Black and white photo of a factory worker grinding metal with sparks flying


Theorizing Closer to Home

Scholars of religion must become subjects again.

By Robert A. Orsi

The realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists of the web of human relationships which exists wherever men live together. —Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Scholars of religion think with other people’s lives. Sometimes we do this explicitly; at other times, the lives we think with are hidden deep in our assumptions and conclusions. But other people’s lives are always there, in one way or another. This is true even when the matters we are thinking about are huge and abstract, when we ask questions about religion and the state, for instance, or religion and violence. There are always lives within our ideas. But where are our lives in all this? Is there a way of thinking about other people’s lives that includes thinking about our own lives, too, in relation to these others? We go on to make something of other people’s experiences and imaginations that they themselves may not have made and may not recognize when we are done. This is a risky business. How do we know when we are making something that we need of them, or that we think the world needs, rather than describing and thinking about them—and engaging them—in the particular details of their circumstances?

Clifford Geertz wrote that anthropologists don’t study villages; they study in villages. Does the same hold for lives? Is this what religious theory is? And what are the ethical and epistemological consequences of studying in lives? Or, given the claim of some scholars of religion that religious practitioners are “fair game” for our theorizing, we might ask the question: What are the ethical implications of dealing in lives, of hunting for game in other people’s lives, as this model of the study of religion proposes?1

My father came into my bedroom in the early mornings, just before he left for work, before the sun had come up over the Bronx, to whisper to me that he loved me and that he wanted me to have a better life than his. His body smelled of machine oil and metal filings, a dark and ferrous smell like blood. This scent never went away, not even on Sundays in church, when my father wore his suit. He put his arm around my shoulders and drew me close against his thick chest. “I am so proud of you,” my father murmured in my ear, meaning proud of my good grades and of the nice things my teachers said about me. He had packed his lunch already, drunk his coffee, and eaten his toasted Italian bread. “You’ll never have to work like I do.” Then he lifted his heavy and tired body off the bed.

This is what my father did in the mornings. He shaved, had breakfast, made his lunch, and then he came into my darkened bedroom, which was the only bedroom in the apartment—he and my mother slept on a Castro convertible in the living room—to lie down beside me to tell me my life was going to be better than his. Then he left on the long trip to the factory in New Jersey where he assembled great valves, his back supported by a hard, leather brace. Twice a week he brought home his soiled navy blue work clothes wrapped up with twine in a tight bundle of coarse brown paper but still stinking of sweat. On some mornings my father whispered to me that it was only the prospect of my better life that made his life endurable. So that I did not have to have the life he did, my father climbed out of his fold-up bed in the middle of the night, stood on the freezing platform of the elevated train while the moon still hung over the neighborhood, and rode the train into the South Bronx. At the 138th Street stop, he raced up the long flight of stairs to the street where he met another guy from the shop, a German immigrant, who gave him a ride across the George Washington Bridge, talking at my father the whole time, obsessively, about the money he was making in various devious schemes, his sour breath a cloudy stench in the car. What made it possible to endure all this, my father told me day after day, was the thought of me still lying in bed, hours before the school day began. My father and I were bound together by the most intense ties of sacrifice, desire, hope, and fear, all bound up in his aspirations of my doing well in school.


The world situation over the past several years has made demands on scholars of religion, changing how we think of ourselves, how we understand our academic responsibilities, perhaps even our ambitions. The attack on the World Trade Center was a suicide attack and a mass murder in the name of religious faith. The wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq were likewise embarked on in a religiously sanctioned spirit. This is not to equate terrorism and war (although the distinction between them is not fixed). It is to say that theorizing religion appears to be especially urgent these days if we want to make sense of—and to help our fellow citizens make sense of—what is happening in our world, especially of the relentless violence of our times, so much of which seems to be motivated by religion.

Theorizing religion appears to be especially urgent these days if we want to make sense of—and to help our fellow citizens make sense of—the relentless violence of our times.

What is religious violence? What role has religious violence played in the making of the modern world? Is there such a thing as “religious terrorism”? Some theorists claim that violence is close to the very “heart of religion,” as the sociologist and religionist Mark Juergensmeyer has written, to religion’s myths of cosmic warfare, its claims of “transcendent moralism,” and its “absolutism.” Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln writes in his book on 9/11 that “religion begins with a human discourse that constructs itself as divine and unfailing, through which deeds—any deeds”—even the most dreadful—”can be defined as moral.” “Religion,” says Lincoln, “invests specific human preferences by constituting them as revealed truths, ancestral traditions, divine commandments, and the like.” The anthropologist Talal Asad proposes that suicide bombing is the product of the contradictory religious and political inheritances of Western secular modernity that have their deepest source at Golgotha. “In Christian civilization,” Asad writes, “the gift of life for humanity is possible only through a suicidal death; redemption is dependent on cruelty or at least on the sin of disregarding human life.” This is the “truth of violence” for Christians, Asad says, disclosed by Jesus’ death on the cross. So it has become necessary in the study of religion to talk of violence and sacrifice, of sanctification by blood and murder, for transcendent and absolutist ends, about ideas that kill.2


The friars enter the church from the nave on good Friday for midday service in complete silence, their brown cowls drawn over their heads, their feet, rough and calloused from walking the neighborhood in sandals all year, bare on the marble floor. Two of them are carrying a great crucifix, and from where I am sitting, among the altar boys, all I can see are Christ’s bloody knees arched above the friars’ shoulders. The cross sways from side to side with their steps, and I imagine this is what it was like on the Via Crucis. Every two feet or so, the darkened and silent procession stops, and the friars not holding the cross stretch themselves out on the floor. The choir chants, Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi perpendit. The friars holding Jesus come to the altar rail and two boys step out to help them tilt the crucifix up so that the bleeding and wounded figure is facing the congregation. “What more ought I have done for you than I have done?” At this angle, Jesus’ body seems to slide forward on the nails. “O, my people, what have I done to you, or in what have I offended you? Answer me.” Two other boys place burning candles on either side of the cross. “I opened the sea before you, and you with a spear have opened my side.” Jesus’ wounds are raw and purple, and blood drains from the hole in his side down his legs. Later I stand with a white cloth in my hand to wipe Jesus’ feet as each member of the congregation, meaning just about everyone I know from the neighborhood, comes forward to kiss the bloody nails. Soon the soft white cloth is red from the women’s lipstick, and smells of perfume and tobacco.


I come from a world that has been over-theorized and romanticized and then dismissed in contempt, but that has mostly been rendered invisible. In the early 1970s, just a few years after the last time I stood at the foot of the cross while my grandmothers and parents and their friends and enemies bent over, usually with great effort and much grunting and bone -cracking, to kiss Christ’s bloody feet, these people became “hardhats” and theory left them behind in the old neighborhood to fend as best they could with the corrosive urban realities of late capitalism. The working-class people lining up to kiss the cross were the pivot on which social theory turned. They are the proletariat at the center of social theory, the workers whose fate was understood as the shape of Western history, but I had trouble finding them in what I began reading in cultural theory, and especially in the study of religion, when I finally achieved the life my father could not have for himself but provided for me.

This absence shaped a deeply ambivalent relationship to critical theory. I understood that I needed theory to think about power and domination, about the invisible but absolutely real forces that bore down on my grandparents and parents, and in particular to think about the chasm of comprehension and experience that existed between their reality and the one outside it, a chasm I knew existed because I had crossed it. But I profoundly mistrusted theory, because of what I knew was absent from it.


A friend of mine, an aristocratic and beautiful young woman from a prominent Manhattan family, drove me home from New England for my first spring break, and I was eager for her to see what I was coming to think of as “the old neighborhood,” although I had only just left it in September. This in fact was how I was courting this woman, trying to charm her with my Sholom Aleichum tales of the Bronx, thinking that the mix on my block of Lubavitcher Jews, southern Italian workers, old downtown Jewish communists who had migrated up to the rural Bronx in the 1940s, and now, in ever greater numbers every day, Puerto Ricans and African Americans, would amuse her. But something was wrong. Something had happened to my block in the months I was gone. The old people who were the subjects of my heart-warming stories shuffled around in front of us, barely recognizing me. Age seemed to have come upon them like a season in my absence. Garbage skittered through the streets on the early spring winds. The first tendrils of graffiti, those infallible markers of decay, had appeared on the facing stones of my apartment building since I’d left, and someone I didn’t know (how could I not know someone in this neighborhood?), someone who had not stooped to kiss the wood of the cross when I was standing beside it, was working under the hood of a jacked-up car in front of the garage my father rented.

My mother was just coming back from the beauty parlor, which was called A Touch of Class. “Come in, come in, ” she said to us, “I’m glad to meet you. You want something to eat?” But even my mother looked strange to me. They had applied her make-up poorly at the beauty parlor, perhaps, and she looked waxy and greasy. She looks like she is in her coffin, I thought to myself, and death made its appearance on this bright and once-hopeful spring day. My mother hobbled along in front of us on her hammertoes, in evident pain. She was wearing black, in mourning for my grandmother, and all she could talk about was death. “Remember Bessie the Communist who used to take down her dress to get the sun on her shoulders in the park? She just died in a nursing home on the Concourse. I told you that Mr. L. got killed crossing the street on Mosholu Parkway, didn’t I? He was drunk again. Remember how he used to knock his glasses off his face when he was talking? His daughter said they couldn’t find them anywhere.” I was hearing my own stories, but in a different key.

My friend stood on the sidewalk for a moment smiling vaguely and then drove off, leaving me alone—although “alone” was never quite the right word for life in the Italian Bronx—and the next day a pure white panic closed in on my vision and I thought my eyeballs were going to burst.


Others have taken note of the absence of working-class men and women from the critical theory that is premised on their lives. The British critic Richard Hoggart, in his influential, autobiographically framed study of working-class amusements, The Uses of Literacy, writes that labor historians “do not always have an adequate sense of the grass-roots” of workers’ lives. Hoggart’s 1957 study contributed to the growing interest among the new social historians in the 1970s in working-class lives beyond labor activism, challenging historians to look past their own political and existential fantasies of the “working class,” a term Hoggart often puts in quotation marks. Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett, authors of one of the best books on the inner lives of working- class men and women, The Hidden Injuries of Class, comment in its opening pages on the “distance” separating critical social theorists from the working-class world they theorize. They include themselves. They write that they both went from upper-middle-class backgrounds straight to Marxist radicalism with no actual experience of the men and women who inspired but continually disappointed them, too, by not behaving as these young radicals wanted workers to behave. Sennett and Cobb understood that they would have to find a way to engage the lived realities of workers’ lives, not least in order to understand and to counteract the distortions of “distance” and desire built into theory.3


Here is what Talal Asad says about American soldiers in Iraq today: “Domestic public opinion in liberal democracies is critical of excessive war casualties in its armies. This humanitarian concern means that soldiers need no longer go to war expecting to die but only to kill.” The death toll for American dead in Iraq since March 19, 2003, is more than 4,000. Estimates of the total wounded range from 30,000 to 100,000, many of them severely and permanently. “These young men,” Evan Wright says of the soldiers he traveled with as an embedded reporter in the first days of the Iraq war, “represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children. . . .” They are disposable to theory, too, although Wright is not correct that this is the first generation of the disposable. Working-class men (and now working-class women as well) have always been the grunts of modern American wars, the soldiers squarely in the line of fire, by choice or compulsion, or both. The services provided jobs when there were few others (and discipline for the toughest guys in the neighborhood, according to the priests who urged them to enlist). The upper class knows how to evade military conscription, paying their way out in cash in the Civil War, by deferments later. Now there is no draft, of course, this lesson at least of Vietnam having been learned, or even a pretense of common sacrifice, and so in American cities and on college campuses the parties go on while working-class men and women go off to Afghanistan and Iraq.4


What accounts for the absence of working-class people in theory, including theories of religion, for their disposability? My issue here is not with “theory” itself, but with occlusions and silences, and in particular with the absences of ordinary people, recognizable people, upon whose lives theories are made. This is not a historian’s attack on theory, in other words. It is a scholar of religion’s curiosity about what constitutes knowledge of religious others, about us as scholars and persons in relation to that knowledge, and about how that knowledge has been and continues to be made out of other people’s lives. Asad leaves out the lives of the disposable working-class men and women dying and killing in Iraq right now, but he also leaves out the lives of the suicide bombers he has this to say about: “If modern war seeks to found or to defend a free political community with its own law, can one say that suicide terrorism . . . belongs in this sense to liberalism?” We learn nothing about the lives of these men and women, about their families, their homes, the stories they grew up with, the memories they were asked to share. What would it take to overcome this absence?5

This is what Sennett and Cobb say about the sacrificial ethos of working-class men: “Having been so repeatedly denied by the social order outside himself, now he will usurp the initiative, he will do the denying, the sacrifice of himself will become a voluntary act. . . . The outer face of this process is a great harshness on the part of the father; the inner face is one of self-contempt, the plea that the children not become the same as he.”6

My father believed that in order to make something of myself I had to be liberated from the everyday grind of work and sweat, of time clocks and dark morning risings, and of stinking work clothes.

My father believed that in order to make something of myself I had to be liberated from the everyday grind of work and sweat, of time clocks and dark morning risings, and of stinking work clothes, liberated from the relentless, inescapable material demands of his life, which he took upon himself on my behalf. We could see this as an Italian Catholic workingman’s self-abnegation and loving sacrifice, given deeper emotional and spiritual resonance by the cross, which it was. But I think my father’s passionate and loving insistence on pushing me out of his way of being helps us understand his absence in theory, too. The deepest ethical and existential source for the alienated quality of social and religious theory is the presumption that between those who labor in stink and sweat with their bodies and those who do not there is a fundamental difference in the quality and nature of their respective humanities. Or, because I am writing about my father and other men like him, I can better put this as a fundamental difference in humanity between those who labor beneath the wood of the cross and those who do not. I understand the cross here to be dirt and sweat, contingency, bitterness, vulnerability, fate, sacrifice, disappointment, ignorance, and loneliness.

This rank distinction between the humanity of the theorist and the humanity of the theorized is the primal fault of theory, its original sin, and its sickness. This division is built deep into the foundations of the modern world and of modern knowledge. So my father understood that I had to live outside his world in order to become successful. Successful is the wrong word for the full extent of his ambition here. He wanted me to become a big man, substantial, or, in still other words, he wanted me to become real in ways that he sensed he was not and could not be in the modern world. It was as if he had gotten the message through the metal filings embedded in the surface of his skin. But, tragically, theory—including theories of religion—belongs to the reality outside my father’s world, too. It is removed from the intricacies and intimacies of the worlds of men and women like him as these worlds are actually lived. Then, disastrously and apparently inevitably, the theorist forgets that this other world ever existed, let alone that he or she was ever part of it, or that his or her knowledge must be grounded in it. The space opened by this excision can be filled with needs and fantasies, with soldiers who kill but do not die, with men and women who hold their religious beliefs absolutely, without doubts or hesitations.

To meet the objects of our inquiries as subjects who are human like us, however much their actions may horrify or frighten us (perhaps precisely when they do), requires that we restore them to their real lives in the materiality of the environments within which their actions arise and to which they respond. How do they die? How are they loved? Who grieves them? By the full materiality of their lives, I mean the work they do and what they make of this work, but also the unexpected intimacies of their worlds, the gnarled tangle of their emotions and motivations, and the pressures of local contingencies—the unstable ties, for instance, between domestic love and political violence, or between honor and humiliation. “Marxism situates but no longer discovers anything,” Jean-Paul Sartre said a long time ago. But we want precisely to be able to encounter people’s lives in the abundance of their circumstances, to discover them.7

My father wanted me to join the U.S. Marines in 1971 when I was 18 years old. His brother had been a marine in Korea, and the family understood that my uncle’s deep and unrelenting emotional distress was the result of what he had seen and done there, especially during his nights in a machine-gun outpost on Pork Chop Hill in the summer of 1953, the year I was born and named after him. These terrible stories, which were part of my working-class inheritance, played a role in my decision to register for the draft as a conscientious objector. My father raged against me, once threatening me with violence, or so it seemed in the heat of that awful time. He was deeply humiliated by my choice, and I was shocked and unnerved by his implacable fury at me, having for so long lived within the embrace of his sacrificial love. Did my father really want me to die or to kill in Vietnam?


To engage the other as subject, we theorists must be restored to the worlds we have been made to live outside of. The scholar must become subject as well, because the irony here is that the reification of the other as the projection of the scholar’s desires reifies the scholar too, and one cannot be restored without the other. What does this mean, to become subjects again in our research and theorizing? Our working in other people’s lives must be grounded in the recognition of our common subjection to history, contingency, and fate, no less than the people we write about are. There are many ways of coming again to this recognition, of restoring it as a dimension of our practices of knowing, among them by acknowledging our own particularity. This includes remembering the relationships within which we first engaged the world and the circumstances within which we found ourselves thrown with them. If any of the men and women we discover at work on their worlds in the idioms of their religion appear other than the theorist in the density of their everyday subjection, then something has gone wrong in the work of theorizing. The only way to correct for this is to theorize closer to home.

Our working in other people’s lives must be grounded in our common subjection to history, contingency, and fate.

My father’s ethic of sacrificial love came to include a government he otherwise completely mistrusted, or perhaps he was simply inescapably aware that men like him and his brother were there in Vietnam’s mud and blood and his son was not, or perhaps again the ethic of the cross taught him to be obedient and submissive, even unto death, even beyond love. Perhaps the reality of war, which my father knew too well from personal experience, eroded his tolerance for the idea that I would be exempted from the world marked by blood. Living as he did within the space indicated by the arms of the cross, my father understood sacrifice as what is demanded by the way things are, and that ultimately everyone must acknowledge the way things are, even his son who was meant to be free of all this. My father’s position does not seem to me to be about triumph, or redemption, least of all about patriotism. Was he a dupe of the nation-state or did his thinking in fact have nothing at all to do with the nation-state? My relatives believed that life was hard and that grace came only at the price of someone’s blood. I wondered in those days if my father struggled at all with the contradiction between love and what he seemed to take as the fate of people like us, or if he had any doubts about the limits of sacrifice. Was the message of the cross so completely aligned with the imperatives of the state? Love smelled like iron, too, just like my father’s body.


On February 2, 1972, my father wrote to me in college: “I prayed hard for you to get a high draft number [meaning I would not be called up] and I’m so glad you did. Jimmy’s son [Jimmy worked in the same factory in New Jersey] also has a high number, so we both chipped in, Jim and I bought [sticky] buns for the shop.” He ended the letter, “I love you more than myself.” Later that year he voted for George McGovern, sick of the war’s pointless suffering and destruction.



  1. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973), 22.
  2. Ivan Strenski, “Sacrifice, Gift, and the Social Logic of Muslim Human Bombers,” in Terrorism and Political Violence 15, no. 3 (2008); Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 2001), 10; Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 16, 55; Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007), 86.
  3. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (Oxford University Press, 1970), 17; Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett, The Hidden Injuries of Class (Knopf, 1972).
  4. Asad, On Suicide Bombing, 35; on U.S. fatalities in Iraq, with documentation, see; Evan Wright, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), 5.
  5. Asad, On Suicide Bombing, 92.
  6. Cobb and Sennett, Hidden Injuries of Class, 122.
  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (Vintage Books, 1968), 57.

Robert A. Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History at Northwestern University. From 2001 to 2007 he was the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School. Orsi’s most recent book is Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton). In 2010, Yale University Press is publishing a 25th-anniversary edition of his first book, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950.

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