I recently complete reading Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010)
Bender’s new work is widely acclaimed. Telling the stories of a spiritual practitioners who call Cambridge, MA their home, Bender uses their lives to rethink how scholars understand contemporary spirituality and the study of Religion. She begins by trying to locate some historical connection that binds the array of new age religious practices found in Cambridge to the city’s history as the locus of 19th century metaphysical speculation. And connection she does find, at least insofar as William James The Varieties of Religious Experience continues to shape, often implicitly, the way new age practitioners approach their own experience and attempt to enter into dialogue with social scientific analysis. The stories she tells are gripping, often of “lost souls” who through some experience have found a connection to something that seems much deeper than themselves, much deeper than the reality they experience in day-to-day life. We see them trying to make sense of their experience, and make connection to others whose journeys seem to converge with theirs.
For scholars of religious studies, Bender offers some provocative suggestions about how to understand and interpret contemporary spirituality, and by extension, religion in general. For example, she begins by noting
“that spirituality, whatever it is and however it is defined, is entangled in social life, in history, and in our academic and nonacademic imaginations.” She continues by observing that most recent definitions of spirituality attempt to define it as “a distinct category of action or activity (or mental state); and that they attempt to “extract something essential from it.” (p.5)
In her conclusion, she argues that she has demonstrated in her study that neat and tidy distinctions between the spiritual (or religious) and the secular are inadequate to explain the reality of religious life in America and the production of spirituality. Perhaps most interesting is that she sees the development of American spirituality and the scholarly analysis of religion and spirituality in the early 20th century as impacting one another.
While there is considerable material here for scholarly reflection, Bender also raises questions for those involved in congregations and religious institutions. Her argument that what is important is not so much the direct experience itself but how it is interpreted, explained, and how individuals incorporate that in their lives and in their social environments. One gets the sense that the “new metaphysicals” with whom Bender speaks are actively attempting to make sense of their experience and draw on a wide variety of resources in doing so.
She distinguishes between experience in “congregations” and spiritual networks. While such distinctions may be useful for her analysis, one wonders about the relevance of that contrast. It is likely that there are people who have had similar experiences but remain embedded in congregations, even as they try to integrate those experiences into their lives. It is also likely that some congregations may push people with such experiences to the margins. I’m also reminded of those studies that say among the most important roles that clergy can take on is that of spiritual guide.
All in all, there is much food for thought here.