Thursday, September 15, 2011

Horizontal and vertical

I started today's session of Lived Religion in NYC with this image, "City Activities - Subway" from the "America Today" murals Thomas Hart Benton painted for The New School in 1930. (You'll recall that I'm obsessed by that series.) With the El Grecoesque vertical of the Halleluiah Lassie and Salvation Army street preacher, hellfire-lit scenes of city obscenities all around, trying to break through the top of the frame (but echoed by illuminated pugilists at his right), it was the perfect backdrop for a discussion of Robert Orsi's great 1999 essay on religion, cities and desire "Crossing the City Line."

With Orsi's help we started discussing something I suspect is an important part of my own interest in lived religion: the sense that it's in the lives of ordinary people that true human reality, and true religious experience, lie. But for ordinary people, try reading: poor people, people of color, oppressed people. One of Orsi's main arguments is that the city was an object of fear and desire for people in towns and smaller cities in 19th century America and beyond, and often the same things were the objects of fear and desire. (Benton captures that well!) These fears and desires are projected especially on immigrants, those Orsi calls "dark-skinned aliens," which messes up the lives of these people - but our focus was on those fearing and desiring, those who, like us, had come to the city voluntarily in search of something more real.
Orsi hears christological cadences in Jane Addams' desire, and we had fun unpacking the "kenotic" in Addams and Sister Marty, a Franciscan nun Orsi had described who lived in the ruined South Bronx of the late 1980s. These people didn't just come to change the lives of the people suffering in urban squalor, but to empty themselves out in order to be filled by these people's vitality, their closeness and openness to reality in all its pain and passion.

Not much more than in passing Orsi suggests that Sister Marty was probably inspired by liberation theology, so we had a good talk about that - something new to several in the class. Explaining it, its origins and implications, I recalled a conversation I had with my colleague S about "lived religion" and "base communities" (a concept from Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff): it is in the everyday lives of poor and oppressed communities that one will learn what the Gospel means to our time, will find the saving message of human liberation. The theology of the comfortably off is too likely to be compromised by ideology.

So perhaps we study lived religion not just because, as a matter of fact, religion is "lived" and not just thought or taught, and not just because ordinary people are capable of creating religious worlds just as elites are, but because we suspect the religious worlds of the ordinary - especially the lowly, silenced, marginalized - to be the truer, deeper ones. And we, well, we desire that almost to the point of passion.

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