Woman in the Wilderness

The “Burnt Over District” is religious historian shorthand for upstate New York.  That particular region, during the “Second Great Awakening,” spawned so many religions and hosted so many revivals that it was difficult to believe anything more could sprout there (thus, “burnt over”).  One of my great fascinations is the origins of religions.  Not only that, but where those religions began.  On a continent-size level, Asia is clearly the champion, with all of the “big five” beginning there.  But religions evolve, sometimes rapidly.  Christianity in Britain gave rise to such groups as Quakers and Anglicans, and, in a post-Christian phase Britain gave the world Wicca.  The Germans were also great religious innovators with Luther and the Pietist and Anabaptist traditions.  Perhaps it’s in the Anglo-Saxon blood to make religions new.

After visiting Ephrata Cloister recently, my mind naturally turned to the “Hermits of the Wissahickon.”  If you’ve not heard of them, you’re not alone.  They, despite being men to a man, preferred the title “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.”  They were followers of Johannes Kelpius.  Kelpius, like Conrad Beissel after him, was a German mystic, Pietist, and musician, and he also believed the end of the world was imminent.  This was in 1694, just a few years before Beissel laid the foundations for Ephrata Cloister.  Like Beissel, Kelpius decided Pennsylvania was the best place to set up camp.  Although founded by Quakers, Pennsylvania offered something some other colonies didn’t—real religious freedom.  Given that you could be killed for being a Quaker in some of the other colonies, this didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Convinced Jesus would return in 1694, Kelpius and his followers settled into a cave just outside Philadelphia, by the Wissahickon Creek.  They set up a quasi-monastic community to wait out the clock near the city of brotherly love.

It’s difficult to know if Conrad Beissel was consciously imitating the work of Kelpius.  Religious leaders tend to have pretty strong views of their own outlooks.  The draw to Pennsylvania, in those days, was strong.  Interestingly, both Kelpius and Beissel are remembered for their music.  The death of Johannes Kelpius isn’t as well documented as that of Beissel—you can see the latter’s burial place in Ephrata.  Like millions of others, Kelpius lived through the “great disappointment” of not having the Second Coming occur when he supposed it would.  Some suggest Kelpius believed he would be translated after death.  He died in 1708, as his younger colleague was exploring the wilderness several miles to the west.  Keplius’ final resting place is listed, perhaps fittingly, as “unknown in Pennsylvania.”

Beissel’s Grave, Ephrata Cloister


Healing Borders

Sometimes you read a book that just gets your head buzzing.  Brett Hendrickson’s Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo is one such book.  It brings together so many areas of fascination: healing based on different belief structures than scientific medicine, the role of community in avoiding cultural appropriation, and the cultural blending that takes place at all borders.  The myth of the “pure” has long created problems, particularly in the realm of religion.  Things blend.  They always have.  And this includes belief structures, faiths, religions.  This is most obvious at borders, which makes them very interesting places.  Officially we police them, wanting to keep what is “ours” and keep “them” out.  In reality we are blending with each other and that’s not a bad thing.

In much of educated society, it’s assumed that scientific medicine is the only valid kind.  There are those even among the schooled, however, who pray for the ill.  Curanderismo is a form of folk healing that involves cures that would be rejected out of hand by science.  In a materialist, chemical world, only this can heal that.  Curanderismo looks at things quite differently.  Its practitioners don’t charge an arm and a leg for their work.  They are extremely popular.  And they heal people.  This is part of what makes Hendrickson so wonderful to read—he doesn’t assume up front that this doesn’t work.  Some analysts treat this kind of thing from a perspective of cultural superiority, as if scientific medicine is the only real way to treat illness.  Cultures, however, can heal.

Culture is something we value because it makes us feel secure and comfortable.  We know what to expect.  We speak the language, know the conventions.  (It would help Democrats, I think, to realize that although we’re trying to dismantle xenophobia, it is still very much intact in most of the world.  People follow autocrats because they’re afraid.)  We all live near borders.  Our personal border may be the wall of our apartment or the front door to our house.  It may be the Protestant/Catholic next door (or Buddhist/Atheist/Muslim/Hindu/Agnostic).  It may be the middle class/working class person who lives across the street.  In one town in which I lived it was literally those on the other side of the railroad tracks.  We draw borders for protection, but what Hendrickson shows so clearly is that they can also be places of healing.  


Angel of Harvest

It’s been a few weeks ago now, but one October Saturday we attended the Lehigh Valley Vegstock.  Autumn is the season for harvest festivals and a surprising number of them are now catering to vegetarians, or even vegans.  When I say that, it probably calls to mind a certain kind of individual—perhaps an aging hippie who’s probably into New Age and alternative spiritualities?  If so, you’re not the only one whose thinking goes along those lines.  Among the recycled, reused, and other earth-friendly tents was one that offered contemporary spirituality.  A lot was going on behind my mask so I forgot to take the name of the actual vendor, but I did find the use of angels interesting.

No, I haven’t been living under a rock.  Well, maybe I have.  Even so, I know that angels are popular and have been for several years.  Some people who find themselves uncertain about God are still down with angels.  Back in college—who knows anything at that age?—I did an independent study on angels.  The professor (who’s still at Grove City) didn’t provide much direction, and I soon found there wasn’t too much in our library about the subject.  Like demons and other monsters, scholars tend to shy away from the topic.  That, and I hadn’t yet learned how to use Religion Index One.  Now, of course, there’s the internet.  In any case, the idea of angels stayed with me through my teaching career.  After all, studying ancient gods does bring you into close proximity with other spiritual beings.  Even so, I was interested to see Archangel Metatron on the Vegstock vendor table.

Metatron isn’t biblical.  He makes his first appearance in Jewish literature, including the Talmud and Kabbalah.  Although my research interest was always toward the earlier era of the spectrum, it seems that much of our angelology was percolating during the period after the Hebrew Bible was written.  Jewish scholars were working out the complex spiritual world and later Christian writers would attempt to systematize it.  It is possible, and it appears in some traditions, that Metatron was actually Enoch, translated.  Enoch, who is biblical, receives just a few words in Holy Writ, but he eventually grew in importance.  Genesis indicates that he walked with God and was no more.  What happened to him?  Metatron was one possible answer.  There are other Metatron origin stories, I’m sure.  And one of them was right there in Tatamy in the midst of a harvest festival.


The Spiritual Life

Genuine spiritual experiences don’t sit well with a nine-to-five job.  When something truly profound happens to a person s/he requires time to think about it.  Ponder the experience.  If such a thing occurs on a Sunday (imagine that!), the next morning, still reeling, you need to go to work.  Perform duties that no longer seem significant.  And continue to do so for four more days, until the fire has gone out.  This paradox has plagued me for some time.  Perhaps it’s the fate die cast for an editor who can’t just read submissions for their financial payoff.  Who asks, “What if she’s right?”  Doesn’t that affect everything?  Especially in the case of a religion editor.

Blown away.

I first noticed this in college.  Even there the schedule was quite flexible, according to classes you had to take.  The professors were sincere in their presentation of ideas you should take seriously, but then in the work world your boss indicates that you’re not being paid to do that.  You’re being paid to produce.  Contribute to the machine.  Cogs and sprockets don’t think.  They do.  Then a significant weekend would come (or a holiday, say) where the message would really speak to me.  Change my outlook.  Until Monday morning.  The outlook would still be changed, of course, but the demands on routine would not also be changed.  It’s quite a dilemma.  As the great contemplatives throughout history have known, these ideas must be wrestled with.  Conversed with.  Tried on for size.  Walked with.  Such things can’t be done in the context of what you’re paid to do.  “Do it on your own time.”

What is your own time?  The weekend, essentially.  Work expands to fill the quiet times of weekdays.  Your time is owed to somebody who pays you less than the national average to do something any nonspiritual person could do.  Such is the danger of being open to new ways of looking at things.  Vacations need to be planned.  They are rejuvenating, but spiritual experiences can’t be planned.  They just happen.  HR has no algorithm for them.  Not exactly sick days or floating holidays.  And what if you need more than one day?  That meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday, what about that?  As if such things were really important.  Perhaps you too had the professor late for class because s/he was struggling with an idea, an experience that fit her or his specialization.  There were always office hours to recover.  That’s all fine and good, but it’s time for work.


Time for Golem

I don’t claim to understand how the film industry works.  My two books on horror and religion deal with interpreting the movies, not their native cinematic environment.  I say this because I limited my treatments in them to films with a theatrical release.  Mainly this was so that readers would have had easy access to them.  Some films, of course, never go to theaters and it seems that happened, in the United States, to the Israeli movie The Golem.  I saw a trailer for it last year and patiently waited for it to arrive.  I recently found it on an online streaming service and finally had a chance to watch it.  Golems, as original Jewish monsters, have shown up in a variety of popular media including The X-Files and Sleepy Hollow.  Film treatments have been rare, and this one makes for a fascinating monster movie.

What makes the golem so compelling is that it is an explicitly religious monster.  To create a golem (according to the film) the maker must use Kabbalah, Jewish mystical texts, to learn how to bring it to life.  Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), the female protagonist, is the only one in her seventeenth-century village willing to try.  The real hook, for me, is that the golem she creates is a little boy.  The role must’ve been fun to play.  Golems cannot speak, so there are no lines to learn.  Kirill Cernyakov nails the part with an ability to portray emotionless menace.  The problem with a golem, you see, is that it goes on rampages, killing even those it’s conjured to protect.  Since the movie is intended to be a retelling of the classic story (involving the golem of Prague), it doesn’t have too many surprises.  It is, however, a thoughtful movie.

Write-ups on it call it “the Jewish Frankenstein,” but scholars who research Frankenstein often go the other way, seeing Frankenstein’s monster as a form of golem.  The basic idea is taking something inert and bringing it to life.  Afterward the creator is unable to control it.  It’s too bad that The Golem didn’t get a wide theatrical release.  I’ve seen far worse horror films that did.  Perhaps the focus on religion was too blatant?  One of the points I make in Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible is that religion and horror belong together.  Some Jewish viewers will undoubtedly spot inaccuracies (even this goy did) but the movie isn’t a religious text.  It is an appropriate rebuff to Trumpian “politics” and even features a plague.  It is a movie for our time.


Wild God

Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is one of those books I wanted to put down gently after reading it, for fear that it might explode.  Or maybe it was my head I feared might combust.  Describing it is difficult because it is so wide-ranging.  On the one hand it is an atheist’s view of religion.  On the other hand it is a spiritual biography.  On a third hand it is coming to terms with having had a profound mystical experience.  It is one of those books where, knowing my life has been so very different, yet I feel that Ehrenreich and I have had so much in common that we’d be friends if we ever met.  It is also the work of a woman who is scary smart and whose teenage thoughts were so intense that my own seem puerile by comparison.

But that mystical experience!  I’ve had many of them in my life, but I don’t know you well enough to share them here.  They’ve been recorded in an unfinished book that I may or may not try to publish some day.  (Ehrenreich was smart and took a job as a journalist, which means others assume you know how to write.  Even those of us in publishing have trouble convincing agents and others who hold the keys to non-academic pricing that we understand the craft.)  Mysticism quickly becomes a staid discipline, not at all like the life-directing experiences such encounters themselves actually are.  It’s difficult to explain without sitting down and talking to you.  It’s something academics tend to avoid like Covid-19.

The books that mean most to me are like conversations with an absent author.  Drawn in by an openness, or perhaps by the fact that we’ve lived in a few of the same places over the years, perhaps passed one another unknowingly on the street, you feel that they’ve invited you into their very head.  What you find there has a strange similarity to what is in your own head, while being completely different at the same time.  We should all strive for such honesty in our writing.  In the end Ehrenreich, with a doctorate in science, suggests we need to be open.  That kind of validation is important for those of us who’ve poured our lives into the study of religion.  She was drawn in from atheism, and I have been trying to escape from literalism all my adult life.  We have ended up in places not dissimilar from each other and I’m glad to have met her through this profound book.


Watery

Having watched What the Bleep Do We Know? a few weeks ago, I became curious about Masaru Emoto’s The Hidden Messages in Water.  The book is highlighted in the film, and in a world where money decides truth, the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller must count for something, right?  I am of a skeptical bent, but I like to keep an open mind.  This itself is a delicate waltz at times since just about anybody can make truth claims and find a following.  Curiosity, as they say…  So instead of critiquing Emoto’s obviously slipshod methodology, I want to reflect on whether he really might have been onto something.  Many people around the world thought so, after all.

What it comes down to is water.  If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I owe you a brief explanation.  Emoto suggests that water crystals reflect the influences to which they’re subjected.  For example, water frozen as classical music plays forms beautiful crystals.  If heavy metal is played, it doesn’t.  Water frozen in beautiful surroundings forms beautiful crystals.  If that’s not controversial enough, Emoto suggested that emotionally freighted words typed on paper wrapped around the water bottle as it was frozen would reflect the emotions on the paper.  There are lots of problems here, but what I wonder is if water might not somehow be related to consciousness.  Emoto makes that claim, but since science can’t yet explain consciousness there’s no way to test it.  Could it be that water is a recording medium in some way?  Without raising the woo factor too far, some ghost hunters (it is October, after all) suggest moving water has something to do with “recording” spirits.

Like most critical readers, I left Emoto’s book not at all convinced.  I also left thinking that we shouldn’t throw the bath water out with the baby.  There are crazy ideas in the book, for sure.  But there may also be just a hint of insight as well.  That insight comes in the recognition of spirituality as an important aspect of human life.  The book was a bestseller.  Not all people are credulous.  We are, however, spiritual.  Many deny it.  Some violently rail against it but still have feelings along with their rationality.  Water can lift spirits.  The negative ions of breaking water tend to make people feel at ease.  We visit the coast where waves break against beach or rocks.  We visit waterfalls where cascades scatter water particles.  Even a fast-flowing stream will do.  Emoto clearly went too far with his ideas, but I think, deep down, he might’ve been onto something.


Secretly

There are not too many books that I would call epiphanies.  I always lay down Jeffrey Kripal’s books with a sense of wonder and awe.  His Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions is one book I initially skipped over due (as usual) to not being able to afford even modest academic pricing.  (Hey, my books are even worse in that regard, so that’s not a criticism!)  I’ve met Kripal a few times and have had some conversations with him that always leave me feeling strangely empowered.  That’s the place this book left me.  I’m a slow reader and it isn’t a small tome, so it took me some time.  Also, I didn’t want to rush it.  Doing so would’ve been like trying to jog across a boulder field.  I hardly know where to begin.

Kripal is an historian of religions.  His own experiences in the academy are narrated in this book, so I urge the curious to look.  Many people who know me think that I’m a biblical scholar.  My training, however, is in history of religions.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to classify a doctorate, but my focus was on how ideas appeared in several ancient cultures, with no real expectation of evolution beyond what appeared later in time than something else.  As many who study ancient texts know, this translates to “biblical studies” in the academy and so for many years I taught Hebrew Bible.  Friends in the academy suggested I should shift my research to Bible (as I did in Weathering the Psalms) in order to get a solid placement in academe.  It backfired in my case.  This isn’t a pointless digression.

Secret Body is a trippy book.  It deserves to be read widely and engaged with by academics (among which I no longer count).  It is a ground plan for the study of our field.  Kripal understands, better than just about anyone, why religious studies is foundering.  He’s also brave enough to delve into the unspoken areas that we all know are terribly, terribly significant.  And he isn’t a materialist.  There’s much in this book to give the reader pause.  Indeed, it’s more than a stop sign on the superhighway of the academic business.  It’s the kind of book you need to keep at hand in case “the real world” gets you ensnared in its ropes and chains.  It makes me believe that I need to go back to school all over again.


Being Equal

With all that’s been happening lately—as 2020 shudders along—we find ourselves at the equinox.  For some of us the weather has already been unseasonably cool, feeling like mid-October rather than September.  It stands as a reminder that the wheel of nature continues to turn, despite human foibles and plans.  Some trees have begun to sense the change and have started their winter fast while others keep their green to suck the last possible sugar from the sun.  Days have been getting shorter since late June, of course, but now the drama will increase until the winter solstice has us in the dark for much of the time.  It all depends on where you live, but for me the temperate zones have always been home.

I suspect our various predilections toward the oughtness of the world depend in large measure on what we experienced in childhood.  I knew winter before I ever experienced summer and the transitional seasons have always been my favorites.  The idea that we can take more time and reflect, it seems to me, mirrors what happens in autumn.  It’s cooler, so we spend time indoors a bit more.  Some years that doesn’t kick in until later, when the heat is on and there’s a coziness to a house that’s been left to nature’s fever all summer.  Windows are shut and locked.  Artificial warmth reminds us that we can find some solace inside.  Meanwhile the trees show us the proper way to face harsh conditions, and yet half a year from now we’ll be eagerly watching for buds.  The Celts, temperate zone dwellers, thought of this change as the wheel of the year, slowly turning.

From where I sit in my study, with south and west-facing windows, I watch the path of the sun.  Having worked in a cubicle with no outside windows for years, I was always disoriented at the end of the day.  Now I can watch and begin to understand.  The difference is really striking if you have a single place from which to watch it unfold.  The sun is so much higher in the sky in July that it’s evident we’ve entered a new phase now.  Instead of being overhead at noon, the shining orb rolls more to the south, sending blinding rays directly through my window.  When it reaches the west (where it will, before long, sink before touching that window) I know the work day is over.  It’s no wonder our ancient ancestors kept this transition with holidays we’ve long sacrificed to capitalism.  I can still, however, see the changes and appreciate them for what they are.


Believing and Seeing

Our eyes locked for a moment.  He wasn’t ten feet away.  Of course, like all famous people he knew that his fans thought they knew him and hoped that he would know her or him.  This isn’t a particularly rare thing to happen in New York City, but the instance in my mind happened in Atlantic City after an Alice Cooper concert that I attended with my brother.  As kids we’d listened to Cooper with some avidity,  and even the concert itself was a somewhat intimate affair (we were both adults at the time).  An audience of hundreds instead of thousands, and many of the attendees about our age—that is to say, not young.  That meeting of the eyes, however, reinforced something I already knew.  Looking is more that your eyes receiving light particle-waves.  It is a connection.

Try this with your bestie—it can be your spouse, lover, or friend.  It especially works if you’ve known her or him for many years.  See how long you can go staring into each other’s eyes.  It’s not easy.  You start to feel that they can see your secrets: your fears and vulnerabilities.  You glance away.  Materialists claim that seeing is a simple matter of light entering our eyes and our brains interpreting it.  We all know, however, what it’s like to be stared at.  How uncomfortable it makes us feel.  We can often tell when someone’s staring at our backs.  I wonder if there’s more to seeing than appears?  Performers often crave the energy of being before thousands of eyes.  They know how it’s just not the same when you have to pretend.  I knew that well as a teacher.

Could seeing really go both ways?  Even animals don’t like to be stared at.  It’s an informal experiment I’ve tried while jogging.  If you break eye contact with a deer, cat, or rabbit, you can get fairly close.  If you stare, however, they dash away.  It doesn’t matter if you turn your head—it’s the eye contact.  I ponder how this relates to narcissists in power.  They crave the eyes on them.  The way to de-power them is to stop looking.  Alice Cooper, I’m certain, has no idea who I am.  He wouldn’t remember me if we ever met.  That night he was standing outside the door of the afterparty where those who’d paid extra could get to meet him.  We didn’t exchange a word, but we made a connection.  There’s more to seeing than meets the eye.


Learning To Fly

It’s perhaps the most deeply rooted human dream.  Flying.  Women Who Fly, by Serinity Young, is a fascinating book.  Subtitled Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females, the book covers all of these and more.  The dream of flying is played out in many ways here, but often the narrative comes back to how patriarchy imprisons women.  Is it any wonder they want to fly?  Very wide in historical scope, the book can’t cover all cases in equal depth.  It nevertheless demonstrates how pervasive the idea is.  Beginning with ancient female figurines bearing bird-like features, Young moves through the related concepts of captivity, transcendence, sexuality, and immortality, showing how female characters are related to these idea in universal and unrelenting ways in the form of flying females.

There are many lenses through which to view patriarchy.  It can be explained as a consequence of settled agricultural existence with its subsequent division of labor.  Such a scenario raises questions of whether women dreamed of flight before that, and I believe the answer must be yes.  For as long as we’ve observed birds and associated the sky with gods we have longed for flight.  Although birds make it look easy, it is an incredibly difficult and costly adaptation.  Still, women dream of travel without obstacles (let the reader understand) to the realms where deities dwell.  It is difficult to summarize a book that covers so much historical territory.  Young doesn’t limit herself to western religions but also spends a fair bit of time among Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist ideas of flying women.  She covers mythical, folkloristic, human, and historical flying females all the way up to modern astronauts.

As I was coming to the close of the book the real message hit me—I can be thick at times, although much of my own writing is metaphorical—men have actively tried to clip women’s wings for a long time.  Often under the auspices of religion.  Think of it: for centuries of existence the major monotheistic traditions have refused female leadership.  The one (inevitably male) god has set up a boys’ club of sacerdotal leadership.  As Young points out, even the named angels in the Bible are male.  I used to comfort myself with the explanation that male leaders were simply too self-centered to consider others, but it is becoming clearer, the more I read, that men have always had a tendency to try to keep women down.  And thus they fly.  There’s much in this book for both women and men to ponder.


Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.


The New Light

Sometimes you meet kindred spirits in books.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been waiting patiently.  It’s one of those books that I suspected would meet me where I live, and regarding this I was correct.  Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest and professor of religion (both of which I attempted but failed to achieve), has the courage and insight to suggest that darkness might just be a friend.  The darker half of the year settled hard on me this year.  As its black wings gathered about me I reached for this book.  I’ve been struggling with a question I’m sometimes asked: why do I let my thoughts linger in what must be considered darker corners?  I watch horror and write books and stories about monsters.  What’s wrong with me anyway?

One accusation may be fairly leveled at much of American religion is that it is shallow.  Light is uncritically accepted as good and dark becomes somehow evil.  There are biblical prooftexts that can be used to “prove” this, but they change color when you wrestle with them.  Learning to Walk in the Dark contains many ways of reflecting on realities which are inevitable.  Brown Taylor visits museums that give the sighted the experience of being blind in a safe environment.  She spends time in caves.  She stretches out beneath the stars and contemplates the dark night of the soul as well as the cloud of unknowing.  These latter two are, of course, spiritual classics.  There’s quite a bit that can be learned from experiencing darkness and listening intently.

My own predilections toward subjects called “dark” are forms of therapy.  My religion simply can’t be shallow.  I need enough water to swim.  And yes, I’m afraid of deep water.  Darkness perhaps comes more naturally to those of us who are awake for every sunrise.  If I move far enough north that may cease to be the case, but for the last decade or so my internal alarm goes off a couple hours before the first sliver of light creeps over the eastern hills.  And I seem to have assimilated to it.  As I read Learning I could imagine the accusations flying from my former Nashotah House context.  Looking at that patriarchal theology of sin and misery, however, I think there’s no question whence true darkness comes.  Without the dark we could never tell that it was light.  Since we need both, it seems wise to follow the sage advice here offered and get to know the dusky side a bit more intimately.


Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.


Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.