The Metaphysics of the Internet; or Can Lydia Maria Child’s Ghost Read My Comment?

I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.

Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.

This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:

Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.

And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.

UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point:

On the Anniversary of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and Its Place in American Religious History

First Edition of 'Walden' from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

First Edition of ‘Walden’ from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library via the MARBL Facebook page.

Today marks the 158th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Right now I am knee deep in Transcendentalists, Thoreau included, as I wade through my chapter on Transcendentalist representations of Hinduism. The combination of today’s anniversary and my current writing work got me thinking about how Henry David Thoreau fits into American religious history.

Right now I’m working to put Thoreau into the proper place as one of America’s earliest Orientalists. Thoreau studied and appreciated Hindu religious texts, among other Asian traditions, and found them inspirational for his spiritual thought and literary prose. But he also took a view of “the East” and “the Orient” that imagined it as an essentially spiritual place. As New England industrialized around him, Thoreau looked to the Orient as a counterbalance–a place of spiritual contemplation and ancient truth to offset America’s material industry and progressive zeal. He hoped for a fusion of East and West in his writing, in his religious thought, and in America’s future. This hybrid vision emerges at the end of the chapter titled “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau observes ice harvesters taking ice from the pond that would be packed in sawdust and shipped from New England to India. This connection between cold New England and balmy Calcutta sparks a vision:

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

I want to put Thoreau up as one of the first American Orientalists, with all the baggage that comes with such a title, and analyze the politics and power relations at work in the Orient as he imagined it. But what is his larger place in American religious history? What is the place of Walden?For some Thoreau is the first American yogin. Though that really depends on what you mean by yoga and how much you take Thoreau’s claims at face value. In Restless Souls, Leigh Eric Schmidt argued that Thoreau is part of a tradition of solitude within American liberal religion. When he took to the woods “to live life deliberately” he took part in a larger Western tradition of hermitage and solitude that has continued in his wake–my colleague Brian Campbell is writing his dissertation on this hermitage tradition. Thoreau is also invoked in contemporary talk about “spirituality.” His iconoclasm and belief in individual and intuitive religious experience are often cited as the forerunner to the “spiritual but not religious” of today. Thoreau and Walden are also key to ideas about the relationship between religion and nature. Thoreau found his own sacred meaning in the landscapes around him, as the quote above highlights. These various examples show how Thoreau has become a multivalent icon of religious liberalism and individual spirituality. We’ve reached a point where his face can be deployed to demand you work for peace, disobey, or simplify. Thoreau’s meaning is as slippery as “spirituality.” His face is a blank slate on which we scrawl our own spiritual visions.

What do you see as the significance of Thoreau and Walden for American religious history?

Frequencies and the Aesthetics of Spirituality

 

Theologians. They don’t know nothing. About my soul

-Wilco

Frequencies, the collaborative genealogy of spirituality curated by Katherine Lofton and John Modern, has become quite a brand across the religion blogosphere. The folks at the Immanent Frame have been posting a series of reflections on the project and its 100 entries ranging from chicken sandwiches to iPhones to my own adviser writing about LSD. The posts themselves are remarkable and the reviews have been excellent as well. I especially appreciated the bitchy essay from Martin Kavka and the musical musings of Jason Bivins.

The most striking thing about Frequencies in my eyes is its beauty. There are moments of wonderful prose, yes, but the collection is striking to gawk at on the screen. More than that, Frequencies has its own aesthetic. So, I have one question for Frequencies, a question I don’t see anyone asking:

What if Frequencies looked like this

…or this

…or even this?

What happens if we take the same text, the same objects in the collection, and reframe them? What if Finbarr Curtis’s essay on his father and the American Dream appeared surrounded by patriotic kitsch instead of smooth lines and a beautiful piece of art? What if Patton Dodd’s thoughts about evangelical Eugene Peterson looked like they were posted by a Sunday School teacher and Gary Laderman’s history of LSD looked like a Deadhead blog? Would we still see these objects a spirituality? How would the meaning of these texts shift in a different aesthetic? How much of the spirituality resonating through Frequencies is in its aesthetics? It just looks like spirituality–doesn’t it?

Compare Frequencies, the genealogy of spirituality, with the American Academy of Religion’s website. The AAR is the institutional hub for the study of “religion”–that thing that spirituality is so often not–and its website stands in stark contrast to Frequencies. So much news and so many menus. You have to scroll down a page with the colors of doctor’s office wallpaper. Or, to go to a paragon of institutional religion, look at the Vatican. A brown background? A giant picture of the Pope in the center around which myriad links to various departments and documents circle. Look at Christianity Today. So much stuff. So many pictures. It’s just so complicated. Now go back to Frequencies. There are no resonances with those other sites. They are on a different aesthetic wavelength. Frequencies has no institutional news, no leaders, no sidebars and frames. It is clean and sleek. It is spirituality–right?

Now, look at Apple. The iPad sits in front of you like the hamburger in a Hardee’s commercial.  The menu across the top is full of one word options and there’s not much to scroll down to. It’s all right there in black, white and gray. It’s clean and sleek. Now I understand why the image of a cup of coffee illustrating Adam Frank’s “science” entry fits so well as the wallpaper on my iPad. There are resonances between Apple and Frequencies–they share an aesthetic wavelength.

Art plays a big role in Frequencies, illustrating many of the entries. The artistic resonances emerge when we look Frequencies alongside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. MoMa is clean with big pictures and simple menus of black and white. The menu items are verbs: visit, explore, learn, support, shop. Frequencies asks you to seek. There are resonances.

I keep wondering about the musical resonances of Frequencies. It’s metaphors invoke sound–frequencies, tune in, wavelengths. Yet it is a startlingly silent website. What is the soundtrack for Frequencies?

I started this post with a Wilco lyric. Check out the cover to that album on the right. A Ghost is Born could be the soundtrack to Frequencies (listen to “Handshake Drugs” while you read  Luís León’s “cannabis club” entry). The cover fits right in with the artwork and feel of Frequencies. A simple egg. White on white with grays and black, while Jeff Tweedy doubly negates theologians. Again, resonances. We could look to other bands for other resonances. Who else might offer the audio for Frequencies words and images? Maybe Arcade Fire? How about Bon Iver? It might be a stretch, but how about Lana Del Rey? Who do you think of? Resonances?

Apple, an art museum, and indie rock, what does this all point too? What is this aesthetic wavelength we’ve tuned into? What do all these resonances mean? (All due respect to John Corrigan’s “meaninglessness”.) I think they point to two things. First, these resonances point to the cultural location of Frequencies within the American middle brow–that space of public radio, iPads, indie rock, the Atlantic, and SXSW. Some of its contents such as automatic writing or This American Life come from and appeal to middle brow America. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the site and the inclusion of these objects alongside others like Eugene Peterson or Chick-Fila lift these “lower” objects up as spiritual and middle brow. Putting “Eugene Peterson” into the format of a poorly constructed webpage with Jesus fishes down the side highlights the ways Frequencies engenders spirituality in the mundane. Eugene Peterson is spirituality in sleek design next to LSD and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Put him in Comic Sans Serif font next to a Zondervan NIV Bible and a set of Precious Moments figurines and he’s just evangelical.

This leads to the second point. When Frequencies claims to be a genealogy of spirituality it also admits to being part of the spirituality family–a family located within middle brow culture. To me the project is less of a Foucaultian genealogy and more of an Ancestry.com genealogy. It is the grandchildren and great grandchildren tracing out their lineage. There are resonances across the middle brow cultural spectrum, from high end consumer electronics to MoMA to indie rock, because they too are all children in this great family of spirituality. They all share similar cultural DNA that we could trace out historically if we tried. Frequencies is not just a catalog of culturally middle brow spirituality, it is a child of  culturally middle brow spirituality.

For me, Frequencies is the Portlandia of spirituality. Like the incredible hipster sketch comedy show, Frequencies smartly digests, analyzes, and catalogs hipster culture and in the process produces some of  best pieces of hipster culture. It slides back and forth from critiquing the culture and situating itself within the culture. Likewise, Frequencies is more than a genealogy of spirituality, it is a prime example of spirituality, down to the aesthetics of the flickering pixels on the screen. It just looks like spirituality.

Food and Spirituality in the South: Chick-fil-A and Bessinger Bros. BBQ

Maurice's Gourmet BBQ

A couple delicious articles crossed my plate just before the Christmas weekend and I didn’t want the connections between them to sneak by. Over at the wonderfully put together museum of religion and spirituality with a hipster aftertaste, Frequencies, Darren “DEG” Grem has written a piece that dives into the spirituality of the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Meanwhile, in the [web]pages of New York Times Magazine I came across a piece from Jack Hitt on the barbecue feud that has torn apart the Bessinger  family of South Carolina in the past two decades. I have spent my whole life in the South. I’ve spent the past four years in Atlanta, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a white Styrofoam cup of Chik-fil-A lemonande, and before that I spent six years in different parts of the mustard based barbecue region of South Carolina. Reading Grem and Hitt reminded me of the ways food in the South partakes of the sacred, the political, and the domestic. Not that it doesn’t do these things in other places, but in the South I can speak from the privileged place of an insider with experience.

That spirituality in the marketplace, or in the chicken sandwich, is both real and illusory at the same time–that it is always already revealing and obscuring–is Grem’s strongest point. He writes:

We can’t take Chick-fil-A’s claims about its sandwich at face value because we lose something in the process. We lose the connection between spirituality and the people who make up the marketplace and the networks and chains that support contemporary capitalism. But we also can’t just dismiss these claims about the spirituality of work, of goods, of companies, of people—or stop with investigative exposés of how it has or has not filtered down to the bottom or up to the top of the corporate triangle. That doesn’t really dive into the messy endeavor to explain spirituality in the marketplace, either as a complicated and layered phenomenon or as an organized but diverse and divided movement.

Indeed, spirituality is messy. It is material. It is juicy and topped with pickles. And sometimes it  pays for bowl games. Grem challenges those trying to trace the role of spirituality in the market and the market in spirituality to go further than simply following the money, or the prayers, or the products. Where that leads I’m not completely sure and Grem doesn’t completely reveal but I think the Lowcountry of South Carolina offers us up a case study.

Jack Hitt’s article on the Bessinger brothers various chains of mustard sauced barbecue in the Lowcountry of South Carolina is worth a full read and, for me, served as a reminder of the shock I experienced when I first encountered yellow barbecue. Having grown up in North Carolina my tongue was trained on vinegar and I could never accept the Gospel of the mustard seed. Then in college I gave up pork altogether and so I took my place on the sidelines of the great barbecue debate–though I don’t think that dry stuff  from down in Alabama ever stood a chance.

Hitt’s article focuses on the fallout between the four Bessinger brothers, each of whom are in the BBQ business, in the wake of Maruice Bessinger’s decision to raise the confederate battle flag over each of his Maurice’s BBQ restaurants. This was Bessinger’s response to the decision by the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the roof of the capitol building. (It has since been moved to a gilded pole in on the capitol grounds, a spot more visible than it ever was way up on the roof.) Maurice’s older brother Melvin, who owns Melvin’s BBQ in Charleston, avoided politics and has seen his fortunes improve as his brother’s neoconfederate ideology continues to hinder his business. In some ways the whole story is a Cain and Able narrative but everyone has the meat in their offering.

What jumped out to me in the article and why it connected to Grem’s piece was the following:

Maybe 200 people turned out at the post-rally barbecue at Maurice’s bottling plant. He had set up a giant shed to seat 500, so the gathering looked like a failure. The machines were walled off by pallets of Maurice’s boxes, each stamped with the word ”Kosher.” Maurice, a lay preacher, began the long afternoon of speeches.

”This is our only hope,” Maurice explained, pointing to the giant Confederate flag behind him. ”As the government gets more and more tyrannical, they will hand over more power to a world government. And then the Antichrist will just come in and say, ‘Thank you very much.”’

Maurice is comfortable weaving religion with barbecue: there is a weekly Bible-study session at each of his pits. Later on, in the privacy of his office, he let slip a secret of his sauce. ”The recipe,” he said, ”is in the Bible.”

”Does it start with Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?” I joked. Maurice’s eyes flared, as if I had correctly guessed that his middle name was Rumpelstiltskin, and he refused to discuss it further.

”You can just say that my Carolina Gold is a heavenly sauce,” he said. ”I believe that after the rapture there will be a big barbecue, and I hope the Lord will let me cook.”

Hitt was tantalizingly close to getting at the spirituality of the barbecue. But he made the mistake about which Grem warns. He got flippant. He thought he could see through the Bible study to what was “really going on.” And Bessinger clammed up. Neoconfederate ideology, conservative Protestantism, pork infused apocalypticism, and the faith of a mustard seed; how do these add up? I really want to know. The mess that Grem prods us towards has been quickly yanked back from Hitt. The connections between the spiritual and the material, and even the political, are there. But what are they?

What does the sacred taste like? Who brings the potato salad to Jesus’s mustard based glory? What makes those chicken sandwiches so God blessed delicious? (And DEG, you forgot about he biscuits.) To find these answers we must resist the urge to make jokes. We must remain humble and quite. We must listen. Then maybe we’ll find out what it will be like when Christ returns to bless the righteous and smite the tomato and the vinegar based.

Oh, and if you are looking for barbecue in South Carolina, I recommend Shealy’s in Batesburg-Leesville. If you can’t find it just ask anyone you meet west of Columbia.

[Cross-posted at Religion in American History]

[Image via Flickr user natecardozo Creative Commons licensed]

Thinking About Ralph Waldo Emerson on His Birthday

Caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous "transparent Eyeball" Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)

Today is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 208th birthday. The Concord sage is one of the great figures of American history and one of my favorite New England religious thinkers. I always think of Emerson as the man who was willing to push that little bit further. Where Arminians and Unitarians stopped, Emerson jumped off the cliff into a sea of human potential. Where Channing had argued for human virture, Emerson posited the Oversoul–the divine within and without. Up to his day American religion had been a religion of dissent and in many ways, Emerson doubled down leaving the Unitarian clergy behind and pushing the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School toward a “being without bound.”

I’ve yet to start writing  my dissertation chapter that deals with Emerson and his contact with Hindu religious sources but as of now I’m convinced that the relationship between Emerson and Hinduism was one of convenience. That is, Emerson was a collector of religious ideas and for various reasons Hindu ideas happened to be at hand. Because he was in Boston, because New England merchants had been trading with India since the 1790s, because Rammohun Roy’s work had reached Unitarians in the 1820s, and because the British empire made knowledge about India readily available in English, India was an obvious place to look for spiritual sources. For example, Emerson famously described the Bhagavad Gita as the great text of Buddhism. To him it didn’t matter which Eastern tradition the book belonged too so long as it fit with his overall spiritual vision.

Emerson is often given credit for first popularizing Asian religious ideas in America. That’s not completely true. At least in eastern New England, Hindu ideas found their way through the periodical press into the homes and libraries of many Americans. The aforementioned Rammohun Roy’s Precepts of Jesus, his Vedantan Hindu reading of Jesus’s moral message,  and his various defenses of it were widely available in the late 1820s and 1830s.  What Emerson did do was Americanize Hindu ideas. He paired a Vedic formulation of Hinduism with a liberal post-Unitarian spirituality that became the seed bed for liberal spirituality we still have with us today. He brought together Krishna. Mesmer, and Swedenborg and now we have Deepak Chopra.

To help you celebrate Emerson’s birthday today you might swing by Amazon and pick up a free Kindle version of a new edition of Self-Reliance complete with self-reflections on the book from historical and contemporary thinkers.  Or if you’d rather watch then read, there’s the 2007 documentary Emerson: The Ideal in America, also available for free viewing online. Or you can just go for a walk in the woods.

HT: Maria Popova

Review: American Veda by Philip Goldberg

While I was traveling over the last few days, Religion Dispatches published a review I wrote of Philp Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Here’s a bit of it:

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?

In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

Things Sacred & Profane: AA Spirituality, GWB Drunk with Rev. Graham, and Einstein on God

Einstein- Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual experience.

- So apparently former President Bush was sloshed the first time he met Billy Graham. He had had “about four beers and five wines.” Well done, sir.

- It’s always remarkable to me how much interest surrounds Albert Einstein’s thoughts about God. It’s the modern equivalent to the search for the historical Jesus. Was he an atheist? Was he a deist? A theist? I like to think that, first and foremost, he was a lover of form and beauty and a man humbly grasping at cosmic straws.

- Is the fetal Christ ad about incarnation of abortion? Or both?

Peter Berger, “Easternizing Spirituality,” and the Colonial Difference

In case you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, sociologist Peter Berger has a new blog, Religion Other Curiosities, at the American Interest Online. It’s a great blog and worth checking out on a regular basis. Berger has keen insights into Religion and culture and it’s great that he’s decided to jump into the blogosphere. (EDIT- See Stephen Prothero’s brief review of Berger’s blog here)

What caught my eye today was his post on Sai Baba and the spread of Eastern religions to the West. Berger rightly notes that Asian religions have tended not to missionize in the West, a few Buddhist groups and Swami Vivekananda aside, but rather that Asian religions have floated into Western culture through various means:

But the much more significant impact of Asian religiosity on the West has not come by way of missionary organizations. It has been much more diffuse, seeping into the culture through miscellaneous informal channels—books, periodicals, electronic media, small groups of friends and acquaintances, and last but not least through the influence of celebrities (“Hollywood Buddhism” and the like). The diffusion probably dates from the late 19th century, when the alleged wisdom from the East attracted wide interest in Europe and America. Later this trend grew into the so-called New Age movement, then burst into prominence with the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and today can be found in the many cases when people say that they are “not religious, but spiritual”.

The diffusion dates earlier than Berger notes–I would trace it to the turn of the 19th century–but his brief history sums things up nicely. It also points out the difficulties of trying to write a history of Asian religious influences in America. Catholics and Jews came to America in rather set patterns of immigration and brought institutions and communities with them. Asian religions, and specifically for me Hinduism, traveled through diffuse networks, across a myriad of media, and was represented and imagined in all sorts of ways starting in the late eighteenth century.

Berger then takes his post in a different direction than I had hoped, following Colin Campbell in his book The Easternization of the West, Berger sees the “Easternizing spirituality” as a challenge to the core beliefs of “the West.”

In think that Campbell is correct in seeing this last complex of ideas as offering the sharpest challenge to core Western values. If one goes back in history, everywhere, one comes on what may be called the mythic matrix of all human cultures—a worldview in which the individual is embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods. I think that Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history has given the best descriptions of what he called “leaps in being”—ruptures in this fabric of cosmic unity. Two ruptures have been seminal for Western civilization—those of ancient Israel and ancient Greece—the exodus of the people of Israel from the mythic world of the surrounding cultures of the Near East—and the different but equally powerful force of Greek reason in challenging the compact universe of myth. Of course these two ruptures did not immediately bring about what we now call Western individualism. It took centuries for this to happen. Perhaps the best metaphor of the original rupture is that moment in Greek sculpture when individual human figures stepped out of the archaic friezes and stood free, by themselves. “Easternization” in all its forms implies the suggestion that we should step back into the frieze. This would be a far-reaching reversal of the entire course of our civilization. We should think very carefully before we recommend such a step.

A “far-reaching reversal?” Berger invokes a standard piece of colonial discourse. There is the rational Hebraic-Greek West which has stepped out of the mythical world and then there is the mythic East that is still locked in the imaginative and dreamy land of myth where the individual is “embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods.” The Easternization of spirituality then becomes a backsliding by rational Westerners into the “frieze,” a euphemism for mythic life. Berger’s image of the mythic and spiritual East versus a demytholigized and individualized West draws on a series of Western contrasts built before and during colonialism to help the West make sense of itself and of its Others. Richard King outlines the properties of the West and East nicely in his Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and the Mystic East. The West: Public / Society / Science / Institutional Religion / Secular / Rational / Male and the East: Private / Individual / Religion / Personal Religion (Mysticism?) / Sacred / Irrational or Non-rational / Female. These essentialist distinctions were born in the Enlightenment and worked out in the colonies, especially in India. The “Easternization” of the West, or America, is a problem only insofar as the West imagines itself in these terms and in contrast to the East. The need for an Other against which America or the West could construct and imagine itself requires the East to remain mystical and irrational. To step out of the frieze we must keep the frieze in a museum somewhere.

Burning Man, Green Acre, and Ritual in U.S. Religious History (Cross-Post))

This is a cross-post from the Religion in American History Blog.

This morning I came across an interview with Lee Gilmore at Religion Dispatches where she discusses her new bookTheater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press).  The full interview deserves a read, especially the story of how she came upon the books title, but what jumped out to me were the following portions:

This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening. Furthermore, many participants describe Burning Man as a “spiritual” experience, but deny that it constitutes a new religious movement as such. Organizers too explicitly hope that the event will “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” even while they also stop short of characterizing the event as “religious.” My work sought to explore the tension between “spirituality” and “religion” in the narratives of Burning Man participants in order to better understand how religio-cultural systems operate and adapt.

The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of “religion.” Burning Man is on the vanguard of contemporary religious movements that resist easy classification by favoring eclecticism and hybridity. Yet in articulating a clear ethos that places a core emphasis on building and supporting community—both inside and outside the confines of the week-long event—Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.

I haven’t read Gilmore’s book, though I’m really excited about it after reading the interview, but it did remind me of something I had just finished re-reading.  I’m in the midst of that wonderful summertime project known as “studying for comprehensive exams” and I just finished going back through Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls: The Birth of American Spirituality.  In that book, Schmidt has a great chapter on the Green Acre community founded by Sarah Farmer in Eliot, Maine.  But when reading the chapter recently I was struck by what little material Schmidt gives on the ritual practice of the community  There are a few mentions of morning walks on the dewy grass and meditation and a great narrative of the history of the community and its participants but I never got a picture of what life was like on daily basis within the commnunity.  Perhaps that information just isn’t in the record and I don’t mean to take pot shots at an important book.  Rather, I merely want to speculate that the same ritual life represented by Burning Man has antecedents in Green Acre.  I bet Schmidt would grant that, as well.

But to push it further, as Lee makes the point above, certain rituals associated with the “spiritual not religious” challenge the notion of what counts as “religion” in American culture and, I would argue, push historians of religion to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America.  The point that belief has been central to narratives of American religious history is worn out, but I think that as we begin to reconsider and write the history of religion in America during the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st we may have shift our consideration to ritual.  Many people have done this and continue to do this.  But the challenge is not to simply adopt existing definitions of ritual and write them into our histories, but rather to use the diversity of sacred phenomenon in American history to reconsider the category of ritual and its relationship w/ things like belief, myth, identity, etc.

Look out for more on this when I get my hands on Lee’s book.