Here's part two of Jeremy's reflections on AAR, in which he discusses legitimation, spirituality, individuals, nature, appropriation and so much more. Part 1 is available here.
“Individuals, Communities, and Religious Authenticity: An AAR Redux”
The process by which adherents and potential adherents judge religious claims credible is of great interest to new religions scholars. The three papers on Sunday afternoon’s “Strategies of Legitimation in New Religions” focused on authoritative claims-making in three different new religions: a Chinese Buddhist new religion, Erik Hammerstom’s “The Heart of Mind Method”; a neo-pagan Asatru group, Carrie Dohe’s “Jungian Archetypes, Metagentics, and Kenniwick Man”; and a Christian new religion, Spencer Allen’s “Tony Alamo and His New Testament Brand of Christian Polygyny.” The issues these presenters discussed and the questions they raised about the ways discourses of legitimacy function are critical to understanding new religions as well as to thinking through the ways religions work in people’s lives. A community becomes credible and possesses religious legitimacy, all three of the presenters at least implicitly insisted, through a complex mix of appeals to cultural norms, religious traditions, and charismatic claims.
Monday morning I presided at “Religious Appropriations of Secular Culture.” In many ways, this was a fun-filled panel. Highlights included Darryl Victor Caterine’s paper, “Haunted Ground,” based on his recent book of the same name, which examined the role of nature in the gatherings of several metaphysical religions; Ann Duncan’s research on an Edgar Cayce inspired summer camp, “Summer Camp and New Paradigms of Sacred Space in New Religious Movements”; Shannon Harvey’s paper, “Eat Your Way Back to the Godhead” looked at ISKCON cookbooks; and Martha Smith Roberts’ and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand’s “Hoop Spiritualities,” described their research on hula hoopers who believe the exercise inspires spiritual experiences. Despite the variety of the topics, it would have been impossible to miss the theme of people using conventionally secular forms to facilitate experiences they believe to be religious. Spiritual experiences are everywhere, if you know where to look.
The Sunday afternoon panel on Frequencies, an experimental project on spirituality developed by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, was jam packed, despite starting late due to room arrangement problems. The project solicits short pieces on the diverse subjects that the authors think of when they think of the term, “spirituality,” and publishes them on its web site. For me, Frequencies is fascinating in much the same way that AAR is—as way to indulge rapidly one’s varied interests in sometimes ill-defined and/or poorly understood phenomena. Many of the essays on the web site are thought provoking examinations of their topics, and Sunday afternoon’s speakers, all contributors to the project, took to the spirit of the event and the project with full gusto. Julie Byrne performed her remarks on the project in an entirely appropriate, funny, confusing, and thoughtful spoken word piece. Susan Hardin spoke about the genealogy of Frequencies itself. Jeffrey Kripal pointed out the cool factor in the project and in the people involved in it. But what really struck me were Ari Kelman’s remarks. Kelman discussed the project’s apparent lack of the overtly religious (at least to date, contributions are still coming in). Kelman’s comments struck a chord. As much as I enjoy what I have seen of it, I worry that Frequencies is doing nothing to address an overly simplistic dichotomy in popular discussions of the religious and the spiritual, a dichotomy that misrepresents the complex relations among individuals, institutional religions, and cultures. In fairness, Martin Marty’s recent contribution to Frequencies addresses this exact concern, and pieces on more conventionally religious topics are now more commonly appearing. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Frequencies is in danger of metaphorically recreating the tropes and practices of a particular form of spiritual seeking in vogue right now and in the process also risks ignoring a vital reality of the more conventionally religious world, namely that many religious people do not think their lives are devoid of the immediacy and presence of something they understand to be spirituality. I really do not want a project that strikes me as both innovative and insightful to pigeon-hole spirituality as a concept limited to people who understand it to indicate the primary authority of individuals to mediate and create their worlds.
Our investigations of religion have been moving toward a greater interest in the individual’s expression of religious life for the past several decades, with the lived religion approach exemplifying the trend. While that shift toward focusing on the individual as the primary mediator of authentic religious life reflects previously overlooked factors in our study of religion and recent developments in American religious life and thought, scholars must remain cognizant of the vital role of community in religious life. Individuals may indeed be the primary mediators of religious authenticity, but they learn to do that mediation in the context of communities that shape them and how they understand the world.