After reading Scot McKnight’s recent blog on “The Theology of the Spiritual But Not Religious,” I was reminded of a book that I read many years ago but had almost completely forgotten: The American Religion by Harold Bloom. Bloom’s thesis is that American religiosity has long been gnostic at its core rather than Christian. He defines gnosticism as belief in the divinity of self: “The self is the truth, and there is a spark at its center that is best and oldest, being the God within.”
Is any poem more American than Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”?
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from,
The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
Whitman’s celebration of sensuality provoked controversy, yet his celebration of self was already becoming the heart of American religiosity.
Bloom dates the beginning of the American religion to 6 August 1801 when 25,000 people gathered at Cane Ridge, Kentucky for a revivalist tent meeting:
Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists at once became American Religionists, rapt by ecstasy. … The drunk, sexually aroused communicants at Cane Ridge, like their drugged and aroused Woodstockian descendants a century and a half later, participated in a kind of orgiastic individualism, in which all the holy rolling was the outward mark of an inward grace that traumatically put away frontier loneliness and instead put on the doctrine of experience that exalted such loneliness into being-alone-with-Jesus.
McKnight sees the development of the “spiritual but not religious” movement as “a devolution of the Schleiermacherian turn to the experience and the individual.” I cannot disagree; but I also cannot help but wonder whether there is not also something deeply “American” about this development in our religiosity. Perhaps it’s not even so much a development as an unveiling of our national spirit and identity.
Preachers of the gospel take note.