American Spirituality

The United States is a religious society. But I don’t know to what degree it is a spiritual society. I’m not even quite sure what spirituality can mean here. There is an Anglo-American history of spirituality: Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy, etc. The Shakers are an interesting example, specifically of community. They originated from the Quakers, as they were the Shaking Quakers. They were really into communal dancing with the noise they made being heard miles away. They were also really into Spiritualism with their members going into trance states, channeling spirits, doing spirit paintings, etc. The Shakers, by the way, advocated abstinence. That might explain some of their behavior. They needed some kind of outlet. Avoiding sex meant they had to adopt children to maintain their society, which they did over a century. That is what happened to my great grandfather. He was one of the last generation of Shaker children. I would have loved to known about his experience, but apparently he never talked about it.

There were a lot of similar things going on during the revival movements of the Great Awakenings. All kinds of odd behaviors were common, from shaking to talking in tongues. The people believed God or the Holy Spirit came down and essentially possessed them. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in this country. There are still some churches that have such practices, including such things snake handling, though it doesn’t seem to be at the same level as seen in these once massive revivals. Interestingly, the Piraha also do snake handling when possessed, not that they think of it as possession. A possessed Piraha becomes entirely identified with the spirit, such that not even other Piraha would recognize him as anything else. The Piraha, by the way, have no shamanic tradition as such and so no shamans. Possession isn’t part of any formal tradition or rituals and just happens. Because of that, the Piraha might be a good framework for understanding some of the spiritual eruptions in American society.

Then there is the whole phenomenon of UFO sightings and abductee experiences, Mothman and Men in Black. That has developed into numerous UFO and alien cults (some good books have been written on that). Carl Jung considered UFOs to be an expression of a religious impulse, something new seeking to emerge within our society (see a letter he wrote to Gilbert A. Harrison and his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies). Like Jung, others have seen a spiritual/mythological component to this. The biggest name being the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee who noted the similarity between alien abduction accounts, fairy abduction stories, and shamanic initiations. John Keel wrote about similar things. In a scientific age, it is in a scientific guise that spirituality often gets expressed. This is the unexpected form that the next major religion is likely to take. In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history, our society will take non-scientific myths and retell them as science. On a personal level, that will be how spirituality will be experienced by many — if not necessarily the rise of UFO cults, then something like it.

I wonder what it would look like in the U.S. if we had a fourth (fifth?) Great Awakening with the large revivals or else along these lines, although not necessarily in Christian dressing. Admittedly, it’s harder to imagine it. But secularism doesn’t alter the underlying yearning for spirituality, for something transcendant or other, something ecstatic and transformative. The hunger is there, obviously. It just gets subverted in our capitalist society. The closest we come is presidential elections when people become a bit mentally unbalanced… still, not the same thing, at least not these days. But according to early American records, elections were more like ecstatic Carnival with truly wild behavior going on. Elections with their group-minded partisanship — combined with cult of personality — can make people lose their individual sense of self into something greater (see Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That maybe the main purpose of elections in our society, not so much for democracy (as U.S. politics fails on that account) but as a state religion. I sometimes wonder if our entire society isn’t possessed in some sense. That might be a better explanation than anything else. That maybe the difficulty the respectable classes have in coming to terms with President Donald Trump, as he is less of a politician than a religious figure. Heck, maybe he is a lizard person too, as part of an advanced guard of an alien invasion.

* * *

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

2 thoughts on “American Spirituality

  1. I wanted to comment on this observation from your post on 06-20-2019.
    “… In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history,”
    When I first read this, I thought you were speaking to the New Testament accounts of Jesus. But then I looked up the axial age and it is 800 BCE to roughly 300 BCE.
    I know I am on the fringe on this but I don’t think there necessarily was a physical Jesus. When I read the above quote I thought it could be a tremendously concise way to describe the Jesus myth (archetypal myth) as described in the New Testament. (It is about 400 years after the end of the Axial Age, however) That is why the gospels are different, the authors are in the process of writing and fine-tuning a ‘history’ from a-historical myths. Greek, Jewish, Egyptian. Was it also a part of the shift from oral traditions to written traditions?
    Another idea I am exploring is that what the best Christian theologians have been doing, over time, is to discern the structure of the Psyche. That is what interests me. Jung thought that the Psyche has a structure. Based on my explorations that is what makes sense to me as well. Thanks. Eric B.

    • I refer to the “Axial Age” in a loose and broad sense. Many people speak of Christianity as part of the Late Axial Age. The basic point is that Christianity was part of the same shift in culture and consciousness, as it became formalized in new movements, philosophies, institutions, etc.

      About a historical Jesus, I doubt he existed. Or possibly, there were many such figures who became mixed up over time. Christanity, as with many religions of that era, were highly syncretistic. The Christian tradition remained orally passed on for several generations before being put into written form. We don’t even have available the earliest written versions of text, as we now can tell how drastically they were altered with each retelling. What was added later is easier to tell than what was lost or destroyed.

      Multigenerational orality is not exactly a reliable method of transferring info, except with highly advanced mnemonic systems (e.g., the Songlines of Australian Aborigines). Besides, other than the Gospels, there is zero evidence Jesus ever existed. Even the most famous Jewish historian who was alive and writing at the time apparently didn’t know about Jesus or bother to mention him. So, all we have to go by are non-historical accounts told by true believers who never met anyone named Jesus nor ever knew anyone who claimed to have met him. All of this happened generations earlier. The earliest records we have would be the Pauline epistles and, if you read carefully, you’ll notice that he never speaks of Jesus as an actual physical person.

      He was already a mythological figure by the time the early Church was organized, as no historical record existed upon which to base the Gospels. It was simply an oral storytelling tradition, not particularly any different than others as the Jesus myth conforms almost perfectly to other similar godmen myths. Depending on how one wants to define Christianity, the oral traditions possibly went much further back than what is typically associated with Christianity proper. There were all kinds of Christian-like groups and movements. Even the Stoics were often confused with Christians because of their similar dress and behavior, and indeed Christians did borrow from the Stoics, from natural law to martyrdom.

      By the way, in eventually writing down the Gospels, the early Christians were the first to use bound books. It literally is a religion of the book, at least after a few generations of oral tradition. A religion of a book was an extension of the greater literacy that took hold in the Axial Age. Literacy changes the structure of the human mind, as many have explored: Marshall McLuhan, Julian Jaynes, etc (I could list about a dozen names, if I felt motivated enough).

      If you use the WordPress or Google site search, you’ll be able to find all kinds of posts about these topics. I used to write about it all the time. Use the following search terms: Axial Age, Christianity, Gnosticism, Alexandrian Jews, Neoplatonism, Mystery religion, syncretism, mythicism, astrotheology, godmen, salvific figure, resurrection deity, orality, oral tradition, literacy, etc. Another way to look for relevant old posts is to check out tags such as this:

      If you have trouble finding them, let me know and I can pull up some of the posts. To get you started, I’ll throw out a few random posts on early Christianity:

      I haven’t thought much about any of this in a long while. But I’m always game for discussion. I’ll listen to whatever you have on your mind and try to give a worthwhile response. It is a fascinating topic. Maybe you inspire me to write a new post about some of this. Other than a post like the above about American spirituality, the closest I’ve come to this area of thought has been posts such as on ethnicity in the ancient world from several years ago:

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