Tag Archives: The immanent frame

The New Metaphysicals Post #2

I had posted a few weeks ago about the new book by Courtney Bender called The New Metaphysicals about the current practice of new age in America.

My post received no comments even though it touches on many topics that come up whenever I post on Neo-Hasidism. Specifically, how the narratives of believers and those of historians or scientists do not match. Here is a review of the book by Andrew Perrin dealing with some of the issues from a different angle. First off, when do we say that these new age practitioners are loony? The 1950’s saw all kabbalah, hasidut as off limits and would scoff at negel wasser or Tu beshevat. But now that new age is everywhere and neo-hasidism is everywhere, when can you tell someone that his new explanation is daffy?

Perrin spends more of his time asking about authenticity. There is already a huge anthropology literature showing that practices revived in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the US, Korea, and Japan, are done in the name of authenticity, even when the performer has no claim to authenticity, even if the person has no continuity with the past, the practice did not characterize the past, and the practice is not done like the past. Perrin notes that even if the practitioner investigates the matter, evidence wont change anything because they have a Platonic idea of authenticity. A similar but not identical phenomena has occurred in Jewish law, where tradition (mesorah) is invoked by people with no direct link, only a theological link based on imagined institutional ones, no similar practice to the old country, and an explanation of the practice that flies in the face of the older interpretation.

Perrin’s question to Bender is how can university educated people not know the refutations to their positions and not understand that the very Ivy academies where they received their degrees would not accept this pseudo-science. Perrin concludes that Bender offers a glimpse of how people believe but not why they do and how they reconcile it with the world around them.

Perrin’s own start of an answer is that they think that not everything is known by the official standards of the academy and that they have access to an authentic source of knowledge. It is authentic because it comes from a different source, a truer source, and a truer conception of reality unharmed by empiricism.

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.
Authenticity is a constant struggle for Bender’s subjects, amongst whom a common theme is the sense that their metaphysical pursuits offer something more real, more genuine, than the routine life of urban Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Bender conducted her fieldwork. Hans, for example, had developed an extensive theory of ethnic authenticity, applied as “the coloring, the embellishment” of generic shamanism, and had sought vainly for a sufficiently authentic Germanic shamanism to match his ethnic heritage. Along the way, though, he laments the fact that Native Americans, who constitute for him a kind of Platonic ideal of indigenous authenticity, don’t really seem that interested in his shamanic group
I found myself wanting more of this sort of critique. While I admire the self-control that enabled Bender to restrain herself from dismissing her subjects as just plain loony, many of them do go through remarkable rhetorical contortions to make the elements of their narratives fit together adequately. Many of these contortions map onto terrain that has been covered over the past century or so by sociological, anthropological, and cultural theorists agonizing over precisely the same chimerical authenticity that seems to motivate many of Bender’s subjects. Why do these academic critiques not carry the same weight among the metaphysicals?
Philippa, an astrologer, uses recognizably scientific language (gamma rays, matter, Pluto, Prozac, Ritalin, even “a wobble in Mercury’s orbit”) all to establish the reality of the planet Vulcan. Each of these individuals engages in reasoning that strikes me as essentially post hoc, selectively deploying observations, likely random in origin, as evidence for a predetermined conclusion.
I assume that, were Philippa to take her talk to the Astronomy department down the street, the evidence she mounts would be unlikely to convince the faculty there that Vulcan exists. So why the attempt at a common language? Why not just adopt a dismissive attitude toward observational evidence, claiming spiritual, metaphysical space for themselves and leaving material, physical space to the scientists? Bender’s narrative provides great insight into what the new metaphysicals believe and how they engage that belief, but why they believe it and how they reconcile that belief with the outlook of less-metaphysical friends, neighbors, and family, are open questions.
Read the rest of Perrin here.

Nahmanides’ appeal in his introduction to the Humash commentary to the 49 gates of wisdom known only to Moses, the traditions of the Torah as black fire on white fire, and one long name of God, and the scientific traditions known to Solomon and King Hizkiyah serve many of the same functions of undermining the science of the day and creating an alternative authority and authenticity. The widespread use of Nahmanides in late 20th century Judaism has helped foster and coalesces with this deeper authenticity.

So, why does the Jewish community accept pseudo-science? And what are the alternate forms of authenticity?
I know one neo-Hasidic haredi author who writes complete pop-psych but claims he is authentic because he tangentially copies Idel’s footnotes (And mine and Aryeh Kaplan’s and Scholem’s). There authenticity is his claim to know texts, even if not these texts.

How do our Jewish new age practitioners ignore Western canons and also claim Torah authenticity?

There is still much meaty discussion of the book at The immanent Frame- we will return to the book again later in the week.

Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation

Ever wonder about the nebulousness of the term Modern Orthodox? Or why no one seems to be able to move the term or the ideology forward? There is a new book by Webb Keane called Christian Moderns, featured at the Immanent Frame, that may offer some tools for thought. (I ask in advance for people not to leave in the comments the usual homiletical pabulum defining Modern Orthodoxy fit only for day school mission statements.)

Webb does not define modern in a temporal sense, rather modernity is a moral issue of self transformation. One wants to raise oneself to a new stage of autonomy, freedom, and liberation from false beliefs.  Think of modernity as a form of ethical training to think a new way. One labeled those who accept different positions as lacking rationality. Modernity, as a Protestant virtue, also implies the lack of materiality, physicality, and externalization. But if one is not striving for self-transformation then one cannot call oneself modern.

This moralization of history—a largely tacit set of expectations about what a modern, progressive person, subject, and citizen, should be…I do not try to define modernity as an objective aspect of a period of history, but rather as a feature of people’s historical consciousness. Enlightenment thought about morality, autonomy, and freedom, which became central to later secular institutions and habits.

They are asking things like: Are we there yet? How do we get there? What will it cost us? How can we get out of it? Why are others not as modern as we are? Are they going to drag us back?

Modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with the times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns.

A great deal of contemporary academic and political work tends to presuppose the moral narrative of modernity. Arguments about agency, rationality, or freedom, for instance, are often tacitly informed by the assumption that self-transformation is not only a central aspect of historical progress, but also a good that exceeds local systems of value.

Those people who reject the claims of modern agency—those non-moderns who defer to (excessively material) gods, scriptures, or traditions, for example—are subject to accusations of “fetishism.” To accuse people of fetishism is to indict them for misunderstanding their own capacities.

Now to return to the Jewish community, those authors who used the term in the 1950’s and 1960’s specifically showed their modernity by their use of Kantian philosophy and existentialism. These philosophic movements stressed autonomy, freedom, and  responsibility. This helps explain their avoidance of the myriad of other viable theological partners that did not emphasize the modernist ethos. They wanted to remove the physicality of the mizvot and say that what counts if the fulfillment in the heart.

But what about now? What happens when people are not striving for self-transformation to autonomy anymore? This is where Webb may be the most handy. If one is Modern Orthodox and does not have a moral issue of transformation then one has no way to describe oneself.

One approach is to define oneself in the negative by saying that one is not one of those “non-modern” groups. But that may not be empirical about the negated group or even about one’s own group.  The Conservative movement has a similar problem In their period of triumphalism they were embracing the modern world and could say that Orthodoxy was not embracing the modern world. Now, they simple say they are the only ones making a hybrid of modernity and tradition.

A second approach is to define oneself as rational, but that falters because rationality is not defined, as Steve Nadler pointed out on Angel. And is hard to define in the age after modernity, unless one is using Habermas, Taylor et al. More importantly, rationality is no longer seen as a moral issue of transformation.  If being modern is a simply quality that one has naturally  then one is not modern. According to Webb, one would need to work to be modern, at least as much as one works to keep up with computer/web literacy.

A different point is that many of those who want to call themselves modern Orthodox stress how they are open, sensitive, or dealing with the needs of the people. This is a definition, but leaves the problem of gaining any traction in rhetoric or ideology. Open orthodoxy has a self-definition is that open and sensitive but that has nothing to do with modern. To be modern is to speak of autonomy and freedom. They are not looking to start accusing people of fetishism.

The new open Orthodoxies are not modern but have developed a new ethos. But they have not found a means of articulation.

For example, Rick Warren offers the language of the purpose driven life; the virtue is to build a meaningful life. Here is not medieval, but now lives in the post-secular post-modern world and functions with a new ethical scale of self-transformation based on meaning in a suburban life.  Open modern Orthodox, in contrast, keep calling themselves modern as if that is to have a resonance. And their rhetoric is off, since they keep citing as their exemplars 1960’s Orthodox about autonomy, when they are striving for inclusivism (feminism, GLBT rights, acknowledgment of handicaps and psychological difficulties).

I found that similar comments to mine about Rick Warren were made in a later post to Webb, “After Purification” by Philip Gorski. Engaged Yeshivish and Kiruv has much in common with Pentacostalism and are better are playing the inclusivism card.

But this process of purification is necessarily incomplete. Humans, after all, are social and physical creatures. Thus,  processes of purification inevitably give rise to new forms of hybridity—in this case, to new texts, rituals, incantations and so on, either directly, in the form of routinized religious practices or, indirectly, in the form of heterodox religious movements, such as Pentecostalism. Gorski notes that much of the critique of the modern position has been from those returning to the classical tradition.

For MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Elshtain, Milbank and Taylor critique modern liberal secularism not from without, but from within, by drawing variously on Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas.

Does this mean that prophetic critique is the only possible form that a critique of secularism can take? That one must be a theist to be a critic in our secular age?  By no means.  Political philosophers such as…Michael Sandel, amongst others, have elaborated a powerful neo-republican critique of modern liberalism Even Jürgen Habermas, that icon of Euro-American enlightenment, has recently urged his partisans to recognize the untapped “semantic potentials” and “moral resources” still contained within religious languages and communities

Do those who formulate other position offer any alternate to modernity? Centrist Orthodoxy offers a relinquishment of autonomy and the promise of living an idealized halakhic existence Mekhon Hartman offer the modernist vision of autonomy and freedom. What do those who want something else offer? In the 1950’s, there were many rhetorical devices that made people in the Levitttowns think they were into freedom,autonomy, and rationality. But there seems to be a gnawing sense that the idealized halakhah does not not correspond to otherwise observant suburban family life.

More on Spirituality and secularization: Yoga, Jewish Yoga, and Hasidism

The Immanent Frame has a posting on     Taxing yoga: exercise or spiritual practice?

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on a controversy that erupted over the decision by Missouri tax authorities to require yoga centers to collect and pay a sales tax on their classes. Yoga instructors have argued that they should be exempt from the tax “because the lessons include spiritual elements.” In this week’s off the cuff feature, we’ve invited a small handful of scholars to comment on the legal and cultural status of yoga and on the right of states to levy taxes on yoga centers.

Courtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

While the yoga teachers interviewed in the article are quite concerned that the state of Missouri considers yoga to be “entertainment” or “exercise” (unless, presumably, it takes place in a temple or a church), the category confusion surrounding yoga is nonetheless generative and valuable for those who teach it. The yoga teachers I met during a series of interviews I conducted in 2004 moved back and forth easily in spaces where they taught yoga as primarily exercise, primarily meditation, or primarily stress relief. These multiple capacities actually made it possible for yoga teachers to make a living. Likewise, it seems to me that they reveled to some degree in this possibility. They could argue that even if you didn’t “believe” in yoga it could help you.
Of course, not everyone thinks that this separation is possible—some teachers, and many outside observers, agree that it is not. But in this regard, yoga’s “spirituality” surfaces as a concern, or a danger. This Monday morning’s New York Post gives us a clear example. Several years ago New York City’s Department of Education contracted with an independent group to teach yoga and movement in dozens of elementary schools. When the Post got wind of this, it ran a story with a headline reading “‘Cult’ program in NYC schools.” Even though the techniques described seemed innocuous (if not downright silly), the reported dredged up fears of yoga as a plan to infiltrate the schools and brainwash innocents (not surprisingly, the article links the “guru” to a sexual harassment case). Within several hours of the publication of the story the city suspended this program.

1] How does this relate to our quandaries over self help and Neo- Hasidism? If I have any criteria for Hasidism of the eighteenth century  is an immanence that is enthusiastic, devekut, and mindfulness of God. The 21st century versions the immanence is about self, expression, exercise, and marketing.  Midpoints are more confusing.

2] There are now studios claiming to teach “Jewish Yoga” to emphasize that it is not foreign and to incorporate it under Jewish spirituality and Neo-Hasidism. They will do a renewal chant instead of a Sanskrit chant at the end.  I have no problem saying it is not Neo-Hasidism. But is it Jewish, Hindu or exercise (as Missouri thinks)? I ask becuase there are teachers of the dharma who find the term Jewish Yoga as offensive as Hindu Kabbalah or Christian Talmud. When the Swamis wrote to the Jews, they received a reply that this yoga is Jewish. The swamis are going Huh?!? it is our India tradition. The Jews respond it is Hasidism. My Jewish-Hindu encounter  article elicited emails to me from the Dharma side to help fight the degradation of their tradition.

Which brings us back to The Immanent Frame

Stuart R. Sarbacker, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University

That there should be tension between the spiritual and material culture of yoga is not surprising, given its modern history. Modern yoga, especially the posture-driven variety that is popular in North America, is the product of a particular historical moment in which premodern forms of yoga (such as hathayoga) were merged with Indian traditions of martial arts and wrestling, European physical culturalist thought and callisthenic practices, Hindu universalism, and emerging ideas of “modern science.” The shift towards scientific and secular frameworks and the focus on the body (often through intense attention to the finest of alignments in posture, such as in the Iyengar system) broadened the appeal of yoga while often pushing its metaphysical moorings into the background. As a result of this, the contemporary yoga community in the United States represents a spectrum of traditions that extend from sectarian tradition-driven studios and ashrams to “free-floating” yoga courses offered at fitness centers such as Bally’s Total Fitness.

The fact that yoga brings together the exotic overtones of Indian spirituality with the more familiar exertions of Euro-American callisthenic and fitness traditions has certainly been a driving factor in the success of yoga in North America

Spirtuality and Technology

Spiritual Machines: an interview with John Lardas Modern posted by Nathan Schneider

John Lardas Modern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College,  His book Haunted Modernity; or, the Metaphysics of Secularism is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

This has drawn me to writers and artists who are also interested in the relationship between technology and the way we practice our humanity: people like Herman Melville, Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Thomas Pynchon, and Ralph Ellison. They each inquire into what constitutes agency. If one takes into account technology, it’s no longer quite as clear that there is a single human actor that is determining what is in front of him or her. This doesn’t negate agency, but it definitely makes things more complicated. In the process, we find that the distinctions between the religious and the secular, or science and theology, aren’t quite as definitive as we would like them to be.

NS: This approach leads to apparent contradictions. Evangelicals, for instance, are generally thought of as promoters of a religious social order rather than a secular one. What, then, do you mean when you write of “evangelical secularism”?

JLM: My work on secularism gets at discourse, in an old Foucauldian sense: that there is a field of statements afoot in our world that determine how the concept of religion is understood, how people live it and breathe it. Obviously, you would be hard-pressed not to call evangelicals religious. But at the same time, they are at the cutting edge…of disseminating and advancing different aspects of what we understand as the secular—thinking in terms of the population, statistics, mechanical Utopias, and religion being an integral part of cognitive action and political access.

Read the rest here.

Our categories for religious and secular go back to an earlier era when being secular meant using technology and religious was the avoidance of technology. Think of the late 19th century debate over machine matzah, technology was the more modern. John Lardas Modern points out the terms are defined for an older century. He lets us understand why Chabad and its use of technology may make it a greater force of secularization than mainline Jewish denominations. He also turns us to start asking questions about agency of Jewish activities on the web, or TV.  Does the greater number of Ultra Orthodox blogs than Conservative blogs make the former a greater agency of transparency and secularization than the RA which does not give non-clergy access to decisions? It also opens up the questions of how Jewish spirituality works to balance claims of authenticity and authority with technological innovation and progress.