How the 19th Century Saw “Spirituality” Begin to Compete with “Religiosity”

May 6, 2022 | John Wilson
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In The Religious Revolution, Dominic Green argues that “modern spirituality”—as opposed to more traditional religion—came into being in the second half of the 19th century. Green draws a line that runs from such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche to the situation in the U.S. today, where ever-fewer people attend church but very large numbers practice yoga or believe in reincarnation. John Wilson writes in his review:

Green tells us, “I call the modern transformation of inner life the Religious Revolution,” and what he means by that includes much more than clichés about “spiritual but not religious.” Consider the concluding paragraph of the prologue: “This [that is, the period between 1848 and 1898], is the age of the Religious Revolution. It is also the age of science and race. This is the age of the Religious Revolution because it is the age of science and race.” Hence a book that includes Charles Darwin and Theodor Herzl.

Much as I learned from Green’s book and delighted in it (“The summer sensations of 1884 were the slow martyrdom of General Gordon at Khartoum and two images of feminine power, anonymous, mysterious, and dressed in black”), I couldn’t help but brood about the way he simply leaves out all sorts of things that might seriously complicate or even disable his thesis. After all, the 50-year period that he focuses on saw the explosive growth of Christian “foreign missions.” While Green mentions missionaries here and there in passing, one would hardly guess from his account the long-term impact of the missionary enterprise. If we are going to talk about “modern spirituality,” don’t we have to include the experience of Christians today in Africa and China and South Korea and Latin America (for instance) alongside that of the one in three Americans allegedly believing in reincarnation? And what about Islam in the 21st century?

Please don’t suppose that I am at all idealizing these religious communities, any more than I would idealize my own (evangelical!) Christian community here in the United States. But they are indisputably examples of “modern spirituality” that differ markedly from those Green prefers to highlight.

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