In the early pages of my recently published book, History and Presence (Belknap Harvard 2016), I describe something that happened to me many years ago which became a touchstone for the questions I have asked about religion since. I was traveling in Ireland in 1976 on one leg of a year-long journey around contemporary European Catholic monasteries when I stopped by chance in the town of Knock, County Mayo, to fuel my car. I asked the gas station attendant how it was that Knock boasted such an enormous church and plaza, which I had passed on my way through the town, and its own airport. Do you not know what happened here? he asked me. No, I did not. Are you Catholic? he asked. I am, I said. Not a very good one then, he said. He condescended to explain to me that on August 21, 1879, the Virgin Mary, along with several other holy figures, appeared beside the church wall to a cluster of villagers, and the sacred figures lingered in Knock. “Here,” the gas station attendant ended his story, “the transcendent broke into time.” I remember all this because I wrote it down in a journal at the time, but I would not have forgotten it even if I hadn’t.
What captured my attention in this interaction was the idea of the unforeseen breaking-in of religious figures—in this case the Virgin Mary, Saints Joseph and John, and a number of angels—to a specific time and place. This into might be a family, for instance, or a political crisis, the public sphere, or a single life. It was crucial that it was particular recognizable beings with their own lives and stories breaking-in. This was not “religious experience” as imagined by William James and others; not the feeling of a strangely warmed heart; not the discernment of intentionality in a certain convergence of circumstances (“everything happens for a reason”); and not the presence of the holy in a community of believers. It was precisely not these other phenomena. Rather, in the town of Knock, holy figures broke publicly and visibly into the late afternoon and early evening of an ordinary day, just as a relative might drop by unannounced and unexpected on an evening. They were visibly present here in this Irish town, as the gas station attendant had proudly affirmed, wherever else they might have been. The people of Knock said that the special beings “came to” them; they encountered them outside of themselves, standing there alongside the church wall.
I came back to the United States later that year and began graduate school in religious studies at Yale where there was not much talk about special beings breaking-in. Individuals and communities who believed that special religious beings were really present to them were treated broadly in academic culture as alien to the normal course of mature adulthood and of developed culture. The best that might be said about them was that they were phantasms of immature imaginations that disclosed the manifold incapacities of those imagining them, but this was mostly left unelaborated; it was a shared assumption. The special beings had gone missing. I would find them again in East Harlem and at Saint Jude’s shrine in South Chicago, and they were certainly present in my family’s daily lives in the Bronx, but I had trouble talking about them in an academically respectable way that simultaneously did justice to their really realness in people’s encounters with them, which were mostly not as dramatic as at Knock, but still real.
Were they exemplars of community identity? Evidence of a person’s or a social group’s powerlessness? Texts to be interpreted? Fragments of power? Clifford Geertz’s 1973 essay “Religion as a Cultural System” was sweeping Yale’s religious studies department at the time. Geertz’s view of religion as meaning making to be studied by textual hermeneutics, even when what was at hand was not a text but a shrine, say, or an altar, had an intuitive appeal. This is what religion is, or at least seemed to be; Talal Asad would later unpack why this was so. I don’t mean to diminish Geertz’s contribution, but I do want to note that special beings were completely unnecessary to his theory of religion and pretty much totally absent. Nor did they make an appearance in Asad’s equally influential critique of Geertz some years later.
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In the first two chapters of History and Presence I offer an account of what I believe is the history of the disappearance from normative modernity of special-religious-beings-present-the-way-ordinary-humans-are-present-to-each-other in what Hannah Arendt called “the world that lies between people,” and when they were talked about at all, they were safely translated into functions of something else. This disappearance and/or translation, which I consider fundamental to the making of the modern world—of politics, understandings of the human subjectivity and intersubjectivity, of sociology and history—has its origins in the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in early modernity over the question of how Jesus remains present on earth after his ascension into heaven. The Catholic position, the theological doctrine of the real presence, was that Jesus’s actual body and blood were really, literally present in the consecrated host at Mass; Protestants developed many other answers to the question of God’s continuing presence in opposition to the Catholic one, which in addition to being theological wrong, according to Protestants, was pagan magic, grossly materialistic, fleshy, and disgusting. It conjured up images of God moving through human intestines and excreted. The details of this history are available in chapters one and two of History and Presence. The immediate point is that Catholics entered modernity as the people of real presence par excellence; the complex theological debate had resolved itself into the stark opposition, presence/absence, with absence considered to be the sign of modernity.
Because the great age of European imperialism and conquest was also the great age of European evangelization, when it was understood as the duty of Christians to carry the gospel out to the world that was being conquered, enslaved, killed, and traded with, what would otherwise have been an internecine European Christian theological debate got carried out to the rest of the world. When power shifted from the Catholic empires of Spain and Portugal to the Protestant empires of Great Britain and northern Europe, the fate of special beings really present was sealed. Presence in the Catholic sense became a device of political differentiation: from the perspective of the dominant Protestant powers, Spain and Italy were corrupt lands of real presences; whereas Great Britain was a force for global good. In time the fate of special beings really present would be cast in “scientific” language and get used as a way of evaluating and ranking cultures and races. Such special beings as appeared in Knock in 1879 were relegated to the past of the species, even when that past was contemporary (as in societies far from Europe), and to the infancy of individual lives.
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History and Presence uses a historical narrative to develop a theoretical argument. Some readers will find the juxtaposition of historical specificity with theoretical generalization disconcerting or simply wrong. But I know of no other way of doing theory other than by grounding it in history. Moreover, because I argue that the Catholic doctrine of the real presence was a crucial tool of differentiation between what was religiously tolerable and what was not in modernity and that it contributed to the making of other key boundaries (between the past and the present, for instance), it makes historical as well as theoretical sense to redeploy this specific term as a critical wedge for imagining scholarship with the gods really present. If others working in different contexts find this analysis useful, they might substitute other terms for “real presence” and in this way contribute to the expansion and renovation of categories of cultural, religious, and historical analysis. I prefer “real presences” to “religion,” which I have come to see as a disciplinary term in service of modern political regimes (of course I’ll go back to using “religion,” but for the moment I won’t). Finally, and perhaps most controversially, in History and Presence I use “gods” as the synecdoche for “special suprahuman religious beings,” rather than the cumbersome and etic phrase itself and in lieu of disembodied spirits (although I know of many contexts, such as African Caribbean religions, for instance, which integrate Catholic and African elements, the spirits are not disembodied).
The fault line that began in Catholic/Protestant conflict over presence became the template for identifying and evaluating other religious traditions. Hinduism, for instance, was called the Catholicism of Asia, in contrast with Buddhism, which was seen as Asia’s Protestantism, with each religion being constituted accordingly by Western scholars, most of whom had a deep animus against Catholicism. This gives further warrant for at least the temporary and instrumental use of “real presence” to challenge the modern construal of “religion,” “religious,” and society premised on its denial. “Real presence” in this way is analogous in its function to “queer,” and one might speak of “real presencing” history as one does of queering it.
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I am inviting readers of History and Presence to try the thought experiment of approaching their particular areas of inquiry in religion, history, and culture through a matrix of presence. For example, in the book I tell the story of a “Detroit housewife,” as she is mostly identified in the sources, who was worried about her brothers in service during the last days of World War II. On their behalf, she resolved to redouble her fervor at doing what the home front authorities were telling women to do: she would collect more scrap materials, sell more war bonds…and then the Virgin Mary appeared to her and told her not to waste her time; that such actions, which the Detroit housewife and other women were made to believe would directly support and protect their men, were useless; and that instead she should gather women together to pray in small groups. The Blessed Mother went on to relate her own suffering at the foot of her son’s cross to what American women were going through and promised she would be present in the groups of women praying, one woman among others. Finally, the Blessed Mother warned the Detroit housewife and other women of the suffering to come, when their men returned from war with wounded bodies and souls, missing limbs, paralyzed, blind…She spared the already terrified Detroit housewife none of the horrors of war’s aftermath.
This event raises questions about the gods’ intersection with political agendas, their disruption of ordinary ways of thinking and planning, the consequences of their unpredictability, and their capacity to confront humans with things known but denied, and it points beyond the functional and positivist to more open-ended analyses, more like human experience itself. What effect did the Virgin Mary, in this instance, have on time and place? The Detroit housewife was changed by the event; she did what the Virgin Mary asked her to do. This points to the capacity of such beings to alter the not only the experience of a person in his or her world but the world itself. Then there is the detail of the Virgin Mary pausing to describe her own experience of suffering and pain. How is this exchange to be characterized? What is the experiential and social effect of this disclosure of common experience between the gods and humans? Finally, what may be seen about the home front from the perspective of this breaking-in? The Blessed Mother’s arrival discloses dimensions of the experience of American women during the Second World War that had otherwise gone unseen. The absence of the gods really present is always one among many absences.
It is little wonder that modern governments—and religious institutions—have found the gods really present inconvenient at best. (The Detroit diocese withheld recognition of the visions until they were safely under the church’s authority and minus the visionary.) The gods are not always oppositional, of course. They have been rallied in defense of nationalism and war, usually after first being reframed as abstractions at the level of nationalist or imperialist discourse; still, it happens that when governments say that the abstraction “god” is on their side, the gods really present themselves may have other ideas. This is the key point, to return to the gas station attendant’s “here…broke into.” Special beings come with their own intentions, their understandings of what people need, and their own plans.
Here is the problem: the available conceptual frameworks and critical terminologies are limited in their capacity to explore the intricacies of relationships between divine and human subjectivities; they require more imaginative, multidimensional, flexible, and daring theoretical approaches. Why are we so willing to theorize human/machine interactions or interspecies exchanges but not this one, which precedes and shapes all these others? (The answer, I believe, is the history described above.) By bringing the gods really present into the conversation, moreover, the study of religion makes a provocative contribution to conversations across the humanities and social sciences about such topics as the nature of history; the disruption of orderly cause/effect narratives by radical contingency; about the interplay of imagination and reality in constituting culture; and the porousness of subjectivities to each other. A matrix of presence offers unexpected perspectives on aesthetics, for example, law, textuality and reading, and on the human experience of space beyond the constraints of the inherited theories within which these topics among others are commonly situated.
I am often asked by interlocutors whether I believe in real presences. The answer is that whether or not I believe in them, I’ve given an entire academic life over to them, so yes, clearly in this sense, I “believe” in them. But more importantly I believe in the conversations among scholars they may provoke, which can take us beyond the horizons so much of our scholarship is not only content to stay well shy of but to make sure no one else approaches.