An American Gospel

ONE OF THE INTERESTING side effects of the current economic, social, and environmental collapse is that it’s sending us scurrying back to our short history, looking for answers about what comes next. In this vein, Erik Reece’s latest book delves into the United States’ spiritual history, to what he calls an American gospel, a land-based spirituality that asserts — to boil a book down to a sentence — that heaven is here and now.

In the Gospel of Thomas, discovered over sixty years ago, “we hear Jesus’ followers ask, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ Jesus responds, ‘It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, “Look, here it is,” or “Look, there it is.” Rather, the father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.'” Reece’s father took his own life, conflicted in part, Reece believes, by the unhappy worldview held by his grandfather, a fundamentalist preacher.

Reece claims that the Gospel of Thomas, far more than the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), fits the American landscape and culture, and is also closer than any other to certain teachings of Buddhism. (Indeed, as one Buddhist has joked, “Had I known the Gospel of Thomas, I wouldn’t have had to become a Buddhist.”) An American gospel, Reece proposes — using snippets of Whitman and longer passages of Frank Lloyd Wright, who, I was surprised to find out, was a pretty fair writer — would be one where Americans have not lost their connection to the natural world.

Other American minds, such as Aldo Leopold, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, William Byrd, Lynn Margulis, David Orr, Wendell Berry, and William James, are quoted and presented briefly — such an assemblage of spiritual intellect in our young nation’s history! And yet somehow the gospel of the Nicene Creed took hold, in which everyone is a sinner, rather than that of the Sermon on the Mount, “or of recognizing the kingdom of heaven in our midst,” as Tolstoy advised.

The first major spiritual struggle in our country occurred early, notes Reece, where the yet-undiscovered Thomasian gospel, as exemplified by the nature-minded Thomas Jefferson, did yeoman battle with the more industrial gospel of Alexander Hamilton and a “centralized system of banks, wealth and power.” The two men, once friends and allies, ended up cat-and-dog, and — so it could be argued — a nation was set slowly toward its current crumbling and near-collapse.

An American Gospel is an enticing little book, one packed with broad, quick brush strokes. I would have preferred it to be amplified and more appropriately paced, particularly in the rush to a conclusion that reads a bit like a lawyer’s breathless summation. Hopefully, Reece will settle in to his thesis with future work; any one of the numerous American thinkers he touches upon is worthy of an entire fat biography in relation to this one particular subject. As a country, we’re definitely finally old enough to be doing some serious looking back at where we came from, even as we hold in our hands the rubble of so much that was special, and which we have broken or lost.