Back to the Future: A Response to Robert Orsi
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20 Historically Speaking · September/October 2008 about religious experience outside the dominant paradigms of modernity, precisely because such writing necessarily questions one of the predominant intellectual assumptions of modernity: namely, that "the transcendent" does not exist, for nothing can be beyond time. But the criticism itself falls into the old paradigms of modernity and repeats a pattern that Orsi wishes, righdy, to avoid. In short, Orsi is onto something vital here, and his article sets an important agenda for historians of religion. The first test of his model of abundant history is whether it can accommodate Protestantism as well as Roman Catholicism, heterodoxy as well as orthodoxy . The second test is whether it can avoid the charge of ahistoricism and simultaneously account for encounters with presence across time while speaking of their particular manifestations in modernity. Jane Shaw is Dean of Divinity andfellow of New College, Oxford, and teaches in both the history and theologyfaculties at the University Oxford Hermost recentpublication is Miracles in Enlightenment England (Yale University Press, 2006), and she is currently completing the history of an early 20th-century heterodox millenarian community basedin Bedford , England 1 See, for example, Joy Dixon, Divine Femmine: Theosophy and Feminism m EnglandQobns Hopkins University Press, 2001); Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, andSpiritualism in Late Victorian England (Virago, 1989); Molly McGarry, Ghosts of Future Past Spiritualism andthe CulturalPolitics of Nineteenth-Century America (University of California Press, 2008); I-eigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Malting of American Spirituality (Harper Collins, 2005); and Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of MindandSpirit A CulturalHistory of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007). 2 William James, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902) (Longmans, Green and Co., 1952) 31.¦' WR. Inge, Christian Mysticism (Methuen, 1899), 3, 5. Back to the Future: A Response to Robert Orsi Brad S. Gregory¦t obert Orsi shows that modern metaphysical and epistemologica ! presuppositions prevent scholars from grasping phenomena such as alleged Marian apparitions and other modern instances of the "face-to-face presence of humans and gods to each other." I agree with Orsi that this is a serious problem. But his proposed solution —the categories of "abundant events" and "abundant history"—is unnecessary and too vague to be of much use. It grants too much to the secular presuppositions that he seeks in some measure to challenge; it remains too enmeshed in models derived from "the science of comparative religion" to address the particularities of specific religious traditions; and, to whatever extent it acknowledges the possibility of supernatural realities beyond human constructions, it implies the need for some recourse to philosophy of religion or theology, which Orsi says he wants to avoid in favor of "critical theory." Orsi seems confused at times in this essay. It is not entirely clear whether the "imaginary" relationships of Bernadette Soubirous include the one between her and the Virgin Mary, but if this is what Orsi means, it seems to contradict the "really real" "presence of the supernatural" in their relationship, to which he also refers. Or again, with abundant events it is the "power of the unlocked imagination" that affects ordinary human relationships , yet what "radiates out" from the events are "routes of the really real." One might argue that as historians we cannot determine whether such alleged experiences are no more than inventions of the human imagination or are initiated by the superBemadettes in procession, early 20th century. Library of Congress, Prints and tographs Division (reproduction number, LC-B2- 655-3). natural reality of the Mother of God. But certainly these are radically different things, as far apart as Feuerbach and Newman. Grounded by modernist metaphysical naturalism but confronted by purportedly supernatural phenomena, Orsi seeks to split the difference with "abundant events." He righdy senses the problem, but a more fundamental critique of its sources makes the invention of new interpretative categories unnecessary. A deeper analysis of modern , secular assumptions yields a stronger and simpler solution. We need to be more radical in our questioning of assumptions that Orsi, like nearly all scholars ("understandably so, given our training"), seems to take forgranted. We need to be more critical of critical theory. We need to critique the...


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