I recently attended the biannual Conference on Faith and History at Calvin College. Robert Orsi, a prominent scholar of American religious history, gave a remarkable plenary address entitled “The Study of Religion on This Side of Disgust.”
Bob Orsi has been studying religion for quite a long time and has authored a number of important books that have significantly altered the ways that scholars of religion think, study, and write about religion. In particular, Orsi’s books gave the practice of lived religion the attention it deserves – that the study of religion is not merely about beliefs or theology but the ways that people experience rituals, community, and habits. Orsi’s scholarship has changed the way that I thought about and studied religion and Orsi is a scholar that I respect and admire.
Imagine my surprise when I looked down at the program and saw the title of Orsi’s address. Then he began to speak about the ways that religions do more harm than good and that the good of religion is inextricable from the harm that it causes. Orsi, a committed Catholic, went into great detail about the systematic forms of sexual abuse within the Catholic church. He particularly focused on the story of Father Paul Shanley, whose abuse of minors and reputation for unusual sexual appetites, with clear knowledge by his superiors, is documented as part of the sexual abuse investigations in Massachusetts.
Orsi focused primarily on the documented cases of abuse within the U.S. Catholic church institution, but as another scholar pointed out in the comments portion of the address, this is not a Catholic problem. The hierarchical structure of the Catholic church may make the documentation of blame, power, and cover-ups more visible, but Protestant churches have a long history of abuse and cover up too. Christian churches have long struggled with pastors, priests, and youth workers abusing children and other adults. These predators proclaimed the gospel and helped themselves to the poor and oppressed.
I felt sick as I listened to Orsi quietly and carefully document the abuses by Father Shanley. The room was deathly still during Orsi’s talk. It may have been my imagination, but it felt as if the audience, myself included, sank lower in our chairs, our shoulders weighed down with the burden of Orsi’s disgust, as well as our own.
According to Orsi, the harm caused by the church is the distortion of its true essence. Instead of loving and helping, religious leaders abused, manipulated, and ruined the love of the gospel for hundreds if not thousands of people in their congregations. They preyed on the vulnerable, the powerless, the hurt, and the oppressed and caused shattering damage to the people, their families and friends, and, of course, to the cause of the gospel.
What happens when this harm is embraced? What does it mean when people in power or boards or consistories know about the perpetrators of harm and do nothing? Or when people in power merely shuffle the perpetrators of harm around so that they damage more of the vulnerable and needy? I am disgusted at the endless stories of abuse, past and present. Should I set that disgust aside? Or should it inform my scholarship and engagement with religion in a fundamental way?
As a scholar of religion, if this manner of harm is so prevalent, how do we study and understand religion when this harm and disgust are, sadly, a regular function of religion? Of course our response, according to Orsi, is “yes, but religion also does good…” which is true.
But how do we grapple with the harm that is so intermingled with the good?