American spirituality - meaning astrology, yoga, and the huge number of other alternative strains of religion pursued by individuals outside of traditional organizations - is usually thought to be a product of the postmodern era. Aromatherapy, crystals, and an interest in one's aura are supposedly relics of the narcissism and iconoclasm of the 1960s. But, as "The New Metaphysicals" reveals, contemporary American spirituality has deep historic roots in the nineteenth century and a great deal in common with traditional religious movements: it turns out the New Age is getting on in years. To explore the world of contemporary spiritual practitioners, Courtney Bender combines research into the history of the movement with fieldwork in Cambridge, Massachusetts - a key site of alternative religious inquiry from Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James to today. Through her ethnographic analysis, Bender discovers that a focus on the new, on progress, and on the way spiritualist beliefs intersect with science obscures the historical roots of spirituality from its practitioners as well as from the many scholars who have studied it.
Perceptive, persuasive, and at times gently humorous, "The New Metaphysicals" will greatly broaden our understanding of religion in America.
Courtney Bender is associate professor of religion at Columbia University and the author of Heaven's Kitchen: Living with Religion at God's Love We Deliver, also published by the University of Chicago Press.