University of Virginia Press Announces New Book Series on American Spirutality

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Leigh Eric Schmidt of Washington University and Matthew Hedstrom of the University of Virginia will be the editors.

Here is a taste of the announcement:

The American Spirituality series seeks scholarship that explores dimensions of American religious life that fall into the cracks or beyond the margins of conventional religious thought, practice, and institutions. The category “spirituality,” in its Emersonian and Whitmanesque formulation, fundamentally registers these qualities of nonconformity and open-road individuality, even as it encompasses a variety of more specific religious lineages. We aim to publish books that view the past and present of American spirituality in both tight focus and through wider apertures. Doing so, we believe, will help define a still-emerging field of scholarly study, as well as contribute texture and depth to the wider public conversation about spirituality, a category that has grown in power in recent decades as so many millennials have relinquished previously recognized forms of religious identity. The thrust of the series will be historical, with particular focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it will also invite ethnographically informed work on contemporary expressions of America’s metaphysical preoccupations.

Scholars to date have approached the study of spirituality in America with varying degrees of precision. Most specifically, American spirituality describes a particular lineage within American religious history with deep roots in liberal Protestant and transcendentalist movements of the early nineteenth century. That stream, in turn, flowed outward in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into broadly cosmopolitan forms of post-Protestantism, including universalized forms of Quakerism and religious humanism. Those tributaries often converged with a host of still more far-ranging metaphysical movements, from New Thought to Theosophy, from Vedanta to Zen. Even as it has grown evermore eclectic in expression, the American construction of spirituality nonetheless retains a popular coherence. It is taken to describe the perennial essence of the religious life, typically conceived as individual experience of the divine or the transcendent, and usually understood in contrast to the outer forms of religion. The phrase “spiritual but not religious” captures this common distinction, a distinction with profound resonance in American religious thought—from Emerson to William James, from Whitman to Bill Wilson, the founder of AA.

Studying the multi-form history of spirituality allows scholars to examine in new ways the forces that have shaped religion in modern America—individualism, consumerism, mass culture, psychology, democratic norms, gender, race, immigration, globalization, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. It allows for multidisciplinary consideration of religion’s fundamental reconfiguration over the last three centuries—a reconfiguration prominently marked by exalting “spirituality” and diminishing “organized religion.” Is the redefinition of religion in the solitary, interiorized terms of spirituality indispensable to the politics of secularism? Is spirituality’s amalgamative drive—its ceaseless borrowing across religious traditions—ever separable from the politics of empire and neoliberalism? Are spirituality’s therapeutic regimens salvageable from a culture of narcissism and an economy of unsustainable consumption? The series invites critical histories and ethnographies that explore these multiple entanglements of religion, politics, and culture as they have found expression through the various spiritual movements and quests in which Americans have participated.