A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
This book is suspicious about the fringe status of what Butler termed occultism and is suspicious as well about the defeat of the “occult” player in the American religious drama.
My tale is instead an account of its vigorous growth in the nineteenth century as metaphysics… a growth that continued into and through the twentieth century and that, as I write in the early twenty first century, shows no sign of abating and every sign of flourishing into any future that can be foreseen.
Through carefully assembled sources and a well documented thesis, Catherine Albanese establishes a convincing argument that critical failure to account for metaphysics is a misrepresentation that distorts the entire territory and epistemology of American religious life.
A Republic of Mind and Spirit takes up the task of rectifying the marginalization of a diverse community of beliefs and practices that is the potent context of American interest and participation in practices of alternative faith and spirituality.
I argue a metaphysical thesis about American religious history, understanding metaphysical religion, both in Christian and non-Christian forms, as key to making sense of the nation’s religiosity.
Metaphysical religion, I hope to show, is at least as important as evangelicalism in fathoming the shape and scope of American religious history and in identifying what makes it distinctive – the sign, in religious terms, of an emergent American ethnicity.
A silenced American sensibility
Albanese, chair of American Religious History at University of California, Santa Barbara, deftly shows how the dominant critical thought of the nineteenth and twentieth century constructed and maintained an isolating perspective of an evolving American metaphysics.
She points out the scholarly critical community over the past one hundred years has engaged in a mutually constitutive exchange with Christian paradigms that has both prized and been given status by denominational and/or evangelical Christian constructs.
[Other constructs] omit the role of metaphysics as a major player in the evolution of the national religiosity. My reading… sees the evangelical thesis as false because it is partial… it tells only one piece, however important, of a larger story.
That story has been seriously skewed by perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history.
Power roots its implacability in the exercise of defining what counts and who gets to say what counts. Albanese argues effectively the prevailing terms in which American religion has been discussed leave out or silence a major American religious voice: that of the metaphysics, a variety of religious experience which includes contemporary American practitioners of yoga and meditation.
She traces the lineage of American alternative spirituality from pre-civil war history through a late nineteenth century discourse, “heavily invested in reinscribing the traditional lore of India in the scientific terms of the modern, British-inspired West.”
If there was any one public event that signaled the process and its continuing reinventions of the East, that event was the World’s Parliament of Religions of 1893… which celebrated, too, American economic and cultural “progress” in a triumphalist spirit that masked an unexamined racism and imperialism.
Emerging American Ethnicity
Albanese sees the market of ideas the Parliament presented as the moment in which an aspiring and self-conscious class of Americans discovered not only “the East,” but perhaps more significantly, a way of representing ideas and experiences that had previously lacked cohesion.
The World’s Parliament of Religions fostered the development of the American trait of collecting and assembling practices and beliefs, a characteristic of appropriation and adaptation that became more defined and distinctive with time.
The Parliament fostered the collection, deconstruction and re-assembling of cultural practices and beliefs that became a characteristic mark of American engagement of imported ideas.
Organizers imported “leading scholars, representing the Brahman, Buddhist, Confucian, Parsee, Mohammedan, Jewish and other Faiths,” placed them alongside representatives of the Christian churches, and allowed these others time and a platform. The results, as Richard Seager argues, were not quite what the Chicago leaders intended.
Instead, non-Christian representatives upended the liberal Christian project and exposed its tenuousness in discourse intended to display the wisdom and integrity of the East. In so doing the Asians flattened the Christian peaks not only for themselves but also, potentially, for Americans.
And in so doing they also underlined a way of a way of talking, thinking and being in the world that promoted the project of metaphysical religion.
American metaphysics had already reached a watershed in its appropriation of global faiths to advance its homegrown spirituality.
Previous ways of telling American religious history have described metaphysics as occultism, a fringe community of beliefs that have been treated as something of a novelty, a side-show that trickled out in the eighteenth century.
Catherine Albanese shows these wide spread, popular interests becoming established in fertile and increasingly productive ground. A Republic of Mind and Spirit restores a heritage to contemporary beliefs, embodying the characteristic of exploring, appropriating and adapting beliefs and practices from many cultures as an identifying feature of an emerging American ethnicity.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.