The Rise of ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’ Is a Story of Hope
Ausable Chasm, New York. Getty Images / Posnov
I will tell you something about stories [he said]
They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
—Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
As a person who makes his living thinking about hope and despair in the United States, one of my favorite books in the field of American religion is Andrew Delbanco’s The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope. This is a text I have used in my introductory courses for well over a decade. In brief, Delbanco narrates the “history of hope” in the United States during the last three centuries, focusing on a number of narratives from within its historically dominant Anglo-Protestant culture. The text is divided into three chapters: “God,” on Christian hope in the colonial period; “Nation,” on the prophetic hope of justice in American civil religion, starting with the antebellum period and cresting in the 1960s; and, finally, “Self” in the post-Christian, postmodern period.
I have found this book to be an especially powerful way to convey to students the importance of America’s religious past, because Delbanco defines narratives of hope in a way that resonates nicely with academic understandings of religion, and particularly of myth. He begins his reflections with an overview of those stories through which human beings “organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, desire, pleasure, fear,” observing that, “when that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope. . . . And if such a sustaining narrative establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture.”1 Such a statement could have been lifted from almost any introductory text in the field of religious studies, only there the term “religion” would have been substituted for the final word, “culture.”
Delbanco’s narrative on hope is, by his own admission, a depressing read. A scholar of American studies at Columbia University, he wonders aloud in the final chapter if he has unconsciously written a Puritan jeremiad, since the bulk of his remarks narrate a story about the “diminution of hope” in America—the shrinking of our collective cosmovision from a universal to a solipsistic one. In his last chapter, “Self,” he points to one example after another of the vapid consumerist culture that has arisen all around him since the 1960s. And Delbanco was writing this in 1999, before the era of the selfie and the tweet. So far as we understand American religion from his point of view, at least, there seem to have been few developments in the last 20 or so years that would inspire us to arrive at a more upbeat conclusion.
Yet, based on my own observations of the changing ways that students have responded to Delbanco’s text over the years, I am beginning to suspect that we are indeed living in a time when the dreary trends that The Real American Dream narrates are starting to change. I will even go so far as to say that the increasing number of Americans who identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR) or “Nones” may presage the emergence of a new, collective vision of hope along the lines that Delbanco describes: not necessarily in the form of a sudden and spectacular revolution, but more quietly and steadily, as an ongoing commitment to enacting the ideals of decency, civility, and justice in this country.
To explain what has changed, I must go back to the buildup to the most recent presidential election and its aftermath. At least in my corner of the country, students reading The Real American Dream prior to the 2016 election could not seem to grasp the urgency of Delbanco’s fundamental concern, which hearkens back to the classic insights of religious studies—the Durk-heimian argument that collective meaning, and therefore hope, is predicated on the culture having a vital mythology. As a classically liberal intellectual, Delbanco was sounding the alarm bell for progressives as early as the late 1990s, noting that the mythic underpinnings of the American Left were fast eroding, and that nothing yet had come to take its place.2
Before the 2016 election, such warnings struck most of my undergraduates, not to mention many public intellectuals, as overblown. The most common and predictable objection I heard in my classrooms was that every one of us has the right to find our own meaning. Who was this Delbanco person, harping on the need for a collective (we might say hegemonic) story? A more thoughtful and critical retort was that there already existed a plurality of communities in the United States, each with its own collective vision of hope. So what was he so worried about?
Then, of course, came the 2016 election, or rather, the series of cultural implosions that led up to and culminated in that event and that continue to overshadow our present historical moment. And suddenly, for my students, the concerns of Delbanco’s text became painfully clear. Teaching the text for the fifth or sixth time in the fall of 2017, I no longer had to diffuse his arguments with comments about the anachronistic nature of “citizenship.” The importance of articulating historically American ideals of equality and justice, and tracing their mythic articulations back through Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln to the Declaration of Independence, and, ultimately, in Delbanco’s telling, to John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity”—all of this was now both timely and urgent for my students.
At the same time, however, neither the students nor I could escape the sinking feeling that the story of American hope as Delbanco had narrated it had backed us all into a corner of despair. It really was a jeremiad, we decided: a lugubrious lamentation for Great Times and Great Deeds Gone By—one that left us bereft of resources to pick up the train of thought the author had related and then to move forward. Having all but conceded that liberal culture is in an irreversible decline, at the end of the essay he nevertheless invokes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s counsel to “do what we can to rekindle the smouldering nigh quenched fire on the altar”—in other words, to press on in spite of what would seem to be impossible odds.3 The conclusion did little to console any of us.
Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I hadn’t given much thought to the increasing number of people, in this country and beyond, who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Just a few weeks after the election, however, I received an invitation to present a paper at a conference entitled “Spiritual, but Not Religious: Past, Present, Future(s),” to be held in February at the Esalen Institute in California. Pressed for time, the only perspective I could glean came from my past work on modern paranormal movements, an approach that led me to suspect that SBNR primarily signifies the cultural and existential disorientation that has long been a feature of (post)modern American society. As it turned out, the conference was canceled and then rescheduled to take place at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School in April 2018. The extra year afforded me the opportunity to ponder the subject in a considerably more reflective manner. While I still believe the context of the “paranormal” can provide much insight into the contours of SBNR, I have become just as interested in thinking about it as a political and cultural resource for anyone interested in counteracting the dissipative forces that are straining the health of our nation.
If I had not, thanks to the rescheduled symposium, spent a great deal of the following year thinking about “spiritual but not religious,” the fall 2017 semester would probably have ended on a note of dread. Fortunately, this was not the case. Most of my students have already been formed, at least partially, by an American vision of hope that falls between the cracks of an explicitly Christian myth, on the one hand, and a prophetically inflected civil religion, on the other. This is a vision of hope that is frequently glossed over in the scholarly stories of United States religion—or, in the public sphere, it is sometimes evoked only to be dismissed with various degrees of contempt. Whether or not they self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” these students recognize in this discourse many of their axiomatic assumptions about the Way Things Are, or rather the Way Things Should Be, which of course is an informal way of describing an ontology. And, unlike either the Christian or the national stories of hope as narrated by Delbanco, this ontological framework is not for them a relic of the nation’s past. On the contrary, it is alive and well. As we scholars might put the case poetically: it shimmers with a kind of mythic vitality.
Because I discussed the category of SBNR in the context of American religious history, I introduced it as a vision that took shape in the writings of Emerson himself, as an amalgam of classically liberal values (e.g., individualism, ecumenism, freedom of thought and expression) and either nature or metaphysical religion, depending on which of his excerpts we were reading. These latter two terms, derived from separate works by Catherine L. Albanese, both refer to an understanding of the sacred as immanent in the self and world and immediately accessible through the senses or the mind, or through both.4 They are necessarily broad categories, delineating theological spaces or parameters of thought, within which Emerson and the generations following him, from both within and outside the Anglo-Protestant American fold, have articulated stories of cosmic and cultural origins and speculated on the contours of the Real. While I had regularly incorporated Albanese’s work on metaphysical religion, A Republic of Mind and Spirit, into previous classes on American religion, I had used it primarily as a guide for analyzing movements commonly relegated to the fringes of theological thought, such as “occultist” groups or “paranormal” aficianados. But now I was using the same text to shed light on the phenomenon of SBNR, whose meteoric rise had come to take most mainstream religions by surprise.
My American religion classes typically include a unit on “nature” and religion, in which we revisit Emerson, not as a patriotic post-Christian but as a mystical nature poet, tracing his influences through other transcendentalist writers and so-called metaphysical religions (e.g., Spiritualism, Theosophy, and their offshoots). We also return to an exploration of select Native American authors to refine and deepen what, exactly, the category of “nature” can encompass, and what these understandings imply for our responsibilities to each other and to other-than-human agents. In the past, I have typically included this unit in the middle of the course. In the fall of 2017, I deliberately saved it for the end.
I was delighted to discover that this experiment worked as an antidote to the despair of The Real American Dream. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fundamental quality of the class changed, for reasons that I could not possibly have orchestrated. We crossed over that invisible and rhetorical line between talking about (American) religion and thinking or seeing through the religious categories we were studying. Suddenly my students were no longer the Last Men and Women of Nietzsche’s postmodern wasteland, as described in Delbanco’s chapter “Self” (or in the cottage industry that has risen up of lamenting the lack of intellectual substance among millennials and younger generations). Because I teach at a Jesuit school, I can openly say that we were actually doing theology—engaging in form of poesis—and a form of liberal theology at that.
The success of this pedagogical foray into (nature-based) spirituality outside of socially inscribed religions largely depends, I realize, on the unique demographics of my college’s undergraduate population, since I teach at a Jesuit school (more on this later). But it is also related to the fact that I have changed my approach to the topic of SBNR. I find myself, in this period of American history and at this age of my life, more invested than I have ever been in helping my students find hope, not only for themselves but as future members of and contributors to American society. And in order to do this, I realized I must be willing to take the leap into an exegetical tradition—here, specifically, the tradition of SBNR—rather than pretending that I am a disinterested bystander (I am most certainly not). This leap entails a more radical gesture than “identifying my subject position” as a scholar: it calls me to actually participate in the acts of poesis that are generative of any mythic tradition.
This is not to say that I have disavowed the usefulness of scholarship’s critical tools, or to suggest that I discourage students from evaluating the material from their own perspective (one of my students, who concluded at the end of the unit—and here I quote—that “nature religion is stupid,” was not penalized for saying so). Rather, it is to make space for constructive, worldmaking projects alongside critical, deconstructive ones.
The discipline of religious studies has been giving poesis a pretty bad rap these last several decades. If we attempt to engage in the process—as teachers or as writers—we know this all too well. I see the turn to the hyper-deconstructive mode of studying religion as essentially recapitulating Plato’s arguments for banishing poets and poetry from his ideal republic of philosopher kings: to wit, poetics by their very nature are inherently obfuscating. In this understanding, the custodians of social order, including but not limited to academics, are obliged to unveil, expose, or otherwise denude their subject matter, toward the end of revealing truth with a capital “T.” In Plato’s case, this meant the Ideal Forms, to which philosophy might lead us. In our own day, the unquestioned truism is that all truth claims are in some way mediated by all-too-human biases and preconceptions—a realization that may lead those who have been bound by restrictive ideologies to a greater sense of freedom, but that can just as easily devolve into an equally restrictive encounter with nihilism and despair.
As we are now passing through a terrifying crisis in democratic culture (some 14 years after Bruno Latour asked his academic readers, rhetorically, if critique had “run out of steam”), I am going to suggest, along with Aristotle, that poesis is not the bogeyman we should be afraid of at this time, especially not when we are wielding the subject matter of SBNR. At this particular moment in history, we should return to Aristotle’s observation that poetry is the means through which we can articulate what ought to be the case, in tension to what is. In the terminology of religious studies, this means conceding that hope and myth are inextricably linked. Hope is evoked through the language of myth—or, more poetically, myth is the handmaiden of hope. In the context of American liberalism, such a recognition compels us to make strategic decisions about how we will engage in the mythic discourse of “the Laws of Nature” or “Nature’s God,” which historically undergirds our assumptions about human equality and dignity.
Of course, there will be many who disagree with this analysis, particularly in the context of trying to understand what happened in 2016. One such critic would surely be Kurt Anderson, author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. In his welcome attempt to diagnose the etiology of our current “post-truth” society, Anderson singles out social media as the proximate cause (pockets of subcultures living in self-enclosed, hyperreal bubbles), but he ultimately pins the blame on nothing other than the rise of SBNR since the 1960s (with the Esalen Institute, I might add, singled out for especial denunciation). In my own work on the paranormal, I have encountered many variations on Anderson’s argument. They essentially boil down to hardcore rationalist-skeptical Enlightenment critiques of religion, exhumed in recent times by the so-called New Atheists. Anderson suggests that unless the nation’s mythic imagination is carefully controlled and monitored by rational experts, before we know it, the citizens of the Republic will believe they have spoken with dead relatives, slept with extraterrestrials, and so on. From there, it is a small step to conflating the genres of reality TV and presidential politics, accepting “fake news,” and tweeting international diplomacy.
Anderson hopes that his readers will snap out of the spell that such acts of poesis have cast upon them. In this way, the foundations of liberal democratic culture will be restored. This might be a compelling argument if the history of American democracy were strictly synonymous with the advance of science and reason. But this is not the case. As Delbanco, for one, has so poignantly shown, liberal democracy is born out of a poetic or mythic vision we have historically had of ourselves. When and where it has flourished, it has done so in and through a struggle to articulate a vision of what the United States of America ought to or should become, over and against what is the case.
Against Anderson, I would argue that critical deconstruction should be used selectively, as a strategic tool relative to some ethical end. It is not, in and of itself, a cure-all or a panacea. While I am more than happy to deconstruct the illiberal excesses of any mythology, moving beyond a post-truth America will just as urgently call for exegetical acts of word- and world-making. Such religion scholars as Elaine Pagels, Michael Muhammad Knight, Karen Armstrong, and Jeffrey Kripal already exemplify the ideal of raising public awareness and appreciation for a liberally inflected understanding of religion. I would even go so far as to suggest that their popular writings have played an important role in cultivating the religious sensibility we now associate with SBNR.
I have come to find myself feeling very much at home teaching religious studies in a Catholic-Jesuit institution, where a certain amount of poesis and exegesis of religious traditions is not only tolerated but expected of me, by both the administration and the students. Part of our charge is to support and further the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, which is usually translated as care, or education, of the whole person, in all of their intellectual, ethical, and indeed spiritual complexity. My own understanding of SBNR has taken shape within this milieu, and it is with and through the language of the Jesuits that I would describe the orientation of the SBNR, with some important qualification, as a search for “God in all things”—in the natural world around us, within the human community, and of course, if people so choose, within the formal rituals and liturgies of extant traditions.
This panentheistic orientation is not, in the Catholic context, limited to the famously progressive Jesuit order. Several years ago, Andrew Greeley made a sociological case for its pervasiveness in Catholic cultures more generally, speaking of the “sacramental imagination” through which even non-Church-affiliated Catholics tend to look for glimmers of a transcendent world shining through (Greeley liked the word “lurking”) the everyday goings-on of their lives. In fact, I suspect that the culturally Catholic background of my students plays an important part in why Emersonian-inflected nature religion strikes them with such uncanny familiarity. In Catholic terminology, Albanese’s “nature religion” or even “metaphysical religion” is simply called natural theology—which, alongside biblical theology, has defined the parameters of Catholic philosophy and contemplation for millennia.
This last observation may explain why Richard John Neuhaus, reviewing Albanese’s work on metaphysical religion in 2007 for the conservative Catholic journal First Things, rejected its central premise that we should consider it as an alternative to the Christian tradition. In A Republic of Mind and Spirit, Albanese has proposed that metaphysical religiosity be seen as a third, and distinct, exegetical tradition running alongside evangelical and liturgical Christianities in the United States. Neuhaus responded: “Her book does not provide the ‘missing third’ of our religious history, but a useful account of some of the more fascinating products of the spiritual fecundity of a people who will likely continue to be, as it has since the European settlement, confusedly and conflictedly Christian.”5
We might object to Neuhaus’s characterization of metaphysical religiosity, in all of its historical variations or in today’s SBNR, as confused and conflicted, but this would be to miss, I think, a more fundamental point. While I continue to hold Albanese’s work in the highest regard, I nevertheless appreciate Neuhaus’s acknowledgment that metaphysical religiosity is something familiar to the American religious experience—quite literally, as part of the cultural family of religions in the United States—rather than a strange outlier requiring, pace Albanese, an entirely new historiographical framework to understand. In fact, American Catholics have long identified spiritual movements in tension with established churches as returns of their carefully catalogued list of heretical movements: to use the familial metaphor again, they are viewed more as embarrassing cousins than total strangers.6
Fortunately, John Neuhaus is not the only Catholic observer to recognize spirituality without religion as constituting a recognizable category within the Western theological tradition. A small but deeply influential number of Roman and Anglo-Catholic thinkers—including Richard Rohr, James Finley, and Cynthia Bourgeault—have in recent decades offered interpretations of Christian theology that are deeply resonant with, and informed by, the immediate context of an SBNR United States. Rather than mounting polemic defenses of Christianity over and against spirituality, these writers have offered “nondualistic” formulations of Christianity to readers and retreatants dissatisfied with strictly scriptural interpretations of their tradition.7 Such innovations may in fact point the way toward a viable future for America’s ailing mainstream churches.
It would not be entirely wrong, in fact, to suggest that “spiritual but not religious” can be a code for Catholic-but-not-Protestant, or at least Catholicism in its sacramental or natural-theological mode. Of course, this will be an offensive suggestion to an American culture that is still eminently invested in defining itself over and against its religious or political past, à la Martin Luther, George Washington, or both. But this Catholic influence was just as true throughout the twentieth century as it was in the nineteenth. Paul Tillich’s revolutionary formulation of God as the Ground of Being circulated without mention of the fact that Bonaventure, the thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian, had been an inspiration. A century earlier, Emerson had waxed poetic about the cathedrals of the American forests, failing to mention how hundreds of hours of immersion in the Catholic cathedrals of Italy—recorded in no fewer than 90 pages of his journals, as Susan Dunston has shown—had inspired new insights into the nature of the divine.
Recognizing the continuities between SBNR and the rhetorical “foundations” of American, Christian, and Western culture could not stand in starker contrast to its complete dismissal in canonical accounts of American religious history. The relative invisibility of this theological mode no doubt reflects the overwhelmingly Protestant(ized) bias of American religious historians, a perspective that is only now beginning to change. How can a nation that has told the story of itself as springing from the Reformation take seriously a mode of theologizing that does not rely on scripture at all? In the wake of such historiographical blind spots, such esteemed scholars of American culture as Andrew Delbanco can cast Ralph Waldo Emerson primarily as a spokesman for secular Protestantism. Even reputable critics like Harold Bloom, otherwise a cautious proponent of “American Gnosticism,” can reduce Emerson’s entire metaphysics to the “orange squash of the spirit,” relying on caricatured comments about the so-called New Age.
Insofar as we choose to engage with SBNR with an eye to its continued vitality, we might make an enormous contribution as historians by situating it in dialogue not only with the foundations of American liberalism, vis-à-vis civil religion, but also with natural theology, one of the theological ur-sources of Western religious thought. Such a strategy does not mean ignoring or downplaying the myriad non-Christian and non-European influences that flow into the discourse of SBNR, such as the prominence of Hindu teachings and practices (e.g., Vedanta philosophy and hatha yoga), Buddhist meditation methods, or shamanic healing modalities (e.g., the ceremonial use of ayahuasca, derived from indigenous Amazonian traditions), to cite just a few examples. Rather, it is once again to acknowledge SBNR as the familiar category of natural theology within the so-called Western tradition, and thereby disabuse its critics’ rather egregious charge that it bears no resemblance to anything we have seen before within this lineage. The key is found in thinking about European-American origins outside of Protestant or Protestantized historiographical boxes.
If there is something novel in this Catholic-inflected notion of God-in-Nature, or Nature as the Godhead, it lies in the broader objective of most strains of SBNR to articulate a vision of wholeness, or connectedness, that might offset the manifold modern forces that fragment our understanding of self and world. These include the classically reductionist methodology of Western science, the socially corrosive trends of technology, the commodification of people, places, and things in a capitalist economy, and so on. The rise of SBNR is fundamentally an “ecological” movement in the literal sense of that word: the root of ecology is oikos, the Greek word for home, as in a space that human beings can and want to inhabit together.
For all sorts of reasons, living in accord with oiko-logical principles in modern America is a deeply countercultural and labor-intensive calling. As scholars, we might gain even greater insight into the significance of SBNR movements by supplementing the intellectual histories of Delbanco and Albanese with a more sociological approach, highlighting the background of disorientation that gives rise to them in the first place and that is part and parcel of life for us all. The exact form of a particular movement, its foreground, could then be seen more clearly to take shape around the shared experience of dislocation that its members are trying to heal. At the risk of overdoing the etymological analysis, we might remember that the word “heal” also comes from a root—in this case, the Anglo-Saxon hāl—connoting a sense of human well-being in this world; its cognates include the terms holistic and holiness.
The key word is a shared sense of dislocation, which becomes the catalyst for the articulation of hope and the formation of communitas outside of extant traditions. An illuminating study here would be the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous—the proverbial high church of SBNR culture—which was a splinter group, initially, of the evangelical Lutheran, Oxford Group. Neither Bill Wilson nor Bob Smith had any particular axe to grind with “organized religion”; in fact, the core structure of their movement, the Twelve Steps, essentially replicated that of the denomination they had formerly hoped to inhabit. The various caricatures we often read about spiritual but not religious people—including their alleged corruption by consumerist culture, their phobia of community, or their theological illiteracy—miss the point in explaining the emergence and continuation of a group like AA. The movement is based on Wilson’s and Smith’s narrative about being down-and-out in the United States, a quintessentially modern tale of psychological and social fragmentation. This story is written by and for alcoholics, who through their recantations of the story actually bring oikos into being. I would suggest that AA can stand as a paradigmatic example of SBNR identity more generally. What we are really witnessing are grassroots attempts to reconstitute a viable mode of dwelling within the United States, rather than—as is the norm—simply passing through it.
From this sociological perspective, it becomes easier to understand why the general orientation of the SBNR movement has little to do with theological traditions per se. Albanese has identified four recurring themes in the history of metaphysical religion: an emphasis on divine immanence (as symbolized by sacred energies that pervade the cosmos), interconnectedness (or “correspondence”), healing, and gnosis.8 If, in fact, we are looking at communities of displaced, and in some cases even traumatized moderns, then the first three of these tenets practically explain themselves. SBNR communities are “hospices” in the older sense of that word: homes, in this world, for pilgrims united in a common experience of exile and reconstituted in and through that solidarity. Naturally, their cosmovision will reflect in various ways the primacy of a this-worldly soteriology, the urgency of (re-)imagining cohesion within the human and perhaps the more-than-human community as well, and the centrality of recovering from a prior life of fragmentation.
As for the overly fraught notion of “gnosis” (bequeathed by nineteenth-century Catholic observers of Spiritualism and Theosophy), some critics have seized on this dimension of SBNR to argue that its adherents are lost in self-absorption and averse to community.9 Such an interpretation glosses over the fact that the basic values the SBNR embraces—the authority of individual conscience, freedom of thought, and autonomy of expression—are in fact the foundational premises of liberal culture. Furthermore, I am not talking here simply about Americans who have had “religious experiences.” I have come to see that what we should be talking about are modern liberal people attempting to redress the excesses of modern liberal societies, aided by whatever theological resources are at hand, and in the process rediscovering that it really is possible to theologize outside the parameters of a standardized scripture or preexistent tradition.
The perennial attraction of religiously disaffiliated spiritual movements in the United States does indeed give me hope for the future. Returning to Aristotle’s poesis, neither civility nor liberalism has ever been guaranteed in the American experience; they have always been ideals of how we ought to live and what we ought to become. In order for these ideals to have a chance of becoming this-worldly realities, we need poetry in its mode of myth. I would not be as hopeful about the future if the current state of religion in the United States were limited to the demise of its historically liberal institutions and the rise of its increasingly illiberal denominations. Neither, for that matter, would I be particularly hopeful if the poetic imagination had been successfully driven out of the American republic altogether by an elite group of technocrats and social scientists.
Instead, inspiringly, I see in the increasing number of SBNR Americans an impulse to struggle against the prevailing cultural tides of social disintegration and a commitment to actualizing the ideals of a liberal civis. Being spiritual but not religious in the United States is, perhaps counterintuitively, an essentially conservative rather than a revolutionary tradition relative to our foundational ideas as a nation, and even to the oft-forgotten heritage of natural theology in the Western theological tradition. The fact that Delbanco passed right over the strands of nature religion in his narration of civil religion is a quintessential example of its invisibility in both academic and public intellectual spheres—despite the fact that the Declaration of Independence invokes the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God to authorize its claims, including, especially, its prototypical ideals of social equality and the inalienable rights of the individual. The absence of nature and metaphysical religion in Delbanco’s account of American culture also explains, I suspect, why he was unable to envision any compelling reason to hope beyond the political and cultural horizons of the late twentieth century, and why many cultural observers of our own day, particularly on the Left but increasingly among cultural conservatives as well, are finding it difficult to overcome despair.
Though, like many of us, I have spent most of the last two years riding out waves of despair and hope as I contemplate the future of our country and, indeed, the world, I have been surprised to find that a significant site of hope is the millions of Americans who identify not as religious but as spiritual, and the possibilities they might offer to America as we venture forward into the future. This realization first came to me as I read through the reactions of my students—most of whom are cultural Catholics and many of whom are resigned to the cynicism of these times—to Emersonian mysticism and a sampling of Native American worldviews. Here is part of a reflection by just one of several dozen undergraduates in my fall 2017 American religion classes who found their faith reawakened by an introduction to religious thought that is grounded in the natural world:
As mentioned before, growing up, I did not feel most connected with God when I was reading scripture at Sunday school, receiving Eucharist at [M]ass, or even when I made my confirmation. Even today, when I go home on breaks and attend church with my parents, I often find myself distracted and certainly not focused on what I “should” be focused on during [M]ass. However, I have finally come to the realization that that is okay, and that my relationship with faith should never be forced. Faith is something that, in my opinion, should be entirely natural.
For all of the things in the world that constrain us and are insincere, faith is one thing that I refuse to have fall into that category. The natural world we live in and the beauty that endures in it is where I find God and my faith to be strongest.
Other students reflected on particular moments spent in places like the Adirondack Mountains, the Hawaiian jungles, or the Arizonan deserts whose spiritual dimensions were not entirely obvious to them at the time but were now clarified in light of readings and discussions. They did not all reference God; many preferred to reflect on the sublime or on a felt sense of connection with other-than-human, sentient beings. But what almost all of the students expressed in common was a sense of gratitude to have discovered that hope has not in fact diminished to a smouldering or even quenched fire on the altar of American culture. And they were just as surprised as I was to realize that these stories about nature and spirituality had the power to move so many of them collectively. We suddenly found ourselves dwelling in the heart of a myth.
The story of American hope I will share with my future students will depart from Delbanco’s precisely at the point when Emerson enters the narrative. Aided by the insights I have gleaned both from Albanese and my own classroom experience, I will suggest that we read his mystical writings as a guide to understanding a future of hope that is already emerging, rather than as a record of events that transpired in New England long ago. From this vantage point, one can grieve the passage of twentieth-century-style civil religion without spiralling into despair. Its decline does not necessarily signal the end of liberal culture. Especially in light of the rise of SBNR, the historical moment now upon us holds the promise of birthing new expressions and enactments of liberal ideals. As a teacher and scholar of American religion, I have realized that I am in a unique position to contribute to the exegetical lineage of SBNR and, in so doing, help shore up the culture of liberal democracy in this present time of crisis.
- Delbanco, The Real American Dream, 1.
- Incidentally, Delbanco is a colleague of Mark Lilla, who expressed similar concerns in his provocative November 18, 2016, op-ed for The New York Times, “The End of Identity Liberalism.”
- Delbanco, The Real American Dream, 118.
- The first book, Albanese’s Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (University of Chicago Press, 1990), examines historical case studies in which religious participants explicitly evoked nature or naturalness to authorize their distinctive notions of an ideal society. The second work, A Republic of Mind and Spirit, focuses on religious movements centered on gnosis rather than nature per se, but a defining feature of metaphysical systems is their pantheistic or panentheistic cosmologies, with nature figuring once again as physicality in the form of energy, or as the expression of universal laws or principles.
- Richard John Neuhaus, “Metaphysical America,” First Things, March 2007.
- Denise Buell has documented this trend in the context of nineteenth-century American religion, showing how Catholic observers retrieved their own heresiological term “gnostic” to characterize such movements as Spiritualism and Theosophy, and, in the process, introduced the term into the popular American lexicon.
- In Bourgeault’s case, the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff—commonly relegated to the “occultist” corner in American religious history—deeply inform her hermeneutics, taking a respectable place alongside the Orthodox and Roman Catholic contemplative theologies.
- Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit, 6–16. My ordering and phrasing of these terms departs slightly from the original text. I have chosen the word “gnosis” to convey Albanese’s critical assertion that the exploration and mastery of consciousness in metaphysical systems constitutes a salvific act, which she pairs with and contrasts to the evangelical conversion of the heart (6).
- For a particularly scathing example, see Lillian Daniel, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me,” Huffpost, September 13, 2011.
Darryl Caterine is a professor of religious studies at Le Moyne College, author of Haunted Ground: Journeys through a Paranormal America (Praeger, 2011), and co-editor of The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape (Routledge Press, 2019).