After attending a February 10th discussion with multimedia artist Laurie Anderson at Columbia University, Columbia Religion Professor Courtney Bender wrote a response that reflects on the roles of technology, spirituality, and religion in American society.
Posts Tagged ‘Courtney Bender’
The health of Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist and critic of religion, has become a major news story. Hitchens is in treatment for esophageal cancer and his debilitating health has caused many to ask: should one pray for an atheist? Courtney Bender, professor of religion at Columbia University, discusses the question and whether “atheists have joined a religiously plural grid as another ‘religious’ minority, taking up a place alongside the Muslims and Sikhs and Zoroastrians.”
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.