New Metaphysicals: Online Symposium

Paul Harvey

Every time I post about Glenn Beck or some other late-breaking news from the idiocracy, I feel the need to take a shower by pointing you to something that is actually worthy of your time and energy. So here's the latest in that series of mea culpa posts.

As many of you may know, Courtney Bender's hot-off-the-press book The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination has been getting a lot of attention. Here's a brief summary from the book's website:

American spirituality—with its focus on individual meaning, experience, and exploration—is usually thought to be a product of the postmodern era. But, as The New Metaphysicals makes clear, contemporary American spirituality has historic roots in the nineteenth century and a great deal in common with traditional religious movements. To explore this world, Courtney Bender combines research into the history of the movement with fieldwork in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a key site of alternative religious inquiry from Emerson and William James to today. Through her ethnographic analysis, Bender discovers that a focus on the new, on progress, and on the way spiritual beliefs intersect with science obscures the historical roots of spirituality from its practitioners and those who study it alike—and shape an enduring set of modern religious possibilities in the process.

Immanent Frame is hosting a sort of online symposium on the work; click here for it. Nathan Schneider interviews the author here. Here's one particularly interesting Q and A from the interview, relevant to our historical discussions here:

NS: How do you do scholarship—and, in so doing, take account of history—about a community that denies its own historicity? I was struck by your claim that “the puzzle of spirituality in America cannot be solved by locating it in a history it refuses.”

CB: It is important to talk about and investigate the various historical links and pasts of contemporary spirituality. History is extremely important, and its elision is an ongoing problem with so much of the popular discourse about spirituality, which tends to suggest that it is a condition rather than a tradition. Sociologists and scholars of American religion need to have a better understanding of the complex religious and cultural pasts that form our present. There are lots more things to be written on these subjects, and while I was writing this book I was able to draw on a number of exceptional new volumes that focus on aspects of these ungainly histories. I’m thinking of work by Christopher White, Leigh Schmidt, Catherine Albanese, Molly McGarry, Alex Owen, Ann Taves, John Lardas Modern, and the list goes on.

But what is puzzling about spirituality is that, even as the number of monographs on the topic grows, these histories don’t seem to resonate with contemporary people who call themselves spiritual, or with most scholars who look at its present manifestations. One reason for this is that the living practices of spirituality allow people to cultivate ways of being in time that are future-focused, or that situate practitioners in perennial time. All religious practices place people in time and in space. In this case, the spiritual practices that I trace do interesting things to the kind of narrative history that most historians write, so paying attention to these practices, and chronicling how they unravel and decouple from most recognizable historical narratives, is just as important. That’s what I have tried to do.

For you Robert Orsi fans, here is his typically engaged and challenging response to the book.


January said…
I am suspicious of every discussion of "spirituality" that makes no attempt to distinguish religion from superstition. I believe that while religion may be impossible to isolate, that is not the case with superstition.

Bender, insofar as everything I have read confirms, does not employ a distinction between spiritual and superstitious.

While I grant to sociology of religion its privilege to analyze whatever might claim one of the synonyms of "religion," the lack of a disciplined designation of superstition seems to me to invalidate claims to any such sociology as scientific.

Psychology, long ago, identified the training that behaviorists employ to reveal superstition in non-humans. Although I have not followed the literature, I am convinced that the description of behavior that repeats what the subject was satisfied with on the most previous similar occasion requiring action qualifies as superstitious. Yes, we all are superstitious, but we are not all spiritual, even if we so designate ourselves.

In addition, Bender's awareness of the tension between her 'new spirituals' and science ought to have indicated as a misconception of cause and effect in the practices she calls spirituality. By whatever name, superstition is instinctive; religion is not.

Popular Posts