Academic disciplines are not only about ways of thinking but are also about habits of the heart and mind. It is this existential dimension of our respective intellectual formations that seems to me to be most at stake in discussions between cognitive scientists, on the one hand, and humanists and social scientists on the other, at least in my brief experience of such discussions in the context of the New Dimensions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) project. Having been trained in one way of knowing it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. There is an analogy to prayer practice here. Many Southern Baptists, for instance, probably find it nearly impossible to think of the recitation of the Hail Mary as an authentic way of praying, just as older Catholics may say that addressing God conversationally in everyday speech is not praying. These are deeply embodied habits of heart and mind. Maybe the place to go for conceptual assistance in working through the seemingly intractable epistemological and methodological divide between cognitive scientists and humanists/social scientists is ecumenical theology.
Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, where he is also the Charles Deering McCormick Professorship of Teaching Excellence. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1981 and has taught at Fordham University, Indiana University, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard University (where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion), before coming to Northwestern in 2007. He is the author of many prize-winning books, among them The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (Yale University Press, third edition, 2010); Thank You, Saint Jude: Women’s Devotions to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale 1996); and Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton 2005). Orsi has held fellowships from the NEH and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Posts by Robert Orsi
I discovered during my first conversation with adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse that the study of “prayer” in this context presents highly charged questions of language and definition. The group I was meeting with had been affiliated in the early 1990s with the Linkup, a national organization based in Chicago that offered spiritual support for survivors who were coming forward to tell their stories publicly. Many of the survivors at the first Linkup meetings were just beginning to acknowledge to themselves that they had been abused. The Linkup, which also worked with survivors’ families, was founded by two women, one whose son had been abused by a Chicago priest, the other a highly regarded director of religious education in the diocese who was permanently blacklisted for her efforts in having this priest removed from contact with children. (He was eventually convicted and imprisoned; she was unable ever to work again as a religious educator in the church.) The Linkup has since disbanded but the group has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years.
Simple wood-block print holy cards existed as early as the mid-fifteenth century, but it was the introduction of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century along with advances in modern printing that made possible the mass reproduction of holy cards and their wide distribution throughout the Catholic world in the modern era. Holy cards were everywhere in Catholic culture; they were one of the essential media of Catholic piety and social life. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the cards shared a common devotional aesthetic. Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the saints were depicted in warm colors, rich blues, reds, and browns that heightened the drama and emotional intensity of the imagery. The holy figures looked out from the cards at human affairs with plangent sympathy and concern.
Praying in the Roman Catholic tradition takes place within networks of relationships on earth, and between heaven and earth. For Catholic men and women, supernatural figures are taken to be really, literally present in the everyday circumstances of their lives. Catholic sacramental theology holds that bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration in the Eucharist. To take consecrated bread out into the streets and fields in a great golden monstrance, as Catholics have done for centuries, is to bring Christ himself to the people.
Early theorists of religion understood the presence of supernatural figures in religions as evidence of a “primitive” mentality. Only “savage,” “primitive,” and “unenlightened” races and persons—in the terminology of modern theory—imagined their gods to be tangible, to be really present in places and things, to be danced with, to be begged for help, and to be cursed. Practices of presence came to be associated with women, children, dark-skinned people, and the lower classes. But the prototype for this judgment was Catholicism. The notion of the “fetish,” for example, of the thing alive with the presence of the spirits, was explicitly derived by analogy with Catholic sacramental theology and devotional practice. Catholics were modernity’s once and future “primitives.” This judgment may still be found in developmental theories of the stages of faith development, in which practices of presence directed to beings who hear and respond are taken as indicators of a lower level of religious consciousness.
William A. Christian, Jr. and Gábor Klaniczay, eds., The Vision Thing: Studying Divine Intervention, Budapest: Collegium Budapest Workshop Series No. 18, n.d.
Not surprisingly motion pictures proved to be a potent medium for depicting the interaction between humans and supernatural others at the same time that the congregation of large numbers of Catholics in American cities created an audience for them.
“Prayer” is not a good word among many adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I learned this at the first meeting of survivors I attended in the Chicago area last winter.
I propose to study the religious/spiritual histories of adult Catholic survivors of clerical sexual abuse with a view toward understanding the role of prayer in their efforts to reclaim their lives from destruction and alienation. The most disastrous consequences of abuse included a radically diminished self-image; persistent feelings of shame; a perceived loss of agency; a corrosive and objectless anger; pervasive anxiety; self-abuse (with drugs, alcohol, violence, and destructive sexuality); relational failure and social isolation.