21 January 2020


Jeffrey J. Kripal, Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

One of the most original and fearless thinkers around, Jeffrey J. Kripal is that rarest of creatures: an academic (Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought) at a respected institution (Rice University) who is willing to admit his acceptance of paranormal and Fortean phenomena of the highest degree of strangeness. Well, rather more than just admit: he places the paranormal at the very heart of his understanding of religion and, indeed, humanity.
He decries our secular, materialist culture’s denial of paranormal experiences, as well as the shaming of those who unwisely talk about or declare their belief in them, a response he calls ‘immunological.’ A big part of his mission is to restore the balance - as he puts it to make the impossible possible again - and that’s even led him to co-write a book with Whitley Streiber (2016’s Super Natural). How many other academics would dare something like that! I told you he was fearless.

And he writes like a dream, clear, passionate and with a wry humour, effortlessly throwing off incisive and oh-so-quotable turns of phrase. (Sample: "A religion is a fantasy that an entire culture is living in.") He delights in paradoxes, ironies and wordplays.

As you might have guessed, I’m a fan, since his 2007 study of the Esalen Institute and, especially, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics, one of the first books I reviewed here.

Secret Body - the title is Kripal’s free translation of Catholicism’s corpus mysticum, referring to both the community of believers and the presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread and wine – doesn’t disappoint. It is, as he describes it, part memoir and part manifesto, being made up of essays, lectures, extracts from his books and other writings from his 30-year career, with introductions putting each in context and, where necessary, afterwords updating or adding new reflections on them. By showing how his thinking has evolved, it serves as a perfect introduction to Kripal’s work and ideas.

Kripal’s intellectual journey falls into two distinct but (at first glance unexpectedly) related halves. In the first, he explored the link between mysticism and sexuality, or as he sums it up ‘the comparative erotics of mystical literature, first applied to my own Christian tradition, then to a Hindu Tantric saint, then to the Western monotheisms as a whole.’ (Kripal uses the words ‘erotics’ and ‘mystics’ in the same sense as ‘physics.’) The second is concerned with the meaning of the paranormal.

The two major parts of the book, ‘Corpus’ and ‘Mysticum’, are devoted to those halves, with a shorter conclusion, ‘Meum’, in which Kripal takes stock of where his road has brought him and sketching his ‘future theory of religion’ or ‘new sacred’. He laces the book with 20 ‘gnomons’, or theses – the insights and conclusions he’s reached in his professional life.

One of the key gnomons (no. 13) – explored in books such as Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics – is that ‘The Paranormal is a Kind of Story’. It has a ‘narrative dimension’, being "a potential story that wants to be told in and as us, a kind of writing of the real writing us," or more pithily, adapting a quote of Philip K. Dick’s, Wwe are not the writers but the written." In Secret Body Kripal has taken that insight to its logical conclusion and applied it to himself, writing the book ‘as if I were a myth become real’ (his emphasis). If it comes across as trippy, he says, that’s because that’s the way his life has been.

Kripal’s career has been controversial and provocative from the start. His early work on religion, in the 1990s, led him to his first gnomon, that of ‘Heretical Heterosexuality’: "in the history of religious literature that employs gendered and erotic language to express a man’s union with the divine, a religiously expressed male homoeroticism tends toward orthodoxy and a religiously expressed male heterosexuality tends toward heresy."

The insight had its origins in Kripal’s time in a Catholic seminary in his native Nebraska, studying to be a monk, when he realised that he was virtually the only straight guy there. His exploration of why this should be was what turned him to an academic, rather than monastic, career.

Kripal’s dictum can be clearly seen in Christianity, in which those texts that present Jesus as a celibate who surrounded himself with an all-male band of disciples became the canon (‘there is nothing straight about the historical memories of Jesus that Christianity has preserved as its canonical New Testament’), while those that give space to his female followers, and which depict him in a close personal and even sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, were condemned and suppressed.

Kripal embraces the theory – as he set out in a 2008 lecture ‘On the Fiction of a Straight Jesus’ - that Jesus really was gay. Unsurprisingly, given the books that Lynn Picknett and I have written, I disagree with him there (it comes down to which set of texts – canonical or heretical - you think most accurately represent the historical Christ), but in terms of Kripal’s overall point it doesn’t really matter as, either way, through its selection and editing of those texts the early Church certainly created a ‘nothing straight’ Jesus.

The seminary revelation awakened an interest in the psychosexual aspects of mysticism and religion, which led Kripal to the realisation that there is a deep connection between the mystical and the erotic. And he continually found the same ‘rule’ of orthodoxy being expressed in homoerotic, and heresy in heteroerotic, terms. (He notes with his usual delight the irony of ‘orthodoxy’ literally meaning ‘straight teaching.’)

Kripal’s study of Eastern mystical traditions, primarily Tantra, led to his discovery that the ‘secret talk’ of the nineteenth-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna included not just sexual, but homoerotic elements that, while blindingly obvious, have been ignored or suppressed by his later devotees. The result was his first book, Kali’s Child (1995), which stirred up a huge controversy in India, even leading to calls for his imprisonment.

Another pivotal event during his time studying Tantra in Calcutta was what he calls ‘That Night’, a personal, mystical-erotic experience of the presence of the goddess Kali, which not only helped his understanding of the mystic but, later, of paranormal ‘entity’ encounters such as Strieber’s.

The study of Eastern religions drew Kripal to their place in the American counterculture – what he calls the ‘North American guru traditions’ - which in turn led him to the California human potential movement and his seven-year Esalen project. And this inevitably brought him into contact with accounts of ‘exotic anomalous experiences, from the parapsychological to the ufological,’ in which he saw striking parallels with the mystical texts and traditions he’d studied.

Kripal takes a panoramic view of the paranormal, covering everything from psi (the British psychical research tradition, especially the work and theories of Frederic Myers, has a big place in his thinking), through ghosts and spirits to bigfoots and UFO encounters. As he emphasises, you can’t separate these things: alien encounters routinely have a psychic element, for example.

For Kripal, paranormal and psychical events are the ‘elephant in the room’ of religious studies: "…I have come to think that very similar psychical phenomena lie at the core of the history of religions, right behind what we traditionally called 'myth', 'miracle', and 'magic'" - what he calls "the countless interventions of the fantastic into human historical time."

Because of religious scholarship’s blindness to the connection, Kripal set out "to fashion a new intellectual language or way of speaking that could take the paranormal seriously and reinsert these key phenomena back into the heart of religion, from which they first emerged and to which they really did belong," seeking – ambitiously - to put the study of the "American paranormal’ on the same academic level as that of the Kabbalah, Tantrism, shamanism, European esotericism and Gnosticism. Or as a colleague put it, ‘to make UFOs sound Ivy League.£

Kripal calls for religious scholarship to accept the reality of present-day paranormal events and to use them to understand religious and mystical events from history - "the burning 'I Am' bushes, haunting ghosts, egoless enlightenments, lightning struck shamans, possessing spirits, throwing poltergeists, and revealing angels (and aliens) of the history of religions" - in what he calls a ‘new comparativism’. Although, as he points out, it’s really a return to the approach of the nineteenth-century psychical research tradition.

It was his own attempt to apply this that led to his collaboration with Whitley Strieber. He argues that, when seen in the context of the history of religion, there’s actually nothing anomalous in Strieber’s experiences: "What I see in the abduction phenomenon, and particularly in the use of hypnosis as a generator of the narrative, is a dramatic model not of aliens and little gray humanoids, much less of some future extraterrestrial assault on planet Earth, but of the irreducible complexities and projections of religion itself."

In one of his characteristic inversions, he challenges the widespread notion that the ancient gods were really aliens: rather, today’s aliens are really the ancient gods.

The next stage of Kripal’s journey was an even stranger one, as he discerned that the roots of sci-fi and superhero fiction, which have had such an impact on America’s (and then the West’s) culture and psyche, were firmly planted in the paranormal (as set out in Mutants and Mystics). And because of his association of the paranormal and the mystic, he came to see the impulse behind the creation and appeal of superhero fiction as essentially religious. Indeed, in another - brilliant - inversion, he writes that religion was the superhero fiction of the ancient world.

In short, Kripal sees mystical traditions, paranormal encounters, and superhero literature as all being expressions of the same thing. No wonder he calls his area of research "the Area 51 of the study of religion".

For Kripal, as I’ve said, the paranormal is a story. A paranormal experience is "a narrative expression, partly empirical, partly symbolic, of a real event that overflows and exhausts any rational explanation." He writes that "paranormal events will never be understood with the mechanistic thinking and causal models of the sciences as they stand now, or any other kind of rational reductionism. They will never be understood in mechanistic terms because they are not about mechanisms. They are about meaning. They are about narrative or, if you prefer, 'myth.'"

It’s something that sooner or later strikes all of us in the Fortean/Magonian camp (and which makes those phenomena impossible for the mechanistic-minded ‘skeptic’ to accept): paranormal events aren’t of the same kind as those in our everyday lives, but seem designed or scripted - and "intentionally, if often mischievously, meaningful" – for those who experience them.

Ultimately it all comes down to the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the material world. For Kripal, paranormal experiences offer clues to the nature of that relationship, representing as they do ‘a temporary collapse of the binary structures of self/world and subjective/objective into the anomalous and the monstrous.’

Kripal considers both literalist religion (exemplified by creationists) and materialistic science (represented by the ‘new atheists’) as equally naïve. Clearly, he wants to shake both up, writing that he wants to make the believer anxious and to provoke the nonbeliever.

For Kripal, ultimately, the point of studying religion isn’t what it tells us about God or the gods, or its theological, ethical and social dimensions, but what it shows us about ourselves, both as we are now and what we might become: "Clearly, if the gods exist, they need us to speak. In truth, I think the gods are us, but that we are not ready to see this yet. I think they are the unconscious, unintegrated part of us speaking to the conscious integrated part of us."

This overview merely scratches the surface. There’s so much more in Secret Body: a lambasting of the current state of the humanities for their materialism and pessimism ("If a truth is to be declared in the humanities, it must meet one criterion: it must be depressing"); the lessons of quantum physics ("I simply do not see how we can go on and on about how everything is local, historical, and contextual when the physicists are telling us, with compelling empirical evidence, that deep down none of this is in fact true"); material on Robert Monroe and his Out-of-the-Body travels, ‘weird Will Blake’, Philip K. Dick’s ‘Valis’ experience, Aldous Huxley, Charles Fort ("the man who did more than anyone to shape the American paranormal") and many others; the parallel between Marian visions and UFO encounters; an original and fascinating exploration of the racial aspects of ET encounters and the place of UFOs in new African-American religions such as the Nation of Islam… and much, much more.

Well, if there’s not enough there to make you want to read the book, I don’t know what will.

In short, Secret Body is, like Jeffrey Kripal’s other works, an important and inspiring book, presenting a sweeping vision not just of the paranormal and religion, but of what it means to be human. 
  • Clive Prince.

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