Shopping Period: Examining Alternative Spiritualities

August 22, 2017
Dan McKanan
Senior Lecturer Dan McKanan. Photo by Justin Knight

This feature is part of an HDS Communications interview series offering students a closer look at selected upcoming courses. Below, we chat with Professor Dan McKanan about his fall 2017 class “Alternative Spiritualities in the United States,” which surveys spiritual practices and movements that have been labeled as metaphysical, esoteric, occult, harmonial, and New Age.

HDS: Could you speak about the various spiritualities you plan on investigating in this class? What, generally speaking, drew you to these spiritualities and why these traditions over others?

Dan McKanan: The variety of U.S. American spiritualities that might be considered “alternative” is almost infinite. My course is flexible enough to accommodate students’ individual interests, but our primary focus will be on a family of spiritual traditions that assume that all of nature is alive and full of spirit, and that deep correspondences connect the material and spiritual dimensions of reality. Many include practices of initiation or magic, or seek to discover underlying harmonies uniting diverse religious traditions. 

In rough chronological order, some of the major traditions we will explore are Freemasonry, Swedenborgianism, spiritualism, theosophy, New Thought, anthroposophy, New Age, and Neopaganism.

My own interest in alternative spirituality flows from my primary research interest, which is religion and social transformation. In my research on the socialist, feminist, anti-racist, and environmental movements, I have repeatedly been surprised to discover large numbers of activists who are deeply spiritual and more drawn to metaphysical traditions than to mainstream religion. This challenges the stereotype that “New Agers” are too otherworldly to engage in politics or social movements!

I also have a specific research focus on environmental and intentional community movements inspired by the anthroposophical movement, an alternative spirituality that began in Germany and spread to the United States and many other places. My new book on anthroposophy and environmentalism, called Eco-Alchemy, will be published about midway through the semester.

One distinctive feature of my course is that students will participate in field trips to a variety of spiritual communities in Cambridge, Boston, and beyond. Another is that we will bring both a “religious studies” and a “theological” lens to the topic, reading the works of scholars who examine alternative spirituality from the outside and of leading practitioners who seek to renew their traditions through dialogue with the academy.

HDS: Are these alternative spiritualities distinctly American in any way? For example: Do they adopt or expound upon various American values or are they “American” in the sense that they are a confluence of many different philosophies/values?

DM: This is a matter of lively scholarly debate! The roots of metaphysical spiritualities are very ancient. Alternative spiritualities in the United States often draw on practices that had been conducted in secret in Europe, because they violated the orthodoxies of mainstream Christianity. The U.S. American commitment to religious freedom meant they could be practiced more openly here, which inevitably changed them. At the same time, the confluence of indigenous, African, European, and eventually Asian cultural traditions enabled the creation of ever-new forms of hybrid spirituality. Historian Catherine Albanese regards this “combinativeness” as the leading feature of spirituality in the United States.

HDS: Considering the scope of the class, some may feel like they need to prepare or become familiar with these spiritualities. Are there good ways for students to prepare, or would you encourage diving in headfirst?

DM: It is certainly possible to dive in headfirst! Students who want to get started on the reading should get a copy of Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit, which will be our major text for the first four weeks of the semester. And students who have personal connections to alternative spiritual communities in the United States should let me know of any public events that would make a good destination for a field trip.

HDS: Students taking this course will have an amazing amount of flexibility in forming their final projects: Options include a research paper, a sermon series, a religious education curriculum, a liturgy, or an organizational project. What’s the benefit for students with such freedom?

DM: This is a common feature of all my courses. Since HDS students are preparing for a wide variety of ministerial, academic, and professional vocations, I want to make sure that every student has the chance to do work that will connect with their personal learning goals. My hope is that most students will find a way to share their hard work with communities beyond the classroom.

HDS: Why do you feel that this class is important for students? What are the goals or takeaways that you hope for students?

DM: Alternative spiritualities are an important part of the U.S. American religious landscape, but they are not always recognized as such. And practitioners of alternative spirituality are almost never welcomed into the constructive theological conversations that happen at university divinity schools.

At Harvard Divinity School, we have a chance to do things differently. Our multireligious commitment has attracted many students who practice alternative and hybrid spiritualities. My class gives these students access to the academic resources and conversation partners that can help them contribute to the renewal of their traditions. These students can even use the class to fulfill their “art of ministry” requirement in denominational polity.

Students who are preparing for ministry in mainstream traditions will meet some exciting new partners in interfaith dialogue, and those preparing for scholarly careers will learn how religious studies and theological perspectives can enhance our understanding of spirituality in the United States. 

—by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent