The New Metaphysicals:

The Catholic heresy, again

posted by Robert Orsi

Courtney Bender did the fieldwork for this impressive study of the “new metaphysicals”—and, more broadly, of contemporary American “spirituality”—in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She chose to work in “Benares on the Charles” (in Harvey Cox’s phrase) because she was interested in how contemporary spiritual practitioners understood themselves in relation to the heritage of metaphysical movements and ideas in American religious history, many of which were based in Cambridge, or had at least touched down there. Bender has the most vivid sense of the city’s spiritual vibrations, a kind of pervasive celestial harmonics that chimes through its churches, gardens, and meeting places. So, questions of history and memory are at the center of her study: Do present day practitioners of yoga know anything about American yoga traditions? When the new mystics insist on the solitary nature of their mystical experience, do they know they are echoing William James, whose house is right around the corner? Does the metaphysical past matter to the new metaphysicals?

By approaching contemporary spirituality in this way, Bender aims to unsettle the reigning paradigm of modern spirituality in the sociology of religion, which holds that “spirituality” “has no culture to speak of,” as Bender summarizes the consensus, “. . . that it is an individual rather than a collective phenomenon.” And she discovers that the mystics she spoke to indeed had no knowledge of, and no interest in, “the trajectories of metaphysical religions in the twentieth century.” The past held “no thrall” for them; they understood their spirituality to be their individual thing. So it looks like Bender’s sociological predecessors got it right. But she goes on to suggest that although the new metaphysicals talk this recognizable talk, in fact, they are steeped in history and memory.

To make this argument for the presence of abiding inheritances even in their absence, Bender introduces some very interesting and provocative ideas about how history and memory work in what she calls the contemporary “American religious imagination.” (This phrase is in the subtitle of the book.) The mystics, she explains, create imaginary histories; they borrow other peoples’ pasts; they study their own past lives and think about how these are re-lived in their present-day relationships. But most strikingly, Bender argues that history and memory exist within the DNA of the spiritual practices of the metaphysicals. “Practices have memory,” she writes, “history is carried in practice,” and “no meaning is ever lost.” Memory of traditions and pasts that are absent to consciousness are embodied in practice, in language, and in the architectures of Cambridge—and in a powerful and consequential way these embodied memories produce contemporary spiritual experience.

But is the contemporary American religious imagination singular? I found myself thinking, as I read through the book, about another group of religious actors in the greater Boston area: the Catholics who are protesting the closing of their churches, an archdiocesan decision that followed in the wake of the shameful and very costly sexual abuse scandals. These protests are the subject of a book by Fordham University professor John Seitz, forthcoming next year from Harvard University Press. Seitz did his fieldwork among the men and women keeping nighttime vigil in their threatened churches. He found that they were thinking about what they were doing, trying to understand themselves, very much in terms of their memories and histories. But here the past—their own and their families’ histories—was consciously evoked; it mattered a great deal to them. The protesters described making the sacraments in the churches; they associated particular places, statues, and images within the old churches with particular family members and stories; and they remembered themselves going through the seasons of their lives in these places. Seitz discovered that the explicit identification of the men and women keeping vigil with these vulnerable sacred places was intimate—their bodies, the spaces of the churches, and their memories were all in alignment.

I have found this intimacy of memory, place, and relationships (real and imaginary) to be true in East Harlem, too, during the contemporary celebrations of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, observed annually in mid-July. The festa derives its power to draw men and women who have moved away from the old neighborhood back, years later, often with their children and grandchildren, precisely because the celebration takes place at the juncture of the past and the present. Former residents of Italian Harlem walk up and down the old streets during the long, hot, late night procession on July 15th in the company of their families and friends. The Madonna is thought by her faithful to be present to them there in East Harlem; the church and the streets are important to them because she is there. They come back to her in this place to honor what they understand to have been her favors to them in times of trouble. Some of the old-timers walk barefoot in the procession, honoring vows that they or their mothers and fathers had made years before to do this in thanksgiving for a grace. The Madonna is present there; memory is embodied in swollen feet; in the smells, tastes, and sounds of the festa; and in the names of long dead residents inscribed in memory on the windows and walls of the church. This is a particular experience bound by and embedded in time and place.

The reason I am talking about Catholics here is because of the subtitle of Bender’s book: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. The evocation of the singular here—“the American religious imagination”—points to an enduring question about how American religions and religion, in the present and the past, are conceptualized. In particular, the singular articulates the resilient assumption that the subject of American religion or American spirituality is sufficiently plumbed by studying groups of evangelical or liberal (or post-evangelical and post-liberal) Protestants. Are the contemporary American Catholics in Boston and New York not modern Americans too? Have they made no contribution to the making of “the” American religious imagination? The irony here is that as Bender moves more deeply into the experiential world of the new metaphysicals, she begins to describe their ways of being religious in terms that strike me as Catholic: the vivid and embodied reality of imaginary pasts; the importance of interpersonal networks of friends and kin; the role of bodies in spiritual experience; the materiality of the mystics’ imaginings of special beings; and their evident longing for spiritual authority and the credibility of the ancient. The mystics eventually come to be seen, as Bender intends, to be more “religious” than “spiritual.”

The modern Western world was largely constituted in opposition to Catholicism, and so it is not surprising that religious idioms that are “off-modern” (in Bender’s description of the Cambridge mystics) should have Catholic-like inflections. I was reminded of Jon Butler’s old suggestion that Catholicism be taken as “a model for American religious history.” He referred to this as a “historiographical heresy.” But “it is the very richness and complexity of Catholicism,” Butler wrote, “that advances its promise as a model for understanding the American religious experience”—and, I would add, the distinctive qualities (plural) of its religious imagination. The current conversation about modernity has cordoned off Catholicism, particularly the sort of Catholicism in evidence in the Boston vigils and on the streets of East Harlem (where it meets Haitian Vodou and Caribbean Pentecostalism), as an old—vanished or vanishing—way of being in the world. But here are Catholics exemplifying ways of being modern that are both different and not, a long-practiced religious doubleness—a being-askew to the modern world—that makes Catholic practices a revealing lens onto the creativity and struggles of American religions and spiritualities.

So, I propose taking up Butler’s suggestion. Discussions of “American religion” and American religious modernity must include the plurality of ways of being religious in the contemporary United States, beyond the inheritances of Protestantism, broadly considered, and include these other ways of being religious (which are themselves internally fraught) not just as alternate sites for looking into the American religious imagination. Among the different practices of religious memory and experience in American modernity contributing to the making and remaking of the contemporary “American religious imagination” are those of Jews and Catholics. And these were both like and not like those of their various Protestant neighbors; just how different or not is a matter of comparative study across denominations. Catholic practices and ways of imagining the supernatural have been powerfully attractive to Americans seeking alternatives to what they had inherited. We would develop a richer and more dynamic account of modern American religious imaginations and spiritualities (always in the plural) if we saw them as the unstable and unfolding products of the tensions, conflicts, oppositions, and discrepancies of different religious imaginaries in generative engagement with each other over time.

To study American religious imaginations from this perspective would mean tracing the routes of desire and fear that circulate among the practitioners of different religions. It would also mean thinking about how contemporary Catholic practices—the immensely popular Cursillo movement, for instance, which has been widely adopted by evangelical Protestants—have contributed to contemporary American spiritualities. The influence has not been in one direction; Catholic practices and attitudes have been shaped by their engagements with other Americans and by the circumstances of contemporary life. Bender’s book effectively complicates the contemporary American religious imaginary by looking beyond dismissive accounts of “spirituality” (the descendants of Sheila) as the impoverished offspring of secularization, and restoring spiritual practitioners to the density of their relationships, genres, memories, and histories. When I lived in Cambridge I discovered that it was not uncommon for Cantabridgians to mistake their plot of land for the world; likewise scholars of American religion and religious modernity persist in mistaking the varieties of American Protestantism for the world. It is past time for an account, not of American pluralism, but of the plurality of religious memories, practices, and experiences, and its consequences for the making of modern American religions.

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One Response to “The Catholic heresy, again”

  1. avatar Penny Edgell says:

    And sociologists often think that we are able to talk about conceptual categories like “religion” or “society” in the abstract—that we have, in essence, done what Durkheim strove to do in his Elementary Forms (gotten at the core or essence of a phenomenon, one that is shared by all the variations). It’s very hard to integrate what we now know—that modernity leads to pluralistic and multiplicative ways of making meaning (and of practicing it)—with our discipline’s foundational theories with their unitary social order unfolding according to a teleology of complexification (and moral decline).

    I should say I, also, admire Bender’s book for the way it challenges the dismissive (or even pejorative) treatment of spirituality that sociologists (among others) are all to prone to offer. But the reminder of multiple imaginaries is timely and helpful.

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