From Anne Hutchinson to Ken Kesey: A Review of David Williams' Searching for God in the Sixties

Trevor Burrows

Searching for God in the Sixties. David R. Williams. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010).

In a 2010 interview with Religion Dispatches, David R. Williams described the challenge of getting his Searching for God in the Sixties published, saying that “the trade publishers found it too academic and the academic publishers found it too trade.”  Upon an even cursory review of the book, Williams’s plight is not hard to imagine.  Searching is many things at once, all of them intertwined: a cultural history of 1960s-era protest and counter-cultural movements; an attempt to trace patterns of continuity between the cultural and social shifts of that decade and other tumultuous moments in America’s past; and a sustained, often irreverent philosophical meditation on the omnipresence of structure, our attempts to make sense of that structure, and to find a way beyond it.  In none of these aspects is it typical academic fare, nor does it pretend to be - right down to the Robert Crumb cartoon on the cover.  The result is an engaging and often provocative book, but of a very different sort than we might normally consider here at RiAH.

Using Emily Dickinson’s “Finding is the First Act” as a frame to guide his narrative, Williams explores the evolution of ‘60s counter-culture as an essentially spiritual quest.  The awakening to social injustice that found expression in the civil rights movement, an awakening from the deterministic slumber of '50s-era conformity and silence, tapped into a renewed sense of the possibility of social change and of the essential truth of justice.  Yet insofar as it moved young men and women to step outside the law, the earliest moments of ‘60s counterculture were the first step of what would become a much larger process involving ever-greater attempts to critique, challenge, and break through the tyranny of social structure in all of its forms.  This eventually turned the self and the mind into the objects to be liberated, a shift perhaps made most apparent in the counterculture’s embrace of LSD and other radical modes of living as the means through which one might shake off the chains of conformity, of expectations, of artificiality.  If the earliest moments of ‘60s counterculture, best represented by Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped outside of the law in an effort to change the system, the movement came to question the system as a whole, including the very relationship between the self and the structures of human existence, as moment after moment of disillusionment pushed the seekers of the ‘60s toward a more dramatic dismantling of the self.  Instead of some original site of natural goodness, some essential alternative to the constructed order of things, however, they found an unexpected penchant for violence, apathy, and even evil.

For Williams, the ‘60s were yet another manifestation of an age-old struggle between “the head” and “the heart,” a struggle that he describes as a tug-of-war between arminian and antinomian impulses.  Indeed, Williams puts an antinomian streak near the center of American identity, and it is this move that allows him to interpret the decade as one American spiritual quest among many, as part of a religious and cultural lineage rather than a moment of sheer discontinuity.  In the revolt of the Puritans against the religious establishment of England, in the ecstatic anti-institutionalism of the Great Awakening or the revivalism of Cane Ridge, Williams finds a revolt against structure, an understanding that the things of this world do not offer anything authentic, that they are ultimately artificial and a mere reminder of humanity’s fallen nature.  Yet, just as in the ‘60s, the earliest efforts to step outside of the law opened a door for more radical questions to be asked and more radical transgressions to be made.  Thus Anne Hutchinson, “the first American hippie,” becomes a link in one of Williams’s several intentionally provocative antinomian genealogies, wherein the “antinomian spirit runs through American history from [Hutchinson] to John Brown to Timothy Leary,” or further, from the Puritans to the Great Awakening to Thoreau to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.  In these and other moments, that spirit of revolt ventured into unknown territory - “the Wilderness” - and at times drifted close to anarchy.  The spirit that drove Hutchinson toward an experience of God far beyond the boundaries of the establishment was the same spirit at work behind the counter-cultural movements of the ‘60s.

Williams relies on a range of sources and methods in piecing this narrative together.  Most successful are his extended analyses of various novels and essays from the period, especially his recurring treatment of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, through which he considers the many twists and turns of counter-culture politics and philosophy.  Further sewn into his telling of the narrative are detours of primarily two types: philosophical expositions and meditations, of which there are many, and brief attempts to connect the events in question to religious and cultural moments in American history.  The first sets the tone of the book: it is informal, irreverent, frequently non-linear, and often personal, moving from cultural allusion to cultural allusion to excavate the period’s layers of meaning for the present.  In the end, Williams uses the decade as a warning against postmodernist excess, even a defense of a certain strain of conservatism if such conservatism involves a recognition that “structure” is there for a reason.  “We need a cultural context,” he writes, “an intellectual structure of belief, as much as we need a political and economic structure, as much as we need the web of electric power lines and roads, as much as we need our bodies” (254).  But the fighting is the thing, and the spiritual and philosophical boldness of the decade is also a lesson in the necessity of striving, of continuously “rattling the bars” of cages we cannot escape.

The second type of detour - the interweaving of historical moments - is less developed than I would have liked, and perhaps here my arminian side is kicking in.  Williams’s overviews of the Reformation, of the Antinomian Crisis, and of the Great Awakening are indeed overviews only, outlines of events or ideas that allow them to function as symbols.  In his quest for continuity, Williams pays little attention to the differences between these various moments, or to the historical contexts that set each in motion.  And while describing Hutchinson as a hippie or Calvin as a sort of proto-deconstructionist provides for moments of historical insight, such anachronisms quickly feel superficial and gimmicky.  All the more frustrating is the sense that Williams is not far off the mark here, that there are worthwhile connections to be made between these moments in America’s religious past and the dilemmas and struggles that came to define the ‘60s.  Unfortunately, in this setting those connections sometimes feel strained, even arbitrary, or like more of a starting point than a substantial conclusion.

If one can turn off the academic filter for a moment, however, there is a great deal to enjoy and learn from in this book.  Williams offers a very readable and often insightful interpretation of the ‘60s that simultaneously encourages us to rethink well-known moments in American religious history.  What’s more, he does so in a style that is distinctly his own, indebted to “the spirit of Gonzo journalism,” one that is considerably more lively than the standard academic prose many of us read and write in daily (265).  Searching for God in the Sixties deserves to be read for its creativity and thoughtfulness, certainly, but also as a reminder that we, too, should probably rattle the bars of our cages every once in a while.