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.