Sedona, Arionza, may be the “Glastonbury of America,”replacing Tor and ruined abbey with red sandstone rock formations. It bloomed as a pilgrimage site in the 1970s, yet it is not an easy place to survive for those who come as seekers. (Many residents come as well-off retirees, a different demographic.) In Ripples of the Universe: Spirituality in Sedona, Arizona, Susannah Crockford sorts out “spirituality” and spiritual-but-not-religious, analyzes the Sedona phenomenon with a class-based approach, and tries to see where conspiracy thinking (“chemtrails” and the like) overlaps with spiritual seeking. Her approach is to “present personal stories of spiritual paths wending their way through the unstable ground of the gig economy and the digital platforms that support it” (10).
“The energy of Sedona meant the population was very transient,” one woman tells her. There are many levels of spiritual practitioners, her informant said: “You can stay on the outside very easily, she warned me: most tourists to, they see only the four main [energy] vortexes” (3).
For Crockford, “spirituality was a space between religion and science, incorporating both but adhering to the norms of neither” (8). We can see, for example, how 19th-century Spiritualism occupied that space. Spirituality in this sense is rooted also in Transcendentalism and in American nature religion as formulated by Catherine Albanese and others: the idea of nature as a source of spiritual value without reference to creeds or congregations. “Spirituality” is individualistic, decentralized, and often culturally rootless—individuals exchanging energies with the impersonal universe, with each other, or with other beings. “If Christianity is Jesus-talk, spirituality is energy-talk” (11).
Many American intellectuals will talk about racial matters all day long, but they only gesture toward issues of social class (as when Donald Trump was elected), or else they conflate the two sets of categories. Crockford is a welcome exception. Noting that many of her interview subjects could not afford to actually live in Sedona, she quotes one as saying that there was no middle class there. Yet several of them, even while teetering on the edge of homelessness, frame their poverty as a choice: “the ideology of providence in spirituality masked social inequalities, and everything that happened was what was meant to happen. Those who had to leave were ‘spit out’ by the energy [of Sedona]” (113). As she repeatedly notes, focusing only on raising one’s personal vibration can create “an inability to think at middle scales”—in other words, to be involved productively with the larger community. Society’s power structures are still there.
Crockford’s chapter on conspiracies is foreshadowed by a first-day conversation with the driver of the shuttle van bringing her north from the Phoenix airport. This man segues from “God [is] energy, permeating every living thing” to the “unfairness of the Afordable Care Act, the dangers of Obama’s socialism, and how the true purpose of the United Nations is one world government . . . The dark forecasts were the problem to which spirituality offered a solution” (8). Elsewhere, she suggests that conspiracy theories “offer a form of theodicy” (177) and represent a breakdown of trust in government institutions, corporates, and monolithic “science.” To Crockford, conspiracy theories, such as a secret government plan to spray “chemtrails” over America, poisoning the land and people, are “a way of talking about class and power that cloaks inequality in the mystery of conspiracy” (178).
This analysis works as far as it goes, but it could better acknowledge that not all followers of New Age philosophies embrace conspiratorial thinking—and certainly all those who do embrace it are not necessarily in the “spiritual but not religious” category. The research and writing of this book predate the Covid-19 pandemic, which if anything has heightened the public’s mistrust of institutions, with the conflicting edicts of lockdown there but not here, orders at first to not wear masks but then to wear them, and the treatment of “anti-vaxxers” as equivalent to 17th-century heretics. The two categories, conspiracy theorists and spiritual questers, are not at all congruent.
Yet in an era when “spiritual but not religious” is a growing world view, Ripples of the Universe is a valuable work. Her spiritual biographies, placing their subjects not just as on a quest but as members of social groups struggling to survive in a place that draws them to its perceived power, is sensitive and multi-dimensional. The book illuminates how many people have given up the normal life of jobs and family to become, in effect, renunciates and even mendicants, struggling to survive in a society that grants them no recognition.
Chas S. Clifton is editor of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (Equinox Publishing, UK), and retired from Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Date Of Review:
November 14, 2022
Susannah Crockford is a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at the University of Ghent, Belgium.
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