“Shoveling fog” is Courtney Bender’s acute phrase for the work of “studying spirituality,” an amorphous term that has suffered much scorn and derision at the hands of both scholars and skeptics, nonplussed as they are by its conceptual vagueness and lack of clear social boundaries. While The New Metaphysicals does not tidy up the concepts or borders of spirituality, it goes a long way toward providing a new way of seeing its contours in the twenty-first-century United States, by zooming in on the present and past of metaphysical adepts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Carefully attending to a network of metaphysical practices, which include past life regression, yoga, Reiki, out-of-body experiences, and a “mystical discussion group,” Bender finds that though these practices have a long and storied past in the salons, woods, and lecture halls of Cambridge, their contemporary practitioners are not really that interested in claiming, or even knowing about, such lineages.
Instead, the new metaphysicals travel long distances to stand on “power spots” far away in Sedona or Stonehenge, journey back in time to live in the spiritual skin of a past incarnation in a distant land, and spin out of their own flesh and place to see the world from an astral body. “Refusing,” or at least ignoring more local metaphysical pasts, the new metaphysicals are not intrigued in the same way as Courtney Bender was (an intrigue, by my guess, that many of her readers will share) by their proximity to the power spots of Cambridge: William James’s study, for instance, or the salon of Cambridge matron Sarah Bull, who hosted earlier spiritual crossings with, among others, Swami Vivekananda. That the new metaphysicals feel a lack of history and a dearth of “religious culture” in such a storied place is more than just ironic for Bender. This sense of rootlessness and loss is in fact at the heart of their spirituality: “To the shopworn question of how contemporary spirituality shapes a response to feelings of alienation that attend to modernity, we must necessarily ask how contemporary spirituality itself articulates social alienation in the center of its projects.”
Before going any further, I should acknowledge that I have lived in parallel to The New Metaphysicals for quite some time, as I talked with Courtney Bender about her fieldwork—reading a chapter here and there—and shared references with her while writing my own book on Protestant “supernatural liberalism.” Shaped by our conversations, and perhaps a little synchronicity, my reading of her book was nevertheless an experience of both surprise and recognition.
First, the surprise. Even though I had read some of this material before, I was startled anew by the confidence of some of Bender’s interlocutors, especially the educated woman who believes that past life regression demonstrates that she was a Nobel Prize-winning Jewish scientist who avoided the fate of Nazi death camps. Strong in her own conviction, she then goes on to convince a woman she meets at a mystical discussion group that in her past life she was the scientist’s depressed wife. Akin to Mormons baptizing your dead whether you asked them to or not, believers in past lives use metaphysical/theological warrants to pluck the dead from the past, invigorating their own lives in the present. Like Michael Saler and Andrew Perrin, I wanted Bender to “prod” them on their assertions and the implications of their willful appropriation of the pasts of other—very specific—people.
Bender, with her evocative and gentle prose, however, is not interested in exposing either naiveté or vampirical spiritual resurrections. Instead, throughout all the chapters of The New Metaphysicals, she works tirelessly to show why the practices of contemporary spirituality—however bizarre a scholar or skeptic might find them—make a kind of sense that we should find, not just surprising, but also uncannily similar to our own.
And this is where the recognition comes in. With reference to both theory and methodology, Bender makes a strong case for why the line between her secular self and their metaphysical selves was always potentially breachable, despite the fact that she persisted in holding to her own ways of thinking, exempt from the chains of enchantment that linked the stories of her respondents. The overlap occurs in the shared sense that interpretation is the key to “freedom”—a freedom that is not an “escape from the system,” but an ability to understand how and why we are in the predicaments we inhabit, whether a personal debt crisis or a crisis on an international scale. As Bender writes: “To live within metaphysical projects is to accept the reality of forces that work on everyday life and to learn to interpret things in the world as results of their effects. And while there is no reason for us to collapse the difference between popular sociology’s invisible forces (“the state,” “the economy”) and metaphysical forces (“karma,” “energy,” “soul clusters”), metaphysical practitioners had no difficulty in doing so. Each system articulates individuals as embedded within systems, social processes, or “forces,” and each domain presents moral stories about how these can be changed, resisted, and lived within.”
Michael Saler challenges Bender for suggesting, if not actually claiming, that soul clusters and the economy share a certain kinship as conceptual “forces.” Saler insists that there really is a difference between the forces of “astral energy” and “the economy,” since the “latter tends to be employed self-reflexively and contingently, whereas the former tends to be buttressed by mere assertion and blind faith.” Having just lived through the G20 meetings in Toronto, however, I find it hard to credit that talk about “the economy” is either self-reflexive or contingent. Though perhaps not as easy to join as a mystical discussion group, this most recent power spot gathering of “world leaders” was full of assertions and blind faith. A day after pledging at the G8 to devote $1.1 billion to global maternal and child health over five years, Canada’s government went on to spend $1 billion over three days as they hosted the summit in the heart of downtown Toronto. And after dispensing this extraordinary sum, much of which was spent on the visibly invisible force of “security,” the Canadian Prime Minister proudly announced that the G20 nations had all agreed that they would cut their deficits in half (or would at least try to do so) by 2013. Self-reflexivity was not the first word that came to mind in this latest performance of economic reasoning and expenditure.
On the level of methodology, Bender’s insights are equally unsettling of boundaries, as she describes the disjuncture between what she considers an “interview” and what her interlocutors consider a “conversation.” Just as her new metaphysicals resisted history, Bender resisted synchronicity; similarly, just when she thought she was “interviewing them,” they thought they were conversing. Well aware that the attention of a social scientist was a potential path to credibility—whether in the eyes of their own community or on the stage of science—the people who spoke to Bender were not willing to accept her views or experiences as outside of their webs of interpretation. At its boldest, conversation could become a “penetration of the self,” in which interlocutors could access each other’s “energetic interiors,” as when Wes, an “energy intuitive,” attempted to intuit the quality of energy inside Bender’s mother’s womb when she had carried her, and invited Bender to return the favor.
Though Wes does not succeed at teaching Bender the techniques of energetic intuition, he does get her thinking about just what kind of social (and) scientific encounter the interview might be. If metaphysicals (and other religious practitioners) use the interview as a form of testimony, in which they confide their “religious experience” to a questioning scholar, it is also the case that scholars have long used the interview to pin down “religious experience.” As elicited in narratives, religious experience also ends up being a concept “shared” and worked at by both metaphysicals and social scientists alike. Whether willing or unwilling, the shared nature of this project can be keenly demonstrated in the classic crossover book, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, a scientific text with a popular appeal—in Bender’s words, “a pedagogical textual environment in which it is expected that readers will encounter the residue of others’ strongly resonant, singularly authoritative experiences and thereby seek their own.” Pointing to these shared conceptual spaces elicited both through our methods, in which “experience” is signified, and through our theories, in which we imagine active forces that we cannot see, Bender goes a long way toward confronting what she calls “the deep mystifications of our secularisms.”
The New Metaphysicals is an elegant book that does the work of shoveling fog with remarkable concision. The book’s stories do not convince me that embracing the promise of the moment frees anyone from the burdens of the past—at least when looked at from the vantage point of the social scientist or humanist. However, sitting with these stories of chakras, power spots, and synchronicity should be enough to convince anyone that to ignore or deride their tellers is to close one’s ears to modalities of thought and experience that resonate across a wide range of “religious” and “secular” frames, including those that we are more accustomed to thinking with, whether Protestant, Catholic, or capitalist. Listening to the new metaphysicals, as Courtney Bender channels them, is an experience in retuning the scale of analysis, not in its scope but in its key.