Saturday, July 22, 2006

"Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality"

I finished reading Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt a few days ago, having marked it up with many emphatic comments on almost every page.

It was a marvelous book for putting what I see as the current UU crisis of religious identity into perspective, only in that it made me realize that what I see as our downward slide into sloppy, sentimental one-world-religion universalism has older and more specific origins than I had exactly understood. I felt that Schmidt writes with sympathetic appreciation for the earliest proponents of one world religion, but even he couldn't sell me on it. Not even close. One of my margin comments on Thomas Wentworth Higginson reads "WHITE (LIBERAL) SUPREMACY!"
You know me, always so gentle in my assessments.

The book bills itself as a survey of American spirituality "from Emerson to Oprah," but it really breezes over the contemporary scene in favor of biographical sketches of the bright lights of 19th century Transcendentalism and universalism. I thought it was a terrific -- even fantastic -- book for my UU ministerial purposes, but if I had purchased it thinking I would get many insights into spirituality today, I may have been sorely disappointed.

Most upsetting among Schmidt's many contributions to my understanding was that he thoroughly validated my suspicion that many Unitarians and other liberal religionists actually replaced Jesus as their personal savior with men like Emerson and Whitman. I shook my head with the irony of it. Schmidt left unanswered my perennial question: If Unitarian Universalists today claim that their non-theistic worship is meant to instruct the soul as to "things of worth," how do they know what is truly worthy? By consulting Emerson and Whitman?
God knows I love me some Ralph Waldo, but I get just as tired as can be when we treat his essays as though they were revealed scripture.

I wound up loving Henry Ware Jr. more than ever after reading this book, and am happy as a clam that I have stacks of obscure articles by him sitting on my reading desk this very moment.

I have a lot more to say about this book but since Philocrites hosted a huge discussion on it awhile ago, I think I'll go become a barnacle on the side of that boat.

That's it for the oceanic references for now. BTW, has anyone seen M. Night Shamalongadingdong's new flick about the sea nymph (excuse me, NAIF) yet? I'd like to go see it but am afraid it will be painfully pretentious. Also, I can't stand Paul Giamatti. But I love mermaids and myths, so if you saw it and liked it, do tell.


Blogger Philocrites said...

Oh, and to think I've just turned off comments on my old posts so that spammers don't swamp my boat while I enjoy a blogging sabbatical!

Also, my discussion focused more on the other book I read alongside Schmidt -- Mark Oppenheimer's Knocking on Heaven's Door.

Here's what I had to say in my UU World review of Schmidt's book:

Schmidt, a Princeton historian, shows how Americans came to distinguish spirituality from religion. Although the book doesn’t quite trace the story all the way from “Emerson to Oprah,” as the dust jacket promises, Unitarians are central to it. Schmidt extends the history of their influence beyond the nineteenth century, showing how Transcendentalists’ ideas influenced scholars and new religious movements into the first half of the twentieth century.

Our UU emphasis on the individual search for religious meaning is not unique. We share a religious outlook with many other Americans: “call it transcendental cosmopolitanism, Inner-Light liberalism, Whitman’s sublime religious democracy, or the Spiritual Left,” Schmidt suggests. Notably, he wants to find in the Spiritual Left a political counterweight to today’s militant Christian Right. True, many proponents of nondogmatic spirituality were politically progressive, but Schmidt doesn’t show that a commitment to personal religious experience yields anything like a sustained political or cultural movement. The Spiritual Left, as he depicts it, is extra-ecclesial; its institutions are retreat centers, college classrooms, and bookstores, never congregations or denominations or regional cultures. But the Christian Right is dominated by all three of these. Religious liberalism’s influence on the culture is diffuse and unfocused, and therefore politically impotent; the Christian Right is anything but.

I say, go right on ahead and discuss Schmidt right here!

Blogger sarahjanesina said...

Oh my goodness- I thought I was the only one who called him M. Night Shamalamadingdong- seriously, my husband laughs at me when I jump on my soapbox about how frustrating it is for someone who is (I believe) genuinely talented- to be so extremely self indulgent. I haven't seen the movie yet either, I am afraid of being overwhelmed by the self-indulgence and self-centeredness of it all. It makes me a little ill.


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