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Excerpt from "John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age"


by Brian C. Wilson, PhD

John E. Fetzer indeed lived many lives. Born in 1901 and headquartered for most of his life in the small midwestern city of Kalamazoo, Fetzer was a pioneer broadcaster who helped bring the first radio station to southwestern Michigan in the late 1920s. An astute businessman, he grew with the industry, making millions by expanding his holdings from radio into television, recording, and then cable. During this time, too, he acted on a national stage, called on by the federal government and the industry to assume positions of leadership to help manage the many aspects of an electronic media that was swiftly evolving into the dominant form

of communications in the United States. By the time he died in 1991, he had been listed in Forbes magazine as one of the four hundred wealthiest people in the United States. Today in Michigan, though, Fetzer is best known not as a media mogul but as the owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for almost thirty years beginning in 1956. There are still many people who in their mind’s eye can picture the famous photograph of the man in the business suit laughing uproariously after being dunked in a whirlpool by his players after their 1968 World Series win.

Of Fetzer’s many lives, there is one, however, that is not well known: that of his lifelong spiritual search, which led him from traditional forms of Christianity to an exploration of a variety of metaphysical religions culminating in the New Age. Although something of a misnomer, “metaphysical religion” refers to those traditions based on a monistic rather than dualistic cosmology, that is, one that posits that all is one, including God, as opposed to the radical separation of God and the cosmos that forms the basis for the Abrahamic traditions. In such monistic systems, the conception of God shifts from being transcendent and personal to immanent and impersonal, all of which tends to have major effects on the way one relates to the world. Despite Christian domination, there has been a continuous undercurrent of monistic thinking in the West from ancient times to the present. Indeed, in the United States, this current became fully established through a variety of traditions ranging from esoteric Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism to Spiritualism and Theosophy to the more recent spiritual synthesis called the New Age, which is simply one of the latest manifestations in the long history of spiritual monism in the West.

Fetzer’s interest in metaphysical religions began in the 1930s, but, a private man by nature, he was doubly circumspect about his study of these traditions because he was afraid it might jeopardize his business success in religiously conservative western Michigan, heavily influenced as it was by the powerful presence of the Dutch Reformed Church and its offshoots that made this part of the state a hotbed of Evangelical Christian activity. And while Fetzer eventually gathered around him a small band of spiritually like-minded people in his hometown of Kalamazoo, discretion in these matters had by then become something of a habit. Even after

he created the Fetzer Foundation in the 1970s to express his spiritual vision in service to the world, he was determined not to advertise this fact unduly, especially in his own backyard. Fetzer had a marked ability to compartmentalize his professional from his spiritual life, an ability that served him well in his desire for professional respectability. Because of this, however, the details of Fetzer’s spiritual search have not been fully documented until now. It is for this reason that this book, while touching on aspects of Fetzer’s life in business and baseball, focuses primarily on just one of his many lives: his spiritual life.

Fetzer’s quest for the New Age is made all the more significant because he used his wealth to institutionalize his spiritual vision in the Fetzer Foundation, later renamed the Fetzer Institute. For Fetzer, spirituality was a recognition that all is spirit, which he conceptualized as an eternal, conscious energy that, if one were open to it, would inevitably lead one back to the “great central source,” which some people choose to call God.4 The institute was thus born of Fetzer’s desire to prove the reality of spiritual monism by funding research into the science of spirituality, which was its priority during the last years of Fetzer’s life.5 Fetzer also hoped that the institute would form a tangible and useful legacy of his spiritual search once he was gone. In this last, he was eminently successful, for long after his death in 1991, the Fetzer Institute continues to flourish, funding projects from alternative health care to holistic education to programs seeking to promote love and forgiveness around the globe. All of these activities still reflect John Fetzer’s spiritual vision, even if the connection between that vision and its contemporary manifestations has not always been fully articulated. A major task for this book is, then, to make this connection clear, thus preserving it for the long stretch of the institute’s projected

five-hundred-year mission.

Beyond simply documenting the fascinating story of Fetzer’s spiritual journey, which led to the creation of his foundation, I also argue that Fetzer’s quest, for all its distinctiveness, nevertheless mirrored in fundamental ways that of thousands of Americans who sought new ways of thinking and being in the evolving metaphysical movements of the twentieth century. According to the historian J. Stillson Judah, one of the major attractions of metaphysical movements has always been the fact they provide a “practical type of philosophy” that draws from both science and religion, the reconciliation of which has been an abiding theme in the

religious history of the United States since the late nineteenth century.

For John Fetzer, trained as a radio engineer but steeped as a young man in the fundamentalist dogmas of Seventh-day Adventism, figuring out how to effect this reconciliation became a burning question that led him to embrace metaphysical monism as the surest way forward to a coherent worldview that was both deeply spiritual and scientifically defensible. As I contend throughout the book, the reconciliation of science and religion was one of the primary goals of Fetzer’s spiritual seeking and one of the primary motivations for the creation of the Fetzer Institute.

Another characteristic of metaphysical religion that many observers have pointed out is its inherent eclecticism, that is, the utter freedom with which its adherents pick and choose elements from discrete metaphysical traditions to craft worldviews of their own. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in John Fetzer’s spiritual search: from the 1930s until his death in 1991, Fetzer continuously evolved his worldview by combining and recombining elements from dozens of metaphysical traditions in a process he called “freedom of the spirit.” Unlike the thousands of Americans who engaged in a similar process, however, Fetzer’s synthesis

can be documented step by step, thus providing us with a remarkably rich and detailed roadmap from the Spiritualism and Theosophy of the 1930s all the way to the New Age of the 1980s—and beyond. Recent polls show that the worldview of the fastest growing demographic in the United States today—those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR)—is shot through with an eclectic mixture of metaphysical ideas and themes, and indeed, SBNR can best be described as a hyperindividualistic evolution of the metaphysical and New Age movements of which Fetzer was an early pioneer.

Fetzer himself was definitely not an SBNR (as I argue later), but he and people like him—those of what might be called the “old New Age”—set the stage for the fluorescence of this new and influential form of metaphysical spirituality that is now swiftly reforming the American religious landscape of the twenty-first century.

Finally, by placing Fetzer’s spiritual development within the broader context of the history of metaphysical religions in the United States, we also learn that his metaphysical interests were not atypical of the Midwest, which, despite conservative “heartland” myths to the contrary, was

long a center of metaphysical activity. For too long, as the historian Philip Jenkins has written, the “distinctiveness of California” in this regard has been “exaggerated” in both the scholarly and popular imagination to the detriment of regions such as the Midwest, which long hosted a thriving metaphysical subculture almost since its settlement.

As I document in detail in this book, when John Fetzer started his spiritual search among the metaphysical movements in the 1930s, he did not have to go far to encounter traditions as diverse as Spiritualism, Theosophy, esoteric Freemasonry, and Hermeticism, either in the flesh at such places as Indiana’s Camp Chesterfield or in the books, magazines, and pamphlets churned out by the thousands by Chicago’s many metaphysical presses.

And this midwestern metaphysical subculture only grew during Fetzer’s lifetime—in 1977, J. Gordon Melton, a historian of new religious movements, observed that there was “a larger psychic/metaphysical/mystical community functioning in Chicago than in either Los Angeles or San Francisco.” Fetzer did frequently reach beyond the Midwest for spiritual resources, but what is remarkable is how much of what he needed he found very close to home in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

This is not to say, of course, that the metaphysical Midwest was the same as the metaphysical West and that a homogeneous metaphysical subculture pervaded both regions. That this was not the case is well attested by the specific details of Fetzer’s developing worldview. A product of a small-town Hoosier boyhood, Fetzer never shed his midwestern sensibilities, and for this reason, certain heartland themes carried over into his New Age worldview in ways they probably would not have in other regions. These included an enduring pietistic belief in the importance of Jesus; an abiding concern for the integrity of community and the responsible use of wealth; and an unabashed patriotism that saw the American experiment as the herald of a New Age that never quite lost its Christian millennialist tinge. Thus, an exploration of Fetzer’s spiritual search not only highlights the ubiquity of metaphysical currents in the United States but also begins the process of recovering the Midwest’s distinctive metaphysical culture.

John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age is thus both the story of one man’s spiritual search and a window onto the rich and complex history of metaphysical religions in the United States. The historian of American religions Catherine Albanese once wrote that her years of research had convinced her that metaphysical traditions are “a normal, recurring, and pervasive feature of the American spiritual landscape.” The correctness of this assessment can well be judged in the spiritual life of John E. Fetzer and its afterlife in the Fetzer Institute.

Brian C. Wilson, PhD, is the author of John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age. He is a professor of American religious history in the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. To download a FREE CHAPTER of his book and learn more about how John E. Fetzer explored the interconnectedness between science and spirituality, visit www.infinitepotential.com

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