Scholars of religion (like, it seems, scholars of nearly everything animate and inanimate) have yet to decide if the world is full of repeated patterns awaiting discernment or replete with indiscriminate idiosyncrasy. It is easiest to observe this ongoing confusion on Barnes & Noble bookshelves, where one witnesses the ceaseless reprinting of works by Huston Smith, including his Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, alongside the work of Stephen Prothero, author of, most recently, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Scholarship on this problem—the problem of comparison, of classification, of the role of the human sciences in their description—fills many an obscure treatise, treatises which rarely find their way to your local Barnes & Noble. And yet, there it is, and here it is, repeated in these posts about Courtney Bender’s new book, and repeated by her most incessantly idiosyncratic characters, her New Metaphysicals. Is the world as plural as every individual proposes (for themselves, to their observing scholar)? Or is the world as redundant as the survey answers format us to suggest? Which will it be: the sociology of well-considered wholes or the beloved humanity of our self-nominated smatterings?
Fortunately for her readers, scholarly and not, Bender does not make much of such dichotomous talk. She offers instead the elegant reply of the dexterous cultural observer. Hers is neither Prothero’s cultural interventionism nor Smith’s cultural healing. Bender does not decide for us if her subjects are rational, authentic, well-sourced, or religious. She simply observes, and observes, and observes. This wouldn’t be so remarkable, or so readable, if it weren’t for the historiography that precedes her—a historiography of which Bender is acutely aware, as demonstrated in the categorical genealogies which appear in her every chapter. The folks of The New Metaphysicals are those who previously might have been marked with categories like New Ager or Neopagan or seeker, collectives which have formed a repeatedly collaborative classificatory partnership, tying together loose affiliations of membership and individual skill to encompass proponents and practitioners of channeling, psychic healing, past-life regression, and holistic health. In any textbook, survey, or monograph about these interviewees, the words ‘variety’ and ‘inconsistency’ are applied as scholars seek to use them as wacky outliers to denominationalism as well as demographic results of religion’s reply to, engagement with, and production of science, immigration, counterculture, and secularism. These metaphysical believers have had a powerful discursive use-value in the history of religions, and it is through this manipulative precedent that Bender’s subject gains its valence despite its minority appearance. Whatever these people are, they have been important to knowing exactly what religion is.
Those who have previously sought to categorize the average spiritual wanderer have found themselves stumbling for anchor within a set of formations seemingly resistant to any mean. How could any scholar catalog the interviewee who tells Bender, “I’m a yogi, and an artist, and a singer and a writer, and a mystic—and who knows what else I might be becoming?” Those sociologists who have tried to classify this morphing subject may find some intentional communities, some patterns in workshop attendance, some signal texts, and some ritual practices (visualization, astrology, meditation, Reiki) that suggest a New Age outlook, a search for connectivity to the divine inner self through techniques earned and learned and bought from experts (articulated in texts, in classes, in small-group gatherings, and in late nights spent staring at the stars). But at the end of the analytic day, it is the mess of these cultures that has maddened nearly every person who has stood before it. If anyone can do and be and create anything at all and call it their spirit, then is that any real religion at all? More privately worrisome: Is that any real sense at all?
For Bender’s subjects, this question is not to be avoided. It is, always and ever, their question, too. As Tina remarked:
“I don’t know. Is it the spirit of this energy, is it the human way that we choose to interpret it, is it the only way? Is it our own mental construct for the experience of energy moving in our body, or is it some spirit that is larger than our own mental construct? It’s kind of the old question with any religion. You know, is Christ a separate being from us, or separate from our myth, or is it something there that comes into us, or is it us, you know? Or is it our imagination?”
There was another pause before she added, “And where do you make that distinction? I don’t know—I don’t know.”
Historians of American religion have largely disposed of making too many distinctions, seeking to allow Tina and her brethren as much of their own confusion as possible without trying to resolve it categorically. And so, scholars of American religion have narratively situated the New Age seeker within a broader shift from denominational identity to self identity, from Presbyterianism to Sheilaism. This world of scholarly analysis seeks less to point to structural relations between channeling and shape-note singing as much as to explain the epistemological logic of channeling within a modernity supposedly well past the Bay Psalm book. Such analytic labor repeatedly pursues definitions of the spiritual seeker, perhaps best articulated by Leigh Schmidt in Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, where he argues that there are six practical and interpretive aspects emphasized by the seeker: mysticism, solitude, transcendence, cosmopolitanism, social conscience, and creativity. The best work of spirituality historicism thus supplies a way to explicate the emergence of seeker spirituality alongside the triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism, to bring out the ways that spirituality (over and above Weber’s disciplining Protestantism) softened the edges of modern industrialization and incorporation, setting the factory laborers by a peaceful pond where they might remember social reform, divine immanence, and universal brotherhood. Spirituality is hence conjured as the conscience of an unconscionably cruel industrial process, as the California animist waging spiritual warfare against the California environmental crisis.
Into this perceived plurality of liberal aspiration and incoherent practice wades Bender, bringing to bear her significant ethnographic skill and classificatory acumen to construct a profile of American believers ensconced in the Brahmin religious brasserie of eastern Massachusetts. Her driving question is deceptively simple: What, if anything, does it mean for people to be “spiritual not religious”? The answer, again and again, is provided through how it means for these practitioners to be, believe, practice, experience, and participate in the discursive, material, memorial, and institutional forms of spirituality. This is a book that accounts for spirituality’s production and reproduction neither through the idealization of the liberal individual nor through the discovery of the social establishment of spirituality. Rather, Bender demonstrates that the mystification of religious experience by social scientists has meant that the structural and narrative “reality of religion remains external to the human sciences.” To bring this ‘reality’ to the fore, Bender acutely pursues the modes and structures of conveyance, of belonging, and of memory. She tracks how congregational formats appear within these communities; how authority is constituted and criticized discursively; how bodies are instantiated to be denied; how space is configured and resoundingly co-opted for multiple new mathematical and fantastical possibilities. The chapter on “Becoming Mystics” carefully examines the ways in which the individual develops a respectable profile within an ad hoc atmosphere of accreditation. Bender explains how first-person narrative erases earlier experience and foreknowledge, replacing it with a proposition of experience known only through effects: “Not only does this protect the experience from certain kinds of reductive interpretation, it also works to place those who listen within an experiential-discursive milieu where they might come likewise to experience through listening to these accounts.”
Such examples reminded me persistently, not of the peculiarity of these subjects, but of their resonances with the very imagination cataloged in Bender’s subtitle. To be sure, the historiography testifies to the ways these subjects and their communities have been contrasted by scholars and by other believers as intentionally, willfully different. These Boston wanderers could therefore be seen as, say, overly individuated when contrasted with Kansas Catholics, or as elitist by the social mores of Minnesota Lutherans, or as white shaman mountebanks to some New Mexico Pueblo, or as colonial larcenists by some San Diego Hindus. Yet through her supple analytic work, Bender proposes something more devastating (by my rendering, not hers) to the demography of American religion. She suggests that there are, possibly, structural insistences between what these Cambridge characters do and what those Catholics, Lutherans, Pueblo, and Hindus do. In other words, her discernment—outlined at the level of the chapter, in the case of every interview, and in her every site description—is that there is, absolutely, something pervasively entangled at work in the spirituality of these (by her rendering, and mine) Americans. This is not because spirituality itself is a corporate object, made ubiquitous for a slavish public hungry for its salve. Rather, it is because the discursive fact of spirituality is that it has always been defined by and through its combinatory capacity, not in its discriminations. If Bender does not prove that this is, in fact, the American religious imagination, then she has not done her work.
But I believe she has. Bender’s lively description of the Boston Whole Health Expo presses us into the crevices of its various offerings, the spiritual hodgepodge, dreamy idealism, and consumerist genius of this gathering. This is not, then, a singular event, but an event possessed by the resonance of remembered, lived, and invented events preceding its odd twenty-first century incarnation. It seems difficult for me to find an event in American religious history that does not, like it, share a staggering multiplicity of identities, including those of ritual event, economic fact, intellectual awakening, professional association, social entertainment, theological intervention, and therapeutic possibility. The condemnatory valence of such an observation—condemnatory in and through the social science classifications Bender reviews to refine—is not nearly as antagonistic to spirituality as it is integral to its propagation. These are subjects—like, it seems to me, most human subjects—vibrantly, madly, quirkily holding on to their multiplicity in ways familiar, repeated, and not so very multiple at all. They are wild in an imagination that is nearly predictable in its wildness.
At the end, The New Metaphysicals presses its readers to consider what, exactly, divides Bender’s subjects (who, as she writes, “come to know their energetic bodies through practice”) from those of R. Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies; or what separates them (reading and writing the books of others to discern the stories of themselves) from Lynn Neal’s romance-reading evangelical book clubs in her Romancing God; or what makes Doug, a subject of Bender’s research, so different (in his dream for a “spiritually based technology”) from those seekers recounted in Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life; or how are the mystical families of Bender’s reincarnating subjects contrasted with those heavenly genealogies of the Latter-day Saints. The reader of this immensely thoughtful monograph wants, in the end, not to test the validity of Bender’s postulated American religious imagination, but to think deeper, with her and her ethnographic material, about an even more robust description of that powerful ascription.