Table of Contents
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Toby Johnson's Facebook page
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Toby Johnson on Wikipedia
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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
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
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
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: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
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
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism
By Jeffrey J. Kripal
University of Chicago Press, 2001
412 pages, Trade paperback, $34 new, $18.99 used
New & Used copies available from amazon.com,
Roads of Excess
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.”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 what in the male is called "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 life 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 virtuously 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 to love others as much as you love yourself, but 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.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine 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, four 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 and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth
of the Great Secret III tells the story of Johnson's learning the
real nature of religion and myth and discovering the spiritual
qualities of gay male consciousness.
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