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The New Metaphysicals

Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination

The New Metaphysicals

Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination

American spirituality—with its focus on individual meaning, experience, and exploration—is usually thought to be a product of the postmodern era. But, as The New Metaphysicals makes clear, contemporary American spirituality has historic roots in the nineteenth century and a great deal in common with traditional religious movements. To explore this world, Courtney Bender combines research into the history of the movement with fieldwork in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a key site of alternative religious inquiry from Emerson and William James to today. Through her ethnographic analysis, Bender discovers that a focus on the new, on progress, and on the way spiritual beliefs intersect with science obscures the historical roots of spirituality from its practitioners and those who study it alike—and shape an enduring set of modern religious possibilities in the process.


“Truly distinctive and distinguished. Bender captures the subtlety of the religious voices, practices, and struggles of those she terms contemporary metaphysicals living amid shifting economic realities, modern assumptions about science and progress, and related entanglements. This is a remarkable book simply for recording these fascinating practitioners and helping readers understand their categories of practice and experience in all their complexity. But her work does far more than merely record; it offers a compelling examination of how we may think anew about these categories and the people—metaphysicals and scholars alike—for whom they matter. Hilarious and humane all at once: it’s a rare mix, and Bender hits the mark again and again.”

R. Marie Griffith, Harvard Divinity School

“In this rich ethnography of the varieties of contemporary spirituality in William James’ hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Courtney Bender shows—hopefully once and for all—how wrong James was to say that religion is the experience of individuals in their solitude. In a series of beautifully rendered life stories she brings spirituality down to earth and discloses what is most deeply at stake for Americans in being ‘spiritual but not religious.’ The New Metaphysicals promises fundamentally to change how we think not only about contemporary American spirituality but also how we understand what we mean by ‘religion.’”

Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University

“The classic ethnographic impulse is to challenge our scholarly understandings by observing everyday understandings in action. In The New Metaphysicals Courtney Bender instead reveals their complex mutual constitution in our common and standard portrayals of American mysticism as without history or structure. Bender’s brilliant use of the tools of practice theory conveys a sense of long-term yet loose structure. Her thick yet elegant descriptions of the institutions, discourses, and practices that create contemporary American mysticism provide a model for the study of religious traditions. And her reassertion of a more structured and culture-full version of practice theory is a must read for ethnographers of any subject.”

David Smilde, University of Georgia

Table of Contents



Introduction: Long Shadows

1 Shamans in the Meetinghouse: Locating Contemporary Spirituality

2 Becoming Mystics

3 Tuning the Body

4 Karmic Laundry: Imagining and Embodying Spiritual History

5 “Zooming Around”: Mystical Lands and Cosmopolitanisms






Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award

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