[Paleopsych] Wilson Quarterly: Spirituality in America

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Spirituality in America
Autumn 2005 Wilson Quarterly

First, the summary from the "Magazine and Journal Reader" feature of the daily 
bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.14

    A glance at the autumn issue of The Wilson Quarterly: 19th-century
    roots of today's spirituality

    Liberals and conservatives have both deplored many Americans'
    preference for a personalized spirituality over organized religion
    for, among other things, its "New Age quirkiness and anarchic
    individualism," says Leigh E. Schmidt, a professor of religion at
    Princeton University. But, he writes, spirituality is actually "an
    important American tradition" with long ties to "social and political

    The concept of spirituality developed in 19th-century America thanks
    in large part to the transcendentalist movement, says Mr. Schmidt. The
    transcendentalists, he writes, sought out a "mystical experience" and
    believed they could fulfill that aim by living a spiritual life that
    was isolated and meditative. In 1871, for instance, the
    transcendentalist and poet Walt Whitman wrote that "only in the
    perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the
    spirituality of religion come forth at all."

    Despite the focus on solitude, the transcendentalists could push for
    social change, writes Mr. Schmidt. The second-generation
    transcendentalist William R. Alger was a recluse, says Mr. Schmidt,
    but he was also a major abolitionist. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who
    served as a colonel for an African-American regiment in the Civil War,
    was another spiritual transcendentalist who forced change by getting
    Americans to be more sympathetic to all types of religion. His
    efforts, says Mr. Schmidt, brought about "an ever-widening religious

    That history, writes Mr. Schmidt, "is worth recovering from the heap
    of critical commentary, as both a counterweight to the Religious Right
    and a resource for the Left (which is now so often tone-deaf on
    spiritual matters.)"

    --Jason M. Breslow

    by Leigh E. Schmidt

    America may be polarized, but in one activity its social critics have
    achieved a rare unanimity: lambasting American "spirituality" in all
    its New Age quirkiness and anarchic individualism. The range of
    detractors is really quite impressive. James A. Herrick, an
    evangelical Christian author, deplores the "new spirituality" as a
    mélange of Gnostics, goddess worshipers, and self-proclaimed UFO
    abductees out to usurp the place of Christianity: all told, a
    widespread but shallowly rooted challenge to the mighty religious
    inheritance of the West. The neoconservative pundit David Brooks of
    The New York Times thinks that a "soft-core spirituality," with its
    attendant "psychobabble" and "easygoing narcissism," is epidemic.
    Observers on the left are no less prone to alarm. One pair of such
    commentators warned recently that the rebranding of religion as
    "spirituality" is part of corporate capitalism's "silent takeover" of
    the interior life, the sly marketing of a private, consumerist faith
    in the service of global enterprise.

    Even many scholars of religion have jumped on the bandwagon. Martin E.
    Marty, the widely esteemed historian of American Christianity and
    professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, published an opinion
    piece this past January in Christian Century in which he labeled the
    "spirituality" versus "religion" debate "a defining conflict of our
    time." He made crystal clear that he stood on the side of the old-time
    religion of church pews, potluck suppers, and hymnbooks, against the
    "banal" and "solipsistic" world of "religionless spirituality." More
    recently, in the July-August issue of Utne magazine, Paul R. Powers, a
    professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College, thumped the
    editors for reprinting a "soft-headed" article on spirituality: "Why
    American liberals who seem so happy to embrace difference in various
    contexts want, when it comes to religion, to sweep it under the rug of
    some invented, undefined, supposedly universal `spirituality' remains
    one of the true religious mysteries of our times."

    Detractors of American religious seeking have been building their case
    for a while now. A bellwether was Habits of the Heart (1985), the
    best-selling, multiauthored sociological study of the corrosive
    effects individualism was having on American civic and religious
    institutions. The authors deeply lamented "liberalized versions" of
    morality and spirituality and argued that the old romantic ideals of
    self-reliance and the open road were now undermining the welfare of
    community, family, and congregation. "Finding oneself" and "leaving
    church" had, sadly enough, become complementary processes in a culture
    too long steeped in the expressive individualism of Ralph Waldo
    Emerson, Walt Whitman, and their fellow wayfarers. More and more
    Americans were crafting their own religious stories apart from the
    rich moral vocabularies and collective memories that communities of
    faith provided. The social costs of such disjointed spiritual quests
    were evident not only in the fraying of church life but in eroding
    commitments to public citizenship, marriage, and family.

    All this criticism of the "new spirituality" has obscured and
    diminished what is, in fact, an important American tradition, one in
    which spiritual journeying has long been joined to social and
    political progressivism. Emerson's "endless seeker" was, as often as
    not, an abolitionist; Whitman's "traveling soul," a champion of
    women's rights; Henry David Thoreau's "hermit," a challenger of unjust
    war. A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this
    American vocabulary of the spirit comes from Barack Obama, the
    recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said
    that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it "shouldn't be hard"
    to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: "Martin
    Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . .
    . We don't have to start from scratch."

    Perhaps Obama's most telling remark came in his observations about his
    mother's faith: "My mother saw religion as an impediment to broader
    values, like tolerance and racial inclusivity. She remembered
    churchgoing folks who also called people nigger. But she was a deeply
    spiritual person, and when I moved to Chicago and worked with
    church-based community organizations, I kept hearing her values
    expressed." Obama's invocation of "spiritual" as an inclusive term,
    inextricably interwoven with the "broader values" of American
    democracy, is important and carefully chosen diction. It not only
    conjures up Whitman's ghost but also suggests some of the poet's own
    audacity. As a concept of consequence in American culture,
    spirituality was born of the romantic aspirations and ethical passions
    of Emersonians, Whitmanites, and other religious liberals. Its history
    is worth recovering from the heap of critical commentary, as both a
    counterweight to the Religious Right and a resource for the Left
    (which is now so often tone-deaf on spiritual matters).

    In 1800, the word spirituality had little resonance in the evangelical
    Protestant vernacular of personal devotion, but during the ensuing
    century of transcendentalist ferment, it gradually shifted from being
    an abstractly metaphysical term, denoting an attribute of God or the
    immaterial quality of the soul, to one highly charged with
    independence, interiority, and eccentricity. "The ripeness of Religion
    is doubtless to be looked for in this field of individuality," Whitman
    wrote in Democratic Vistas in 1871, "and is a result that no
    organization or church can ever achieve. . . . I should say, indeed,
    that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of
    individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all. Only
    here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the
    soaring flight." Or, as the Harvard poet and philosopher George
    Santayana remarked succinctly in 1905, "This aspiring side of religion
    may be called Spirituality."

    Spirituality was a hard term to pin down, all the more so once it took
    transcendentalist flight. Despite the airy and expansive qualities
    that came to be conferred upon spirituality in Emersonian and
    Whitmanite circles, it had certain defining characteristics, six of
    which were especially prominent:

    o  a yearning for mystical experience or epiphanic awareness

    o  a valuing of silence, solitude, and sustained meditation

    o  a belief in the immanence of the divine in nature and attunement to
    that presence

    o  a cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety, along with a
    search for unity in diversity

    o  an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice-producing, progressive

    o  an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity, and
    adventuresome seeking

    This liberal reimagining of the interior life and its fruits had
    sweeping and enduring effects on American religious life, often for
    the good. It created a more open and expansive sense of religious
    identity; it challenged American Christian claims to supremacy and
    exclusivity; and it promoted an "ethical mysticism." Liberals, indeed,
    could be rather tendentious about the latter. For instance, John
    Wright Buckham, a Methodist, insisted in 1915 on a "social mysticism"
    of active service to others, a spirituality that engaged the
    industrial crisis and the economic order. Without that component,
    Buckham would not count a person's piety under his heading of "Normal

    Of course, spirituality as it was crafted by these 19th-century
    cosmopolitans and their heirs always had plenty of idiosyncrasies and
    failings. Still, its makers engaged in a sharply self-critical
    exchange, in which they anticipated most of the challenges that are
    still posed to their vision of religious interiority. Take the
    devotion to solitude, for example. These religious liberals prized
    serene meditation, romanticized the hermit's life, and longed for
    mystical experience in forests and mountains rather than in churches.
    Were those emphases not a prescription for solipsism and isolation,
    and an ultimately fatal alienation from community and tradition?

    William R. Alger, a second-generation transcendentalist who (unlike
    Emerson) never left the Unitarian ministry, offered the era's fullest
    exposition of seclusion in The Solitudes of Nature and of Man; or, The
    Loneliness of Human Life (1866). "The aboriginal woods of western
    North America," Alger fantasized, "seem as if they might harbor a
    million anchorites, not one of whom should be within a day's journey
    of any other." Yet he meditated on solitude precisely because he was
    seeking a remedy for the larger social estrangements and self-absorbed
    anxieties he found all around him in a market-dominated world of
    go-getting success and failure. "This is the malady of the age--an age
    of Narcissuses," he claimed. The occasional retreat into solitude that
    he recommended was actually imagined as a means of liberating its
    practitioners from the increasingly "morbid consciousness of self."

    So was Alger merely turning solitude into a form of feel-good therapy?
    Was he saying that well-to-do city folk needed a nice summer cottage
    where they could refresh their souls before rejoining the capitalist
    grind? Certainly he imagined his advice as having a lot more bite than
    that. Though he had reverently attended Thoreau's funeral and listened
    with solemn attention as the church bell "tolled the forty-four years
    he had numbered," Alger was an unusually harsh in-house critic when it
    came to the Concord hermit's supposed "pampering of egotism." In a
    scornful critique, Alger asserted that Thoreau the writer was
    "constantly feeling himself, reflecting himself, fondling himself,
    reverberating himself, exalting himself, incapable of escaping or
    forgetting himself." As a champion of a liberal and eclectic
    spirituality, Alger tried to lead his readers and congregants out of
    "self-nauseated weariness" into "God's closet."

    Romancing solitude was pivotal for Alger, but it was not a matter of
    quietist retreat from the social and political world. Like his
    compatriots Theodore Parker and Franklin Sanborn, Alger nurtured
    reform commitments, particularly to the abolitionist cause. As
    Boston's official Fourth of July orator in 1857, he was, by turns,
    hissed and applauded for his forceful denunciation of "the Slave-Power
    and its lovers." "The battle between Slavery and Freedom in America is
    irreconcilable," Alger exclaimed, dismissing an "ostrich-policy" of
    celebrating the nation's independence while evading the crisis at
    hand. Taken aback by the furor, the board of aldermen refused him the
    usual etiquette of gratitude and publication; the snub launched
    Alger's speech into mass circulation and helped make his reputation as
    an antislavery agitator.

    Alger was also ready, as were many of the transcendentalists, to take
    his readers figuratively to Persia, India, and China, and in those
    intellectual excursions he displayed the same misconceptions as other
    appropriators of "the mystic East." Many of his cultural oppositions
    in The Poetry of the Orient (1856) consisted of the usual fare,
    pitting "the enterprising young West" against "the meditative old
    East." Like the poet Coleman Barks today, Alger was particularly
    dazzled by the "electric freedom" of the 13th-century Sufi mystic
    Jalal al-Din ar-Rumi, and even proposed that Americans incorporate the
    "diversified disciplines" of Sufism into their own lives as a way to
    discover spiritual ecstasy and wonder. It was not an uncommon
    presumption in transcendentalist circles: Distant religious cultures
    offered separable scriptures and "detachable ritual morsels" for the
    delectation of North American dabblers weary of their own unenchanted
    world. The transcendentalist encounter with Asian religions was often
    trivializing and homogenizing, an exercise in reducing cultural
    differences to a universal religion that looked uncannily like Concord
    writ large across the globe.

    But transcendentalist piety offered more than the predictable
    shortcomings of Orientalist fantasy. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a
    radical abolitionist who went on to serve as a colonel in an
    African-American regiment in the Civil War, heralded religious
    liberalism's widening vision in "The Sympathy of Religions," an essay
    first published in 1871 and extensively circulated thereafter. "I have
    worshiped in an Evangelical church when thousands rose to their feet
    at the motion of one hand. I have worshiped in a Roman Catholic church
    when the lifting of one finger broke the motionless multitude into
    twinkling motion, till the magic sign was made, and all was still once
    more," Higginson observed, grandly sweeping aside the
    Protestant-Catholic antagonisms still festering across the country,
    before launching himself further afield. "But I never for an instant
    have supposed that this concentrated moment of devotion was more holy
    or more beautiful than when one cry from a minaret hushes a Mohammedan
    city to prayer, or when, at sunset, the low invocation, `Oh! the gem
    in the lotus--oh! the gem in the lotus,' goes murmuring, like the
    cooing of many doves, across the vast surface of Thibet." In so
    minimizing liturgical differences, Higginson committed most of
    liberalism's universalizing sins, but he also imagined a cosmopolitan
    piety in which religious identities were open, fluxional, and
    sympathetic rather than closed, fixed, and proselytizing. Religious
    encounters across cultures were imagined as engaging rather than
    threatening; they were seen as occasions for parliamentary gatherings
    rather than mission stations. "When we fully comprehend the sympathy
    of religions," Higginson concluded, "we shall deal with other faiths
    on equal terms."

    The radicalism of Higginson and his compeers created the space for an
    ever-widening religious exchange in American culture. In 1897, the
    Hindu swami Saradananda joined the conversation (and the New England
    lecture circuit) with his own discourse on "The Sympathy of
    Religions." "By sympathy," Saradananda explained, "the Vedantist [an
    adherent of a 19th-century Hindu reform movement] does not mean a kind
    of dull indifference, or haughty toleration, which seems to say, `I
    know you are wrong and my religion is the only true one, yet I will
    let you follow it, and perhaps one day your eyes will be opened.' His
    sympathy is not a negative one, but it is of a direct, positive
    nature, which knows that all religions are true, they have the same
    goal." Hindus, Saradananda insisted, did not reduce the "religious
    orchestra of the universe" to mere "monotones." The sympathy of
    religions, he assured, would not be purchased at the price of
    particularity and variation: "The mission of Vedanta to the West is
    not to make Christians Hindus, but to make the Christian a better
    Christian, a Hindu a better Hindu, and a Mohammedan a better
    Mohammedan." Reaching God required specific paths, not a uniform one
    "in the place of the many."

    The liberal architects of American spirituality came rather quickly to
    realize that their vision of one universal religion was at
    cross-purposes with their equally important ideals of cosmopolitan
    variety and democratic individuality. Most were not particularly
    interested in rolling back transcendentalist notions of spontaneity,
    creativity, and spiritual independence for the sake of religious
    unanimity. As the conversation among them unfolded, many insisted that
    for liberals to be truly liberal, their religious cosmopolitanism
    could not become bland and colorless. In an 1895 lecture, the Reform
    rabbi Solomon Schindler, after a warm introduction from Higginson
    himself, argued that all the talk of unifying the religions or
    reducing them to a common core suggested a misguided conformity. "The
    happiest state will come to pass," Schindler claimed, "when each
    individual will be allowed to formulate his own ideas regarding the
    universe and his position in and relation to it. Not one unified
    religion is the goal, but as many millions of religions as there will
    be individuals." Democratic individuality, not liberal universality,
    was the central spiritual value.

    The roots of today's seeker spirituality are tangled, but they go deep
    in American culture and often prove, on closer inspection, to be
    surprisingly robust. It is hard, once one has traveled any length on
    the roads forward from Emerson and Whitman, not to be impressed by the
    tenacity of this joined tradition of spiritual seeking and political
    progressivism in American religious life. Take, for example, the
    visionary ecumenist Sarah Farmer, who, in 1894, in Eliot, Maine,
    organized her own summer school for the comparative study of religion
    and social activism. A genius as a religious and political go-between,
    she hosted everyone from D. T. Suzuki, emergent ambassador of Zen
    Buddhism, to George Herron, renowned advocate of Christian socialism,
    to W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, to Charlotte Perkins
    Gilman, pioneering feminist and economist, to Anagarika Dharmapala,
    Sinhalese Buddhist critic of British colonialism. One partisan
    eulogized her, with some fairness, as "the actual fulfiller of Emerson
    in terms of applied influence."

    Or consider Rufus Jones, a liberal Quaker who wrote more extensively
    on mysticism than any other American in the first half of the 20th
    century, and who crucially popularized the notion of the "seeker" as a
    modern religious type. Jones also managed, while holding a
    professorship at Haverford College and writing more than a book a year
    on average, to help lead the American Friends Service Committee from
    its founding in 1917. The AFSC was initially organized to support
    civil service for Quaker conscientious objectors during World War I,
    but with the aid of Jones's internationalist vision, it soon expanded
    its domain to relief work with refugees across Europe, for which
    service it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. Throughout his
    life, Jones imagined his Quaker faith as much through the romantic
    prism of Emerson, Whitman, and John Greenleaf Whittier as on the basis
    of the journal of George Fox, the 17th-century founder of the
    Religious Society of Friends.

    In our own time, there is the example of Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor
    of Tikkun magazine, who speaks of an "Emancipatory Spirituality" and
    expressly connects the material work of liberal progressivism to lived
    spiritual practice. He is adamant that what the Democrats really need
    is a better understanding of religion and "the politics of meaning," a
    sturdier commitment to engaging the deeper values and transcendent
    hopes of Americans. "The liberal world," he claims, "has developed
    such knee-jerk hostility to religion" that it has "marginalized those
    many people on the left who actually do have spiritual yearnings."
    Echoes of the same idiom can be heard in The Future of American
    Progressivism (1998), by Roberto Unger and Cornel West. Unger and West
    link "the re-energizing of democratic politics" to "the American
    religion of possibility." For good measure, they even point to
    Whitman's Democratic Vistas as the bible of that religious-political

    When the renowned psychologist of religion William James was asked in
    1904, "What do you mean by `spirituality'?" he responded:
    "Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in
    imagination about them. A certain amount of `otherworldly' fancy."
    That is the kind of whimsical, individualistic answer that would have
    earned James no small amount of scorn from today's cultural critics
    had they heard it from some supposed avatar of the New Age. Yet for
    all of James's vaunted privatizing of religion--he defined it, for his
    purposes, as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in
    their solitude"--he always remained very much interested in the fruits
    of faith, the inner resources of saintliness. What kinds of interior
    lives produced the energy and dedication of the saints, "their
    extravagance of human tenderness"? Without some sense of the spirit's
    vast potentialities, James wondered, how would Americans ever confront
    their "material attachments" and regain "the moral fighting shape"?
    "Naturalistic optimism," he wrote, "is mere syllabub and flattery and
    sponge-cake" compared with the hopes and demands that the spiritual
    life was capable of fostering. A Whitmanite individualist, James
    allowed the churches no monopoly on mystical experience or social
    conscience; a wide-awake pragmatist, he also believed that liberals
    and progressives turned away from the spiritual at their own peril. On
    both points Senator Obama apparently concurs, and there's nothing
    "soft-core," "softheaded," or "sponge-cake" about that.

    Leigh E. Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton University, is
    the author most recently of Restless Souls: The Making of American
    Spirituality (2005), from which this essay has been developed.

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