[Editor's Note: As part of our Book Club Roundtable on the new book Mutants & Mystics by Jeffrey Kripal, we invited a number of bloggers to read and reflect on the book's themes and insights -- which they did with great enthusiasm. This week, we invited Kripal to respond to his book's bloggers, which he graciously does here...]
I review books and book manuscripts like most professional scholars, so I know well how much work it is to read a book carefully and thoughtfully toward some sort of public response. Hence the first thing I want to do is simply thank you all for taking the time and energy to do this. Thank you for reading me. And thank you for responding to me so humanely and so professionally, even when I am certain you disagreed with things, perhaps many things, that I have written. You were too kind to me and my book. But I am not complaining. Too much kindness beats too much cruelty. So thank you for being too kind.
Vicki Nelson reflected on the metaphor of “laying the mask aside.” I like that. It’s appropriately superheroish. But it is also, I think, correct. I hope we can all lay our professional asks aside for a moment here. In this spirit, I will address each of you by your first name, even though I do not know most of you personally. I feel like I do now, a little.
The discussion thread began with Ryan Parker comparing the book to a low-dose psychedelic drug. That’s funny (I immediately sent Ryan’s post, proudly, to a Buddhist colleague who works in the neurobiology of such substances: “Hey, look at me. I’m a psychedelic drug!”). But it’s also rhetorically insightful, as it immediately raises historical issues (since some of the artists and authors I study did indeed use such substances), epistemological questions (since it is not at all clear how to gauge the metaphysical status of such chemically triggered states), and, of course, moral and social shadows. More on the latter in a moment. For what it’s worth, I’ve never taken such a substance, so all I’ve got is reading and writing.
Many of the respondents honed in on what is probably the book’s main point: the reality and ubiquity of paranormal experiences. A number of readers gently pointed out that this is a difficult thesis. I would go further: I think it is an impossible one, impossible, that is, in our present epistemological and cultural context. So I wrote these last two books to help make such impossible things a little more possible to think and write about. None of this, of course, implies that I really understand what these events are about, what they mean. I do not. The book is more of a series of pleas than a single certain conclusion. Please stop shaming these people. Please stop erasing these modern magical and mystical experiences from our field of study. Please stop assuming that Kant and Foucault were omniscient. Please stop pretending that rationalism and materialism are somehow sufficient to the utter weirdness that is “religion.” Please stop claiming that we know what consciousness is, that is, that we know who we are. Please just stop it. They won’t stop, of course, but I’m calling their bluff. They really don’t know. They’re just pretending to know. They’re over-reaching.
Jonathan Fitzgerald raised a most provocative point: the relationship of the book and its Super-story to Christianity. I thought he nailed this: Christianity understood religiously instead of rationally is “paranormal” in precisely the ways I define the latter: a long series of anomalous events that engage the mental and the material or the spiritual and the physical at the same time. There is an interesting side-story here. I’ve had a great deal of difficulty with my birth religion (Roman Catholicism) over the years. Geez, that’s an understatement. I’ve written too much about my qualms here, mostly around gender and sexual issues, but this is not the place to repeat those. But I can honestly say that these last two books on the paranormal have “brought me back” to Catholicism in some deep, odd way. I think this has something to do with Christology and what I call in the book the Human as Two. Not that I am suddenly an orthodox Catholic again. Not at all. But I definitely came to a renewed interest in and appreciation for Christological issues through these sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book artists and authors. John Morehead mentions “the first century Superhero from Nazareth.” We could also refer to the Christologies of the comics, as long as we do not hold on to any semblance of orthodoxy, as long as we are willing to entertain the most fierce and beautiful Gnosticisms. I am willing to do exactly that.
Craig Detweiler raises two key points: the question of objectivity and the question of gender. He himself addresses the first autobiographically. I would simply add that it’s really a matter of balance. Can an author be both objective and subjective, that is, can one employ the rational tools of the field and still remain a complex person, as opposed to a logical computer? Can he or she lay the mask aside and still say something valuable about the tradition being studied? I think so. I hope so. I suspect that our field’s general distrust of the subjective component here has something to do with its general denial of the reality of consciousness and the psyche, but I cannot really pursue this question here. That’s my gut sense, though. In any case, I laid my mask aside years ago. I decided that I was tired of writing for fifty people in the world, twenty-five of whom hated me. I decided that I wanted to reach more human beings, and that this would require a more personal, a more transparent, even—God forbid—a more popular approach. So that is what I did. I’m still doing it.
In terms of the gender question, there is no historical doubt that these pulp fiction, sci-fi, and comic genres are overwhelmingly male genres, and originally adolescent male genres. I am certain there have been female artists and authors who have written about their own paranormal experiences, but I honestly do not know who they are or where their autobiographical reports are. This may, of course, simply be a function of my own masculinist lens, but I suspect it is more than that. I suspect it says something about the genres and genders themselves. I do address a number of (male) sexual issues in chapter 3 of the book, by the way. No one took up that chapter or those issues.
I really enjoyed all of the blogs and reviews, but Eric Wilson, aka ol’ Meta-man, probably came closest to the spirit of what I was trying to do in the book. Because of the comparative mystical literature that I have been absorbed in for the last three decades, I do in fact suspect that we are all “eddies of a vast ocean” or World Soul, that “we are all infinite, all the time.” This is why I was so delighted by Alvin Schwartz’s metaphysical mediations on Clark Kent as social ego and the “phone booth of consciousness” that can summon the Superman of nonlocal Mind at any point, alas, usually utterly beyond our control. Eric gets me exactly right when he reflects on the empowered religious imagination as “the faculty by which the World Soul expresses itself to the individual souls it animates” and “creates the narratives—scientific, religious, cultural—that we take to be real. It makes the cosmic book in which we are all characters.” (I laughed here, as I read “the comic book in which we are all characters.”) Most of all, Eric gets me right when he comments on how what I am saying is not what Nietzsche was saying, that I do not see all of these spontaneous imaginal constructions, these personal revelations, as simply fantasies, but as “inflections of an ungraspable metaphysical reality.” Yep.
Reviewer Christine Hoff Kraemer also gets the book just right when she writes this: “The Super-Story affirms the reality of the uncanny experiences that we and our loved ones may have, but it also expands our sense of what human beings can become. We are more than physical bodies, and we are more than what Western religion thinks of as ‘spirit’; rather, we are beings that are ‘Two-in-One,’ complex systems in which consciousness forms the body and the body forms consciousness.”
The key here, though, is Eric’s plural: “We’re All Superman.” I do not think I am Superman, or that Eric is, or that anyone else is. Nor do I think individuals create their own realities. It is true that in rare moments an individual might capture a glimpse of his or her role in creating a personal reality—this is what I call Realization, that is, the act of reading the paranormal writing us—but this is hardly an experience of authorship or New Age hubris. Quite the contrary, this is an experience of being written by innumerable social, religious, and cultural scripts. Moreover, even my final model of Authorization retains a clear sense of otherness. I define the experience—really the dream—of Authorization as “writing the paranormal writing us.” There is agency there, but, please note, not complete agency. We are still being written, always. I’ve read too much Freud and Foucault to think otherwise.
This is where I think Christine gets me partly wrong. I understand, and accept, her moral concerns. Basically, she is critical of what she perceives to be an absence of “testing the spirits” or “passing judgment” in the book, particularly with reference to the abduction experiences of Whitley Strieber. But this all assumes that such experiences are chosen. Whitley Strieber did not choose to endure such trauma. It chose to traumatize him. That was his experience. That is what happened. And he has spent the last quarter century struggling with that initial traumatic opening. I do not see it as my job as a historian of religions to judge Whitley. I see it as my job to try to understand and analyze his experiences with the tools of the humanities. I came to conclusions there, particularly with respect to the sexualization and gendering of his abduction experiences vis-à-vis Strieber’s (and my own) Catholicism, that I think are genuinely new and helpful. But again, no one addressed those. In effect, I did test the spirits and, like Whitley, found them wanting.
Part of the problem here is that I approach the human experience of the sacred as something that can be both profoundly positive and profoundly negative, or both at the same time. I do not think, for a moment, that every sacred experience is a positive one. Rudolf Otto was right. I also think the record is clear that people can be transformed, utterly and permanently, by negative experiences as much, or more, as by positive experiences. Suffering can indeed trigger transcendence. Trauma can simply traumatize, but it can also transform. People leave their bodies not so much in moments of piety, health, and wholeness as in car wrecks, cliff falls, and heart surgeries. I am not romanticizing here. I am describing the historical facts as I see them. Ryan, the man who delightfully read me as a psychedelic drug in the beginning, gets me just right here. I do not see the drug use or the head injury or the spiritual terror as the explanation for the mystical experience. I see it as the trigger, as the traumatic event that “cracks open” the human being to something greater and More. That’s the key. That’s the Human as Two. That’s why we’re all Clark Kent and, yep, Superman too.
To read an excerpt from Mutants & Mystics, go to the Patheos Book Club here.