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.

Super Reality

Super NaturalReality is not often, if ever, what it appears to be. As creatures that evolved to survive in this particular environment, we have passed along and received the skills that make this possible. One of those skills is filtering. We filter out most of the stimuli that surround us daily (and nightly), and that with only five senses. We don’t experience reality as it is. It is with this in mind that I read The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Perhaps unlike many who will read this book, my attraction was based on Jeffrey Kripal’s involvement. In anticipation, late last year I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, but I have great respect for Jeffrey Kripal’s work, and consider anything he writes well worth the reading. This book, then, is a strange hybrid between the experiencer and the open-minded analyst who brings the toolbox of religious studies to what most academics dismiss as “the paranormal.”

This is one of those books that will distort perceptions of reality. That’s not because Strieber and Kripal simply accept each other’s versions of events or conclusions. They don’t. Both are free to disagree with one another. Kripal, as a recognized academic, brings something rare to the table. He is willing to listen to people who have experienced what standard approaches wipe away as “merely anecdotal.” Ask yourself: what do we have to say that isn’t anecdotal? We don’t experience all of reality, and the filters we use go both ways—what we perceive is filtered, and what we share with others is filtered. As much as a materialist may hate to admit it, she or he still has feelings. And our senses, keep in mind, can be fooled. We’ve all seen mirages or thought we heard something that nobody said. Our brains evolved with lots of false positives. Who are we to judge that someone else’s anecdote is impossible? That’s what super nature can do to you.

It is also refreshing to see that, although the day when a physicist’s name as a household word may have passed (excluding Sheldon Cooper, of course), those who remain recognizable from the past—Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger—were not strict materialists. As The Super Natural points out, these foundational figures of quantum physics all turned to mysticism of some sort or another to help them come to grips with what the empirical evidence was showing. I do wonder how we’ve come, since then, to have so many brilliant people who have lost a sense of wonder about the anomalies that exist in everyday experience. Who hasn’t felt a shiver of pleasure at a particularly poignant coincidence or glitch in the matrix? Maybe most of us will never have as many uncanny experiences as Whitley Strieber, but we might be losing something valuable if we don’t at least listen to what he, and others like him, have to say.

Strange Orthodoxies

SeriouslyStrangeI had already read three of his books before I called on Jeffrey Kripal. Reading his work created a strange longing in me, as if I had been missing something I once might’ve had, but had lost on my way to academia. Kripal is a fearless writer and a profoundly kind man. He gave me a copy of his edited collection, Seriously Strange: Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences, (co-edited by Sudhir Kakar, part of the Boundaries of Consciousness series). Like myself, Dr. Kripal had come to the conclusion that a number of apparently disparate human experiences actually belong to the same overarching class. Religion shares not a little ground with monstrosity, heroes, and the paranormal. With the exception of religion (generally) the other phenomena are classed as puerile and not worthy of consideration beyond their juvenile appeal. No real scholar would bother with them.

The orthodoxy of knowledge is a funny thing. I have been fascinated by what science teaches us about the universe since I was I child. Some of it is seriously strange as well. I always thought that science was observing the world closely and drawing logical inferences. Somewhere along the line, science became theory driven—I suspect it was some time after Darwin; and even Freud recognized the draw of the uncanny and how it related to numinous regions of human experience. In any case, by the time I was able to comprehend (partially) the fantastically complex system that science had built up I found a universe teeming with black holes that nobody had ever seen, and sub-atomic particles that behaved very naughtily, not being consistent with what we’d expect. Indeed, uncertainty abounded. Uncertainty is crucial to the humility which is the only true adjunct to human knowledge. We can only know enough to say we wish we knew more.

In the last few decades, however, science has adopted a magisterium like that of the medieval Catholic Church. That realm of unchallenged knowledge ignores the anomalous and declares that everything is reducible to material. Ironically, it seems, material is reducible to energy, and energy is less well tamed. Our understanding of our universe is still in its infancy. We haven’t even learned to walk yet. From the beginning, however, we have been religious and even science suggests that it may be biologically beneficial. So Seriously Strange takes some of the borderlands of mainstream science and looks closely at them. Some of the assertions are modest, and nobody claims to prove anything here. The essays will, however, instill a sense of much needed wonder into a Weltanschauung that increasingly has no space for simply being human.

Gods in Spandex

OurGodsWearSpandexOne thing leads to another. Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics stirred an interest in comic books that I hadn’t felt since before my college days. Often excoriated as puerile, escapist doggerel for pre-pubescent boys, comics have grown to be respected members of adult society. I often wonder what the draw might be. Hollywood has certainly cashed in on it with any number of blockbuster flicks each year coming from the brains of the comic book writers and artists. So I picked up the quirky book by Christopher Knowles and Joseph Michael Linsner entitled Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. Reading it was kind of like looking in a mirror that has been buried in dust for a few decades. I hadn’t realized that my tastes in childhood comics was a reflection of a longing for the divine world with healthy doses of science fiction, and even H. P. Lovecraft, thrown in along the way. Knowles ties in a remarkable breadth of material to demonstrate that our superheroes are, in the final analysis, gods. That point may be taken in any number of ways.

The academic world suffers from a fear of respectability. That may seem a strange assertion, but I’ve spent a great deal of my life among academics and I know that many of them are insecure and tentative. Does all this reading, writing, and analysis ever get read by anybody? Does anybody take me seriously? Academics are haunted types. So when a subject as vulgar as comic books arises, scholars are reluctant to touch it. It might look like we actually enjoy reading the funnies. Still, popular culture has demonstrated an unexpected depth to much that we read in the strip world. As Knowles points out, a deep undercurrent of the occult and esotericism runs through many hero story lines. Several heroes began their lives as classical gods, only to assume the spandex and become incarnate humans with special powers we long to have ourselves. We would fly, if we were given the chance.

Our Gods Wear Spandex may never be viewed as an academic book by most. It has too much visual interest and not enough recondite footnotes. All the same, it is a profound look at what people really desire. We worship gods because of their special powers. If God were one of us with our humiliating weaknesses and limitations, would we ever worship him or her? Of course not. We only seek to appease those who are stronger than we are. Entire governments and ecclesiastical bodies are built on that very principle. Heroes are like us. Mortal, and yet, with something more. They die. But like the gods, they can come back. Reading Knowles it becomes clear just how much religious thought pulses through the veins of the comic book world. We may be grown up and sophisticated. We may have left behind childish things. But when our backs are to the wall, who doesn’t secretly wish they were Wonder Woman or Superman? And maybe that wish is a prayer.

Esalen

Esalen Every great once in a while, you read an academic book that really makes you think. Not that many books aren’t erudite or thought-provoking, but the ones that cause a reader to question reality are relatively few. I suppose that’s why I’ve been reading Jeffrey Kripal’s books like candy. I’ve posted on his Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics. Now that I’ve read Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, I somehow feel like I missed out on something important that had never entered my awareness. Growing up in the eastern part of the country and not reaching my teenage years until the program at Esalen was already under way and famous on the west coast, I’d never even heard of the institute until I’d started reading Kripal’s books. Esalen, for those who are like I was, is hard to define. Indeed, Kripal studiously avoids doing just that as he narrates its history and impact on the nation, and indeed, the world.

The human potential movement has seldom found institutional support. Since our worldviews determine what we are capable of seeing, and since our reality has largely been defined by a rationalistic monism, an entire universe remains for us to discover, if we were only to open our eyes. Reading about Esalen was like finding a long lost twin—much of what the institution has stood for has found its way into my own psyche in some form or other. I suppose I’ve never really read too much on eastern religions, but I do appreciate what meditation can do. Reading the names of those associated with Esalen over the decades, it would be difficult to disagree.

Our society has come to trust materialism assiduously. How easy it is to forget that even the material world consists of so much more than our limited senses reveal. We know that animals sense the world differently, so we call them non-conscious beings and get on with pretending that if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. As the Esalen devotees know, even scientists have come to consider the implications of quantum mechanics. If we are to take the results of physics seriously, the impossible does happen. Right here in our own corner (or arc) of the universe. We lose so much by refusing to believe the impossible. Lewis Carroll knew that and we’ve been talking about going down the rabbit hole ever since. There are rare places in the world where the spiritual, the scientific, the sensuous, and the artistic come together to explore what the human experience truly is. One such place is Esalen, where, I’m told, the religion is no religion.

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.

Merry X-Man

XMenComic books were hard to keep up with for a kid of limited means. Consequently, I never heard of the X-Men until the movies started coming out. Since I suppose I fit the profile of the guy whose life has devolved into day after long day in the office, superheroes are burdened with living life for me. I’ve watched the X-Men movie a few times, but after reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics my latest viewing took on a different angle. Of course, Mageto is presented as being separated from his parents at a concentration camp in Poland as the film opens. A child on trial for his ethno-religious heritage. That, and the fact that he’s a mutant, lends him a perspective on evolution not shared by many. His scheme to transform world leaders into mutants is premised on his understanding of evolution. He tells Senator Kelly, however, that God is too slow. That apparently minor line may bear more weight than it seems at first.

I can’t see the title “X-Men” without thinking of Xmas. Probably the fact that it is now mid-December has something to do with it, along with the bumper crop of Keep Christ in Christmas media this year. Yard signs, church marquees, bumper stickers. People who don’t know the history of their own holiday fear that they’re losing its meaning. Already by the twelfth century the abbreviation Xmas was in use—this is a centuries old tradition that predates American white Christmases by several hundred years. The X is not a substitute, but rather a symbol. A religion that has lost its appreciation of symbols has become just another set of onerous laws.

Maybe we can learn a lesson from our X-Men and their too slow deity. Not having read the X-Men when I was young, and even now noting that there are just as many X-Women as Men, I had to puzzle out the name on my own. Of course, it wasn’t too hard to see the connection of Charles Xavier with his clan of adopted mutants, and therefore the origin of their X. It is a symbol and no one disparages Cyclops his sight or Storm her lightning (miracles all) for having an apocopated title. I think, too, of how the Grinch stole, and returned, Christmas. Dr. Seuss created a tale that captured the essence of Christmas without so much as a religious vocable in the the book. And his eponymous character has come to represent all those who refuse to celebrate when occasion calls for it. So when God is too slow, X-Men, or even a Grinch in a pinch, can keep the X in Xmas.

Mutants, Mystics and Memory

MutantsMysticsParadigms. These patterns of thought are self-reinforcing and very useful. As anyone who’s studied foreign languages knows, paradigms are an effective way to keep all those impossible verb tenses in mind. Until you encounter an irregular verb. Once you discover irregular verbs, you start to find there are more of them than you wish. As with language, so with life. Like most boys, I grew up reading comic books. We didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t as fluent in super-heroese as some kids were, but I felt that irresistible draw to garish colors inking exaggerated muscle-tone under a costume that held a body capable of extraordinary things. Everything seemed possible. Then adult responsibility hit. Who had time for comic books and heroes?

That’s why I was delighted to discover Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. The three sub-topics just about summed up my childhood. But, like Paul declared to Corinthians, the first time around, “when I became a man I put away childish things.” Turns out, maybe my desire to be grown up was premature. I commented on Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible earlier this year. In his work I’d finally discovered that academics can sometimes get away with asking unorthodox questions. Perhaps it was my exposure to biblical studies, a discipline which goes one of two ways—overly facile attempts to maintain a literal reading, or a staid, solid approach tied to serious linguistics and archaeological records—that forced me into a reductionist paradigm. Well, everybody else was doing it! Academic thought had little room for the unusual, the bizarre, the irregular verb. The same applies to our no-nonsense, money driven society. Just shut up and do your job.

Mutants and Mystics, however, shows that our repressed unusual experiences, like a freudian phobia, will find ways into daily reality. It is a mind-stretching book. As for Authors of the Impossible, Kripal is to be congratulated on allowing himself to consider walking down paths that most academics assiduously bypass. Coming to his work as a fellow student of religious studies, I see that he has arrived at similar conclusions to mine, although clearly more advanced. I’d just assumed that since I never had the serious backing of a serious university my way was the low-way. The way of the kid who just couldn’t bring himself to grow up. There is a reason we spent our formative years reading about heroes for whom the impossible was daily reality. Perhaps we were in training after all, and comic books prove the point of old Isaiah that a child may indeed hold knowledge adults often just can’t see.

Kermit’s Secret

When I was a post-graduate student in that Gothic city of Edinburgh, I decided to spend some time reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It was intended as harmless entertainment, but as anyone who has read it knows, the story soon unravels into an unbelievable world of dark religions that haunt a naive protagonist. While I was reading it, a packet, hand-addressed to me, with no return address, came to my student mailbox. The contents consisted of several tracts, in German, warming of the dangers of Satanism. No letter, no explanation. Foucault’ s Pendulum had me paranoid already, and this strange package completely unnerved me. Well, I’m still here to tell the tale. While reading Victoria Nelson’s brilliant The Secret Life of Puppets, I learned that she had a strange episode while reading the same novel. It was an apt synchronicity.

Nelson is a scholar who should be more widely known. I found her because her recent Gothicka was prominently displayed in the Brown University bookstore in May. I saw it after taking a personal walking tour of H. P. Lovecraft sites. Synchronicity. I had read, in a completely unrelated selection just a couple of months ago, Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible. Synchronicity. For many years I have honed my Aristotelean sensibilities, following devotedly in the footsteps of science. Problem is, I have an open mind. It seems to me that to discount that which defies conventional explanation is dirty pool in the lounge of reality seekers. I have always been haunted by reality.

I’m not ready to give up on science. Not by a long shot. Like Nelson, however, I believe that there may be more than material in this vast universe we inhabit. Indeed, if the universe is infinite it is the ultimate unquantifiable. The Secret Life of Puppets is alive with possibility and anyone who has ever wondered how we’ve come to be such monolithic thinkers should indulge a little. For me it was a journey of discovery as aspects of my academic and personal interest, strictly compartmentalized, were brought together by an adept, literary mind. Religion and its development play key roles in the uncanny world of puppets. Those who wish to traverse the realms they inhabit would do well to take along a guide like Nelson who has spent some time getting into the puppets’ heads.

Close Commandments

Okay, so I’ll admit that Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible put me in the mood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this movie always calls for an investment of time and some emotional energy since it does drag a bit and there are some ponderously majestic scenes that simply make me want to scream. As I powered up the old DVD player this weekend, however, I received an epiphany while watching the movie for the first time in years. Early on during Richard Dreyfuss’s breakdown, the kids (incongruously) gather around the television with excitement to watch the Ten Commandments. The reason, clearly, is that they want to stay up late, and even having to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s warhorse is an adequate excuse. I’ll admit that it was one of my motivations for watching the lush, but equally dull, Ten Commandments as a child. Yes, I took it to be a pious attempt to render God’s literally true memoirs into celluloid, but its 4-hour running time did promise to keep me out of bed until after ten.

Young Moses experiences a theophany.

As my wife and I watched Close Encounters over the weekend, I realized for the first time that much of the cinematography is based on the Ten Commandments. Dreyfuss is a visionary, a prophet, if you will. He is drawn to a sacred mountain (Devil’s Tower) where, like Moses, he makes his way up and down, unable to decide whether to enter the divine presence or not. One of the pacing problems in the book of Exodus is the mental image of an 80 year-old Moses laboriously making his way up and down Sinai as God sends him on various errands. I imagine the children of Israel having time to cast a whole herd of golden cattle. As the UFOs make their grand appearance somewhat near the end of Close Encounters Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler climb the mountain, see the theophanic display, and start back down. Only to go up again. On their way to Devil’s Tower they drive by several dead animals, like those struck down in the fifth plague of Exodus. The army forcing the people out of the area is itself an exodus. The return of those kidnapped by the aliens is a kind of letting go of those held captive. Apparently the Egyptians and aliens have a long history anyway.

I have no idea if Steven Spielberg was intentionally modeling Close Encounters on the Ten Commandments, but corollaries are clearly there. 1977 had not yet witnessed the decline of Erich von Däniken’s star, catapulted into orbit by Chariots of the Gods? where once again we find God driving spaceships and giving the Egyptians a hand with those pesky pyramids. Even the surnames of the characters seem to be a play on their biblical roles. Roy Neary, the one who draws near to God, the only one selected to literally ascend to heaven at the end, and Jillian Guiler, whose suspicion keeps her earthbound with her son Barry, who bears an eerie resemblance to the childlike aliens whom he befriends. Berry is the movie’s Joshua, the one who will keep the faith alive for the next generation. The story came to Spielberg, according to the media, when he saw a meteor shower in New Jersey as a youth. I missed last week’s meteor shower in New Jersey, and my baby ark on the Nile never sailed.

Paranormal Activity

Once in a great while books with the potential to shift paradigms come along. These rare books often deal with taboo subjects, those areas of inquiry forbidden even to the most educated sectors of society. One of those books is Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible. I bought this book because of its subtitle: The Paranormal and the Sacred. I have argued before that paranormal subjects are very closely related to religion, but it is so unusual to find another scholar who openly takes on this question that I was shocked at finding Authors of the Impossible. Kripal is an academic who is willing to consider what is, as he admits, impossible. Those who’ve read deeply in the record of human experience, however, know that weirdness has accompanied us from the time we could write it down. It stands to reason that the uncanny stretches back before even that singular hallmark of human development. I have suggested elsewhere that it might even be the origin of religion itself.

Universities are establishment institutions. Free inquiry is not free, as I’m sure advocates of the National Security Act are glad to know. Most university professors who’ve seen a ghost or some unidentified object in the sky or an anomalous creature will never admit it. The easy equation of such things with mental instability keeps establishment people in line. It also cuts off honest inquiry into things people have experienced for centuries. Kripal is unafraid. In this book he considers the works of explorers most academics refuse to take seriously, despite their obvious intellectual ability: Frederic Meyrs, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Méheust. Let’s have a show of hands: who has heard of any of them, except maybe Charles Fort? Each of these explorers was/is very educated. Each takes an aspect of the paranormal seriously. As Kripal points out, we will accept a physicist from CERN telling us that the impossible happens at the quantum level, but if you see a UFO you belong in an asylum. Is it because the paranormal violates not only the laws of physics, but also the laws of religion?

Life is too large to take it all in. We don’t even know what consciousness is. This is a question to which Kripal returns to conclude his book. His suggestion is that the paranormal is a literary hermeneutic—we are written by forces and powers outside our knowledge. Without denying science, indeed, while advocating it, Kripal suggests that it is not the whole picture. We are animals with two brains fused into one, and even scientists and materialists feel the sting and caress of emotion. Kripal is brave enough to assert that the emotive, imaginary side is just as real as the rational, materialist side. Noone can seriously doubt science and step onto a jet, Kripal shows that one need not doubt science to step onto a UFO either. If we are willing to participate in the reality our minds generate, the potential for human evolution really explodes. The only problem with Authors of the Impossible is that it is too short. An extremely deft writer, Kripal makes you laugh and think at the same time. And when you’re done, you’ll realize just how weird the world really is.