Rice: Unconventional Wisdom
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 ten years now, and have taught at a wide variety of institutions for twenty (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 and popular culture.  Despite my best efforts, I am not sure I have taken a single full day off from such intellectual and spiritual pursuits in over three 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 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 or oeuvre, as they say.  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 a mark of truth. 

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.  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 "divination," that is, the common mystical and mythical theme of "becoming a god." This, of course, was already a major subtext in my earliest work on the various experiential, charismatic, and textual processes of Ramakrishna's divinization as a recognized avatara or "descent of God." But one can also catch glimpses of this same theme in The Serpent's Gift, especially in chapter 2, "Restoring the Adam of Light," which is on my notion of a mystical humanism, and in "The Other Tree" of the conclusion; in my work on the evolutionary vision of the human potential movement and Michael Murphy's "future of the body"; and in my most recent work on the paranormal and the various psychical experiences, time-loops, and bold evolutionary mysticisms that constitute the secret life of pulp fiction, science fiction, the UFO phenomenon, and our contemporary superhero mythologies—Bergson's universe as "a machine for the making of gods," indeed, and in full color no less. 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. Here, after all, the humanities become the divinities.

Finally, I would like to stress that this body of work really is a body of work.  One can approach this claim from some of my very first writings on how my early Catholic piety was an intimate expression of a tortured adolescent sexuality.  Or one can approach this claim from my latest writings and the ways they express my present metaphysical position that mind and matter are two sides of the same nondual coin, that all the dualities we normally think with—mind/matter, body/soul, sex/spirit, subjective/objective, self/other, east/west—are so many half-truths expressive of a single conscious material universe. A Corpus Mysticum. A mystical body.  Such a paradoxical gnosis is captured in my epigraph from Niels Bohr, who, not accidentally, chose the Chinese Daoist (and Tantric) symbol of the yin-yang for his coat of arms as expressive of the deepest wisdom of modern quantum physics, where light can be understood as both a wave and a particle—yin and yang.  In order to drive the point further home in a Western tongue, Bohr then put the following Latin inscription below the classic Chinese symbol: contraria sunt complementaria, that is, "contraries are complements." 

I could not have said it better.  Bohr had it just right.  I would only add that he needed an Asian religious symbol and a Latin phrase to say it fully, that is, he needed the history of religions and the humanities.