At first glance, Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals might appear narrow and idiosyncratic. After all, it’s an ethnography of spiritual practitioners in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a pairing of the sacred and the secular that can seem as incongruous as Buddhists at boxing matches. What do astral voyagers, shamanistic drummers, and OBEs (Out of Body Experiencers, not to be confused with the equally rarefied Order of the British Empire) have to do with a progressive community anchored by such bastions of rational knowledge as Harvard and MIT?
Undoing such essentialized oppositions, however, is precisely Bender’s intention. American spirituality, she argues, tends to be marginalized by the sociology of religion. It is often defined as distinct from religion, an individualized “lifestyle” choice enabled by modern consumerism, and a residual practice in a secular age. She brilliantly dissolves the binary distinctions between religion and spirituality, as well as enchantment and secularism, by analyzing the experiences, activities, traditions, and spaces of spiritual practitioners. Such “fields” are multiple and overlapping, confusing the neat categorizations that scholars of religion have generated since the early twentieth century: “Particular metaphysical . . . traditions thrive through practices that locate and dislocate, historicize and dehistoricize, spiritualize and secularize, embody and offer an escape from embodiment.” For all of its fuzziness and complexity, Bender maintains that she can identify a “something” called spirituality, which is actively produced within the “entanglements” of manifold fields in contemporary America. Thus, her book, rather than being a local history of an atavistic outlook, significantly explores “how the nonsecular remains woven deeply into our language and habits.” It is a welcome addition to other recent exposés of how Western modernity remains enchanted in historically specific ways, not least by its own peculiar faith in secular disenchantment.
Bender’s choice of terms—“entanglement,” “fields”—suggests a conceptual outlook influenced by the “New Physics” of quantum mechanics, rather than the preceding Newtonian physics that significantly shaped Max Weber’s understanding of modernity as “disenchanted.” For Weber, the rationalization of the West meant that everything could, “in principle,” be quantified and calculated. The traditional world of spirits had become a mechanistic world of brute matter; extrinsic meaning had been evacuated from a universe governed by the impersonal laws of force and motion. In a passage that continued to influence views of Western secularism until the late twentieth century, Weber claimed that in modernity,
there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather . . . one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.
This Newtonian outlook was hospitable to the essentialist logic of binary oppositions, however much Weber himself insisted that his own definitions were “ideal types” intended to explain complex phenomena. The quantum outlook of recent scholars like Bender replaces such equal and opposite dualisms—enchantment and disenchantment, spirituality and secularity—with a notion of complementarity. Seemingly opposed elements are now understood to be mutually constituting and entangled; apparently discrete items change their configurations when viewed from new vantage points or fields. In the past two decades, scholarship on modernity has tended to adopt a “both/and” perspective rather than the “either/or” categories that characterized earlier analyses.
Bender proves false the common distinction between religious practice, as being organized around institutions and traditions, and spiritual practice, as being individualist and market-driven. Many of those whom she interviewed in Cambridge belonged to overlapping organizations, both secular and religious, which shaped their practices and experiences. Some were connected to alternative medicine clinics, or art collectives, or mainstream congregations, or a combination of groups, which became entangled with how spiritual experiences were manifested and understood. Yoga, for example, could have different spiritual implications when practiced in a church than when practiced in an alternative medicine clinic or the relatively ecumenical space of a Health Fair. She also shows that the sociological distinction between a religious experience, on the one hand, and an account of that experience, on the other, is undermined by the testimonies of her subjects. A number insisted that their accounts manifested the vital energies of their original encounter with a metaphysical order.
Bender acknowledges that “spirituality,” like “religion,” is a fuzzy category: there are “many overlapping spiritualities that relate in different ways to various institutional fields in American society.” Nevertheless, her own subjects maintain that spiritual practices have “family resemblances,” partly because the spiritual networks in Cambridge overlap in terms of interests and membership. Bender seems to believe this as well; there are discernible contours to the representation of spirituality that her book provides. She uses terms like “mystics” and “metaphysicals” as synonyms for the “spiritual,” and traces the historical affiliation of contemporary spiritual practices to nineteenth- and twentieth-century antecedents, such as Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and New Thought, which Catherine Albanese has deemed “the American metaphysical religion.” Bender’s subjects believe in a metaphysical realm of vital energies, etheric bodies, and past lives that can be accessed through esoteric techniques as well as “scientific” methods like astral photography and hypnotic regression. Although she doesn’t state this categorically, the implication of The New Metaphysicals is that modern American spirituality is grounded firmly in metaphysics, for plausible historical reasons.
At various points in her stimulating exposition, I wanted to leave the world of quantum scholarship, with its tolerant emphasis on “both/and,” and resurrect some binary distinctions, however tentative and qualified. One of these distinctions has to do with the new metaphysicals’ concept of science, and its institutionalized practice around the globe—the version of science that is arguably at the core of Western modernity. Bender notes that the Cambridge metaphysicals believe that their spirituality “fully conforms to modern society. Like all things modern, they tell me, it is grounded on verifiable facts, objective truths, or experimental results.” Many perceive the spirit and its manifestations as a form of energy, and thus as capable of being explained scientifically. Yet, when they inform her about the “scientific” existence of the “esoteric planet” Vulcan, which consists of etheric matter, and is located between the Sun and Mercury, Bender doesn’t prod them about their understandings of science. Instead, she observes impartially that even social scientists have recourse to mysterious explanatory “forces.” This “both/and” outlook is hardly convincing. A metaphysical force like “astral energy” is not comparable to a heuristic force like “the economy.” The latter tends to be employed self-reflexively and contingently, whereas the former tends to be buttressed by mere assertion and blind faith. Bender is not always so neutral; she does critique her subjects for their unreflective imperialistic attitudes when it comes to religion, as they blithely assume that the rest of the world shares their American concept of a perennial philosophy. But she never interrogates them about what they mean by “science.”
“Both/and” won’t do here: there is a fundamental tension between the sanitizing language of science employed by Bender’s subjects and the normative practices of the global scientific community that would have been useful to explore. She points out that many metaphysicals derive some of their notions from pseudo-scientific works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when accounts of lost continents, reincarnation, mind-over-matter, and the like flourished. Some of these works were compatible with the scientific knowledge of their day, but have since been debunked. Why, then, do they continue to exert such a compelling influence today upon a widely educated and information savvy populace? And what might this embrace of pseudo-science suggest about the metaphysicals’ resolute claims to be “modern,” or about our own understanding of how “modernity” is defined? Could spirituality be compatible with scientific naturalism? Bender’s new metaphysicals would seem to say “no,” but the topic is not addressed.
There will be many readers of this sophisticated and accessible book who, though they define themselves as “spiritual,” won’t recognize their experiences or practices in those of the new metaphysicals. They may even find “metaphysical” and “secular” to be incompatible terms. There are forms of spiritual practice today that revel in self-reflexivity, contingency, and provisionality. Bender’s subjects can at times be critically detached from their own outlooks, but overall, they appear committed to their metaphysical beliefs regardless of evidence. Numerous others, however, retain a sense of “spirituality” alongside healthy doses of skepticism about improbable claims (including scientists like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins). Critical reason can be a source of spiritual enchantment: this is why Sherlock Holmes has remained an iconic modern figure in the West for over a century, whereas his creator’s later belief in spiritualism and fairies puzzles us. Many find a non-metaphysical spirituality through the artifices of the imagination, from the art enshrined on museum walls to the virtual worlds of the media. Fans of Middle-earth, Star Wars, or “World of Warcraft” will often admit to being drawn to the implicit or explicit spirituality embodied by these imaginary worlds, while remaining dubious of essentialist claims that aren’t supported by evidence and critical inquiry. They might be intrigued by the chakras, auras, astral voyages, and out of body experiences embraced by Bender’s subjects, but for them, “esoteric evidence” is insufficient for modern spiritual practice. (Reliance on such “evidence” might even appear anti-modern.)
There are Other Worlds of spiritual practice, no doubt thriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that are inadvertently occluded by this book’s singular focus. At the same time, Bender’s nuanced methodology will help us to clarify them. Her new metaphysicals might be the most visible element in the American spiritual spectrum, but we need to cast our observations wider if we are to take the full measure of its ongoing radiance.
I haven’t read Bender’s book; however, if (as suggested above) she believes that “spirituality cannot be made compatible with scientific naturalism,” then I respectfully submit the following: Early on I identified with agnosticism—an escape from what I had been taught. But, I continued to study religion––aesthetic traditions, philosophy of, and Christianity. However, the religion/God that, for me, is spot on, not only affirms God’s existence, but also demonstrates a consistency and coherence with events—predictable scientific events. This God/structure, as I understand It, also makes clear why the physical universe is comprehensible, why the mind will never stop explaining things, and why mathematics (both present and not yet invented) will continue to explore imagined possibilities.
Since one might not be familiar with how this God/structure, or the “time of mind” concept (discontinuity occurring in continuity), plays out in the literature, here are a few examples from the literature of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and science. For instance, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum “I think (doubt), therefore I am,” is obviously impregnated with the experience of the “affirmative ideal” experience, impregnated with the discontinuity of doubt/negation occurring in the continuity of “the affirmation of existence in order to doubt existence. And further, in Sartre’s definition of consciousness: “Consciousness is a being such that in its being its being implies a being other than itself,” the experience of discontinuity occurring in continuity, for Sartre, becomes the defining condition of a self-conscious person. And again, in psychology, every time the subject is identified as “coming to be,” or “under construction,” discontinuity occurring in continuity/the affirmative ideal is what is being discussed. In fact, Piaget’s concept of “self” is defined as “the center of functional activity.” And, again in Sociology, where Thom focuses his studies on the “the overcoming of the primitive ambivalence or opposition between the modes of difference and no difference, and, in a like manner, where Simmel focuses his studies on “man as both the fixing of boundaries and the reaching out across these boundaries”—the language of discontinuity occurring in continuity is front and center in the discussion. And lastly, in the physics of the quantum particles, where the collapse of the wave function is observer generated, we are not only witnessing the language of the “affirmative ideal,” we are witnessing (with each collapse of the wave function) empirical evidence supporting the claim that God exists in the structure of human self-consciousness, i.e., GOD INCARNATED. Thanks for the opportunity to post.