Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Tom Patton says:

    Nicely put, Ken! As an ethnographer of religion like yourself, I’ve found Kripal to be a breath of fresh air. But I have also found inspiration in works of those scholars who do “lived religions” and by anthropologists like Lambeck.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *