The phenomenon of secular spirituality has grown increasingly visible in the contemporary Western world in the past two decades. From oral or written narratives of life-altering realizations that unchurched individuals describe using spiritual vernacular, to the plethora of encounters with the supernatural and paranormal depicted in popular culture, broad interest in and even comfort with mystical and non-ordinary experience is found more than ever in contexts not considered traditionally religious. The spiritual but not religious (SBNR) identity as a Western contemporary idiom in some sense curates this secular-spiritual space in the current cultural landscape. This project seeks to ask how, why now, and to what effect.
To do so, I examine the SBNR and popular cultural instances of lay spiritual encounters that I am calling “secondhand mysticism.” Looking at how contemporary individuals encounter the mystical and non-ordinary will help shed light on the phenomenon of decontextualized, secular mystical experiences themselves, and will help consider new frameworks for viewing some of the central debates within mysticism studies. These types of encounters trouble the well-trodden perennialism-constructivism binary, and will consequently be a rich inroad to illuminating the larger epistemic terrain that undergirds the SBNR that I refer to as metamodernism.
This project seeks to add to two types of recent efforts that have forged new theoretical bases for interdisciplinary scholarship in the 21st century: The first is the scholarly engagement with mysticisms as a “gnostic” enterprise. I will explore the idea that a gnostic scholarly perspective, one that neither negates nor endorses any individual’s particular truth claims but instead generates third positions, has the possibility of accessing, performing and/or even, at its most extreme, producing a secondhand mystical moment of “Aha!”
The second current interdisciplinary project is the theorizing of metamodernism. Previous studies of the SBNR, of popular culture mysticism, and indeed of this gnostic position, I will argue here, have yet to account for and situate the emergence of this secular-spiritual sensibility within recent shifts in the contemporary Western cultural episteme (a term I borrow from the Foucauldian schema). Whereas the debate dominating mysticism studies that has for decades hinged on a central bifurcation pitting universalism against contextualism is, arguably, the product of modern and postmodern views colliding, I will take the position that the SBNR and the gnostic approach to viewing secular mystical phenomena are something else. That something else, I assert here, is the product and/or producer of a so-called metamodern shift, in which the Western cultural frame enacts a kind of collective emergence out from under the thumb of hyper-relativization and irony, among other postmodern ideas.
Metamodernism factors into my study of second-hand mysticisms as a theoretical tool in three senses: as an instrument of historical contextualization or periodization; as an emerging narrative container in the figuring of the SBNR that gives contour to the secular and spiritual bridges and to the Western encounter with “the East”; and as a way of accounting for specific types of content that secular popular culture brings to the exploration of mysticisms.
To examine the theoretical work metamodernism can do, I first locate the SBNR in currents of American spiritualities by identifying some of its major narratives as metamodern. I illustrate the intersection of these in chapters one and three by looking at instances of neo-Advaita Vedanta spirituality as performed through the figure of Russell Brand and other contemporary expositors. In chapter two, I use popular culture depictions of monsters such as those in Joss Whedon’s cult television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to show how metamodern monsters have shifted narratives of the monstrous Other in a manner that highlights social shifts toward pluralism and inclusivism. Other ethical considerations related to this post-postmodern epistemic shift will be discussed in chapter four. There I also continue to make my case for the efficacy of theorization of a new episteme—in simple terms, to say why and when the signifier postmodernism needs replacing and what doing so will accomplish for the academic study of religion.
Each chapter includes analysis of different types of mystical narrative: In chapter one, an anonymous account from a contemporary “ordinary mystic”, in chapter two, those of fictional television characters, and in chapter three, from a highly visible celebrity—each for how they convey personal transformation and understanding of the secular-spiritual qualities such as I identify here and also for how they illuminate a metamodern immanent soteriology, giving transformational power to the viewer/reader, who becomes, in effect, a secondhand mystic.