Coronavirus and the Ontological Garden Path in Religious Studies (Robert Orsi & Shaul Magid)


What do we say about empirically false claims that religious faith and practice will protect people from all kinds of ills in this world? For instance the Christian woman who will go to Church, secure in being washed in the blood of Christ or Hasidic Jews who thought that the study of Talmud in yeshivot will keep them safe from the disease. Shaul Magid (see below) calls this “magical thinking” and wants to defend it. But the Coronavirus is boxing phenomenologists of religion and students of lived religion into an ontological corner, or, to shift metaphors, taking us down the garden path.

The expression of the problem here for Robert Orsi and for those of us who are sympathetic to his methodological approach to the study of religious phenomenon is almost naive and could be appreciated as such, i.e. as it touches upon the naivety of traditional or conservative faith:

Orsi writes:

“The approach to religion I’ve been calling plural ontological realism, which in this case means I take this woman at her word: her experience of Jesus being really present to her in the community of other Christians (she was clear in her brief comments how important the church was to her) protects her from infection (and perhaps from infecting others, although she seemed to care less about this). I am committed to resisting the impulse, deep in the theoretical inheritances of the modern study of religion, to lift this woman out of the ontology in which she became (or remade herself as) a subject and through which she lives her subjectivity in relation to others, among whom are, in this instance, the people she meets in Walmart and Home Depot. Any theoretical work about the role of religion must begin (although it does not end) with the reality of this woman’s claim of immunity, within her world, without translating it, and relocating her, into alien ontologies. This is not to suggest that her world is singular: it is adjacent to and cross-cut by other ontologies (such as the reporter’s). Amid this ontological diversity, evangelical Christianity of a particular sort is determinative for this woman, at this moment in history and in her life.”

The problem is that Orsi is confusing ontology and hermeneutics. There are many different ways to look at and “interpret” an empirical phenomenon like a pandemic: a scourge of God, a test. It may be that suffering in this world does not really matter, that there is life in the world to come and that there are more important things than life. These arguments are internally coherent, but irrational because they are unfalsifiable. What’s not unfalsifiable is the empirical reality that exposure to sick people will get you sick and that large public gatherings, including religious ones will put your life and the lives of others into danger. Interpretation is not the same as ontology. We live in a world in which the laws of physics and epidemiology are universal; they will not bend to the magical thinking of religious faith.

Shaul’s conversation here runs parallel to Orsi’s. There are two separate questions. One relates to magical haredi thinking, and to the belief that the Jewish people live in a covenant with God, where disobedience is punished and where righteous action has the power to bend the arc of the physical universe. The second claim is that this belief structure is the essential belief structure of Judaism writ large and that Haredim are more faithful to a putatively maximum of Judaism than the putatively minimalist Judaisms of the non-Haredim.

I would rephrase and/or utterly contest this latter claim about Judaism while underlining the conclusion to Shaul’s blogpost at Tablet. “The Haredim are believers in ways that we are not.” This is unarguably true about the difference between Haredim and non-Haredim. So is the sentence that follows immediately, “In this case, it killed many of them. But whether we, or they, are living in closer fidelity to tradition remains to be seen. We believe less, and here that helped us to survive. But as much as it is worth chastising their maximalist belief, it is worth contemplating our lack of it.”

As understood by the great JZ Smith, map is not territory. The problem with magical thinking and “plural ontological realism” is that it will get you killed if you read the map wrong, if you confuse it with territory, go down the wrong path, and off a cliff. We do not live our lives in a quantum universe where at the sub-atomic level, a particle might occupy multiple points in space at the same time. It’s one thing to imagine the world as you think you see it; another to live in the world as things “are.” None of this is cut and dry. Most of “us” recognize the power of imagination to shape and change the external world, to bend the world according to its own internal conceptions, to get our minds and our hearts around the world as it is for us. The limits to that capacity bang up typically around problems of poverty, sickness, violence, and death.

About this we need to be clear. The empirical and irrefutable part of the problem is simply to say that religion cannot save a person from the virus. That’s not how a belief structure works. In relation to religion, the non-empirical component concerns other things about the virus having to do with one’s sense about  “meaning,” “valuation,” and texture (i.e. the relation of a historical or natural event vis-a-vis things divine and holy, the world to come, the meaning or lack of meaning of temporal existence, etc). But there is no alternate reality in which the blood of Christ or the power of talmud Torah or the proximity to a holy sage will save anyone from the virus; where church or yeshiva will not heighten the odds that people get sick and die, get others sick and get them killed. To “merit divine protection” (as per Shaul) is not the same as to secure it actually in this world, whether or not you believe the canny ways of God are mysterious. There is no strict covenantal calculus when the forces of destruction are let loose in the world. About this, Jewish tradition can be pretty realistic.

The interpretation of data remains open. Maybe all this suffering and grief works out in the world to come. Maybe the animists and neo-animists are on to something regarding the physical world being shot through by the supernatural or other virtual forces. Maybe there are more important things than life. About that people can argue in good faith and in bad faith. About the epidemiology, not so much. If Religious Studies doesn’t get right this difference that is the tension between imagination and reality, between faith and science, between a sense of the real (what “seems” real) versus what “is” real, between “narishkeit” and the study of “narishkeit” (foolishness, idiocy),  if Religious Studies can’t get out of the corner and off this garden path, we will be laughed out of the academy.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Coronavirus and the Ontological Garden Path in Religious Studies (Robert Orsi & Shaul Magid)

  1. dmf says:

    the reemergence of Ontology has generally been a disaster, a way to try and end run around science and the Is/Ought distinction, better for the reasons you note and others to go the cosmopolitanish route of Rorty and others to talk about these matters in terms of governance and civic-life vs Philosophy, not unlike how Arendt focused on practices/institutions, but as most folks are in religious studies because they desire something more than the instrumentalist poetic dwelling of neo-pragmatism, something more Foundational more God-like something like Revelations we will have more of the same, not sure this will get one laughed out of the academy (tho it should) as the market for such newage babble is quite sizable and willing to spend a lot of cash…

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