“Spiritual but not Religious” and the American Religion

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.

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11 Responses to “Spiritual but not Religious” and the American Religion

  1. Kim Fabricius says:

    A disservice to Schleiermacher — more like Feuerbach in Disneyland.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This makes me wish I had access to Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm, into which I have only dipped.

    Have you ever run into Stefan Rossbach’s Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality (1999)? I read a fascinating conference paper of his and joined in the discussion when he was working on this book, but have never caught up with the finished work.

    Not yet having read the post you link, I wonder generally how different and how similar ‘American’ developments are in comparison with other western ones, both in terms of Gnosticism and… eclectic orthodoxy!

    A great problem, I think, definitely a modern (last 500 to 800 years) one, but not exclusively so, is ‘pneumaticism’ and ‘discernment of spirits’, whether one thinks of followers of Joachim of Fiore, or Calvin’s ‘autopistos’, or infallible Papal interpretation, or Khomiakov.


  3. Another author we both respect, Harold Bloom is one of my favorites. I’ve read several of his books, but I haven’t gotten my hands on The American Religion yet. Now I am motivated to seek it out. I recently purchased a small volume called Fallen Angels, which I haven’t even opened yet. His insights into our quest for gnosis are fascinating to me.


  4. Father Gregory says:

    Reblogged this on The Anglican Breviary and commented:
    Fr. Kimel reflects on American Religion:


  5. tgbelt says:

    I don’t understand the disagreement with identifying God as the inseparable ground of the human being (at its more defining–as the ecstatic self seeking its home). The logoi of created things are divine. That reality can be misrelated to, but I don’t see the essential point as gnostic at all.


    • Leah Sommers says:

      I was wondering about the same thing.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You raise a good question, Tom, with which I have been wrestling. One can occasionally find language in the Fathers that speaks of a spark of divinity within humanity, but I’m uncomfortable with it. It confuses, I think, nature and grace. I interpret such language as a perhaps misleading way of talking about the imago dei, i.e., that humanity is originally created for personal communion with God. But to say this is not to say that we are intrinsically divine.

      It’s been many years since I last read Bloom’s book, and my copy was given away in the great book purge seven years ago; hence I’m unable to consult it to confirm my memories of it. But it’s definitely a book you may want to look at. I think it’s necessary reading for any American preacher.


  6. StephenUSA says:

    Posted recently, and no doubt coincidentally, elsewhere, thought it would be of interest.


  7. Jonathan says:

    In his prose work Walt Whitman wrote passionately about the importance of religion in America, which he imagined as an antidote to the rapacious side of individualism, something he was highly conscious of. Whitman was intensely aware of himself as an American poet, and speaks of his work as a counterpoise to the homogenizing tendencies of American democracy (which he also celebrated). And he was, like most people in the 19th century, massively impressed by scientific achievement. He thought that one of the purposes of poetry going forward was to “vivify” the facts that science was uncovering at such an unprecedented pace. Whitman was sincerely striving, I think, for that element that would bridge the gap between the masses and the individual, between facticity and idea (or value). He was trying to understand how America could actually be a nation, a polity with more than material unity. He would have had no exposure to the mystical ideas of communion between individuals that the traditional forms of Christianity have gradually developed. Whitman is coming from Emerson, who came from Coleridge and the German idealists, who came from Protestant mystics like Boehme. In case anyone’s interested, here are some passages from Whitman’s Democratic Vistas:

    “[Democracy] is the old, yet ever-modern dream of earth. . . Not that half only, individualism, which isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades and fraternizing all. Both [i.e. “halves” of democracy] are to be vitalized by religion, (sole worthiest elevator of man or State), breathing into the proud material tissues the breath of life. For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there. Nor may the scheme step forth, clothed in resplendent beauty and command, till these, bearing the best, the latest fruit, the spiritual, shall fully appear.”

    And later in the DV:

    “If I were asked to specify in what quarter lie the grounds of darkest dread, respecting the America of our hopes, I should have to point to [Conscience]. I should demand the invariable application to individuality, this day and any day, of that old, ever-true plumb-rule of persons, eras, nations. Our triumphant modern civilizee, with his all-schooling and his wondrous appliances, will still show himself but an amputation while this deficiency remains. Beyond. . . the vertebration of the manly and womanly personalism of our western world, can only be. . . its all penetrating Religiousness.
    “The ripeness of Religion is doubtless to be looked for in the field of individuality, and is a result that no organization or church can ever achieve. . . . Religion, although casually arrested and after a fashion preserved in the churches and creeds, does not depend at all upon them, but is a part of the identified* soul, which, when greatest, knows not bibles in the old way, but in new ways — the identified soul, which can really confront Religion when it extricates itself entirely from the churches and not before.
    “Personalism fuses this, and favors it. I should say, indeed, that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion positively come forth at all. Only here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight. Only here, communion with the mysteries, the eternal problems, whence? whither? . . . Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one’s isolated Self to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the inutterable.”

    *By “identified” he means something like discrete and fully actualized.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you for this comment on Whitman. It’s been a long time since I read his poetry, and I’ve never read his prose writings.


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