- IONS Film Project
Publications Book Reviews
A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
Reviewed by Jeffrey J. Kripal, PhD on June 1, 2007
When Yale University Press asked me to provide a blurb for this book, I worked long and hard and produced the following: “Magisterial. An astonishing gift from one of our most accomplished historians of American religion, definitively demonstrating the creative combinative nature of American religion and its half-millennium weaving of mystical, Hermetic, alchemical, occult, African, Native American, Mesmeric, magical, Spiritualist, psychical, and Asian strands to create the mature tapestry of American metaphysical religion. The final result is a work of both profound scholarship and historical hope for all those who would prefer to live in a mystical Republic of Spirit and Mind rather than a religious State of Faith and Belief. ”When the endorsement finally appeared on the book’s jacket copy, it simply read:“Magisterial.”
There is much humor here, and I laughed when I saw it. There is also much that is left unsaid, and I would like to say it now. Put plainly, for those who study or participate in that broad sweep of alternative religious movements that have gone under the rubrics of human potential, New Age, or just “spirituality,” this is a must-read.
Albanese’s main narrative covers about five hundred years. It begins with the Hermetic, esoteric, magical, and Mesmerist traditions of England and Continental Europe, traces these as they float over to the New World, and then delineates how these ideas encountered and incorporated the religious practices of Native Americans and black slaves, always with significant anxiety. They later matured into their own combinative forms, mostly in the nineteenth century, through the developments of Masonry, Mesmerism,Mormonism, Shakerism,Transcendentalism, Spiritualism,New Thought, and Theosophy.As we move into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Albanese tracks what she calls “metaphysical Asia,” that is, Asian doctrines creatively reinterpreted and represented through the lenses of American metaphysical religion.
The latter category, metaphysical religion, is defined through four major tropes or themes: (1) metaphysical mind, or the notion that transcendent mind or spirit is the secret of life, immortality, and material prosperity; (2) micro-macrocosmic correspondences that lead to various forms of magical thinking and practice; (3) occult models of bodily and/or cosmic energy; and (4) a kind of this-worldly salvation as psychological, physical, and spiritual healing. Underlying these four themes is what Albanese calls combinative religion. This is the historical notion that religions evolve through creative combinations of earlier forms that then form new gestalts or wholes of their own, which are then taken up and combined with other forms to re-vision new forms again, and again, and again. The result is a dynamic, critical, and always tensive understanding of American religious history that never slips into the essentialisms that so annoy historians of religion (as if there were such a thing as a real, true, or original Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, or anything else). For Albanese, the genius of American metaphysical religion lies precisely in this combinative art, in these revisions that are also new visions.
Many other things could be said about the book, and I will restrict myself to just one: its critical affirmation of American metaphysical religion as the third column of American religious history, alongside evangelical Christianity and denominational history. As someone who writes primarily about American transformations of Asian religions, I am always struck by how quickly otherwise fine historians want to dismiss these as somehow superficial, ahistorical, too vernacular or “popular,” even illegitimate. Quite the contrary, Albanese might say; this combinative and pragmatic approach to cultural and religious diversity is precisely what American religion has been largely about from the very beginning. The colonies were filled with cunning men and women, with wizards and witches who mixed their magic with their Christianity. Emerson read about India and wrote of an Over-Soul. Joseph Smith drew on Masonic symbolism and psychical treasure-hunting techniques to found a gnostic religion in which human beings could become gods. And so on.
In the end, what Albanese’s new book shows so convincingly is that very little is new about the New Age, that there have long been “new ages for all,” that there is something fundamentally creative about America’s metaphysical Asia, and that the only truly illegitimate move is to dismiss new combinative forms as illegitimate. I will say it again. This book is magisterial.