Review:  Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom

by Jeffrey J. Kripal

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Also on this website:

Toby Johnson's books:

GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness

GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

You're Not A Wave

What is Enlightenment?

What is reincarnation?

How many lifetimes in an ego?

Emptiness & Religious Ideas

Experiencing experiencing experiencing

Going into the Light

Meditations for a Funeral

Meditation Practice

The way to get to heaven

Buddha's father was right

Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal

The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika

Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva

John Boswell was Immanuel Kant

The Two Loves

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook

Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer

The Way Out by Christopher L  Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson

Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry

Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr

Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois

Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson

Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low

Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman

The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman

Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor

Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine

The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada

The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook

The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther

The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel

Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak

Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez

Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr

Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano

The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo

The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan

Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass

Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen

War Between Materialism and Spiritual by Jean-Michel Bitar

The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal

The Invitation to Love by Darren Pierre

Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration by Daniel A Helminiak

A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides by Andrew Harvey

Can Christians Be Saved? by Stephenson & Rhodes

The Lost Secrets of the Ancient Mystery Schools by Stephenson & Rhodes

Keys to Spiritual Being by Adrian Ravarour

In Walt We Trust by John Marsh

Solomon's Tantric Song by Rollan McCleary

A Special Illumination by Rollan McCleary

Aelred's Sin by Lawrence Scott

Fruit Basket by Payam Ghassemlou

Internal Landscapes by John Ollom

Princes & Pumpkins by David Hatfield Sparks

Yes by Brad Boney

Blood of the Goddess by William Schindler

Sanctity & Male Desire by Donald Boisvert

Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson

The Mystic as Writer, Writer as Mystic

Roads of Excess
Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism

By Jeffrey J. Kripal

University of Chicago Press, 2001
pages, Trade paperback, $34 new, $18.99 used

New & Used copies available from,
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Roads of Excess

5 stars

In Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, 
Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of comparative religion, now at Rice University, presents the argument that writing—and reading—about mysticism is itself a kind of mystical induction practice that can result in the experience of such mystical states in the writer/reader. To elucidate his point, he examines the lives and writings of five historians of mysticism and religion: Evelyn Underhill, English upperclass lady and author of the classic eponymously titled survey of (mostly) medieval Christian concepts of the stages of the spiritual journey Mysticism; Louis Massignon, French anthropologist, Islamicist and conflicted homosexual, author of The Passion of al-Hallaj; R.C. Zaenher, Oxford professor and conservative critic of psychedelic experience, author of Mysticism Sacred and Profane; Agehananda Bharati, Viennese, Jewish-born turned Hindu Syracuse University professor and champion of modern Tantrism and erotic spirituality; and Elliot Wolfson, NYU professor and author of Speculum, a hermeneutical study of Jewish Kabbalism.

I've read several of Kripal's books; I am impressed with his scholarship and with his insightfulness. I am amazed with the breadth of knowledge he seems to demonstrate. A theme that runs through his writing is that the study of comparative religion almost necessarily results--in both the teacher and the students--in a kind of enlightenment about the nature of religion itself, what Kripal calls a "gnosticism," the discovery of a secret that most believers just don't known about. (I resonate with that idea. I am author of a book titled The Myth of the Great Secret; it's the same secret Kripal writes about—I think.)

The title of this present book comes from English poet and literary character dubbed "insane, genius, prophet," William Blake. In the book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he writes: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Kripal finds that emotional trauma and psychological conflict—the "excess"—can be a source of religious experience, along with,
of course, drugs, fasting, endurance of hardship, self-mortifications, but also intense eroticism and sexual desire—and indeed the eroticism blended into the trauma.

Massignon and Zaehner were both devoutly religious and therefore conflicted over their homosexuality. Homophobic anxiety seems to be one of the causes of religious zeal. (This is an idea that appears, in an only slightly different context, in Donald Boisvert's Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints. Boisvert proposes "that a significant, if not a predominant, number of male saints have been homosexual, that they have struggled with the meaning of same-sex desire in their lives, most often for the person of Christ, that some succumbed to their sexual urges, while others chose quite consciously to sublimate their needs in works of heroic Christian virtue and fortitude. And, furthermore, that such needs and desires, as evil, sinful, or condemnable as they were thought to be by the saints themselves or by any number of "godly" others, have been the core, fundamental forces for good, motivating, sustaining, nourishing, and inspiring these great works.")

Indeed, Kripal points out that traditional Christian (and Jewish and Islamic, in their own different ways) mystical teaching, called "bridal mysticism," inculcates homoerotic emotions toward God and Jesus in males who must then take on the female role in relationship to the Divine Lover AND then the same tradition condemns homosexuality and homosexual feelings. While this taboo violation may sublimate sexual drive into mystical rapture--and maybe resulted in sanctity in a character like St John of the Cross--in a modern, psychologically sophisticated, post-Freud, sexually aware, self-conscious individual, it more likely results in spiritual malaise and
neurosis because it doesn't make any sense.

In a series of "Secret Talks" interleaved between the scholarly articles, Jeff Kripal tells of his own experience as a heterosexual Catholic seminarian being driven near anorexic by the conflict between love for God as Beloved and his natural heterosexual orientation. (What's a straight boy doing in the seminary?) After leaving seminary, Kripal's interest in comparative religion led him to India and Hinduism where "God" can be conceived as female as well as male. He candidly and intimately reports on a series of his own Tantric, mystical, dream-like experiences of erotic union with the Goddess Kali.

Kripal's openness about his own sexual experiences in the context of a scholarly work about the history of religious studies is itself taboo-violating. And these sequences nicely demonstrate his main argument. As you read his accounts of meeting Kali, you can certainly feel that
when he was writing them he was mystically "turned-on," and you can feel a bit of the rapture yourself in your reading. In fact, he seems to intentionally invoke this power to entrain the reader's mind with his by quoting seemingly disconnected, but evocative entries from his personal journals.

As a novelist myself, I can agree that the process of writing generates a kind of altered state of consciousness, and because I'm fascinated with mysticism and visionary experience and have given my fictional characters such experiences, so that I get to write about them, I've experienced that mystical induction process myself that Kripal writes about. And because I've also written non-fictionally about gay men's spiritual experiences, I understand Kripal's discovery that traditional monotheism with a male God valorizes homosexuality and taboo-violation as a road of excess to divine union. What I've discovered, as a modern, "liberated" gay man, different from Jeffrey Kripal, is that when you take away the homophobia and religious conflict, you get "Gay Spirituality," i.e. a spirituality of the oneness that underlies the dualities of heterosexual experience which see the world split into attracting, but also conflicting opposites. In the gay world, it is sames that attract; so God is not an opposite, God is found within; the attraction to God is the attraction to Self. And "God" can be seen as "Higher Self." What the gay seminarians always knew was that their gay feelings were the best part of them.

Jeff Kripal is a prolific writer. I've been impressed by everything I've read of his. In spite of his writing about complex and abstruse topics, his writing style is relatively easy to read and there's a casual intimacy with the reader that pulls one right in.

Coincidentally/synchronistically, as I was reading Roads of Excess (at the suggestion of fellow gay spiritual writer Jay Michaelson), I also read William Schindler's Tantric vampire novel Blood of the Goddess. It is full of mystical writing and descriptions, almost like special effects in a movie, of divine raptures and visions. In my review I commented that this book demonstrated Jeffrey Kripal's arguments. In follow-up correspondence with Schindler I learned that he'd met Jeff Kripal and that his own fascination with--and life commitment to--Tantrism was in part inspired by Kripal's first book Kali's Child. Small world. Good affirmation.

Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of
Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness, The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell and other novels and books

More about the "marriage of sex and spirit."

I certainly appreciate the "problem" Jeff Kripal experiences with the "bridal mysticism" of Catholic teaching and I agree with his journey to the East to find the solution. Polytheistic Hinduism offers sexually attractive and erotically vibrant goddesses with whom the aspiring mystic can "make love with the Beloved" as a way of connecting with the Divine. You just can't have that kind of emotional, affectual response to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's very loving and nuturing, but as a mother, not a lover; she was conceived without the taint of sexuality and desire.

But the Hindu gods and goddesses are not quite the same as Jesus and Mary and the figures of Western monotheism. The gods aren't as personal; they are more elemental. Kali is less a human woman than she is the feminine principle and the reality of flesh, sex and mortality. Kali will make love to you, but she also might bite off your head and drink your blood as she symbolizes "nature, red in tooth and claw." She is a beautiful woman and an alluring sex-partner, but she's more a visualization in the mind than an actual Other.

It seems to me that the problem Kripal complains of is founded in an out-moded model of relationship with God. The new gnosticism that comes from viewing religion from over and above and outside any tradition discovers that "God" is something else than the personal being, pal-in-the-sky, Santa Claus-like character of popular myth. Rising to a perspective--especially one that appropriately and necessarily includes the scientific model and modern discovery--takes us beyond the personal God.

The "God" that is discovered by comparative religion is more like the evolutionary force of consciousness growing up out of the Cosmos. This God is more like Henri Bergson's Elan Vital, "Life Spirit," and it exists in consciousness, not in material reality. You don't have a personal relationship with the Elan, rather you experience it within yourself as yourself.

R.C. Zaehner was a devout Catholic. He identified three stages of the mystical path: "The Panenhenic Experience, or Nature Mysticism," "The Isolation of the Self or the Mysticism of Isolation," and "The Return of the Self to God or the Mysticism of Love." According to him, the first of these, the "monistic" experience of being one-with-God in a vision of universal monism in which all is One is but the most basic and primitive of mystical states--and one he says is amoral. (It's amoral, perhaps, because Zaehner feared it would allow him to justify acting out his repressed homosexuality.) He held that the highest and truest form of mysticism is personal relationship with God conceived as a person, like Jesus.

I think that's mistaken. It relies on a model of God that is becoming less and less tenable all the time as the human race wakes up from myth an anthropomorphism. I think the monistic experience of Everything-Around-Us as "God," including us, is both more satisfying to the modern mind and more true.

I would argue that the modern mystical experience is less like a loving feeling and emotional, psychological rapture with God as a person, and more a Vision—from a "higher perspective"—of what the universe, and consciousness as a constituitive element within it, really is. This is "seeing from a God's Eye view." And what such a God sees is Itself. The world and time, as we know it, IS God's experience of Itself as the cosmos, through us as the "sensory," experiential organs of that "God."

Science fiction novelist Clifford Simak beautifully describes such a mystical experience of a female character in his little novel (with a curiously gnostic title)
A Choice of Gods.
“The world had opened out and so had the universe, or what she since thought must have been the universe, laying all spread out before her, with every nook revealed, with all the knowledge, all the reasons there—a universe in which time and space had been ruled out because time and space were only put there in the first place to make it impossible for anyone to grasp the universe.”        
        —Clifford Simak, A Choice of Gods

This has certainly been my experience as a meditator and explorer of consciousness. Especially with the assistance of psychedelic drugs, I too have seen the universe laying all spread out before me with every nook revealed, all the know, all there reasons there.

It wasn't so much the content of the psychedelic experiences themselves, but the realization afterwards of how my consciousness had been alterable, and of how some portion of "me"--as the witness--remained. I tell the story of my experience of "being God" and observing the Big Bang from a distance (through the good fortune of winning a straw-pull) in an article on this website called Drawing the Long Straw.

In the Preface, Kripal says this is a book about "secrecy." Sex is something secret. That you can have sex with God or with the Goddess is something you keep a little secret. We don't tell about our most intimate, sexual moments.

So writing as a straight man (but with no hint of homophobia or judgment), Jeff Kripal wants to find the sexuality and eroticism in spirituality, religion, and mysticism. As a young seminarian, he wanted to make love with God, but God was a male. How does a straight man make sexual love with another male? How does he visualize "God" to make "God" sexual attractive?

As a gay man--and so, perhaps, more responsive to Zaehner's Panenhenic Experience--and a graduate of The Body Electric training!--I think the secret is to do it the other way around. The goal is not to put sex into spirituality, but to put spirituality into sex, to discover that there's mystical experience when you're very sexually aroused. This IS what the Body Electric does, isn't it? By learning to achieve what Joseph Kramer calls "high erotic states," you discover you see "the Face of God." And you can do this intentionally with just a few simple aphorisms/mantras. As you reach ejaculatory inevitability, think "Here comes God," and, as you are coming, picture all this pleasure and love you're experiencing pouring out from you into the world like brilliant light and think "May all beings be happy. May all beings be free."

If you are making love with another person, you can experience your love for them as God's love for them and of their love for you as God's love manifest in the flesh. But this God is not a person; this God is the pleasure itself, the altered state of consciousness which puts you in sync with the evolution of the universe into higher and higher levels of lif and consciousness and beyond. You might say, God is the direction it's all going thru time into the future. (This is very much the mysticism of the French Jesuit paleontologist, mystic, writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.)

This isn't "amoral." It is finding the real basis for all morality: compassion. We behave morally and virtuaously with other people when we feel their feelings and understand from their perspectives, i.e., when we "love them as ourselves."

What Jesus meant wasn't love othrrs as much as you love yourself, btu to love others because they ARE your self. We aren't separate from one another, especially at the mystical level.

For heterosexuals, the attraction is to opposites, across the sexual divide. For homosexuals, the attraction is to sames. God is a different other OR God is the deepest self.

My little aphorism about religion and myth goes: "The goal of any spirituality is to experience being in heaven now." The monistic experience--that everything is everything; it's all the same--IS that experience of heaven now.

On the journey to the East, by the way, that secret is revealed in the formula: Tat tvam asi, Thou art That.

Jeffrey Kripal has a very interesting article about the nature of consciousness and "paranormal" experience at Embrace the Unexplained in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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