Buried in the middle of William James’s chapter on “The Sick Soul” in The Varieties of Religious Experience is the melancholy voice of one asylum patient. “There is no longer any past for me,” the inmate relates, “I can no longer find myself; I walk, but why?” It is a strange moment of existential despair—one brought on by the loss of the past—in a chapter filled with despondency, not least James’s own. “There is no longer any past for me . . . I walk, but why.”
The New Metaphysicals
Soon after reading Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I turned to Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals. It is a work of elegant inquiry and provocative precision—not only because Bender refuses to locate her subjects in a progressive history of flowering individualism, that old saw about the evolution of liberal cosmopolitanism, but because, in adopting an approach that reminded me of Brown’s reading of Marx, Bender’s portrait of new-age-Cambridge refuses Taylor’s narrative frame. Rather, Bender’s cast of characters offers critical perspective on what might be called the nova effect of arguments in the grain of Taylor. I am struck by the inadvertent but eerie parodic quality of scenes depicting homeopathic healers, yoga practitioners, past-life regressioners, shamanic drummers and bankers, energy intuitives, and lecturers in esoteric astrology. Indeed, these characters, at least on my reading, become strange reflections of Taylor’s existential élan and sober tone of explanation. They become, in other words, down-market versions of Taylor’s magisterial aspirations.
As previous posts about The New Metaphysicals have illustrated, Courtney Bender’s spiritual but not religious subjects pose a number of definitional problems for theories of secularization. On one hand, her interlocutors describe spiritual experiences in languages that we tend to call religious, even while the new metaphysicals might resist the label (although some do use the word religion). Thus, Cambridge spiritual seekers might demonstrate the persistence of religious belief. On the other hand, their disinclination to recognize legitimate religious institutions or identify themselves as members of binding moral communities might demonstrate trends that confirm theories of secularization. While Bender stresses that spiritual experiences are produced and interpreted within social and cultural networks, these networks do not seem to wield the institutional or social authority that would debunk a Durkheimian assessment that her book is evidence of American religious privatization.
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. 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?
“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.
Even the most open-minded social scientists—those who are up for studying almost any social group or activity—tend to find the kind of spiritual practitioners at the heart of Bender’s book hard to take. These practitioners, whom Bender refers to as “metaphysicals,” are given to individualistic self-understandings that run directly counter to how most social scientists think the world works, and their apparently free spirited way of hopping between institutions and borrowing liberally from all manner of religious and philosophical traditions makes it look as if they almost live the kinds of intensely self-focused and self-created lives that they proclaim they do.
The portraits social scientists create get appropriated by their subjects, used, and fed back to social scientists. Like a Cherokee Indian wearing a headdress to fulfill tourists’ stereotypes, respondents can make etic meanings emic when these meanings fit their purposes. This is precisely the “entanglement” that Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals masterfully addresses. Few books so adroitly and so fruitfully work through the interplay of emic and etic, not merely as a methodological obstacle, but as a substantive issue. Bender’s study of the social structure of American mysticism reveals a sort of collusion between academics and metaphysicals to occlude the fact that mysticism has a social structure and a history, and that it has been and still is an important part of the American religious experience.
The New Metaphysicals offers a peek into a world that I found at once pedestrian and strange, and the information that it gives us about so-called “spiritual but not religious” people is invaluable. The new agers, mystics, yoga instructors, and other metaphysicals whose words animate The New Metaphysicals seem quite foreign at first blush, and it’s to Professor Bender’s enormous credit that she theorizes the milieu without undermining the authenticity claims and struggles in which her subjects engage. At the same time, I found myself wanting more of a critical stance, a more thoroughgoing interrogation of the epistemologies that these subjects espoused.
At first glance, Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals might appear narrow and idiosyncratic. After all, it’s an ethnography of spiritual practitioners in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a pairing of the sacred and the secular that can seem as incongruous as Buddhists at boxing matches. What do astral voyagers, shamanistic drummers, and OBEs (Out of Body Experiencers, not to be confused with the equally rarefied Order of the British Empire) have to do with a progressive community anchored by such bastions of rational knowledge as Harvard and MIT?
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. . . . 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.
Courtney Bender is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-chair of the SSRC’s Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life. As a sociologist of religion, she pioneers novel ways of studying religion as it is lived and articulated in contemporary American culture. Her latest book, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming in June), emerged from her research in Cambridge, Massachusetts among people whose “spiritual but not religious” practices and outlooks have been unaccounted for by conventional methods used to identify and study communities of belief.