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  • 2 + 2 = Five, or the Quest for an Abundant Empiricism
  • Robert A. Orsi (bio)

I very much appreciate the interest of the editor of Spiritus, Douglas Burton-Christie, in my new book and I am grateful to the three commentators he chose for this symposium for their generous, insightful readings and for their questions. But I am not completely comfortable appearing in these pages (as everyone graciously seems to understand). Not only have I never thought of myself as participating in the conversation on spirituality, but if "spirituality" is taken to mean something unequivocally good for practitioners, good for their minds, bodies, souls, and good for the people around them, a single domain of Christian experience to be "recovered" by contemporaries from the past, that is essentially the same throughout history despite variations of place and time—as I think it often does in various venues where "spirituality" is discussed: cocktail parties in Episcopal church lounges, among some conservative evangelical youth ministers on weekend retreat, among traditional Catholics in breakaway churches, and in some seminary classrooms, maybe even some sessions at the American Academy of Religion—then much of my work has been intended to roil the waters of such spirituality. Given my formation, as Catholics once called child-rearing, in a very particular sacred world at a particular time, I generally stand on the "religious" side of the "I am spiritual but not religious" equation, understanding religion to be thoroughly cultural and historical, as ambiguous as the circumstances within which it arises, implicated in power, bearing authority, as unconscious in motivation as it as matter of conscious understanding, and involving polyvalent relationships with special and frequently difficult non-human beings of all sorts who become real amid local and culturally constituted networks of humans. When "spirituality" means this, then my research intersects with scholarship in spirituality and I have learned a great deal from its practitioners. But I confess that when I hear the word "spirituality" in its casual usages I reach for my gun, for reasons I will explain below. I acknowledge this overdetermined reaction!

But Stephanie Paulsell is surely right in seeing what she calls resonances between my work and the study of spirituality. These include an intersubjective methodology that blurs the fiercely maintained and tendentious distinction in the study of religion between practitioners and scholars; my holding that a [End Page 113] scholar may be (and indeed ought to be) transformed by what she studies especially if she opens her own life to the other and uses this intersection of lives and worlds, whether in the field or in the archives, as the ground of understanding; the assumption of a mutuality and commonality between ourselves and the people among whom we go to ask our questions—not an essential sameness, but "some common ground or vocabulary that will serve as a point of departure and dialogue across cultures" (as anthropologist Michael Jackson puts it1 ) that at the same time is alert to the tragedy that so often attends such efforts; and my interest in the intimacies of religious practice and imagination at work on the world in particular times and places, precisely in devotional or "spiritual" idioms.

Still, there are important distinctions to be made, and if I make them too starkly at this juncture I do so for the purpose of moving our conversation forward. (Here I thought of writing real intellectual exchange engages real difference directly but stopped because I know that "difference" is not merely out there but is constructed and legitimated and I am sharply aware of the authority with which some of the borders at stake in this symposium are policed. I am keeping this in mind as I write.) So I do not believe that a scholar needs to experience the particular religious realities he or she studies (which much to my dismay seems to be how "participant-observation" is often construed within the study of religion). I take the question asked by Mary Frohlich's students (although hardly endorsed by Professor Frohlich)—"why should we study spirituality academically when what is really of interest is being transformed spiritually?"—as an expression of the anti intellectualism that dogs the...


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pp. 113-121
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