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Feeling of Emptiness and Religion in America  

John Corrigan

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.

Article

Gender and Spirituality in Late Modern Western Society  

Karen Pechilis

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, transgender, 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.

Article

Moderation in American Religion  

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.

Article

Muslim Chaplains in North America  

Harvey Stark

As a relatively new profession, the North American Muslim chaplaincy (NAMC) has seen significant growth since the mid 1970s the hiring of the first paid Muslim chaplains in the United States approximately twenty-five years ago. There are three observable waves of chaplains to consider as the NAMC has developed: the first wave with the hiring of the first paid prison chaplain; the second with the founding of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at the Hartford Seminary; and the third which began shortly thereafter as chaplains develop an Islamic approach to pastoral care, create networks, and cultivate a public persona. The Muslim women and men who serve as chaplains in secular North American institutions such as prisons, the military, educational institutions, hospitals, and community centers, among others, have made it their goal to serve Muslims and non-Muslims in these North American institutions. From humble beginnings, this profession grew out of the desire to provide needed services and care to Muslims in these institutions and has evolved into a uniquely North American profession suited to the needs of all religious communities served by these institutions. North American Muslim chaplains represent an Islamic American voice, one that speaks to American cultural and legal norms. To varying degrees, these chaplains have challenged and embraced North American traditions, such as pluralism, interfaith relations, freedom of religion, and non-establishment. In addition, as they move into the third decade of the profession, chaplains have been moving into leadership roles within American communities. These roles have created an alternate form related to, but significantly different from, the role of the imam. This provides a space for a distinctly North American engagement with the Islamic tradition. It has also opened new spaces for women’s leadership within the North American Muslim community, adjusting and reaffirming traditional practice. These chaplains perform their profession, and their “ministry of presence,” in ways closely connected to institutional, regional, and personal contexts. Because of this multitude of sites, identifying points of connection, when desired, can be difficult. As such, there is no monolithic approach to the chaplaincy or how chaplains envision their Muslim identities. This diversity, which extends to a diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, and branch of Islam, is not without its challenges.

Article

Sufism in the Modern World  

Marcia Hermansen

Sufism, the mystical expression of the Islamic tradition, has been for centuries a major cultural, social, political, and, of course, religious influence in diverse Muslim cultures. With modernity Sufism has been subjected to increased criticism, and in some cases repression and violent hostility, on the part of certain Muslim opponents. From another direction, secularizing reformers such as President Kemal Atatürk (d. 1937) of Turkey view Sufism as a repository of decadent behaviors and superstitions that are incompatible with modern values and rationality. It is also noteworthy that, in response to internal and external reactions to violent extremism especially post-9/11, political leaders in Muslim majority countries such as Morocco and Pakistan have attempted to promote Sufism as a potentially moderating and peaceful influence and therefore encouraged it in their societies. This approach has also been promoted by Western political interests that present Sufism as a moderating counter to violent extremism. These latter examples highlight the importance of the modern nation-state as it engages with Sufism and its institutions, especially in the postcolonial period. Pre-modern forms of Sufism emphasized pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to a spiritual master and affiliating with a Sufi order (Arabic: ṭarīqa, pl. ṭuruq). Being part of a Sufi order was thus a communal, as well as a personal, commitment, and the hierarchy and sense of belonging they entailed led the orders to play an important social, and in some cases, political role. With modernity, esoteric elements of Sufi thought, as well as traditional folk practices of making vows and faith healing, along with earlier social forms of clientage and patronage, have become less relevant in increasingly urban environments. Some scholars of Sufism have therefore characterized the modern era as a time of decline and degeneration in Sufi social and political influence, as well as in Sufi intellectual production and literary and artistic creativity. However, expectations that Sufism is on the wane are challenged by observations of how Sufis have adapted to changing circumstances in modernity, both in Muslim-majority societies and in the West. For example, some scholars document a Sufi renewal involving the rise of charismatic teachers and practices and the reach of new global networks. Sufi teachings are promoted through Internet sites and social media, while today’s Sufi teachers may draw on 20th century Western psychological frameworks to explain the spiritual and therapeutic impact of Sufi practices on individuals. Meanwhile Sufi ideas are disseminated to broader publics through music videos, conferences, and other cultural events, such that Sufism in these new configurations continues to inspire significant, if more diffuse, loyalties, both locally and globally. In an age of networking and social mobility, flows of individuals and ideas have created new transnational spheres for the influence and impact of Sufism. At the same time local conditions vary considerably in shaping its diverse contemporary expressions and adaptations.