Stephen Prothero: A history of spirituality from Emerson to Oprah--and a defense of it.

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, is the author of "American Jesus."]

Conservative Christianity is doubtless growing in the U.S., but so is the "spiritual but not religious" demographic. This mantra seems to boil down to a critique and a desire. The critique is aimed at "organized religion," whose rites, creeds and dogmas, it is felt, fail to get to the heart of things. The desire is exactly to get to the heart of things, but by one's own devices--to experience God or nirvana or the Absolute apart from the priestly and institutional apparatus of "Sunday religion."

Trends arrive bundled with critics nowadays, and when it comes to spirituality the critics have been vocal. The most shrill are communitarians, who dismiss spiritual questing as narcissism of the worst sort--a civic cancer of navel-gazing individualism that gestated among the baby boomers and is now spreading to Generations X and Y. Americans aren't just bowling alone, the critics rage, they are worshiping alone. And what could be more dangerous than that?

Now comes Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor of religion at Princeton University, with a seductive history of American spirituality that doubles as a defense of the same. "Restless Souls" argues that the roots of today's spirituality vogue run deeper than the guru-gazing of the counterculture. In fact, the current vogue for a spirituality of one's own (e.g., Oprah) has an eminent American pedigree in 19th-century religious liberalism (e.g., Emerson).
It was Emerson who once wrote a biographical volume called "Representative Men," and "Restless Souls" too reads like serial biography--in this case of four generations of adherents to what Mr. Schmidt calls the "Spiritual Left." These seekers include such venerable figures as the poet Walt Whitman and the psychologist William James, who together affirmed a faith of "spiritual liberty, mystical experience, meditative interiority, universal brotherhood and a sympathetic appreciation of all religions." But most of the book's heroes are B- and C-listers, such as Rufus M. Jones (a Quaker mystic), Paul Carus (a Buddhist sympathizer) and Sarah Farmer (who founded a spiritual retreat in Maine in the 1890s). If Mr. Schmidt's intent is to provide some intellectual heft to a movement often dismissed as Religion Lite, the question is how much weight this lineage can carry.

In any case, Mr. Schmidt is determined to understand the partisans of spirituality, whatever their stature, rather than blame them. It is misguided, he argues, to reduce "seeker spirituality" to a gospel of narcissistic navel-gazing. Its practitioners have for generations insisted on both spiritual freedom and self-surrender. Or, to put it in more contemporary terms, the Spiritual Left has values too....

One of the grand conceits of the Spiritual Left is that each of us can (and should) invent our own spirituality, which to be authentic must also be unborrowed. But the meditation techniques and yoga postures so loved among spirituality's champions did not spring forth fully formed from the genius of any American. They were cultivated over millennia by Hindus and Buddhists in India and Tibet and Japan, who were themselves sustained in those practices by institutions and clerics and everything else that Emerson loved to hate. Mr. Schmidt knows this, of course. And at a few points he seems to sense the irony of foisting an intellectual genealogy on folks who, like Charlie Brown and his friends, fancy themselves parentless....

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Mary Jane VanEsselsttyn - 11/20/2005

I just want to add that there may not be much time to waste. For the first time in history man has the power and technology to exterminate all life on earth. Something to think about. We may need to rethink our policy of we'll get them before they get us before it leads to unintended consquences including a self fullfilling prophesy.There may somethings beyond our control that cannot be solved by human ingenuity. Should we continue to trust the experts or is it too late to learn to think for ourselves?

Mary Jane VanEsselsttyn - 11/20/2005

I heartily endorse the idea of an individual spiritual journey that involves discovering spiritual truths on our own rather than second hand.We may find this an exciting journey that may prove more rewarding than the modern view if religious communitarianism that preaches Utopianism instead of individual salvation.It may be time investigate for ourselves if we are willing to put forth the time and effort and may include revising our modern worldview. Our new religion has been shaped by exteme materialism that places man before God and the visible before the invisible