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Ecological Ecumenicism, Forever Ethical?

After the material turn, it should come as no surprise that scholars are taking a wide aperture approach to religious studies. Actor Network Theory (ANT) and various strains of New Materialism help in formulating horizontal connections between all sorts of objects that speak back to religious people. The strictly discursive approach to religion as dogma is critiqued for neglecting to account for physical bodies, selves and others, that produce ethical orientations. The network approach will lead—should lead—to a global reckoning of how religions are involved in the governance of the physical world. Or according to Whitney Bauman, a planetary account of all that religions have ruined in the name of upholding a strict adherence to traditional ontologies. He recently sat down with George Ioannides to discuss the ideas animating his new book, Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic.

Bauman suggests that a planetary approach to “various modes of becoming” may help religious studies scholars move further away from an austere dogmatic favoring of (arbitrary) religious essences over accidents, and allow for a more authentic engagement with what it means to be religious itself. This means a bringing-together of humans, their various artificial technologies, natural environments, and all non-human members of those lifeworlds that are usually dealt short shrift from religious attitudes that focus on that which lies beyond the physical world.

Drawing on Gayatri Spivak, Bauman embraces the “planetary” over the “globalized” view of ethical habitus. The latter, he claims, tends to reflect what a hegemonic first world dictates through ideology and material practice as an exclusive mode of existing. The planetary approach instead maintains “difference” as a universal commonality and a point of departure from which we can begin to think and discuss a sort of ethical management that accounts for all planetary members.

Clearly Bauman is building on other discussions about an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach to ethics. This has been advanced in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000), Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder (2010), and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010)— titles that have been popping up recently at the AAR—along with most of Bruno Latour’s work.

Bauman mobilizes this matter-oriented critical theory to argue for a religiously informed approach to ameliorate the malignant environmental effects arising from an exclusively human-centric ethical outlook.

In the environmental debate, I would go so far as to argue that Bauman is himself arguing religiously. What I mean is that an overtly eschatological vision of planetary over-consumption, ecological mismanagement, and inevitable population devastation occasions this ethical reorientation in the first place. In Bauman’s view, exclusively-human modes of existence neglect the wellbeing of non-humans. However, he does not entertain the idea that nonhuman planetary members that have the benefit of rapid evolution may benefit in currently unforeseen ways from our “damage” to the earth’s ecosystem. Therefore, while claiming to remedy the excesses of anthropocentric thinking, Bauman’s eschatology remains overtly anthropocentric. Perhaps that has more to do with political expediency and the affective attunements of most moderns who only change their behavior in the short term when they are the ones suffering in the long term.

But if we accept his basic premise, that we should resist a monolithic global outlook that necessarily privileges one cultural interpretation of human need over all others—how do we arrive at the conversation in the first place, together, in order to identify what levels of environmental devastation are acceptable and what are tolerated externalities created in the name of development? I’m writing from a very sooty Hyderabad, where this is very much an open question. The presentist concerns that motivate certain countries like India to invest in technology at the expense of clean air should also be understood in tandem with other practices that routinely and willingly except certain human lives as collateral for the function and hygienic maintenance of other segments of society. We may demand action from institutions like religions to offer greater care for subaltern planetary members, but we’re still not at all on the same page about human membership and what it means to value humans as selves to begin with.

For this reason, I want to like Bauman’s project, but I do so from a strictly first-world vantage as I remain skeptical of thought projects that claim to be universal in their application, especially those based on human reason.

I do agree with most of Bauman’s political sentiments, especially for retooling human ethical calculus within the fragile ecological matrix at a much deeper level. Yet, introducing ecological orientations and philosophies from ‘eastern’ religions such as Daoism and Buddhism packaged through New Materialist philosophies will not have significant effects on the planetary debate. After all, these ideas have been around for a while and have not supplanted our ingrained ontological moorings with something greener on a wide scale.

I believe Bauman could offer more direct comments about how to engage with monotheist traditions that are responsible for much ecological and human devastation. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have established pernicious onto-theologies at various historical junctions that have bred violence against other humans in the name of constructing pious communities: post-revolutionary Iranian discrimination of religious minorities like Baha’is; Manifest Destiny of the 19th Century that shattered remaining American communities; and unending militant settler-colonialism in occupied Palestine are just a few examples that come to mind. How do these hierarchical societal manifestations of religious sentiment reform and “expand the locus of ethical and moral concerns beyond tribe and nation to all humanity?” These religions, as institutions, would not necessarily start caring more about the planet if they resolved their issues with non-member humans. We have the convenience of being environmentalists and conservationists while maintaining racist and authoritarian exclusivity, after all.

As a fellow Arkansan using ANT and New Materialist theory in my work, I instead reduce the aperture of my studies on early-modern Persianate Islam to focus on much more localized religious experience. The writings of Iranian physicians, occultists, and naturalists are replete with discourse about animals, plants, gemstones, auspicious astral formations, diseases of the eye, and tales of monsters that force me to bracket off their other dogmatic statements about man’s superiority among God’s creations. Not only do non-humans continually instruct human observers, but early-modern ethical comportment in the world demands caution and deep reflection on the various corporeal and spiritual intrusions that humans constantly experience. The authors I study were not rigidly bounded selves. They were not objective. Their ontological standing above animals and below angels (although this point is contested) was, at best, aspirational and had to do more with an ethical proscription rather than a scientific or cosmological fact.

This is the grey area that we find ourselves in when drawing on very immanent phenomenological experience that has immediate ethical implications and making the grand leap outward to implicate the world at large. I don’t mean to universalize the claims made from my examination of a 17th century manuscript archive in Hyderabad. The tools of New Materialism and ANT work to help describe counter-hegemonic ethical orientations, but I am not sure they can proscribe solutions to the problems of very real, specific, and contingent human selves.

 

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.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.

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Ecological Ecumenicism, Forever Ethical?

After the material turn, it should come as no surprise that scholars are taking a wide aperture approach to religious studies. Actor Network Theory (ANT) and various strains of New Materialism help in formulating horizontal connections between all sorts of objects that speak back to religious people. The strictly discursive approach to religion as dogma is critiqued for neglecting to account for physical bodies, selves and others, that produce ethical orientations. The network approach will lead—should lead—to a global reckoning of how religions are involved in the governance of the physical world. Or according to Whitney Bauman, a planetary account of all that religions have ruined in the name of upholding a strict adherence to traditional ontologies. He recently sat down with George Ioannides to discuss the ideas animating his new book, Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic.

Bauman suggests that a planetary approach to “various modes of becoming” may help religious studies scholars move further away from an austere dogmatic favoring of (arbitrary) religious essences over accidents, and allow for a more authentic engagement with what it means to be religious itself. This means a bringing-together of humans, their various artificial technologies, natural environments, and all non-human members of those lifeworlds that are usually dealt short shrift from religious attitudes that focus on that which lies beyond the physical world.

Drawing on Gayatri Spivak, Bauman embraces the “planetary” over the “globalized” view of ethical habitus. The latter, he claims, tends to reflect what a hegemonic first world dictates through ideology and material practice as an exclusive mode of existing. The planetary approach instead maintains “difference” as a universal commonality and a point of departure from which we can begin to think and discuss a sort of ethical management that accounts for all planetary members.

Clearly Bauman is building on other discussions about an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach to ethics. This has been advanced in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000), Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder (2010), and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010)— titles that have been popping up recently at the AAR—along with most of Bruno Latour’s work.

Bauman mobilizes this matter-oriented critical theory to argue for a religiously informed approach to ameliorate the malignant environmental effects arising from an exclusively human-centric ethical outlook.

In the environmental debate, I would go so far as to argue that Bauman is himself arguing religiously. What I mean is that an overtly eschatological vision of planetary over-consumption, ecological mismanagement, and inevitable population devastation occasions this ethical reorientation in the first place. In Bauman’s view, exclusively-human modes of existence neglect the wellbeing of non-humans. However, he does not entertain the idea that nonhuman planetary members that have the benefit of rapid evolution may benefit in currently unforeseen ways from our “damage” to the earth’s ecosystem. Therefore, while claiming to remedy the excesses of anthropocentric thinking, Bauman’s eschatology remains overtly anthropocentric. Perhaps that has more to do with political expediency and the affective attunements of most moderns who only change their behavior in the short term when they are the ones suffering in the long term.

But if we accept his basic premise, that we should resist a monolithic global outlook that necessarily privileges one cultural interpretation of human need over all others—how do we arrive at the conversation in the first place, together, in order to identify what levels of environmental devastation are acceptable and what are tolerated externalities created in the name of development? I’m writing from a very sooty Hyderabad, where this is very much an open question. The presentist concerns that motivate certain countries like India to invest in technology at the expense of clean air should also be understood in tandem with other practices that routinely and willingly except certain human lives as collateral for the function and hygienic maintenance of other segments of society. We may demand action from institutions like religions to offer greater care for subaltern planetary members, but we’re still not at all on the same page about human membership and what it means to value humans as selves to begin with.

For this reason, I want to like Bauman’s project, but I do so from a strictly first-world vantage as I remain skeptical of thought projects that claim to be universal in their application, especially those based on human reason.

I do agree with most of Bauman’s political sentiments, especially for retooling human ethical calculus within the fragile ecological matrix at a much deeper level. Yet, introducing ecological orientations and philosophies from ‘eastern’ religions such as Daoism and Buddhism packaged through New Materialist philosophies will not have significant effects on the planetary debate. After all, these ideas have been around for a while and have not supplanted our ingrained ontological moorings with something greener on a wide scale.

I believe Bauman could offer more direct comments about how to engage with monotheist traditions that are responsible for much ecological and human devastation. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have established pernicious onto-theologies at various historical junctions that have bred violence against other humans in the name of constructing pious communities: post-revolutionary Iranian discrimination of religious minorities like Baha’is; Manifest Destiny of the 19th Century that shattered remaining American communities; and unending militant settler-colonialism in occupied Palestine are just a few examples that come to mind. How do these hierarchical societal manifestations of religious sentiment reform and “expand the locus of ethical and moral concerns beyond tribe and nation to all humanity?” These religions, as institutions, would not necessarily start caring more about the planet if they resolved their issues with non-member humans. We have the convenience of being environmentalists and conservationists while maintaining racist and authoritarian exclusivity, after all.

As a fellow Arkansan using ANT and New Materialist theory in my work, I instead reduce the aperture of my studies on early-modern Persianate Islam to focus on much more localized religious experience. The writings of Iranian physicians, occultists, and naturalists are replete with discourse about animals, plants, gemstones, auspicious astral formations, diseases of the eye, and tales of monsters that force me to bracket off their other dogmatic statements about man’s superiority among God’s creations. Not only do non-humans continually instruct human observers, but early-modern ethical comportment in the world demands caution and deep reflection on the various corporeal and spiritual intrusions that humans constantly experience. The authors I study were not rigidly bounded selves. They were not objective. Their ontological standing above animals and below angels (although this point is contested) was, at best, aspirational and had to do more with an ethical proscription rather than a scientific or cosmological fact.

This is the grey area that we find ourselves in when drawing on very immanent phenomenological experience that has immediate ethical implications and making the grand leap outward to implicate the world at large. I don’t mean to universalize the claims made from my examination of a 17th century manuscript archive in Hyderabad. The tools of New Materialism and ANT work to help describe counter-hegemonic ethical orientations, but I am not sure they can proscribe solutions to the problems of very real, specific, and contingent human selves.

 

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.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.