Courtney Bender is an associate professor of religion at Columbia University and co-chair of the SSRC’s Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life. As a sociologist of religion, she pioneers novel ways of studying religion as it is lived and articulated in contemporary American culture. Her latest book, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, June 2010), 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.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.—ed.

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NS: The New Metaphysicals is a study of a particular time and place, but one that means to speak about much broader currents in American culture. Why Cambridge? Why these people?

CB: In all honesty, I started fieldwork in Cambridge because I was living there, transplanted from New York for a few years. I initially approached Cambridge more as a lab than a field—that is, not as a specific place, but rather a kind of place: an educated university town, with lots of people whom I presumed would fit the sociological model of the liberal spiritual seeker or consumer. For a long time I resisted any urge to think or write about Cambridge as a particular place, a unique place. But I eventually realized that I could make more of the study, and develop a better way of addressing the significance of spirituality in America, if I addressed Cambridge as such.

NS: Cambridge is a place with so much history for American metaphysicals, yet your subjects seem much more concerned with the future than the past. Do you see them more as a relic or as a vanguard?

CB: They can be either, depending on whom you talk to. Certainly, many people who live in Cambridge think that they’re in the vanguard!

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: It is important to talk about and investigate the various historical links and pasts of contemporary spirituality. History is extremely important, and its elision is an ongoing problem with so much of the popular discourse about spirituality, which tends to suggest that it is a condition rather than a tradition. Sociologists and scholars of American religion need to have a better understanding of the complex religious and cultural pasts that form our present. There are lots more things to be written on these subjects, and while I was writing this book I was able to draw on a number of exceptional new volumes that focus on aspects of these ungainly histories. I’m thinking of work by Christopher White, Leigh Schmidt, Catherine Albanese, Molly McGarry, Alex Owen, Ann Taves, John Lardas Modern, and the list goes on.

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.

NS: What, then, does it mean for you to tackle, in the words you cite from John Dewey, “things in their complex entanglements”?

CB: For a long time I’ve been interested in the effects of social scientific methods on our understanding of religious life in the U.S. Despite the great strides in theorizing religion and religious complexity—with heterodox arguments about secularism and secularization, or the emphasis on practice, for example—almost all of the social scientific studies of religion in America begin in unquestionably religious places, like churches. As I’ve argued, it’s these methods that effectively leave out social processes that are not so clearly separate or distinct from the religious in social life. They make it difficult to develop the theoretical potential that many of us aspire to consider. Even with a few stellar exceptions—Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s work comes to mind—the whole corpus of scholarly work tells us that religious groups and individuals are appropriate and adequate sites of inquiry into the shaping of religion in American life. Other kinds of religious production are regularly judged or measured by the standard reproduced by these methodological choices.

As a consequence, religion that is generated elsewhere doesn’t appear to be religious. This has very powerful consequences. An entire apparatus of critique—that spirituality is disorganized, individualized, corporatized, commodified—reinforces the view that “spirituality” is both ubiquitous and socially problematic.

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 don’t focus serially on those settings or spaces. Rather, 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.

NS: You point out that these ways of speaking about the spiritual also play a part in the story of American secularity. How does spirituality affect the usual narratives of the secular and, now, the post-secular?

CB: “Spirituality” is a word that resonates in all of the usual narratives of the secular; it’s a word that pops up everywhere. It does different kinds of work in Charles Taylor’s and William Connolly’s works on secularism; it is valued and promoted in Sam Harris’s various books, and he makes it consistent with atheism; it is embedded in psychological discourse, which is itself disembedded from any religious tradition; and so on. So, “spirituality” doesn’t affect the narratives of secularity from the outside, but is already part and parcel of them. For me—and for those of us who are working in various ways with the SSRC’s initiative on spiritual forms—the questions then turn to why and how these forms, or formations, work: what they do, what they make of the secular, and how they fashion it.

NS: Your subjects see academic scholarship as a legitimating presence, one that they’re comfortable in and eager to engage with. What do you think your book will do for your subjects? What will it legitimate and what will it challenge?

CB: Presence is the key word here. I unexpectedly found myself participating in and engaging a religious culture in which academics have from time to time played a peculiar role. Within the Cambridge milieu, skeptical academics, in particular, are considered to be people who carry the weight and authority of “science.” I realized after the fact that sometimes just asking questions performs an act of legitimation; it was a sign for my respondents that we were pursuing a common goal of learning “the truth.” I never used words like “truth,” “science,” or “proof” in my questions, but I often found myself answering questions about my work that suggested that my respondents thought of what I was doing in those terms.

That said, I’m not sure that the book is going to either provide a measure of legitimacy or push buttons any more than my presence already has. Every writer hopes that her book will challenge someone somewhere, but I make no predictions. Sociologists aren’t very good at predictions anyhow.

NS: Science and American spirituality have always had a complex relationship, and this is no less the case today, with widespread interest in, for example, the neuroscience of religious experience and research on alternative medicine. What work does science do for your subjects? Do you think they misconstrue it?

CB: My husband is a biologist, and we spend a lot of time at home talking about the innumerable ways that people misconstrue scientific evidence, facts, and data. Most Americans have outsized hopes and fears about what science is able to do now, or will be able to do soon. Therefore, it’s hard for me to argue that the people I met in Cambridge are unusual by virtue of the mere fact that they misconstrue science. We all do. 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. That is where they believe true legitimacy and authority ultimately rests—with the “real” scientists and, I should add, not the social scientists!

NS: If not ultimate legitimacy, what does a social scientific study such as yours propose to tell us? 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. Of course critique is a quality of much scholarly writing, and readers will find that I do offer several. I’m aware also that the book opens itself up to several lines of critique—both old and, I hope, new. With that in mind, I’d like to imagine it as a gentle provocation—something that stimulates and unsettles, rather than tidies things up.