A Fortnightly Review of
Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions
by Jeffrey J. Kripal
By JAMES GALLANT.
JEFFREY KIRPAL HAS devoted a substantial part of his academic career1 to what he sometimes calls, in ironic deference to modern skepticism, “impossible” experiences: clairvoyance, angelic manifestations, prophetic dreaming, out-of-body experiences, synchronicities, UFO-related alien abductions, etc. A professor of religion at Rice University in Texas, Kirpal describes himself as an historian of religions specializing in “extreme religious experiences,” such as those described in his writing across a quarter-century. Selections from that writing have now been gathered in Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions.
The book is, he says, “a kind of reader” providing an overview of his oeuvre’s development. In Secret Body as elsewhere, Kripal is sharply critical of the “single metaphysical commitment” that dominates the study of religion, as well as the humanities generally today: “physicalism.” He writes, “From historical contextualism and constructivism, to Marxist, postcolonial, and feminist criticism,” we are led to believe “nothing about the human being escapes or overflows the socially constructed body-ego and its local language games.” Psychologism complements “physicalism” by representing the spirits and gods of world cultures as the issue of naive epistemology–if not mental disturbance–improbable as that might seem a priori, given the wealth and universality of the phenomena in question.
Carl Jung, in “The Psychological Foundation of Belief in Spirits,” a lecture given before the British Society for Psychical Research in 1919, argued that humanity’s earlier “spirits” and “souls” were “autonomous complexes,” highly charged elements of personality split off from conscious identity that generated visual or auditory phantasms. But a year later, Jung was having second thoughts when the cottage he’d rented outside London proved to be haunted. There, he experienced strange rappings, sounds of dripping water, bad smells, and the horrifying apparition of a woman’s face on the bed pillow next to his. In a footnote to a 1948 republication of his 1919 address,2 he wrote, “To put it bluntly, I doubt whether an exclusively psychological approach can do justice to the phenomena in question.”
Kripal regards experiences like Jung’s in England as having been the sources of the gods and spirits that throng world mythology. Accounts of such experiences abound in Kripal’s books, and he is candid about the significance for his life and scholarship of an uncanny personal experience in his youth. As a student in India, he awoke one morning in Calcutta, where a festival of the goddess Kali was in progress, to an “immensely pleasurable and terrifyingly powerful” personal out-of-body experience.
The current “physicalist” orthodoxy notwithstanding, “other dimensions” prove irrepressible, and crop out in “visions, zappings, and apparent entities [phantasms], no matter how baroque or zany they appear to our rational egos and conventional materialisms,” Kripal writes. “Indeed, in a sense, the more bizarre the better. That’s their point.” I.e., the zanier they are, the more likely they are to arouse suspicion about the limits of our usual explanatory procedures–expressions of an ideology that needs to be “historicized, questioned, and deconstructed like any other ideology.”
Kripal proposes in Secret Body a revolutionary historiography of religion, “the future of the past,” in which arcane experiences today suggesting the intersection of “other dimensions” with our common world would have hermeneutic value in studying religious experience of the past. As a contribution to this new historiography, he proposes at the end of Secret Body a study of paranormal experiences in North America over the past two centuries, “a three-volume work of historical scholarship that would read like an immense science fiction novel.” He is presently at work on this project.
KRIPAL, IN HIS fifties, expresses enduring affection for the Roman Catholic influences of his small-town Nebraska boyhood. He studied with Benedictine monks for a time as a young man, and entertained the possibility of joining their ranks. However, Freudian psychoanalysis, Hindu Tantra, studies of spontaneous paranormal manifestations, the Esalen “religion of no religion” movement, and American “metaphysical” religion (Emerson and the Transcendentalists) were among the influences that led him in other directions, and his disaffiliation from faith-based institutional religion and the frozen poetry of theological doctrine, is clear enough in Secret Body.
Traditional understandings of religion often focus on events, figures, and ideas that are more or less amenable to orthodox framings of what constitutes religious truth and practice, but what if we…look also at those heterodox or esoteric currents of the history of religions that have been actively repressed, censored, or simply forgotten by their respective cultures? What if, moreover, we privilege the psychology and phenomenology of religious experience over the…framing of these events by the faith traditions….?”
“I have become increasingly aware,” Kripal writes at his website, “of how deeply my thought is indebted to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s two erotic dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus….”— representing sexual energies, refined and sublimated — “as the sources of ‘mystical knowledge.'” The relation between eros and the spirit, variously filtered East and West, has been a subject of abiding interest for him. In his early Kali’s Child, Kripal noted the agreement of Freud and Tantra on the central significance of sexuality in the psychic life, with the difference that, where Freud was preoccupied with psychopathology’s origins in repressed sexuality, Tantra focused on techniques for arousing and sublimating sexuality as a way of generating shakti, “real superconscious energy.”
An intriguing idea of Kripal’s, which reflects his own experience, and, he thinks, that of other historians of religion, is that their studies are often a means of formulating and sustaining magically their own deep intuitions. The historian of religions Mircea Eliade, whose home base was the University of Chicago, had retired before Kripal arrived there for graduate study. However, the Romanian’s studies of hierophanies and kratophanies (revelations of the sacred, and of divine power) in world religions, coupled with what former colleagues said of him, have led Kripal to regard him as an exemplary scholar-gnostic. Eliade had written on Tantric mysticism, and his interest in the relationship between eros and spirtuality dovetailed with Kripal’s. (Eliade as a young man was known to have engaged in Tantric experimentation with a women in India.)
THE TEMPTATION NEVER to fail mentioning all that one has learned is a hazard of scholarly writing unlikely to benefit one’s prose. Esoterica of various description, past and present, pile atop another in Kripal’s prose that is at times overburdened with learned allusions and comparisons that interrupt the flow of the writing and there is some awkwardness in his prose that patient revision or the attention of a careful editor would have eliminated.
That said, it is hard to imagine Kripal finding time to fuss much with his prose style, given all that engages his apparently boundless energies. In addition to teaching in the graduate school at Rice, where he was once a department chairman, he has traveled widely and lectured throughout the world. He is a co-director of the California-based Esalen Center for Theory and Research with its “human potential movement” and its “religion of no religion.” He serves as an advisor to film-makers with projects akin to his interests. Films seem to him “an especially appropriate and effective medium for communicating gnostic themes, paranormal events, and magical or ‘super’ powers so evident in the history of religions.”
What I think rescues Kripal’s books from their literary infelicities is that his personal voice and commitments are so steadily audible in the background of his vatic scholarship. The books carry one along in a manner that calls to mind the motto of the University of Alabama’s unstoppable football team, “Roll Tide!”—at least up to the point at which one begins to experience a feeling akin to having eaten too many sweets. Kripal has heard reports of people experiencing “invisible presences, erotic encounters with a disincarnate saint, profound moments of sexual-spiritual healing, poltergeist activity, synchronicities around UFO phenomena, and states of hyper-awareness….” while reading his books; and what he has to say has seemed especially appealing to “individuals of various ethnicities, sexualities, and religious backgrounds traumatically transformed by some life event or genetic differences, and rejected or persecuted by their families and cultures.”
However, there have also been readers of Kripal’s books, and people at his lectures, who have asked what exactly is to be done with his evocations of the “impossible.” Toward the end of Secret Body, Kripal confesses he is not sure what he is doing, or what might be done with what he has been “suffering, intuiting, and imagining my way into.” He is aware that his approach troubles people affiliated with religious institutions, and he confesses apprehensions about conceivably malign “social consequences of what this Stranger in me is saying and thinking, out loud no less.”
“It is as if someone in me is inhabiting a mind in space that understands these things and considers them both natural and normal.” Crazy people say things like that, of course. Kripal is not crazy, and what the “someone” is saying seems to him preferable to the gloom and doom that pervade the humanities these days, and threaten, he thinks, their very existence.
There is, though, something a bit disingenuous perhaps about his pooh-poohing the “physicalist” metaphysic and methodologies of the modern secular university, and embracing (or being embraced by) a gnosis with potentially dangerous social implications—while being in possession, meanwhile, of the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice, and presumably a comfortable income with “benefits.”
The lives of gnostics, ancient and modern, are no doubt various, but Kripal’s situation is not something an ancient gnostic could have imagined for herself! (Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion catalogues imageries and themes common in ancient gnostic texts: the alien, the stranger, the wanderer, dread, homesickness, etc.) Then again, the old gnostics were commonly amoralists of one stripe or another who, had a career like Kripal’s been in the offing, might have pounced on it.
Along with work on his three-volume study of North American esoterica, Kripal is currently involved with the new “GEM” program of studies (gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism) offered graduate students by Rice University’s Department of Religious Studies. Although studies in the humanities have never had any very definite connection with making a living, there was a time when they did not seem likely to preclude the possibility of making one. One can only wonder how a student who has grooved on GEM studies might fare beyond academy–or within it, for that matter, in an era of dwindling opportunities. (It was discovered a while back that part-time adjunct faculty doing most undergraduate teaching at a major university in California were living in homeless shelters.) There have been times and places in which householders understood that the dusty, disheveled figure with the empty bowl in hand who knocked at their doors might be something other than a mental case—but those were the good old days.
KRIPAL’S EROS-BASED gnosticism exemplifies the type of spirituality decried in Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (1930-1936).
Nygren was a Lutheran theologian at the University of Lund in Sweden who distinguished between forms of spirituality he regarded as absolutely distinct: Agape (Christian love) is fellowship with God and man in ordinary life. Communal in orientation, it is self-sacrificing, humble, and generous toward both friends and enemies. Eros spirituality, on the other hand, is individualistic and questing, often impatient of the common life, learned and esoteric in tendency. Eros, in its refined expressions (e.g. belle-lettres, philosophy, art, music, magical practices), is pleasure-seeking (“eudaemonic”) as in its rudimentary form, sexuality, and is fundamentally, if sublimely, self-centered.
For Nygren, agape and eros were alternative spiritualities that should not be conflated, although (as his elaborate survey of the history of ideas revealed, they had been often enough). His sharp dichotomy of the two was a response to a situation in Swedish Lutheran theology in the early twentieth century when liberal theologians in Sweden wanted to blend insights from modern anthropology, psychology, and philosophy with theology. That would have meant conflating reason and eros with faith and agape. Nygren and Gustav Aulen, his colleague at the University of Lund, believed this could only induce confusion in the faithful. Hence their insistence on sharp distinction between the two forms of spirituality.
Nothing in Agape and Eros suggests cultural circumstances might strongly influence the choice of one form of spirituality rather than the other. But famously, or infamously, the spirit blows where it lists, and a choice between the one form of religious expression and the other may not be entirely free. Eliade in his studies of the history of religions always insisted hierophanies and kratophanies were situational—“filtered” by local conditions of life and mentality, as Kripal has it. A primitive Christian enclave in the Roman empire, a close-knit rural village in Sweden or Norway, a convent or monastery, or an American Shaker or Amish community, would be inherently a more congenial setting for agape spirituality than a fragmented, open modern society, like ours, which tends to leave people both practically and spiritually to their own devices, sink or swim. Apropos, George P. Hansen’s voluminous The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001) argues that paranormal influences of the kind Kripal describes as “impossible” are most likely to surface in social circumstances like ours characterized by “destructuring, change, transition, disorder, marginality, the ephemeral, fluidity, ambiguity, and blurring of boundaries”–circumstances “more fluid than rigid, more fluctuating than steady, more random than ordered.”
AMERICAN POET AND CRITIC Kenneth Rexroth, in a mid-twentieth century essay, “The Hasidism of Martin Buber” (1958), criticized what he called “Romantic Traditionalism,” a type of religiosity bearing a certain resemblance to what Kripal espouses. Commonly associated with the psychology of Jung at the time Rexroth wrote, Romantic Traditionalism urged the contemplation of archaic religious symbols and myths as a source of “greater spiritual insight into reality, better interpersonal relations, and…true realization of the self.” As far as Rexroth could see there was no evidence that Romantic Traditionalism actually achieved such effects. It seemed to be simply “compulsive poetry” born of “desperation in a time of human self-alienation and social disintegration” (One thinks of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s remark that “we [today] live with images as much as facts, and the images seem to impart more life than facts precisely because they are so capable of…transcendence.”)
Rexroth assumed, though, that Romantic Transcendentalism was just a manipulation of mood-generating imageries unrelated to objective extra-psychological realities, and that is precisely what Kripal is denying as a result not only of his own experiences, but his reading of the historical record.
James Gallant is an independent scholar, the Fortnightly’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and the author of two recently published books: Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations (in our Odd Volumes series), and the e-novel Whatever Happened to Ohio? published by Vagabondage. Verisimilitudes comprises speculative and literary essays, and several short stories, many involving paranormal phenomena. He is author, also, of an unpublished short story collection, Guitarists; Verisimilitudes includes two stories from that collection: “From the Diaries of Francesco Roberto” and “New Light on the Ball in Brussels.” An earlier novel, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: a Novel of Atlanta, was published by Glad Day Books.
- Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010) studies the works of Frederic Myers, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Meheust. He is the also author of The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real (Chicago, 2017); Comparing Religions (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014); Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011); Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago, 2007); The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2007); Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001); and Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995).
- In: Jung, C., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 8. 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, 1972. 588 p. (p. 301-318).