Archive for the ‘BOOKS’ Category
Modern Western Magic
Nevill Drury’s “Pathways in Modern Western Magic” is reviewed by John Robert Colombo
This is a hefty and handsome piece of bookmaking, something of a tome, a trade paperback that measures six inches by nine inches. It is bulky for it is one and one-quarter inch thick, with pages glued together rather than stitched, and x+470+6 pages in length. There is an informative introduction, a total of 17 substantial chapters, a section of interesting biographical notes about its contributors (complete with email addresses), and a detailed 27-page index. (The index has a passing reference to Grey Owl, but no reference to P.D. Ouspensky; there is a passing reference to the Great God Pan, but no reference to G.I. Gurdjieff.)
The tome is a collection of accessibly written though unsparingly earnest scholarly papers, each paper with its own endnotes and references, some quite extensive. While there is no list of illustrations, maybe thirty-five black-and-white photographs and drawings appear here and there to illustrate general references in the articles. It is a book to be read intermittently and to be consulted from time to time, should the reader be interested in what the editor identifies as “modern Western magic” and should the aspect of that topic of interest be covered by one of the book’s contributors.
The publisher is Concrescent Press, a relatively new imprint from Seattle, Washington, founded in the late 1990s but only now commissioning and publishing books that may be described as “esoteric.” I will refrain from defining that term, or trying to determine its definition by the publisher Sam Webster, but I will quote how he has described the aim of the press: “Our intention is to build a community of practice and scholarship primarily focused on Pagan Magic.” So it seems that Concrescent Press is an activist, semi-academic imprint that is beginning to specialize in the production of quality books of interest about a subject that is marginal in interest and perhaps imaginal in nature.
Scholars, take note: It is open for business! The publisher even offers a short preface which begins like this: “‘Pathways in Modern Western Magic’ launches a new imprint in the Concrescence family of books. This imprint specializes in peer-reviewed works of scholarship in the fields of Esotericism, Pagan religion and culture, Magic, and the Occult. Concrescent Scholars present their views from within and without the Academy. Here will be heard the Voice of the Academic, and also the Voice of the Practitioner, the native of the sometimes alien, sometimes intimate, spaces of the Esoteric.” My attention was caught by the distinction between “academic” and “practitioner” (both curiously capitalized) and I will refer to that distinction or dichotomy later in this review.
In passing, it is interesting to note that one of the imprint’s first publications is Sam Webster’s own title “Tantric Thelema.” So the press seems to have a definite orientation towards Aleister Crowley and “Crowleyanity” and his notion of magic as change in conformity with will. Although the word “concrescent” and its cognate “concrescence” are not widely used, they have a recognized meaning in biology to refer to the “growing together of related parts, tissues, or cells” or simply “the amassing of physical particles, or cells.” It presumably means the opposite of “excrescence”!
A book’s index speaks volumes about that title, and this index supplies a clue concerning who’s who and what’s what. For instance, there are 7 page references to Sigmund Freud; 18 to Carl Jung; 36 to Rose and Aleister Crowley. In the same vein, Consciousness and God run neck to neck with 90 and 91 references respectively, only to be outdone by tireless Time (with 128 references). The highest score goes to Magic/Magick at 271 references, so that for every two pages of the book there is one mention of the magical arts.
What the book’s index describes is dramatized by the book’s table of contents. Simplifying the principle of organization, the reader who stays with the text from page 1 to page 470 will encounter chapters that concentrate on the following subjects or topics: two theoretical considerations of esotericism in the West in our time; two discussions of Wicca; three analyses of what is called “Neo-Shamanism” and “Seidr oracles”; two deliberations about the Golden Dawn and Crowley’s “Thelemic Sex Magick”; one chapter on “Dragon Rouge” or the “Left-Hand Path”; three chapters on the Church of Satan, the Temple of Set, and “the Magical Life of Ithell Colquhoun”; a consideration of “two Chthonic Magical Artists” (Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton); one section on “Chaos Magics in Britain”; a forward-looking discussion of “Technoshamans and Cybershamans”; and one section on “a Hybridized Tantra Practice.” That is a lot to digest.
For the record, here are the names of the contributors of those chapters (sidestepping the multiple contributions made by the book’s editor): Nevill Drury, Lynne Hume, Dominique Beth Wilson, Nikki Bado, Marguerite Johnson, Andrei A. Znamenski, Robert J. Wallis, Jenny Blain, Thomas Karlsson, James R. Lewis, Don Webb, Amy Hale, Dave Evans, Libuše Martínková, Paul Hine. The majority of these scholars are widely published, they hold advanced degrees (some in interdisciplinary studies), and they mainly teach in departments of Anthropology, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Sociology, etc., with universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. I did not spot a single psychologist or psychiatrist, or any professor who teaches a course in Literature. (I think the latter is an interesting observation.)
The names of all of the contributors are new to me, including that of Nevill Drury, whom I should have known about, who is described as “an independent researcher whose specialist interests include contemporary Western magic, shamanism and visionary art.” Experienced as a book editor and publisher in his native Australia, he holds a doctorate on the Western esoteric tradition from the University of Newcastle. His book “Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic” was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. He contributes a couple of chapters and writes in a way that is at once accomplished and appealing.
These details may be of incidental interest, but they set the stage for the discussion that follows. To use the distinction introduced by the publisher, the reviewer of this publication who is an Academic would have to relate it to academic publications by Ronald Hutton, Marina Warner, Joscelyn Godwin, Jeffrey J. Kripal, and other distinguished scholars who have contributed original research to the field, especially to the SUNY Press series on Western Occultism, whereas the reviewer who is a Practitioner would find it necessary to relate it to handbooks, manuals, grimoires, and half the books issued by Llewellyn Publications, Samuel Weiser Inc., and Watkins Publishing. It is not often that the twain do meet.
It is unlikely there is a single reader of this review who has this dual background – including the writer of the present review! – so a reasonable course to take here is to comment on each chapter to assure the prospective reader that the book is serious in intent, in interest, and in information. As the same time I have yet to be convinced (a) that there is a single chapter that is indispensable reading for the light it sheds on its subject, and (b) that the chapters dovetail in some unexpected way to form a whole that suggests that there is a paradigm for a new way to understand the subject matter and its supposed cohesiveness. In sum, the value of the collection is about equal to the sum of its parts.
I have somewhat the same reaction to this book as I had when in 2008 I reviewed for this website Joscelyn Godwin’s The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions. The thread in that title is tangled and frayed and knotted: one thing happens after another without causal connection, though its knowledgeable and perceptive author offered his own “authoritative” voice to the puzzles and the mysteries that he described and discussed. This same problem was faced by Manly P. Hall way back in 1928 when, at the tender age of twenty-seven and all by himself, he researched and published The Secret Teachings of All Ages, which is the great-mother and mother-lode of all such books as these. (I also reviewed Hall’s work for this website.) Perhaps the fault here lies in the nature of the so-called Western tradition of esotericism, which includes magic, for the “tradition” seems to be discontinuous, a helter-skelter of false starts and abrupt stops. There seems to be no transcendent principle at work. Such, anyway, seems to be the fate of books that comprise the library of paradoxography.
“Pathways in Modern Western Magic” might better be retitled “Footpaths in Modern Western Magic.” There is something makeshift about the choice of what is included and what is excluded. A “pathway” suggests a well-defined religious goal, like a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, whereas a “footpath” suggests a walk through the woods in Indian file to no discernible destination, though a lot of ground is covered. No mention is made of some related subjects – including psychical research, parapsychology, psychokinesis, imaging techniques, the Algonkian oracular complex, consciousness studies, LSD, neuroimaging, brain research, consciousness studies. For instance, there is a lot that is “magical” and even “magickal” about UFOs, as Jung knew, but not in these pages.
Mythopoesis is short-changed, and the writers fail to turn to the literary imagination to illustrate their points. Perhaps it never occurred to them, though assuredly many of their points were memorably made by poets like William Blake (who goes without a single reference in the index) and Kathleen Raine (who is merely footnoted). It might be said (by me anyway) that Nevill Drury, the editor, is so intent on covering serious subjects of less-than-usual interest, that he neglects popular subjects of more-than-passing interest. To his credit he commissioned the majority of these substantial studies; only a few of which seem to have received prior publication. To the extent that the book is devoted to “magic/magick” in theory and practice – or given the academic tone, to theoria and praxis – it is detailed, and some of the chapters are comprehensive. The historical record gives way to the contemporary record and the 20th and 21st centuries have been rich ones indeed to innovations in this field (or in these pastures). At times I visualized Mages collected around tables and shrines and altars looking for all the world like historical reenactors, thuribles at the ready!
What I really miss are two chapters that should be written: one chapter devoted to contemporary churches in the West with their fundamentalist religious practices which are magical to the core (prophecy, faith-healing, speaking in tongues, revelators, etc.), and another chapter devoted to the depiction (as distinct from the description) of the magical arts in the literature and film of our time and place. But the first chapter would have to be written with great tact, and as for the second chapter, there is probably an unwillingness to regard any of the rituals and relationships and correspondences of these “magicks” as the products of the literary mind and the productions of the fictional imagination. This I feel is a loss (but it is also the subject for another article).
To suggest the seriousness and enthusiasm that are characteristic of this book, here is a survey of it chapter by chapter, with one or two impressions of each chapter, taken almost at random to suggest the richness in research, thought, and expression.
Introduction: Nevill Drury reminds us of the anthropological distinction between “etic” accounts and “emic” accounts — the former being accounts presented from the outside, the latter being accounts presented from the inside. Scholar or practitioner, self-exploration and spiritual renewal, these matters are stressed. The foundation is well and truly laid.
Chapter 1: “Lifting the Veil.” Lynne Hume pursues the characteristics of the “emic” approach and along the way examines altered states of consciousness, emotion, imagination, experience, epistemology, etc. The essential irrationality of magic is understood and not dismissed.
Chapter 2: “The Visual and the Numinous.” Dominique Beth Wilson examines the experience of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that is the basis of Pagan (capitalized) and Neopagan practice. The activities of the Applegrove coven in Sydney, Australia, are described in interesting detail.
Chapter 3: “Encountering the Universal Triple Goddess of Wicca” is a discussion by Nikki Bado of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. There is a detailed consideration of the place of dichotomy and of evolving paradigms. What is required is that we “learn to see the shifting play of light and dark, to see dynamic polarities rather than dichotomies.”
Chapter 4: “Away from the Light.” The dark aspects of the goddess have attracted the attention of Marguerite Johnson who examines in some detail Wicca, Neo-paganism, and Witchcraft. I like the discussion of the primal “egregore” which “denotes a collective force that is made manifest by meditation and ritual.”
Chapter 5: “Neo-Shamanism in the United States,” contributed by Andrei A. Znamenski, mentions Mircea Eliade and Carlos Castaneda but concentrates on Michael Harner and Native American shamanism. The idea is floated that “anti-structure” is “an ideal structure for contemporary educated Westerners, who are too skeptical to commit themselves to group values and who, at the same time, long for spiritual experience.” (This is a variation on the theme of “the religion of no religion” with respect to Esalen.)
Chapter 6: “Neo-Shamanism in Europe.” Robert J. Wallis considers the “construct” of the notion of shamanism which has been part of European consciousness for the last two centuries and part of its practice for millennia. One section-heading reads: “Everyone’s a shaman: Decontextualising and universalising shamans.” There is a reference to “entheogen,” “to inspire the god within,” and the psychedelic nature or component of the experience.
Chapter 7: “Seidr Oracles” is the work of Jenny Blain and it refers to North European shamanistic work. Seers and seeresses here are heavily influenced by the Old Norse sagas, and the chapter introduces words and phrases like “Heathenry and Earth Religions.” Of all the chapters, this one is probably the most descriptive and informative for the lay reader.
Chapter 8: “Magical Practices in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” by Nevill Drury is a one-stop yet quite-thorough history of this most-influential magical order, one that attracted and influenced Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats, among other writers. There is much discussion of its Tree of Life, symbolism, correspondences, and visionary practices.
Chapter 9: “The Thelemic Sex Magick of Aleister Crowley” is also by Nevill Drury and it tells the reader all that it is necessary to know about this mage, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the “elixir” of his “sex magick.” There is more information and theory in these pages than there are details about practice and procedure.
Chapter 10. “The Draconian Tradition” is subtitled “Dragon Rouge and the Left-Hand Path.” Thomas Karlsson discusses the primal forces before creation and by stressing the darker energies holds to the alchemical principle “en to pan” (all is one). Taoism, Tantra, Kundalini, Crazy Wisdom … all these come to mind and to body.
Chapter 11: “Claiming Hellish Hegemony.” James R. Lewis tells – and retells – the story of Anton La Vey, the Church of Satan, and the “Satanic Bible.” Many times has the story been told, but here the retelling distinguishes between the heroic legend and the sordid fact. The hodge-podge construction of the influential “Satanic Bible” is really quite extraordinary.
Chapter 12: “Modern Black Magic” by Don Webb begins, “When I joined the Temple of Set in 1989.” It discusses the syncretistic nature of the cult or sect’s dogma and ritual and ends “with a few recommendations for further reading.” The Temple seems both authentic and eccentric!
Chapter 13: “The Magical Life of Ithell Colquhoun.” Amy Hale looks at the “innovative spirit” of the artist with the memorable name, placing her initially among the Surrealists, latterly among the Celtic-influenced magicians. It is a sympathetic introduction to her art and texts.
Chapter 14: “Two Chthonic Magical Artists.” Nevill Drury’s sympathies go to the British visionary artist Austin Osman Spare whose work is better known than that of the bohemian Australian witch Rosaleen Norton. Text and illustrations are combined to make memorable introductions to their work.
Chapter 15: “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” is the title of Dave Evans’s study of “Chaos magics.” Crowley is a key influence here, but so is relativism and deconstruction and the suggestion that there are times “when Chaos becomes the Norm.”
Chapter 16: “The Computer-Mediated Religious Life of Technoshamans and Cybershamans.” This long-winded title introduces Libuše Martínková and her study of how computers and digital technologies are influencing everything from shamanic practice to lucid dreaming. It ends with a consideration of reality in terms of “the issue of virtuality.”
Chapter 17: “The Magic Wonderland of the Senses” is subtitled “Reflections on a Hybridised Tantra Practice.” Phil Hine looks at Tantra and Shakti and Kali through both occult and scholarly eyes, and decides they require no more “Western universalised esoteric schemas” but “the wider cultural formations of India.”
At one point I took a break from reading the heady descriptive and analytic prose that constitutes “Pathways” to reread “The Circular Ruins,” a short, highly imaginative story written by Jorge Luis Borges. First published in 1941 and widely reprinted, this work of fiction includes a passage in which its unnamed narrator, addressing himself, ponders the “enigmas” of the world. His words capture some of the possibilities of philosophical notions that are taken with the utmost seriousness in “Pathways.”
Here is that passage: “He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres – much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind. He understood that initial failure was inevitable.”
The story is readily available in the Penguin Book edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Mysticism” (2010) edited and introduced by Maria Kodama. It takes the reader farther – and further – along the “footpaths” of “Pathways in Modern Western Magic.”
John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist who lives in Toronto and is known as Canada’s “Master Gatherer.” He contributed the Foreword to Eureka Press’s recently published study “Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” by Paul Beekman Taylor. He has collected the hitherto uncollected short fiction and reminiscences of Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu; the titles of these books are “Pipe Dreams” and “The Crime Magnet.” His website is < http://www.colombo.ca >
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If you liked the above review you may like his Foreword to Eureka Press’s recently published study “Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” by Paul Beekman Taylor, at http://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/ Gurdjieff’s teaching: for scholars and practitioners an independent site which looks at the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff-related studies with reference to both practitioners and scholars.’ Sophia Wellbeloved.
28 Nov. 2012
Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press
Anna Fedele offers a sensitive ethnography of alternative pilgrimages to French Catholic shrines dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Drawing on more than three years of fieldwork, she describes how pilgrims from Italy, Spain, Britain, and the United States interpret Catholic figures, symbols, and sites according to theories derived from the international Neopagan movement.
Fedele pays particular attention to the pilgrims’ life stories, rituals and reading. She examines how they devise their rituals, how anthropological literature has influenced them, and why this kind of spirituality is increasingly prevalent in the West. These pilgrims cultivate spirituality in interaction with each other and with textual sources: Jungian psychology, Goddess mythology, and “indigenous” traditions merge into a corpus of practices centered upon the worship of the Goddess and Mother Earth, and the sacralization of the reproductive cycle. Their rituals present a critique of Roman Catholicism and the medical establishment, and question contemporary discourse on gender.
“In this theoretically nuanced and ethnographically rich study, Anna Fedele carefully lays out the complex and imaginative worlds of Mary Magdalene’s contemporary spiritual pilgrims and their sacred landscapes of European forests, waters, caves, and rocks imbued with symbol and meaning. Immersing herself in their created ceremonies, she reports back to us with sensitivity and insight about their reinterpretations of gender, sexuality, community, and religion.”
Sarah M. Pike, author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community
“This is a rich, thoughtful, and quite startling account of the new spirituality around Mary Magdalene, and around menstruation, darkness and the creativity of loss.”
Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University
Oxford Ritual Studies Series, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press
I SBN10: 0-19-989842-
Announcing a new peer-reviewed sourcebook on the Western Esoteric Tradition:
Pathways in Modern Western Magic Edited by Nevill Drury
This authoritative multi-authored volume – with contributions by specialist scholars as well as leading magical practitioners – provides a fascinating overview of the many different pathways that help define esoteric belief and practice in modern Western magic. Included here are chapters on the late 19th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the influential Thelemic doctrines of Aleister Crowley, and the different faces of the Universal Goddess in Wicca and the pagan traditions. Also included are chapters on Neo-shamanism in Europe and the United States – and an account of how these traditions have in turn influenced the rise of technoshamanism in the West. Also featured here are insider perspectives on Seidr oracles, hybridised Tantra, contemporary black magic, the Scandinavian Dragon Rouge and Chaos magic in Britain – as well as profiles of the magical artists Ithell Colquhoun, Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton.
Nikki Bado * Jenny Blain * Nevill Drury * Dave Evans * Amy Hale * Phil Hine * Lynne Hume * Marguerite Johnson * Thomas Karlsson * James R. Lewis * Libuše Martínková * Robert J. Wallis * Don Webb * Dominique Beth Wilson * Andrei A. Znamenski
Lifting the veil: an emic approach to magical practice LYNNE HUME
The visual and the numinous: material expressions of the sacred in contemporary paganism DOMINIQUE BETH WILSON
Encountering the Universal Triple Goddess in Wicca NIKKI BADO
Away from the light – dark aspects of the Goddess MARGUERITE JOHNSON
Neo-shamanism in the United States ANDREI A. ZNAMENSKI
Neo-shamanism in Europe ROBERT J. WALLIS
Seidr oracles JENNY BLAIN
Magical practices in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn NEVILL DRURY
The Thelemic sex magick of Aleister Crowley NEVILL DRURY
The Draconian Tradition: Dragon Rouge and the Left-Hand Path THOMAS KARLSSON
Claiming hellish hegemony: Anton LaVey, The Church of Satan and the Satanic Bible JAMES R. LEWIS
Modern black magic: initiation, sorcery and the Temple of Set DON WEBB
The magical life of Ithell Colquhoun AMY HALE
Two chthonic magical artists: Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton NEVILL DRURY
Nothing is true, everything is permitted: Chaos magics in Britain DAVE EVANS
The computer mediated religious life of technoshamans and cybershamans Libuše Martínková
The magic wonderland of the senses: reflections on a hybridised Tantra practice PHIL HINE
Published by Concrescent Scholars http://www.concrescent.net/book/pathways-modern-western-magic
Contact publisher directly for quantity and book-trade discounts: email@example.com
Individual copies also available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Modern-Western-Magic-Nevill/dp/0984372997/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349290662&sr=8-1&keywords=Pathways+in+Modern+Western+Magic 6×9 in., Paperback, 484 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9843729-9-7 *
Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion is a unique account of the living spirituality and mysticism of fairyfolk in Ireland. Fairyfolk are fairyminded people who have had direct experiences with the divine energy and appearance of fairies, and fairypeople, who additionally know that they have been reincarnated from the Fairy Realm. While fairies have been folklore, superstition, or fantasy for most children and adults, now for the first time in a scholarly work, highly educated persons speak frankly about their religious/spiritual experiences, journeys, and transformations in connection with these angel-like spirit beings. Set in academic and popular historical perspectives, this first scholarly account of the Fairy Faith for over a hundred years, since believer Evans-Wentz’s 1911 published doctoral dissertation The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, integrates a participatory, going native anthropology with transpersonal psychology. Providing extensive verbatim interviews and discussions, this path-breaking work recognizes the reality of nature spirit beings in a Western context. Through intensive on-site fieldwork, the PhD cultural anthropologist author discovers, describes and interviews authentic mystics aligned with these intermediary deific beings. With an extensive introduction placing fairies in the context of the anthropology of religion, animism, mysticism, and consciousness, this daring ethnography considers notions of belief , perception , and spiritual experience , and with intricate detail extends the focus of anthropological research on spirit beings which previously have been considered as locally real only in indigenous and Eastern cultures.
The book is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2012) in hard cover with 295 pages.
Dennis Gaffin, PhD, is a Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. Gaffin s earlier fieldwork was on the Faeroe Islands. In recent years he has traveled and conducted research primarily in Ireland and India. He teaches comparative religion, cultural ecology, and medical anthropology. In addition to the ethnography In Place: Spatial and Social Order in a Faeroe Islands Community, he has published articles in academic and popular journals.
|Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions When you think of astrology, you may think of the horoscope section in your local paper, or of Nancy Reagan’s consultations with an astrologer in the White House in the 1980s. Yet almost every religion uses some form of astrology: some way of thinking about the sun, moon, stars, and planets and how they hold significance for human lives on earth.Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions offers an accessible overview of the astrologies of the world’s religions, placing them into context within theories of how the wider universe came into being and operates. Campion traces beliefs about the heavens among peoples ranging from ancient Egypt and China, to Australia and Polynesia, and India and the Islamic world.Addressing each religion in a separate chapter, Campion outlines how, by observing the celestial bodies, people have engaged with the divine, managed the future, and attempted to understand events here on earth. This fascinating text offers a unique way to delve into comparative religions and will also appeal to those intrigued by New Age topics.=============================================
Nicholas Campion is senior lecturer in the School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology, director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, and course director of the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. His books include the two-volume A History of Western Astrology.“
”This innovative study presents astrologies and cosmologies – broadly conceived – as counterparts and mirrors of human societies. Unlike most students of astrology, Campion transcends the limitations of the Western tradition to examine the nature and roles of astrological and cosmological concepts in cultures from all continents. His examples provide original insights into how cosmologies shape these cultures’ artistic, intellectual, and religious activities.”
Stephen McCluskey, West Virginia University
John Robert Colombo compares and contrasts lectures delivered eighty-four years apart by William James and Carl Sagan.
William James 1842 – 1910)
Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)
It is safe to say that the Gifford Lectureships are the outstanding series of lectures in their field of study, but it is also safe to say that their field of study is hardly the pre-eminent one that it once was. The series was established by Adam Lord Gifford, a leading jurist in Scotland, with a bequest to four universities to co-sponsor a series of lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term – in other words, the knowledge of God.” The lectures have been delivered annually since 1888, with the exception of years during the Second World War. The four universities are those of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Aberdeen.
Many significant books of science and the humanities, including theology, have been based on the texts of these lectures. Recent lectures have been broadcast in part on YouTube. For some time now the Gifford website has been sponsored by the Templeton Fund which tries its level best (without notable success) to reconcile religion and science by directing some of its vast wealth to the men and women and movements who or which try to do so.
The Gifford lecturers are recognized to be the pre-eminent thinkers in their respective fields. The list of the 120 or so speakers includes “household names,” and proof of this is that so many of the speakers are recognized by their last names alone: Arendt, Bohr, Dewey, Frazer, Gilson, Heisenberg, von Hügel, Müller, Murdoch, Niebuhr, Schweitzer, Tillich, Watson, Whitehead, etc.
In that list of “last names,” I did not include James because William James, the philosopher who was a Gifford lecturer, might be confused with his brother Henry James, the novelist who was not. Nor did I include in the high-recognition category the name Sagan, which identifies the celebrated astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan. (I will compare and contrast their contributions in due course.)
It is of passing interest to note that two distinguished Canadian philosophers have lately addressed these Scottish university audiences: Patricia Churchland in 2009 and Charles Taylor in 2010. Churchland is a noted “neurophilosopher” and Taylor is a “communitarian critic” of the modern-day project of liberalism and secularism. I lack the competence to assess Churchland’s many contributions to the nexus of neurology and philosophy, but I find Taylor’s critique of “the secular age” to be suave though largely beside the point.
It is of more-than-passing interest to compare and contrast the Gifford Lectures of William James and Carl Sagan. James delivered his series of talks in 1900-02 in Edinburgh; Sagan delivered his series in Glasgow in 1985. Thus they were heard eighty years apart. The title that James gave his series of lectures is so memorable that once heard it is never forgotten. He called it “Varieties of Religious Experience.” The memorably titled book, a classic in its field, was published in 1902, eight years before his death. The Harvard philosopher and psychologist was a brilliant thinker, a gifted writer, and the co-founder of the theory of Pragmatism. As well, he was the systematizer of his chosen field with “Principles of Psychology” published in 1890.
Carl Sagan bears a famous name for his contributions to the popularization of science, especially astronomy and cosmology, which were featured in his thirteen-part, television series Cosmos in 1980. As well as a distinguished astrophysicist, he served as director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies. In due course Sagan became a leading spokesperson for “sceptical inquiry.”
His Gifford talks were titled “The Search for Who We Are” but the series was not published under that title but as Varieties of Scientific Experience. Note the substitution of the word “scientific” for the word “religious.” These Gifford lectures were delivered in 1985, Sagan died in 1996, and the book appeared in 2006. The editing, the publication, and perhaps the titling were undertaken by Ann Druyan, the author’s widow and a talented writer and presenter in her own right. In many ways the title is quite appropriate, for it recalls the earlier title of James’s book and it strikes the non-scientific reader that it could be regarded as an updated version of James’s argument, a revisioning of what is essentially a religious-scientific discussion.
James was a psychologist through and through, Sagan an astrophysicist through and through. James peered into the human soul (that is, the innermost nature of man) to find the rationale for the “religious experience.” To accomplish the same end, Sagan peered into the heavens (in the sense of the planets and the galaxies) to find the fundament of the “scientific experience.” One professor explored the depths of man, the other professor the heights of creation. James was a materialist for whom ideas mattered, and the same may be said of Sagan. The fabled “sense of wonder” was common to both men, and they conveyed its excitement when they expatiated on the surprises found in their subjects. James’s book is subtitled “A Study in Human Nature.” Sagan’s book is subtitled “A Personal View of the Search for God” in the same way that his television series Cosmos was subtitled “A Personal Voyage.” What the dual approaches to the mysteries of man’s nature and the nature of the universe is the mind of man.
Much changed in the Western world and its human values between the year 1900 when James delivered his lectures and the year 1985 when Sagan addressed his audience. The term “Natural Theology” fell out of favour and so did the unthinking respect that intellectuals paid to partisan proponents of biblical scholarship. Sagan began his lecture on “The God Hypothesis” with these words:
“The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be on the topic of natural theology. Natural theology has long been understood to mean theological knowledge that can be established by reason and experience and experiment alone. Not by revelation, not by mystical experience, but by reason. And this is, in the long, historical sweep of the human species, a reasonably novel view.”
Sagan found this view laudable, but only up to a point. Thereupon he dismissed all the traditional arguments for the existence of God (or gods) and substituted for them arguments found in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Darwin’s natural selection, arguments that account for man’s continued and unthinking belief in a hierarchy of unseen deities or dimensions. He did this in a lecture or chapter titled “The God Hypothesis.”
In the early years of the Twentieth Century, psychologists tackled the problems posed by psychical research and this would have delighted James who, after all, had served as president of both the British and the American Societies for Psychical Research. What had been regarded as the study of “abnormal psychological states” came to be considered the study of “anomalous experiences.” One of the most impressive books in the field of psychical research and parapsychological studies is a posthumously published collection of James’s occasional papers on the subject, both abstract and anecdotal, titled William James on Psychical Research, edited by the psychologist Gardner Murphy and the compiler Robert Ballou. James felt that there were “unknowns” in the field, but that they may be destined to remain “forever unknown.”
It is hard to affirm that there has been any progress in the field of Religious Studies (called Comparative Religion or History of Religion) over the last century, certainly none compared with the advances made in science, notably in physics and in astronomy. The physicist’s description of the sub-atomic world went hand-in-hand with the astronomer’s discovery of the expanding universe. James was willing to give spirit-mediums a try, being impressed with the performances of a Mrs. Piper. Sagan dismissed such performances out of hand, instancing the childish and undirected nature of spirit-communication.
In the wake of the Second World War, the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence began to be considered seriously by scientists like Sagan and his colleague Frank Drake (of the famous Drake Equation which quantifies the variables connected with the possible existence right now of other technological civilizations elsewhere in the universe). During the Cold War, Sagan took a leading position in opposition to the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars) and he discussed in harrowing terms the possibility of Nuclear Winter and the extinction of human life on Earth (with the continued existence of some forms of cockroaches and sulphur-eating worms at the bottom of the seas – a fate that casts in the shade the Christian fundamentalists’ Armageddon). All these matters are discussed by Sagan. James would have known about none of this and might well have been horrified by the way societies were behaving in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
“Forever unknown” was not the position taken by Sagan. For a scientist with both speculative and operative capability, he was surprisingly open to dissident theories and wrote remarkable essays, in Broca’s Brain and elsewhere, that examined the fantasies of Velikovsky and the fancies of ufologists. He appreciated the hold that such ideas have on all of us who live on this “pale blue dot” in our “demon-haunted world.” He had little time for spiritualists and self-styled psychics, claiming that spirit-mediums always assured him that “love is important” and never offered proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem!
James delivered twenty lectures which examined the “religious sentiment,” both personal and institutional, in which he introduced the useful division of mankind into those people who are “once-born” and those who are “twice-born.” The former accept things as simple; the latter regard things as complex. He considered sickness and health with respect to optimism and pessimism of the spirit, the notion of conversion, the ideal of saintliness and its uses, the nature of mysticism, the roles played with respect to religion by philosophy and theology, the characteristics of subconsciousness and higher consciousness … I could go on.
In the twentieth lecture, as well as in the unexpectedly personal Postscript, James offered the reader, if not a “summing up,” then a “personal take” on the subject. For instance, he wrote about the scale of the natural world and the universe:
“What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and spaces, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one.”
In another instance, he wrote about consciously mediating thought and experience:
“A conscious field PLUS its object as felt or thought of PLUS an attitude towards the object PLUS the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the “object” is when taken all alone. It is a FULL fact, even though it be an insignificant fact …. “
James concluded with a distinction between “under-belief” and “over-belief,” whereby thoughtful people either minimized or maximized the relevance and importance of their own opinions and sentiments. He then shared with the reader his own “over-belief”:
“The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our lives also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my own poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true.”
James justified his optimism and his “over-belief” on the basis that it kept him “more sane and true.” He even named it “the faith-state.” I found myself wondering if Carl Sagan would recognize the claim. After reading “Varieties of Scientific Experience,” I came to the conclusion that Sagan would never have embrace the notion of “over-belief” or “the faith-state.” Instead, he would have espoused the spirit of sceptical, rational, and scientific inquiry. He was assuredly responsive to the spell of mystery and the allure of the unknown, but he staked his claim on the scientific endeavour which is self-correcting and self-affirming.
In his eyes, the sciences and especially the exploration of interplanetary and intergalactic space are stepping-stones towards the goal of the “deprovincializing” of the world’s population through sharing the insights of the biologist into changes over time and the visions of the astronomer across the immensity of space. He does not discuss “worlds of consciousness” but he does find other worlds – in our solar system, our galaxy, and our cosmos. Civilizations vastly in advance of our own may offer mankind precious knowledge, “god-like” levels of knowledge. If such civilizations do not exist (we the living are unlikely ever to know) the human race is all the more precious for its uniqueness. Sagan’s universe is humbling and ennobling: Earth may be a “pale blue dot,” but it is one of “billions and billions” of such dots in the cosmos – an astonishing vision to contrast with James’s probing but humbling question, “What is human life’s chief concern?” If Sagan asked a question it would be, “What is the point of the cosmos?”
To bring to an end this comparison and contrast of the twin approaches to religion and science, disciplines that share so much because both have a human origin, I assumed I would seek out and quote parallel passages from each speaker’s lecture. But the passages did not come so readily to hand. Instead, I will conclude with a recollection of the insightful words of Sigmund Freud. The words comprise the last two sentences of the psychoanalyst’s provocative study of religion called “The Future of an Illusion.” Here are those sentences:
“No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”
John Robert Colombo, based in Toronto, is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is currently compiling “The Canadian Adventures of Jules Verne” (texts of the seven extraordinary-adventure novels that the French writer set amid the forests and tundra of Canada) and is busy introducing “The Crime Magnet” (sixteen hitherto uncollected short mystery stories written by Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu). < http://www.colombo.ca >
Note: more of John Robert Colombo’s insightful posts can be found at www.gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com a site which looks at the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff-related studies with reference to both practitioners and scholars.
Call for Abstracts: “A ‘Supernatural’ History of Central Europe, 1870-present”
Editors: Eric Kurlander (Stetson U.) and Monica Black (U. of Tenn., Knoxville)
Deadline: August 1, 2012
Despite the ostensible “disenchantment of the world” proclaimed by Max Weber at the beginning of the twentieth century, Central Europe has a rich modern history of occultism, folklore, paganism, and popular religion. Yet the “supernatural history” of this ethno- culturally diverse region, extending from the Rhine and Baltic in the North and West to the Vistula and Danube in the South and East, has yet to be written. To be sure, the last twenty years have witnessed a renaissance of interest in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious practice since the late-nineteenth century. With the exception a few excellent monographs on occultism and parapsychology, however, historians have been slow to investigate less conventional aspects of the “supernatural” in Modern Central Europe.
We seek abstracts from scholars interested in exploring the new spiritualities, unique metaphysical experiences and practices, and novel explanations of the world that stood somewhere between natural scientific verifiability and the shopworn truths of traditional religion, and which flourished across Central Europe in the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution. We are keen to see submissions that integrate social, political, and cultural history with “supernatural” thinking and practice, broadly conceived. We are especially interested in submissions that will extend their analysis and explorations beyond national boundaries, connecting people, ideas, experiences, and movements interculturally and transnationally.
Obviously, profound complexities inhere in the term “supernatural”—and no less so in terms like “popular religion,” let alone “superstition.” All of these terms bristle with invidious distinctions and reifications imposed by those seeking to draw sharp contrasts between “orthodox” and “heterogeneous” manifestations of religion and between “science” and “popular belief”—which for our purposes might refer to various methods of explaining, knowing, and experiencing the world that somehow draw on the numinous or the metaphysical. Not only has the presence and broad scope of such practices and ideas not yet been fully explored, but they have also not been properly integrated into larger histories of Central European culture, society, and politics—despite the fact that they have from time to time been the cause of considerable friction.
By bringing together scholars from German, Austrian, Hapsburg, and Slavic Studies, we hope to address questions central to the study of Central European politics, culture, and identity in new ways. What meanings can we assign to the renewal of interest in occultism, “pseudo-science,” and folklore studies in the decades around the fin-de-siècle? How does the waxing or waning of these fields relate to questions of war and peace, revolution and reaction, crisis and stability? How have differences between “science” and “pseudo-science” been articulated in various moments and why? How did folklore, occultism, “pseudo-science” and other “supernatural” practices function as alternatives to organized religion at various moments in the Central European past? How was a fascination with the “supernatural” reflected in popular culture and the arts from the nineteenth century to today? What roles have popular superstition and everyday rituals played in Central European attempts to negotiate the trials of the twentieth century? What role did such rituals––“political religion” or otherwise––play in the legitimization of fascism, communism, and other forms of authoritarian politics before and after 1945? What influence did “supernatural” ideas and practices have in generating policies of ethnic cleansing, eugenics, and imperialism, or how can they been seen as a response to those policies? What were the differences East and West of the Iron Curtain after 1945? What are the implications in terms of class, gender, identity, and ethnicity?
Potential topics may include but are not limited to:
“Pseudo-science” and parapsychology
Séances, spirit media, and communication with the dead
Clairvoyance and prophecy
Ghost stories and apparitions
Vampires, werewolves and other monsters
The horror genre, science fiction, and “fantastic” in film, art, and literature
If you are interested in contributing an abstract of not more than 500 words for consideration, please send it, along with your CV, to Monica Black (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Eric Kurlander (email@example.com) by AUGUST 1, 2012.
The Uses of Ecstasy
Ritual and Practical Mysticism in Wicca
Authored by Samuel Wagar
Photographs by Karla Dixon
The Wiccan religious movement is descended from a Mystery religion centred on ecstatic trance experiences. The Priestesses and Priests of Wicca are expected to be mystics as well as clergy. Wagar describes the rituals of Wiccan mysticism – Drawing Down the Moon / Sun and the Great Rite in detail, others in less detail – and how mystical experience is taught and integrated into the religion on both the group and individual levels. He distinguishes between several stages of trance and includes first hand accounts of Wiccan mystical experience as well as scripts and theoretical discussion. A valuable insider look at an influential new religion. Includes a useful bibliography for follow-up research.
Mar 11 2012
1475026129 / 9781475026122
Samuel Wagar (Surrey, BC, Canada)
Sam Wagar has been active in the fight for human rights and religious freedoms for Canadian Wiccans, as well as being a political activist and the founder of many Pagan and Wiccan organizations in Ontario and British Columbia. He became an initiated Wiccan Peiest of Reclaiming Wicca in 1985 while spending time in New York. A year latter on Mother’s Day 1986 he founded his first eclectic coven.
Wagar founded the Pagans for Peace network for left-wing Pagans in 1982 and published its newsletter for twenty years until shutting it down in 2002. He was also the founder of the Pagans for Peace Tradition of Wicca and the Gathering For Life On Earth religious retreat in 1991 which is still running, the Congregationalist Witchcraft Association federal church in 1991, and the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia (the provincial branch) in 2004. Sam is also an ordained Priest with CWABC. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian National Pagan Conference for three years.
In 1994, Sam was a NDP candidate for election for Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia but was subsequently stripped of his candidacy after it became public that he was Wiccan. Wagar took the BC NDP, the then governing party, before the Human Rights Council and won a full apology in 1995. Wagar’s legal battle has been included in various university textbooks on human rights and he takes great pride in his advancement of the human rights and religious freedoms of Wiccans in Canada. In 1996 Sam ran for election as a Green Party candidate and has continued as an active Green since that time.
Wagar has also published several acedemic and non-acedemic works, and he continues to write, serve as Priest and a member of the Board of Directors of the CWABC. He also continues to rub many of the Lower Mainland’s Pagan community the wrong way, making no apologies for being exactly who he is.