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




Question: "How do you pronounce your name?"

Answer: "My own immediate family says "CRY-pull," but other parts of the family in other parts of the country pronounce it "cripple" and "cri-PAUL. So take your pick."

Question: "Isn't that an Indian name?"

Answer: "Maybe. You'd never know it looking at me. I'm of immediate Czech-German descent. My paternal family does, however, possess one oral tradition that claims the family was originally of Roma or Gypsy descent. Since we know that the Roma migrated from northern India around the tenth century or so, this would certainly explain the "Indian" name (and my fascination with things Indian). But there is no way to confirm any of this. As much as I would like to claim this oral tradition as true, I just don't know if it is."

Question: “We will get to your earlier books in a moment. First, though, can you tell us what you are working on now? I mean, what’s up for you?”

Answer: “Well, there are a lot of pistons firing, to use a metaphor from my boyhood days when my dad was a mechanic and we were racing go-karts together. I would say, though, that the main project for me now is the renewal and re-visioning of the comparative method for the study of religion. I want to help write into existence a New Comparativism, one that can take what has been taken off the academic table over the last few decades (the sacred, the supernatural, the miraculous, the magical, or what I call simply “the impossible”) and put it back on the table again, not to return us to the beliefs or simplistic rationalisms of the past, but to re-enchant the field and make it magical and miraculous again. The discipline too often operates today as if all truth must be depressing, must somehow always be bad news. I don’t buy that. That feels like an ideology, not a viable philosophical position.

“Alongside this meta-project, there are others. For example, I am writing a history of sexuality and religion for the University of Chicago Press at the moment. Entitled Sex of the Spirit, it will trace the religious framing and social disciplining of human sexuality, as so many other studies have done, but it will also insist on the religious manifestations of human sexuality, that is, on human sexuality as a potential numen or uncanny opening into the impossible.

“I am also working away, in a very long-term fashion, on emergent mythologies in American popular culture, particularly around the paranormal and the UFO phenomenon, which I continue to think has everything to do with the history of religions and little, if anything, to do with technologies in the sky or, for that matter, extraterrestrials. As part of this project, I have been lecturing on “Biological Gods” (invisible species in the environment) in some recent writers, and Whitley Strieber and I are working on a book together entitled The Super Natural. With a little luck, the latter should be out late in 2015 or early in 2016.”

Question: “There is a whole history, or corpus, behind these arguments. Can we talk about that?”

Answer: “Sure.”

Question: "Your first book became controversial for its psychoanalytic methods and its claims about the homoeroticism of the great Hindu saint Ramakrishna. Do you want to say anything about this?"

Answer: "My doctoral dissertation, on the charismatic Hindu saint and mystic Ramakrishna (1836-1886), became my first book: Kali's Child. It came out in 1995. The book won a major academic award, the History of Religions Prize, in 1996, which was then immediately followed by a national ban movement in India in the winter and spring of 1997. A second ban movement was organized while I was teaching at Harvard, in the spring of 2001, which went all the way up to the Indian Parliament. It sounds incredible, but my first book was actually debated in the Indian Parliament. The motion to ban it failed.

Question: "What was so controversial about the book?"

Answer: "The same thing that is always controversial about religion and charismatic religious figures: sex. In this case, I was showing that there are profound metaphysical, psychological, and spiritual connections between the saint's eroticism and his mysticism. I was not simply interested in sexuality per se, mind you, but in the ways that human beings often experience 'God' or the divine in and through human sexuality. Essentially, I adopted the insights of the Hindu Tantra (a complex of Indian traditions that employ sexual symbols and rituals to enact and express mystical union with the divine) as my own and put them into deep dialogue with psychoanalysis in order to explore these mystico-erotic connections.

"There was more, though. One of the things that made the book so controversial was that I concluded that the saint, like so many mystics and saints before and after him, was homoerotically oriented. This is old news, of course, to scholars. In the West, the linkage of philosophical wisdom, mystical insight, and homoeroticism is at least as old as Plato and Socrates. It has been studied intensely in dozens of cultures around the world for about four decades now in the academy, and this in literally hundreds of books and essays. In the context of male mystical literature from around the world, in other words, Ramakrishna’s remarkable mystical homoeroticism is the norm, not the exception.

"The interested reader can access more of my thoughts on and responses to this first controversy by visiting a website that I created for my readers and critics six years ago and have revised here as:

Question: "What's up with your Wikipedia entry?"

Answer: "My Wiki entry often reads oddly because it has generally been controlled by the harshest critics of Kali's Child, who appear to think, for some odd reason, that this is the only book I have written. They have even monitored the entry for any changes in order to delete, immediately, anything posted on it that is balanced or positive. Basically, they want to control who people think I am and what I have written.

"There is a silver, if not golden, lining here, though. Kali's Child is largely about the cultural, religious, and historical processes by which the saint's astonishing 'secret talk' (guhya katha) in the Bengali texts was systematically censored and suppressed by the tradition as it passed into the English translations and Western culture. Of course, these same censorship processes continue into the present (witness the two ban movements), and they can easily be seen again now on Wikipedia, on the 'Talk' pages of the entries involving Ramakrishna, Kali's Child, and me. Just go and look. But don't read the Wikipedia entries. Read the 'Talk,' that is, the 'secret talk' behind the Wikipedia entries. As with the original Bengali texts behind the English bowdlerized texts, or the unconscious behind the conscious surface ego, the truth is not what appears on the surface to the public. The truth is what does not appear, what has been erased and suppressed.

"On the humorous side, one could thus say that reading a Wikipedia entry for accurate information about 'Jeffrey J. Kripal' is a bit like listening to Rush Limbaugh for accurate information about President Obama. If you agree with Limbaugh, it's great stuff. If you don't, it's a lesson in bad logic and grossly distorting rhetoric."

Question: "What frustrates you most about all of this?"

Answer: "The fact that I have published six books and so many people are still stuck on the first, which they don't read, or read and don't understand. If people read all six books, they would understand why I wrote Kali's Child and what it really means in the long run, what it evolved into."

Question: "Okay, so let's talk about the others. What did you write after Kali's Child?"

Answer: "You know, I was not trained simply to study Hinduism. That was only one of many interests. I was trained as a historian of religions, as a comparativist, that is, someone who studies and compares many religions, in the spirit of that wisdom-saying of the father of comparative religion, Max Müller: "He who knows one knows none." In other words, to understand 'religion' (or 'language' or 'literature' or 'politics' or 'cuisine,' or anything else), it is crucial that you understand multiple examples, and not just one.

"I was thus eager to see if the models I had begun to develop in Kali's Child could be applied to other religious systems. I knew they could, of course, because I had originally developed my ideas about the homoerotic structure of male mysticisms in the context of an enlightened and caring Roman Catholic seminary, but I wanted to show this now. I also wanted to show that scholars of mysticism are not the dry academics or eggheads people think they are, that they study what they study because they themselves have had profound mystical experiences (out-of-body or near-death experiences, altered states of consciousness, paranormal and psychical cognitions, visions, precognitive dreams, you name it). These experiences are often profound, and sometimes bizarre, and they almost never fit into the religions or cultures in which the scholars live. It is often precisely that not-fitting-in that makes a scholar in the humanities a scholar and an intellectual an intellectual: if you fit in, you don't question, you can't question. In terms of the study of comparative mysticism, I argued that the scholarship is essentially an attempt to understand and re-fit a deeply personal anomalous experience back into some acceptable cultural form, in this case, professional scholarship and the academy, where 'unconventional' is a compliment and an ideal, as in the new motto of Rice University.

"Harvard Divinity School invited me to come and teach in 2000-2001, so I accepted that offer, taught these ideas there, and finished the second book while I was living in Cambridge. Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom appeared just before I came to Rice to teach in the fall of 2002. Its title comes from the 'Proverbs of Hell' of the great British Romantic visionary William Blake: 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.' Indeed, it does."

Question: "How was this second book received?"

Answer: "It wasn't. It was totally ignored. It's as if the book doesn't exist, and this despite the fact that I think it is one of my best, if not the best. Very recently, the Sinhalese anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere cited this book as immediately congruent with his own intellectual-visionary project on the first page of The Awakened Ones. He reads my work, correctly, as an attempt to bring together rational and non-rational (or super-rational) modes of knowing into a single rigorous spiritual-intellectual practice. And that gives me hope. Perhaps Roads will still find its ready readers, then."

Question: "Then what?"

Answer: "Well, I decided to try again. The controversies around Kali's Child continued to simmer. I tried, as best I could, to sit with them. I corresponded with hundreds of colleagues and correspondents, even some of the critics. This taught me a great deal. I became more and more sensitive to and savvy about the intimate and sinister practices of censorship and ideological control, which work through a hundred different channels, all at once: political, economic, cultural, emotional, religious, and journalistic. Essentially, these experiences of being the constant object of someone else's censorship and shaming campaigns radicalized and politicized my thinking about the study of religion in the modern world. I now knew, in my bones as it were, just how important and yet misunderstood the professional study of religion is, how incredibly radical and liberating it can be, and, most of all, how vulnerable it is to non-liberal ideologies.

"So I decided to do what I always do: I decided to 'take the hit as a gift,' as my late friend and Aikido master George Leonard liked to say, and turn the horrible experience of censorship into creative and positive thought. I decided to sublimate the darkness into light. That's how I wrote The Serpent's Gift. The central image of the serpent's gift here refers to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, which features a gracious snake who wants to teach a beautiful young couple and awaken them to their own godhood through the fruit of eros (this is why the two become immediately aware of their genitals the moment they eat it). A jealous and petty god refuses this first classroom and banishes the couple to exile and mortality.

"This, of course, is not your typical telling of the Adam and Eve story. Nor is it intended to be. But neither did I make it up. It goes back to the ancient Jewish and Christian gnostic writers of the second and third centuries, who used it for their own purposes. And so I used it for my own. I employed it to speak openly about the power, beauty, and risks of teaching the critical study of religion in the modern world, particularly as it involves the study of eroticism (chapter 1), mystical humanism (chapter 2), comparativism (chapter 3), and esotericism (chapter 4). The book begins with a chapter on the sexualities of Jesus and ends with a chapter on the X-Men. Not your typical academic book."

Question: "How was it received?"

Answer: "Well, really well. It has garnered some major review essays and some remarkable conversation partners. As I mentioned in my Introduction to this website, One major European scholar, Wouter Hanegraaff of the University of Amsterdam, read it as evidence of a new developing oeuvre in the field. Other colleagues have told me that they think I have 'found my voice' in this book. They may be right. It is indeed a very different sort of book. If you listen closely, you can hear it hissing, like a seashell. If you're lucky, it may even bite you."

Question: "How did you come to write Esalen?"

Answer: "Kali's Child certainly had its critics, but it also had its real fans. One of them was the co-founder of the Esalen Institute, Michael Murphy. One night in the spring of 1998, Mike was finishing the book in a restaurant in California. He got very excited about what he was reading. He was having one of those Aha! moments. So he called me right there, in the restaurant. He forgot, though, that there was a three-hour time difference between the West Coast and Pennsylvania, where I was living at the time. It was quite late. Mike was very nervous on the phone, especially when he realized how late it was on my side of the phone, but he was obviously very enthused as well. I was, of course, equally excited, as I knew who he was. We stumbled through that first late-night conversation.

Mike sent me all of his books to read. I went out to Esalen that fall for a week-long symposium. I returned the next year, and the next, and the next. Eventually, it dawned on me that Esalen was a historian's dream, a gold-mine of archival information and oral wisdom about the human potential movement, about Esalen, about religion in the American counterculture, about just about everything involving what scholars call 'American metaphysical religion.' "I subtitled the book 'America and the Religion of No Religion,' after the mystical experience of nature that had helped form the Stanford professor of comparative religion who taught both Esalen founders when they were young men and still in college (Frederic Spiegelberg). It was Spiegelberg who spoke, taught, and wrote about 'the religion of no religion.' My book picks up on Prof. Spiegelberg's teachings in order to tell the story about how and why so many thinking people have come to describe themselves as 'spiritual, but not religious.' That's more or less what Frederic meant by 'the religion of no religion.'"

Question: "You mentioned earlier your present work on the paranormal and emergent mythologies. Can you tell us a bit more about that?"

Answer: "Well, I just finished a two-volume project on the paranormal in intellectual history and popular culture. The first volume demonstrates how the language of the psychical and the paranormal was born among intellectuals and scientists around places like Cambridge, Harvard, and Duke and offers a text-based or humanities-based model for the study of the paranormal. Entitled Authors of the Impossible, it came out in the spring of 2010. The second volume focuses on the paranormal experiences of artists and authors of pulp fiction, science fiction, and comics. Entitled Mutants and Mystics, it came out in the fall of 2011. Together, they extend and develop my gnostic project to write against and through the various religious literalisms and scientific materialisms that define so much of our present world and so limit our thinking and being. To employ the language of the sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, these books are two more expressions of my 'balking against our script.'"

Question: "Why on earth are you writing about the paranormal?"

Answer: "Because (a) I had one major, mind-blowing paranormal experience that changed my life and has since inspired all of my books (in Calcutta in the fall of 1989: see the "Secret Talk" sections of Roads of Excess, where I describe and analyze this event in detail); (b) after such an experience, I know that paranormal phenomena are real in the simplest sense that people really and truly experience such things (that is, they are not always fraudulent, mistaken perceptions, and so on), and (c) I think the ways such phenomena offend or subvert our usual dualistic epistemologies (subjective/objective, mind/matter, meaning/causality, and so on) represent one possible future of critical theory.

"Basically, I have come to see that the deep resonances, even identities, between eroticism and mysticism that I tracked in my early work are refigured in the deep resonances, even identities, between matter and mind that I am now tracking in the history and study of the paranormal. It's all the same social binary system (which is very useful but finally illusory) and the same basic metaphysical nonduality (which is seldom experienced but very real) playing themselves out in different historical contexts and cultures. It's all one reality, which is fundamentally nondual."

Question: "That sounds more than a little like certain strands of Indian philosophy."

Answer: "Yes. I love Indian philosophy, particularly in its Tantric forms that deny any separation between the world and the divine, the body and the soul, sex and spirit, matter and mind, and so on. But there are many Western forms of the same basic insight. The real is the real, whether you are in India or America."

Question: "I heard you were also making a movie."

Answer: "Two, actually, with Scott Jones of Jones Cinema Arts. The first is a documentary history entitled 'Supernature' based on my Esalen. The second is a documentary feature based on my Authors of the Impossible. We are filming now. I find film an especially effective genre in which to work and express my ideas, which have always been tied closely to images and bodies anyway. I feel as if I have come home in some profound way, and that I am doing what I am meant to be doing, that I have been reading, writing, and teaching toward this."

Question: "What's up with the sci-fi and superhero stuff?"

Answer: "A lot. The story goes like this:

"In the summer of 2006, I was finishing up a six-year project on the Esalen history. The two founders of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, adopted the idea of 'human potential' from the British-American writer Aldous Huxley, who had spoken of something he called 'human potentialities.' Much indebted to his famous experiments with psychedelics (another key-word which he helped coin), Huxley used the expression 'human potentialities' to argue that human consciousness and the human body possess vast untapped resources of Consciousness and Energy.

"Drawing on such altered states and altered words, writers like Murphy would go on to suggest that the human potential includes all sorts of extraordinary powers that are 'supernormal,' from psychical abilities like clairvoyance and telepathy to extraordinary physical phenomena like dramatic healings or feats of strength, even in a few rare cases (like Teresa of Avila and Joseph of Copertino) apparent levitation or flight. All of these things, of course, have been exaggerated in religious literature, folklore, and modern fantasy as supernatural but, according to authors like Murphy, they are better understood as foreshadowings or intuitions of the hidden potentials of evolution. Murphy and his colleagues, in other words, believe that evolution has granted at least some human beings extraordinary 'superpowers,' and that these have been encoded, if no doubt also exaggerated, in fantasy literature, movies, science fiction, and superhero comic books.

"I was in an odd state that summer when I realized, with a shock, how close these ideas were to the X-Men mythology of my youth. Indeed, I was becoming more and more struck by a whole host of deep and clear resonances between the basic ideas of the human potential movement and the superhero comics of my adolescence: it was as if the mythologies of the East Coast (where the comic-book industry is located) were expressing the mystical movements of the West Coast.

"I still had many of those comics. I remember pulling them out of the closet in my early 40s, half-embarrassed but entirely delighted. I then visited local comic book stores in Houston and discovered and rediscovered the work of writers like Roy Thomas and Grant Morrison and contemporary artists like Alex Ross and Barry Windsor-Smith. I found myself returning to—okay, obsessed with—these images and ideas until I finally allowed myself to write an Appendix to my book entitled 'Esalen and The X-Men: The Human Potential Movement and American Mythology as Practiced and Imagined Forms of an Evolutionary and Atomic Mysticism.'

"I never published that Appendix, not because it wasn't good enough (or because the title was awfully long-winded), but because the book was already pushing 500 pages and I knew my editor would not be pleased with yet more pages to edit, copyedit, and print. So I stopped. I occulted my own occult appendix. I published it later in Roy Thomas's classic fanzine, Alter Ego. Basically, then, 'what's up with the superheroes' is that I'm still interested in those resonances between East Coast American mythology and West Coast American mysticism. I think, or at least I intuit, that something more can be said about that, and I want to say it. Hence my Mutants and Mystics."

Question: "Does any of this work on the paranormal seep into your daily life?"

Answer: "Absolutely. The paranormal is, in actual fact, normal. The physical is metaphysical. I could tell countless true tales here. Much of my writing is now based on correspondence I receive from readers who then become friends and colleagues. They share fantastic stories with me, over and over again—the stuff of fantasy, but fact. I engage these individuals around these paradoxical narratives and then weave the latter into my theorizing and writing. I think with them.

“My teaching, at least the more advanced versions of it, is much the same. Many of the students who take my courses or come to Rice to study professionally with us come because of some “origin” event, some inexplicable “X” that came into their lives and changed them, definitively and immediately, if seldom clearly. They come to try to make sense of these moments both for themselves and, more broadly, for the field and for the public culture. That is what I do, at my best anyway: I help people theorize the fantastic, normalize the paranormal, and authorize the impossible. I help them accept the wonderful strangeness of themselves.

“This is also why I often address my correspondents and students—playfully but also seriously—as ‘mutants.’ I do so because they are. Their ‘impossible’ stories could be lifted straight out of any X-Men comic book or movie. The impossible is possible. The physical is metaphysical. The evolutionary mythologies and mysticisms are true. And we are living them."


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