Book Reviews 2012

Christian Gnosis
C. W. Leadbeater. Edited with a  foreward by Sten Von Krusensterna. intorduction and notes by Richard Smoley.
Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 2011. xxiv + 338 pages, paper. $16.95.

This is a welcome new edition of a provocative and important work by a prolific Theosophical writer of the Society’s second generation, C. W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). The new Quest Books edition is beautifully published, and benefits greatly from a fine contemporary introduction and notes, corrective when needed, by Richard Smoley. The Christian Gnosis (as Leadbeater originally titled it) was among Leadbeater’s more challenging books, even within the genre of esoteric Christianity. That is because it takes the complex intellectual structure of Leadbeater’s Theosophical worldview and adapts traditional Christian theology, based on the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, to his elaborate but often profound system.

The Christian Gnosis was not originally published until 1983, nearly fifty years after Leadbeater’s death, and behind that event lies an interesting story. The tale is told in a foreword by the editor, Sten von Krusenstierna, then presiding bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church. The book’s origins lie in an incomplete theological manuscript Leadbeater showed to F. W. Pigott, another Liberal Catholic bishop, in 1924. The latter discouraged the author from pursuing this project, later writing that “it was mostly a very Leadbeaterish harangue against a variety of Christianity which by then was obsolete or at least obsolescent amongst Christians of education.” Von Krusenstierna compiled the present book by extracting what he considered useful from that manuscript, adding to it articles from The Liberal Catholic magazine, plus various unpublished talks and sermons. This editorial labor of love is admirably done. The compiler also includes a brief biography of Leadbeater.

Alas, assuming that 1924 “variety of Christianity” was of the fundamentalist stripe, one wonders if Pigott’s words are not themselves obsolescent in view of the literalist school’s current upsurge in many parts of the world. Could it be that liberal-minded “Christians of education,” willing to position themselves strategically between reactionary dogmatism and sheer secularism, are instead the dwindling breed? If so, this book is here to give them what aid it can, offering a view of Christianity that is far from what Leadbeater perceptively calls the “materializing tendency” in religion—for the fundamentalist fallacy lies in its attempt to declare faith “true” in the same precise way scientific “laws” governing matter and energy are considered true. Surely that help is urgently needed now by those seeking a third way between the two absolutist poles.

Those familiar with Leadbeater’s other writings will recognize the basic intellectual structure into which he fits Nicene Christianity. Foundational to it are three outpourings of the Logos or creative divine energies, which he identifies with the Christian Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Solar Logos, the central intelligence of our solar system, is essentially equated with the traditional God; that which is above him is also quite above our comprehension. The Seven Rays are important, as is Our Lady as personification of the virginal primordial matter over which the Holy Spirit, first of the divine three to descend, brooded to begin the process of creation; all this is likewise reenacted in the Christ mythos, and within our own spiritual lives. Here we find the incarnational drama of the imprisonment of the divine in matter, and its emancipation or resurrection therefrom.

Along the way, Leadbeater makes some problematic assertions. Not many scholars of early Christianity would agree with him that Jesus really lived about a hundred years before the conventional dates, or that he was stoned rather than dying on a cross (for Leadbeater, the latter refers to the allegorical “cross of matter” to which we are figuratively nailed till liberation). Eschewing the “materializing tendency” does not require us to abandon the attempt to learn what we can about Jesus as a person; understanding both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are surely essential to any viable reconstruction of the religion for the twenty-first century.

These idiosyncrasies on Leadbeater’s part need not stand in the way of appreciating the author’s overall project. In his use of Gnostic texts as testimonials to early Christianity along with the canonical writings, he anticipates the contemporary recognition—greatly enhanced by the dramatic finding of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library in 1945—that Gnosticism was an alternative view of Christianity as old and as significant as the strand that won out in the end. Leadbeater’s assimilation of Christian language and the Theosophical worldview in Christian Gnosis is an impressive intellectual achievement.

Those for whom both the mainstream and Gnostic traditions are important will certainly find much to ponder here, and to them this book is highly recommended. It is also recommended to those who wish to experience something of the Theosophical life of the mind in Leadbeater’s era, or who want to try on a fresh approach to faith.

It is not necessary, of course, to see Leadbeater’s schema as anything more than a model, a template to place over an unfathomable reality. It would be disastrous to give up one fundamentalism only to fall for a Theosophical form of the same. Any such pattern as Leadbeater’s is like a map, and as has been said, the map is not the territory. The map greatly oversimplifies, but it does have the value of lifting out key landmarks, and above all of showing that the trip, different as it may be for each traveler and different as it may look to each observer, is possible and has been made before.

Robert Ellwood 

The reviewer is emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World
Lisa Randall
New York: Ecco, 2011. Hardcover, 442 pages, $29.99 

Located amid the farmland and urban sprawl just west of Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) lies a hundred yards and more beneath the Swiss earth. With a circumference of seventeen miles, this state-of-theart particle accelerator is the largest machine in the history of the world. It may also be the most prodigious magic circle ever fashioned. Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) at a cost of more than $9 billion, this extraordinary piece of equipment will put the Standard Model of particle physics to the test. A lot rides on the data soon to be generated by the LHC—after all, the Standard Model is the closest thing science currently has to a “theory of everything.” Hopes are running high that the most elusive of all elementary particles, the Higgs boson—postulated to impart mass to all the other particles, and the only one that has not yet been observed experimentally— might at last be revealed. Without such confirmation, the Standard Model falls short, perhaps fatally. Thus, if high-energy physics has a Holy Grail, the Higgs boson is it.

For most of us, the rarefied realms of theoretical physics are best toured under the direction of a knowledgeable guide. Certainly none comes better qualified than Lisa Randall, a professor at Harvard University and one of the world’s leading experts on particle physics, string theory, and cosmology. Her previous book, the highly acclaimed Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions (2005), provides a clear and companionable introduction to some rather formidable intellectual terrain. Her new book is intended as a kind of “origin story” for the previous volume, directed toward “an interested lay reader who would like to have a greater understanding of current theoretical and experimental physics and who wants a better appreciation of the nature of modern science—as well as the principles of sound scientific thought.”

In addition, Knocking on Heaven’s Door casts a considerably wider net, as Randall intends “to correct some of the misconceptions—and perhaps vent a little of [her] frustration with the way science is currently understood and applied.” To this end, she ventures onto that cratered battlefield where science and religion have been thrashing it out since at least the days of the Presocratic philosophers. Alas, the casualties incurred here are significant.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door is most successful when its author sticks to what she knows well—the world of science. When it comes to theoretical physics and especially those chapters devoted to the important work now being conducted at CERN, the writing is clear and informative. When Randall describes what it is that scientists do and how they do it, when she points out that science itself is not a static pile of facts but rather a rigorous practice with an “evolving body of knowledge,” or when she explains the intrinsic role uncertainty plays in all genuine scientific endeavors, the reader’s enjoyment is akin to that of the fortunate students under her tutelage.

Regrettably, the book is far less satisfying when Randall proffers illinformed speculation on subjects spiritual and philosophical. When it comes to religious matters, she appears to align herself with the so-called New Atheism and its less accommodating attitude toward those who are of a more metaphysical bent. In a passage as remarkable for its hauteur as for its dubious coherence, she writes: “It’s easy to see why some turn to religion for explanations. Without the facts and the inspired [sic] interpretations that demonstrated surprising connections, the answers scientists have arrived at so far would have been extremely difficult to guess. People who think scientifically advance our knowledge of the world. The challenge is to understand as much as we can, and curiosity— unconstrained by dogma—is what is required.” Sometimes the author’s unsupported pronouncements are simply astounding: “The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one.” Unless of course your religion is scientism.

In the end, Randall’s casual assaults upon what Thomas Browne calls “those wingy mysteries in Divinity and ayery subtilties in Religion” are unfortunate, as they distract the reader from her magisterial exposition of what is going on right now at the very frontier of scientific knowledge. The fault lies not only with Randall but with her editor, whose job it was to keep the author on course.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady’s contributions to Quest include “Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination” for the Fall 2009 issue.


The Secret Tradition of the Soul
Patrick Harpur
Berkeley, Calif.: Evolver Editions, 2011. 247 pages, paper, $17.95.

A truism of ancient times has it that “the world is full of gods.” This may still be the case, but it takes a particular way of perceiving in order to recognize the divine aspect of things. It’s a style of consciousness that the poet William Blake referred to as “double vision.” To behold in this fashion is to enter the realm of the Imagination, the place of the images. The old authorities, despite their many differences, do agree on this: the Imagination is the proper seat of the soul. Yet over the last two hundred years or so, Imagination—not to mention the soul—has suffered considerable neglect if not abuse at the hands of scientific rationalism. What was once a vast and colorful spiritual geography—a placeless place, jampacked with phantasms, lying betwixt and between the human and the divine, the mortal and the immortal—has been reduced in our time to a mental terrain vague, or worse, a pleasant and harmless knack referred to as “creativity.” So diminished is our view of the Imagination that its once familiar precincts now seem occult or hidden away. Nevertheless, despite formidable obscurity, knowledge of and access to this dark country is preserved in a tradition sometimes impishly referred to as the “open secret.”

The Secret Tradition of the Soul, like all of Patrick Harpur’s books, is both an inquiry and defense of the Imagination. As he explains elsewhere, “The secret is, above all, a way of seeing.” This latest work stands as the final volume in a de facto trilogy that includes Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (1994) and The Philosophers’ Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2003). Collectively these books serve as a bold and elegantly written Baedeker to the soul’s home ground, a territory known by many names across many cultures, including Fairyland, Paradise, the Blessed Isles, Hades, and purgatory, just to name a few. The denizens of this otherworld also go by many names—gnomes, elves, nymphs, angels, the “good people”—but Harpur, like Socrates, prefers the Greek term daimon (root of the English word “demon”). The daimons are tricky figures, notoriously difficult to pin down, shape-shifters, “both material and immaterial.” There is no boundary they do not straddle, including that “between fact and fiction, literal and metaphorical.”

No small challenge, then, to provide a convincing account of their activities, yet Harpur proceeds intrepidly: “I will initiate the reader into this brilliant and creative worldview in a language that is no longer alchemical and arcane but as straightforward as possible.” He succeeds admirably. The daimons are especially adroit at escaping the fetters of literal definition, which is why poetry—especially symbolic and indeed allegorical poetry—provides a more fertile ground for encountering them than, say, the lab reports of science. Hardcore materialists, in fact, deny the existence of the daimonic, or reduce it to mere psychopathology.

Harpur, on the other hand, asserts that the daimonic is quite real, quite vital, and quite necessary: “Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.” The daimonic, he reminds us, is identical with the Imagination. To make his case, he draws on a wide range of poets, especially the English greats—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantics— as well as that redoubtable Irishman William Butler Yeats. Harpur’s writings find their place in the intellectual lineage of depth psychology, particularly the work of Carl Jung and James Hillman. He too would have us recognize that “our peculiarly modern malaise is to be estranged from the soul.” Because we are cut off from meaningful interaction with the Imagination, we have lost the ability to read its symbols and thus we suffer for it. Our souls “long for meaning and belief, just as much as they ever have; yet they can find no lasting nourishment in modern-day offerings of philosophy and science. We are like starving people who are given cookbooks instead of food.”

Relief, however, is difficult to obtain “because it is subtle and elusive, more an imaginative vision of how things are than a system of thought.” What is required is an approach that is less scientific than it is alchemical and transformative. “There is a big difference between a world we look out at through our eyes, and a world in which we participate, deeply implicated in every fiber of our being,” Harpur reminds us. The Secret Tradition of the Soul is no mere cookbook of spirituality; rather, it is genuine food for thought—and soul.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady’s contributions to Quest include “Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination” for the Fall 2009 issue.


Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas
Gary Lachman
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012. 181 pages, paper, $16.95.

Whenever I visit Washington, D.C., I stop by the Swedenborgian National Church (also known as The Church of the Holy City), a stunningly beautiful Gothic structure on 16th Street. Despite an active and impressive past, the church today is kept physically intact and spiritually operational by a tiny, although devoted, group of members. One attendee remarked to me, “Swedenborgianism is a good spiritual path for people afraid of crowds!” This is unfortunately a fairly accurate picture of the appreciation of Emanuel Swedenborg and his work, religious and otherwise, in our day. One can hope that this fine introduction, by Quest contributor Gary Lachman, will help to revive interest in one of the West’s most intrepid spiritual explorers.

Swedenborg (1688–1772), the son of a Lutheran bishop, became one of Europe’s most noted scientists in the early eighteenth century. While a spiritual crisis in 1744 propelled him into inner exploration and biblical exposition for the rest of his life, he never left his scientific past behind. “Swedenborg believed that our inner world, our soul, can be investigated scientifically,” Lachman points out. Swedenborg kept meticulous records of his experiences, such as a brightness which confirmed to him that he was on the right track. His journals provide an intricate analysis of hypnagogic and visionary states.

Swedenborg’s writings are notoriously complex, and many of them take the form of biblical exegesis, which may not be accessible to all modern readers. Lachman provides the uninitiated reader with an excellent overview of the main themes in Swedenborg’s work, with an eye to those aspects that may prove interesting and helpful to those not drawn to the specifically religious nature of his vision.

For Swedenborg, the entire physical world gains its being and existence from the spiritual one. In a sense, the world, our world, is a kind of reflection of the higher one. Or to put it a different way, our world is a kind of book which, read rightly, can tell us things about the higher world. As the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, “Swedenborg’s world is all language.”

Perhaps even more important than this doctrine of correspondences is the seer’s teaching on the dynamics of the inner worlds, where “appearance and being are identical.” It is our “true affections”—the real inner intentions behind all our personal actions— that propel us in the spiritual worlds, as places in those worlds are states of being. A change in one’s state of being, a change in one’s true affections, constitutes a change in spiritual “place.” Thus it is by working at the level of genuine intention that we determine our spiritual state, both in this life and in the worlds after death.

In addition to his skillful introduction to Swedenborg’s biography and teachings, Lachman also provides a very helpful annotated bibliography of Swedenborg’s writings, giving the reader the tools to delve directly into the original material. Lachman’s book will surely serve as a standard introduction to Swedenborg for many years to come.

John Plummer

John Plummer is the author of Living Mysteries: A Practical Handbook for the Independent Priest and The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.

Revelations: Vision, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
Elaine Pagels

New York: Viking, 2012. 246 pages, hardcover, $27.95.

Of all the books in the Bible, none has aroused as many complex and contradictory emotions as the book of Revelation. A work that for centuries hovered on the edges of the New Testament canon, it was for years regarded with suspicion both by the Eastern Orthodox church and, later, by the Protestant Reformers; many today view it as the source of all apocalyptic excesses. And yet it retains an uncanny power and has inspired countless works of art. Indeed, wrote Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, “All great, genuine art resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John.”

The latest figure to explore this elusive work is Elaine Pagels. Best-known for her groundbreaking book The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels is also the author of such well-known titles as Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. In her latest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, she turns her attention to this last and most perplexing book of the Bible.

Pagels’s book falls into two parts. In the first she discusses Revelation itself, its author, and what he may have been trying to say in the context of its time (following conventional views, she dates it to c.90 a.d.). She then explains how and why the book came to be included in the New Testament canon.

Like most scholars, Pagels believes that the John who wrote Revelation was neither the apostle nor the author of the fourth Gospel. From the book’s prose style—which is the crudest in the New Testament, with many usages suggesting that its author’s first language was probably Aramaic—she contends that the author was a second-generation Jewish convert to Christianity. This John would have known about, and possibly witnessed, the cataclysmic destruction of Judea by the Romans in the Jewish War of a.d. 66–73. For him, the great villain was Rome, the “great beast.” Indeed, as she notes, the famous number of the beast, 666, is now generally identified as the numerological equivalent of the name “Nero Caesar.”

In essence, then, Pagels agrees with much of current scholarship that portrays Revelation as a coded tirade against the Roman Empire. She plants its historical background firmly in the context of John’s time in the late first century a.d. But why should this crabbed book have been given entry into the canon of sacred scripture?

The answer, Pagels tells us, has to do with the uses to which the book was put in later centuries. As early as the second century a.d., the great villains of John’s apocalypse began to be identified more and more with Christian heretics and less with the beast of Rome, particularly by Irenaeus of Lyons, the chronicler and opponent of so-called heresies. This trend continued in the fourth century, when Constantine’s conversion to Christianity turned the Roman Empire into the greatest benefactor of the nascent Catholic church rather than its greatest enemy. The chief enemy then became Christians who did not agree with the mainstream church. According to Pagels, Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the chief formulators of Catholic Christianity, “found an unlikely ally in John of Patmos— especially as Irenaeus had read him. For . . . Irenaeus interpreted God’s enemies, whom John had pictured as the ‘beast’ and the ‘whore,’ to refer not only to Rome’s rulers but also to Christians deceived, by the false teacher he called Antichrist, into false doctrine and into committing evil” (emphasis in the original).

In fact the Antichrist is not actually mentioned in Revelation (the term appears in the New Testament only in the first two epistles of John), but by the time of Athanasius, it was easy to insert this dark and ambiguous figure into Revelation’s demonology. For Athanasius himself, “Antichrist” was a pliable term, suitable for use against his archenemy, the bishop Arius, whose formulation of Christology differed from Athanasius’s, and even against Constantine’s son, the emperor Constantius, who sent Athanasius into exile.

Pagels’s story stops in the fourth century, but it is easy to see how Revelation’s enigmatic figures of evil could be projected onto the villains of any era. The Protestant Reformers saw the church of Rome itself as John’s whore of Babylon. In recent centuries, the beast has been identified with Napoleon, Hitler, and even Henry Kissinger. The full name of Ronald Wilson Reagan has three sets of six characters, leading some to argue that the beast was none other than the Great Communicator. And if you have any doubts about the continuing vitality of these symbols, I suggest you run a Google search for “Barack Obama” and “Antichrist.”

Nevertheless, Pagels’s book does not stray past the age of Athanasius. In fact the work as a whole has a hint of the perfunctory about it. Her characterization of Revelation does not do justice to the enormous number of controversies about its composition. Some scholars argue that the core of the book was written, not by a Christian, but by a follower of John the Baptist, and that the explicitly Christian sections, particularly in the book’s first three chapters, were added later. I also wish Pagels had addressed some of the ideas of the British biblical scholar Margaret Barker, who argues, for example, that the Greek of Revelation is so astonishingly bad because the text was first written in Aramaic.

I bring up these points to suggest that scholarly opinion about this text is almost as rich and diverse as the apocalyptic speculations, but Pagels addresses none of these issues here. We are left with the usual view of a unitary Revelation written by somebody named John around the year 90. Pagels fares better with her discussions of figures such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, but in the end, Revelations is a lackluster work, written, I suspect, not so much out of fascination with the topic itself as out of frustration with today’s fundamentalisms. Revelations might appeal to a reader who knows little about this text, but anyone who knows more is bound to be disappointed.

Richard Smoley


The Modern Book of the Dead: A Revolutionary Perspective on Death, the Soul, and What Really Happens in the Life to Come
Ptolemy Tompkins
New York: Atria, 2012. 275 pages, hardcover, $26.

An old story from China concerns a teacher and a student who pay a condolence call. As the two men stand in front of the coffin, the student pats the lid and asks, “Is it alive or dead?” The teacher responds, “I will not say alive or dead.” The student asks why not. The teacher exclaims, “I won’t say! I won’t say!” The student continues to press his inquiry, even threatening violence, but the teacher remains steadfast: “I won’t say! I won’t say!” The student—whose question is a matter of life and death—does not get the answer he wants. It is something he must discover for himself. A shame then he did not have access to Ptolemy Tompkins’ latest book, which—while offering no definitive answer to the question— fulfills its aim of bringing to light “an extraordinarily empowering new geography of the afterlife.”

Tompkins, a former editor at Guideposts and Angels on Earth magazines (and a Quest contributor), is a widely published essayist and author of four previous books, including Paradise Fever and The Divine Life of Animals. His new book, while indeed addressing the question “What happens to us when we die?”, is more concerned with a peculiar situation in which modern people find themselves: namely, having “forgotten how to perform the essential activity of ‘thinking the right things’ about death.” Our ideas of the afterlife, Tompkins contends, are hazy and ill-formed because we don’t actually believe there is any life after death. The Modern Book of the Dead is intended to persuade its readers otherwise: “We come...from a larger, better world than this one, and we return to it when our time here is finished.” To achieve his ends, Tompkins offers an agreeable blend of memoir, comparative historical survey, and metaphysical speculation.

The first fifty—and most compelling— pages of the book stand as a condensed autobiography in which the author recounts growing up in a spiritually unconventional household. Tompkins’ father, Peter, a writer of some renown, was the coauthor of two books that helped usher in New Age thought, Secrets of the Great Pyramid (1971) and The Secret Life of Plants (1973). Talk around the family dinner table was most extraordinary, incandescent with the ideas of H.P. Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Edgar Cayce, and L. Ron Hubbard. When Tompkins’ father wasn’t expounding on subjects metaphysical, he was voicing skepticism toward any form of conventional religion. As for modern science, the elder Tompkins harbored outright loathing, “believing that most scientists spent most of their time covering up the real truth about the world rather than revealing it.” A potent atmosphere of speculation and attitude characterized the household, all of which registered deeply on the son, who writes: “One of the main reasons I’m interested in the that the world I grew up in taught me to be interested.”

The majority of the book, however, is far less personal, as it provides a survey of the history and literature of what happens to us beyond the veil. Tompkins considers a wide range of perspectives on the subject, from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary neuroscientists, always on the lookout for “chunks of apparent meaning” or “the hidden narrative arc in the seemingly pointless flux of human experience.” Along the way, Tompkins delves into The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and various writings of the American Transcendentalists— notably those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman—for what can be gleaned to encourage us to “think the right things” about death. While nothing especially new comes to light here, The Modern Book of the Dead does make a significant contribution in its emphasis upon cultivating perspective, something Socrates himself might approve of. “For no matter what kind of brave face we might try to put on it,” Tompkins writes, “a life lived without a coherent, focused, and serious picture of the afterlife is, quite simply, a life without context: a life that will, in the end, always be missing half of itself.”

In this regard, the book is indebted to some of the pioneers of depth psychology— Fechner, Freud, and Jung—yet it also serves as a worthy complement to more recent investigations into the subject of the afterlife, such as those by Deborah Blum (Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death) and Patrick Harpur (The Secret Tradition of the Soul, reviewed in Quest, Summer 2012).

The Modern Book of the Dead is not without its delightfully startling moments, as when Tompkins offers this insight about social media: “it would seem the afterlife is a lot like Facebook, with the difference that the simulacrum of connection with others that Facebook partially provides is here actually provided in full.” Laugh, cry, or wince at this analogy, it unsettles in the very way an unexpected truth often does. And despite the immodest claim of the book’s subtitle, Tompkins does strike a balanced tone in laying out his case, and he usually avoids confusing metaphor for reality: “The last thing we should do is take these descriptions completely at face value.”

Like many argonauts of the spirit before him, Tompkins is drawn to cartographic metaphor as a way to delineate the great beyond. He would have his book serve as a map for future travelers, which of course means all of us. “Such a map will always be just a map,” he admits, “but good maps do describe real places, and point to real journeys as well.” If in the end The Modern Book of the Dead proves less a map than an engaging travelogue, I for one have no complaints. Nor does it matter that this book, like that ancient teacher in China, leaves the big question unresolved. The reader instead comes away with renewed anticipation for wondrous regions that may one day be revealed.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady’s contributions to Quest include “Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination” in the Fall 2009 issue.


Initiating Women in Freemasonry: The Adoption Rite
Jan A.M. Snoek
Leiden: Brill, 2012. xvii + 550 pages, hardcover, $237.

Freemasonry is often considered an exclusively male fraternity and, in most of its manifestations, so it is. In particular, the dominant stream of Masonry that has historically flowed out of the British Isles (including Masonry as it developed in North America) has forbidden the initiation of women. Why this is so is a knotty question, though probably one over which few people lose sleep.

The usual explanation is that the mixing of men and women in “secret” meetings during the genesis of modern Masonry in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century British culture would have just been too scandalous. And Masonry, being an extremely traditional order, has continued that custom down to the present.

An alternate explanation, put forth by Robert G. Davis in Understanding Manhood in America: Freemasonry’s Enduring Path to the Mature Masculine (Lancaster, Va.: Anchor Communications, 2005), is that Masonic rituals (and their accompanying symbols and lectures) were consciously designed to initiate men into a mature and moral understanding of their responsibilities as men. In other words, Masonry may have evolved from an artisan trade initiation into a broader masculine adult “rite of passage” ritual. Women were not excluded out of some petty sexist spite. Rather, with Masonry understood as an embodiment of the male mysteries, the presence of women in Masonic lodges would have been as awkward as the presence of men in tribal women’s menstrual huts.

Nevertheless, during the upsurge of reform efforts in the mid- to late nineteenth century that encompassed abolitionism, suffragism, spiritualism, Prohibition, alternative healing methods, and a renewed interest in occultism, the exclusion of women from Freemasonry became an issue worthy of challenge. H.P. Blavatsky, in Isis Unveiled, delighted in revealing the keys to several Masonic ciphers and presented her own analysis of Masonic symbolism and history. For good measure, in an exchange of honors with John Yarker, a British disseminator of fringe Masonic charters and degrees, she received a diploma declaring her the recipient of several degrees of the feminine Rite of Adoption. The next generation of Theosophical leaders, particularly Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, went even further by encouraging the growth and spread of Co-Masonry, a version of Freemasonry admitting both men and women.

Yet these efforts toward Masonic inclusiveness were preceded by the substantial development of a largely feminine Freemasonry, particularly in France, in the latter part of the eighteenth century: the so-called Adoptive Rites (into which Blavatsky would supposedly be initiated). This is the subject of Jan Snoek’s Initiating Women in Freemasonry, a breakthrough tackling of a subject hitherto lost in the shadows of obscurity.

Freemasonry’s spread from Britain to the European continent around the 1730s was accompanied by all sorts of paradoxes. If Masonry in Britain was distinguished by an egalitarian mixing of male bourgeoisie, gentry, and aristocracy, Masonry in France was largely an aristocratic pursuit. Yet the French aristocracy allowed a greater latitude for the activities of women, whether through salons or through aristocratic female participation in Freemasonry.

This was largely propelled through the phenomenon of Adoptive Rites, with traditional male lodges founding associated lodges for women, with their own unique degree rituals and mythos. This was often portrayed by unsympathetic Masons as giving a sop to “the ladies,” but Snoek convincingly demonstrates that the Adoptive degree rituals had sufficient sophistication and depth to rival those of mainstream male Masonry. In fact, Snoek offers evidence that the Adoptive ritual may have been adapted from a variety of “Harodim” Masonry that existed parallel to the better-known Grand Lodge Masonry of Britain in the 1700s.

Snoek traces the ebbs and flows of active Adoptive Masonry from the eighteenth through the twentieth century, although he largely concentrates on its continental manifestations and doesn’t bring Co-Masonry into the discussion. His book makes great use of the vast archives of the Grand Orient, the central lodge of France, which were confiscated by the Nazis during World War II and subsequently seized by the Soviet Union, where they were warehoused until their return to the Grand Orient in 2000.

Initiating Women in Freemasonry is a dense and scholarly work, perhaps of most interest to Masonic researchers and the growing number of academic scholars investigating esoteric traditions. It assumes the reader has a substantial familiarity with—or at least an interest in—both the intricacies of Masonic history and such arcane topics as the variations between ritual texts published in various “Masonic exposures” in the eighteenth century. This may drastically limit the potential readership for the book; hence the publisher’s astronomical list price for it.

But make no mistake: Snoek has produced a richly researched and wellargued book that brings a formerly obscure corner of Masonic history into the light of day. It offers evidence that over the past three centuries, more women received a form of Masonic initiation than has hitherto been commonly known or assumed.

This work represents a breakthrough in expanding the discussion of the multitude of “Masonries” that have coexisted since the 1700s. However, it may be a good long while before such specialized research trickles down into more mainstream discussions of what is “real” Masonry. In the meantime, for serious Masonic history buffs, Snoek’s book is a tough, dense, but rewarding read. He deserves the strongest thanks for undertaking it.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis magazine during its fifteen-year span. His book The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins) has been translated into five languages.


Ancient Wisdom for a New Age: A Practical Guide for Spiritual Growth
Terry Hunt & Pal Benedict
Las Vegas, Nevada: Twin Star Nexus, 2012. 414 pages, paper, $18.95.

Ancient Wisdom for a New Age is written in the form of a dialogue in which the questions of an inquirer are answered by the authors. The book offers some praiseworthy suggestions for ways to live the spiritual life. It also discusses humanity’s metaphysical nature and evolutionary journey. The chapter on reincarnation is especially well-done.

Hunt and Benedict have drawn on many resources for the theories they discuss. Their bibliography includes The Mahatma Letters, several works by H.P. Blavatsky, thirteen titles by Alice Bailey, seven by C.W. Leadbeater, and about forty-two others. To their credit, the authors recommend that readers accept only what is reasonable to them and that they keep an open mind so that they might get new insights. Nevertheless, the theories come across as facts rather than theories. Clearly the authors hope those theories, or facts, will be helpful to others in making spiritual progress.

On the practical side, the authors stress what every great spiritual teacher has stressed--the danger of identifying with the personal ego. In fact, they have emphasized it to a fault. Throughout the book, even the simplest pleasures are put down as a hindrance to spiritual growth. We are told that the soul has no interest in football games or movies. Perhaps that is true, but surely harmless entertainment and fun are not a hindrance to spiritual growth.

The authors’ treatment of our emotional nature comes close to suggesting that we eliminate all emotion and operate only from a higher spiritual state of consciousness, as they seem to believe adepts do. Yet in The Mahatma Letters, historical documents written by two adepts named Koot Hoomi and Morya, we find that the adepts have very strong feelings. In one letter, Koot Hoomi said Blavatsky “made [Morya] more than once start in anger, and break his pipe while swearing like a true—Christian.”

Each chapter has numerous subtopics that sometimes include extraneous material and occasionally omit material needed to cover the subtopic. In chapter 2, “The Human Experience,” there is a subsection entitled “The Nature of the Human Soul.” Commendably, the authors point out the need to be scrupulously honest with ourselves and with others. No doubt that is essential if we are to live a spiritual life; but except for saying that “the human soul exists on the very highest levels of the mental realm,” the authors do not tell us much about what the soul is. In the next subsection, “The Levels of Consciousness,” we are told that the most spiritual parts of a human being are atma and buddhi, which are “the very highest vibrational frequencies within us.” That may be true, but how do we discover what high vibrational frequencies are within ourselves?

The authors frequently say that “everything is exactly as it should be.” Perhaps it would be nearer the truth if they had said that everything is the result of action. Surely the sorry world situation is not as things should be. Were that the case, we should leave things as they are. Ignorance, selfishness, and greed have caused great misery to humanity and to nature, but isn’t it our job to do what we can to change ourselves and the world for the better? No doubt the authors would agree with that, but readers could get the wrong idea from the authors saying that things are as they should be.

Ancient Wisdom for a New Age provides some very important advice for those who want to live the spiritual life. In addition to warning about the dangers of identifying with the ego, the authors stress the need for a selfless life. They also point out that the adepts are not willing to become personal teachers for everyone who wants individual guidance, and they strongly discourage mediumship and channeling.

Hunt and Benedict are to be commended for making a noble effort to help spiritual pilgrims on their way. At the same time Ancient Wisdom for a New Age spends too much time on metaphysical theories without providing reasonable evidence for their veracity, and it often answers questions in simplistic and unsatisfying ways. By far the most practical chapter in the book is “Your Spiritual Practice.” To justify the book’s subtitle this chapter might have been expanded and some of the metaphysical theory omitted.

Edward Abdill

Edward Abdill is vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America and author of The Secret Gateway: Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition.


Just Trust Me: Finding the Truth in a World of Spin
G. Randy Kasten
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2011. xii + 288 pages, paper, $16.95.

Just Trust Me provides the reader with a number of useful strategies for identifying the truth in an age dominated by pundits, prognosticators, and people with agendas. The strategies outlined by G. Randy Kasten are applicable to a wide variety of situations that the reader is apt to encounter in daily life. The insights presented in this book were garnered, in part, from the author’s twenty-five years of experience as a civil-litigation attorney, a profession where separating fact from fiction is an ongoing challenge.

Whether we are purchasing a new car, voting for a political candidate, or assessing the accuracy of a news story, our challenge is to separate the reality from the illusion; truth is not always self-evident. Again and again, the basic question we face is: “How do I know if this is true?” Just Trust Me shows the reader how to apply these basic questions:

• Do I have enough information to make a decision?
• Does the source of my information have a bias?
• Am I somehow distorting the information? • What information is the most crucial?

Rather than providing a single definition of the word truth, the author suggests that “it is best described as a constellation of concepts rather than a single one.” For instance, there are objective and subjective truths, probable and potential truths, temporary and contextual truths, as well as those which are relative or implied.

One chapter is entitled “Eight Types of Lies and What You Can Do about Them.” These categories include deliberate lies, lying by exaggeration or omission, and self-deception. More subtle ones include white lies, implicit lies, intellectual dishonesty, and lies posed as questions. Implicit lies include leaving false impressions. One example is men who flatter women in order to persuade them to have sex: “Their flattery may be sincere, and they may be genuinely charming, but a direct expression of what they are after would not be welcome in most situations, so they pretend to want something more romantic.” Because implicit liars are hiding their true motivation, Kasten suggests confronting such individuals early with direct questions such as, “Are you trying to confuse me?” When challenged in this way, most implicit liars will still deny having such hidden motivations, but at least they will stop assuming that you can be manipulated so easily and will likely refrain from using such tactics with you in the future.

Although Kasten gives numerous suggestions for teasing out the truth, depending on the particular set of circumstances being faced, he emphasizes that “even more than following any set of rules, it means paying attention” and having “a willingness to question those things that you would rather accept at face value.” It means stepping out of our comfort zone and habitual patterns. It means being willing to look at points of view that we might prefer to ignore. And it means learning to promote understanding and empathy in our personal relationships, because doing so promotes honesty. This is easier said than done, for “to see the world with great clarity, conscious effort is certainly necessary.” The reward for doing this, however, is a life that is blessed by greater prosperity, better health, and growing authenticity.

David P. Bruce

The reviewer is a long-time member of the Theosophical Society, for which he serves as national secretary.


Art Magic
Emma Hardinge Britten, Edited and annotated by Marc Demarest
Forest Grove, Ore.: Typhon Press, 2011. Paper, lvi + 476 pages, $19.99

Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–99) may well qualify as one of the most influential people that no one has ever heard of. Though well known in the last half of the nineteenth century as a defender of spiritualism, a medium and “inspired” speaker, publisher, and writer, as well as one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society, she has largely fallen off the map for most contemporary students of esoteric spirituality.

Scholar Joscelyn Godwin, in The Theosophical Enlightenment (1994), helped pluck her from obscurity, as did researchers associated with the Theosophical History journal ( and the spiritualist digital history journal Psypioneer ( All of these are worth checking out.

But the foremost defender of Britten’s importance to the panoply of nineteenth-century esoteric practices (mesmerism, spiritualism, magnetic healing, and Theosophy, among others) has been Marc Demarest. In 2009, Demarest founded an online blog, “Chasing Down Emma,” which provided a blow-by-blow account of his research for a projected biography of her (

Writers are usually reticent about sharing works in progress, but Demarest took an entirely different tack. By sharing each question about her life as well as each discovery as they arose, he hoped to generate interest in his subject and perhaps pull other researchers into investigating the Emma Hardinge Britten conundrum. Searching the newly available scans of many nineteenth- century spiritualist books and periodicals on Google Books and other digital archives, Demarest and cohorts found details of Britten’s life that had almost certainly never been assembled together before.

Now, some three years later, we can judge Demarest’s efforts a success, with the publication of his edited and annotated edition of Britten’s most influential book, Art Magic. (Demarest’s biography of her is still in the works, while a similarly annotated edition of her follow-up book, Ghost Land, is scheduled for publication in 2012.)

Emma Hardinge Britten was already a well-known spiritualist when she took part in the meetings in New York in 1875 that directly led to the founding of the Theosophical Society. Though the TS’s initial purpose was in flux and hardly cast in stone, its founding unleashed a surge of curiosity about alternative spiritual traditions and practices.

Art Magic was Britten’s initial contribution to this surge. First published in 1876, the book saw print over a year before H. P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, and could be viewed as Britten’s effort to lead the pack in providing grist for the esoteric mill. It presumed to provide insights into the esoteric reality behind cruder but more commonly accepted religious belief systems. Like Isis Unveiled, Art Magic drew upon numerous sources that were not always acknowledged. Demarest’s annotations identify many of these and provide a detectivelike experience for the dedicated reader.

But this is also where the mysteries begin to multiply and where Britten’s role in this work comes into question. Art Magic (whose name is an English version of the Latin ars magica) was published as being written by an unnamed European aristocrat wellversed in occult matters, with Britten credited as editor and translator. Ghost Land is attributed to the same mysterious author, with Britten again as editor and translator. But accumulating evidence suggests that she may well have been the actual author of both books.

Eventually Britten’s interest in the occult took a U-turn back into the more secure environs of the much larger spiritualist movement. Overlapping her interest in both worlds were side excursions into magnetic (galvanic) healing, mesmerism, and related nostrums of the era.

By present standards, Art Magic is a tough slog. Mix a Victorian prose style with antiquated surmisings about ancient religions and some not always dependable descriptions of magical and occult practices, and you do not have a compelling page-turner. Despite this, Art Magic was quite influential in occult and esoteric circles, with several later popular books lifting ideas and content from it.

One needn’t try to read Art Magic from cover to cover in order to understand its value. Demarest’s introduction and annotations—the latter helpfully provided as footnotes at the bottom of the pages to which they refer—draw the reader into a world of speculation— on what Britten may have been trying to do, on what was really known at the time, and on what we might reasonably believe today.

Whether you acquire this book or not, keep the name of Emma Hardinge Britten in mind, as our understanding of her pioneering contribution to an appreciation of esoteric matters continues to grow and evolve.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis magazine during its fifteen-year span. His recent book, The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), has been translated into five languages.

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama 
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. xv + 188 pages, hardcover, $24.

If you were to ask most religious leaders for the key to universal harmony, each would probably say that it would be the universal adoption of his own religion. That this is not a viable solution has long since become obvious, but very few religious authorities have offered any decent alternatives.

The Dalai Lama is one exception. In 2001, he published Ethics for a New Millennium, which offered an explicitly secular approach to moral principles. His latest book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, expands upon that vision. (TS members who attended the Dalai Lama’s presentation in Chicago in July 2011 will, incidentally, find much that is familiar in this work.) Beyond Religion offers a form of ethics that transcends religion as such, and does not even require belief in God or any other supernatural agency. “In today’s secular world,” he contends, “religion alone is no longer adequate as a basic for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected . . . , ethics based on any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all.”

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama sees no contradiction between his position as a religious leader and his offering the option of a purely secular ethics: “My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.”

The approach that he sets out is simple. Certain values, such as “love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness” are, he contends, universal among the world religions. Moreover, he believes, they are intrinsic to human nature. If we nurture these qualities in ourselves, it will go far toward relieving the world’s suffering. The pillars for his new “secular ethics” are “the recognition of our shared humanity and our shared aspiration to happiness and the avoidance of suffering” and “the understanding of interdependence as a key feature of human reality” (emphasis in the original).

Confronting the age-old question of morality versus self-interest, the Dalai Lama says, “Many people . . . assume that feeling compassion for others is only good for the others and not for oneself. This is . . . incorrect . . . The first beneficiary of compassion is always oneself. When compassion, or warmheartedness, arises in us and shifts our focus away from our own narrow self-interest, it is as if we open an inner door. Compassion reduces our fear, boosts our confidence, and brings us inner strength. By reducing distrust, it opens us to others and brings us a sense of connection with them and a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Compassion also gives us a respite from our own difficulties.”

The Dalai Lama is thus arguing that morality and self-interest are not, as is commonly supposed, in conflict but are inextricably interwoven. Our natural tendencies toward love and compassion, combined with our interconnection with others, mean that we do not have to choose between our own interest and another’s; as the great world religions have frequently taught, they are the same.

The book does not stop with the cultivation of these values in a purely interpersonal context. It also stresses that we need to cultivate these virtues internally in order to benefit fully. The Dalai Lama gives advice for uprooting destructive emotions and maintaining ethical awareness in everyday life. In the final section of the book, he recommends various meditative practices as methods of self-cultivation.

Will this book, with its eminently reasonable arguments based both on simple logic and on the findings of science, convince those who don’t already agree with its perspective? Probably not. While the author is very likely right in saying that the great religious tradition espouse love and compassion, it is also the case that at many junctures they have both preached and practiced the opposite. If the bigots and fanatics of the world’s faiths don’t bother to listen to the central teachings of their own traditions, why would we expect them to listen to the leader of another?

Furthermore, moral development is not a matter of convincing someone rationally to follow good and eschew evil; that comes far too late in life. Ultimately it is a question of upbringing, which is why practically all the world’s religions try to inculcate their principles in young children. (Even Aristotle said that moral philosophy should be studied only by people whose morals were good to begin with.) By the time one is grown, one’s values, good or bad, are set, and are only modified at the cost of great discipline and, frequently, upheavals.

Hence for those who view moral decisions as a zero-sum game, in which gains for you inevitably mean losses for me, the arguments set forth in this book will probably not prove persuasive. But those who are already disposed toward love and compassion will find help and inspiration in this book. Although the Dalai Lama sometimes seems overoptimistic in his assessment of human nature, Beyond Religion remains a noble and admirable effort toward fostering some of the central human virtues without an appeal either to God or to the policeman.

Richard Smoley