Nov 30, 2010

Imposing a narrative on the cacophony

The other thing that frustrates me about Robert C. Fuller's Religious Revolutionaries is the way he imposes a narrative on American religion.

He seems to see it as going somewhere.

I think this warps the view of the religious thinkers he likes -- putting them all on the same side, moving in the same direction, opposing the same regressive forces -- and sidelines the ones he doesn't. Instead of taking these various and diverse thinkers on their own terms, in their own contexts, he places them in narrative, making them characters whose function is to move the ball down the field.

In the end, he gives up even the pretense of history and makes these people heroes, leaving the reader with a lesson: "The legacy of our religious revolutionaries lives on," he says in conclusion. "Their thoughts and actions have opened up new spiritual pathways. To this extent these rebels not only succeeded in helping to free their contemporaries from the religious past, but they also make it possible for us to be inspired by their historic efforts."

I don't really see how Fuller can justify this, academically. I know it's supposed to be a book for a general audience, but still.

Even if one is OK with the model of progressing history and if one wants to own these historic figures take up this cause, it's absurd to think of thinkers as diverse as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Daly, Phineas P. Quimby and James Cone, Joseph Smith and William James as all moving in the same direciton. That model requires elisions, at best, and some sloppy presentism, and lends itself, I think, to some sever misrepresentations.

The very idea that America's religious history can be put into some sort of narrative seems to me to only even be possible if one is willfully myopic. It can't even really rightly be made to go in two directions -- the history is one of cacophony, with movements and counter movements, new religions and new takes on old religions, and old takes on new religions, with experimentation and development and reaction and always, always, pluralism and plethora and multitude. Imposed narratives oversimplify all this, and miss a lot of it, and drastically reshape everything in a presentist way to make a point.

Fuller, for example, ends with an account of a glorious now, where "seekers freely choose within a wide-open spiritual marketplace," which, oddly, turns out, in his depiction, to always be this choice of this same free seeking, and he gazes off into the future where we too can "embark on spiritual journeys aimed at establishing a deeply personal relationship with these higher levels of existence ... journeys [that] promise to be filled with ecstatic adventure." This picture of what's happening in American religion today seems to be insanely narrow, and when I look at what I know is happening, I know I can't tell you what is going to happen, but whatever it is, it won't be just one thing.