Metaphysics: A 'Third Stream' of US Religion ; Spiritual Systems Based on an Experience of 'Mind' Have Long Had a Place in America's Religious Life

Article excerpt

A few years ago, the American press began reporting an explosive increase of books on spirituality. The explosion continues. As I write, Amazon.com lists 4,747 books on spirituality published in 2006, compared with 1,325 in 1996, and 303 in 1986.

This intense interest in spirituality is the final topic in A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion by religion scholar Catherine Albanese. Albanese shows that this interest has a history as old as America. She also demonstrates that many of the seekers who read and write these books, meditate in church, use psychic methods to aid the police, and employ alternative healers constitute an important "third stream" of American religion.

A more familiar stream consists of liturgical forms of American religion that, according to Albanese, turn "on communally organized ceremonial action." Think of the church on the town green with its fixed, orderly worship service.

Another more distinctively American brand of religion consists of the evangelical forms that favor "the cultivation of strong emotional experience that is felt as life-transforming." Think of the tent meeting in the woods with a revivalist preacher.

Harder to pin down and much less studied is the third or "metaphysical" approach, which "turns on an individual's experience of 'mind' [and has] privileged the mind in forms that include reason but move beyond it to intuition, clairvoyance ... 'revelation' and 'higher guidance.' "

In such systems, "the human world and mind replicate ... a larger, often more whole and integrated universe" within which metaphysicians "find a stream of energy flowing from above.... Moreover, the influx of energy ... that enlivens their world is a healing salve for all its ills and - in the strongest statement of their view - renders [metaphysicians] divine and limitless."

According to Albanese, elements of this third type of religion were already present among the American Indians and in the cultural luggage of both slaves and immigrants at the very beginning of American history.

Subsequently, various elements in this third religious stream combined, separated, and flowed together to appear in Royal Arch Masonry, Mormonism, Christian Science, Theosophy, Macrobiotics, American forms of Yoga and Qi, Positive Thinking, crystal power, spiritualism, the papers of Phineas P. Quimby, early systems of osteopathy and chiropractic, and, today, in yoga classes, quantum healing, and hypnotic therapy. …