After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s

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9780520213968: After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s

The evolution of American spirituality over the past fifty years is the subject of Robert Wuthnow's engrossing new book. Wuthnow uses in-depth interviews and a broad range of resource materials to show how Americans, from teenagers to senior citizens, define their spiritual journeys. His findings are a telling reflection of the changes in beliefs and lifestyles that have occurred throughout the United States in recent decades.

Wuthnow reconstructs the social and cultural reasons for an emphasis on a spirituality of dwelling (houses of worship, denominations, neighborhoods) during the 1950s. Then in the 1960s a spirituality of seeking began to emerge, leading individuals to go beyond established religious institutions. In subsequent chapters Wuthnow examines attempts to reassert spiritual discipline, encounters with the sacred (such as angels and near-death experiences), and the development of the "inner self." His final chapter discusses a spirituality of practice, an alternative for people who are uncomfortable within a single religious community and who want more than a spirituality of endless seeking.

The diversity of contemporary American spirituality comes through in the voices of the interviewees. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Native Americans are included, as are followers of occult practices, New Age religions, and other eclectic groups. Wuthnow also notes how politicized spirituality, evangelical movements, and resources such as Twelve-Step programs and mental health therapy influence definitions of religious life today.

Wuthnow's landmark book, The Restructuring of American Religion (1988), documented the changes in institutional religion in the United States; now After Heaven explains the changes in personal spirituality that have come to shape our religious life. Moreover, it is a compelling and insightful guide to understanding American culture at century's end.

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Review:

In The Restructuring of American Religion, Robert Wuthnow examined the changing patterns of institutional religion in contemporary America. In After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, he makes a similar analysis of personal spirituality. His basic argument is that professional and social mobility makes it hard for Americans to sustain spiritual life because they don't feel rooted in one place; therefore, they embark on spiritual searches "characterized more often by dabbling than by depth." In contrast to these "dwelling-oriented" and "seeking-oriented" spiritualities, Wuthnow observes that increasing numbers of religious people are turning to "practice-oriented" spirituality--"making a deliberate attempt to relate to the sacred" through disciplines such as reading, prayer, and service. Wuthnow is passionately interested in the question of how an individual's search for spiritual identity affects our society, so he explains that although practice-oriented spirituality may initially seem to weaken the authority of religious institutions, spiritual practices "ultimately sustain these institutions by giving individuals the moral fortitude to participate in them without expecting too much from them." Wuthnow's prose is clean and clear, and his argumentation is thoroughly humane: every idea is conveyed through stories taken from interviews with hundreds of people of varying ages, races, religions, and classes. After Heaven stands with Wuthnow's previous work, and Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart as a landmark in the sociology of religion. --Michael Joseph Gross

From the Inside Flap:

"Robert Wuthnow has undoubtedly become the most informed and insightful commentator on religion in America today. In this book he enlivens a comprehensive account of what has happened to us spiritually by including sparkling vignettes of real people and their stories. What he paints is a complex, sometimes confusing but hopeful picture of the changing soul of America."—Harvey Cox, author of Fire From Heaven

"A beautifully written, sensitive interpretation of contemporary American culture and its religious dimensions. This book will surely stir considerable interest, discussion, and debate. It is not only a penetrating analysis, but a very stimulating and challenging one as well."—Father Andrew Greeley, University of Chicago

"After Heaven occupies a rare and necessary place between sympathetic understanding and critical assessment. . . . Wuthnow has done a superb job examining the current state of religious practice in America."—Jacob Needleman, author of The New Religion

"For those of us who are both excited and bewildered by highly visible recent trends in spirituality, this is a must-read book. Robert Wuthnow has a firm grasp on the traditions of spiritual life, but he also probes with great sensitivity the popular quests of recent decades. His study combines solid research into the social realities with genuine spiritual insight."—Richard J. Mouw, President, Fuller Theological Seminary

"Robert Wuthnow, one of the foremost interpreters of American society and its religious cultures, excels at describing and analyzing America's complex negotiation with a world of expanding but fragmentary knowledge, distracting materialism, and fleeting moments of grace. After Heaven, in its range and depth of analysis of spiritual trends since the 1950s, is a worthy and welcomed companion to the author's classic study of ideological change in postwar religious institutions, The Restructuring of American Religion."—R. Scott Appleby, Associate Professor of History, Director, Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism

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Wuthnow, Robert
Editorial: University of California Press (1998)
ISBN 10: 0520213963 ISBN 13: 9780520213968
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Robert Wuthnow
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