Constructing Spirituality: Making American Values Normative

Just a brief follow up to my recent post on Capitalist Formations of the Self. Charles McCrary (original here, reposted by Matt Sheedy here) has written a post on spirituality and chaplaincy, which is relevant to several of the themes explored on this site.

First note: spirituality is a social construct (big surprise, right?) created in the course of socio-cultural modernization of the US in the 19th century. That development culminated with the work of Wm. James that made religion/spirituality is “a thing, a real thing, that everyone has.” The projects of studying meditation via brain states participate in this rhetoric—spirituality is natural, intrinsic, and has physical evidences in the brain, or in neural correlates if you’re sophisticated. Naturalizing and universalizing spirituality is part of the argument of Brooks and Miller (here) mentioned in the previous post. One way that this gets expressed is in the literature that co-opts the idea of neural plasticity in the service of a dualist ontology, that is, the brain is changed by the will. This use of the idea of neural plasticity is found for example in attempts to show that “meditation really works, see? it changes the brain”—discussions that perpetuate a mistaken causal relation from the intangible (will, spirit, mind, like whatever) to physical being (brain, body, you know). It would appear that for much of the discourse we have made no progress since Descartes, and his popularizing followers.

Second note: included by McCrary is a copy of a “spiritual fitness guide: self assessment.” What is important to note is how the guide naturalizes American cultural values. As McCrary says:

The operative understanding of religion, for some jurists, psychologists, counselors, chaplains, and apparently a growing number of other Americans favors a “hopeful,” “moral,” and forgiving style of religion that benefits individuals’ mental, physical, and spiritual health. As seen in the chart above, the spiritually fit among us are “engaged in life’s meaning/purpose.”

The point McCrary makes is that this is the basis for the increasingly vague definitions of religion and spirituality, as well as being related to a linking—or even equivalence—of conceptions of spiritual and physical well-being. (See Taylor’s discussion of an increasing emphasis on what he calls “human flourishing” in his Secular Age.) These are certainly important points, to which I would only like to add that naturalizing a particular conception of spirituality in this way makes American values normative—and any divergence from them pathological. This is congruent with the continuing battles through different versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders over the idea that introversion (a tendency to prefer to be alone) is symptomatic of underlying problems, whereas extroversion (a tendency to prefer to be with others) is both normal and normative. The pathologizing of introversion also links to the rejection of the reclusive monastic life—whether in the Protestant Reformation and the suspicions of Catholic monastics in 19th century US, or in contemporary Secular Buddhism.

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