This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  January 13, 2006

By Leigh Eric Schmidt
HarperSanFrancisco, 352 pages, $26.95
By Phyllis Tickle
Doubleday, 352 pages, $23.95
Two authors assess America's liberal spiritual traditions


After two church-aided Republican presidential victories and the first papal conclave in 25 years, it should be obvious that religion is in the air. However, there’s more floating around than just conservative evangelical Christianity, the Vatican and Wahhabism. In fact, if The DaVinci Code’s popularity tells us anything, it’s that spirituality -- at some remove from religious institutions -- remains alive and kicking.

In Restless Souls, Leigh Eric Schmidt, one of the nation’s leading religious historians, assures us there’s more to American religiosity than conservative voices. He sets himself to tracing and defending the liberal foundation for American spirituality.

Dr. Schmidt, whose previous books covered such diverse topics as Scottish outdoor Communion celebrations and the cultural religion of American holidays, has written a tight and solidly researched work. He sets out the fittingly disparate roots of American religious experimentation: Emerson and Oprah, of course, but also the New England transcendentalist Octavius Frothingham (1822-95), missionary Sufi leader Hasrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) and Phil Jackson, the successful professional basketball coach who, having been born into an evangelical family in North Dakota, exhorts his players with yoga and Buddhist meditation. Metaphysical guides, the Quakers, and the Western appreciation of Vedanta wield considerable influence.

The current media obsession with conservative evangelicals ignores a far more extensive -- and authentic -- spiritual perspective. An expansive and socially challenging spiritual mindset has always existed in American life. If any spiritual tradition merits the “American” label, Dr. Schmidt argues, this liberal voice far outweighs any conservative competitor. From Emerson he traces this anti-movement’s development through the antebellum fascination with panreligious mysticism; American Baha’i adherents; Howard Thurman, an African-American seeker who founded an “Inner Light” association in San Francisco; to midcentury spiritual adepts such as the novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood. All of Dr. Schmidt’s subjects rejected the hidebound spiritual limits of their upbringing in favor of a more tolerant, more affirming, no longer solely Christian but also not quite polytheist perspective. Walking between and sometimes joyfully mixing heresy and apostasy, this thoroughly American spiritual perspective challenged racism, sexism and the cramped conformism of past decades.

At the same time, though, its adherents sought, perhaps like the Buddha, compassion for their (as yet unenlightened) neighbors. Dr. Schmidt details the spiritual journey of “Desiderata” poet Max Ehrmann (1872-1945). A Methodist from Terre Haute, Mr. Ehrmann never forsook his Indiana roots. Yet his phrase “Be gentle with yourself” sprang from his dissatisfaction with the religious options around him. This mantra resurfaced during the spiritually curious 1960s and in the new century when Americans, seeking respite from the judgmental contradictions of conservative religion, hope to reconnect with their inner selves.

Phyllis Tickle, the former religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly and an accomplished spiritual author, offers a broader assessment of the new “religious awakening” over the past decade in Prayer is a Place. Ms. Tickle recounts how her experiences in publishing spirituality titles led to several encounters with the nation’s religious diversity. Her book oscillates between her reflections on home and her experiences with the nation’s most provocative religious figures and events. She recounts her path to religious publishing, returning cyclically to talk about her home, a gentleman’s farm near Memphis, Tenn. She claims that “prayer is a place,” that rooting yourself in a particular location involves risking vulnerability to new experiences.

The reconstructed dinnertime or boardroom conversations in Ms. Tickle’s career often detract attention from an important point: her realization of the crucial link between the nation’s spiritual desires and the publishing empire. Ms. Tickle’s book shines when she covers contributions to American spirituality that center around books: for example, the Jesus Seminar, the work of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and, my favorite, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Those very conventions provide the setting where Dr. Schmidt presents his own research on American spirituality. So, in a neat twist, Ms. Tickle views as evidence of religious awakening the very professional convention where scholars gather with varying degrees of objectivity to discuss American religiosity.

Ms. Tickle appears quite conversant in the spiritual tradition Dr. Schmidt describes for she aided the publication of much of it. She includes a “greatest hits” list of popular figures: Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Bishop Spong, whose books have challenged reductionist and conservative understandings of the Christian faith; and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist master whose popularity rivals the pope’s. All this indicates her spiritual flexibility. The latter is particularly clear when she visits the U.S. Holocaust Museum with her Jewish coworker and has occasion to reflection on Christians’ role in the Holocaust. But unlike Dr. Schmidt’s subjects (and some of her own), Ms. Tickle never leaves her Christian faith behind.

Restless Souls offers an intricate and provocative argument; Prayer is a Place paints with a broad brush. Some readers might wish these authors paid more attention to the spiritual and theological implications they raise. If Catholicism ultimately treasures the blessed community, Dr. Schmidt’s characters appear headed in the opposite direction. He quickly dispenses with critics who accuse seekers of self-absorption, an offense Ms. Tickle is herself occasionally guilty of. The awakening metaphor has been used, of course, several times in American religious history. But is Ms. Tickle discovering a new awakening, and is this rebirth entirely beneficial? Philip Jenkins at least views the early 1990s as one of resurgent anti-Catholicism, but Ms. Tickle praises the same period for its spiritual inclusivity. Her expansive appreciation of spiritual experimentation occasionally brushes aside evidence that spiritual developments are often inconveniently ugly.

To the extent that Ms. Tickle links religious exploration with publishing, her book succeeds. At those points she strikes a very American chord: Certain religious experiences “sell” better than others. Dr. Schmidt understands that many Americans possess conservative, or at least myopic, Christian beliefs -- and he holds up a different spiritual path as a viable alternative. In fact, he shrewdly implies that many of the Christian Right actually participate in the Spiritual Left’s beliefs. After all, somebody has to watch Oprah’s shows and buy Deepak Chopra’s books.

Jeffrey Marlett teaches religious studies at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. For the past five years he has co-chaired the Roman Catholic Studies group of the American Academy of Religion.

National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: