Spirituality, Smirituality

Below I posted a portion of a rather unsuccessfully snippy review of Deborah Applegate's biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Here is, to my mind, a much better example of a tough-minded review: Kathryn Lofton on Gregory C. Stanczak's Engaged Spirituality: Social Change and American Religion. This is from H-AMSTDY and was crossposted on H-AMREL, but it doesn't appear to be up yet on the H-AMSTDY reviews page -- presumably it will be sometime. At any rate, anyone understanding of but by now impatient with spirituality talk will appreciate Lofton's skeptical take. I'll post the link to the full review when it's up -- or send a link to me if it's up somewhere.

Disengaging Spirituality

It is perhaps time to declare a scholarly moratorium on "spirituality." This is not to say that we should cease its analysis: no matter what an elite cadre argues, seekers will continue to deploy "spiritual" and"spirituality" with self-diagnostic glee, and it remains our task to catalogue and assess such talk for its cultural and epistemic content. However, it may be time to give up the descriptive seduction of this category; it may be time to relinquish our spiritual pursuit of spirituality. If our primary labor is one of comparison and classification, then it seems increasingly apparent that whatever"spirituality" may offer, it rarely produces anything generative to humanist inquiry, instead reducing the analytic observer to a dreamy-eyed gaze.

Students of religion must expect more of themselves than the mere portraiture of best practice. It should also demand the deconstruction of a subject's (and an author's) own "spiritual"self-impressions. I write this after the conclusion of a carefully narrated and often quite moving work, _Engaged Spirituality: Social Change and AmericanReligion_, written by Gregory C. Stanczak. _Engaged Spirituality_ is the product of considerable research through the Center for Religion and Civic Culture atthe University of Southern California. From there, Stanczak conducted seventy-six interviews with "exemplary individuals who articulated aconnection between spiritual practice and a commitment to social justice"(p. xiv). Although the majority of his conversation partners were based in southern California, Stanczak added interviewees from New York and Washington, D.C., introducing the reader to a sectarian sampler of spiritual laborers, cultural preservationists, and managers of social ministries.

The driving inquiry of his work was aspirant: What sustains ongoing social action? Quickly Stanczak decides that the most interesting answers to him might be found in religion "and more specifically the subjective elements of spirituality" (p. ix). Later,Stanczak restates his inquiry in more specifically religious terms: "Once the pilgrim returns from Hajj or after the vivid vision evaporates or the sense of clarity and connection recedes into the day-to-day pressures of life, how are these newfound perspectives on the world implemented or turned into strategies for effecting meaningful change?"(p. 50). For Stanczak, then, then, spirituality is a "social resource" (p. xx). It is the "spark" culled from religious ritual, the frisson which presses men and women to labor against odds for betterment (p. 18). [snip] . . . .

An evidentiary force in the erosion of spirituality as a mystical force will be Leigh Eric Schmidt's _Restless Souls: The Making of AmericanSpirituality_ (2005). Unfortunately for Stanczak, the nearness of their publication dates prohibited his usage of Schmidt's meaty historical profile of "spirituality," one which masterfully demonstrates the ways in which spirituality has always been a discursive term by leading political agents. To this end, _Restless Souls_ includes no small amount of scholarly pleasure at the liberal politics of spirituality's most robust American progenitors. However, for every biographical or topical endorsement, Schmidt offers a tough categorical anatomy, pointing out the habitual rituals and organizational mantras deployed by those believing themselves to be escaping the religious through talk of the spiritual. Schmidt reveals the "mixed blessings" of such identity markers, suggesting in his own conclusion that if a "Spiritual Left" is to produce "democratic freedom and cosmopolitan progressivism," it must resuscitate the communitarian, religious habitude that served as its intellectual and practical point of origin for American spirituality.[1]

The engaged spirituality so celebrated by Stanczak and his subjects will only be made purposeful with consciousness of a social presence, moderated by common, occasionally disciplinary tactics. However, students of religion in American culture frequently obscure such structures of religious power in favor of the self-celebrating terminological lacquer used by believers to situate themselves in a dizzying religious landscape. The gauntlet of religious research is to resist these propagandistic titillations of spirituality talk. Until we are able to turn against the sirens of spiritual selfhood, until we are able to resist the ambivalent chat of spirituality, we might be better off leaving such talk to those who do it best, who use it best: the seekers themselves. Otherwise, our texts will begin to read more as manuals to such seeking, rather than critical guides to a complex cultural topography. . . .


Kelly J. Baker said…
The review has not posted for web publication yet, but I will send it along as soon as it does.

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