SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals

The New Metaphysicals offers a close ethnographic study of self-identified metaphysical practitioners in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area. Bender works to provide a detailed portrait of this community, while also opening up new interpretive frames for thinking about “spirituality” as it emerges within the contemporary American landscape.

Earning her masters (1993) and doctorate (1997) in sociology at Princeton University, and teaching for the departments of Sociology (1997) and Religion (1999 to the present) at Columbia University, Bender is well versed in the challenges implicit in sociological studies of “spirituality.” “Defining spirituality,” she concedes, “as well as locating it within social life, is notoriously difficult.” The problem is not that we have too few definitional attempts, but too many, most of which work to “protect, defend, debunk, and claim certain territory for the spiritual.” Consequently, “we have more to gain by observing how the term ‘spiritual’ is used… how distinctions within it make some practices and engagements more or less possible… how and where people became ‘spiritual not religious,’ and how these practices and identities are produced and reproduced.” (3-5)

Bender interrogates a cluster of controlling assumptions about the nature of spirituality evident in the writings of scholars and practitioners alike. “Spirituality,” she writes, “emerges over and over in our collective imagination as free floating and individualistic…. A condition of modern life: it has no past, no organization, no clear shape. Studying spirituality thus appears akin to shoveling fog. [But] we can no longer conscientiously assert these positions, or the problematic logics that continue to reinforce them. Instead, we must approach spirituality and ‘the spiritual’ in America as deeply entangled in various religious and secular histories, social  structures, and cultural practices.” (182)

Her argument, then, goes directly to what we take our data to be. If we begin with the assumption that spiritual practices necessarily involve highly personalized and individualized expressions of religion largely cut off from social, historical, and academic, worlds, such a hermeneutic is likely to distort and obscure more than it reveals. Bender challenges such assumptions by pointing to the ways in which contemporary metaphysical practices are in fact also involved with broader modes of social production.

On an historical plane, Cambridge metaphysicals are entangled with a great deal of intellectual and religious production in earlier decades of local history. Recourse to “channeled” materials (i.e., teachings received from other-worldly sources such as spirit guides and masters) connects with 19th and early 20th century traditions of spiritualism and mediumship popular among Cambridge intellectual and academic elite, many of whom actively worked to influence the development of these practices and how they were received by the broader public (e.g., William James).

Socially, these practices are as entangled as any other mode of cultural production. She not only points to the many different contexts in which spiritual practices such as yoga, Reiki hands-on energy healing, astrology, meditation, visualization, belief in reincarnation, are found in contemporary culture (e.g., medicine, arts, entertainment), but explains how she herself was drawn into the interpretive webs of the metaphysicals she studies. Even as she works to maintain a degree of scholarly objectivity, Bender’s interests in popular films are insistently taken as evidence of her own past-life histories. In light of these dynamics–that is, how easily and frequently metaphysical practices and practitioners become entangled with other social phenomena–theorizing the spiritual in atomistic terms (as inherently individualistic) seems disconnected from the reality on the ground.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is beautifully written, utterly lucid, nicely argued, and would be useful for the full range of academic readers, undergrads, grads, and advanced scholars. (Indeed, it is not difficult to see why this book won the 2010 American Publishers Awards for Professional & Scholarly Excellence in Theology/Religious Studies, as well as the 2011 Distinguished Book Award for the American Sociological Association Section on Religion.) Perhaps most of all, I was struck by its implications for theorizing the spiritual/religious/secular relationship. For, if spiritual practices appear easily and often within presumably secular spaces (e.g., university health center, food co-op, doctor’s office, popular film), this prompts us to think once more about how wide the gulf separating these domains actually is. The same question arises with respect to spirituality and institutional religion: perhaps the Baptist church and the metaphysical bookstore have more in common than was formerly suspected. Importantly Bender does more than merely re-raising these longstanding questions: she offers the metaphor of entanglement as an interpretive frame that might help us to further explore such queries in new and interesting ways.



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