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A Tour Through the History of American Metaphysical Religion

Ronnie Pontiac’s new book, a journey through four centuries of American spiritual traditions, is a gossipy read filled with fun, even lurid details, and…



Raise your hand if you’ve ever attended a séance, sat in meditation, done yoga, consulted a psychic, read tarot cards, purged in a sweatlodge, prayed with tobacco, read esoteric literature, executed a karate chop, attempted tantric sex, shouted hallelujah at a revival, practiced astrology or alchemy, dropped a tab of acid, bought a book at Bodhi Tree bookstore, consulted an oracle, hearkened to an end-of-the-world prophecy, speculated about (or encountered) UFOs, worn a crystal, chanted a magic spell or mantra, or even dreamt of wandering in the Himalayas and encountering a Tibetan master or stumbling across Don Juan down in Mexico?

If so, welcome to the American Metaphysical Religion! And if you haven’t, where have you been for the last 400 years?

 “American Metaphysical Religion” is author Ronnie Pontiac’s “catchall metaphor for the esoteric beliefs and practices that have found a home in the melting pot of America.” Seeing himself as a “tour guide to the rough-and-tumble world of spirituality American-style,” Pontiac’s 600 page American Metaphysical Religion: Esoteric & Mystical Traditions in the New World attempts to span “four centuries of America’s metaphysical saints, grifters, misfits, revolutionaries, visionaries, eccentrics, and some important thinkers who were far ahead of their time.” 

As you can probably sense straight away, this is a gossipy book. Filled with fun, even lurid details and thought-provoking phenomena and events, it’s a racy read that attempts to cover a vast terrain with varying degrees of success. Beginning with the initial encounters between Eastern and Western traditions (which have already been amply documented in numerous popular books), it goes on to explore the strains of Metaphysical Christianity, Native American traditions, Evil Geniuses, Pagan Pilgrims, the rise of mediumship and spiritualism, Platonism, and, best of all, “Scandalous Psychic Adventures in the Roaring Twenties” and “Willy Reichel’s Psychic Adventure Tour.”  

Curiously, although Castaneda gets some attention, very little discussion is offered of psychedelics, which surely qualify as AMR. Neither “LSD” nor “psychedelic” are found in the index. 

American Metaphysical Religion by Ronnie Pontiac from Inner Traditions.

Pontiac is native to Los Angeles, and so much of the epicenter of the book is there, with San Francisco and other North American or European cities as outposts for the main action. It turns out this is appropriate. Who would imagine so many spiritual movements could happen in LA? He also has a touch of the gossip columnist in his enthusiastic, loving depictions of a world he has been immersed in for decades (he was a close confidant and assistant of Manly P. Hall), especially when writing about the Wild West of Spiritualism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Details leap off his pages, seekers and charlatans flit by, institutes rise and fall along with the reputations of psychics and gurus and healers. Through it all, the picture emerges that he promised: a world rife with con-artistry through which profound, exquisite spiritual experience can still break through – and paradoxically often does. 

To his credit, Pontiac works to hold the enigma intact, without attempting to offer rational explanations, apologies, or polemics. As he states, it is a “rough-and-tumble” world out there. His book does it justice!

Yet Pontiac’s hefty intention to capture so much history and spiritual practice within one catchall metaphor can lead to conceptual collapse. His attempt to encompass the indigenous worldviews encountered and co-opted by the early invaders and pilgrims to North America is, frankly, a mishmash. Approaching the unique cultures of Native America with their many distinct traditions as one great monocultural blob, his narrative rambles about as if evidence for his claims can be extracted from anywhere in time and space. A hodge-podge is the result, without adequate scholarly apparatus to support its claims. 

But more importantly, there is a big-ass question that goes begging in Pontiac’s rambling history: What the heck is Spiritualism? What does it really offer and how, beyond the obvious special effects? 

If anyone seems qualified to go beyond the usual pat metaphysical or pseudo-scientific answers, it might just be Ronnie Pontiac. But as the eyelids begin to droop from the long parade of facts and juicy details, the reader can’t help but ask, “What is going on here? Isn’t the real point of history to gain some understanding of the phenomenon at its heart? C’mon, are spirits live, or are they Memorex?

Pontiac’s work is a fun, rambling history. It’s worth checking out, but its focus is on Memorex. 

American Metaphysical Religion 
By Ronnie Pontiac
608 pp. Inner Traditions. $33.99

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The post A Tour Through the History of American Metaphysical Religion appeared first on Lucid News.

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