Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. By Michael York. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Hardback, x + 239 pages.
"Paganism views humankind, nature, and whatever the supernatural mayor may not be as essentially divine." So writes Michael York in this groundbreaking book, one much needed to shed light on today's evolving spirituality, York, Director and Principal Lecturer of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, as well as Director of the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs, Bath Spa University College, UK, not only is an accomplished scholar but an active researcher.
At the outset, he reminds us of the correct definition of the word "pagan" which comes from the Latin word for "peasant." Christianity began in cities and country folk clung to the old-time religion, (I can vouch for this personally because 40 years ago I was studying Russian and needed to look up the word for "peasant" in my atheistic Soviet dictionary. To my amazement, one of the definitions was Kristian!) So paganism in the broadest sense is any religion that views the natural world as sacred. Further, York traces the word "cult" to its association with culture, agriculture, and cultivate. Thus he is not just writing about Wicca, Witchcraft, and magick but about the distinction between the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are monotheistic revelations given by God through a historic individual and those religions that celebrate the holiness of the seasons, the multiple personifications of archetypal processes punctuated by the movements of the solar system, the natural elements, and the divine interplay of masculine and feminine (creative and receptive) of gods and goddesses as aspects of a hidden source of Spirit. Buddhism seems a borderline case. Though Gautama Buddha was an historical figure, he never claimed to be a messenger of God, but offered the world a wise and compassionate way out of suffering.
Michael York centers his study on his rich personal and joyous experiences in India, Nepal, China, and Japan while living and participating, as well as documenting, the fervent earthy celebrations of the ordinary population in contrast to the transcendent views and teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. His accounts were riveting and brought a new perspective to many memories for me. I realized afresh that since many of us also believe in a "spirituous earth," that being a Nee-pagan is not necessarily a heretical posture but one leading us, with the help of theoretical physics, to a new appreciation of the spiritual glory and wonder of the cosmos (a Greek word meaning "beauty"). The book itself concerns paganism as religion, behavior, and theology. As one reads, one discovers the really valid aspects of the pagan approach despite the fact that the term itself is so encrusted for many by semantic prejudice and negative associations. By York's definition any dedicated environmentalist would classify as having pagan tendencies. Perhaps what many people celebrate unconsciously, more and more of us are approaching more consciously. There is a hilarious section on what the unconscious secular symptoms of paganism can produce.
Perhaps, York could have given some credit to the author of some of the Psalms, who praises the earth and its creatures, or mentioned some of the truly poetic passages in the Koran of the same nature, or even mentioned St. Francis and especially Celtic Christianity which never ever has excluded nature. Granted that these attribute creation to one God, but even in polytheistic religiosities there seems to be an underlying inference of an invisible Unity, the diversity of which is acknowledged as manifesting in aspects and relationships to be personified and worshiped. Hopefully there will be a sequel to this truly important work that will further address paganism in the West with more about the Celtic tradition which is corning to the fore.
As Jesus says in the Gospel According to Thomas, "Heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it." Therein lies the wisdom of many pagans.
Michael York has laid the intellectual groundwork for a new approach to theology, one which hopefully might reconcile the appalling feuding ones of our time. We need to celebrate the earth, because though Spirit may give us Life, it is Mother Nature that gives life form, and perhaps that is a symbolic message of Incarnation.
-ALICE O. HOWELL
Samadhi: The Highest State of Wisdom, Vol. I. By Swami Rama. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2002. Paperback, 242 pages.
Just how hard is it to attain samadhi or "enlightenment?" In Samadhi: The Highest State of Wisdom, volume one in a series of three, Swami Rama has encouraging news: You can learn to live peacefully in this world, attaining your goal of life in this lifetime, in a few years' time, in a few months' time, in a few days' time, even in a second's time if you understand the philosophy of vairagya, or nonattachment (192).
So what is standing in the way? Swami Rama's answer is vrittis, or "negative mental modifications." In current American parlance, these "negative mental modifications" could be called "pessimistic tape loops" that constantly dog our consciousness. Some examples of such tape loops are "I'll never make it," and "Who cares?"
Sharing the credit with vrittis as an impediment to enlightenment is moha, or attachment. Attachment exists when we think of ourselves in terms of what we own or want to own, rather than who we are or want to be. One can become attached to physical possessions but also to other people and to the persona that we project to the world.
Samadhi is a collection of 18 lectures given by Swami Rama in 1977 at the headquarters of the Himalayan Institute of Yogic Science and Philosophy in Glenview, Illinois. The book is designed for the "advanced beginner," i.e., for one who aspires to enlightenment but is unfamiliar with some of the Sanskrit terms and techniques in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain thought.
The reader may be pleased to learn that this is a secularly oriented book. Unlike some other yogis, Swami Rama stresses that it is not necessary to quit one's job, desert one's family, and go live in the jungle in order to reach the higher stages of consciousness. In fact, he hints that becoming an indigent beggar can become just as habitual as working a steady job.
One pearl of wisdom I found particularly useful is the author's Zen-like question, "In which language will you think when you have nothing to think?" (25) I am not sure of the answer, but contemplating this question has gotten me through a lot of long red lights without becoming impatient. Also worthy of contemplation is this passage:
So many thoughts come, and you call it the thinking process. There is a space between two thoughts. But if there is no space between two thoughts, then what will happen to time? Time will not exist. If there is only one thought, what will be the condition of space? There will be no space at all (14).
Swami Rama emphasizes that total mental and physical equilibrium—also called serenity--is the sine qua non of enlightenment.
Only at the very end of the book does Swami Rama allude to the magnificent fate that awaits those who make samadhi their life's goal: "Blessed are those who want to attain samadhi ... Such persons live like kings of the world ... All others live like fools" (226).
A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion. By Anthony C. Thiselton. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2002. Softcover, viii + 344 pages.
Have you ever wondered who the main academic philosophers of religion are and what they say? This book is a good sampling. Different thinker's views about God and the human mind are laid out in short, clear, and authoritative encyclopedia-type articles. If you want to know just what Thomas Aquinas's famous five proofs of the existence of God were, or how modern existentialism interfaces with faith, this is the book to read. It is also a good source to look up basic terms like Belief, Metaphysics, Realism, Logic, and of course God, among others, to see what thinkers are thinking about them now.
This book is from the world of western university philosophy departments. It presents the intellectual stream central to that world, from the Greeks to the latest schools of analytic philosophy, together with name-theologians like Barth and Tillich. Eastern philosophies are presented fairly but less fully, while alternative strands of western thought, including Theosophy, are passed over. Contemporary British philosophies of religion are especially prominent, which is understandable since the author is canon theologian at two English cathedrals.
Personally, I found the discussion of Alvin Platinga, an American philosopher of religion who has taught at Calvin College and Notre Dame University, particularly intriguing. He has argued, in books like God and Other Minds, that while we cannot prove that anyone other than oneself is conscious-that person in the room with you, or with whom you live, could be a robot just programmed to act like a conscious being-it seems warranted to extrapolate from one's own consciousness to postulate consciousness in another similar being. In the same way, though we cannot prove there is a divine mind behind the universe, there are enough clues, from the mystery and orderliness of it all to our own consciousness, to warrant reasonable belief. This is similar to examples and arguments I have used in respect to theosophical ideas that matter and consciousness interact throughout the universe, from quantum phenomena through human beings to planets and galaxies and the Root of it all.
One could not expect everything in one handy, moderately-priced book, and there are other resources to fill in the lacunae. But like any good bit of philosophy it can get thought started, as it did mine. As a reference work in philosophy, or just as a good read if you enjoy exposure to stimulating philosophical ideas and the thinkers behind them, A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion is highly recommended.
Reading The Pentateuch. By John J. McDermott. Mahwah, N. J.; Paulist Press, 2002. Paperback, 250 pages.
Recently, I have been reading the works of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. By some she is considered to be a Catholic, but she was never properly baptized into its church. Today, scholars consider her and her work closer to the Middle Age Christian Gnostics, known as the Cathars, in part because of her rejection of much of the Old Testament. (Catharism rejected all of the Old Testament.) However, she accepted the first five books commonly known as the Pentateuch. I thought that if I could find an up to date, easy to read, scholarly book on the Pentateuch without a large number of footnotes, perhaps I might figure out why Simone Weil accepted these five books and the Cathars did not. McDermott's book satisfied all of my requirements, and may even have personally answered some of my posed questions.
Professor McDermott teaches the Old Testament at Loras College. He received his biblical licentiate at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. I felt comfortable as I read the book, knowing he had years of experience in the classroom. The organization of the material in the book reflects the seasoning of classroom teaching.
The first two chapters begin with how the Pentateuch was written and its overall history. The remaining chapters are the details of the first five books in the Old Testament. One thing that makes each chapter easy to follow is the consistency of McDermott's presentation, He always begins with an overview of what material he will discuss, and the generalities of that material. Thus, I always knew where the following Bible chapters and verses were headed. Because there are a number of inconsistencies in the biblical material, this turns out to be important and very helpful.
For the true Bible scholar, McDermott provides all the references to other books of the Old Testament when needed, but this is done skillfully so the story line is not scattered. Fortunately, he spends very little time trying to explain how certain miracles occurred, but instead suggests that myths would provide better explanations in some cases.
Be prepared for some shocking revelations. In Numbers 5:11-30, he discusses The Test for an Unfaithful Wife. The test implies an induced miscarriage, or as we would say today: an abortion. In today's social climate, this can be a very difficult topic, but McDermott handles it very well. Another topic that is difficult to understand is the Biblical acceptance of the existence of slavery (Exodus, 21:1-11). Once again, McDermott. treats this in a very professional manner. I even found reading about the religious laws in Leviticus to be of interest.
For Theosophists who have labored mightily to get through Geoffrey Hodson's three volumes of The Hidden Wisdom in the Holy Bible, Dr. McDermott's book is here to ease the way. Keep in mind that Hodson, after three volumes, only gets up to Exodus, Chapter 17. Reading about Simone Weil’s life will give you an outlook from a Christian Gnostic view while McDermott's book will give you the depth to better understand her writings.
A Secret History of Consciousness. By Gary Lachman. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books. Paperback, xxxv + 314 pages.
Gary Lachman, whom many readers of The Quest will recognize as a contributor to this magazine, is at once a highly successful popular musician, a much published writer, and a serious student of psychology and philosophy. It is in the last capacity that he has produced this ambitious and wide-ranging work. A Secret History of Consciousness is both a history of consciousness and a history of ideas about the history of consciousness.
The history of consciousness takes us back to the Paleolithic emergence of a distinctive human mode of awareness. The history of the history of consciousness presented here offers an admirable mix of philosophers usually considered mainstream, including Kant, Hegel, James, and Bergson, together with others, such as Steiner, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Blavatsky, often put into a special "esoteric'' category. Lachman's way of enabling representative's of the two sets to dialogue with each other is one of the great strengths of this work; we do not understand consciousness so well that we can afford to neglect any significant perspective on it.
Theosophists will be particularly happy to see that this study is highly appreciative of Helena Blavatsky's importance in that conversation, presenting her work as the first major post-Darwinian response to nineteenth-century scientific materialism. Her picture, often mythopoeic, of convergent physical and spiritual or "consciousness" evolution, showed how the sterile impasse of religious and scientific dogmatism could be transcended through reference to an ancient wisdom in which mind and matter coexist and evolve together.
It is jean Gebser (1905-1973), however, who is the culminating figure in this book and clearly the scholar with whom Lachman feels the deepest affinity. In Gebser's view of the history of consciousness, archaic magical and mythical ways of thinking "mutated" into a "mental-rational" structure and finally are reaching an "integral" stage. We are now transiting into integralism, in which all previous modes of consciousness will be brought together more perfectly than before. Amid the tension of change, however, there is always the danger of “atavistic" relapse into modes of consciousness whose time is past, which is what Gebser saw happen around him as perverted forms of magic and myth returned in Europe in the form of fascism and other antirational ideologies. In passing, it may be noted that Gebser was highly regarded by Theosophical intellectuals such as Fritz Kunz well before he became the widely recognized thinker he now is.
A Secret History of Consciousness is highly recommended to all serious readers of philosophy and intellectual history.
Rumi: Gazing at the Beloved. By Will Johnson. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003. Hardcover, 216 pages.
Inspired by the spiritual practice of the Sufi poet and mystic Jallaludin Rumi and his teacher Shams-i-Tabriz, this little book considers the art of seeing.
All spiritual traditions teach that to encounter God we must "come face to face with the energies of the divine" and surrender to whatever emerges in us as a result of the at meeting. Creating eye contact is essential, and Johnson suggests that this practice of looking deeply can be done by holding one's attention and gaze on the eyes of an icon or image of a god or goddess, a spiritual teacher, or beloved friend.
Like Coleman Barks who says that the depths of the heart can only be experienced “in the mysterious osmosis of presence with presence,” Johnson observes that real love is the ground of communication between two people. To hold and soften one's gaze into their partner's eyes until each begins to feel that they are an embodiment of the divine is natural. This experience enables us to feel truly seen for who we truly are.
As children we did this, and the prolonged eye contact generated energies that triggered a burst of laughter and two smiling faces. According to Johnson, in our fear-based culture only new lovers and parents of newborns are allowed to gaze deeply. For others, such behavior is considered taboo.
Many contemporary teachers are beginning to incorporate the practice of gazing in their work with their students Johnson cites specific instructions and descriptions of the practice found in the poetry and discourses of Rumi who was inspired after being transformed by the spiritual mysteries he encountered with Shams and the innate consciousness of the divine they shared.
This book presents insights gleaned from personal practice and professional instruction, bringing previously esoteric understanding to a wider audience. The poetic beauty of Johnson's prose embraces and dances with the abundant selection of Rumi's work.
"The practice of gazing at the beloved is like a float trip that takes you down the river of your soul and ends at the ocean of union." Accordingly, Johnson guides readers through the trips four stages. He provides a reassuring and unintrusive "map" to prepare us for the "territory" of our own experiences of transformation.
Of course, spiritual practice is not an end but a means to living with presence and connection in the world. The gazing practice can enable us to take the feeling of union with us into our daily lives so we can experience what the Koran asserts, "Wherever you turn, there is the face of God." As we see with new eyes, we can merge with everything in nature and have a felt understanding of being one with the universe.
In light of Andre Malraux's observation that the twenty-first century would be mystical or not at all, Johnson's perspective on the mystery of mysticism has an encouraging timely relevance.
Sake & Satori: Asian Journals-Japan. By Joseph Campbell. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002. Hardback, xvi + 350 pages.
During the mid-fifties, the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell took an extended trip to Asia-his first--while on leave from Sarah Lawrence College. An assiduous journal keeper, Campbell kept detailed notes of his experiences and impressions. Sake and Satori, the second of two volumes and recently released by the Joseph Campbell Foundation, is primarily concerned with his time in Japan. (The first, Baksheesh & Brahman: Asian Journals-India, chronicles his sojourn on the subcontinent.) This book conveys about as well as a book can a sense of being there, and it can be read, on one level, as a guide on how to travel well.
Campbell is an enthusiastic and highly energetic travel companion: observant, insightful, and sometimes a bit petulant. He doesn't just sightsee, he absorbs the culture he experiences. Spending five months in Japan, mainly in Tokyo and Kyoto, Campbell immerses himself in the study of Japanese, conversations with people from all walks of life, and as much of the culture as possible. He visits shrines, temples, colleges, and museums; attends a multitude of theater productions and folk and religious ceremonies; and also finds time for a few randy adventures in some Tokyo strip clubs and geisha houses. Ever the able synthesizer, he makes good use of these experiences, and it's his ideas, seen in various stages of development, that provide the meat of this work. His ruminations focus mainly on Japanese religion and mythology but include healthy doses of philosophy, sociology, geopolitics, East/West cross-cultural comparisons, and the boorish ways of some Americans abroad.
There are surprising, paradoxical revelations as well. At one point, Campbell observes, despite his obvious love for Japan and the rich spiritual traditions of the East, that "Asia has not contributed and cannot contribute a single helpful technological or political thought to the contemporary world." And, his relentless diatribes against the poverty, squalor, anti-Western sentiment, and what he considered to be spiritual arrogance that he found in India border on the obsessive.
Indeed, in a moment of self-awareness, Campbell remarks "as a contemporary Occidental faced with Occidental and contemporary psychological problems, I am to admit and even celebrate (in Spengler's manner) the relativity of my historical view to my own neurosis (Rorschach formula)."
His neuroses notwithstanding, any Joseph Campbell book is an intellectual feast. This book, though rough around. the edges as any journal would be, does not disappoint.
The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Lama Theosophists and American Culture. By W. Michael Ashcraft. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002. Hardback, xviii + 258 pages.
For approximately the first three decades of the twentieth century, a community of Theosophists flourished on a promontory of land in southern California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and adjacent to the city of San Diego, known as Point Loma. Lomaland, its legal name and officially the international headquarters of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, was established and directed under the charismatic leadership of Katherine Tingley from 1897 until her death in 1929. In this tightly packed narrative, Michael Ashcraft tells the story of the Point Lama community within the context of three confluent streams of cultural and religious influence: Western esotericism, late American Victorian culture, and the culture of communitarian experiments within late nineteenth-century American society. By and large, Ashcraft succeeds in his aim, bringing to life a unique community that included an educational program for children that, as Ashcraft points out, "combined the child-rearing philosophies current in the United States during the nineteenth century with Theosophical assumptions about children."
Ashcraft begins, appropriately enough, with a brief history of the Theosophical Society, outlining in general terms some of the key concepts of the theosophical worldview as expounded by H. P. Blavatsky. As to the organization of the Society itself Ashcraft seems content to pass over the fact that H. S. Olcott was its president, mentioning only that the Society received considerable leadership from him and later identifying Olcott simply as one of the original members. As Ashcraft's concern is the story of the Point Loma community, he focuses on the work of W. Q. Judge, who, as the book states, led the American lodges to declare their independence (from Adyar, the world headquarters in India established by Olcott and Blavatsky) in 1895 forming the Theosophical Society in America. It was as successor to Judge that Tingley wore the mantle of leadership, changing the name of the organization to Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. And it was Tingley who, building on the theosophical concept of cycles and “Judge's... transmission of ... progressive millennial expectation enunciated in Blavatsky's writings, saw in the founding of the Point Loma community the realization of cyclical expectations." Thus, as Ashcraft points out, "the seedbed, conceptually and organizationally, for what later became an extensive educational enterprise at Point Loma was the School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity."
The question of why California should be chosen is an interesting one, and Ashcraft in discussing the selection of Point Lama as the site for Tingley's community asks, "Was the success of the [Theosophical] movement a result of esoteric forces at work on the West Coast, or was the success of the movement itself the reason for Tingley's interest in that area?" He adds, “Whatever the esoteric importance of California, from a more mundane perspective, its demographic and historical setting favored Theosophical expansion. Not surprisingly, Spiritualists and other peripheral religious groups of the nineteenth century thrived in California. So, too, did the Theosophists." Having thus chosen the site, Tingley next faced the question, as Ashcraft puts it, Who should come? The peopling of Point Loma makes a most interesting story, both in terms of the lives of many of the original residents-teachers, workers, leaders in Tingley's enterprise-and in terms of population numbers. Ashcraft records that in 1900 there were 95 people at Lomaland, 37 of the initial inhabitants being children. "The first decade ... was a time of optimism, hope, and construction of both buildings and organization, with the population in 1910 numbering 357.” The community peaked during the 1910s. After World War I, the community gradually declined, until in 1929, at the time of Tingley’s death, there were only 171 adults and 78 pupils, while two years later the population was 131 adults. As Ashcraft notes in his concluding chapter, opinions vary among former residents concerning Point Loma's decline. The Depression of 1929, financial problems, the change of direction instituted by Tingley's successor, Dr. G. de Purucker-all are cited as possible causes.
As Ashcraft proceeds with the story of Lomaland, he places each aspect of the community's activities within the context of the social and cultural milieu of the late nineteenth century, noting both the similarities and the contrasts between theosophical assumptions and the prevailing attitudes and philosophies current in late Victorian America. First, he examines in some detail the idealist consensus among child-rearing theorists that existed when Tingley was establishing her Raja Yoga school for children at Point Loma. Noting the aspects of the educational philosophies becoming dominant during the 1890s and into the early years of the new century, Ashcraft points to those that influenced Tingley's approach, while at the same time acknowledging that "the Point Loma Theosophists were unique ... [they had] a cyclical view of the coming age and were preparing their children to enter the next cycle," so that consequently a Theosophical philosophy of child rearing complemented an age-graded network of schools. While the Raja Yoga curriculum did not include Theosophical doctrine as such, Ashcraft emphasizes that Point Loma educators "modeled the moral life for their pupils and in so doing pointed to the deeper truths of Theosophy."
Following the pattern he uses for examining the educational work at Point Lorna, Ashcraft next looks at the role of women and assumptions about gender, again contrasting and comparing ideas espoused at Lomaland with Victorian concepts that endured well into the twentieth century. "Assumptions about gender were crucial in understanding late Victorian culture. They were also important in understanding Theosophical definitions of gender. The Theosophists who moved to Point Loma incorporated Theosophical doctrine with prevailing notions of women's roles." In considering national patriotism, he again contrasts prevailing views about America's role in the international community with those held by Point Loma Theosophists, which also often reflected both national and international distinctions among the residents. Stating that Point Loma Theosophists practiced "higher patriotism," a phrase that is synonymous with the brotherhood of humanity, Ashcraft cites Blavatsky's exposition of Root-Races as the basis for Tingley's emphasis on patriotic symbols from American history at the same time as she advocated the universalism implied by the ideal of brotherhood. Tingley's leadership of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society encompassed the period of two wars: the Spanish-American War, which Point Loma residents fully supported, interpreting it, as did many middleclass Americans, as a moral struggle, and the First World War, which the Lomalanders joined other Americans in condemning, calling for peaceful solutions to international problems.
Having examined the social, cultural, and moral values of early twentieth century America both as similar to and contrasting with those derived from theosophical ideals and concepts, Ashcraft concludes that Point Loma Theosophists "lived comfortably with the new and the old, the innovative [theosophical views] and the conventional [the environment of the period], which could be seen in any number of activities and accomplishments throughout the history of the Point Loma community." He adds further, "Point Lorna suggests that people of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could conceive of a world where such binary opposites were not really opposites, but complementaries." In summary, Ashcraft proposes that Point Loma Theosophists teach us that "people who march to the beat of a different drummer still hear some of the same cadences as the rest of us.” As to Point Loma's legacy, the author is quite correct in stating that as part of the larger stream of esoteric thought and practice called Theosophy, it contributed to the blossoming of the New Age that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.
Meticulously researched, drawing on extensive archival materials, including interviews with many who lived at Point Loma during some part of the community's existence or with relatives of those who were resident at various periods of Lomaland's heyday, as well as the usual books and other sources (including some unpublished documents) necessary for understanding both American social and cultural history and the theosophical context of the community, Ashcraft has produced an absorbing commentary. One could wish that his care in research had prevented his making such an egregious error as alleging that Dr. Annie Besant's Theosophical organization spawned a semi-Masonic movement called Co-Masonry, The International Co-Freemasonic Order, Le Droit Humain was founded in Paris in 1893 by individuals involved in social reform, none of whom were Theosophists. Although Besant joined the Order in 1902 and came to hold high offices in it-both in England and in India-the Order was and still is totally dissociated from the Adyar-based Theosophical Society.
The book betrays its origins as a doctoral dissertation, suffering from an almost overreferencing of paragraph after paragraph to notes that all too frequently consist of only a repetitious and lengthy listing of works-a-books, interviews, magazine articles, archival sources-on which the author has based his statements. Would it not have sufficed to reference only quotations, while leaving all other references to a comprehensive bibliography? On the whole, however, there is little to fault in Ashcraft's survey of what he terms a remarkable experiment in esoteric community life, the Point Loma Theosophists. It is indeed a fascinating story, and Ashcraft has done a worthy service in providing the cultural underpinnings for the experiment that was meant to herald the dawn of the new cycle.
Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. By Christopher Hill. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2003.Paperback, 201 pages.
While there are many books available on the Christian year, few display the imaginative power and spiritual beauty of Christopher Hill's Holidays and Holy Nights, not to mention its lovely design, and care, fully chosen art. The book is a worthy successor to classics in the field, such as Gertrud Mueller Nelson's To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration.
Hill has made a discerning selection of one festival per month, ranging from the familiar (Christmas) to the obscure yet fascinating (St. Brigid's Day). He begins with the assumption that, as dwellers within the cycles of the earth, we already know the meanings of the festivals at a deep, intuitive level. He then points toward the experiences that reveal these dynamics in our lives, drawing on both the seasonal traditions of pre-Christian European paganism and specifically Christian customs.
Hill's range of source material is considerable. His poetic prose carries us gracefully from Hippolytus to Bob Dylan, from John Henry Newman to the Beatles, all the while lifting the veil to display the astonishing radiance hidden within holiday traditions. At times his insights are startlingly original and penetrating, such as his treatment of the night visitors, human or otherwise, associated with many of the festivals-of whom trick-or-treaters and Christmas carolers are dim survivors. I, for one, will be watching my doorstep more closely on upcoming festival nights!
There is much in life that makes us feel small, that takes our stature and dignity from us. The World (in the theological sense, the socially and economically constricted world) is an extremely powerful device for narrowing and distracting our awareness of life. The World wields powerful, subtle, time-tested ploys for fragmenting our attention toward a million objects, through desire, fear, anxiety, social pressure, the whole vast sophisticated bag of tricks that the media and the economy layout in front of us.
In the face of such a grim reality, one can hardly imagine a better cure than this lovely book. Like a patient teacher, Hill takes us by the hand and gently shows us how much we already know, if only we will remember. He gives us a wealth of practices and suggestions that show us how we can return to harmony with the inner rhythms of the year and the spiritual processes hidden therein.
Holidays and Holy Nights will prove an invaluable resource for parents, clergy, and teachers. It will appeal equally to mainstream Christians and to persons interested in the festivals from an esoteric point of view. As the wheel of the year turns, I will return frequently to the treasures of this truly magical book.
Selections from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. By Swami Nikhilananda. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2002. Paperback, 201 pages.
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was surely one of India's most famous-and eccentric-spiritual teachers of the nineteenth century. Particularly through his pupil Vivekananda, who helped to introduce Vedantic philosophy to America, Ramakrishna became and remains widely recognized as a great spiritual guru. He is one of the "patron saints" of the Vedanta Society.
One of the best-known works about him is Mahendra Gupta's The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, published first in Bengali in five volumes (1897-1932) under the pseudonym "M." Swami Nikhilananda first translated The Gospel into English in 1942.
With this work, he offers, excerpts from that much longer original, along with copious notes on each facing page, for those who are put off by the immensity of The Gospel or its sometimes unfamiliar terminology.
This brief work contains a series of fascinating conversations that Sri Ramakrishna had with his disciples, although it is unclear when these dialogues took place or whether they are arranged in chronological order. Ramakrishna's unusual behavior is hinted in the introduction but not in the texts themselves, in which he appears spiritually wise and full of good humor. For those already knowledgeable about Ramakrishna's teachings there will be few surprises. For the uninitiated, however, this volume provides a clear and readable introduction to his way of spirituality.
-JAY G. WILLIAMS
Hildegard of Bingen's Spiritual Remedies. By Dr. Wighard Strehlow. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2002. Paperback, xiii + 257 pages.
Civilization is currently experiencing an epidemic growth in the number of auto aggressive diseases. These are a result of our culture. We are literally killing ourselves. These illnesses were seen and cures provided 850 years ago by abbess, prophet, healer and writer, Hildegard of Bingen. In her five books on healing, she foresaw the time when the earth would need to be healed due to damage and pollution. She also saw humanity as being out of balance and gave specific steps individuals could take to restore the unity of body, mind and soul.
Dr. Wighard Strehlow has spent the last twenty years studying the works of Hildegard. He applies her remedies through his healing practice at the Hildegard Center in southern Germany. In his book he takes the writings and illuminations from five of Hildegard's books and arranges them according to the four dimensions in which she saw holistic health occurring.
These are: “Physical healing with natural remedies and nutrition,”; "Healing with thirty-five spiritual healing forces of the soul"; "Healing with the power of the four cosmic elements"; "Restoration through ‘oneness’ with God."
Hildegard knew that physical symptoms were the result of negative emotions and attitudes. Therefore the book includes some of the 35 healing forces or virtues of the soul with their opposite negative forces or vices. Each vice affects various organs and corresponds to specific spinal vertebrae. Healing steps are provided to correct each specific vice and thereby strengthen the virtues and heal the body. These therapies include crystal therapy, herbal remedies, meditations, and Bible passages for contemplation.
This book is particularly fascinating when one considers that so many answers were provided long ago. It is an inspiring source for self analysis. It is hard not to find vices with which the reader's soul is struggling. The analysis of each vice is illuminating as are the suggested remedies. This book provides a wonderful reference and guide for anyone trying to maintain or restore balance in life for themselves or others.
-SUSAN AURIN HABER
Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities. By Thich Nhat Hanh. Compiled by Jack Lawlor. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2002. Paperback, x + 306 pages.
We can set foot on the spiritual path, but can we abide others who are on the same path? We can profess love for all sentient beings, but how much do we really love those with whom we must live and work at dose quarters day after day? On the other hand, is there not something incomplete in a solitary spiritual life, in which nothing is shared and never is known the encouragement of a helping hand or a friendly smile from a wise companion on the way?
These problems and paradoxes have beset pilgrims in all spiritual traditions. We want and need spiritual communities, yet life in them is not always easy. They require sacrifice, both of substance and self-will, and we may be forced to contend with difficult conditions and difficult people. But without them, we have nothing but ourselves-and that may be even more difficult. Indeed, in Buddhism spiritual community is considered so essential that the Sangha, the fellowship of monks and their followers, is one of the three refuges taken by all who profess Buddhism, along with the Buddha and the Dharma, or teachings.
Friends on the Path is a new book about life in the sangha. It is a collection of wise and gentle instructions by the beloved contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and others associated with him, on sangha forming and living. Some contributors, both Westerners and Vietnamese, reside and work at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's center in France. Others are at smaller centers throughout the world, including many in the United States and Canada. Some are monastic, others lay groups meeting regularly for meditation. The book also discusses the practicing family as a sangha.
All the writers in this collection have come to realize, as Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes, that community is practice-not a setting for practice or a product of practice, but practice itself, along with meditation and mindfulness. Living with others directly teaches samadhi (concentration), prajna (insight), and sila (morality). Without others, these teachers admonish us, one will not get far.
Furthermore, being together on the path can bring the happiness it's all about. A great richness of Friends on the Path are the earthy, firsthand accounts of many sanghas across the globe, all with their good times and bad times, their problems and their pleasures, but all in the end vibrant with the sheer joy of life with companions who share one's own deepest values and yearnings. When Buddhists say, "May all beings be happy," they mean, "May we all be part of the great Sangha of life."
This book is highly recommended to all on the Buddha's path and to all who want to learn more about community. Many Theosophical groups and communities as well could glean much of value for their own life together from this volume.
Yoga Hotel: Stories. By Maura Moynihan, New York, NY: Regan Books, 2003, Paperback, 304 pages.
Although The Quest generally reviews only scholarly non-fiction books, every so often a remarkable work of fiction comes along, that not only conveys various spiritual messages by the characters in the stories, but does so with meaning and feeling that goes far beyond the fiction genre. These books can convey a message that has more depth than any academic study could ever hope for. Maura Moynihan's Yoga Hotel is such a book. It is a "must read" for Theosophists who desire a more balanced view of the "mystical" East and the "materialistic" West.
When Moynihan was fifteen, she moved to New Delhi, India, where her father, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, took up his U.S. ambassador duties. After numerous years in India and Nepal, she has become a spokeswoman for developing an improved East-West cultural relationship. Her many experiences are reflected in this book.
Hotel Yoga is composed of six stories; most are short except one which is a novella. As she explains in a blurb for the book, "I wanted to write about the India I know ... a place where worlds and people collide, with unpredictable and complex results." As we shall see, when the Indian household tradition meets the lure of Western novelty, it can lead to some interesting stories. Sometimes it is spiritually healthy to be reminded of what happens when the ancient religions are found amid urban chaos.
No matter which story you read, we find an underlying theme: Visitors from the West are most of the time “high maintenance” travelers. More often than not, they can be self-centered, and we, as readers, see this long before the people in the stories can. It's not surprising to sometimes find a Westerner's spiritual ways shallow. While, on the other hand, their Indian host often takes advantage of the Western's traits and exploits them as best they can.
In one of the stories an Indian manservant helps his British boss escape a prearranged wedding. The real intrigue of the story is the motives and scheming of the people involved; all done with a touch of the mysterious Indian culture. A good contrast of East and West is found in another story involving an American embassy worker who becomes disillusioned when her married lover uses her to get a visa. Yet another story brings to light the ultimate test, when a group of wealthy Westerners at a Himalayan retreat are asked to buy dowries for a poor Indian family.
My favorite story was about a dying guru called Masterji, whose disciples, followers, and hangers-on start vying to be his replacement. Among them was a young woman named Sam, who was my choice for his replacement, Her strengths and weaknesses, reminded me of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, who was always looking out for the disenfranchised. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Sam was based not on Simone Weil but on the author at that particular time of her life!
There is a Yoga Hotel CD that can be ordered as an accompaniment to the book, on which the multi-talented Moynihan, who is also a musician, sings songs in English, Hindustani, and Tibetan exploring the East-West theme.
I Ching: An Annotated Bibliography. By Edward Hacker, Steve Moore, and Lorraine Petsco. New York: Routledge, 2002, Hardcover, 336 pages.
The I Ching (The Classic of Change) is an ancient Confucian classic that has shaped Chinese thinking for millennia. One of the oldest books in the world, it dates back to pre-historical times. Although frequently used for divination, the I Ching is also a book of metaphysics and early mathematical theory. Based upon a binomial system of broken and unbroken (yin and yang) lines, it foreshadowed the whole cybernetic world in which we now live. The great philosopher and mathematician G. W. Leibniz perceived the significance of the I Ching in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, no apparent reference to his work is included in this compilation.
In recent years, particularly since the 1960s, the I Ching has become very popular in the West as a tool for self-reflection and divination. As I Ching: An Annotated Bibliography attests, such interest has led to innumerable books and articles about this ancient classic. The authors group these materials, which range from voluminous books to one-page broadsides, into three basic categories: (1) books and unpublished dissertations, (2) journal and magazine articles and reviews, and (3) I Ching devices and equipment. The latter category includes audio and video tapes, computer programs, I Ching cards and kits, and so on.
All items are annotated. There will, of course, be disagreement about whether each annotation does justice to the item at hand. Some of the comments are extensive, others very brief; most of them were helpful and to the point. Although there may be omissions (for example, any mention of Leibniz, surprisingly) the listings seem quite exhaustive. For anyone wishing to do research on the I Ching, this volume will be highly useful.
Nevertheless, some limitations should be noted. First, although the title does not reveal it, this bibliography refers only to works written in English. The user should be aware that there is a vast array of works in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and several Western languages that should be consulted if one is to do full justice to the subject.
Second, the title should also have indicated the time span covered. Like any other bibliography, this one is already out of date. Only a few moments of internet research uncovered a significant number of books about the I Ching published since 2001 that are not included. This, of course, is not the fault of the compilers, for every bibliography will be dated even before it is published. Nevertheless, a clearer indication of the bibliography's cut-off point would have been helpful.
Given these limitations, however, this is a very useful tool for anyone with an interest in this ancient classic. The compilers should be congratulated for their monumental achievement.
-JAY G. WILLIAMS
A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides: Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Ramakrishna. By Andrew Harvey. Woodstock, VT: Sky Light Paths, 2003, Hardcover, 240 pages.
If you are not familiar with the work of Andrew Harvey, this book offers a wonderful way to meet him. He begins by recounting his 1992 conversation with the mystic monk Bede Griffiths. "You know of course, Andrew, that we are now in the hour of God ... Very few people are prepared to look without illusion at our time and see it for what it is-a crucifixion on a worldwide scale of everything humanity has expected or trusted or believed in every level and in every arena. To look like this requires a kind of final faith and courage, which few have as yet. You and others like you will have to live and write in such a way as to help people to such a faith and trust."
"Do you think humanity can get through?"
"Of course, ... but it will cost everything, just as Jesus had to go through death into the new world of the Resurrection, so millions of us will have to go through a death to the past and to all old ways of being and doing if we are going to be brought by the grace of God into the truth of a real new age. The next twenty years will unfold a series of terrible disasters, wars, and ordeals of every kind that will reveal if the human race is ready to die into new life or not."
Always, Harvey's words, spoken or written, echo the conviction of Griffiths's words, while filled with his own broad and deep wisdom and passionate urgency. Here his reflections illuminate selected texts about Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Ramakrishna, assuring that "we will learn priceless and practical lessons, inspiring us to become warriors of love and knowledge and servants of that one transformed future that could enable us to survive."
A helpful page-facing commentary accompanies each text's English translation. In addition, insightful essays from others invoke a zone of consciousness to help us connect more deeply with each guide and selection.
For example, "one moment in the company of an enlightened master is more valuable than a hundred years of sincere worship .. , even a written account ... can impart to us the fragrance of their divine companionship." And, "always read a (mystical writing) as if it had just been written ... referring to what is going on in the world right now. If you do, you will find that its power to initiate and inspire is constantly astounding ... each different cycle of world civilization will find in it new truth, expressed with permanently fresh urgency."
Harvey begins his discussion of probably the most revolutionary mystic of the past 150 years with this assertion: "If I had to choose one book to take with me to a desert island to contemplate for the rest of my life, or pick one book to give a seeker today to help guide him or her into the joys and mysteries of the mystical life, it would be The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna."
For Harvey, nevertheless, "the world's supreme mystical revolutionary" is the teacher known as Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas is the clearest guide to his vision of each person finding the truth and power of human divinity within themselves.
This volume is a very satisfying “sampler” of the other books in Skylight Paths' spirituality classics collection, which present the work of one guide in more detail.
Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow. By Arthur Green, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2003. Hardcover, 192 pages.
Despite its subject-the ancient and mystical tradition of Kabbalah-this book is not about the past but about the future. Ehyeh, a Hebrew word that may be translated "I will be," is one of the biblical names of God and by its very tense it points toward what is to come. Arthur Green, a professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University, emphasizes this name in order to introduce his view about how the Jewish mystical tradition, so long deemphasized among "modern" Jews, should become more mainstream and develop in the future. What he emphasizes above all is the oneness of the universe and the image of God as the divine in the human.
Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow was written by a Reconstructionist Jew for Jews. Nevertheless, because Green seeks to develop a postmodern, mystical attitude, much of what he says will appeal to a wider audience. Indeed, his comments on many issues, including the environment, prayer, and the community could be easily accepted by liberally minded members of many other traditions. Although he speaks about the Jewish tradition and urges his readers to learn Hebrew, the values of the book seem to arise as much from postmodernism as from Judaism itself. Some Jews, I suspect, will find that a major problem.
I myself approached the book hoping for a more detailed account of the Kabbalah. For instance, I would have liked a fuller examination of the sephiroth and how they may be used in meditational practice. What is offered is evocative, but does not go far beyond some basic thoughts, particularly about sephiroth six through nine. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully written and informative work that surely breaks down stereotypes of what is Jewish. Forelocks have been replaced by foresight. The work concludes with an epilogue containing, among other things, a helpful discussion of recommended works about the Kabbalah. Green offers here a good beginning in Kabbalah for those who know little about it. He has shown that this Jewish esoteric tradition, in some ways so foreign in thought and expression, can be adapted to the postmodern world. Whether old-time Kabbalists would agree is, of course, another question.
-JAY G. WILLIAMS
Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. By Avihu Zakai. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. Hardcover, 348 pages.
Most people who attended high school in the United States remember Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) for his stunning, frightening sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which is standard fare in American literature classes. It is regrettable that many dismiss Edwards on this basis and thus miss the depth and wonder of much of his other writing.
Avihu Zakai's book has a narrow focus on Edwards's philosophy of history. Even though he provides some introduction to Edwards's life and work, it is not the easiest place for a neophyte to begin. Those who are unfamiliar with Edwards would best turn to George Marsden's excellent new, biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003).
For the Theosophical reader, Zakai's book will probably be most interesting for the parallel between Edwards's time and our own. Edwards lived in the era of the rationalist Enlightenment philosophers, who mechanized the universe and secularized history, squeezing out the presence of the Divine. While he was intimately familiar with the new philosophy, Edwards had experiential reasons why he could not accept it. As a seventeen year-old college student, he had a religious conversion, in which "the appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or the appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing." Once one's eyes have been opened, it is hard to shut them again.
Zakai demonstrates how Edwards labored against the intellectual trends of his day in an effort to reenchant the world with the presence of God. In his works on nature, he claimed "every atom in the universe is managed by Christ." If one sees Christ as the universal Logos, how many of us might agree? When considering history, Edwards gave preeminence not to human activity but to the movement of the Spirit, especially as displayed in periodic revivals. Do we not also try to discern spiritual cycles in outer history? Zakai points to the influence of Edwards's writings on American Protestant culture, where the revival continues to occupy a prominent place, although often in the hands of those less sophisticated than Edwards.
As women and men living in an age of scientific reductionism and philosophical nihilism, we are also striving to reenchant the world, to open our eyes and those of others to Spirit moving in nature and history. We would do well to attend to those who shared this struggle in other times.
A Sense of the Cosmos: Scientific Knowledge and Spiritual Truth. By Jacob Needleman. Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Books Publishing, 2003. Paperback, 178 pages.
Explorations of the relationship between science and religion/spirituality generally focus on the pressing need to reconcile these two great domains. The aim of Jacob Needleman's A Sense of the Cosmos, originally published in 1975 and now reissued, is very different though equally important: It probes our attitudes toward both science and ourselves.
Few can be better qualified for such probing than Jacob Needleman, distinguished philosopher, teacher, widely published author and editor (and the general editor of two outstanding metaphysical/philosophical series), and sought-after consultant in many fields including psychology, education, medical ethics, philanthropy, and business.
In the preface to the present edition, Needleman states: "We cannot know, so the great spiritual traditions teach, with only one part of the human intelligence." The greatness of modern science is rooted in its courageous effort of reliance on what it considered the pure intellect as it was joined to and supported by a rediscovered respect for the bodily senses, .. as the source of knowledge. But in this revolutionary development ... what was forgotten is that the heart, the power of profound feeling, is absolutely necessary in order both to be good and to see the good." The ultimate question we must deeply ponder is the "Being of beings." If this sounds too abstract, simply "step outside one starry night