Jeffrey J. Kripal
Office: 225A Humanities Building
J. Newton Rayzor Professor and Chair of Religious Studies (on leave 2009-2010)
Ph.D., University of Chicago Divinity School, 1993
Areas of Teaching
Primary: history of religions, comparative erotics and ethics of mystical literature, Religions from India, Western esotericism and American metaphysical religion, the paranormal and popular culture, metaphysical film
Secondary: psychoanalysis and religion, method and theory in the study of religion
This is the official Rice University website of Jeffrey J. Kripal, posted here for the use of any interested colleagues, students, readers, journalists, researchers, authors, artists, and film-makers. It consists of eight parts: (1) a brief professional bio; (2) an introductory essay introducing the inspiration and purpose of the website; (3) a discussion of my body of written work to date; (4) a description of GEM, the graduate program in which I do most of my teaching and thinking now; (5) a discussion of my work and role at the Esalen Institute's Center for Theory and Research; (6) a synopsis of my two present film projects; (7) a brief description of a book series at Rice University Press for which I am the General Editor; and (8) a set of frequently asked questions or FAQ.
1. Professional Bio
Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, where he is also the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. He is the author of Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010), Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago, 2007), The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2007), Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001), and Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995). He has also co-edited volumes with: Wouter Hanegraaff on eroticism and esotericism, Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (University of Amsterdam Press, 2008); Glenn W. Shuck on the history of Esalen and the American counterculture, On the Edge of the Future: Esalen and the Evolution of American Culture (Indiana, 2005); Rachel Fell McDermott on a popular Hindu goddess, Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West (California, 2003); G. William Barnard on the ethical critique of mystical traditions, Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism (Seven Bridges, 2002); and T.G. Vaidyanathan of Bangalore, India, on the dialogue between psychoanalysis and Hinduism, Vishnu on Freud’s Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism (Oxford, 1999). His present areas of interest include the comparative erotics of mystical literature, American countercultural translations of Asian religious traditions, and the history of Western esotericism from ancient Gnosticism to the New Age. He is currently working on a book on the paranormal and American popular culture. He thinks he may be Spider-Man.
"You are not thinking. You are merely being logical."
Niels Bohr to Albert Einstein
"The universe . . . is a machine for the making of gods."
How does one summarize a professional life for a stranger? What to say? And what not to say?
On the simplest and most obvious of levels, I have chaired a research-oriented department of religious studies for five years, mentored graduate students for six, and taught at a wide variety of institutions for sixteen (Westminster College, Harvard Divinity School, Rice University, the Esalen Institute, and the University of Colorado). I have published five monographs, co-edited five more volumes, and written some fifty odd essays ("odd" in both senses of that term). I have also just finished a draft of a sixth book (on superhero comics and the paranormal), and I have been working with Michael Murphy on a seventh book, this one on his own thought and what has become a deeply shared metaphysical lineage.
This latter development, in many ways the most significant for me, was hardly a mid-life novelty or some sudden turn of events. 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 Grand Thesis—an 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. Some scholars have already begun to detect an oeuvre in my books, and this perhaps is why I feel emboldened to claim for myself what they are seeing and saying. I have long thought this anyway. I just did not have the courage to say it.
But I do now. So I have decided to say it. I am 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 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 three basic stages, which in turn can be captured by three different ancient Greek philosophical terms: eros, gnosis, and nous. 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 three terms. I have become increasingly aware of how deeply my thought—quite despite 'me' as a conscious ego—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, more or less Marxist, anti-religious ideologue that he or she seems to have become in the twentieth century. For me, "depressing" is not a mark of truth.
Rather, I have long understood the intellectual as someone driven by a palpable eros—and I do mean 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 certainly committed 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.
One might also posit a fourth, much more speculative term or stage, that of theosis or "divinization," 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 "descending incarnation of God." But one can also catch glimpses of this same theme in the Conclusion to The Serpent's Gift (see especially the subsection "The Other Tree"); in my work on the evolutionary mysticism 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 and occult experiences that lie behind the attractions of the American superhero mythologies. But such thoughts are perhaps best left for the future, since they take us well beyond the possibilities and present structure of the humanities. Here 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. 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 understand 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.
The Mystical and the Sexual
Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995; 2nd ed., 1998)
[insert hyper-link] to Kali's Child Controversy page.
Vishnu on Freud's Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism, T. G. Vaidyanathan
and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003)
Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds., Hidden Intercourse: Essays on Eros and
Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2008)
"Kali's Tongue and Ramakrishna: 'Biting the Tongue' of the Tantric Tradition," History of Religions 34/2 (1994)
"Re-membering a Presence of Mythological Proportions: Psychoanalysis and Hinduism," for William B. Parsons and Diane Jonte-Pace, eds., Mapping Religion and Psychological Studies: Contemporary Dialogues, Future Prospects (New York: Routledge Press, 2000)
“Kali in the Psychoanalytic Tradition: Or Why the Tantrika Is a Hero,” in McDermott and Kripal, eds., Encountering Kali (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003)
“The Christology and Psychology of the Kiss: Re-reading Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum,” in J.A. Belzen and A. Geels, eds., Mysticism: A Variety of Psychological Perspectives (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003)
“Phallus/Vagina,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, ed. by Lindsay Jones (New York: Macmillan, 2004)
“Sexuality: An Overview (Further Perspectives),” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, ed. by Lindsay Jones (New York: Macmillan, 2004)
“Riding the Dawn Horse: Adi Da and the Eros of Nonduality,” in Thomas Forsthoefel and Cynthia Anne Humes, eds., Gurus in America (Albany: SUNY, 2005)
Sexuality and Eroticism,” Handbook of Religion and the Emotions, ed. by John Corrigan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
“The Roar of Awakening: The Eros of Esalen and the Western Tantric Transmission,” in Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds., Hidden Intercourse (2008)
“From Paradise to Paradox: The Psychospiritual Journey of John Heider,” in Jacob Belzen, ed., Autobiography and the Psychology of Religion (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009)
Critical Theory and Transcendence
Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, G. William Barnard and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds. (New York: Seven Bridges Press/Chatham House, 2002)
Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001)
The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)
"The Visitation of the Stranger: Some Mystical Dimensions of the History of Religions," CrossCurrents 49/3 (Fall 1999)
"Teaching Hindu Tantrism With Freud: Psychoanalysis as Critical Theory and Mystical Technique," in Diane Jonte-Pace, ed., Teaching Freud in Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)
“Being John Woodroffe: Mythical Reflections on the Postcolonial Study of the Hindu Tantra,” in José Ignacio Cabezón and Sheila Devaney, eds., Anxious Subjectivities: Personal Identity, Truth, and the Study of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2004)
“Comparative Mystics: Scholars as Gnostic Diplomats,” in Jeffrey M. Perl, ed., Talking Peace with Gods, Symposium on the Reconciliation of Worldviews, Part 1, Common Knowledge, 10:3 (Fall 2004)
“Liminal Pedagogy: The Liberal Arts and the Transforming Ritual of Religious Studies,” in James Boyd White, ed., How Should We Talk About Religion? Perspectives, Contexts, Particularities (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006)
“Re-membering Ourselves: Some Countercultural Echoes of Contemporary Tantric Studies,” lead-essay of inaugural issue, Journal of South Asian Religion 1/1, summer 2007)
“From Altered States to Altered Categories (and Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement,” University of Chicago Divinity School Religion and Culture Web Forum, (April 2007)
"Taking the Purple Pill: On the Paradoxical Pedagogy of Mysticism," for Blackwell Compass web-site [insert hyperlink]
"Being Blake: Antinomian Thought, Counterculture, and the Art of the History of Religions," in David Haberman and Laurie Patton, eds., Notes from a Mandala: Essays in the History of Religions in Honor of Wendy Doniger (University of Delaware Press, 2009)
The Matter of Mind and the Mind of Matter
On the Edge of the Future: Esalen and the Evolution of American Culture, Jeffrey J. Kripal and Glenn W. Shuck, eds. (Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, 2005)
Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) [insert image 11]
"The Rise of the Imaginal: Psychical Phenomena on the Horizon of Theory (Again)," Religious Studies Review 33:3 (2007)
“From Emerson to Esalen: America’s Religion of No Religion,” The Chronicle of Higher
Education, April 13, 2007 [insert image 12]
"Brave New Worldview: The Renaissance of Aldous Huxley," Chronicle of Higher
Education, December 12, 2008 [insert image 13]
"Esalen and the X-Men: The Human Potential Movement and Superhero Comics," Alter Ego 84 (March 2009)
4. GEM (Gnosticism, Esotericism, Mysticism)
Most of my graduate teaching takes place now in a new program the Department of Religious Studies recently launched. We call it the GEM Program, for its special focus on gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism. What follows is our official description.
Traditional understandings of religion often focus on events, figures, and ideas that are more or less amenable to orthodox framings of what constitutes religious truth and practice. But what if we do not privilege these public “winning” voices, but look also at those heterodox or esoteric currents of the history of religions that have been actively repressed, censored, or simply forgotten by their respective cultures? What if, moreover, we privilege the psychology and phenomenology of religious experience over the authorial framing of these events by the faith traditions, even as we explore and analyze the profound ways the faith traditions shape these same “individual” experiences?
The comparative categories of gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism are all modern constructs, each different in nuance, but all designed to ask just these sorts of dialectical questions, to relate orthodoxy to heterodoxy, and vice versa. This area of concentration in the Ph.D. program at Rice University provides students the opportunity to study the varieties and commonalities of gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism as these phenomena are both shaped within and marshaled outside (or even against) discrete religious traditions. The Department’s approach to the study of gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism is grounded in the rigorous study of single traditions, to the extent that it demands distinct philological and historical training in particular cultural areas. It is also explicitly comparative, to the extent that it draws on multiple traditions—from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to Hinduism, Buddhism, and the New Age—for its comprehensive materials and theorizing.
The goal of the program is to train students to work independently on traditions of their choice and, eventually, to become professors and scholars in the study of religion. To do so, students will (1) become familiar with the histories and nuances of the comparative categories of gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism in the discipline; (2) gain linguistic proficiency in relevant languages; (3) study primary materials, including texts and practices; and (4) become conversant in the history and material culture of their chosen traditions. The result is a unique community of scholars and graduate colleagues actively engaged in the historical-critical, psychological, philosophical, aesthetic, ritual, somatic, contemplative, and phenomenological exploration of some of the most intense, unusual, and interesting religious phenomena known to scholars of religion.
Faculty Contacts: William B. Parsons, April DeConick, Claire Fanger, and Jeffrey J. Kripal.
[insert images 15 and 16]
5. Esalen Center for Theory and Research (CTR)
Since Michael Murphy read my Kali's Child in the spring of 1998 and called me late one night in a state of extreme enthusiasm, "armed with a glass of wine and a cell phone," as he likes to put it, I have enjoyed a fruitful and increasingly profound relationship to Murphy and, through him, to the Esalen Institute. Indeed, it was out of this professional and personal—I dare say metaphysical—relationship that I wrote my history of the institute, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. And it is out of the same that I have co-directed or directed a number of symposia through Esalen's Center for Theory and Research.
These have included, among many topics, a symposium on the history of Esalen itself, which led to the production of On the Edge of the Future, with Prof. Glenn Shuck of Williams College, and, ultimately, my own Esalen; a four-year symposia series on the history of Western Esotericism (with Prof. Wouter Hanegraaff of the University of Amsterdam), which led to the production of our recent Brill volume, Hidden Intercourse; an ongoing symposia series on the paranormal and popular culture, which helped produce my Authors of the Impossible; and Esalen's longest standing symposia series called Sursem (for either "[Big] Sur Symposium" or "Survival Seminar"), a collective of scientists, philosophers, scholars of religion, and human potential figures dedicated to the rigorous study and analysis of psychical and paranormal phenomena, particularly as they pertain to the question of post-mortem survival. For descriptions of these symposia, and much more, go to http://www.esalenctr.org/
There is a nice piece on CTR in EnlighteNext magazine whose title, "Closet Mystics," draws on my own work and an interview I did with the writer. The same writer also did an interview with me about my work on superheroes and the paranormal. It is available as a downloadable podcast at [insert link]
On December 6, 2007, Mike and I spoke at the Aurora Forum on the campus of Stanford University with Mark Gonnerman. We spoke in the very hall, Cubby Auditorium, where Mike was first inspired to pursue his vision as a young college student. It was the day he heard Prof. Spiegelberg utter the Sanskrit word "Brahman!" For the full story, see chapter 2 of my Esalen. For a transcript and I-Pod download of this Aurora Forum, go to http://auroraforum.stanford.edu/event/esalen
[insert image 17] The boy in the painting is Leland Stanford, Jr., after whom Stanford University is named and to whom it is dedicated. Little Leland died young and was contacted on the other side by the family through mediums, hence the early interest and funding of psychical research at Stanford University.
6. Film Projects
I am very interested in film as an especially appropriate and effective medium for communicating metaphysical ideas. We are back to Plato's cave, this time as the local movie theatre. My two most recent books have been optioned by filmmakers: Esalen and Authors of the Impossible. Here are a few of the details.
[insert hyperlink] to "Who Knew?" story from Rice News on John Cleese, Jerome Gary, and the Esalen film
In May, 2009, XL Films began production on a documentary film based on my forthcoming book, "Authors of the Impossible". As in the book, the film traces the history of psychical phenomena through the last two centuries of Western thought. The film profiles four extraordinary thinkers: the British psychical researcher F. W. H. Myers, the American anomalist writer and humorist Charles Fort, the astronomer, computer scientist, and ufologist Jacques Vallee, and the French philosopher Bertrand Méheust. The film is being produced by Ken Kosub and myself, and is being directed by Scott H. Jones. The film has its own website at www.authorsoftheimpossible.com, as well as its own podcast series or virtual radio program called "Impossible Talk," hosted by Scott Jones and myself, at [insert hyperlink]. We will post a new show about every three weeks until the film is released, hopefully sometime next year.
[insert hyperlink] to Rice News piece by Jessica on Scott and film
7. Tertium Quid
Rice University was founded on a vision of bold intellectual inquiry that recognized, in the founding words of President Lovett, "no upper limit." Most recently, the university has taken for its motto the striking phrase "Unconventional Wisdom." The present book series Tertium Quid—literally "The Third Thing"—is designed to embody and explore such ideals through a very specific intellectual strategy, namely, the strategem of writing between and beyond the various epistemological dualisms that presently define (and limit) our capacity to understand and analyze the world around us, including and especially us.
There are many such functional dualisms, of course, and they have served us reasonably well over the last few centuries: subjective/objective, mind/matter, humanities/sciences, materialism/idealism, self/other, East/West, and so on. But such ways of organizing our thought (and hence our intellectual disciplines) inevitably end up excluding, suppressing, forgetting, ignoring, even sometimes demonizing data and common forms of human experience that simply cannot be fit into these either-or ways of thinking. There is also good reason to suspect that new discoveries and new theory lie hidden in "the third thing" between and beyond such dualisms; that consistent anomalies are not simply glitches in the statistical field but signs of new paradigms forming on the horizon of thought; that serious and long-standing philosophical debates cannot be resolved by choosing one side or another, but only by moving beyond both half-truths into a more spacious and holistic modeling.
The books to be published in Tertium Quid work toward this new and more spacious horizon. Generally speaking, they will not, and cannot, promise certainty, but they will always deliver intellectual excitement, bold originality, and provocation, that is, they will seek to show that there really is no upper limit to what we can think and be.
[insert hyperlink] to http://ricepress.rice.edu/
also employ "TQ" logo for new series
Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
Alfred Whitney, "Essays on Education," quoted by a frustrated Wiki-
author censored for trying to write about my work on Wikipedia
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: "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 2000, 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.
"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: [insert hyper-link to Kali's Child Controversy again here].
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 five 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 five 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.
"Harvard Divinity School invited me to come and teach in 1999-2000, 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."
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 friend and Aikido master George Leonard likes 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, of course, 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 read it as evidence a new 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: "What are you working on now?"
Answer: "A two-volume project on the paranormal in critical theory and popular culture. The first volume on critical theory, Authors of the Impossible, is due out in March of 2010 from the University of Chicago Press. I'm very excited about it."
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: "Yes, with XL Films of Richmond, Texas. It is a documentary film 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 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."
Question: "You mentioned in your professional bio that opened this website that you think you may be Spider-Man. Are you sure about this?"
Answer: "I'm pretty sure."
For a podcast version of these FAQ, and more, see [insert podcast]
See, for example, Wouter J. Hanegraaf's review of my The Serpent's Gift in Religion 38 (2008).