Truly Unconvential Wisdom - Department of Religion - Jeffrey J. Kripal

Introductory Essay


"You are not thinking.  You are merely being logical."

Niels Bohr to Albert Einstein

"The universe . . . is a machine for the making of gods."

Henri Bergson

"To see if you will balk against your script."

Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis

How does one summarize a professional life for a stranger?  What to say?  And what not to say? 

On the simplest of levels, I chaired a research-oriented department of religious studies for eight years, have mentored graduate students for twelve years now, and have taught at a wide variety of institutions for twenty-two (Westminster College, Harvard Divinity School, Rice University, the Esalen Institute, and the University of Colorado).  I have published six monographs, written a next-generation textbook on how to compare religions with three of my graduate students, co-edited six more volumes, and written some ninety odd essays ("odd" in both senses of that term).

My life has taken me from Roman Catholicism and Benedictine monastic spirituality (to which I remain deeply and affectionately indebted), through psychoanalysis and the Hindu Tantra (to which I remain deeply and affectionately indebted), into the human potential movement, the history of American metaphysical religion, and, most recently, the paranormal, popular culture, and the study of emergent mythologies.  Despite my best efforts, I am not sure I have taken a single full day off from such intellectual and spiritual pursuits in nearly four decades, that is, since I was about fourteen.

That is an exaggeration. 
But not much of one.

The purpose of this website, however, is not to complain, much less to brag.  It is to present my work as a whole.  I am reminded here of C. G. Jung, who once compared how he arrived at his depth psychology to precisely this kind of "big picture" thinking.  It's rather like a rug weaver, he suggested, who spends many years with his eyes an inch or so from the silken weave, weaving this and that tiny pattern with this and that bright color, but never really stopping to stand up and see what it is he has finally created.  Texts and textiles, it turns out, share all sorts of things, including a strong tendency toward near-sightedness.  It's all about standing up and looking around.  Or so I have decided. I have been encouraged in this otherwise potentially hubristic enterprise by close colleagues, like Wouter Hanegraaff of the University of Amsterdam, who was the first to observe in print, back in 2008, that my work represents a developing “oeuvre” and is not simply a collection of disparate, disconnected books. I have gradually come to agree with Wouter and am now trying to figure out for myself what the hidden shape or mature form of that corpus mysticum or “secret body” of work might be.

I should say here that I do not think that an author, myself included, generally knows the scope, implications, and full meaning of what he or she has authored (and been authored by).  Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that most thinking, and particularly most profound thinking, takes place almost entirely beyond or below (pick your loaded metaphor) the threshold of awareness and only occasionally appears above that threshold.  Hence my life-long attraction to psychoanalytic theory, that art and practice of the unconscious and the sexual body, and comparative mystical literature, that fantastic genre of super selves, hidden worlds, and esoteric bodies.  Of this, I am certain: we are not who we think we are.  At all.

This website, then, is aimed at very specific purpose: it is designed to suggest that my work is not only a whole, but also a single developing mega-book.  Such a corpus cannot really be understood through any single book; it can only be understood as an organic evolving being, if I may put it that weirdly.  I am thus ready to suggest how I could begin with thoughts on spirit and sex within Roman Catholicism and the Hindu Tantra and arrive at thoughts on mind and matter within the history of the human potential movement and American metaphysical religion.  I wish to show why these early and present thoughts are really the same thoughts reflecting themselves through different historical and cultural material.  In essence, I want to show how my corpus has both evolved over the years and how it was all there from the beginning in nuce, literally, in the Night.  

This writing in the Night can be divided into four basic cycles, which in turn can be captured by four different ancient Greek philosophical terms: eros, gnosis, nous, and theosis. I have chosen these terms to organize my thought, because, looking back now on what I have written over the last few decades, it is especially clear to me that my thinking has orbited, and is still orbiting, around the problems and promises crystallized in these four terms. Hence some of the most enthusiastic receptions of my most recent work on the paranormal, for example, have come from scholars of ancient Christianity and Neoplatonism (the same traditions that produced these four Greek categories).   I have become increasingly aware of how deeply my thought is indebted to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Plato's two erotic dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus, and Plotinus's doctrine of the cosmic Mind or nous, especially as these streams were picked up and transformed by various early Jewish and Christian communities, with their emphasis on an innate and immediate gnosis or "mystical knowledge," and transmitted to us today through the long and complex histories of Hermeticism, Western esotericism, Christian heresy, mysticism, occultism, Spiritualism, and, most recently, metaphysical movements like the human potential movement and "the New Age."

I am not claiming, of course, that my thought is the same, or that it even approaches the depth and sophistication of thinkers like Plato and Plotinus.  Nor am I claiming some anachronistic identity with early Christian gnosticism.  I am simply observing that there are unmistakable influences and deep resonances here, and that my refusal to separate rationalism and mysticism in my work is perfectly faithful to the origins of Western philosophy and critical thinking.  Perhaps that is why I have never understood the art and practice of undergraduate teaching as some kind of technical training toward a specific "job" or salary range, but rather as a four-year initiation cycle within an enlightened cultural institution whose first and most important work is provoking, challenging, mentoring, and ultimately transforming human beings into free, independent thinkers.  Perhaps that is also why I have never understood an intellectual as the more or less bitter, materialist-oriented, anti-religious ideologue that he or she seems to have become.  For me, 'depressing' is not the criterion of all truth in the humanities. 

Rather, I have long understood the intellectual as someone driven by a palpable eros toward the deeper realms of a universally shared but infinitely variable Consciousness (nous) that takes on a billion forms in a million human cultures. The history of religions is a history of striking revelatory sameness and riotous difference, and not just a sad tale of solipsistic, socially constructed differences and power games, as is commonly claimed or implied today.  Such an intellectual is committed, first and foremost, to expressing these energies and states of consciousness through the principles of reason, but also through ways of knowing other than pure reason, that is, through the mind-bending intuitions, dreams, immediate insights, and mythical flourishes of gnosis.  Even a critical term like "theory," we seem to forget, harks back to the classical Greek mystical notion of "contemplation" (theoria), which we might reframe for our own place and time as consciousness becoming more and more aware of itself as consciousness (instead of as this or that culture, religion, ethnicity, or whatever).  That anyway is how I experience the intellectual life and envision the humanities.

The fourth and much more speculative term or cycle in my corpus is that of theosis or "deification," that is, the common mystical and mythical theme of "becoming a god." This is where I believe that the “secret body” of the books and essays are ultimately headed. And by “headed,” I mean “not there yet.” And that is a gross understatement, since, as a discipline, we have barely begun to recognize the omnipresence of this kind of human experience. Accordingly, we have hardly begun to classify and compare the various forms and nuances of human deification, much less theorize these and make them our own, as it were. I am struck, though, by how this “impossible” theme has appeared, and yet not appeared, as a kind of invisible black hole around which all my books appear to orbit, as if they fear what they cannot see but ominously sense. This, in a word, may be their final gravity.

Human deification, of course, was already the focus of my early spiritual life in a Benedictine seminary, intensely devoted, as it was, to the god-man or Christ and the various incarnational spiritualities of an enlightened Catholicism. But deification was also a major subtext in my first book Kali’s Child (1995), on the various experiential, charismatic, and textual processes of Ramakrishna's divinization as a recognized avatara or "descent of God" in colonial Bengal. The theme is also implied throughout Roads of Excess (2002), mostly through the patron poet of that text, the Romantic visionary William Blake, who, when asked about his orthodoxy, famously quipped along these lines: “Jesus Christ is true God and true man! . . . And so am I! And so are you!” If the deification theme is implied in Roads of Excess, it is openly and explicitly theorized in The Serpent's Gift (2007), in chapter 2 on "Restoring the Adam of Light." It is then traced in one influential modern form through the second half of the twentieth century in Esalen (2007), on the evolutionary vision of the California human potential movement and Michael Murphy's "future of the body." And it returns again in Authors of the Impossible (2010), now through the various clairvoyant, precognitive, telekinetic, and visionary powers of honest and baffled modern individuals, who generally possess no cultural framework for their own capacities and apparent dual natures.

Perhaps nowhere, though, is this theosis more apparent than in Mutants and Mystics (2011), on the “Super Story” of the new emergent mythologies and the hybrid erotic unions of the abduction literature. The latter book treats human deification through the prisms of popular culture, but its ideas are quite serious ones and can easily be located in previous classical thinkers. Like Foucault, I suspect that a new anthropology, a new form of mind, a new “episteme” is taking shape, as the previous understandings of the human disappear, like figures written into the sand on a beach. In the codes of modern mystical experiences, I detect a future mentality attempting contact with our own hopelessly inadequate religious and rational forms of thinking.

Here is where my own transhumanism appears. Or superhumanism. The French philosopher and ufologist Aimé Michel (well before Foucault or the transhumanists) called these other future mentalities “la pensée surhumaine ou non-humaine” (“superhuman or non-human thought”). And he compared the abyss that yawns between these other mentalities and our present humanities to the situation of a man trying to communicate with his pet dog (William James, by the way, had made the exact same comparison well before Michel in order to make sense of not being able to make sense of the psychical phenomena of Spiritualism). Michel also compared our situation to modern humans trying to communicate with chimpazees. The latter image is the closer analogy, he believed, since what appears to separate la pensée surhumaine from la pensée humaine of the present is an evolutionary leap. This, of course, was precisely Nietzsche’s point with his famous enigmatic line about the present human condition suspended, as a taut rope, between the ape of the past and the future Superman (Übermensch).

There is another way to describe this last cycle of the corpus. If my early work was about the mystical dimensions of the erotic, that is, on the ways that new forms of knowledge (gnosis) and mind (nous) commonly reveal themselves within human sexuality (eros), my more recent and future work is about the mythical dimensions of the erotic, that is, on the bold new ways that individuals and communities are experiencing—inevitably in visionary, narrative and symbolic ways—the cosmic nature of human sexuality and human origins, a code that continues to express itself, as it has expressed itself for millennia, in the language of human deification (theosis).

But such thoughts are perhaps best left for the future, since they take us well beyond the imaginative possibilities and present institutional structures of the humanities in the university. I doubt we are ready for this. There, after all, on the furthest horizon of thought, the humanities become the divinities.