Living Spirit, Living Practice: Poetics, Politics, Epistemology

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In Living Spirit, Living Practice, the well-known cultural studies scholar Ruth Frankenberg turns her attention to the remarkably diverse nature of religious practice within the United States today. Frankenberg provides a nuanced consideration of the making and living of religious lives as well as the mystery and poetry of spiritual practice. She undertakes a subtle sociocultural analysis of compelling in-depth interviews with fifty women and men, diverse in race, ethnicity, national origin, class, age, and sexuality. Tracing the complex interweaving of sacred and secular languages in the way interviewees make sense of the everyday and the extraordinary, Frankenberg explores modes of communication with the Divine, the role of the body, the importance of geography, work for progressive social change, and the relation of sex to spirituality.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other practitioners come together here, speaking in terms both familiar and surprising. Whether discussing an Episcopalian deacon, a former Zen Buddhist who is now a rabbi, a Chicano monastic, an immigrant Muslim woman, a Japanese American Tibetan Buddhist, or a gay African American practicing in the Hindu tradition, Frankenberg illuminates the most intimate, local, and singular aspects of individual lives while situating them within the broad, dynamic canvas of the U.S. religious landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Many Americans say ‘faith is an important aspect of my life,’ but Ruth Frankenberg’s fascinating book shows us in much depth and variety what that may mean. We see how individuals re-interpret their faith consciously and unconsciously, how they move across faith boundaries, how they blend, edit, and expand faith practices to generate meaningful selves, lives, and worlds.”—Susan Harding, author of The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

“The interviews and analysis in Living Spirit, Living Practice plumb the depths of spiritual practice and experience. Ruth Frankenberg simultaneously addresses the greater issues of religious identity, the meaning of ‘spirit,’ and the nature of the spiritual journey. This book makes visible the larger presence of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, which are now helping to alter the American religious landscape.—Kenneth K. Tanaka, coeditor of The Faces of Buddhism in America

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822332954
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Frankenberg is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness and editor of Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Living spirit, living practice

Poetics, politics, epistemology
By Ruth Frankenberg

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3295-7

Chapter One


Historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, in beginning his masterful Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment, remarks on a friend who "half in jest, described this project back to me as 'a book about religious wackos.' That mirrored reflection was troubling because it seemed to reverse so much of what I was trying to say. What I really wanted to over was an excavation of my friend's assumption-the ready equation of 'hearing things' with deviance, illusion and insanity." In like terms, philosopher of theology Nicholas Wolterstorff begins his book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, with the remark that he is fully aware that "most of my philosophical colleagues would regard the topic as 'off the wall' for a philosopher-or something that one would have to be slightly mad to take seriously." Both of these authors see the remarks just quoted as so important that they must be placed, prolegomena style, at the very beginning of their books.

These quotes, and the placement of them, make clear the difficulty faced by those who attempt to articulate what one might call "divine rationality"-the logic, the coherence, and the precision of a diverse yet comparable range of experiences of what one might forconvenience's sake name extra-material communing, communication, and comprehension. The Christian and Hindu men and women discussed in this chapter were all involved in spiritual practices of communing or communication. These can be located in time, space, and spiritual/religious context and tradition. But my effort to situate their practices does not explain away such communing. Quite the opposite is the case. I seek to make manifest the rationality and logic of practices often deemed extra-rational or illogical.

In his book, Schmidt traverses and analyzes the period in U.S. history wherein, as elsewhere in the Western world, vision supplanted audition as the mode of witnessing and encountering the world deemed most trustworthy. With this process, Schmidt argues, came "the dwindling of hearing as spiritual sense and the lost presence of divine speech." More, this "dwindling" traveled alongside an othering of divine audition. As he puts it:

[With] such a grand story of modern ocularcentrism, a history of modern aurality is hardly possible, especially a history of religious modes of hearing, since in this myth the very origin of modern culture is grounded on the exclusion of the "primitive" or "ancient" ecstasies of listening ... Two of the larger twentieth century motifs around which the story of modern vision and hearing have been plotted [are]: (1) a hierarchy of the senses with sight vastly ennobled; and (2) a marked dichotomy between eye and ear cultures that has commonly drawn on racialized constructions of Western rationality and ecstatic primitivism.

As a result, Schmidt adds, "The story of modern hearing loss ... is always, finally a story of religious absence." However, loss is not total; "dwindling" does not mean, here, an entire obliteration. For as Schmidt reminds his reader, "the religious complexity of modernity itself " means that "various communities-evangelicals and Pentecostals not least among them-have played by different rules ... Within a broadened perspective, [John] Lockean ways of assessing divine speech look far more local and contingent than their pretense to universality suggests."

Reminding his readership that for Locke, "reason is the ever vigilant judge over religious experiences of immediate inspiration," Schmidt argues with good reason that Locke provided philosophical means by which God's silence might be made normal and even, given other aspects of social context, desirable. Schmidt's purpose in the text under consideration is to name the localism and contingency of what one may describe as a Lockean hegemony. Schmidt analyzes its emergence in the American colonial context, and further into U.S. history. Here, then the normalcy, normativity, and universalism of refusals to hear or even listen for divine language is called into question.

Nicholas Wolterstorff challenges that same set of refusals precisely on Locke's own terms, terms critically important since, in Wolterstorff's view, "the general epistemology which Locke developed ... has been profoundly influential in the modern West ... [in particular its application to] the epistemology of religious belief." Wolterstorff reminds his audience that despite or indeed in context of Locke's framework, he both believed solidly in the divine and proffered methodology for discerning, by means inward and outward, the veracity or falsity of particular Godly utterances. One should in all honesty, Wolterstorff claims, bring "to the level of conscious self-awareness this part of our cultural inheritance." Wolterstorff demonstrates at the end of his discussion that one can indeed, via the work of John Locke, but by means of emphasizing that his is a framework for situated knowledge-generation, determine which instances of "God speaking" are more believable than others.

Like Schmidt, Wolterstorff reminds his audience that, for one thing, "countless human beings down through the ages, and on into our own time and place, have in fact believed that God speaks." He continues, "Let us, then, pose our question in full recognition of that fact; let us ask how such beliefs are to be appraised." Wolterstorff and Schmidt, then, both strive to engage the idea of God speaking, utilizing the very means by which the possibility of God speaking has been, in recent centuries, made marginal or, in the language of these scholars' critics, "wacko" or "off-the-wall." Both authors, too, remind their readers that the "erasure of God" was not fully successful, philosophically, or socioculturally. Finally, both emphasize that modes of thought usually deemed outmoded or archaic (here in particular that of John Locke, for Schmidt also deeply connected with the rise of colonial thinking) are indeed still alive and well even in postmodern times. I too strive to challenge on their own terms modes of rationality at once old yet firmly present at the turn of the twenty-first century.

* * *

IN THIS CHAPTER, the term Godtalk acts as place-marker for a broad range of modes of communion with the divine in various forms. Talking to God-and God talking back-entails a discussion of three things. First, there is the contemplation of who or what one is talking with (or talking about). Second, we must ask when and where that who talks back. And third, we must examine the intermediary term, how, inquiring into the means by which communication takes place and/or is perceived. One must ask how the cultivation of particular practices makes the space available for a spontaneously arising encounter with the divine. More broadly, the emplacement of an individual in a particular religious and spiritual frame provides language and/or constrains the language that that individual might use in experiencing, naming, valuing, or discounting a given set of events. (I use the word given advisedly here in both senses of that term.)

For almost all of the men and women I interviewed, three terms-name or form, practice, and surrender-organized the experience of communing with spirit. The three are, as will be shown, interwoven. For some there is a fourth term-guru or lama. Name or form indicates, rather obviously, that word used to refer to a being or, for some, simply an energy. Name entails also inscription into a set of knowledges, formal and informal, written and oral, about that named entity. Practice refers here to the processes in which each individual is involved, making possible the cultivation of communing with spirit, however conceived. Practice is inevitably organized in part around name (that is to say, placed in time and space). Lastly, the goals and/or the outcomes of practice fundamentally entail surrender. More specifically, the cultivation of practice is connected with surrender to the name or named practice (zazen, for example), and surrender to an ethical frame.

For some interviewees, name, spiritual practice, and thence the process of communing with the divine were placed clearly within a single religious form. Surrender thus took place within that context, generating an ethical frame particular to it. Homer Teng was one such individual. Homer was twenty-eight years old. He had grown up in Hong Kong, and moved to the United States at seventeen. He is heterosexual, married, and the father of a son who was fourteen months old at the time of the interview. Homer was born into a Roman Catholic family that was, in the terms of Hong Kong Chinese experience, upper middle class. (Homer named himself upper middle class on the grounds that his family had a large apartment and his father worked for a U.S. multinational corporation-different and more modest criteria than one might demand in order to name a U.S. family upper middle class.) Homer remains a member of the Catholic Church. From childhood on, faith (his term of choice) and religious practice were far more important to him than to others in his family. He explained, for example, that only he had gone to weekly mass in his childhood years. His parents, while applauding his choice, had been happy to stay home and let Homer walk the several mile round-trip to church. Today, Homer says,

Faith ... [enables] me to make sense of why I'm doing certain things. I believe everything that I do is a reflection of who I am as a person of faith. I don't see faith as simply something you do on a particular day of the week or a particular day of the year. I see faith as very much linked with everyday life ... Like changing [my baby's] diaper. I know it is a duty of mine to do this because it's my child. But then I see him as a gift from God that I need to take care of. This is an individual created by God. I am his parent, but yet he's got a more powerful parent than I. That makes me think of this person, my child, in a different way, so I would never want to control him the way that some people tend to control others. Because I see [him] as a unique individual that is created not by me but by God. I obviously have a lot to do with it, but I mean, everything doesn't come without God having some kind of influence, either directly or indirectly. So everything I do, everything I think about, I try to think about in terms of, you know, what it means to me as a person of faith.

Here Homer speaks about his relationship with God as he conceives it. The relationship is comprehensible in terms of received teaching. But it is perhaps even more forcefully understandable as Homer Teng's own appropriation and application of that received teaching. For example, Homer's certainty that his child is not only his but also that of God might be shared by all Christians. Yet his corollary to that conviction, that therefore he should not control his son, diverges from much mainstream Christian thought, Catholic or otherwise. One sees therefore the importance of Homer's own work in the crafting and application of a spiritual practice or, as he would name it, a faith-based life. Practice can be identified as both philosophical orientation and physical application. One can connect practice here with name and form, and with application and rearticulation of received teaching about both of these. And Homer's surrender to an ethical frame, a way of being, is anchored in his relationship with the divine.

Ostensibly, names and forms of divine beings are received, rather than created by their users. After all, what is more widely known in the contemporary world than the name and form of the Christian God? But shifts in Homer's conception of the divine through his life demonstrate that both are in fact fluid and transformable. Homer explained that as a child, he had seen God very much as a disciplinarian. This was largely, he felt, because of the strictness and rigidity of the Catholic schools that he had attended. Later, around his time in college, he had come to "see God more as a compassionate figure in the person of Jesus." Here, the name and form of God are in fact altered, as Homer turns toward recognition of Jesus as God. (Note that Homer turns to Jesus, not alongside God or as the son of God, but as God. As such he again diverges from the religious institution of his childhood.) We learn too of the institutions and teachings that make both name and form available-Homer names school, church, and college as key sites.

In the same way that Homer's sense of God had changed over time, so had his interpretation of the ritual of confession. For Homer, that which had once been a routine childhood monthly activity changed to a practice undertaken less often but with more forethought. Homer now thought long and hard before going to confession, asking himself "why I'm saying this, why I'm doing this. Am I really contrite, am I really feeling that what I did was wrong? ... If I knew that something was kind of wrong but I wasn't exactly sure it was wrong, then I would wait, before I go in and confess that I did something wrong." Confession is, arguably, one form of speaking with God. Yet for Homer, at least in this point in the interview, confession seemed to be more about speaking to God than about God speaking back. It seemed, too, that Homer undertook the task of deciding whether he had sinned, rather than allowing God or another intermediary to do so. Surrender is, we can note here, a conscious and intentional process in which Homer contemplates and responds to his unfolding comprehension of religious institutions' authority.

Thus far, God, one might argue, is the absent presence in Homer's discussion. God's name, history, and sites of institutional location are known. Homer, as I have suggested, is well able to maneuver and work with all three of these. Yet, his dialogue with God seems one-sided. Homer asks the questions and provides the answers based not only on his faith in God but also on his "faith in his faith" and his faith, too, in his capacity to interpret God in the context in which Homer knows Him. This pattern subtly changed, though, when I asked Homer how he applied his relationship with God to the process of making difficult decisions (whether to leave a secure, career job and enter graduate school in theology, for example). Here, a back-and-forth communication was much more evident. He explained that at such times, he both prays to God and asks friends whom he trusts-sometimes Catholic and sometimes not-for support in decision-making processes. He added, "I think God will listen to me when I pray to Him. So that's how I seek for help." Pushing the question further, I asked, "Okay, so God will listen, but will God give you the answer?" In response, Homer explained that he did not feel the need to talk directly with God in a literal sense, in order to know that he was in fact communicating with Him:

I believe God will give me the answer that He sees that's fit for me. And I see that answer coming in many different ways, perhaps through a person who happens to talk to me about certain things. I think that the so-called epiphany comes in the most undramatic moment. Maybe gradually it becomes, "Oh, that's really the right decision for me." As I said a while before, I didn't have a dramatic moment of religious conversion. Likewise I don't believe in some kind of dramatic vision, a dream or something like that. I mean, I'm not saying that that doesn't happen to people. But from my own experience, I come to my decision-making through just gradual talking to people and feeling what's right and constantly praying. And I believe God will provide the answer. It might not be the answer that I thought was right for me. But nevertheless, I have to trust in God because that's who I am, and I cannot imagine life without trusting in a higher power.

The cynic might argue that Homer Teng might just as easily invent "God's answers" as receive them directly and indirectly. Yet, in challenging the skeptic one must note that for Homer, God does not always over "the answer that I thought was right for me." We can add, too, that whether cynical or not, the observer witnesses the precision with which Homer Teng proceeds towards his conclusions.


Excerpted from Living spirit, living practice by Ruth Frankenberg Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: On Rivers, Mountains, and Secrets 1
1 Talking to God - and God Talking Back 33
2 Mind Embodied: Spiritual Practice and Consciousness 77
3 Place and the Making of Religious Practice 133
4 The Spirit of the Work: Challenging Oppression, Nurturing Diversity 174
5 Conscious Sex, Sacred Celibacy: Sexuality and the Spiritual Path 212
Epilogue 265
App. 1 Biographical Summaries 271
App. 2 Demographic Profile 277
Notes 281
Bibliography 291
Index 299
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