Reflections on Harold Bloom’s “American Religion”

Daniel Avatar

Only in solitude do we reach communion with the divine. Thus is the American experience with religion, regardless of tradition, sect or denomination, according to Harold Bloom. The American individual is conditioned to a spiritual state built not on rituals, liturgies or doctrine, but rather his spirit is inflected with a pervasive Gnosis, an always evolving and obsessive, albeit unconscious self-knowledge of his own personal Jesus, Godhead or deity.

And the American individual has two selves, that one that he is knows something about, and experiences day-to-day and there is that other self, that deeper, Real Me, the part that is able to commune directly with God freely. That freedom to communicate with the elusive Real Me is because the self is already of God, the self is God, this timeless self only feels completely free when they are alone.

The American Religion was most clearly imagined by the sages William James, (who layed out in the “Varieties…” the plurality of experiential faith in the individuals confrontation with solitude- distinctly American) Walt Whitman, (who understood better than all the centrality of the self in American’s constructs of the spiritual) and of course Emerson, (who’s vision of the personal God within the soul, mirrored nature, developed the creative notion of an eternality of the self and brought the term soul into a deeper definition of the self!). While not referencing this trinity of American Religion outright, Bloom returns to their examples throughout the book as zenith’s in his accounts of key examples of the American Religion.

Bloom intertwines the sociology, history and critical appraisals of American Religion with his over-focus on literary revisionist interpretation. The books strongest point is in that he is able to cohere, granted in a very idiosyncratic way (but what American religiosus writing is not!) the limits, affinities and character of the religious individual, regardless of the movement they are wrapped up in.

Bloom highlights California new-ageism as a movement based on ancient Orphism, or the desire to know the secret truths of nature through self-referential knowledge of nature. The predominance of “consciousness” in the new-age canon has common threads and similarities that make it distinctly American. Consciousness has taken on a nature like qualities, there is a notion of eternality of not the soul but in this case the consciousness of the individual. Similar to American Evangelicals who actually believe that their souls are immortal, (which is why they are so ardently pro-life) it is this misreading of the Protestant inner-light movement in England that brought the pre-natal anxiety about. Similarily it was the fusion of the california God and his offsetting of the reality principle, that the fear of death is off set by the apprehension of “reality” as what is directly apparent. This focus on the visual makes consciosness and “seeing” as the sacrament, where in great spiritual exuberance, the new-age practicionoer experiences consciousness and seeing as that which is divine might as well be a color that is immediate to perception, becaouse everything that happens in the real world has a touch of divinity or cosmic-ness.

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