Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 9: Whose reality is real?

This week we took an excursion into the development of American metaphysical religions. I am particularly interested in the ways in which scholars have tried to tell the story of the creation of the modern New Age. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend a couple of books that provide very good historical overviews. The first is The Western Esoteric Traditions by Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke. Not only is the picture on its cover one of my very favorite woodcuts from the Renaissance, but the book carries the reader through all the esoteric streams in an historical journey. The other book, which I found stunningly well-researched and written is by Catherine Albanese (pictured here), A Republic of Mind and Spirit. So I have chosen to share some of the insights I brought away from her work.

What Albanese does methodologically is fascinating. What she appears to me to be doing is creating a sweeping picture of each century by laying out the vast networks of ideas and information and practices happening simultaneously. She suggests that the traditions she is investigating are interacting within each other rather than with each other, so that she comes to understand the modern New Age as expansive and combinative, a religious phenomenon that is an amalgamation of any number of esoteric trajectories, including Hermeticism, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Christian Science, New Thought, Theosophy, Asian religions, Native American religion, and Quantum physics. She characterizes the New Age as a vast cultural sponge that absorbed whatever spiritual moisture was available. So it represents a grand ecumenicity. The New Age represents a fluid form of community available through networks and networking. This results in different levels of affiliation and commitment from fully-engaged service providers and strong followers who show up a workshops and other events to serious part-timers and causal part-timers or nightstand followers who read occasional books, and attend infrequent lectures. Members have often crossovered from traditional religions, seeking experiences considered by them to be more spiritually engaged.

She describes the themes of the New Age, and other metaphysical traditions, as emphasizing the power of the mind, a worldview of correspondence and connection between the spiritual world (the real world) and the physical (a transitory world), a preoccupation with summoning energy from on high to 'save' the human situation, and healing what was humanly amiss. These are the core beliefs and practices.

After reading her book, I am convinced that American metaphysical religion is one of three forces in American religion from the beginning, along with the mainstream traditions and evangelicalism. I am also convinced that the ancient Gnostics I study weren't so different from modern New Agers, with the exception that they did not get good press behind them like the New Age movement did. Remember Shirley MacClaine, her movie and books?

The New Age movement, with the hungry media behind them, was able to make exoteric what had previously been esoteric. And it has had a lasting impact on American culture. Yoga has become mainstream, along with beliefs in reincarnation and discussions of karma. ESP and UFO are abbreviations we all share, whatever our convictions about them might be. Psychics are consulted to assist police investigations, astrology made it into the Whitehouse, alternative medicine is practiced alongside traditional western medicine, all without too much discomfort. Ecology and healthfood is now mainstream. How many of us have yogurt in our lunchboxes?

11 comments:

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Jim Deardorff said...

April, this blog of yours is much more important than the responses you've received so far!

Do you categorize those who've looked into the huge amount of evidence supporting the reality of people's individual past lives as New Agers? The latter are a diverse group whose extreme factions may give the whole label of "New Age" a bad reputation.

Shirley McLaine knew of the reality of reincarnation, and of the findings of Prof. Ian Stevenson and others. She did her best to bring the matter to public attention.

What do you think will be the consequences for New Testament studies, first, and Christianity later, once the reality of reincarnation has set in, 10 or 20 years from now?

Pastor Bob said...

Been meaning to say this for weeks but was too chicken: Of course it's my reality. Everyone and everything besides me is just my imagination. Wait a minute . . . then why am I talking to you?

My reaction to a certain portion of the post modernist crowd.

Robert said...

Albanese's book is very important, as is her idea of a third stream in American religious history. I would characterize this stream as one of "magical religion." In the late 1990s and early 2000s I taught an entire course on the women-led movements within this stream at Brown University, under the title "Women, Magic and Power from the Revolutionary Era to the 1960s." I, too, think that the stream has many similarities to the Gnostic movements of Late Antiquity

I had created this course partly to understand my own ancestors better, since the women in one of my lines of descent all fell squarely within this stream from at least the 1870s onward, first in Joliet (near Chicago), Illinois, but from the 1880s onward in the San Francisco Bay area of California. (Then, as still now, there was very much a religious free-for-all in the SF Bay area.)

Their ancestors, in turn, came out of the Separatist Church of old Plymouth Colony. They left for less tightly overseen pastures not long after the Massachusetts Bay Colony annexed old Plymouth in the 1690s, and the Separatist churches were swallowed up, willy-nilly, by Congregationalism.

Their immigrant ancestor was Robert Cushman, a member of the Separatist church at Leyden, but also a lay theologian whose views were too radical even for the Separatists. (This has become very clear after the recent rediscovery of his last treatise, _The Cry of a Stone_, printed a decade or two after his death, but probably composed in the 1620s.)

If I have any major criticism with Albanese's book, it is what I see as her over-emphasis of the role that the Transcendentalists played in the development of this stream of American religion. Their writings have the stream more legitimacy, but they remained (I think) on its margins only.

José Solano said...

". . . One of my very favorite woodcuts from the Renaissance . . . ."

This very popular wood engraving is not from the Renaissance but is first seen on page 163 of L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire, by Camille Flammarion, 1888.

It looks like something from the Renaissance and in Flammarion's book carries the caption: "A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touched..."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flammarion_woodcut

sparkwidget said...

In my work with Hanegraaff, Faivre, and Hammer, I've got the impression that "New Age" gnosis is very different from classical gnosis. New Age gnosis, for instance, asserts both body and spirit as a part of the divine Godhead. "Gnostic" gnosis, on the other hand, asserts only the spirit as part of the Godhead (and a part that's been separated, via "excision" from the Godhead) and the body as at best an illusion and at worst a prison. That the phenomenal universe is distinct from the Pleroma/Entirety in "gnostic" systems shows New Age to be an inversion of the classical gnosis in that New Age thought generally considers the phenomenal universe and the body to be a part of, albeit a limited and "smaller" part of, the Godhead.

I think at best the element of both that people would associate as similar is an emphasis on "experience," but in recent years I've been doubtful "experience" is a helpful distinction. William James saw experience as a part of ANY religious person's life. Furthermore the work of Plese, Thomassen, Brakke, and others have convinced me that the "gnostics" were so theologically oriented that an experience vs theology dichotomy is ultimately unhelpful. Experience is an element of ANY religious program, and while New Age religion affirms the experience of the individual whatever the result may be or whatever the experience may look like, gnostic religion affirms experience insofar as it is in line with the "gnostic" experience. I don't think a personal experience that describes Seth as the devil, for instance, would be affirmed among classical gnostic circles as a "fair" choice, but New Age would have to affirm that experience based on what Hammer calls the "veracity" of the experience, IE whether the experiencer achieves "results" from the experience.

I've always thought New Age has more in common theologically with Neoplatonism than Gnosticism. Though I wouldn't draw an equals sign between the two, there's a vast difference in teachings there, especially on virtue and morality. But the role of matter and its relation to the Godhead in NeoPl is far more similar to New Age than Gnosticism, in my opinion.

Gnostique said...

I would have to, in my own 20 years of independent study of Gnosticism, completely agree with Sparkwidget on this matter. New Age differs drastically from classical Gnosticism. A further reason for making a distinction between what people today refer to as "gnostic" and what is legitimately Gnostic in terms of the umbrella under which often falls the only true Gnostics, the Sethians, but also the Valentinians and which influenced later Gnostic revivals... not this newage smorgasbord confusionism.

John Minear said...

April, I have been enjoying your blog for some time and I appreciate your work very much. I was inspired by your comments on Catherine Albanese's book to go out and buy it. After reading it, I would agree with her and with you that what she calls "metaphysical religion" is definitely a major force in American cultural and religious history. I learned a lot of things that were new to me.

However, I would like to also make a few critical comments about her work. First of all, I think that she misreads the work of William James and perhaps confuses some of his analytical conclusions with his own personal beliefs. I also think that she fails to consider his ESSAYS IN RADICAL EMPIRICISM and that by doing so she comes out with a misconception of his later positions. And as a result, I think she co-opts James for her own purposes and this misrepresents him.

Her work is a one of historical research. Therefore it surprised me that she does not mention the Civil War, World War I or World War II in terms of the impact that these major events had on the development of the metaphysical religions. Surely in the case of each event there were significant effects and implications. I would like to know how the metaphysicians dealt with these catastrophic events. By failing to consider these wars, I think that Albanese runs the risk of becoming a-historical in her historical account.

And I think this shows up again in a significant way in her concluding discussions of the New Age in the late 20th century. Here are some major omissions as far as I am concerned. She does not mention the Civil Rights movement and the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. And no where does she mention the Viet Nam War. There is no discussion of hippies and no mention of the counter-culture and Theodore Roszak does not show up in her index. No where does she mention drugs or Carlos Castenada and his impact on New Age spirituality. Surely all of this was a significant part of what created the New Age. She skips over all of this to Shirley MacClaine and as result seems to almost trivialize the New Age.

She also fails to mention the Nuclear Age/Cold War as an important context for everything that was happening in the second half of the 20th century. It seems to me that any serious consideration of religion of any kind in the 20th century has to see it in relation to these real historical events.

So I am left with a strange sense of an a-historical account and I am not ready to say that this is because of the metaphysical religions themselves. But I need to see them more realistically grounded in the larger context of world history as it impacted American society, especially over the last two hundred years.

Once again, thanks for your excellent work and for sharing it on this blog.

John Minear said...

April, I have been enjoying your blog for some time and I appreciate your work very much. I was inspired by your comments on Catherine Albanese's book to go out and buy it. After reading it, I would agree with her and with you that what she calls "metaphysical religion" is definitely a major force in American cultural and religious history. I learned a lot of things that were new to me.

However, I would like to also make a few critical comments about her work. First of all, I think that she misreads the work of William James and perhaps confuses some of his analytical conclusions with his own personal beliefs. I also think that she fails to consider his ESSAYS IN RADICAL EMPIRICISM and that by doing so she comes out with a misconception of his later positions. And as a result, I think she co-opts James for her own purposes and this misrepresents him.

Her work is a one of historical research. Therefore it surprised me that she does not mention the Civil War, World War I or World War II in terms of the impact that these major events had on the development of the metaphysical religions. Surely in the case of each event there were significant effects and implications. I would like to know how the metaphysicians dealt with these catastrophic events. By failing to consider these wars, I think that Albanese runs the risk of becoming a-historical in her historical account.

And I think this shows up again in a significant way in her concluding discussions of the New Age in the late 20th century. Here are some major omissions as far as I am concerned. She does not mention Civil Rights, assassinations, or the Viet Nam War. There is no discussion of hippies and no mention of the counter-culture and Theodore Roszak does not show up in her index. No where does she mention drugs. Surely all of this was a significant part of what created the New Age. She skips over all of this to Shirley MacClaine and as a result seems to almost trivialize the New Age.

So I am left with a strange sense of an a-historical account and I am not ready to say that this is because of the metaphysical religions themselves. But I need to see them more realistically grounded in the larger context of world history as it impacted American society, especially over the last two hundred years.

Once again, thanks for your excellent work and for sharing it on this blog.

John Minear said...

April, I have been enjoying your blog for some time and I appreciate your work very much. I was inspired by your comments on Catherine Albanese's book to go out and buy it. After reading it, I would agree with her and with you that what she calls "metaphysical religion" is definitely a major force in American cultural and religious history. I learned a lot of things that were new to me.

However, I would like to also make a few critical comments about her work. First of all, I think that she misreads the work of William James and perhaps confuses some of his analytical conclusions with his own personal beliefs. I also think that she fails to consider his ESSAYS IN RADICAL EMPIRICISM and that by doing so she comes out with a misconception of his later positions. And as a result, I think she co-opts James for her own purposes and this misrepresents him.

Her work is a one of historical research. Therefore it surprised me that she does not mention the Civil War, World War I or World War II or the Viet Nam War in terms of the impact that these major events had on the development of the metaphysical religious traditions. Surely in the case of each event there were significant effects and implications. By failing to consider these wars, I think that Albanese runs the risk of becoming a-historical in her historical account.

With regard to the New Age itself, she does not mention Civil Rights, assassinations, or the Viet Nam War. There is no discussion of hippies and no mention of the counter-culture. Nowhere does she mention drugs. Surely all of this was a significant part of what created the New Age. She skips over all of this to Shirley MacClaine and as a result seems to almost trivialize the New Age.

All of this leaves me with an uncomfortable sense of a-historicism.

Once again, thanks for your excellent work and for sharing it on this blog.

John Minear said...

There's nothing like saying something three times to create confusion. My sincere apologies to all. It was not my intention to subject you to my editing process at all, but Google kept refusing to send my remarks and then in the end apparently sent all three versions. Take your pick, but perhaps you'll get my drift. jM