New Book on Spirituality- Courtney Bender, New Metaphysicals I have not read it yet, but it is on my list for the summer.
Bender paints spirituality as in process, looking forward, and created in places in do not ordinary consider religion. Spirituality is created at the intersection of several realms we ordinarily consider secular such as art, health, and vacation. Spirituality is entangled in daily life and in many relams that we demarcate as special. And it also exists in the house of worship- Spirituality is now offered as yoga classes or healing circles in traditional institutions.
Activities like Yoga can show up as secular, as spiritual and as religious. Journal writing or many forms of healing have that same spectrum. People ask me about Yoga and Judaism and I am beginning to see that the issue is more complex since the same practice can be presented or interpreted in multiple forms and the forms keep changing.
Bender also deals with how spirituality embraces fragments of neuroscience with a theosophical veneer creating an unorthodox science. The practitioners know that it is indeed unorthodox and violating conventional science but they continue to use it .
Bender notes that the new spiritually avoids placing itself in a historical context of the history of American theosophy and New Thought, but it also does not like any analysis of its ideas relative to the sources it works with. She notes that contemporary spirituality does not see itself in the scholarly literature written about it. I certainly find this true. Neo-Hasidism does not see that it is not teaching the original Hasidism anymore not does it want to know the pop-psych and culture -culture that it has let into Hasidism. Kabbalah Centre practitioners assume that all kabblah is a science taught by Moses about getting what you want in life, and kiruv Torah would not see itself in a work comparing it to Evangelicals.
An interview with Courtney Bender
posted by Nathan Schneider
Courtney Bender is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. 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.
NS: How do you do scholarship—and, in so doing, take account of history—about a community that denies its own historicity? I was struck by your claim that “the puzzle of spirituality in America cannot be solved by locating it in a history it refuses.”
CB: But what is puzzling about spirituality is that, even as the number of monographs on the topic grows, these histories don’t seem to resonate with contemporary people who call themselves spiritual, or with most scholars who look at its present manifestations. One reason for this is that the living practices of spirituality allow people to cultivate ways of being in time that are future-focused, or that situate practitioners in perennial time. All religious practices place people in time and in space. In this case, the spiritual practices that I trace do interesting things to the kind of narrative history that most historians write, so paying attention to these practices, and chronicling how they unravel and decouple from most recognizable historical narratives, is just as important. That’s what I have tried to do.
Looking at all of this, I embraced a study of entanglements because it demands different starting points for analyzing religious life: experience, discourse, meaning, and practice. We can ask how religious practices are produced or carried in secular contexts, and we can think about how to conduct research on religion in those settings in ways that do not presume that everything is sacralized, but that recognize that things are often a bit more complicated than we have made them out to be—I’d say a bit more interesting too.
NS: If not in such traditional, formal contexts, where does one find the markers of spirituality?
CB: Well, first I should say that we do indeed find markers of spirituality in traditional religious institutions. In an early chapter, I focus on a variety of sites in Cambridge where spirituality is produced: alternative medicine, the arts (particularly amateur arts), and also various religious groups. There is a lot of interaction among these.
But in The New Metaphysicals, I followed a number of practices that are sometimes spiritual, sometimes religious, and sometimes secular. Yoga is one, but a more intriguing case, and a favorite of mine, is the transformation of medium- and spirit-writing, and automatic writing (popular in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spiritualist circles), to “flow writing” and cathartic writing. An even more intriguing practice that sits at the core of the book is the emergence of “religious experience”—which is taken up in legal and psychological literature, then carried and reproduced in secular discourse about the self and private belief. In other words, these practices are not firmly or primarily located within “religion” or “science” or “health” or “artistry.” Part of their power for my respondents is in the ways that their multiple locations, and multiple linked sites of reproduction, add to the sensation that they are “everywhere” and universal.
Yes, some of their ideas are often uncritical mixtures of nineteenth-century Theosophical ideas, what they learned from any number of alternative health practitioners, and whatever David Brooks says about neuroscience in his New York Times column. But most Americans hold some combination of ideas about science that include heavy doses of misunderstanding, rumor, hope, and imagination.
NS: For many religious Americans, though, sins against science come rooted in suspicion and omission. Those in your book seem prone, instead, to an overzealous embrace.
CB: Perhaps it would be fair to say that the people I met in Cambridge are aware of the fact that they are drawing on unorthodox combinations of science, religion, and philosophy—probably more so than many others. The unorthodoxy of their expectations about science’s possibilities, and its relation to the character and quality of the universe as a metaphysical whole, makes them more aware than others that the science they think about is an imagined one. That said, the great majority of them also insisted that their views would some day be vindicated. As they see it, true spiritual laws never change, and given their universality and generalizability, they will someday—soon—capture the attention of mainstream physicists and neuroscientists.
NS: In particular, do you mean to offer a critique, as sociological accounts of American metaphysical spirituality often have in the past?
CB: Offering a critique is not what gets me out of bed in the morning, to be honest.