Kathryn Gin Lum
Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line.
The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come.
Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.
Ralph W. Hood Jr.
The common core thesis contends that mystical experience is an ultimate non-sensuous experience of unity of all things. It can be identified within major faith traditions, whether explicitly religious or not. Its roots are in the work of William James who explored mystical experience outside the limits imposed by what he perceived as only a provisional natural science assumption of the newly emerging discipline of empirical psychology. Following the explicit phenomenological work of Walter Stace, the phenomenology of a universal core to mystical experience has been operationalized and an explicit psychometric measure developed to allow empirical assessment of the claim to a common core to mysticism. It is the linkage of psychometric approaches to the work of James and Stace that is now known explicitly as the common core thesis. The common core thesis needs to be delineated from the perennialist thesis popularized by Aldous Huxley in which there is postulated not only a common core experience, but also values and practices claimed to be associated with this experience if not directly derived from it. Psychometric and empirical evidence for the common core thesis is substantial and continues to accumulate. The common core thesis is restricted to mystical experience and assumes that this experience seeks to express itself in various faith traditions, whether religious or not, but is not restricted to or defined adequately by the culture or language with which this experience is interpreted. Unlike the perennialist thesis, the common core thesis does not assume that any common theology, philosophy, or practice necessarily follows from mystical experience.
The comparative study of mysticism began in the mid-19th century, with the development of the modern meaning of the word, which had begun to be used as a substantive, with the classification of “mystics” in the 17th century. This differed from the traditional Greek Christian use of the adjective mystikos, to qualify rituals, scriptures, sacraments, and theology as “mystical” contexts of the human encounter with the Divine. This modern shift highlighted the personal experience of ultimate Reality, rather than the sociocultural context. Certain individuals claimed to encounter the Divine or spiritual realities more directly, separate from traditional mediums of religious experience. The study of this phenomenon tended in the early 20th century to focus on the psychology and the phenomenology of the personal experience, generally described as an altered state of consciousness with specific characteristics, processes, stages, effects, and stimulants. This emphasis on common features influenced the development of perennialist and traditionalist theorists, who saw evidence of the same experiential origin, fundamental principles, or epistemology among major world religions. Some essentialist views of mysticism argued that a pure consciousness-experience of undifferentiated unity or non-duality is the core feature of all mysticism, in contrast to other religious experiences. Reaction to these positions led to contextualist or constructivist views of mysticism, which presume the sociocultural character of mysticism. In its most extreme form, the contextualist perspective suggests that all mystical experiences among traditions are different, given diverse socio-religious categories that overdetermine the experience. In turn, some critical scholarship has proposed qualifications to contextualism within the context of a general acceptance of many of its tenets, even among many theorists with essentialist tendencies.
Up to the late 20th century, much scholarship in the area tended to downplay the sociocultural features of mysticism, emphasizing the psychological dynamics and an individual, disembodied, and radically transcendent ideal. This brought into question the relationship of morality to mystical experience and raised concerns about the status of entheogens—the use of psychoactive drugs in religious contexts. Interest in the comparative study of mysticism has also extended into the area of neuroscience, where researchers explore electro-chemical brain states associated with mystical experience, in proposing evidence of a mystical neurological substrate. But the essentialist/contextualist debate also moved the comparative study of mysticism beyond issues of epistemology, consciousness-states, ontology, and cognitive neuroscience, broadening the field to include other aspects of religious experience. Some studies have brought feminist concerns to bear on the discussion, insofar as women’s mysticism has been overshadowed and even repressed by men, and was seen to preclude legitimate experiential possibilities of a more embodied character. Related scholarship in history and depth psychology has focused creatively on the nature and significance of erotic elements of mysticism in comparative studies, with special attention to associated physical phenomena and their transformative dynamics. Similarly, more embodied features of comparative mysticism are the subject of transpersonal psychology, which draws on many humanistic disciplines and supports participatory approaches to the field. Transpersonal psychology remains open to claims that the ego can be transcended in movements into higher states of being that ideally involve personal/spiritual enhancement and integration. Also, some more recent proponents of new comparative theology advocate methods that engage the scholar in specific beliefs or practices of another tradition, and include subsequent clarification and elaboration of one’s own perspective in light of such comparative study, in exploring phenomena related to comparative mystical experience.
Emotion is an important part of religions in America. There is great diversity among emotional styles. Some groups are highly emotional, others relatively low in emotional expression, and some occupy a middle ground. Religious life is characterized by cultivation and expression of many emotions. Four that are of particular importance for Americans are wonder, empathy, anticipation, and the feeling of emptiness. Some emotions are treated as commodities. The study of emotion in religion enables fresh perspectives on the interwovenness of emotion, religion, and culture. The investigation of the emotional lives of religious persons in America can be advanced through study of persons’ reporting of their experiences alongside research bearing on cultural expectations for emotional life.
Yudit Kornberg Greenberg
Erotic representations of the divine occupy a pivotal place in religious myths, poetry, liturgy, and theology. Reading eros as a category of religious love highlights its ubiquitous presence in sacred literary sources; moreover, it renders the nexus of erotic love and the divine critical to comprehending religiosity as an immanent and embodied phenomenon, rather than as an abstract idea. As an embodied phenomenon, religious love is subject to an investigation of topics such as gender and sexuality, and its multiple cultural meanings and contexts. Western philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, (Pseudo-)Dionysius, and the Neoplatonist renaissance thinker Leone Ebreo, delineate a hierarchy or a “ladder of love” differentiating lesser and higher subjects and objects of love from love of the particular, to the universal, cosmic, and divine. An interrelated distinction is ascertained between “desire” as a state of lack often seen as a lower state, and “love” as the higher state, in which fulfillment and joy of the union with the object of one’s love is achieved. Love and desire as marked yet interrelated emotions are contextualized in religious phenomena cross-culturally, most obviously in theistic frameworks in which a personal and intimate relationship with the divine is an ideal. Poetry and autobiography are the most common genre of depicting the intimate and passionate encounter of human and divine. Despite the prominence of male voices in the sources, the contributions of medieval Christian and Muslim women mystics to this literature are significant. Key base-texts from which mystics and philosophers are inspired and draw upon to elucidate their own personal experience of yearning for the divine, include the biblical Song of Songs, Bhagavata Purana (Book 10), and the Gitagovinda. Although the yearning for the divine, associated with an emotional, embodied state and therefore seen as problematic from a rational perspective, this yearning is also a cherished state, even for rationalists such as the medieval Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides. The significance of erotic love for the divine is confirmed, not only by Sufi and Hindu bhakti poets such as Rumi and Jayadeva, but also by philosophers such as Ibn Arabi and Rupa-Goswami. The idiom of erotic desire and love for God is particularly poignant and integral not only in poetry but also in theology, as exemplified in Hindu bhakti and Christian theology. Exploring the meanings of erotic love in religious poetry, theology, liturgy, and the history of religion more broadly offers a rich scholarly and personal medium for contemplating the reality of human and divine nature.
Richard K. Payne
The homa is a votive offering involving the construction of a fire in a hearth-altar, and the immolation of offerings in the fire. The altar is homologized with a mandala, and as with other ritual uses of mandalas, the deity evoked in the course of the ritual is located at the mandala’s center, and in this case identified with the fire itself. As a tantric ritual, the practitioner is also ritually identified with both the deity and the fire, and the offerings made into the fire are the spiritual obstacles that impede the practitioner from full awakening. Tantric homas are generally categorized according to different functions or goals, such as protection, subduing adversaries, and so on. As a form of individual practice conducive to awakening, the practitioner’s own inherent wisdom is identified with the fire, and just as the offerings are transformed and purified, the practitioner’s own spiritual obstacles are as well.
Ritualized activities of maintaining and making fire are some of the most ancient forms of social coordination, which is essential to the development of the human species. Such ritualization would seem to be the basis for fire cults, forms of which are known throughout the world’s religions. In the scope of Indo-European religions, similarities of practice and symbolism provide a shared background to the homa per se. More directly, there appear to be both Vedic and Indo-Iranian traditions of ritual praxis that converge in the tantric homa.
The homa is found in all of the Indic tantric traditions: Buddhist, Śaiva, and Jain. Once established as part of tantric practice, the homa was spread throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia, particularly in its Buddhist form. This transmission of ritual practice engaged local traditions wherever it spread. Tibetan tantric traditions developed an extensive literature of homa rituals, and from there the practice also influenced Mongolian fire rituals as well. In China, interaction between tantric Buddhism and Daoism led to the creation of a homa devoted to the Northern Dipper, a figure unknown in Indian sources of Buddhist tantra. Two similar examples are found in Japan. The Shintō traditions of Yuiitsu (or Yoshida) and Miwa modified the tantric Buddhist form for the worship of a selection of Shintō deities. Similarly, the tradition of mountain asceticism, Shugendō, also adopted the homa and adapted it to its purposes. As a result of the repression of Buddhism in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the Shintō forms are no longer extant, though in the present many Shintō shrines perform rituals of various kinds in which fire plays an important role. In contrast, the Shugendō homa, sometimes as a prelude to fire-walking, remains an active part of Japanese religion into the present day.
The tantric homa has been interpreted in a variety of ways, reflecting the multifaceted character of fire itself. There are two important strains of interpretation. One is the yogic interiorization of ritual found in post-Vedic Indian religion, more as a form of esoteric physiology than as a psychologized understanding of visualization. While closely related to yogic interiorization of ritual, the sexual symbolisms that are attached to all aspects of the fire rituals constitute a second strain of interpretation. These symbolic associations are important for their role in understanding tantric notions of ritual efficacy, which require greater nuance of understanding than can be attained by simply categorizing such practices as magic.
Adrian Chastain Weimer
In American history, venerating a death as martyrdom has been a way of claiming its significance within a narrative of ultimate victory. The words for martyr in both Greek and Arabic literally mean “witness”: martyrs’ willingness to die is a form of witness to the truth of a tradition. Figures claimed as martyrs in American history from the Mormon leader Joseph Smith to Baptist civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have often prophesied their own deaths, embracing the hope that their sacrifice will inspire zeal in others. Religious communities in North America have commemorated martyrs through stories, paintings, shrines, maps, monuments, poetry, liturgy, and theological reflections. The category of martyrdom tends to become more diffuse over time. Moving beyond a strict definition of death for the faith, Americans have used the language of martyrdom to find spiritual significance in a range of physical and interior sufferings. For example, both French Canadian nuns and New England puritans claimed their daily colonial sufferings as a form of martyrdom. Narratives of martyrdom have also played an important role in political movements such as the anti-lynching crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martyr language can even push the boundaries of what constitutes religion itself. In the 20th century, the suffering of American jazz musicians, denied civil rights, has been described as martyrdom. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom, the term has often been associated with terrorism. Debates about justifications for violence in the Qur’an and the true meaning of jihad have taken place among politicians, religious leaders, and academic scholars. This intense focus on Islamic theology of martyrdom has led both to widespread suspicion of Muslims (and those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent generally) as well as to new ecumenical commitments to a shared ethic of loving God and neighbor.
Juan E. Campo
Pilgrimage, as a type of religious journey, involves embodied movement across geographic, social, political, cultural, and often religious boundaries to a sacred place or landscape. It is arguably a universal phenomenon that can engage individual pilgrims or millions, especially with the onset of modernity, which has facilitated travel over distances great and small. As an aspect of religious life in the United States, pilgrimage is often overlooked. Nevertheless, the country’s landscape encompasses numerous sites of sacred significance associated with organized religions, civil religion, and facets of its cultural religion that attract millions of visitors annually. As a dynamic set of phenomena, pilgrimages to such sites are constantly evolving, affected by factors such as religious and social movements, national politics, immigration, and tourism.
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.
Jeanne Halgren Kilde
Religions are fundamentally spatial, as they require space in which to assemble, to engage in ritual practices, and to form community. Every religious group that has existed in the United States has made a spatial imprint on the country, and that spatiality—that physical character—is also a constitutive component of religious experience. Spaces not only host religious practices but also contribute to their meaning and salience. Thus, understanding religious life in America includes understanding the spaces in which it occurs.
The diversity of religious life in America is apparent from the countless religious spaces and buildings that have occupied the national landscape, including Native American earthworks and burial mounds, Catholic and Protestant missions and churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Sikh gurdwaras. But how are we to understand these diverse buildings and spaces?
The location of built spaces and the totality of the landscape in which they exist constitute a religioscape, within which they provide information about their religious communities through their size, location, and architectural style. The internal organization and spatial plans of these built spaces also provide information on liturgical and congregational functions and efforts to facilitate religious experiences and establish and maintain authority or power. Considering both these aspects of religious space and architecture provides insight into how religious diversity functions in the United States and how groups have expressed their religious beliefs and interests and interacted with others to cooperate and compete within the American landscape.