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The Culture of Religious Combining: Reflections for the New American Millennium.

The American religious experience has always been an encounter of multiple traditions.

As I write these words, I have just completed co-teaching with B. Alan Wallace--former Tibetan Buddhist monk and now Tibetan Buddhist scholar--a quarter-long course on Religion and Healing in Global Perspective. This is the second time we have taught the course together, and both times we have done so with the assistance of an impressive roster of internal scholars--our colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)--and external practitioners of a series of healing modalities--Ayurveda, traditional Tibetan medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Western homeopathy, and American "energy" healing.

What emerges clearly from the encounter with each of the traditions we engaged is how much their visionaries and practitioners have been combiners. Indian Ayurveda arose in a long process that involved Indo-European cultural encounter with a Dravidian population on the Indian subcontinent. Traditional Tibetan medicine developed out of Greek, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and native Tibetan sources. China itself freely appropriated cultural goods from across the Himalayas, bringing Vedic and Buddhist knowledge into contact with Taoist elite and folk practice, Confucian notions of order, and general vernacular healing practice. Across the Pacific, on American shores, Native Americans from numerous national and kinship groups, grew their own healing traditions, broadly shamanistic and likewise earth-based in rich herbal pharmacopeias, which were borrowed and shared with one another along lines of trade and cultural exchange. The Euro-American alternative modalities we studied after encountering these forms of heali ng resonated with them in ideas about a correspondence between the human world and a larger, nurturing natural one. They also articulated beliefs about patterns of energy of a spiritualizing sort -- the very refined forms of matter called "tides" in Franz Anton Mesmer's animal magnetism, the "vital force" in homeopathy, the "Innate" running down the spine in chiropractic, the divine Supply permeating, like a fountain flow, the human world for New Thought people, the subtle energy of the aura for contemporary metaphysical or psychic healers. These notions were easy enough to compare to Indian views of prana and Chinese ones of qi as well as to Native American concepts of mana or wakan and the like. What these alternative Euro-American beliefs also suggested, however, was affirmations of an underlying unitary consciousness in the universe and, simultaneously, a charter for participation in a kind of cultural emporium of the spirit.

For the Americans we studied in the alternative healing world seemed, clearly, embarked on a new spiritual program that applied essentially mystical notions of connection and correspondence between all things with pragmatic purpose and intent. The pragmatic application came by combining -- by doing what the ancient cultures had done, to be sure, but doing it more intensely and with greater conscious intentionality. Indeed, as the United States speeds into the early years of the new millennium, it comes trailing the exponential changes that have characterized the last third of the twentieth century, and the new century promises to continue, still, with the changes. In religious terms, what have been the main contours of these changes? What have been the major vectors along which Americans have traced their spiritual transformations? What are the new ways that Americans are learning, in the deepest sense, to heal?

A place to begin, probably, is the decade of the 1960s, with its radical spiritual revisionism set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the first wave of contemporary feminist consciousness ("women's liberation"), a rising ethnic consciousness, and a series of demographic shifts that made Americans increasingly mobile and seemingly rootless. As they more and more questioned received sources of spiritual wisdom and authority, after 1965 and a major change in U.S. immigration law, they were met by newly arrived Asian teachers with their own set of answers regarding age-old questions about meaning, destiny, and purpose. As missionary Asia camped in American fields, actual numbers of converts were small. But more important, a new form of discourse had entered the public space. Now there was a different cultural vocabulary, with novel ways to talk and think about the former world of religion. The Asian vernacular, moreover, blended with home-grown religious alternatives, alive and well in America since the late nineteenth century. The Theosophical Society, born in New York City in 1875, had been introducing Americans to its reshaped notions of karma and reincarnation for a long time. Theosophy and its lineage of teachers freely borrowed from Asia and mingled Eastern ideas with the Western esoteric tradition, bring past to meet present in late twentieth-century times. Theosophy was joined, too, by the New Thought tradition and its broader cultural relative, positive thinking.

Together these aspects of our national culture became available to a generation that already, from the 1950s, had signaled its spiritual quest through the celebration of cultural icons like Thomas Merton and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Out of this mix, by the end of the decade the (metaphysical) New Age movement was born. Parodied by some for superficiality, condemned by others for its challenge to the normative religious traditions, the movement was, alternately, flamboyant and elusive. It was nowhere at all (except perhaps in California), with a "membership" utterly minuscule. Yet it seemingly permeating everything, as polls showed one-fifth to one-fourth of the American people embracing notions of karma and reincarnation and speaking a cultural language that evoked New Age ways of talking--about the "universe," about "energy," about self- and reality creation. Above all, it pointed the way to religious combination as the essence of its spiritual form. New Agers freely borrowed and appropriated from a variety of traditions, and in turn invented their own. They were capricious and unabashed in their combinings, and they simply did not comprehend when, for example, a Native American traditionalist objected to their appropriation of a Lakota sweatlodge ceremony. Politically correct the New Agers were not. But their movement grew and transformed and continued into the twenty-first century.

Still, at the dawn of the new century, relatively few Americans would own up to being New Age. Instead, the New Age itself functioned as a kind of early warning signal, as a cultural harbinger of trends and transformations that were going on for millions of other Americans in broad-gauged, general ways. What are these trends? How do they all come out? And what do they end up telling us about the future shape of American religion? We can begin to get answers to these questions from the work of contemporary sociologists. Both Wade Clark Roof -- in his new book Spiritual Marketplace (Princeton, 1999) -- and Robert Wuthnow -- in his recent After Heaven (University of California Press, 1998) -- have noticed the presence among us of the "spiritual-but-not-religious." Roof points to the "quest culture" of the present, and Wuthnow argues that Americans have moved from a spirituality of dwelling to one of seeking. Both Roof and Wuthnow, as religious studies scholars, acknowledge the religiosity of these unaffiliated spiritual seekers, disaffected from organized religious institutions but still asking and answering, in their own ways, the profoundly religious questions that have troubled humans through the ages.

In fact, Roof, Wuthnow, and others like them are identifying what is perhaps best understood as the "new spirituality" movement in American culture. Distinctly broader than the older New Age movement, the new spirituality still shares with it certain themes and cultural practices. Religious experiment and experience are primary; movement and change are good; institutions are suspect; searching and constructing a lifeway for oneself are de rigueur; the feminine principle is celebrated and women achieve notice as religious leaders. From the perspective of the new spirituality, the now-discredited Sheila Larson -- unforgettably noticed by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985) for her "Sheilaism" -- begins to reacquire respect. Significantly, Sheilaism, which has become a synonym for American religious shallowness and autism, was born out of two healing crises -- Larson's own surgery and, later, her caring as a nurse for a dying woman whose husband could not deal with death. Forged out of private pain and personal challenge, Sheila Larson's faith made up in individual integrity what it lacked in theological sophistication and expertise. More than that, it was a faith created through combination. In her case, the combining tropes were vague enough not to attract particular attention. Still they were there.

The new spirituality full-blown among us in the early twenty-first century is less shy, however, about its combinative tropes and figures. Americans today live in a pronouncedly mestizo religious culture; in a creole spiritual marketplace in which purists are everyday fewer and rarer. (Perhaps this is why sometimes they seem to be louder and more strident?) In this vernacular emporium, less and less can we identify the old Anglo-Protestant culture of our historic heritage as dominant partner in the creolization. Instead, a leveling momentum is abroad in the land, and in the late romantic light of our postmodernity the "other" seems to beckon with the promise of better, more coherent spiritual goods to rescue us. And rescue seems the just-right word for what is going on. This is a salvation metamorphosed out of traditional theological categories and reconstituting itself in more and more self-conscious therapeutic terms. Sin and separation are both sickness in the new millennium, and separation is often understood as a separation of the parts of one's self. Rescue means healing, healing means restoring, and restoring means restitching and reintegrating the scattered and fragmented parts into one being--one person, one community, one nation.

So the new spirituality wants to heal flesh and spirit and wants to heal them together, convinced of an abiding correspondence between body and soul; convinced as well of a secret connection between all things; and -- following the logic of the connection -- convinced that a combinative mingling of religious beliefs and cultural practices is the highway to health and spirit. At a time when we have heard again and again of the harshness of the "culture wars" and have witnessed a series of polarizations of groups and parties in the nation, we have often lost sight of this quietly powerful countermovement. Religious combination is, in fact, pervasive; and -- were there space -- it would be easy to mount an argument that even the "purest" stalwarts of American faith -- AngloProtestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism -- have, in the country of the spacious skies, been essentially combinative. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have learned from one another all along; have begged and borrowed, and sometimes snatched, spiritual idea and expression from religious neighbors. They have done so not under the banner of a self-aware ecumenicity most of the time, but instead seemingly artlessly and silently. If, in the new spirituality, the combination seems all the greater, it is also true that the new spirituality connects received faiths and traditions from the inside out. The new spirituality is not "syncretistic" -- a word to disavow beliefs and practices as corrupt, contaminated, and inferior to high theological traditions. It is rather, to reiterate, combinative as the natural result of its vision and commitments.

Even a casual trip to Borders or Barnes and Noble displays the new spirituality ringing the aisles in titles that range across the identity spectrum. This new spirituality surfaces proudly in evangelical quarters in the healing words of Jesus; it pervades the Jewish havurnh movement and also yields, in the Orthodox community, a rediscovered kabbalah. The new spirituality gives us Jewish redwood rabbis, too, and Roman Catholic Sisters of Earth with Stations of the Earth to replace traditional Stations of the Gross. If new spiritual teachers like Thomas Moore, Carolyn Myss, John Donohue, and the formerly Catholic Matthew Fox are any clue, there is, sub rosa, a Catholic New Age. Meanwhile, new spiritual links are forged in mainstream Protestant circles as young spiritual seekers participate in Episcopalian rave masses and slightly older ones, perhaps, trace their steps around re-created labyrinths.

It might be said that the new spirituality is working underground to create a common religious and spiritual language at the grass-roots level, a vernacular that many appropriate and apply as useful and needed. Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko tellingly portrays the implicit cultural magnetism of the vernacular combinativeness in her now-classic Ceremony (1977), a narrative that might be read as a metaphor for the new spirituality and its claims. In Silko's compelling story, her protagonist Tayo -- a mixed-blood Laguna Pueblo Indian mentally shattered by his participation in World War II-- embarks on a long road to healing his own mind and spirit. The turning point in the journey is Tayo's sought-after encounter with Old Betonie, a Navajo healer with decidedly nontraditional ways. In the novel, Betonie explains to Tayo that people have wrong ideas about inherited healing ceremonies because they believe the rites are and ought to be unadulterated and changeless. Instead, he insists, from the very beginning "the changing began." Especially after the arrival of whites, Betonie continues, new ceremonies were needed. "I have made changes in the rituals," Old Betonie declares. "The people mistrust this greatly, but only the growth keeps the ceremonies strong." It was what he called the "Witchery" that taught otherwise, frightening people and scaring them away from growth. And the Witchery was "counting on" its scare tactic, counting on the momentum of fear that made people cling to the past.

Silko's Betonie is a kind of prophet for the new spirituality movement. His case for religious combination is hardly superficial. It is, in fact, a testimony to the creative refashioning of received cultural goods in which all living religious cultures engage. And against the backdrop of a globalization intensely present both abroad and in the nation, religious combination is hardly ipso facto a sign of superficiality or shallowness. By contrast, one reading for the new spirituality and what it portends could easily be that it signals the constitution of a common American religious culture that at last takes seriously the non-Anglo Protestants and non-Europeans in our midst.

Once, long ago, in the English Civil Wars that helped to shape the consciousness of early Americans, a contemporary asserted with conviction that God was "English." If so, in twenty-first-century America, God has taken out new (U.S.) citizenship papers. God has not so much deserted the Anglos as taken them along, with an enormous group of fellow-travelers, to new nooks and crannies. God, these days, wears a multi-colored coat, and her sojourn in Egypt has made her a polylingual religious market shopper along winding roads and twisting alleys. God loves the old and new products she can buy and combine. More than that, she mightily enjoys cooking, for she is clearly a nurturer, warming hearts and heads with the ordinariness and home-made delights of her culinary creations, soothing away cares and sicknesses of all types. For Americans to savor, she has cooked up an awesome religious stew. Its sometimes subtle, sometimes outrageous, and always interesting tastes reveal that, as in the spiritual rhymes and times of Old Betonie, God is more than ever Changing Woman. The stew tells us, too, that -- then as now -- Changing Woman means Combining Woman -- and Combining Woman, in new spiritual intentionality, is another name for Healer.

CATHERINE L. ALBANESE (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches American religious history. She has written numerous articles and books, including Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age; her widely used textbook, America: Religions and Religion, is now in its third edition. She is former president of the American Academy of Religion (1994).
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Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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