It’s apparent to anyone who reads much of the poet Walt Whitman’s work that he had a high opinion of both his own ability and the specialness of the United States. In his 1871 essay Democratic Vistas, Whitman underlines what he sees as the future of the human spirit in the US:
. . . 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 mediation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight.
Many think that this impulse eventually led to the unique nuttiness of “the Sixties,” but the story is much more complex and interesting than what Boomers did with their youth. The best book that I know of on the subject is Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls: the Making of American Spirituality.
The first edition of the book appeared in 2005, and at the time (who remembers the second Bush and his distinctly odd Christianity?) I found it a revelation. A new edition appeared in 2017, and I’m hoping for a third sometime soon. Needless to say, the children of Whitman continue to redefine spirituality and the limits of individuality at what appears to be an accelerating pace.
Dr. Schmidt reports that by 1891 Whitman’s term “spirituality” had become the muddle it is today. One clergyman, attempting to define the term, concluded that “spirituality” was “kind of sort of something” (p7).
The current iteration of SBNR, “spiritual but not religious,” fulfills Whitman’s dream of pushing individuality to its most extreme limits. Starting with mid-nineteenth century Transcendentalism, the quest for meaning has ricocheted from Theosophy to New Thought (later “New Age”), to Yoga, Hinduism, Sufism, Buddhism, and the list goes on and on all the way to the contemporary “designer god” and cafeteria creeds — “pick two from list A.”
As a scholar, Dr. Schmidt presents this narrative as both intellectual history and good fun. What it all means for the children of Whitman, Schmidt ultimately avoids saying. Perhaps the history speaks for itself:. American spirituality is “kind of sort of something.”