The porous cell: monastic ritual, intentional living, and varieties of knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity
Based on three and a half years of research among semi-cloistered Christian monastics and a dispersed network of non-monastic Christian contemplatives around the United States, this study shows how religious practitioners in both settings combined social action and intentional living with intellectual study and intensive contemplative practices in an effort to modify their ways of knowing, sensing, and experiencing the world. It explores the interplay of social diversity and cohesiveness in pluralistic society and the relationship of agency and habitus in practitioners' conscious attempts at spiritual transformation. Organized by the metaphor of a seeker journeying towards the inner chambers of a monastic chapel, The Porous Cell uses innovative "intersubjective" fieldwork methods to study these opaque interiorized, often silent communities, in order to show how solitude, chant, contemplation, attention, and a paradoxical capacity to combine active ritual with intentional "unknowing" develop and hone a powerful sense of communion and foster a unitive state in relationship to "life in the world." Cloistered monastics encouraged a commitment to ancient Christian ideals and practices, but both they and dispersed non-monastics enriched the movement's character by including aspects of other religious traditions. Partially inspired by Fredrik Barth's anthropology of knowledge, the thesis develops a novel theory of clines of multiple epistemologies, which include intellectual, experiential, performative, and contemplative knowledges, as well as the notion of "unknowing." This model of variable knowledges (both conscious and "embodied") shows how contemplative communities can be diverse and yet retain considerable cohesiveness and stability. American Christian contemplatives' ability to fuse so many spheres of knowledge and to live contemplatively challenges the often taken-for-granted segregation of the religious, secular, sacred, and profane in the modern world. Further, this study contributes to the anthropologies of perception, silence, embodiment, and experience, and to the anthropology and epistemology of Christianity. It extends American ethnography by its use of new methods for studying silence and performance, and by focusing on a highly educated and mostly urban, professional, Euro-American community (in both its geographically-situated and "non-gathered," network-based guises) which is rarely the subject of ethnographic research and is often assumed to be the demographic most likely to reject religion.