Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012.
352 pages, paper, $16.95.
Is another biography of one of the most fascinating and storied individuals of the nineteenth century, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, really needed? Gary Lachman, the well-known writer on occult and esoteric topics, and the author of some dozen works including biographical studies of P.D. Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, and Carl Jung, suggests that there are two Madame Blavatskys that have already been subjected to close scrutiny. There is, of course, the Madame Blavatsky of what Lachman terms the "encyclopedi" version: the Blavatsky derided and disparaged, accused of fraud and labeled a charlatan. According to Lachman, the evidence for all the derogatory accusations is "pretty questionable" Then there is the pro-Blavatsky version, which at times borders on the uncritical and hagiographical. The third persona, whom Lachman says he discovered as he investigated her life and times, is a more exciting, surprising, and "real" character. It is the one that he believes deserves to be better known and hopes to reveal in the course of retelling her story.
In pursuit of this third persona, Lachman emphasizes the Russian traits that Blavatsky inevitably inherited”what the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev described as mystical and prophetic qualities or "devotion to spiritual truth," combined with a "profoundly contradictory character" To these, Lachman adds another: the acceptance of humiliation or what is known in the Sufi tradition as the "way of blame" (for an excellent description of this characteristic, see the recently published Quest book, Yannis Toussulis's Sufism and the Way of Blame).
Drawing on a number of already published biographies, Lachman opens his first chapter, titled "From Russia with Love," with the indisputable facts of HPB's parentage and early years, continuing the narrative in the second chapter, "Around the World in Eighty Ways" As Lachman narrates the story, by the time of her marriage at the age of seventeen, HPB's life begins to take on the quality of a large question mark: many small questions are interspersed with verifiable facts. Lachman, for the most part, refrains from answering any of the questions, many of which still haunt the serious investigator, but rather presents a fairly balanced account of the numerous answers that have been proposed. A relevant example concerns her relationship with the Italian-Hungarian opera singer Agardi Metrovitch, whom she first met in Constantinople on the first of her several journeys around the world. Metrovitch gave his name to HPB's "ward," the child Yuri or Youri, whose actual father may well have been the Estonian Baron Meyendorff, with the mother named as HPB's sister-in-law, Nathalie Blavatsky. The story is a complicated one, and Lachman attempts to give equal credit to both the pro- and the anti- Blavatsky accounts.
In a similar manner, Lachman reviews the several versions of her first encounterâ€”at least "in the flesh"â€”with her guru, the Master or Mahatma Morya, when she was in London. That meeting Lachman identifies as "perhaps the most important moment of her life" Morya, along with other Masters (members of what is often referred to as the Brotherhood of Adepts or Occult Fraternity), appears throughout Lachman's account of all subsequent events in HPB's life. In the final chapter of the book, entitled "The Masters Revealed?", Lachman deals with the concept of "hidden masters" He also analyzes in some detail the work of K. Paul Johnson, including his book, Initiates of Theosophical Masters and his article "Blavatsky and Her Teachers," reprinted in Jay Kinney's anthology, The Inner West. While also dealing with post-Blavatskian ideas concerning the Masters, Lachman accepts that for Blavatsky herself, these are "actual people . . . remarkable men, possessed of remarkable powers, with high aims and a noble mission, but men nonetheless," and that she was in communication with them.
Allied to the question of Blavatsky's Masters is the vexed issue concerning the time she spent in Tibet, and Lachman
devotes chapter three ("Seven Years in Tibet?") to an examination of possible answers. He is particularly helpful in pulling together a record of those known to have attempted entry to the mysterious land. Some we know were successful in their effort (such as the French AbbÃ© Huc and much later, the French Buddhist Alexandra David-Neel, whose lifeâ€”according to Lachmanâ€”closely paralleled that of Blavatsky's), while many were either turned back at the borders or perished in the attempt. More relevant, suggests Lachman, is what she did during whatever time she may have been in Tibet. Here Lachman proposes that HPB was instructed by the Masters in the "mysterious" language she termed "Senzar," as well as engaging in the "even more difficult study: the development and control of her psychic powers" However, Lachman's conclusion regarding her claim of having been in Tibet is simply, "In all honesty, I do not know" So the reader is left to determine the truth or falsity of HPB's own statements.
By chapter four ("A Haunting in Chittenden"), we are generally on verifiable ground. Lachman again cites a wide range of previously published biographies for his abbreviated survey of HPB's life during the years following her arrival in the United States, her meeting with Henry Steel Olcott, and the establishment of the Theosophical Society (events covered in chapters four, five, and six).
As he is usually quite careful in identifying his sources for the various significant events, it would have been helpful if Lachman had clearly identified the source of what he calls the Society's "â€˜mission' statement," generally called the Three Objects of the organization. In chapter six, "Unveiling Isis," he gives one of the very early versions of the Objects, adding that the "statement" still guides the branches of the Society today. Actually today, at least for the Adyar Society, the Objects that serve as guideposts have some important differences from the original versions. A minor point, perhaps, but worth noting to aid the reader unfamiliar with the Society.
It is in chapter six, however, that Lachman, discussing and summarizing the two volumes of Isis Unveiled, writes
at his very best, with an enthusiasm and vitality that excites the reader. Here too he justifies calling HPB the "mother
of modern spirituality" Emphasizing that "many of the themes and ideas that occupy a great deal of contemporary
â€˜alternative' literature were first announced by Blavatsky," Lachman proceeds to illustrate the claim that so much that has been called "new age" is really "rooted" in HPB's first major work.
Lachman deals quite competently with all the subsequent events: the move to India; meeting the journalist A.P.
Sinnett; the production of numerous phenomena; the establishment of the headquarters of the Society at Adyar;
what is often referred to as the "Coulomb Affair," followed by the famous (or infamous) Hodgson Report on behalf of
the Society for Psychical Research; and the departure of HPB from India, first to Europe and then eventually to settle
in London, where she would complete her second major work, The Secret Doctrine. Lachman, while admitting that as
with Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine is not easily summarized, proceeds to give the reader an adequate and very
helpful prÃ©cis of the two volumes, quoting in full what are known as the "three fundamental propositions"
By the final chapter, one feels that Lachman has quite fallen in love with HPB, or at least has found her lovable, her life made up of "equal parts of history and mystery" Her most creative periods, he contends, were the times when she produced her four major works, Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence, and The Key to Theosophy, works that have never been out of print since they were first penned. They are still studied by individuals and groups today, providing instruction, inspiration, and, often, bewilderment, giving rise to ever deeper probing into the truths she sought to convey.
If one faults Lachman for anything, it may be for his all too frequent digressions, which sometimes confuse and tend to lead away from his central thesis. On the whole, however, Lachman has produced an excellent brief survey of the life and work of one of the most remarkable women of all time. For those unfamiliar with HPB, the book provides a quick introduction, while those already acquainted with her may find in the work a new perspective on her legacy to the contemporary arena of spiritual search.
Joy Mills was president of the Theosophical Society in America from 1965 to 1974. Her most recent contribution to Quest was "Entangled Karma" in the Fall 2012 issue.
Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind
Margaret Placentra Johnston
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2012. x + 300 pages, paper, $17.95.
According to the author of Faith beyond Belief, much of traditional religion puts forth a message that is spiritually immature and lacking in nuance and sophistication. She supports this thesis by recounting her own struggle with traditional religious views, as well as by narrating the real life stories of ten people from diverse backgrounds who had similar struggles and ultimately decided to leave their places of worship.
The stories are both engaging and revealing. They include those of a young mother who was raised as a Mormon; a man who from Kenya who was raised Roman Catholic; a Midwestern woman who began questioning her Presbyterian church at the age of eight; an elderly man who began to question his Muslim faith after the events of 9/11; and a baby boomer who was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church. Although they left their religions behind, all these individuals felt that they continued to have a deep spiritual life in which truth and ethics play a pivotal part.
In most of these cases, the decision to leave one's religion involved a prolonged and intense psychological battleâ€”an inner tug of war between wanting the continued security of a community with shared beliefs and the ever-increasing doubts raised by the rational mind regarding rigid church doctrine. Those whose stories are told here found that their search for spiritual integrity was stifled and repressed by the narrow parameters of orthodox religious thinking. But it was not uncommon for these inner struggles to endure for years. One can appreciate the great courage and integrity that were required to make those decisions, especially in the face of impassioned pleas from family and members of the congregation to stay within the fold. In some cases, the price paid was complete rejection by family and former friends.
As compelling as these stories are, they serve to make the author's larger point, which is that spirituality evolves through four stages of growth. The first stage includes those who are spiritually undeveloped. These are people who live their lives without any guiding principles and are motivated primarily by selfish and egocentric concerns. Some of them may even attend church, but only for superficial and ulterior motives. The second stage consists of those who are looking for definite answers and tend to read scripture in a literal fashion. They view their religion as the only "correct" one and place great value on the security and comfort that such attitudes bring them. They are not comfortable with ambiguity and prefer cut-and-dried moral directives. Third is the rational stage, in which science and reason play a great role. Individuals at this stage value truth and integrity and therefore cannot accept religious ideas that fly in the face of science. They are often skeptical and ask lots of questions. "Critical reflection," the author notes, "is a necessary step in moving toward spiritual maturity" She observes that for individuals to arrive at the rational level, their sense of self has to be stronger than their identity with a certain group, although this does not necessarily mean they are selfish.
The author characterizes the fourth stage of spiritual growth as the mystical stage. Here scripture is interpreted as metaphor and allegory. There is a comfort with ambiguity and mystery and "an ability to live in the questions" Individuals at this level accept and value paradoxical statements as pointers to truth, while those at an earlier stage of spiritual development are made uneasy and insecure by such apparent contradictions. Mystics value unity over divisiveness, seeing not one group or another, but all as part of one.
While the author presents much evidence to support this theory of spiritual development, she takes pains to emphasize that we should not use this type of knowledge to judge people or categorize them. Also, the stages are not always cut-and-dried, and people often exhibit traits from more than one category. But the overall evidence is persuasive, and the theory is compatible with the Theosophical view of spiritual evolution. Research from a number of sources, as well as the author's own ideas, are presented in a clear and nondogmatic fashion.
Just as the message put out by traditional religion is often immature, according to the author, so are the relentless attacks on organized religion by the new crop of atheistsâ€”people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Although they make some valid criticisms against religion, often in brilliant fashion, they are guilty of making an idol out of the rational mind, failing to understand that there may be other ways of perceiving the ultimate Reality.
Finally, it should be noted that this is not a book about bashing religion. The author stresses, "As a society, we do not want to leave our churches behind. Nor should we; they provide us with a rich cultural heritage and a particular sense of community not available elsewhere. They also serve as an integrating force for good and remind us to focus on issues beyond the material world"
The reviewer is a longtime member of the Theosophical Society, for which he serves as national secretary.
Return to Redemption Ridge
George Eugene Belcher
West Palm Beach, Florida: National Transcom, 2012.
187 pages, paper, $18.99; Kindle e-book, $3.99.
We Theosophists are interested in helping humanity awaken to the universal truths The Secret Doctrine espouses. In this regard we should not underestimate the influence of movies and books of fiction. It is rare to find a novel that is accurate in presenting these principles of the ageless wisdom, but George Belcher's new novel Return to Redemption Ridge fits this category well. The author gives us a good mystery and love story set on a two century-old farm. The main character is a skeptical journalist who comes to this (some say) haunted farm to interview an aging, reclusive but famous and wealthy businessman. There are apparitions, unusual happenings, and revelatory information on reincarnation, life after death, and the soul. This is an inspirational, intelligent novel in which one also learns about the import business, caring for horses, and how to visually identify the age of good wine. Belcher's book is an imaginative and lovely addition to the genre of Theosophical education.
The reviewer is president of the FloridaFederation of the Theosophical Society in America.
Medieval Literacy: A Compendium of Medieval Knowledge with the Guidance of C.S. Lewis
Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2011. 384 pages, paper, $34.95.
I didn't think I would read this book, but I did. Citing Umberto Eco's aphorism, "There is nothing more wonderful
than a list," it is basically a collection of lists of concepts and themes from the medieval West, which, whatever backwardness it may have suffered in other respects, came second to no other civilization in its capacity to categorize.
The book is inspired by, and draws heavily from, C.S. Lewis's work The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. As James Grote points out in his introduction, Lewis regarded himself as a medieval thinker, and in an address at the University of Cambridge said, "I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours [the modern order] . . . Ladies and gentlemen, I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners" Grote, whose sympathies clearly lie in the same direction, uses Lewis's work among others to give us an overview of medieval thought, ranging from mythology, cosmology, and psychology to logic, philosophy, and theology. While the work is overwhelmingly dedicated to Western Europe, it does contain some material on Eastern traditions as well, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
The format is well-suited to the subject. As Grote points out, "Medieval thought favored the condensed form of scholastic manuals. In this regard, Medieval Literacy provides an introduction to things medieval within a format that is definitely medieval"
As Grote indicates, the medieval mind was above all else dedicated to harmony and orderliness in a way that we today find difficult to understand. To take one example, medieval cosmology was clear, orderly, and precise. Unlike the current scientific worldview, which depicts the universe as a sprawling, virtually limitless place in which humanity is only an insignificant speck, the Middle Ages portrayed the cosmos with the earth at the center (as Grote emphasizes, contrary to common belief the medievals knew perfectly well that the earth was spherical), surrounded by the spheres of the planets then known: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, surrounded in turn by the "fixed" celestial sphere, the primum mobile or the "crystalline" sphere, and beyond it the "empyrean" realm in which God and the heavenly hierarchies dwelt. This vision of the universe was most memorably portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy.
But the purpose of this work is more than to provide lists of such things as the nine celestial spheres, the seven liberal arts, Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of the existence of God, or the four causes as delineated by the Middle Ages' favorite philosopher, Aristotle. It is to remind us of what Grote describes as a view of nature in which "nature is neither divine nor eternal, but a product of divine activity. Like a sacrament, creation reveals and conceals God" He contendsâ€”as Lewis didâ€”that this worldview can serve as a counteragent to the lifeless, mechanical conception of the universe that we now have.
Medieval Literacy has its faults, as its author readily admits. It for the most part omits discussion of Anglo- Saxon and Norse epics as well as such late medieval authors as Boccaccio and Chaucer. It also fails to discuss medieval Jewish thought except in passing. "Hopefully," the author writes, "a second edition of Medieval Literacy will be able to fill in all of these gaps" It would also be good to have some information about the author himself, since the book bizarrely lacks any biographical note. Despite these omissions, Grote's work remains a fascinating and accessible guide to an age whose literature, thought, and mentality are worth revisiting and perhaps reawakening.
Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science
Paul Eli Ivey
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
328 pp., paper, $25.
From its beginnings, Theosophy has always been associated with the scientific investigation of the cosmos. The Mahatma Letters specifically state that "modern science is [Theosophists'] best ally" Paul Eli Ivey's historical examination of the Temple of the People in Halcyon, California, in the first part of the twentieth century focuses on the relationship between spirituality and science. It also examines h ow a group of Theosophists chose to live in an intentional community based on Theosophical principles. Under the guidance of the Master Hilarion, as interpreted through Blue Star (Francia A. LaDue) and Red Star (William H. Dower), the Temple of the People developed a utopian community that embraced Theosophy as a way of life and was based on occult principles.
The first half of the book is organized chronologically, detailing the formation of the Temple movement. In 1895, a conflict between the TS leadership in America (under William Q. Judge) and the headquarters in Adyar (led by Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant) resulted in most of the American lodges breaking from Adyar and operating independently under the leadership of Judge and then Katherine Tingley. (The current American Section of the Adyar TS is descended from the lodges that remained loyal to Adyar or chose to reaffiliate later on.)
Initially the members of the Syracuse, New York, Lodge joined with the newly independent American lodges. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the members were moving away from this group (by then known as the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, today called the Theosophical Society in America [Pasadena]) and more towards an independent organization, the Temple movement. As part of this process, the members relocated from Syracuse to California, establishing the Temple of the People and the city of Halcyon.
The latter half of the book is more thematic. Focusing on the intersection of art, architecture, and music, these chapters document the way the community members applied Theosophical principles to their artistic endeavors. Yet throughout the whole book there is one reoccurring theme, and that is the way science, particularly medical science, was viewed as connected to spiritual science. Both were employed by the community at its central hospital, the Halcyon Hotel and Sanatorium, overseen by Dower, a licensed medical doctor. The residents of the Temple were convinced that science would demonstrate the Theosophical principles they understood to permeate the universe. As Ivey notes, "To Temple members, scientific investigations would prove the veracity of The Secret Doctrine" As a result, radiation, X-rays, electricity, magnetism, and other "invisible" rays were seen as evidence of the powers of the universe beyond the senses.
This point was stressed when the sanatorium opened and Dower demonstrated his X-ray machines, which allowed attendees to look at the bones in their hands and arms. It was also the basis of a large number of therapies Dower instituted at the sanatorium. By the early 1920s, he was experimenting with a variety of "radiant rays," from standard radiology to the electricitybased therapies developed by Dr. Albert Abrams. In each case Dower's medical practice became the place where people combined rest, nature cures, scientific therapies, and occult principles in order to restore their health.
In terms of the history of Theosophical teachings and the emergence of a larger metaphysical spirituality in America, Ivey pays particular attention to how ideas from other traditions, particularly New Thought and, to a much lesser degree, Christian Science, also become integrated into the teachings of the Temple members. Ivey writes, "New Thought ideas of healing did have a place in Temple theology, and one pamphlet claimed that the Masters, through Helena Blavatsky, inaugurated both Theosophical and New Thought organizations"
Of course all intentional communities have their troubles and conflicts. The Temple of the People was no different. Ivey documents the various challenges and internal struggles among members. Initially the community was organized along socialistic lines, but this plan did not work, and eventually opportunities for private ownership of land and proceeds were devised to keep the community functioning. Similarly, there were conflicts about leadership, messages from the Masters, and the overall direction of the community. In each case compromises were made, directions were changed, or, in some cases, individual members left the community.
The last chapter traces how a few of the children living in the community grew to become world-renowned scientists and engineers. George Russell Harrison taught at various schools, including Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won prestigious awards, and had numerous patents. Russell and Sigurd Varian developed early radar systems that were essential parts of the Allied defense in World War II. For all these figures, the Theosophical principles learned at the Temple were applied practically and became the basis of their successful engineering careers.
Radiance from Halcyon is an excellent historical account of one utopian community that applied practically the principles of Theosophy as they understood them. It gives rich details of both highs and lows in the utopian experiment, all without losing the human dimension that made the community so attractive and enduring. Anyone interested in the history of intentional communities, the history of Theosophy in America, or how one group of people interpreted and implemented Theosophical principles will find Ivey's narrative both thought-provoking and instructive.
John L. Crow
John L. Crow is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Florida State University. Currently he is writing his dissertation, which focuses on how Theosophists lived Theosophy and understood the cosmos and its relationship to their bodies during the early twentieth century.
Handbook of the Theosophical Current
Edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein
Leiden: Brill, 2013. xii + 494 pages, hardcover, $234.
Many Theosophists may not know that they are part of a current. For that matter, they may not know what exactly a current is in this context. According to the scholars who focus on esotericism, the Theosophical current is not only the TS and its splinter groups, but the vast array of movements and figures that have been influenced by Theosophy. These include Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy; Alice Bailey and her school; the "I Am" movement of Guy and Edna Ballard and its offspring, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant; the Agni Yoga of Nicholas and Helena Roerich; Edgar Cayce; and even some UFO cults.
Handbook of the Theosophical Current is a wide-ranging and impressive collection of articles on these topics. In their introduction, editors Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein contend, "The formation of the Theosophical Society . . . and the main events linked to the fate of this organization, its key figure Helena Blavatsky . . . and her immediate successors . . . belong to the short list of pivotal chapters in the religious history of the West" They go on to describe Theosophy and its offshoots as "one of the modern world's most important religious traditions" Its concepts of spiritual evolution, subtle bodies, lost continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria, and karma and reincarnation have permeated "just about every nook and cranny of contemporary â€˜folk' religious culture"
The book is divided into three sections. The first includes four articles that set out the history of Theosophical organizations, focusing on the TS (Adyar), from Blavatsky's time to the present; one piece, by Tim RudbÃ¸g, also discusses Katherine Tingley and the Point Loma school. The second section explores currents and people that have been influenced by Theosophy, including Anthroposophy, Agni Yoga, Cayce, and the New Age. The final section describes the impact of Theosophy on culture and society, including the women's movement, abstract art, and popular fiction.
By and large the articles are of extremely high quality and compress a tremendous amount of information into a fairly short space. Two of the most impressive are in the third section. "Western Esoteric Traditions and Theosophy," by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, the late British scholar of esotericism, goes into some depth about the role of Hermetic and Kabbalistic influences in Blavatsky's Theosophy, particularly before her departure for India in 1878. It also explores esoteric Christian themes in the Theosophy of the early twentieth century. "Mythological and Real Race Issues in Theosophy," by Isaac Lubetsky, covers the vexed issue of racism in Blavatsky's works. Lubetsky concludes that HPB's thought certainly reflected some of the racism of her day: she characterized "Redskins, Eskimos, Papuans, Australians [i.e., aborigines], Polynesians, etc" as remnants of a previous Root Race that were doomed to die out. But Lubetsky is also careful to say that even so, Theosophy was "if at all, only indirectly a source for the more virulent racial ideologies of the first half of the twentieth century"
As is inevitable, essays in a collection are bound to be uneven. Probably the weakest article here is "The Theosophical Christology of Alice Bailey," which, in my view, overstates the similarity between Bailey's conception of the Christ and that of mainstream Christianity. But the level of scholarship is very high overall. It is a pity that the book's gargantuan price ($234) puts it beyond the reach of all but the richest and most avid students.
W. Michael Ashcraft's piece, "The Third Generation of Theosophy and Beyond," is hard to fault, but for many Theosophists it will make somewhat dismal reading. For Ashcraft, the third generation of Theosophy consists of those figures who succeeded Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater after their deaths in the early 1930s. Pointing to a decades-long decline in membership in all the Theosophical organizations, Ashcraft writes, "If the organizational forms of the movement are to play important roles in the spiritual developments of the twenty-first century, then at present those roles are not clear, and many observers will remain skeptical that the movement can have the deep and profound impact on Western thinking about spiritual matters that it had from the late nineteenth to the twentieth centuries" It is up to the current generation of Theosophists to prove otherwise.
The Origins of the World's Mythologies
E.J. Michael Witzel
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 665 + xx pages, paper, $45.
Why do so many creation myths sound so much alike? Why can myths about a flood that nearly destroyed all of humanity be found worldwide? And why do we find motifs of an end of the world in equally farflung places?
There are two basic theories that try to account for these similarities. One is the archetypal, which argues that these universal myths point to a common structure within the human mind. The other is the diffusionist view, which claims that these resemblances point to a common source of myth in the historical past.
E.J. Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, argues on behalf of the diffusionist view in this enormously learned and important volume. Comparing and contrasting the lore of cultures worldwide, he paints a picture of the history of myth that reaches back as far as 100,000 years.
Witzel claims that certain universal mythic elements may actually go back to the earliest stages of humanity, when the whole species still lived in Africa. He calls this strain the "Pan-Gaean" mythos (he uses the geological names of prehistoric continents to characterize these different strata). The next oldest is that of "Gondwana," a mythos that can be found today chiefly in sub- Saharan Africa and Australia. The myths of the rest of the worldâ€”not only Europe and Asia but the Americas and even Polynesi"”are "Laurasian" They share one central feature: unlike the earlier strains, they all present a continuous and more or less similar narrative, beginning with the origins of the cosmos and the gods, extending to the birth of humanity and its different ages and finally to the end of time, whether this is portrayed as the Nordic GÃ¶tterdÃ¤merung ("twilight of the gods") or as the Last Judgment of Christianity. Indeed, for Witzel, the creation narratives and eschatology of the Bible are only comparatively recent manifestations of the Laurasian mythos (which, he suggests, arose, probably in southwestern Asia, between 40,000 and 20,000 bc).
Why have these myths lasted for so long? According to Witzel, one reason is that, quite simply, they are good stories. Another is that the Laurasian mythos in particular recapitulates the human lifespan on a universal scale: like us, it is saying, the cosmos is born, grows to maturity, and eventually withers and dies.
Even taken as a whole (and the reasons I have just cited do not give the complete picture), Witzel's explanations for the persistence of myth are not entirely satisfying. The flood storyâ€” weirdlyâ€”goes back to the Pan-Gaean mythos, which, he says, is over 65,000 years old. Why should itâ€”along with other myths that are almost as durableâ€” have retained its fascination for so long? Whatever facts it may point to are in the remote and unattainable past. Witzel replies in part that, as others have argued, the human brain may be "hardwired" for myth and religion. This may well be the case, but it cuts against his criticisms of the archetypal view, which, after all, is also saying that myth is hardwired into the brain.
Witzel hits a wall in another way as well. He has no trouble fitting the Judeo-Christian mythos into his Laurasian schemeâ€”but then what about the current scientific worldview, complete with its Big Bang, its gestation of the stars, and its picture of a universe that eventually collapses in upon itself? Isn't this just the Laurasian mythos recast yet again, this time by the scientific temperament?
Witzel does not go this far, and one suspects that he simply cannot. But if this is true of the scientific mythos, then we have to grant that any picture that we form of the cosmos may be simply a picture of ourselves writ large. The human being, the esoteric traditions say, is the microcosm of the universe. Is this really so, or are we simply foredoomed by the structures of our minds to see it that way?
Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2013. 230 pp., paper, $12.95.
In the opening chapter of Supernatural, a collection of essays written by Quest editor Richard Smoley over the fifteen years between 1997 and 2012, he recalls a sensation he experienced as a child when listening to his parents and party guests occasionally discuss topics related to the paranormalâ€”such as "Atlantis, UFOs, Edgar Cayce, and other matters that were of great interest to my father"
That sensation was a vast expansion of his sense of scale, in which he was no longer in a living room but rather "surrounded by a vast and limitless space that was both awe-inspiring and somewhat terrifying"
Smoley's late father would no doubt be proud of the erudition and critical acumen his son brings to writing on the "unknown history" of Western esoteric spiritual teachings.
In sixteen pithy chapters, written in a popular, accessible style, Smoley's Supernatural succeeds in not only creating but vitally informing the reader's own sense of "limitless space" that inevitably accompanies the act of questioning received doctrines and ideologies.
In this book, he touches principally on topics concerning the efficacy of prophecy and changes in the ages (e.g., Nostradamus, the Kali Yuga, 2012), the influence of esoteric traditions on civilization (the myth of Atlantis, the significance of Freemasonry, the influence of "hidden masters"), and the relationship between consciousness and its creations, including questions regarding the reality of demons and the effects of what best-selling author Larry Dossey called "toxic prayer"
Smoley likes to lay out what is known or can be known about his topics, put that knowledge in historical, personal, and cultural perspective, separate the grain from the chaff in a process of critical deconstruction of claims and attributions, and then see what remains that may be of value, what lessons we may learn, what morals may be drawn.
In general, Smoley does an excellent job of sketching the outline of his topic or profiling the personalities he describes.
His essay "Masonic Civilization," for example, is probably one of the best short overviews of the origins and development of the Masonic tradition anyone has written in recent years, both linking it to the development of liberal democracies and describing it as a system of spiritual development.
Likewise, his profile of the French Traditionalist RenÃ© GuÃ©non and his critique of the "reign of quantity" in modern civilization is a wonderful introduction to a philosopher who refused to accept that one's value equates to one's economic worth, and is a highly appropriate contribution in the wake of the economic apocalypse the U.S. and the world experienced in 2008.
There are times, though, when Smoley seems to miss a larger world of discourse that is relevant to his topic, and neglects to mention its implications and significance.
In "Secrets of The Da Vinci Code," for example, Smoley eloquently skewers some of author Dan Brown's assertions to the effect that the Bible was collated by the "pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great" and that Mary Magdalene was descended from the "House of Benjamin"
He also reminds readers who did not see the news years ago in the now-defunct magazine Gnosis (which Smoley edited) that the contemporary "Priory of Sion," which features prominently in Brown's novel, was a postâ€“World War II French right-wing political organization cloaking itself in the longstanding myths concerning a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and persons who claimed to be their descendants.
Smoley's culminating discussion of the significance of the theme of Mary Magdalene as a harbinger of a resurgent Divine Feminine ends on the bittersweet note that an appreciation of the Divine Feminine may in time "bear fruit in an age of healing, beauty, and wisdom" despite all evidence to the contrary.
It was remarkable, though, that Smoley did not describe or reflect the extraordinarily rich diversity of discussion the Magdalene has inspired in recent years among feminist theologians who aim to use her to reform Christianity itself, and other writers (notably Riane Eisler) who point to the popularity of the idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a harbinger of a new model of partnership in sexual relationships, rather than the dominance of one gender over another.
Surely those examples of the esoteric moving into the mainstream deserved more attention and reflection.
Throughout Supernatural, Smoley applies generous doses of common sense to topics and teachings that have long been made confusing by unprofessional popular writers, or distorted by cult leaders for personal gain. Given that we are now on the very uncertain "other side" of 2012, such an approach to the esoteric tradition is a welcome guide to navigating the deep and rising waters in which we all find ourselves on this beautiful blue planet.
Ed Conroy is the author of Report on "Communion" (Morrow, 1989; Avon, 1990), an investigation of the UFO -related narrative Communion: A True Story by Whitley Strieber. He serves as director of development for the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas
Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
Bart D. Ehrman
San Francisco: Harper One, 2012. 361 pp., hardcover, $26.99.
We live in an age of suspicion. Verities that were once universally accepted are now seen as dubious. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than with the issue of the historical Jesus. Gospel truth is no longer seen as true; more and more things about the founder of Christianity seem to come into question all the time. It's not surprising that, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out in his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, many now believe that Jesus was a mythical creation.
As Ehrman shows, the impulse to question Jesus's historical existence arose during the late eighteenth century, when certain scholars argued that he was yet another manifestation of the type of a dying and resurrecting god also personified in pagan deities such as Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris. More recently, similar views have gained currency in the film Zeitgeist, popular on the Internet, and in Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?
As a result, Ehrman says he has been asked over and over again whether Jesus actually lived as a human being. These initially came as a surprise to him: after thirty years as a New Testament scholar, he had come to doubt many things about Jesus, but not his existence. Nevertheless, he discovered a wealth of literature making this argument. He quotes Earl Doherty, one of today's leading proponents of this "mythicist" position, who defines it as follows: "the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition"
Ehrman replies that this view is held by practically no reputable scholars in this field. In fact they almost universally agree that "Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea" He spends the rest of his book showing why.
Ehrman rapidly dismisses some of the most popular mythicist accounts, such as Freke and Gandy's Jesus Mysteries, on the grounds that their "factual errors abound at an embarrassing rate" He gives a partial list of errors in The Jesus Mysteries on pages 28â€“30; one of the most familiar is the claim that the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. "No, he did not," Ehrman replies. "He made it a legal religion. It was not made the state religion until the end of the fourth century under Theodosius"
Ehrman devotes most of his book to demolishing claims by better-informed authors, including Earl Doherty, Robert Price, and George A. Wells, who generally manage to avoid elementary mistakes. He devotes individual chapters to examining non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus, to the Gospels as historical sources, and to evidence for Jesus's existence outside the Gospels.
One of the most interesting parts of the book has to do with the claims about dying and rising gods in antiquity, which mythicists argue were the prototypes for the Jesus story. Citing work by scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago, Ehrman points out that evidence for these dying and resurrected gods in antiquity is skimpy or nonexistent: none of these gods both died and was resurrected. To take the most familiar example, the Egyptian god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, and reassembled by his sister and wife Isis. "The key point to stress, however," Ehrman writes, "is that Osiris does notâ€”decidedly does notâ€”return to life. Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the dead in the underworld"
Ehrman also shows that there are several independent sources for Jesus's existence in the New Testament itself. While the four Gospels do not always agree, this very fact indicates that there are multiple accounts of Jesus's life: they are not a single fictional creation. The earliest writings in the New Testament, the epistles of Paul, also attest to Jesus's physical existence. In many passages (e.g., Gal. 4:4), Paul emphasizes that Jesus lived as a human being and had a human mother. Moreover, Paul says that he personally knows the disciples as well as Jesus's brother James.
Overall Ehrman's attempt to prove that there was such a figure as the historical Jesus is successful. And yet in a sense his book is dissatisfying and disingenuous. Among the core data about Jesus is the assertion that he rose from the dead and was seen by many people afterward. This was a central claim of the "Jesus movement" from the outset; it is as well attested as the less controversial facts that he lived and was crucified. Ehrman admits as much, but he does not quite know what to do with it. If this is a myth (and he suggests that it is not), then all the other supposedly historical details about Jesus may well be myths also. If it is not a myth, what did the disciples see and what did it mean? Was it all just a mass hallucination? Ehrman does not say.
At the beginning of Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman says that his next book will be about "how Jesus became God" In that work he will have to deal with the evidence for the resurrection and its implications. It's unfortunate that we will have to wait for the next installment to find out what he thinks.
Transformational Lessons from Oz
New York: Atria, 2012. xx + 204 pp., hardcover, $24.
If you are like most people, the first time you watched the film version of The Wizard of Oz, you probably just enjoyed it for its entertainment value. You most likely never noticed the rich universal archetypes or benefitted from the movie's profound lessons about personal growth.
In The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons from Oz, American scholar, author, and philosopher Jean Houston exposes the deeper story hidden within L. Frank Baum's classic Oz fairy tale. Readers gain appreciation of Dorothy's experiences as Houston relates them to steps in Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. This is a universal pattern found in hundreds of key stories from around the world, in which a protagonist grows toward psychological wholeness by way of a series of events that follow a common theme.
In Houston's interpretation, Dorothy's old life back in Kansas is not working for her very well; she needs to move on. The tornado that sends her to Oz serves as her call to adventure and places her into the world of the unknown, where she is faced with numerous challenges on her road of trials. One by one, she surmounts each ordeal, many of them imposed by her shadow figureâ€”the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy is helped by another archetypal figure, Glinda, the Good Witch of the Northâ€”a benign protector and Dorothy's entelechy, or her own essence realized to the fullest extent.
Houston claims that we in our culture are living in "twister times" The old ways of doing things are no longer working. To correct this we must each embark on our own Hero's Journey. By challenging ourselves to grow into our fullest potential, we can form the building blocks of a transformed society. (At risk of offending real-life Kansans, Houston calls this the need to move beyond the Kansas of our lives, which she describes as a gray, bleak, dreary, outmoded wasteland.) She weaves back and forth between comparing the Oz story with the Hero's Journey and offering exercises to help readers recognize their own "Kansas" and inspire them along their own journey. The overall theme of The Wizard of Us is progress beyond outmoded forms of existence toward the fulfillment found in a deeper story, in new ways of thinking, and in efforts to cocreate a better world.
Dorothy's three traveling companions serve as examples of growth. Each feels he is missing some crucial human element, only to learn he had it all the timeâ€”revealing that the very quality we may think we lack may actually be what Houston calls our "most potent potential"
The Scarecrow joins the trek in search of a brain. But along the way he exercises what brain he has to solve various problems, all the while building new mental circuitry and getting smarter all the time. Houston weaves this in with discussions about neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, and contemplative neuroscience. She provides exercises to help readers increase fluidity of mind and deepen access to intuitive wisdom, which she considers important for working toward a more sustainable society.
The Tin Man is invited along in search of a heart. Along with exercises to help readers find balance between heart and mind, Houston includes several touching stories of "Social Artistry"â€” people accessing their highest potential by opening their hearts to the needs of others.
The Cowardly Lionâ€”in search of courageâ€”displays his mettle in several particularly audacious acts while trying to save Dorothy from the Wicked Witch. Houston compares this to our present day challenge to find the courage to be who we really are and to do what we came here to do.
In the end, Dorothy's ultimate boonâ€”the purpose of her questâ€”is realized. All she wanted was to go home to Kansas. But no longer will her Kansas be as gray and bleak, for she returns as a master of the two worlds, bringing with her the greening power of the depth realm she learned about in Oz.
Whether the Oz analogy works perfectly for everyone or not, this book is a wonderful tool for propelling ourselves beyond the Kansas of our lives, through a Hero's Journey along our own yellow brick roads, and toward an expanded life where our personal gifts play a crucial role in creating a transformed societyâ€” the Emerald City for which we all yearn.
Unless you have perfect visual recall, try to see the movie again just before reading this book. As Houston's exercises rely heavily on visualization skills, ready mental access to imagery from the movie will come in handy.
Margaret Placentra Johnston
The reviewer is author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books).
The Power of the New Spirituality: How to Live a Life of Compassion and Personal Fulfillment
Wheaton: Quest, 2012. 258 pp., paper, $16.95.
While some of us may not have noticed, over recent decades a new model of spirituality has been creeping steadily into our culture. From amid the vast array of over-easy, and highly suspect, New Age concepts, something real and authentic has emerged. Easily surpassing the teachings of organized religions in scope and depth, the new spirituality is the New Age all grown up. In The Power of the New Spirituality: How to Live a Life of Compassion and Personal Fulfillment, William Bloom, one of Britain's leading mind-body-spirit teachers, distills what this new spirituality consists of, lists its implications for society, and teaches us how to participate.
Written in the form of a self-help manual, complete with exercises, the book describes how this new spirituality is arising out of spectacularly different circumstances from the cultural milieus in which our traditional religions were formed. With most of us in the Western world adequately fed and housed, we should be ready to move beyond mere security needsâ€”the comfort, protection, and rules that earlier religions sought to supplyâ€”toward a spirituality based on "higher"-level issues such as universal love and the role personal fulfillment plays in meeting that end. With the perspective gleaned from spiritual teachings all over the world, we can now see what the various forms of spirituality have in common, regardless of cultural circumstance. But lest we fall subject to what Bloom calls spiritual materialismâ€”self-help concepts promising simply to make people feel betterâ€”or be accused of promoting a spirituality with no values, we must see how the new spirituality not only includes the core values of all the world religions, but goes beyond them in several important ways. Examples include the green movement, the findings of developmental psychology, and a sense of personal responsibility for the vibrations we radiate into the universe.
Bloom describes three golden keys to the new spirituality.
1. Connection assumes the existence of a benevolent cosmos with which we might wish to connect. The new spirituality involves appreciating that each person will have his own best means of connection, his own style, and intensity of connection at which he is most comfortable.
2. Reflection is an honest attempt to get acquainted with ourselves as we really are. It helps us move from fear to love and enables us to step away from our monkey mindsâ€”which tend to make up stories to fill in knowledge gapsâ€”toward a tolerance of ambiguity. It also helps us overcome resistance to growth and detach from desires and expectations.
3. Service involves working to release into freedom that which is trapped, becoming humble, truthful, and transparent about our psychological and spiritual challenges, and caring for the natural world. A very important aspect is the idea of vibrational service. If we recognize that we live in a vast field of energy, we must accept the ethical imperative to radiate a positive presence in the world wherever possible.
I was 100 percent in agreement with Bloom all the way up until the final chapter, where two concepts bothered me. In the first place, Bloom suggests breathing negative energy into ourselves: "Inhale some of this suffering and negativity . . . [It] is breathed into your heart and stomach regions, and held there . . . [until you] imagine this negative energy transforming into something benevolent" While I can appreciate the generosity in the idea of "absorbing" negative vibrations from others in distress, as a long-time Reiki practitioner I don't believe it is necessary to direct the energy we wish to get rid of to any particular place. Breathing it into ourselves sounds like a good way to invite cancer or some other illness. As long as we are choosing our own visualization exercises, why not just visualize the negativity dissipating into nothing?
In the second place, despite my best efforts to understand it, I still stumble over the spiritual practice of assuming personal responsibility for evils one did not directly cause. Bloom uses the example of a Dr. I.H. Len, an educational psychologist who is often called in to help solve a problem at a school. Before starting out, Dr. Len will consider ways in which he is somehow both connected to and responsible for the problem, and will start with "The Ho'oponopono Prayer of Apology," taken from the Polynesian shamanic tradition:
This is my responsibility.
I am sorry.
Everything is love.
Though I am a huge fan of personal responsibility, and generally like the idea of unconditional responsibility, I just don't appreciate the value in apologizing and asking forgiveness for a problem one did not cause in a literal sense.
Despite these two minor points, I enthusiastically applaud Bloom's efforts to help us realize that all our traditional religions contain common wisdom and recognize the need for, and the presence of, a new spirituality that takes us beyond the limitations of these religions. Moreover, as he stresses, we must learn to distinguish this more vigorous new spirituality from overly easy and largely counterfeit New Age promises. The Power of the New Spirituality admirably meets all these ends.
Margaret Placentra Johnston
The reviewer is author of Faith beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books).
The Hidden Geometry of Flowers: Living Rhythms, Form, and Number
Edinburgh: Floris, 2011. 446 pp., paper, $50.
Keith Critchlow is one of the world's foremost experts on sacred geometry. His name has been familiar to me since the early '70s, when my former husband discovered his book Order in Space, propelling him into an enduring fascination with the mystical side of geometry. I, however, am geometryshy, despite having a maths teacher as a father, who despaired at my lack of ability. But in the spiritual traditions I was drawn to, particularly the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and astrology, I discovered that you can't go far with without confronting your inner geometrical demons. The structures involved and their significance demand at least a basic engagement with the concepts of spheres, solids, and divisions of space. Moreover, using the part of the brain that deals with pure geometrical shapes can propel one into a state of lucidity. To get there, one has to move beyond both the normal "thinking mind" and the film screen of imagination.
So the title of this book instantly intrigued me. For Critchlow, "what is evident in the geometry of the face of a flower can remind us of the geometry that underlies all existence. Studying the geometry of flowers is therefore a powerful way to reconnect us with the idea that we are all one"
At over 400 pages, this is a long work, but it is full of superb illustrations, providing instant appeal. Most are in color, but a wonderful exception is a sequence of grainy black-and-white photos, showing how a moon daisy progresses from bud to fully formed flower. Critchlow ties it into his theme by encouraging us to see the emerging geometrical forms in the flower: spiral, cone, and hemisphere.
Although the volume is lavishly illustrated, it is also a book of substance as far as the writing is concerned. The author gives us a veritable compendium of flower studies, including fruit and leaves, structuring it around the philosophical and geometrical concepts he wishes to convey. Flowers, he says, can be understood at four different levels: the material, the social and psychological, the cultural and mythological, and at the highest level, the inspirational. This theme is developed through the book, along with the geometrical idea of a flower expanding during growth from point to line, to plane, and to solid. Critchlow manages to convey the implicit geometry of natural forms as ideas that we can grasp without special knowledge or training, and which may continue to influence us as we observe and experience the world of nature.
This is an achievement of the highest order. The book is an important resource, and will remain on my bookshelf as something to read and dip into over the years to come. My only concern is that Critchlow throws in so many citations from philosophy and mythology to explain the basis for his explorations. In the mix are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Vedas, chakras, Buddhism, Christian symbolism, Goethe's theories, and Anthroposophical and Kabbalistic schemas. It is a kind of glorious compost heap for growing the flowers, but it's the plants themselves that are most important here! I think that the reader will either know the basis of the perennial philosophy and have his or her own references to underpin the text, or, if new to these ideas, will struggle to digest them. However, I also consider this to be a book which will "grow" on the readerâ€” to extend the flower analogyâ€”and it is full of memorable quotes, which the mathematically challenged reader (like me), or the newcomer to the perennial philosophy, can hold on to while waiting for full understanding to emerge. Try this one, for instance: "Life takes time to possess space in spiral form"
Critchlow cuts to the chase in part three, "The Geometry of Flowers," explaining the principles of geometry as they relate to flowers and to life itself. He highlights the fundamental importance of symmetry, the principle of right- and left-handedness, both in terms of balance in the human body and of the growth of flowers, which frequently develop into a fivefold arrangement, echoing the Golden Proportion. The range of five-based flowers is vast, from the humble herb Robert or Robert's geranium (Critchlow's personal favorite) to fruit blossoms, poppies, and of course the rose. He systematically goes through all the different arrangements of flower geometry, from the rare single flower, such as the arum lily, to the prolific twenty-oneness of the daisy. Clues to their significance are given, for instance, that four is "the number of worldly order" and six embodies the idea of "perfection," but quite rightly, I think, readers are encouraged to come at interpretation by studying the forms and flowers themselves. For those who delight in the analysis of the mathematical constructs, there is plenty more material included in his explanations to chew over in the following section, "The Flowers of Geometry"
Above all, Critchlow encourages us to marvel at flowers: "These delicate, mysterious, vulnerable, beautiful life forms (even the most modest of then) can be used as a metaphor for our overall need to satiate our wonderment" This is the joy of the experience he invites us to cultivate, and which he conveys so well in this remarkable book.