Catherine L. Albanese
A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007
This book’s special contribution to its field (Religious Studies), according to academics’ blurbs on the dust jacket and the author’s own introduction, is its thesis that “metaphysical religion” in American history has been, and remains, a major player alongside denominations and evangelical movements.
The author, Catherine Albanese, professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and former president of the American Academy of Religion, also penned Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1991) and America: Religions and Religion (4th ed., 2006).
A Republic of Mind and Spirit is an historical survey of American “metaphysical” religion.
Group beliefs traced by Albanese under this general rubric from Renaissance Europe to the present day include Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, witchcraft, Freemasonry, Quakerism, Swedenborgianism, Unitarianism, Universalism, New England Transcendentalism, Shakerism, early Mormonism, mesmerism, spiritualism, “metaphysical Asia” (the American agglomeration of Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and other exotic Asian systems), Theosophy, healing, Christian Science, New Thought, positive thinking, and the New Age movement. The author also touches upon related Negro, Amerindian, and Mestizo beliefs, both within their own subcultures and as assimilated by whites.
There is much of potential interest here.
It is intriguing, for example, to learn about the faith-based, non-medical origins of mental healing, Christian Science, osteopathy, chiropractic, and macrobiotics.
Or that Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science at age 56, was an ideological and organizational prodigy. Not only did she authoritatively formulate and articulate the doctrine of her new faith, but the “formerly self-effacing Eddy spoke and acted with decisive authority” as religious leader (p. 298). She cannily used organization law to establish, control and, when necessary, dissolve movement institutions and likewise employed copyright law to preclude mental healers, writers, and church founders in the competing New Thought movement from utilizing the formerly generic term “Christian Science” in their own publications and institutional endeavors. She also wrote Science and Health, the movement’s bible, and established numerous publications, including the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.
The New Age movement is of interest because, like the other metaphysical religions, it is primarily composed of whites. (“Sometimes the protestations of Jewish rabbis seem to point to a New Age overinhabited by Jews, but the protests can be read as more a function of Jewish fears of disappearance than of demographic realities” [p. 510 ].)
Tracing the roots of the movement, Albanese states that it was originally, “in large part, constructed as a media event. When numbers of metaphysically inclined spiritual seekers who were calling themselves ‘new-age’ discovered themselves in print to be part of the New Age movement, they found that their ranks, seemingly overnight, swelled and augmented. Named by an independent and authoritative arbiter (the media), they grew surer of their own identity and the attitudes out of which it was formed” (p. 497). With her autobiographical Out on a Limb (1983), actress Shirley MacLaine “discovered the New Age and the media cooperatively evangelized for her” (p. 498).
Like other metaphysical religions, the New Age movement is multiform, encompassing neopaganism, channeling, parapsychology, space aliens, crystals, alternative healing, human potential, transpersonal psychology, environmentalism, astrology, and much else.
One notable trend is the glorification of Amerindians: “New Age people appropriated Native American rituals with enthusiasm, holding sweats, using rattles and drums, wearing feathers, beads, and gemstones in ceremonial ways, and adopting sacred-pipe ceremonies. From Indians they learned to make pilgrimages to sacred sites and engage in mental journeying on a shamanic model” (p. 505).
In Albanese’s view, the New Age movement rose in the 1980s, peaked in that decade and the ’90s, and is now disappearing. However, its beliefs have diffused throughout the culture: “The term ‘New Age’ [has become] a catch-all designation for an alternative collection of beliefs and behaviors” (p. 505).
Coverage of the other movements in the book turns up similarly educational bits of information.
Traditional academic prejudices color the writing: feminism, class antagonism, anti-white racism, and the assumed “elect” status of non-whites. Here is Albanese’s depiction of contemporary American Taoism (which she renders “American Daoism”):
American Daoists in the late twentieth century and after have been well-educated, middle-class, white, and about equally divided between genders. Their introduction to Daoism usually comes through taiji or qigong or similar disciplines, through contact with acupuncturists or Chinese herbalists because of health problems, or through “Daoist” texts, often read in college or even high school. Age has varied widely, with no particular bias toward youth. (This last is unsurprising, since taiji and qigong are particularly well-adapted to seniors and alternative medicine is often favored for the chronic diseases that especially plague older people.) Figures for the number of Daoists in the late-century United States and Canada range from a low of just over 11,000 to more ambitious estimates of 30,000 and even 45,000. Still these are small numbers, even if a huge traffic in Daoist websites exists on the Internet. If scholars could not link this American Daoism to a Chinese counterpart, U.S. practitioners remained oblivious. They were innocent of an evolving scholarship that painted Daoism as exclusivist and intolerant, distinct from the vulgarities of ordinary culture, and related to a specific Chinese geography of sacred mountains. Nor did they seek to recover and periodize a history of Daoism, going beyond the time of Laozi and Zuangzi (Chuang Tzu) to explore a later saga during a series of Chinese dynasties. They were unaware that Daoism was a religion of books, which in its first (fifth-century) canon numbered more than 1,400 titles in some 5,305 volumes—larger than the canon of any religion save Buddhism. And they had no idea of the political role that Daoist sects played in China as revolutionaries who succeeded in creating a theocracy for at least several decades during the Han dynasty. They did not know that for a large part of Chinese history Daoism had been state-sponsored. Nor did they know anything of the rigor of its conventional moral precepts and the elaborateness of its ritual life. Americans drawn to Daoism have dwelled instead in a Daoism of their minds and imaginations. (pp. 490–91)
Albanese’s authority for this supercilious characterization is the Ph.D. dissertation of her graduate student, Elijah Siegler.
The author has a fascinating story to tell, and is perfectly situated to tell it. A well-written survey of the topic would be valuable. In theory, it seems next to impossible to make the subject of this book uninteresting or opaque.
Unfortunately, Albanese manages to do both. She lacks the writer’s gift: she cannot communicate clearly. Underlying intellectual confusion is also a problem.
Overuse of academese is a major flaw. Examples of terms and phrases repetitively employed include gendered, performative strategy, discourse community, discourse style, agential, discursive world, combinative and combinativeness (both used dozens of times), spaces (e.g., “domestic spaces” and “public spaces”— not in the architectural sense), and conflictual. Sometimes she overuses otherwise acceptable words like sententious.
Unfortunately, the thoughts behind the words are also unfocused. To convey something of the author’s style and demonstrate that I am not doing her an injustice, here’s a randomly-selected passage:
One historiographical story that can be told regarding the inherited synthesis and its practical ramifications is that of change and disjuncture between elite and “popular.” Leventhal’s work, for example, has emphasized the pulling apart of these worlds in the eighteenth century, especially in America, and it has underscored the continuance of ideas that became discredited among elites in a distinctly “underculture” register. In this reading, the vernacular—as a kind of in-between world—responded ambiguously, demonstrating a tolerance for carrying some of the old synthesis but also a decline in its authority and influence. Meanwhile, Leventhal’s narrative resonates, too, with Jon Butler’s reading of the “folklorization” of the occult in eighteenth-century America. For American metaphysical religion, however, as I will show, the transformation was more complex. Not quite a “folklorized” religion and, moreover, a congeries of speculation and practice amply expressed by rising middle classes and elites, American metaphysical religion would develop a vernacular of its own, distinct from the public Christian language of the times. The English heritage—both literary and vernacular—would be enormously important to the emergent metaphysical synthesis in America. So would a Continental vernacular. (p. 53)
And no, context does not help. Such rhetoric is typical of the entire 600-page Yale University Press book.
A Republic of Mind and Spirit is a flawed work that falls far short of its promise. It is best approached as an adjunct investigative tool, accessed piecemeal via the endnotes and index when seeking specific information about selected topics covered in the book.