Even the most open-minded social scientists—those who are up for studying almost any social group or activity—tend to find the kind of spiritual practitioners at the heart of Bender’s book hard to take. These practitioners, whom Bender refers to as “metaphysicals,” are given to individualistic self-understandings that run directly counter to how most social scientists think the world works, and their apparently free spirited way of hopping between institutions and borrowing liberally from all manner of religious and philosophical traditions makes it look as if they almost live the kinds of intensely self-focused and self-created lives that they proclaim they do. In the face of these practitioners’ unrelenting devotion to the needs of their own bodies and minds, it’s hard not to see them as the lonely crowd at worship, assiduously reconciling themselves to their fates by means of a consumerist version of religion. For social scientists who like to imagine that religion at least sometimes gives people a bit more critical purchase on their life situations—that is to say, for many people who become social scientific scholars of religion—this kind of faith cannot but appear, at least on the surface of things, as something of a disappointment.
And for many observers, surfaces are all there are to these new age sorts of faith. Bender’s study—based on a sensitive ethnography of metaphysicals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and solid historical understanding—gives the lie to such assumptions. She accomplishes this by tackling head on precisely the characteristics of these religions that make them appear to so many scholars as unappealing or even unworthy subjects of social scientific research. She acknowledges at the outset that, in their own understandings, the people she spent time with are deeply invested in their personal journeys and experiences. They have very little interest in the histories of the traditions from which they build their personal faiths—and this despite the role denizens of Cambridge have played in the development of many of them. Likewise, they evidence little awareness of, or concern for, the social institutions that make their religious quests possible. As Bender makes clear, they are not in any respect lay sociologists—not even bad ones.
But the lack of sociological awareness these metaphysicals display does not mean that their beliefs and practices do not have histories, are not housed within institutions, and are not profoundly shaped by cultural patterns of thought and action that present-day practitioners did not in fact make up. Bender teaches us how to identify the hard social skeleton that makes possible even the very amorphous-seeming spirituality that the metaphysicals promote. She shows how their religious endeavors depend on various religious, medical, and arts organizations to give them space; on more or less established cultural models of phenomena such as past lives and subtle bodies to teach them what is possible by way of spiritual encounters; and on the shared narrative structures they use to make sense of their experiences to themselves and to one another. By rendering visible the social machinery of metaphysical spiritual lives, Bender makes those she studies finally social scientifically tractable. In doing so, she also manages to trouble the distinction between religion and spirituality that currently shapes so much of popular and sociological discourse alike. If the spiritual is just as socially embedded as the religious, she points out, the usual distinction that makes religion a matter of institutions and the spiritual one of personal experience turns out to need rethinking.
For many, this argument about the social grounding of the spiritual will be a key takeaway message of Bender’s book, and it is an important one. But since she makes that case so well herself, I want to focus in the rest of my remarks on what I take to be one of her equally important, but less foregrounded, findings. For Bender not only shows us that metaphysical religion is, in reality, just as social as any other. She also shows us how, despite this fact, the metaphysicals manage to imagine their lives in profoundly unsocial terms. She documents the work they do to boil their worlds down to nothing (or almost nothing) but personal experience. We see in Bender’s work the efforts metaphysicals make to disregard the social history of their practices, to place their current social relationships in the shadow of imaginary past relations, and to live in a spiritual geography that makes the real geography of Cambridge largely irrelevant to them. It is through this work that they create themselves as highly individualistic religious selves—selves who are free to direct their own religious development to meet their own ends.
All of the work metaphysicals do to understand their social lives in non-social terms should alert us to something important: living as an individual in modern fashion—as someone who at least feels him- or herself to be a self-creating, self-developing free-mover—is an accomplishment. Sociologically speaking, individualism of this sort does not just happen to people. In fact, sociologically speaking, it is rather society that just happens to people. The sense of living as an individual, by contrast—this one does, as individualist ideology would have it, have to apply effort to develop. We social scientists might find metaphysical religion, and the religion of other spiritual practitioners, a bit more interesting if we were quicker to register how neatly these faiths enable those who follow them to inhabit individualism. Perhaps this is what religion looks like when it has perfected its ability to do just that. No doubt, Protestant Christianity made contributions to the development of individualism; but it has never been so fully able to support it as have these new faiths, which can thus teach us a good deal about how individualism is rendered livable in contemporary societies.
And the seeking after individualism that the metaphysicals Bender writes about display in their pursuit of self-development also raises a final point: many Americans want to live as individuals, and they want their religion to help them pull this off. Social scientists tend to imagine that Americans don’t really want this. They suspect that bowling alone and Sheilaism are bad things that happen to otherwise good (read: “social”) people. But the spiritual practitioners that populate this book don’t help us make that argument. Instead, they remind us that many times, those who live very individualistic lives are getting just what they want and what they work toward. We might wish this were not so, or even seek for ways to change it, but it is important to recognize how well the goals of these practitioners line up with the religious formations through which they have tried to pursue them. For me, that is one of the most arresting conclusions of Bender’s important social scientific reckoning with a kind of faith that our disciplines so often fail to comprehend.