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.”
Posts Tagged ‘Cambridge’
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.
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.