restricted access Introduction: Awash in a Sea of Metaphysics
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Awash in a Sea of Metaphysics

This title owes not a little to Jon Butler, whose landmark 1990 book Awash in a Sea of Faith, perhaps not intentionally, paved the way for the exploration of metaphysical religion in the essays that follow. In a work subtitled Christianizing the American People, Butler triangulated the religious forces at work in early America, pointing to mainline denominational Christianity, evangelicalism, and the third force, here called metaphysics. Chronicling the first two has formed and informed much of the work of American religious historians over the years. The third has been rather neglected, with the assumption that—through the good offices of either evangelicals or mainliners—it had been reduced to a relatively minor place in the story. Recent work in the field, however, has begun to dispute that assessment. The essays presented in this issue are part of an emerging field that probes American metaphysical religion not only because of what it is in itself but also because of what it reveals regarding all of American religious history and culture. [End Page 582]

“Metaphysics” itself may at first seem an off-putting word. With its etymological meaning of being “beyond the physical,” it comes with medieval Western scholastic trappings. Metaphysics has signified ontology and, most notably, the work of the thirteenth-century scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the service of his age’s Catholic church and against the Muslims across the Mediterranean Sea. What in the world does this have to do with Protestant America? There is, however, another way to begin, and it may be found in the aisles of any Borders bookstore in our time. Borders, it turns out, has a clearly labeled section devoted to “Metaphysics.” Not only that, but numbers of present-day Americans respond positively to descriptions of themselves as “metaphysical.”

As important, the term came into familiar use in nineteenth-century North America to designate a particular set of concerns and inclinations. At the time that it did, metaphysics had long been a pariah term in mainstream American circles. Grounding the general educational practice of the time was something called Baconianism, named for the seventeenth-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, whose Novum Organum (1620) launched a cultural turn to the inductive method of science as the source of reliable knowledge (Bozeman 1977; Hovenkamp 1978). From this perspective, to be metaphysical meant to sign on to dubious and disreputable intellectual property, smacking of medieval and Catholic superstition, and devoid of real confrontation with facts. Undeterred by the legacy of the term and perhaps (although it is not possible to demonstrate this) spurred on by its challenge to Protestant orthodoxy, numbers of Americans by the mid- and late-nineteenth century had embraced it.

So there are historical reasons emanating from American culture to adopt the language of metaphysics. Arguably, there are also terminological ones. “Metaphysics” cuts a wide swath—wide enough to encompass “cunning” and magical practice in colonial America, spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century, and occultism in 1875 and after among former spiritualists, theosophists, and an urban literary and artistic avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic. Wide enough, too, to give a comfortable home to a small army of meditators, visionaries, would-be mystics, and do-it-yourself religious philosophers who have used abstract language to signal their extra- and post-Christian concerns in spiritualism, Christian Science, New Thought, the New Age, and, now, new spirituality.

Still more, “metaphysics” as a term also avoids the pitfalls and new pariah status, in some quarters, of “gnosticism” (e.g., Bloom 1992). This lower-case loan against the name for certain second-century Hellenistic [End Page 583] sects, often with Christian ties, can confuse if applied uncritically to the present. Unlike ancient Gnostics, American metaphysicians have by and large celebrated evolution and progress to the divine rather than preaching a tale of devolution downward from the Godhead that sets an agenda for return. They have also involved themselves in the world in a plethora of social reform causes rather than withdrawing from it. Moreover, instead of basking in elitist chosenness and knowledge, they have modeled a democratic divine presence in all people. They have...