28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (2005)

In Between Heaven and Earth, Robert A. Orsi argues that religious worlds are made by men, women, and children in relationships with each other and special beings. Religious idioms are intersubjective in that they are real, personal experiences shared among any number of networks of people. Intersubjectivity is understood as: 1) the nature of particular social, cultural and religious identities and realities (bonds of love/hate); and 2) the balance of familiarity/difference in the relationship between the researcher and his/her subject(s).

Orsi suggests that religion is not a “web of meanings but of relationships” and cannot be labeled with dichotomies. Scholars must move beyond the secularization thesis and the “from-to” paradigm of modernity. Belief is the wrong question to ask and the “realness” of religious idioms should be understood as real in experience, practice, and relationships. Orsi explains these ideas in the stories about Sal. These illustrate the relationships between handicapped people, other Catholics, and the saints who embody suffering. While handicapped people were made models of suffering and purity like certain Saints, this fantasy marginalized the lives and actual suffering of the “cripples.” This fantasy obscured their unequal relationships.

In chapter two Orsi examines the presence of Mary among the devout in pre- and post-Vatican II. Orsi explains the presence of Mary after Vatican II as: 1) psychological in that people placed Mary as a mediator in their lived relationships and experiences; 2) social in that Mary is a cultural figure who makes and is made by culture; 3) a symbol of American and other cultural/ethnic identities; and 4) emotional in that Mary’s emotions reflected those of the devout. The presence of Mary is not something that is either true or false, but her presence and people’s engagement with her reflect “the daily circumstances of their lives.” Her presence alters lived experiences and relationships through art, prayer, and history.

Chapter three considers how adults made the presence of God material in children’s bodies and imaginations. Like the holiness associated with “cripples,” the holiness imbued in children made them vulnerable, objects of desire, and idealized childhood. These experiences shaped relationships among children and adults to create American Catholicism.

Chapter four relates the hagiographical accounts of Saint Gemma Galgani and stories about Orsi’s grandmother. In these stories, heaven and earth not only reflect one another, but are made in relation to one another (diptych). “Meaning making” is a linear process and does not take into account that the lives of people can be made by meaning in stories. Orsi suggests that the “meaning making subject” be replaced with “a more tragic figure whose engagements in the world…proceed through media that may embody meaning against him or her.”

In chapter five Orsi examines the relationship between the researcher and subject. The study of religion is the study of relationships that use, make, or re-make religious idioms in particular cultural, historical and political contexts. To study or interpret a culture means to be engaged with the people in the culture and their conversations; to understand religion as dialectics. Orsi understands that while he cannot pray to Saint Jude like Clara, he can experience the feelings of loss and hope that she does. In this case, scholars should rethink the boundaries of “us/them” in research and realize that while there are differences there are also similarities among the researcher and his/her subject. Difference does not mean otherness. This intersubjectivity will help scholars understand religious ways of living and the researcher’s relationship to them.

In chapter six, Orsi traces the history of religion in the West and in the American academy. Scholars must understand how this history impacts their research. The evangelical and postcolonial critiques present compelling challenges, but ultimately re-establish boundaries in their work (like Covington with the snake-handlers). Orsi proposes a third position where the goal of research is to get beyond “otherizing” by disciplining one’s mind and heart to stay in the “in-between place.” This position is transformative in that the scholar must go beyond understanding religion as ethical, and not affirm or deny the studied religion. Scholars should proceed in their research with risk, suspension, and engagement. Haberman’s fieldwork maintains this third position. Religious witnessing is not for the university classroom since the expectation is for discussion, analysis and open exchange. Religious worlds and their morals must be studied through the lived experiences and stories between people and their gods.

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