By Leigh Eric Schmidt
HarperSanFrancisco, 352 pages, $26.95
Where two or three Americans are gathered, they will sooner or later discuss religion. In blue states and cities, the tone of the conversation normally resembles that of worried Londoners in 1665 mulling the public-health situation, and at least one of the party will draw a very familiar distinction: “I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual.” Though the phrase is clichéd, you know pretty exactly what is meant. “Spiritual” in this context means a general interest in the metaphysical, a free-floating mysticism that abhors creeds, orthodoxies or rituals. It aims at spiritual enlightenment and progress, in harmony with all other races and cultures. The term implies a quest for the Higher Truths taught by all world religions but without the snares and diversions that fallible human beings have over the centuries introduced into those systems. Commonly, the spiritual person will graze across the broad pastures of the world's scriptures and devotional works, sampling a Christian scripture here, a poem of Rumi there, perhaps with doses of Black Elk and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Gospel of Thomas and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Internet has vastly enhanced the resources available for modern seekers.
Americans commonly assume that such a mix-and-match cultural package is a recent development, a product of the mystical enthusiasm that succeeded the political obsessions of the late 1960s. And, indeed, “New Age” thought, as we know it today, congealed around 1980. Yet as Leigh Schmidt reminds us in his readable and highly informative recent book Restless Souls, the roots of this sort of “spirituality” go back much further in American history, at least to Emerson and the Transcendentalists—and perhaps all the way back to the Rosicrucians and alchemists who were in America decades before the Great Revival of the 1730s.
Nearly every remark Schmidt quotes sounds as though it could come from the modern “spiritual but not religious” crowd. As early as 1871, for instance, Thomas Wentworth Higginson declared that “I do not wish to belong to a religion only but to the religion; it must not include less than the piety of the world.” In 1905, George Santayana wrote that “this aspiring side of religion may be called spirituality,” making this the “higher side” of religion. Ralph Waldo Trine assured his listeners that “There is no separation between your soul and the soul of the universe. In the deepest sense, you are the great universal soul. . . . Man is God incarnate.” Schmidt is interesting on the history of the word “seeker,” another Emersonian contribution, though one with roots in seventeenth-century England. Time and time again, we see that the “New” Age is anything but.
Restless Souls is a genuinely likeable and unfailingly sympathetic study of a series of movements and thinkers in the American spiritual tradition. The book disappoints slightly in its chronological coverage. Though promising a survey “from Emerson to Oprah,” most of the material ranges from around 1840 to the 1930s, with not so many recent studies. (Schmidt is very good though on the evolving myth of the allegedly colonial-era meditation found in Desiderata, actually the twentieth-century work of Max Ehrmann).
Still, Schmidt's Restless Souls demonstrates the importance of his subjects and their impact on critical social developments. The religious movements he discusses attracted the efforts of a great many women in these years, and throughout the story, we see the intimate alliance between the metaphysical group and social progressives or sexual reformers. The metaphysical groups also served as important conduits for foreign or innovative ideas into mainstream American culture. As the nineteenth century progressed, they were major vehicles for the growing influence of Asian religions, and they drew heavily on Hindu and Buddhist insights.
Also persistent were links with healing movements: Mesmerism, Christian Science, New Thought, and the trend commonly described as “Mind Cure,” which denied the existence of objective reality. Among the sources of Mind Cure, William James offered a catalogue that serves equally well to describe the roots of the “spiritual” ideology. James specifically listed: “the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England Transcendentalism; another is Berkeleyan idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of ‘law' and ‘progress' and ‘development'; another the optimistic popular science evolutionism . . . and finally, Hinduism has contributed a strain. . . . With its constant thought of prosperity, its opulent-consciousness, its belief in the limitless possibilities of the individual, [it] is simply American psychology on dress parade.”
Naturally enough, these ideas meshed easily enough with later psychologies and therapy movements. Restless Souls demonstrates yet again the thoroughly religious character of American culture, and reminds us that occult, mystical, and metaphysical doctrines are so strongly represented in our tradition that they can scarcely be labeled “fringe” beliefs. Rather, we should see them as a third tradition, as much part of the inheritance as evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism.
Schmidt sees the spiritual tradition in highly positive terms, and argues strongly for its contemporary relevance. Following writers such as Jim Wallis, he argues that liberal and radical Americans should not fear to use religious thought and rhetoric, but should proudly claim their basic American inheritance. For Wallis, this means the prophetic and radical voices of evangelicalism, while for Schmidt, it means mystical or spiritual religion. Restless Souls is thus “a call to recover the spiritual resources of the liberal tradition.” The “new spirituality,” he writes, “is old and not other. The Spiritual Left goes deep into the grain of American culture; it is here for the long haul.” For all its failings and errors, it contributes mightily to “the incomplete labor of democratic freedom and cosmopolitan progressivism.” Modern heirs of the “spiritual” include “affiliated and unaffiliated seekers, mainline Protestants, Reform Jews, liberal Catholics, Quakers, Unitarians, Vedantists, Bahai'is, spiritually minded feminists, members of meditation centers, social activists, tamed cynics and intractable progressives.”
Unfortunately, the political impact of such a mobilization would be limited, given that few of these constituencies can really be described as non-aligned, or as anything other than true-blue Democrats. And I fear that Schmidt's characterization of the Spiritual Left is also excessively rosy, largely due to the limits of his study. He is focusing on thinkers rather than mass audiences—and on these writers and activists only as they contributed to the metaphysical and spiritual movement. He does not therefore explore the many groups that drew on the same traditions but mingled them with far less palatable occult ideas. When seeking the roots of “spirituality,” we could just as easily look to someone like Charles Fillmore, whose popularizing magazine Modern Thought in the 1880s offered articles on “spiritualism, Unitarianism, Rosicrucianism, transcendentalism, Christian Science and New Thought.” At least from the mid-nineteenth century on, spirituality was the stock in trade of countless cults and groups claiming to offer the essence of spirituality to gullible mass publics, commonly with their particular leader or guru as supreme prophet, seer, and revelator.
In practice, it is nearly impossible to draw a clear line between the austere thought-world of Schmidt's “Spiritual Left” and the freewheeling esoteric subculture of lost continents, telepathy, numerology, Rosicrucianism, and the Great Pyramid, not to mention cult communes and compounds. These, I submit, are lineal heirs of the Emersonians, quite as evidently as the ethical splendors of a Howard Thurman. From Schmidt's exalted account of the elegant world of Progressive-era spiritual thinkers, we would scarcely imagine the mass industry in esoteric and metaphysical ideas from about 1915 on. This marketing boom reached its height in the interwar years with such charter members of the spiritual-industrial complex as Psychiana, MIGHTY I AM, the Silver Shirts of William Dudley Pelley, and a dozen mail-order cults dispensing the wisdom of the ages. As Charles W. Ferguson wearily remarked in the 1920s, “It should be obvious to any man who is not one himself that the land is overrun with messiahs.” When one decides to embark on a voyage of spiritual seeking, the journey has no clear destination.
Equally, I wonder about the progressive and democratic implications of the term “Spiritual Left.” America's esoteric and metaphysical movements have often demonstrated strongly authoritarian currents, which have been further reinforced by the Asian notion of the guru and the teacher-pupil relationship. By the 1930s, many of the American esoteric and occult movements were rampantly pro-fascist. We see a worrying parallel to this in the European Traditionalist movements recently described in Mark Sedgwick's brilliant 2004 book Against the Modern World. For these Europeans, religious “liberalism” began with an enlightened and Europeanized version of Sufi Islam, that served much the same role that Hinduism did for the Transcendentalists. But Traditionalists, too, often ended up flirting with fascism. Personally, if I was looking for the religious roots of America's liberal tradition, I would look more to the Protestant Biblical and prophetic tradition and to Catholic theories of social justice.
Another less-than-desirable feature of the “Spiritual Left” is its endemic elitism and contempt for the ordinary religion of the masses. If spirituality is the “higher side” of religion, what then is the “lower side”? Presumably, anything that involves faith, dogma, ritual, and more or less what the common folk in the pews do. A current of elitism can also be traced to the exaltation of wilderness, and the consequent loathing of cities, modernity, and mass civilization—in short, of people. When reading the section of Restless Souls on hermitism, I inevitably thought of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, an environmentalist bible but also an alarming plea for the reduction of human population by whatever means might be necessary.
In short, Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls does a valuable service in placing the metaphysical tradition firmly where it belongs in the story of American religious thought. Ideas like those presented in the book are indeed “old and not other,” and they reflect the mental worlds of many Americans. Churches need an apologetic to counter the “spiritual” arguments, to show just exactly why religion is not an inferior or tainted form of human behavior. Above all, they need to show “seekers” that virtually everything they are seeking can in fact be found within the cultural resources of Christianity—and that includes such heady concepts as union with the divine. As the phrase should read, “I'm religious, and that includes spiritual.”
<span style="font-variant: small-caps">Philip Jenkins</span> is Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.