Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality

Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality

Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality

Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality


Yoga classes and Zen meditation, New-Age retreats and nature mysticism--all are part of an ongoing religious experimentation that has surprisingly deep roots in American history. Tracing out the country's Transcendentalist and cosmopolitan religious impulses over the last two centuries, Restless Souls explores America's abiding romance with spirituality as religion's better half. Now in its second edition, including a new preface, Leigh Eric Schmidt's fascinating book provides a rich account of how this open-road spirituality developed in American culture in the first place as well as a sweeping survey of the liberal religious movements that touted it and ensured its continued vitality.


If only I knew then what I still don’t know.

—Douglas Dunn, The Year’s Afternoon, 2000

“Ask a cosmopolitan friend or a young person to describe his or her religion and you are likely to get ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ “ conservative provocateur Laura Ingraham writes in her recent jeremiad bemoaning the nation’s cultural decay, Of Thee I Zing (2011). Predictably, Ingraham finds this popular self-description both vapid and dismaying: “ ‘The spiritual but not religious’ moniker has become so trendy, it now has its own acronym: S-B-N-R. How about this one: S-T-U-P-I-D?” Not exactly sophisticated criticism, but Ingraham flogs the “SBNR crowd” long enough to make an inadvertently telling swipe about how they constitute a bunch of erratic dabblers. “Perpetually dipping their hands into the Whitman Sampler of Faith,” Ingraham jabs, “these searchers taste each flavor, but never stay long enough to savor any one in particular.”

It is safe to say that Ingraham did not have Walt Whitman on her mind when she made that allusion, but rather a big box of chocolates. Reaching for a popular product logo, the Whitman’s Sampler®, Ingraham played with the stereotyped image of the country’s unmoored religious seekers as fickle consumers possessed by an insatiable appetite for variety. That censure, a commonplace of cultural criticism, has been around a long while now, and it comes not just from the right wing. Deriding the spiritual-but-not-religious demographic for its flighty tastes—say, a yearning for “tofu prepared by Tibetan vir-

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