Monday, February 21, 2011

Sermon: "Energy is Eternal Delight" (Delivered 2-13-11)

It is something that happens to every minister, I think. Until yesterday it had never happened to me. Yesterday I was flying home from the West Coast. I had spent the week on the Monterey Peninsula attending the first ever Unitarian Universalist Institute for Excellence in Ministry. It had been a powerful, fascinating, educational week. My thoughts were racing. The sermon was well underway on the airplane back. In fact, it was just about finished. Then, all of sudden, 35,000 feet above sea level, somewhere above South Dakota, my computer completely crashed. It won't reboot. It is in the shop. I tried my best to put a positive spin on this. I tried to see this turn of events as liberating, instead of aggravating.

What I’m saying is that this sermon is fresh. Out in Monterey we got to dine on fresh fish and fresh produce. Along highway 101 in California there are these expansive artichoke fields and you can stop right there and they'll serve you fried artichoke, a local delicacy. So, our dinners came right out of the sea and right out of the fields and right onto our plates. And, what I am trying to explain is that the sermon this morning has not been flown in from the Pacific Ocean or the Salinas produce fields. This sermon is local, organic. It has not traveled, or aged, or matured. It is, if you’ll allow me to mix culinary metaphors, a steak so rare that it is liable to moo.

So, what I am going to do here is scrap the first draft, scrap what I had planned to write about, and take things in a bit of a different direction. The preacher at our opening worship at the Institute for Excellence in Ministry was Jane Rzepka, one of the most widely respected and celebrated ministers in our movement. She noted that the promotional materials for the Institute contained some rather lofty promises. "Be changed" was a catchphrase that was repeated over and over again. In fact, the promotional materials went beyond promising change. They promised "transformation." And Jane, in her delightfully excellent preaching style, admitted that these kinds of promises made her nervous. Speaking to some four hundred of her colleagues she laid it all out. “Looking out at all of you here in this room, I like you,” she said. “And, if by the end of the week you have all transformed into something different than you are, I am going to be left feeling pretty unbalanced.”

Rev. Rzepka went on to identify what she referred to as transformations with a small "t." These are not about becoming a brand new person, an entirely changed being. Small "t" transformations are about maybe learning to become a little more forgiving or a little more courageous, a little more committed or a little more at peace. And, she connected the goal of these small "t" transformations with one of our core principles, that our church communities are places of radical acceptance and radical welcome to all who would come in. We have found a way to be together. We believe that sharing is an answer. Ours, ours, is a community that accepts and values and treasures our theological diversity, our diversity in gender and sexual orientation, and our multigenerational make up. And, the preacher went so far as to argue that we can't have it both ways. We can't be both about the notion that we are places where you are accepted for who you are and places that tell you that you are in need of transformation.

And, then what happened over the rest of the week was that other presenters and preachers began to answer. They went back to their sermons and speeches and lectures and revised and rewrote. If they were planning to speak about transformation or change, they felt the need to clarify whether they were talking about those words in their capitalized forms or not. Some preachers and presenters stated their disagreement clearly, "No. I am a big-T Transformation person. It is the job of our churches to transform both our members and our world in great big, substantial and significant ways. What about those we look to as heroes? What about Martin Luther King and Gandhi? What about all those who give selflessly and generously and sacrificially to the cause of greater human liberation?"

The supporters of big-T transformation began to talk more energetically and more urgently about places in our world where justice has for too long been denied. And, they began to talk about people in our congregations and people coming into our congregations who feel broken and burdened. If we were the spiritual equivalent of an auto-mechanic, would we specialize in tire rotations and alignments (because we all do hit a couple of potholes over the course of our lives?) Or, do we do what a member of this congregation did to both his vehicles, transforming one from gasoline to diesel and the other from gasoline to battery-powered?

The participating ministers at the Institute began to debate and divide. Were you a person who favors the big-T Transformation or the small-t transformation? Which are you? It was a question that echoed around Monterey all last week and now it is a question that I turn to you. Are you a big-T or are you a small-t person?

And, what about our tradition? I like to look for evidence for these two strands of thought in the documents and texts that tell us what it means to be distinctly UU. The question has everything to do with our third Unitarian Universalist principle which states that we affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.

In our hymnal, we find acceptance, and the small-t transformation in hymns like "Come, Come Whoever You Are" and "How Could Anyone (ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful?)" But, we also find calls for big-T transformation as well. Our hymnal contains a poem by Stephen Spender that begins, "I think continually of those who were truly great." The poem continues, "[I think continually of] the names of those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire's center. Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun and left the vivid air signed with their honor."

And, of course, I suspect that some of you are sitting there rejecting the choices I've laid out. You're saying that it isn't necessarily an either-or proposition. Maybe there is a happy medium. Maybe the text that resonates is the first hymn we sang this morning, "Love will guide us." You don't have to sing like the angels or speak before thousands to change the world with your love.

So, which are you? Are you a "Come as you are," small-t transformation person? Are you a "change the world" big-T transformation person? Judging from the 400 or so ministers who gathered last week in Monterey, or at least judging from the engaged conversations during mealtime and the sense in the room of who was grooving on what the respective presenters were saying, I would say that it was a pretty split group.

And, the more I hash over this question, the more I come to see that it is an absolutely essential one for us to understand. Not to resolve, necessarily, but to understand. Understanding is not about keeping the peace. It isn’t about agreeing to disagree. It is about understanding what others need in a church.

It wasn't here the first time it happened. I was in the congregation where I performed my Internship. That was the first time a person came up to me and told me they had quit their job to pursue their calling in a field that spoke to their hearts and credited this decision to what I had said in my sermon the previous week. They told me, "Thom, that sermon you preached last week spoke to me. It moved me. I knew right then that I had to go in on Monday morning and quit my job in order to follow a calling to make a difference in the world." Big-T transformation, right?

And, I have to admit this made me a little bit uncomfortable. I was 24. I wasn't even a minister yet, really. What was I supposed to say? You mean you actually listened to me? Oh, I didn't actually mean what I said? It happened at my internship church in suburban Dallas, Texas and it has happened here at Shawnee Mission several times. It hasn’t always been because of what I said in a sermon. Maybe it was an adult religious education class or a Covenant group, or maybe it was a sense of inspiration that came out of simply being around each other here, but I can name several times in which a person has credited, even partially credited, the experience of this church community with giving them the support and encouragement to leave a relatively safe and lucrative corporate job to pursue a much more risky venture that they feel will change the world.

Ironically, the message that you are welcome here and that we will not try to change you is profoundly unwelcoming to those who feel that they are in need of significant life changes. The message that says, "This is an accepting place where you'll be accepted as you are," is actually dis-inviting to those who feel they need to make a significant life change. Perhaps the person is struggling with an addiction they hope to break. Perhaps the person has come to feel moved by and inspired by an issue of justice that pulls powerfully at their heart strings. Don’t people come through our doors looking to make significant changes in the course of their lives?


The original title for this sermon was "Energy is Eternal Delight." The phrase comes from a wild, satirical, and challenging piece called the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by the Romantic poet William Blake. In this piece, Blake takes a not very well-disguised swipe at the dualism of Western religious thought and traditions. Blake writes:
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
So, what exactly is going on here? Body and soul, reason and energies. What does this have to with anything? I think a true story best illustrates what William Blake is saying, and what I am trying to say.

I once went to a Unitarian Universalist church where the sermon was titled, "Does Your Dog Love You?" The sermon began with the minister presenting a review of some of what biologists have learned about the physiology and neurochemistry of love. Fortunately, the sermon went beyond this, but in the beginning of the sermon the minister talked about how testosterone and estrogen activate centers in our brain that produce a rush of norepinephrine causing the ventral tegmental cluster in our brain to produce dopamine. The epinephrine causes us to feel excitement and the dopamine causes us to experience pleasure. At the same time our body produces less serotonin and blocks the neural circuits that impact critical assessment. Let me say that again: the experience of love involves our brain deactivating structures that produce critical assessment. And, over time, later, there is also a chemistry of attachment in which oxytocin and vasopressin produce a physiological response that leads us to want to cuddle and bond.

Happy Valentine's Day! Is that what love is? Yes and no, right? And, I suppose, if your dog has analogous brain chemistry patterns, then your dog really loves you. Just a note of disclaimer: As I remember that sermon from so many years ago, I do believe the preacher commented that there was an understanding of love that was missing from looking simply at the neurological and neurochemical biology of love.

But, I’ve shared this story about this sermon as an analogy to help us to better understand the kind of thinking that Blake was rejecting and to imply what is missing in the discussion of small-t transformations.

If you come into church feeling confident and comfortable and assured. If you come in feeling that you’ve got your life pretty much under control, talking about love in this way may seem interesting. You can receive it as a little divertissement. However, if you enter the church with a broken heart and a troubled spirit, these words may come across as deeply distressing. Suppose you’ve just left a difficult relationship to move to a brand new city with only your dog to keep you company as you try to make your way in a place you are all alone. And then the message at church suggests that your dog might not actually love you!

Similarly, we delude ourselves when we don’t think that there are people in our congregation who are seeking capital-T transformation. The addict seeking recovery. The person searching for a new calling and a new direction. The victim of oppression who feels a sense of urgency about building a fairer and freer world.

The believers in small-t transformations must recognize and respect those who are searching for big-T transformations. The searchers for bit-T transformations must tolerate the small-t types.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Sermon: "Self-Reliance Revisited" (Delivered 2-6-11)

Before I tell you what I think I know about self-reliance, I want to know what you think you know. So, let’s start with a game. I want you to visualize a person or a type of person you would consider to be the epitome, the model of self-reliance. Tell me about that person you are visualizing.

[Those in the congregation called out answers. One person remembered her grandmother, a woman who canned vegetables and made jam from scratch. Another person thought of local farmers in the heartland. One person suggested Barack Obama. I presume this person was referring to Obama’s unlikely rise from modest origins to a position of tremendous prominence. Another person suggested that self-reliance meant being able to stick with and not waver from your values. Yet another person suggested that self-reliance was connected with breaking from social conventions and proposed the late comedian George Carlin as an example. Someone else suggested Kurt Vonnegut.]

Allow me to share one of the examples that Emerson gives of self-reliance. It is a surprising image. Emerson writes, “Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.” [Emphasis mine] This is a great image, isn’t it? I mean, you put a baby around a group of adults and the adults are the ones cooing and goo-gooing. Influence goes one way and not the other. You put a baby in the worship service and no matter how erudite and magnificent and moving the sermon is, a baby is going to make up its own mind when it wants to cry. It is a different image of self-reliance than the ones we thought brainstormed.

The sermon this morning is the first in a two part series of the subject of self-reliance. It is a subject about which I feel there is a considerable amount to say. Two weeks from now I will be preaching part two, a sermon about how understandings of self-reliance have been distorted and perverted in both our larger contemporary culture and, actually, in the very manifestation of our core sense of what it means to live as Unitarian Universalists. Self-reliance can become a dangerous idolatry and it can be practiced in ways that are grotesque. More on that in two weeks.

These days, the term “self-reliance” is often used in unsavory ways. Self-reliance is a principle that is invoked to argue matters of public policy. You may hear a person argue that government assistance programs create dependency and that we need to get rid of those programs so that people learn to become self-sufficient. You hear the argument that it is wrong for health care to be mandatory because people have a right to be self-determining. Big government is criticized because it interferes with local control and personal liberty. All of these arguments boil down to some notion and definition of self-reliance, some notion of rugged individualism.

I am left having to reconcile my public policy convictions, that are diametrically opposite from those I just mentioned, with the fact that at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist tradition lies one of our most important texts, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.

It seems to me that if Thomas Paine can be co-opted, that if the architects of the Constitution can be taken hostage, that if history can be rewritten at every turn, then it certainly does seem to me as if an essay called, of all things, “Self-Reliance” is ripe for misinterpretation and misuse.

What I want to do this morning mostly is to go back and revisit that essay and talk about what it actually is about. Emerson is our ancestor and we are heirs of many strains of thought, including Emerson’s, and a lot of us haven’t read any of Emerson’s essays since high school. So, let’s revisit this most famous of Emerson’s essays.

Here is some historical background: As Ralph Waldo Emerson approached his thirtieth birthday, his life was in crisis. He had married his young wife, Ellen, with whom he was completely infatuated, while she was already showing symptoms of the tuberculosis that would take her life not that long after they were wed. And, related to the tragedy in his personal life, he was feeling restless in the Unitarian ministry. He tried to provoke theological arguments with his parishioners in Boston over the meaning of communion and prayer, but his congregants didn’t take the bait. He discussed resigning from the ministry; his congregation told him to go to Europe for a year, clear his head, and think things over. The trip confirmed his decision to leave the ministry. On the boat back from Europe, Emerson penned the essay “Nature” and began to sketch out some of the essays, including “Self-Reliance,” that he would publish as a follow up to “Nature” in 1841. Upon returning to America he launched a career as a lecturer and essayist.

The obvious question is this: If Emerson was saying we need to be reliant on ourselves, what are the things he was worried about us being too reliant on? In other words, his writings reflect particular historical circumstances. What circumstances are reflected in his writings?

The answer to this question begins on that boat back from Europe. Emerson is writing literally and metaphorically facing towards the new West and with his back to Europe.

Creating an America that is differentiated from Europe is a subject that comes up over and over in Emerson’s early essays, as well as in the poetry of Whitman, the psychology of William James, and the nature writing of John Muir. The United States had somewhat of an inferiority complex. It was still figuring out how to utilize its wealth, and many felt America was deficient culture, history, and intellect in comparison to Europe. The idea that the United States could have an inferiority complex and could suffer from low self-esteem sounds very foreign to us today, but it is an important thing to realize in order to understand Emerson.

It seems to me that it is one thing to urge confidence and self-esteem, to give a motivational message to someone who feels disempowered and unsure. It is another thing to claim self-reliance at the moment of victory. I view Emerson much more in the mode of self-esteem builder than arrogant champion. Here he is writing about breaking away from European culture. This is not subtle. He writes, “Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and Distant… Why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?”

Our hymnal contains a paragraph from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” It is number 556 in the hymnal. It begins, “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” Such a remark seems unusual, but not if we know that Emerson is telling a young nation that everything they need is right around them, even under their windows.

So, if we want to be very precise about what if means to Emerson to practice self-reliance, all we need to do is turn to the end of the essay where Emerson enumerates the areas in which he is urging the cultivation of self-reliance.

Emerson is extremely clear that self-reliance does not have to do with wealth or with economic success. Self-reliance, for Emerson, is not an economic principle; it is not the same thing as economic self-sufficiency. He states this clearly and powerfully:
And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance… They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has, if he see that it is accidental, — came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there, because no revolution or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” Our dependence on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers.

So, while Emerson is not writing about economic self-sufficiency, he is writing about cultural and religious self-reliance. His statements about cultural self-reliance are some of his most quoted, and most famous, which is saying something because Emerson is nothing if not quotable. This essay, perhaps more than any other, is replete with many of his most recognizable quotations: “To be great is to be misunderstood.” “Whoso would be a man, must be a noncomformist.” “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And, my favorite, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Let me just say one more word about this essay of Emerson’s before I expand the scope of my comments. Towards the end of the essay, Emerson has this beautiful commentary on prayer, on what prayer might mean to a self-reliant person. He writes, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul… But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.”

Let’s summarize what the text says. For Emerson, the concept of self-reliance, though it is presented in lofty and dramatic prose, means several certain and precise things. He is writing very conscious of living in a young nation whose independence was not too distant of a memory. (The use of the image of the infant is not accidental.) Self-reliance had to do with Emerson’s vision of what the American character would be like. There had been a declaration of political independence. Now there had to be a declaration of cultural independence and intellectual independence. And religious independence too. We are not going to look to Rome or to the Archbishop of Canterbury or to Luther or to Calvin or to the great theological academies of Germany for religion. Religion is immediately available to us through nature. It is there just like the roses under the window.

But here we are, 170 years after Emerson’s essay was published, and we have to figure out what self-reliance means for us today, and what it doesn’t mean. What practices of self-reliance will lead us towards health and to the fullest exercise of our being? What practices of self-reliance will lead us to misery and harm? How do we tell the difference between being ourselves in our fullest and being stubborn and prideful and sabotaging life’s fullness? I will be saying more on this in two weeks.

As we come to a close, I want to tell a more contemporary story. It is a joke that was told by David Foster Wallace in his famous commencement address to Kenyon College. [I believe I recently heard the story repeated in a movie or on television, but I can’t seem to recall where I heard it.]
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
This particular story can be interpreted several ways, but I like to think that it says something about self-reliance. To the devout Christian in the story, the man’s experience is evidence of our utter dependence on the salvation of God. To the skeptical atheist, the story confirms his disbelief. We are reliant on luck and depend on each other. The story raises some suggestions about the nature of our reliance. In some way, each of the two men swapping stories at the saloon can be thought of as partially reliant and partially self-reliant. And, in two weeks, we come back to consider how we navigate our living as a mixture of dependence, independence, and interdependence.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Emerson and the Occult: An Essay inspired by Jeffrey Kripal's "Authors of the Impossible"

Whenever I have had the opportunity to lecture on the Transcendentalists, which isn’t that often, I’ve always made it a point to mention how the Transcendentalists dabbled in the paranormal and occult practices that were in fashion in their day. I just didn’t know why I made mention of this fact. I thought that I brought these matters up in order to challenge any uncritical, swooning admiration that those in my audience might have for the Transcendentalists. Now, I’m questioning those reasons.

As a Unitarian Universalist, the Transcendentalists are my ancestors, but what exactly we’ve inherited is a bit hard to pin down. We are certainly not the institutional offspring of Emerson and Alcott. Intellectually, we’re indebted to pragmatism, skepticism, and scientific rationalism more than to the thought patterns of Thoreau and Fuller. If anything, the Transcendentalists are like our venerated saints. Being the spiritual descendant of Thoreau is much cooler than being the descendant of John Adams. Barry Andrews wrote Emerson as Spiritual Guide, not Joseph Priestley as Spiritual Guide. We make pilgrimages to Walden Pond, not… you get the picture.

When I lecture on the Transcendentalists, there is no shortage of things to mention. To name just a few: their critique of the Unitarianism they inherited; their spiritual openness that allowed them to see nature as a deep reservoir of spiritual energy; their commitment to progressive social causes, especially women’s equality; and, their pioneering work in introducing Eastern religious thought to the West.

But, for some reason I always bring up the Transcendentalists’ participation in paranormal pursuits. For example, consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, a novel spoofing the Transcendentalist utopian experiment at Brook Farm. The novel opens with a visit from a mesmerist who appears with a medium known as the Veiled Lady. Subsequent visits from this pair serve to advance the plot. Emerson openly embraced animal magnetism and praised the originality of Emanuel Swedenborg, a theologian open about his psychical and mystical experiences.

If I had been asked to account for why I’ve always made it a point to mention such dabbling, I suppose I would have mentioned a desire to scandalize uncritical devotees of Transcendentalism. However, after reading the latest book by Jeffrey Kripal, I’m not so sure:


Jeffrey Kripal is a scholar of religion and is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. Kripal burst onto the scene with his 1995 book Kali’s Child, an analysis of the repressed erotic energy in the mysticism of the great Hindu teacher Ramakrishna.

I was a student of Kripal during a year he spent as a Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School. I took a course he offered that explored comparative mysticism through the lens of feminist, queer, and neo-Freudian theory. I count taking this class among my most inspiring experiences in academia. This is no small compliment. It was during this year at HDS that Kripal finished his second book, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, an examination of several scholars of mysticism and the way their own scholarship was itself a kind of mysticism. A third book, The Serpent’s Gift, also containing “reflexive” observations about religious scholarship was followed by a fourth book, a history of California’s Esalen Institute.

Back in December I read Jeffrey Kripal’s fifth book, Authors of the Impossible: The Sacred and the Paranormal.


To say what Authors of the Impossible is about one almost has to first say what it is not about. It is about (it isn’t about) why the academic discipline of the study of religion privileges some categories (the sacred, the supernatural) and discounts other categories (the occult, the paranormal.) As Kripal writes in his introduction,
What also surprised me was the fact that I had never heard of these authors [of the impossible], that after over twenty-five years of studying comparative mystical literature professionally, I had never once encountered another scholar mentioning, much less engaging, three of the four writers whom I came to admire so.... My conclusion was a simple one: Myers, Fort, Vallee, and Meheust are not part of the scholarly canon that has come to define what is possible to be reasonably thought and comparatively imagined in the professional study of religion.

This latter realization both fascinated and upset me. It was as if my profession had somehow intentionally steered me away from such writers and thoughts.... I do now suspect, however, that the study of religion as a discipline, as a structure of thought, as a field of possibility, has severely limited itself precisely to the extent that it has followed Western culture on this particular point, that is, to the extent that the discipline constantly encounters robust paranormal phenomena in it its data—the stuff is everywhere—and then refuses to talk about such things in any truly serious and sustained way. The paranormal is our secret in plain sight too. Weird.
The bulk of the book concerns itself with a close examination of the thought of these four authors of the impossible. They are: Frederic Myers, a British contemporary of William James who was concerned with psychical phenomena; Charles Fort, who collected documentation in newspapers and journals of occult occurrences; Jacques Vallee, a devoted ufologist; and Bertrand Meheust, a philosopher and sociologist concerned with bringing the humanities into dialogue with the paranormal.

What all four of these thinkers manage to do, according to Kripal, is to allow us to expand our understanding of what is possible. “I am defining the paranormal as the sacred in transit from the religious and scientific registers into a parascientific or “science mysticism” register. Basically, in the paranormal, both the faith of religion and the reason of science drop away, and a kind of super-imagination appears on the horizon of thought. As a consequence, the paranormal becomes a living story or, better, a mythology. Things also get wilder. Way wilder.”


So, you’ve got these four fringe thinkers. So what? On a sheer humanistic level, it is fascinating to observe how, by thinking, writing, and experiencing the paranormal, these authors find an outlet for repressed urges, erotic energy, and the pressures of seemingly irreconcilable complexities they face in their lives. Just like in mysticism. But, more than an outlet: an avenue for creativity and even for genius.

Kripal’s introduction contains a “who’s who” of thinkers from the past two hundred years who embraced the paranormal to some degree. His list begins with Kant and Hegel and continues with philosophers like Schopenhauer and Stephen Braude, anthropologist Margaret Mead, psychologists William James, C. G. Jung, and Carol Gilligan, artists Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, and an astonishing list of authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip Dick, and Michael Crichton. (As a college student I read Crichton’s Travels. Some other time I will tell you a story about my fascination with his essay on psychic spoon-bending.)

Allow me this brief digression to explain what I mean when I talk about the paranormal as an outlet and an avenue. Kripal ends his discussion of Frederic Myers with a discussion of the erotic energy underlying his psychical research.
It is the biographical facts that in the summer of 1873 Myers fell madly in love with his cousin’s wife, Annie Hill Marshall, and—more importantly still—that it was her tragic death, on September 1, 1876, that helped catalyze and drive his own anxious questions about the postmortem survival of the human personality.... But he never really let Annie go... Myers would love this ghost for the rest of his life. There were early alleged signals from Annie in Myers’s extensive sittings with mediums, but it was not until 1899 that Myers received his first clear communication from his beloved, this time through a medium named Rosina Thompson.... It is worth pointing out that he sat with Mrs. Thompson 150 times between September of 1898 and December of 1900. And this, of course, was at the very same time he was completing Human Personality [his most important work].
But here is the funny thing. Last December I read Authors of the Impossible in parallel with Maps and Legends, a collection of literary essays by novelist Michael Chabon. One essay was entitled “The Other James” and was about a contemporary of Myers named Montague Rhodes James, an average Bible scholar, university administrator, life-long bachelor, and author of delightful ghost stories. I’d normally not pay much interest to an essay like this, but this particular paragraph jumped out at me.
For the story is also prototypical James in that when at last we encounter the Horror, there is something about its manifestation, its physical attributes, its habits, that puts the reader in mind, however reluctantly, of sex.... [T]he fact remains that [this] is a story about a man pursued into the darkness of a strange bedroom, and all of the terror is ultimately generated by a vision of a horribly disordered bed.... Sex was undoubtedly the last thing on the mind of M. R. James as he sat down to compose his Christmas creepers, but it is often the first thing to emerge when the stays of reality are loosened.
This is precisely what Kripal observes in the mystical visions and paranormal experiences he studies. Chabon states it straightforwardly when he writes, “A great ghost story is all psychology: in careful and accurate detail it presents 1) a state of perception, by no means rare in human experience, in which the impossible vies with the undeniable evidence of the senses; and 2) the range of emotions brought on by that perception.”

Another uncanny coincidence: Chabon returns again and again in his writing to comics and superheroes, a topic on which Kripal is basing his next book.


Another thing I should point out about Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible is that for all its academic rigor and blow-your-mind theorizing, it is also a heck of a lot of fun to read. Nowhere in the book is this better captured than in Kripal’s introduction of the influential religious scholar Rudolf Otto.
By the sacred, I mean what German theologian and historian of religions Rudolf Otto meant, that is, a particular structure of human consciousness that corresponds to a palpable presence, energy, or power encountered in the environment. Otto captured this sacred sixth sense, at once subject and object, in a famous Latin sound bite: the sacred is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, the mystical (mysterium) as both fucking scary (tremendum) and utterly fascinating (fascinans). The sacred (minus the fucking part) was a key concept in both the German and French streams of critical theory...
When I was slogging through Otto in my religious theory class as a sophomore in college, it would have been fun to have had just one paragraph like this one.


I began this meandering review with a mention of the Transcendentalists. (By the way, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s responses to the tragic deaths of his dearest loves were every bit as “unusual” and as obsessive and as desperate as Frederic Myer’s visits to a medium.) Transcendentalism is, simply put, the distinctly American expression of the Romantic movement that preceded it in England and Germany. Jeffrey Kripal, even more than his post-modernism and neo-Freudian, feminist, and queer theorizing, is in many ways a Romantic at heart. Exhibit A: his utter fascination (fascinans) with William Blake. It is not merely the paranormal that is in transit from the religious and scientific registers to the “science mysticism” register. This is his journey as well. It is the “beyond the Enlightenment” project.

I’ll always remember a course I took in college that assigned some works of modern historians of religion who were pushing the boundaries of scholarship. Kripal’s Kali’s Child was one of the optional texts. Another one was by a German Egyptologist named Jan Assman (unfortunate name) who begins his book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism by explaining that writing the book was a mystical experience. He writes of “being possessed” and claims “I immediately started writing this study as if under a spell and in what for me (and in a foreign language) was an incredibly short time. He describes an experience of mystical unity, a “continuity and connectivity,” with the object-subject of his “fascination.”

Reflexively, let me say that I have had an analogous experience involving a scholarly project in which I was enmeshed. The experience involved a vivid dream and a loosening of the boundaries of scholarly distance that precisely demarcated subject and object.

And, somehow, the kind of alchemy and paranormal phenomena that Jeffrey Kripal describes is strangely relevant to ministry, I think. With a nod to my role as pastor, to my role as non-judgmental listener to stories of experience, I end on this coy and provocative note. Hiding behind and hiding within all those things about the Transcendentalists that we lovingly admire, there is an obvious secret that is uncomfortable and necessary. We are the rationalists who dance with irrationality, the naturalists who live amongst the supernatural. We are both repulsed by and drawn to the image of Emerson and Fuller and their cohorts hanging around with mesmerists and seeking communion with the spirits of the dead. Regarding the spiritual adventurism of our Transcendentalist ancestors as scandalous says more about us than it says about them.