Book Reviews 2006

Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, By Frank Visser. Foreward by Ken Wilber. Albany, Press, 2003, Paperback, 330 pages.

Among the numerous epithets applied to Ken Wilber are: "spiritual and philosophical genius," "the most comprehensive and passionate philosopher of our times," "the pundit of transpersonal psychology," "the Einstein of consciousness research." In Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, Frank Visser offers the first full-length study of the profound and wide-ranging work of this highly lauded scholar/practitioner of the wisdom traditions, which in printed form alone consists at present of nineteen books and many articles. Visser characterizes Wilber as an author who works in seven disciplines: as a theorist, synthesist, critic, polemicist, pundit (spiritual intellectual), guide, and mystic. Wilber's expertise bridges East and West as he investigates and integrates, among others, such domains as philosophy, religion/spirituality, psychology, sociology, science, culture, and art.

Visser rightly sees the great chain of being-evolution proceeding from and through matter, body, mind, soul, spirit (with refinements and elaborations of this basic pattern)-as central to Wilber's analysis of the human unfolding, both collective and individual. And although he does treat Wilber's contributions in term of integrating the various strands of human experience and knowledge, he fails to sufficiently highlight the uniqueness and vital significance of Wilber's broad and thoroughly integral model, as well as Wilber’s insistence that only integral studies is adequate to the richness and complexity of human experience. Wilber works with the principle (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that no one is bright enough to be wrong all the time, and therefore he attempts to find that which is authentic and of value even in views that may seem outlandish. It is this approach that enables him to establish harmony between religion and science in his The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.

Foundational to Wilber's integral approach is the quad, rant labeled AQAL, which stands for "all quadrant, all levels, all lines, all states, all types." The four blocks in the quadrant are: Upper Left (Individual Interior, Mind, Intentional, etc.), Upper Right (Individual Exterior, Brain, Behavior, etc.), Lower Left (Collective Interior, Culture, Art, etc.), and Lower Right (Collective Exterior, Social, Government, etc.). Wilber argues that any integral and therefore adequate account of the human situation must honor each of the quadrants, ignoring or minimizing none. The "levels, lines, states, and types" represent developments within the Upper Left quadrant, Wilber's area of special interest and expertise (see, for example, his Integral Psychology, Therapy).Wilber believes that psychospiritual maturation (Upper Left) has positive manifestations in the other quadrants even as it is open to their influence.

A single example of Wilber's many clarifying and synthesizing principles is what he calls the pre/trans fallacy, mistaking that which is prepersonal for that which is transpersonal, and vice versa. According to Wilber, Freud fell victim to this fallacy by equating mystical experience {transpersonal ) with regressive oceanic feelings (prepersonal). Similarly, “Jung occasionally end[s] up glorifying certain infantile mythic forms of thought[;] he also frequently gives a repressive treatment of Spirit." A trenchant criticism of the New Age movement can also be leveled using the pre/trans fallacy, Wilber contends that many New Agers equate "spirituality with magical thinking, mythological fables, and [exhibit} a narcissistic concern with … [their] own spiritual well-being."

Wilber's scholarly output, undeniably vast and profound, has been crucially informed by his many years as a regular meditator. Wilber claims, rightly, that the insights and levels of realization of which he writes are available only to those who undertake the arduous discipline of neutralizing and transcending those inevitable factors in the mind that keep one bound to suffering and discord, namely and briefly, greed, hatred, and delusion (to use a Buddhist summary). He writes: "The whole thrust of my work is to make spiritual practice legitimate, to give it an academic grounding so people will think twice before they dismiss meditation as some sort of narcissistic withdrawal or oceanic regression,"

Visser has rendered invaluable service to anyone wanting a careful and comprehensive overview and analysis of Ken Wilber's massive output, His is itself a scholarly presentation, represented not only by the quality of the text but also by the many charts and diagrams, by the complete bibliography of Wilber's publications, and by the extensive notes and index.


January/February 2006

What Is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness, By Bernadette Roberts. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2005, Paperback, 208 pages.

What Is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness by the Catholic contemplative Bernadette Roberts is profound and helpful, although not the easiest introduction to her work. Those who are not familiar with Roberts might turn first to her earlier books, The Experience of No-Self, and The Path to No-Self. What Is Self? includes less immediately personal narrative and more of the philosophical underpinnings of Roberts's understanding of the spiritual journey.

Roberts endeavors to express interior movements at the outer limits of what we know as human experience, The subject matter inevitably results in a difficult text, one that demands slow reading and much pondering. Many readers might want to begin in part: 3, where Roberts summarizes her own journey, This narrative provides a handhold as the reader wrestles with the more abstract earlier chapters,

The author is known for her teaching that the dissolution of the personal ego, and the following discovery of unity with the divine center, is not the end of journey, Rather, the unitive state leads us into the marketplace" where the true self in union with the divine is fully exercised until there is no more to do, no more to give. Then the self (identified as consciousness itself) falls away, and with it all self-experience, including the experience of the divine. She points again and again to the fact that our experiences of the divine are our experiences, which may be caused by but are not themselves the divine, "Thus the deepest unconscious true self IS the experience of the divine, or the divine in experience. This experience, however, is NOT the divine. What falls away, then, in the no-self experience, is not the divine, but the unconscious true self that all along we thought was the divine!"

What lies beyond the no-self event is expressed in koanlike language, which threatens to stop the brain in its tracks. Roberts hints at many deep mysteries, including a profound understanding of the true nature of matter, form, and the physical body, which will probably be of interest to theosophically inclined readers.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with Roberts's Catholic theological commitments and may quibble with her interpretations of Hinduism, Buddhism) and Jung. (These issues are carefully addressed in the forewords by Jeff Shore and Ric Williams,) Nonetheless, her writing is infused with a powerful honesty, and one has the sense that she is trying not to fit into any preconceived mold but to express the insights she has gleaned from her journey as clearly as she can. Even if our journey has been different from Roberts's, we can only bow before such an offering.


January/February 2006

The Yoga of Time Travel: How the Mind Can Defeat Time, By Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004, Paperback, 258 pages.

The term "time travel" conjures up all kinds of tantalizing images: elaborate contraptions that can whisk intrepid adventurers from era to era before you can say "H. G. Wells”; direct encounters with historical figures; and the handy ability to correct past mistakes, avert future disasters, and ascertain the numbers of next week's lotto drawing. These scenarios appear often in science fiction and Wishful thinking, but time travel also plays a role in mystical traditions such as yoga (knowledge of past and future events, certainly a type of time travel, is among the powers that a yogic master may develop, according to Patanjali). Also, in the wake of twentieth-century advances in theoretical physics, it figures in some scientific thinking as well.

In The Yoga of Time Travel: How the Mind Can Defeat Time, National Book Award recipient Fred Alan Wolf examines time travel from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective, demonstrating that while we probably shouldn't expect front-row seats for the Gettysburg address any time soon) certain forms of time travel may well be within our reach.

As you might suspect, this is mind-boggling stuff, Wolf, who appears in the recent film What the Bleep Do We Know!?, kindly prepares the way for readers like me whose knowledge of physics would barely fill a thimble, He explores the strangely malleable quality of time and its integral connection to space, matter, and mind, He also points to striking parallels between physics and some of the world's spiritual traditions, including the Australian aborigines' concept of dreamtime and Krishna's teachings in the Bhagavad Gita.

Wolf writes that there are two types of time travel: the ordinary and the extraordinary. Ordinary time travel falls within the domain of theoretical physics and involves such intriguing phenomena as black holes, wormholes (like a cosmic subway tunnel, a wormhole is a type of black hole that could theoretically enable travelers to traverse vast spans of space and time almost instantaneously), quantum computers (computers that function as if they exist in an infinite number of parallel worlds), and the "sphere of many radii," a giant, probably impossible-to-build device of incredible mass that, when hooked up to a quantum computer, could perhaps propel the minds of time voyagers forward or backward through time. Of course, the knowledge and technology to achieve this kind of time travel, if it's possible at all, is many years and a plethora of paradoxes away. However, Wolf tells us that extraordinary time travel, where science and mysticism converge, not only is possible but happens all the time.

From the standpoint of physics, Wolf writes, this form of time touring involves the "squaring" or modulation of possibility waves (for some scientists, these are imaginary constructs; for others, including Wolf, real waves, capable of moving forward or backwards in time, that arise out of the "infinitely dimensional" subspace realm, from which consciousness and matter also emerge); the complementary principle (the idea that we gain and lose knowledge of something as our observations of it change); parallel universes (which Wolf contends may resolve many of the paradoxes besetting "ordinary" time travel); and the discombobulating notion of a fundamentally timeless universe in which the past is being created in the present, and the present and future are somehow creating each other.

From a mystical perspective, however, things may be a bit less complicated. According to Wolf, this form of time travel (subjective, internal time, rather than objective, clock/calendar time) can be seen as bringing to light and overcoming habits of thought through relinquishing the ego.

Wolf writes that mind yoga helps practitioners to shift possibility waves-essentially, to change their ego-based ideas about themselves and the world. According to Wolf, when we focus on an object, a person, or an aspect of ourselves (much the same, he says, as entering into a pose in yoga), our impressions of it gradually become habits of thought and its range of possibilities diminishes. However, when we let go of our habitual viewpoints and expectations, such as during the act of forgiveness, its possibilities increase concomitantly, and in a sense we "reverse time" by returning to an earlier, more receptive mind-set. Wolf believes that this process of focusing and defocusing is also what gives us our objective sense of time. Additionally, Wolf writes that, following Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, we may, at times, actually change the past by changing our present perceptions, and that the act of letting go may even enable us to enter parallel universes, though he admits that we probably wouldn't know it if we did.

This book is teeming with ideas. I've read it twice and feel as if I've just scratched the surface. It's a great introduction to theoretical physics, it points the way, at every turn, to new ways of thinking, and it resonates with a deeply spiritual impulse.

"Give up your ego," Wolf suggests, "enter the sacred timeless realm, and forgive. Such is the path to true freedom."


January/February 2006

Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2005. Hardcover, 2 volumes, xxix + 1,228 pages.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, the editor of the provocative two volume Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Has compiled "a great range of historical currents and personalities that have flourished in Western culture and society over a period of roughly two millennia, from Late Antiquity to the present." His aim was not simply to produce a comprehensive reference work of superior quality-no small feat in itself-but to challenge "certain ingrained assumptions about the history of Western religion and culture," which have long been held by members of academia. Due to these "ingrained ideological biases," the field of Gnosis and Western esotericism has been largely ignored by scholars until quite recently.

The dictionary contains 344 entries by 149 contributors from seventeen countries on four continents. Most entries run for more than a page in length, allowing for in-depth coverage. An alphabetical listing collectively identifies all the contributors. Each entry is followed by a bibliography and its contributor's name. The writing is of consistently high quality throughout. Volume 2 includes one comprehensive index for persons and another for organizations. The editors supply numerous cross-references embedded within the articles. By following these cues, the reader gains a greater appreciation for the many crosscurrents of esoteric thought in Western culture. "Rather than a repetitive series of variations on the same essential 'truths,' the reader will find here a dazzling variety of ideas and practices, reflective of ever-changing historical contexts and testifying to the remarkable creativity of the religious imagination."

The panorama of historical personages spans the spectrum from martyrs (Giordano Bruno) to poets (William Blake), from occultists (Eliphas Levi) to alchemists (Paracelsus), from psychics (Edgar Cayce) to scientists (Isaac Newton). A number of Theosophical luminaries are given generous coverage (Besant, three pages: Blavatsky, eight pages; Olcott, two pages; Leadbeater, two pages). The fair and balanced portrayals accorded them should satisfy Theosophists of all stripes. The Theosophical Society itself receives a well-crafted eight-page entry by James Santucci of California State University. Santucci docs not gloss over the various crises in the Society's history, but presents them even-handedly. "Strong personalities and disagreements over teachings invariably lead to schisms and splits within organizations, large and small, The TS is no exception ... of Charles Leadbeater, Brenda French (University of Sydney) says, "Leadbeater's influence on 201h century occultism has been immense." Michael Gomes (Emily Sellon Memorial Library, N.Y.) describes Henry Olcott's Old Diary Leaves as "his greatest contribution to the field of esoteric literature" and points out Olcott's role as "an Important witness for the existence of the Mahatmas."

The ten-page entry for imagination contains several noteworthy passages such as this:

In a mystical and esoteric context the imagination has been believed to give access to levels of reality deeper than those that can be experienced by the senses, and thus to function as a do, main of mediation between different ontological planes. As such it enables man to transcend the material world and gain access to the divine. In other words, the imagination could become a bridge between microcosm and macrocosm.

And this interesting excerpt from the seven-page entry for mnemonics:

In the Middle Ages techniques of memory were closely linked to the techniques of meditation that were used to develop a particular "force of thought." This force was used to build structures in the mind-temples, tabernacles, palaces, gardens, trees, stairways- which could then be used to design a spiritual itinerary. Each stopping place along this itinerary represented an advance in knowledge and a step forward in a gradual moral transforma tion which would culminate in the mystical experience of a union with God.

In summary, the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism should prove to be of great value to both lay students and professional researchers with a mutual interest in Western culture's contributions to the philosophia occulta. According to the editor, "This Dictionary hopes to contribute to the current academic emancipation of Gnosis and Western Esotericism as a comprehensive domain of research." This reviewer concurs. Let the emancipation begin!


January/February 2006

The Way of Story: The Craft and Soul of Writing. By Cathrine Ann Jones. Ojai, CA: Prasana Press, 2004. Paperback, 195 pages.

The Way of Story: The Craft and Soul of Writing By Cathrine Ann Jones will appeal to anyone interested in an intuitive approach to effective writing by drawing from personal experience. The book also teaches writers how to share one's inner journey with others through the medium of story. Jones, a successful New York playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, inspires the reader to write what one feels passionately about and also gives guidance to develop the solid skills necessary for successful story writing. This balanced approach to the writing process can have a healing influence on the writer, as well as on a fractured society in need of spiritual connection.

To reveal the essential elements of what creates a memorable story, the author delves into the inner workings of the art of storytelling. At its best, writing, and the writer as shaman, act as a bridge between spirit and earth. From this perspective, it is seen that the work must begin within, in knowing one's self, and being able to feel at the heart level. In order to serve the soul, feeling and emotion, rather than knowledge, must be the raw material to work With. One must begin with a passion for what one writes, then, use the craft to contain it in a story to be shared with others, People read stories or go to movies in order to feel something. Having an emotional identification with what one writes can only help the reader make an emotional connection with the story and its characters, and through that, to their own humanity.

Practical advice and techniques on the craft of writing are organized in chapters on topics of re-writing, character development, dialogue, and scenes, Examples are given from the author's own work to illustrate the points made and writing exercises at the end of each chapter reinforce the material presented.

Jones also leads "The Way of Story" experiential workshops, one of which I was fortunate to attend. I was impressed by her ability to individually work with participants, bringing them to their next stage of development, regardless of whether they were interested novices or seasoned professionals. This was accomplished through guiding the participants to arrive at their own insights through exercises and reflective work, rather than feeding them information. The Way of Story: The Craft and Soul of Writing is a valuable presentation of the author's understanding that truly transformational work begins from within, through experience absorbed through the heart and not the head.


January/February 2006

Signs of the Times: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of World Events. By Ray Grasse. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2002. Paperback, 297pages.

As Dane Rudhyar writes in his Occult Preparation for a New Age, "When doors are open between two deeply different realms of existence and consciousness, attempts to explain what comes in and what goes out of the door are nearly always confused, for the explanation has to be formulated in terms of the culture which has developed on our side of the door." As Ray Grasse adds in Signs of the Times: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of World Events, "If one hopes to uncover the 'signs of the times' one must sometimes look in seemingly unlikely places."

Thus each major writer who analyzes the transition from the Piscean period to the Age of Aquarius does so by looking at what he feels are the key signs of transition but also in terms of the ideas and discipline with which he is most at home. C. G. Jung's important analysis Aion stresses psychological archetypes and the role of symbols. Sri Aurobindo, although he had withdrawn from active anti-colonial politics, saw in political events such as the rise of Hitler and the independence of India the signs of the passing of one age and the start of the next. Marilyn Ferguson, active in mind/brain studies, stresses shifts in consciousness in her well-known book The Aquarian Conspiracy. While drawing to an extent on all these earlier writers, Ray Grasse, trained in film making and analysis, highlights popular culture, especially films, as a reflection of the fading of Piscean values and the progressive flowing of the Aquarian age.

Grasse quotes the poet Ezra Pound, who once remarked that artists are the antennae of a society. Thus, by studying the recurring themes already surfacing throughout popular culture, we can discern the broad trends that are forming deep in the collective unconscious and will continue to take shape in the millennia to come.

Among those who analyze history within the framework of Great Ages, there is widespread agreement, as Grasse notes, that humanity is "leaving the Piscean Age and about to enter the Aquarian Age. Like vast tectonic plates shifting deep within the collective unconscious, this epochal transition has already begun manifesting as a series of historic changes in our world, as the symbols of an older order make way for those of a radically new one, and our attention is transfixed by a different set of issues and values." The Piscean period, which we can date from plus or minus year one of the common era to the year 2000, is the only Great Age for which we have real, worldwide historical records. For the two earlier ages-Aries (2000 BCE to 1 CE) and Taurus (4000 BCE to 2000 BCE) ---we have archeological evidence and some art from a few regions. On the basis of this very limited evidence, all sorts of theories such as those on the role of the Egyptian pyramids or the Sphinx-not to mention visitors from space-have been made, yet there is no common agreement on them. Thus, to be on solid ground, we must base Great Age analysis on the study of the most recent two thousand years. We see the start of the Piscean period in the Mediterranean area - to be expected from a sign represented by two fish-·a nearly closed sea around which flowered major societies: classic and Hellenistic Greece and Rome, followed by Spain, Portugal, France, and England-all became politically great powers with worldwide cultural influences. The Piscean period is marked by two religious cultural systems: Christianity-the birth of Jesus is often used as the major symbolic start of the Piscean period and the second Piscean faith, Islam.

Thus, to advance the hypothesis of a Piscean-to-Aquarian progression, we should look for a shift away from the Mediterranean-influenced civilization and for signs of a fading of both Christianity and Islam. The shift in symbols for the age would also indicate a geographic shift in power and influence from the Piscean fish (the sea) to Aquarius -a person pouring water, indicating land in need of irrigation or water conservation. We can look for signs of a shift toward states or combinations of states with large plains in need of water management for prosperity. Such a hypothesis would indicate at least four states with large plains that would take the lead in the transition to a new era: the United States, Russia, China, India, and perhaps Brazil. There is less agreement by the general consensus on the fading of Christianity and Islam given the emotional attachment that some have toward the religions and the energy with which some spread the faiths. Yet as Ray Grasse notes, "The Aquarian Age will probably sweep away many of the emotional and religious trappings that characterized Piscean-Age consciousness and replace them with a more sober and clear-eyed approach to reality." He goes on to describe the shift from the Piscean climate that has been largely pleasure-denying in character even to the extent of fostering guilt over experiences of pleasure toward self-realization, happiness, and freedom. The Aquarian Age ushers in a more self-affirming philosophy and a greater emphasis on personal empowerment.

Yet as we analyze the ending of the Age of Aries at the time of the birth of Jesus, we see that there was suffering. Every transition between two Great Ages results in suffering, and the suffering is greatest when fear, a clinging to the past, or an exuberant eagerness to race ahead introduces tensions, inner conflicts, and false expectations. For a new age to emerge, there must be courageous servants of the cyclic purpose. All deep and radical transformations require an illumined mind and an all-encompassing heart.

Ray Grasse's book and his useful bibliography make an important contribution to the study of this period of transition. If the dawning of the Age of Aquarius is to mean more to us than a line from a popular song, it will require more efforts along the lines of Ray Grasse's serious and even approach.


March/April 2006

The End of Karma: 40 Days to Perfect Peace, Tranquility, and Joy. By Dharma Singh Khalsa. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2005, Paperback, 248pages.

In The End of Karma: 40 Days to Perfect Peace, Tranquility, and Joy, Tucson anesthesiologist: Dharma Singh Khalsa writes that karma is not what many people think it is. Khalsa tells us that karma is a very real cosmic mechanism and the root of most human difficulties, but, contrary to popular opinion, it's not really about paying off debts from past lifetimes. Instead, he says, it's more about our actions and their consequences in this life.

Khalsa, a Sikh, says he has gone from putting people to sleep to trying to wake them up and "heal their body, mind, and soul." He declares that it doesn't take countless lifetimes to eradicate karma. It will dissolve, he contends, almost instantly when we get in touch with a reservoir of divine energy that exists inside everyone. Khalsa, who is also the president/medical director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation International and an expert in the treatment and prevention of memory loss, affirms that simply meditating on this book will open the floodgates to extraordinary power.

The book revolves around a collection of forty poems written by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, (Sikhism appeared in India in the sixteenth century and is a mixture of devotional Hinduism and Sufism, teaching that God is the only reality.) Each poem is accompanied by Khalsa's brief but penetrating reflections. The book also contains many simple affirmations, visualizations, and meditative exercises.

Nanak's pithy hymns embody the same rhapsodic, devotional tone manifested by Rumi and other mystic poets, They expound on the power and vastness of the Creator and the benefits of awakening to divine presence. Khalsa contends that Nanak's verses alone have the ability to transform our lives.

"These words," he writes, "have magical power, and reading and contemplating them will deliver you to your soul and the God within yourself."

Nanak's songs of praise certainly help center attention on transcendental ideas, but it is Khalsa's lucid, insight-inducing commentary that will likely forge the strongest link to the heart.

This book could easily be read in an afternoon, but Khalsa suggests a much slower pace, taking as many as forty days per chapter. He recommends the best time to read and meditate is at dawn.

"The world is still and quiet early in the morning," he writes, "and the static of life has yet to interfere with your ability to touch your soul."

Khalsa notes that the ego, the human tendency to feel isolated from the wholeness of life, is a significant stumbling block to self-realization.

"The limitless soul is restricted by ego," he says, "and its outlook becomes narrow. You then can't see reality clearly because a barrier is created between you and God."

Khalsa explains that the product of this limited vision is karma, the revolving door of self-serving and often self-defeating behavior we frequently get stuck in that also creates a form of reincarnation in this life. He writes, "You wander from one error or misdeed to another. The result is that you have to be reborn and perhaps reborn again-not necessarily in another life, but in this one until you get on the right track."

Opening up to our deeper nature-a process that Khalsa refers to as dharma---produces an intuitive knowledge that will help guide us out of dysfunctional ruts.

"Dharma eats up karma," he states, "simply because dharma is a higher plane of existence. It's spiritual living in action,"

This book is a journey to the spiritual heart of Sikhism (there's little mention of some of the more legalistic elements of the faith involving matters of attire, grooming, and personal accoutrements), and its universal tone and non-dogmatic approach will likely resonate with a wide range of spiritual searchers.

Khalsa is the ideal spiritual mentor. He is earnest, optimistic, and supportive, but never preachy. He encourages us to let go of our underlying assumptions about reality, especially the concept of sin, telling us that enlightenment is open to all.

“It doesn't matter if you're successful, or if you're a criminal, a drug addict, or the lowest of the low in your mind. You're ready to become exalted."

Interestingly, Khalsa asserts that good actions alone don't hasten spiritual growth. In fact, he states, too much emphasis on behavior can actually hinder development.

"The consideration of actions, whether thought to be good or bad, fails to bring you much closer to your depth, because it keeps you attached or focused on the outer-centered world rather than on your inner-most soul."

The End of Karma: 40 Days to Perfect Peace, Tranquility, and Joy is full of fresh perspectives and beautiful thoughts. It urges us to be in the world but not of it, taking us deep inside ourselves where Khalsa says we have everything we need to be happy.

"It's your true mission in life," he counsels, "to let your spirit shine and your soul glow."


March/April 2006

A Rebirth of Christianity, By Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 2005, Paperback, xiii + 267 pages.

Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who died in 1970-seven years before the initial publication of A Rebirth of Christianity would be pleased to note the prescient nature of his book's title. Since then there has been a dramatic increase in biblical scholarship delving into the allegorical and mystical aspects of Christian scriptures with such texts as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene.

"The modern world is only now beginning to recognize a fact that is bound to have profound effects upon Christianity: the fact that the ancient and revered scriptures of antiquity are not history, but rather spiritual truth dramatized and illustrated by some history," Kuhn writes. The early church fathers -Clement, Origen, Augustine-were well acquainted with the allegorical mode of writing, but that Christianity soon took a crucial "misdirection" when biblical exegesis became burdened by "the shackles of a literal and historical dogmatism."

This loss of the ability to "interpret the divine allegories committed the succeeding ages to a mental darkness" that has had profound consequences. Kuhn suggests that Christianity may now be on the verge of a reawakening, pointing to the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Second Vatican Council's legitimizing of allegorical interpretation. "The task now confronting modern intelligence is to throw off the blinders of a shallow realism that have obscured mystical vision and to awaken the long-stifled faculties of insight into noumenal verities."

An accomplished student of Egyptian hieroglyphics, Kuhn identifies themes from the Gospels, which can be traced back to the literature of Palestine, Persia, or Egypt. Many of the rites and symbols of the Christianity can be found in earlier religions. Under modern scholarship, of which Kuhn cites numerous examples, "the edifice of historical interpretation is fast crumbling." But if the Christian can no longer read the Bible as pure history, what is left? "What is lost as history will come back with immeasurable gain as spiritual allegory," he assures us.

Whether the esoteric approach to Christianity will ultimately gain wider acceptance within the Christian world or remain the province of a few Gnostic scholars remains to be seen. Many are wedded to the literal approach. Lest we become overly optimistic, the words of the Roman Emperor Julian bear repeating: "There is no wild beast like an angry theologian."


March/April 2006

Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe, By Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004, Hardcover, 363 pages.

When a Nobel laureate and a well-known theoretical physicist write a book together, you expect something a little above average. Lederman and Hill's Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe is well above average with insights that I have not seen before. For Theosophists who are encouraged to "study religion, philosophy, and science," this book covers all three in various degrees.

With an introduction to symmetry, we learn about how music introduces this art form. The authors begin with Johann Sebastian Bach and then move to Pachelbel's Canon in D. While pondering this unique approach, we are introduced to the Greek scholar, Eratosthenes. This leads to Kepler to Galilee to Newton to Einstein. This panoramic sweep covers just the first twenty pages! (For Theosophists-Giordano Bruno is presented in the chapter on Inertia with a historical explanation of how pieces of nature's puzzle were being explored and put together.)

This book also has one of the best discussions of Emmy Noether I have ever read. She is regarded as one of the greatest female mathematicians of all times. Some mathematicians have her at the top of their list. However outside of such a circle, chances are most people have never heard of her. The discussion of her contributions makes this book worthy of being purchased.

Even though the underlying theme of the book is symmetry, there are study chapters and homework exercises on relativity, reflections, and broken symmetry. I was quite impressed with the ability of the authors to explain the difficult topic of quantum mechanics at the level they did. It was done in a very coherent fashion, but quite accurate and left little to be documented. The short chapter on the hidden symmetry of light was also well done. Here we meet the famous Feynman diagrams.

There are numerous short pithy and sometimes funny comments in this book that make a careful reading worthwhile. Even better are some of the illustrations. One of my favorites is the hand of an alien species with two thumbs. This hand is neither a right nor a left hand. It is also a great illustration of symmetry and can be found on page 169.

While I highly recommend this book, there are problems with readability. As a student, I never cared for text that included the math steps simply as part of the lines of the text. This book does, and as a close reading is necessary to comprehend the material, it complicates the understanding in my opinion.

Finally, the chapter on quarks and leptons brings the reader up to date and suggests a major revolution in the future. The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, is scheduled to go online in 2007. This will help answer a number of questions raised in the book.


March/April 2006

Meditation: A Complete Audio Guide, By Eknath Easwaran, Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2004, 2 CDs + 16 page booklet.

Eknath Easwaran's Meditation: A Complete Audio Guide, a course given some years ago at Easwaran's Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, reveals the late teacher's personal warmth and good humor. He was a charming storyteller who knew how to slip in profound teaching with a bit of laughter.

Easwaran's basic method of meditation involves careful, repeated concentration on a memorized passage from the scriptures of the world's religions or other inspirational literature. In this course, he uses a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi as an example. The method combines one-pointed concentration with a use of sacred texts similar to lectio divina in the Christian monastic tradition.

In addition to this meditative practice, Easwaran also discusses the other seven points of his famous eight-point program: repetition of a mantram (chosen according to one's religion or personal inclination), slowing down, one-pointed attention (not just in meditation, but in all of life), training the senses (learning to let go of our likes and dislikes in order to respond more helpfully to the world around us), putting others first, regular reading in the literature of world mysticism, and finding spiritual companionship with like-minded others. As Easwaran points out, these are very simple disciplines (although perhaps difficult to implement!) that can prove transformative to persons of any--or no--spiritual tradition. One of the strengths of this presentation is Easwaran's focus on very practical considerations (e.g., the need to get up early in order to have time to do one's meditation) rather than metaphysical speculation.

Today, we live in an increasingly hectic world. We multitask our way through the day, continually assaulted by different forms of media offering us a bewildering array of consumer choices. We know the value of slowing down, doing one thing at a time, and caring for others, but most of us need reminders from time to time. Even if one uses another method of meditation, there is much in Easwaran's presentation that will apply to any spiritual practitioner. I hope that: Nilgiri Press will offer more CDs of talks by this wonderful teacher, who truly provided "education for living."


March/April 2006

The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. By David Leeming. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Hardback, 469 pages.

If you are looking for the one best reference book on mythology for a personal, lodge, school, or public library, The Oxford Companion is it. Informed by good scholarship and a judicious approach, this volume is not merely a dictionary of mythic names, but also a thumbnail introduction to the entire discipline of mythology. Within it , you will find accounts of individual figures from out of myth (e.g., Wotan, Persephone, Kali ), as well as articles on the mythology of geographical areas and spiritual traditions (e.g., Africa n mythology, Islamic mythology), major mythological themes (e.g., Afterlife, Creation), and eminent mythologists (e.g., C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and others).

Narratives from the Judeo-Christian tradition , (e.g., Adam and Eve, the Ascension of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles ) are called "myths" and presented in the same way, and with the same fullness, as those of other religions. Leeming patiently explains that this is not to disparage them or any other myth, for what may be history to a person of one faith may be myth to those of another creed, and in a work like this all must be on an equal footing. For many users, the copious inclusion of western religious material will only enhance the value of the work.

As a good encyclopedia should, this volume simply gives basic information- a lot of it-in an authoritative voice without getting into academic arguments. Some scholars may quibble about a few particular points, but for the average reader this book will be state of the art, and should be so received. The volume includes an appendix containing family trees and cross-cultural equivalences for selected pantheons, as well as a bibliography and an index.


May/June 2006

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. By Rebecca Goldstein. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Hardcover, 296 pages.

Kurt Godel is generally considered to be the pre-eminent mathematician/logician of the past century, a man whose intellectual prowess and influence is often compared to Einstein's. Godel's major theorems produced or transformed several branches of modern mathematical logic: model theory, recursion theory, set theory, proof theory, and intuitionist logic. His work has exerted a marked effect on computer science and the philosophy of consciousness, by suggesting that there are limits to what computers are capable of, and that the human mind is quite a bit more than just a computer. His incompleteness theorems were a serious blow to attempts to prove the fundamental soundness of formalized mathematical systems (systems that are entirely self-validating, depending on nothing outside of their internal rules to prove the inconsistency).

Godel's groundbreaking work resulted in the disquieting notion that within mathematical systems that are consistent, there will be propositions that can not be proven true or false. Godel further showed that proof of a mathematical system's consistency can never be ascertained by appealing to the rules of the system alone, and that, consequently, mathematical systems are not simply man-made constructs, but contain truths that are "independent of any human activities."

Godel was also a very strange man. Always intensely private, Godel, by the time of his 1978 death in Princeton, New Jersey, had disintegrated into a paranoid, anorexic recluse (his death was essentially caused by self-starvation stemming from his fears of being poisoned ), who had alienated himself from just about everyone , including Princeton's intellectual elite.

A new book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, by novelist and philosophy professor Rebecca Goldstein, is a compelling discussion of the man and his ideas. Goldstein's technical analysis of Godel's incompleteness theorems takes up about a third of the book; it is both thorough and illustrative, but it is not light reading. However, the book's biographical dimension, and Goldstein's musings on the ramifications of Godel's ideas are eminently accessible and fascinating.

Goldstein briefly touches on Godel's precocious childhood, but her focus is primarily on his adult life: Godel's connection to Wittgenstein's famous Vienna Circle (Godel, the ardent but covert Platonist, regularly attended their meetings, never revealing the metaphysical inclinations that clashed so profoundly with their radically empirical positivism); his relationship with Einstein, perhaps the deepest friendship of his life (Einstein said that, in his later years, he went to his Princeton office only "for the privilege of walking home with Godel; his global treks in search of an intellectual haven; and his gradual descent into madness.

Goldstein was a graduate student at Princeton during Godel's final years, and she sprinkles her text with memorable anecdotes: her wonder-struck pilgrimage to Godel's house (to her astonishment, a plastic pink flamingo adorned the icon's front lawn); a Godel "sighting" in a grocery store that touched off an excited discussion amongst academics about the contents of his cart; and a party, during which a daring graduate student called Godel's house, hanging up in a panic when Godel's wife called "Kurtsy" to the phone.

Goldstein tells us that, like many of Einstein's ideas, Godel's theories have been frequently misconstrued, and she postulates that both men were drawn together primarily by their shared sense of frustration.

Goldstein writes that Einstein's work has been generally seen as opening the door to a purely subjective universe that changes as often as our viewpoints. However, she declares, Einstein saw ultimate reality as unquestionably objective, though quite different from what our perceptions would lead us to believe. On the other hand, she says, Godel, because of his association with the Vienna Circle, is often thought of as a harbinger of anti-metaphysical positivism, part of the movement to squash "the old absolutist ways of thinking," when actually his work, heavily influenced by Plato's metaphysics, points to a supra-human realm of mathematical laws requiring both intuition and deduction for access (astutely, Goldstein notes that Wittgenstein was actually not a positivist, as well, believing that metaphysical concerns were essentially ineffable, but of supreme importance).

Goldstein writes that Godel's achievements range far beyond the sphere of mathematical logic, "addressing such vast and messy issues as the nature of truth and knowledge and certainty." Indeed, Goldstein declares that Godel's interpretation of his work "shows us that our minds, in knowing mathematics, are escaping the limitations of man-made systems, grasping the independent truths of abstract reality."


May/June 2006

A Place at the Table. By William J. Elliott. New York: Doubleday, 2003. 420 pages.

It began, as recorded in the Christian scriptures, with the question put to Peter: “Who do you say I am?" Since Jesus first asked, seekers have offered a variety of answers, and asked questions of their own, about the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith.

On pilgrimage by motor home around the country, William J. Elliott undertook his own search to rediscover the real Jesus. A Place at the Table is a wonderful sharing of his learning through dialogues with a wide spectrum of scholars and religious figures about their personal beliefs and historical understandings of Jesus.

Those who have read any of the Jesus material will find this work a special addition. Most of the important topics are discussed by several contemporary scholars (Borg, Crossan, Douglas-Klotz, Fox, Harvey, Johnson, Sanders, Spong, Wright) as well as noteworthy others (Chopra, Falwell, Graham, Keating, Kushner, Williamson, Woodman).

Elliott's narrative is a delight to read. Begin anywhere, with a favorite or an unknown person, and be inspired, challenged, and soul-nourished. Each exchange has its own before-and-after story, including the author's anticipations and reflections. Elliott's questions are heartfelt and clear. All responses are bountifully insightful and passionate with personal conviction. In fact, you may find yourself wishing that he had shared even more.

The book provides many awareness-expanding perspectives. For example, because of the significance of the family in Judaism, Jesus was probably married and scripture does not state the obvious; or he may have been a widower; or, since Jewish males were married by age eighteen if they could afford it, Jesus could have been celibate because of his poverty; or, because celibacy was a known ascetic practice for some in Judaism, he may have been celibate. Simply put, scholars and seekers do not have certain knowledge about Jesus' marital status.

Penetrating questions abound to explore fuller divine perspectives. For example, do we love God enough to let go of our beliefs about God and thus drop eternally into the God we don't know? And how do you understand the words "The Kingdom of God is within you"? Does it mean that spark of divinity within you makes you identical with the divine? Or that the rule of Christ is in your heart?

These dialogues attest to the truth of the scriptural assertion that "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst." Elliott engages his interlocutors such that they gift him with inspiring personal perspectives that help explain their experience of Jesus beyond the concepts of history and faith. These perspectives deepen his receptivity to his own experience of the Cosmic Christ. You may be similarly affected.


July/August 2006

Strength in the Storm: Creating Calm in Difficult Times. By Eknath Easwaran. Tomales, California: Nilgiri Press, 2005. Paperback, 184 pages.

In the complexities of understanding and practice which often accompany an esoteric spiritual path, it can be very easy to lose sight of the "common sense" so often emphasized by Madame Blavatsky. From time to time, we need reminders of practices which seem all too basic, but actually offer transformation in our daily lives in the world. What good is some profound realization, or arcane knowledge, if it does not lead to a greater expression of love and wisdom throughout each day?

Over the holidays--a time when stress often increases -I have benefited from a number of such reminders, thanks to gifts and review assignments. For example, I was given a copy of Lawrence Lovasik's book, The Hidden Power of Kindness: A Practical Handbook for Souls Who Dare to Transform the World, One Deed at a Time (Sophia Institute Press, 1999). While I sitlightly with Lovasik's rather traditional Catholic theological views, his book is a goldmine for personal reflection, and contains a wide variety of practical suggestions for implementation.

By happy synchronicity, I was simultaneously assigned to review a new book compiled from lectures by the late spiritual teacher and founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, Eknath Easwaran. Easwaran writes from a more universal perspective than Lovasik, and provides suggestions drawn from many religious traditions, so that each reader can choose an approach which resonates with their own background and beliefs. The lectures are also enhanced with introductions to each chapter by Easwaran's widow, inspirational quotes from great world teachers, a summary of the core points from each section, and lists of suggestions for practices. The result is a highly practical manual for anyone who wants to increase their level of spiritual peace, and their ability to respond to all of life from a place of calm wisdom.

As Christine Easwaran writes in her preface to the book, for her husband, "the world's spiritual traditions were not topics for philosophy or religion. They were living waters, practical resources for everyday living." Easwaran's talks, given to his students over a period of years, give substantive guidance for using a mantram, maintaining one-pointed attention, slowing down the pace of life, nourishing our minds, and cultivating kindness, among other topics. He liberally illustrates his points with entertaining stories from his life and the lives of his students. While there is little here that will be new to most Theosophists, Strength in the Storm is a well-done, accessible re-presentation of traditional wisdom for living.


July/August 2006

D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker. By Roderick Bradford. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006. Hardcover, 410 pages.

If secular sainthood were possible, then surely DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882) deserves to be canonized. Bennett was arguably the most active, productive, and effective promoter of free thought in the last quarter of the nineteenth century-the quarter that also saw the formation of the Theosophical Society.

Free thought is the principle that all of us have the right to have views, especially about religion, that vary from the conventional opinions of the society in which we live. Free thought rejects the right of authority to limit our conscience, whether that authority is of the state or the church, or some miscegenation of the two. Free thought holds that dogma must give way to rational inquiry. D. M. Bennett is the saint of free thought, though he himself would doubtless have been nonplussed at the idea.

At the age of 14, DeRobigne, then fatherless and on his own, fell in with some friendly Shakers and joined their community in New Lebanon, New York. The Shakers (officially, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) were an eighteenth-century offshoot of the Quakers who lived spartanly in self-sufficient communities. Because they were celibate, the communities grew by converts, and welcomed orphans and homeless youths. Their worship included group dancing, shaking (hence their popular name), whirling, and singing in tongues. For a time they practiced a sort of proto-spiritualism, by which they received spiritual messages as guidance.

DeRobigne Bennett spent thirteen years in the New Lebanon Shaker community, but in his mid-twenties, he eloped with a Shaker girl, Mary Wicks, whom he married. Although officially apostates, DeRobigne and Mary never lost their fondness for their Shaker friends and in later years often visited the community, which in turn supported Bennett during some of his most difficult trials. In the outside world, Bennett discovered the writings of Thomas Payne and by them was converted to a life of reason and free thought. He eventually founded a periodical whose name, The Truth Seeker, was suggested by his wife.

Through the pages of The Truth Seeker, Bennett launched campaign after campaign to challenge orthodoxy and promote an open examination of life. His antithesis and nemesis was a dry-goods salesman of little talent or intelligence but of great ambition named Anthony Comstock. Comstock formed an alliance with the Young Men's Christian Association in New York and founded a Society for the Suppression of Vice. His aim was to rid the nation of obscenity and blasphemy, and to that end, he lobbied Congress to pass censorship laws and got himself appointed as a legal authority for the Post Office. He was so effective in that role that his name has entered the English language in the form "Comstockery" as a term for censorious opposition to alleged immorality in literature or life.

Comstock's real argument with Bennett was that Bennett promoted the free expression of opinion, whereas Comstock wanted to censor all views incompatible with his own. Bennett was, in Comstock's view, a literally damned blasphemer against Christianity and the social order. The First Amendment, however, made it difficult to prosecute Bennett for such "crimes." So Comstock took another tack. Bennett's periodical was selling mail-order copies of a book titled Cupid’s Yokes, which argued that the institution of marriage should be abandoned. Its thesis was not one with which Bennett agreed, but he sold the book in accordance with the Voltairean motto “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The same book was being sold in many bookshops, but because Bennett distributed copies by mail, Comstock was able to have him arrested, tried, and convicted on a charge of disseminating obscene matter.

Bennett spent thirteen months in the Albany Penitentiary under conditions that seriously affected his health. Although President Rutherford B. Hayes pardoned the author of Cupid's Yokes, earlier convicted of writing obscenities in that book, he refused to pardon Bennett. Yet Bennett had only distributed the book, and Hayes was presented with a petition for pardon containing 230,000 names, including those of Shakers, who stood loyally by their former fellow. Bennett's imprisonment quite reasonably earned him the reputation of being a martyr for the free thought cause. And when he had completed his sentence and was released, Bennett was greeted by the free-thought community as a hero.

Throughout his imprisonment, Bennett had produced a steady stream of writings. After his release, he began a tour around the world, sending home letters that were compiled into four volumes of travelogue, critique of censorship, and promotion of free thought. The highlight of that trip was his visit to the Founders of the Theosophical Society in Bombay, where Bennett joined the Society. The longest chapter in this book is one describing the background to the events that led to Bennett's trial and imprisonment. The second longest chapter is that describing his contact with the Theosophists (and it is based on material the author earlier published in The Quest).

Bennett was a heartfelt friend of both Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. But even more noteworthy is the fact that the Masters also valued and respected him. One of the latter said that Bennett was "one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds" (Mahatma Letters, no. 37). And another wrote of him: "Few men have suffered--and unjustly suffered--as he has; and as few have a more kind, unselfish and truthful a heart. ... [He] is an honest man and of a sincere heart, besides being one of tremendous moral courage and a martyr to boot" (Mahatma Letters, no. 43).

Bennett was not the sort of free thinker who rejects conventional religion only to be converted to an equally blind devotion to materialism. Bennett was a true free thinker, that is, one who was open to possibilities beyond those recognized by the establishments of either church or science. He was true to the creed of Thomas Paine, who said, "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good," and to the motto of the Theosophical Society: "There is no religion higher than truth." He was a man whom Theosophists everywhere can be proud to hail as a brother and Fellow.

Rod Bradford's highly readable and engaging book reveals a man who is strikingly relevant to our times-politically, socially, and intellectually--for today we face the same sort of intolerance that Bennett did in his day. Comstockery, McCarthyism, and demagoguery are not dead; they still stalk our society and government at all levels. More than ever, we need the spirit of D. M. Bennett to defend the liberty on which this country was founded and is based.