The Spiritual Virtuoso

Personal Faith and Social Transformation

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Marion Goldman, Steven Pfaff
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Spiritual Virtuoso: Personal Faith and Social Transformation posits a new category for understanding religious leaders and the world-changing movements they initiate—the “spiritual virtuoso”—slightly modified from “religious virtuoso,” a term Max Weber considered in his Sociology of Religion (1920). Authors Marion Goldman and Steven Pfaff describe spiritual virtuosi as “absolutely dedicated to expanding their own religious talents and pursuing complete connection with a Higher Power,” with the added effect of transforming the world through communal activism rooted in democratized spiritual power (1– 3). In seven chapters (including an introduction and conclusion), the authors first set out the lineaments of the category, then detail the history behind what they consider signal examples of it: Reformer Martin Luther, abolitionists Sarah Grimké and Theodore and Angelina Grimké Weld, Catholic sister and graphic artist Corita Kent, and the Human Potential Movement. 

In their respective scholarly careers, Goldman and Pfaff have studied Esalen and the Bhagwan Rajneesh, and political movements. They bring considerable expertise in both New Religious Movements and social activism to this study. Unfortunately, their analysis suffers from an unexamined use of Christian theological terms, which they generalize to describe the goals and character of spiritual virtuosi—puzzling, given that they acknowledge the waning of churches and denominations in the 21st century. For instance, “salvation,” “sanctification,” and “perfection” are terms with specific meanings familiar to some segments of Western Christianity—although battles have been and continue to be waged within the Christian communion about their meanings. Moreover, for some non-Christian readers attracted to the book by its enticing cover illustration—which features images of Luther holding a book and Apple founder Steve Jobs holding an iPad—such terms may be misunderstood or even meaningless. 

The bulk of the book places familiar figures from white Western Christianity—Reformation leaders and antislavery radicals—under a lens focused on spiritual virtuosity and its ability to inspire social transformation. Doing so may not add much to what specialists already know about Luther and the Grimké-Weld family, but the discussion of Kent and the Human Potential Movement, with whom readers of many stripes may be less familiar, enriches the book’s central category and suggests how the mid-20th century civil rights and antiwar protests moved from centers of institutional religious authority out into the streets. Far from becoming religion-less movements as a result, the authors argue, civil rights and peace movements reinterpreted and broadened access to religious power, heightening activists’s commitments to social change. 

One motive for Goldman and Pfaff’s study is to trace the fading vigor of religious institutions in the contemporary United States. They offer a plausible genealogy of this situation. The Reformation radically democratized religious authority and 19th century abolitionists married Christian commitment to fearless political activism. Kent, a sometime collaborator with the Human Potential movement, followed her creative impulses out of the religious order that had formed her, in order to spread a vision insisting that holiness pervaded the everyday world. Phenomena such as “Christian yoga, Episcopal labyrinths, or Congregationalist sermons about Zen koans” (149) represent hybrids on the contemporary religious landscape that the authors aim to historicize. While their work lacks something in precision, The Spiritual Virtuoso does do the important work of excavating the history of some current religious and cultural circumstances.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Blue Wills is Professor of Religion at Davidson College.

Date of Review: 
March 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marion Goldman is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.

Steven Pfaff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington.



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