The problem of the holy

Robert A Orsi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

36 Scopus citations


Holiness is the great word in religion; it is even more essential than the notion of God. Nathan Söderblom What is the subject of our thought? Experience! Nothing else! And if we lose the ground of experience then we get into all kinds of theories. Hannah Arendt Many (not all) scholars of religion become restive sooner or later with the simple sufficiency of explanations of religious phenomena and experiences in terms of the social and psychological. It is not that these scholars of religion propose foregoing social explanations. It is that they recognize that such accounts fall short of the realness of the phenomena they purport to describe and explain in people's experience. And not just this: social accounts that pretend to be exhaustive distort those experiences and diminish them, precisely as historical and cultural phenomena. Such explanations are empirically insufficient, in other words. The famous epistemic “bracket” of religious studies, which is the practice of setting aside questions about the ontological realness of religious phenomena as a condition of research – we are not interested in whether or not the Blessed Mother really appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes, we say, thus immediately making the seer into a psychotic – begins to seem false or inadequate. These scholars have witnessed something in their fieldwork or historical study, close to home and across the globe, which they want to name and without which theories of religion seem to be beside the point. They have seen, for example, how Jesus is a real figure in a Pentecostal woman's everyday experience, as real to her as the other people around her, as real as her kitchen table and her arthritis. She does not “believe in” Jesus. Jesus is present to her. Moreover, this woman’s Jesus has an existence that is greater than the sum of her intentions, desires, needs, hopes, and fears, and that cannot be completely accounted for with reference to her social circumstances. He has a life of his own in her life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781139017084
ISBN (Print)9780521883917
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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