As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.
Gender and spirituality are both terms that signify alterity, especially a critique of established social conventions, including conventions of disciplining personhood on the basis of gender classifications and according to doctrinal and ritual patterns of organized religion. To be aware of gender as a hierarchical system is a modern phenomenon; “spirituality” has a much longer history of use and was generated from within organized religion, though its evolution increasingly marked it as a perspective distinct from, and necessitating the evaluative intervention of, official religious channels. Developing through a confluence of interest in Western esotericism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, the German Romantics, and Asian traditions in the early 20th century, spirituality as a cultural concept and practice was poised to respond to widespread late modern questioning of received social modes, especially in terms of defining oneself. Contesting theoretical predictions of society’s secularization but supporting those of the “subjective turn,” late modern spirituality groups, especially those inspired by feminism, civil rights, and gay rights, valorized marginalized bodies and their distinctive experiences, creating new paths of spiritual expression in which personal experience in the context of group affirmation was foregrounded. Postmodern ideas on the fluidity of gender further contributed to the voices of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) people who critiqued residual gender binaries operative in some New Age spiritualities and provided new arguments for social inclusivity in spirituality groups and in the wider society.
What characterizes spirituality into the 21st century is the “turn to holism,” in which a wide variety of methods are promoted as leading to a holistic sense of the well-being of body and spirit. Diverse practices include Kirlian aura photography, Johrei Fellowship healing, tarot cards, shiatsu massage, acupressure, aromatherapy, kinesiology, and yoga, leading some scholars to critique the spirituality climate as a neoliberal capitalist “spiritual marketplace.” Others view it as a generative opportunity for seeking and bricolage construction of the self that has transformative potential for both self and society.
Rosemary R. Corbett
Religious moderation is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the history of the United States. Would one have spoken of the Puritans as moderates? Could one characterize the many great revivals and awakenings that coursed through colonial and early republican American in such terms? And what about the impertinence of Anne Hutchison, the audacity of Jarena Lee, the bold experiment of Prohibition, or the modern political fervor that accompanied the rise of the religious right? When compared to England and many other nominally Christian European nations, the United States generally figures as an example of religious zeal. Yet moderation holds a special place in American religious thought, and not just recently. Since the Protestant Reformation, at least, the concept of religious moderation has been inescapably entangled with concerns about the form and shape of government. Just how much religious “enthusiasm” is safe for a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic? wondered English political theorists in the 1600s and 1700s. Their concerns unavoidably carried to the “New World,” contributing to the persecution or marginalization of Quakers, Shakers, and other religious practitioners deemed too immoderate in their passions and, not infrequently, their gendered practices and sexualities. With the birth of the new republic, Americans also raised questions about the political valences of religious moderation when debating which residents of the nation could fully enjoy the rights of citizenship. Appeals to moderation were used for centuries to exclude not only religious minorities but also racial and ethnic minorities and women. And yet the contours of moderation were continually contested by both those who wielded power and those subject to it.
Since the late 1800s, questions of religious moderation have also been intertwined with questions of modernity and the reconfiguration of public and private spaces. This was especially true with the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s, a movement that opposed some of the modernist interpretive measures gaining currency among many American Christians, as well as the idea (increasingly popular over the course of the 20th century—particularly after the failure of Prohibition) that most forms of religion properly belong to the private realm. While fundamentalists were no less technologically savvy or educated than their theological opponents, their positions were nevertheless cast as anti-modern and immoderate, in that fundamentalists ostensibly held more closely to revelation than to modern science. This notion of fundamentalism as the incursion of immoderate anti-modernism, traditionalism, or enthusiasm into politics and public life has continued into the 21st century. While 21st-century arguments for religious moderation are most often directed at Muslims (who, in addition to conservative Christians, are frequently depicted as prone to trampling on the rights of those with whom they disagree), American history has no shortage of incidents involving pressures, often violent, on racial and religious minorities to moderate or privatize their ostensibly uncivilized behavior for the sake of the nation or even for humanity.