remarks how the joining of primitive individuals into social groups produces a degree of passion not otherwise observed within isolated individuals: “The very fact of assembling is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are assembled, their proximity generates a kind of electricity that quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation” (Durkheim 2001, 162). Furthermore, for Durkheim, this extraordinary reaction, this passion and electricity associated with social gatherings, is the source of the religious experience: “Therefore it is in these effervescent social settings, and from this very effervescence, that the religious idea seems to be born” (Durkheim 2001, 164). For Durkheim, the “totemic principle,” which is related to the inability of the primitive mind to grasp the complex reality of the clan, is the association of these feelings of vitality and effervescence with the totem: “It is therefore natural that the feelings the clan awakens in individual consciousness – feelings of dependence and increased vitality – are much more attached to the idea of the totem than to that of the clan” (Durkheim 2001, 165). The totemic principle is “the clan conceived in the physical form represented by the emblem” (Durkheim 2001, 167). For Durkheim, the effervescence produced by the social gathering is what constitutes religious feeling; furthermore, the totem as the embodiment of that social effervescence houses the concept of god: “Because religious force is nothing but the collective and anonymous force of the clan, and because this can be imagined only in the form of the totem, the totemic emblem is like the visible body of the god” (Durkheim 2001, 166).

Durkheim’s theory of religion effectively exposes some interesting dynamics between religion and society. I would concur with Daniel Pals who highlights the value of situating religion within the social context: “Who would wish to deny that for devout Catholics, a requiem mass, which on its face is a plea to God to save the souls of the dead from Hell, is, underneath that surface, also a powerful ritual of group solidarity and renewal?” (Pals 2006, 133) Sociology therefore provides an important input to the overall theoretical constitution of religion, but I would disagree with Durkheim when he writes in the above quotation that religion is “nothing but the collective and anonymous force of the clan…” In this sense, I diverge from Durkheim who, methodologically, substitutes theoretical possibilities pertaining to the transcendent with strictly sociological theories and explanations of religion. For Durkheim, “The feelings the physical world evokes in us cannot, by definition, contain anything that transcends this world.” For Durkheim, “nothing comes from nothing,” and “from the tangible we can make only the tangible; we cannot make something unlimited from something limited” (Durkheim 2001, 170). If we are to accept Durkheim’s theory that religion is constituted solely by the impulses produced by society, and the God is merely the totemic emblem of that same society, then we must agree with Durkheim that “nothing comes from nothing” and abandon the possibility of the transcendent. Into my own work I intend to incorporate sociological findings and theories to the extent they may generate useful and valuable insights into the study of religion, but I will make no such negative assumptions regarding the existence of the transcendent. In keeping with the spirit of anti-reductionism that I wish to associate with my work, I might entertain, for instance, the possibility of sociological phenomena as manifestations of the transcendent itself. In any case, I will base my own research on the assumption that sociological factors can likely only reveal part of the overall picture when it comes to understanding religion. The idea that sociological factors in and of themselves do not necessarily eliminate the possibility that there may be other forces at play will be fundamental to my work.

The anthropological approach to religion, much like the sociological approach, constitutes another important data element when it comes to constructing theories of religion. Strictly descriptive anthropological accounts of religious or other human phenomena, such as Evans-Pritchard’s work on cattle in The Nuer, can be used as the raw material for subsequent theoretical construction. Other anthropological approaches, such as the one employed by Clifford Geertz, which go beyond simple description and provide insight into some of the deeper meanings associated with the observed phenomena (i.e. “thick descriptions”) can be helpful as well in this regard. For Geertz, culture is “’a pattern of meanings,’ or ideas, carried in symbols, by which people pass along their knowledge of life and express their attitudes toward it” (Pals 2006, 270). For Geertz, an analysis of culture therefore cannot be “‘an experimental science in search of a law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’” (Pals 2006, 269). Whether it be Evans-Pritchard’s raw data or Geertz’ patterns of meanings, the anthropological approach is relevant to my own research work insomuch as it leads, one way or another, to profound insights into certain aspects of religious phenomena. As such, it provides substance for further theoretical and metatheoretical consideration with respect to religion.

Methodologically speaking however, my research work will probably have more in common with Weber than with Durkheim or the anthropologists discussed above. Weber attributes to religion a formative power unlike any other, and his work more definitely seeks to prove how religion is the first cause of other observable human phenomena. Daniel Pals qualifies Weber’s approach in the following manner: “Human ideas, beliefs, and motives deserve to be counted as real and independent causes of human action” (Pals 2006, 183), and “meanings matter; the webs of significance that human beings spin do effectively shape and change the material and social structures that lie beneath” (Pals 2006, 184). A fundamental aspect of Weber’s approach is therefore the importance he gives to religion as an influential force affecting the minds of individual people, and its resulting ability to shape society. For Weber, much of human thought, whether it be from the individual or group perspective, is informed by religious belief. Hence, Weber grants to religion a molding power that it lacks in the theories of Durkheim and other reductionists such as Marx and Freud, who “assume that religious actions and beliefs always trace to non-religious causes, whether psychological, social, or socioeconomic” (Pals 2006, 183). Durkheim, in a sense, was a sociologist with an opinion on religion. On the basis of his work, one might say it never occurred to Durkheim that religion might be the root cause of anything. Weber’s approach to religion is not reductionist in the way that Durkheim’s is. For Weber, religious beliefs are so fundamental to the human intellectual makeup that they can seen as the source, rather than the product, of the more mundane aspects of human existence. For instance, Weber attributes the rise of Western capitalism to the arrival of specifically Protestant religious ideas and behaviors in the seventeenth century.[1]  Here, it is interesting to consider Weber’s starting point. As Pals explains, Weber began his investigation in The Protestant Ethic by asking: “How did a new and revolutionary form of economic behavior arise to transform Western civilization in the early centuries of the modern era?” (Pals 2006, 182) It is methodologically significant that Weber should begin his analysis with the idea that something more fundamental, more profound, was at the source of more outward economic behavior. In a sense, Weber “sets up” religion as a potential root cause of revolutionary human behavior, then proceeds to argue that indeed it is. As such, Weber’s approach implicitly assigns an immediacy and a relevance to religion not acknowledged by Durkheim and other reductionists.

In my view, scholars of religion should be driven by the desire to demonstrate, scientifically or otherwise, how religion might explain certain things about the world. If, as scholars of religion, we do not employ this stance as our starting point, then the logic of our enterprise will be fundamentally flawed. Our starting hypothesis will contradict the very object of our study. Can we really pretend to be furthering the study of religion if our analysis is intended to prove the secondary nature of religious phenomena? And should we inadvertently succeed in this attempt to discredit religion as a fundamental driver of various other human phenomena, what will we be left with to study? In my own research work, I intend to follow Weber’s example: I will try to identify ways in which religion, as a unique and distinct phenomenon, impacts human life. I will at least begin my work with the hypothesis that the fundamental object of religious phenomena (ultimate reality, the transcendent, etc.) may have a certain ontological status. In summary, an orientation towards open possibilities as opposed to limited functionalist interpretations will characterize my work generally.  

Works Cited 

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. London: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Gilgoff, Dan. “New Survey: Those With No Religion Fastest-Growing Tradition.” U.S. News & World Report. March 9, 2009. (accessed February 24, 2010).

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[1] See The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber, published in 1958.