Book Reviews 2020

 

 

 

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation
David Bentley Hart
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pp., hardcover, $26.

The conventional Christian doctrine of eternal damnation is one of the foulest, most absurd, and most damaging ideas ever foisted on the human race. To define it, theologians must go through contortions that would be hilarious if they had not caused so much grief.

In this book, the American theologian David Bentley Hart takes on this idea of eternal damnation, which he calls “infernalism.” Advancing a universalist position, he does not dismiss the idea of hell entirely, but he does reject the dogma that God will visit infinite punishment for offenses that, at most, occupy a few decades of a life. “The only hell that could possibly exist is the one of which Christian contemplatives speak: the hatred within each of us that turns the love of others—of God and neighbor—into torment,” he writes.

Hart attacks the belief in an eternal hell on several fronts. In the first place, he explores the expression “eternal fire” found in Matthew 18:8 and 25:41. The Greek here is to pur to aiōnion, and the word of interest is aiōnion. It is derived from the noun aiōn (the origin of our word eon: Hart transliterates it as aeon), about which he writes, “Through the whole of ancient . . . Greek literature, an ‘aeon’ was most properly an ‘age,’ which  is simply to say a ‘substantial period of time’ or an ‘extended interval.’” The adjective did not “have the intrinsic meaning of ‘eternal.’ . . . Generally it had a much vaguer connotation.” The fourth-century church father John Chrysostom “once even used the word aiōnios to describe the reign of Satan over this world precisely in order to emphasize its transience.” An aiōn, then, was a very long and indeterminate time, but it did not mean eternity.

Hart cites many verses from the New Testament that back up his assertion that all shall be saved, such as 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed [Christ] all will be given life.”  Most strikingly, he discusses the teachings of the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa: “God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely . . . by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the plērōma’s beauty, to himself.” (Plērōma means fullness in a theological sense.) Indeed, Hart says, the doctrine of eventual universal redemption was very likely more common in early Christianity than the doctrine of eternal damnation.

Hart’s treatment of infernalism is vitriolic: “Christianity’s chief distinction among theistic creeds is that it alone openly enjoins its adherents to be morally superior to the God they worship.” Who of us, after all, would decree perpetual torture for anyone? Even the worst monsters of history committed only a finite number of crimes, however large that may be. But conventional Christians must believe that their God will do this—while believing at the same time that he is all-loving.

Where, then, did this idea come from? Hart notes that in early Christianity “it was still generally assumed that there were mysteries of the faith that should be reserved only for the very few, the Christian intellectual elite, pnevmatikoi, ‘spiritual persons’ (a term even used by Paul), while the faith of the more common variety of believers should be nourished only with simpler, coarser, more infantile versions of doctrine.” The pnevmatikoi, he suggests, knew that in the end all will be saved. “For the less learned, less refined, less philosophical Christians, it was widely believed, the prospect of hellfire was always the best possible means of promoting good behavior.” Hence the Christian elite could “indulge in an act of holy duplicity.”

We know how it turned out. Bad doctrine drives out good. Eventually every Christian was required to believe in infernalism under threat of eternal damnation for themselves.

It is a sign of the degeneracy of current Christian theology that Hart says he is “writing a book that I expect will convince nearly no one . . . I find it even more unsettling to have written a book that I believe ought never to have needed to be written in the first place.”

Strictly speaking, I cannot say that Hart’s book convinced me, because I agreed with his central thesis before I read a word of it. But he must know the current theological milieu well enough to foresee the obliviousness and obstinacy with which his arguments will be received.

It is always perilous to cross-compare different teachings, but we can easily transpose this universalism with classic Theosophy. The latter does not speak of a Fall or of sin in the Christian sense, but it does speak of each individual monad in an almost endless journey through cycles of manifestation and reintegration in ways that broadly resemble Christian universalism.

Hart is deservedly one of today’s foremost theologians. His translation of the New Testament, also issued by Yale University Press, may be the most intellectually honest version ever done. Publishing That All Shall Be Saved, which he describes as a “companion” to that New Testament, may be the greatest act of theological courage yet seen in this millennium.

Richard Smoley

 

 

 

 

 

Conspiracy Theories
Quassim Cassam
Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2019. 136 pp., paper, 12.95

An obsessive interest in conspiracy theories may or may not be a sign of a certain mental instability, but a wholesale belief in them seems to be a pretty good indication. And yet in this interesting and informative book, Quassim Cassam indicates that the role of conspiracy theories is deeper, and their adherents more knowing, than we hapless self-styled rationalists have been led to believe.

 “A Conspiracy Theorist,” Cassam writes, “with a capital C and a capital T, is a person who is ‘into’ Conspiracy Theories, that is, unusually fascinated by them and more willing than most to believe them. We are all conspiracy theorists—we all believe that people sometimes get together in secret to do bad things—but we aren’t all Conspiracy Theorists.”

It is often frustrating to argue with diehards of any stripe, but Conspiracy Theorists are particularly prone to turn your most rational arguments against you. If you suggest that throughout history, the sinister forces seem to have been far too inept to keep any big secret at all, Conspiracy Theorists will turn around and darkly mutter, “That’s what they want you to think.”

 Cassam observes that Conspiracy Theorists aren’t so much ignorant as all too knowing. They may not have the time, patience, or—dare I say it?—the intellect to master, say, forensic anthropology, but they know a fellow who knows a fellow named Bob, who allegedly “was there.” Hey, besides, experts are overrated. (I think this has something to do with some instinctive American aversion for those deemed “elitists”—people who happen to have credentials.)

Capital-letter Conspiracy Theorists are no longer merely querulous editorial-page dotards with a dull ax to grind, or zany kooks obsessed with flogging a dead bête noire, nor even lonesome codgers holed up in a basement murmuring imprecations against highfalutin whippersnappers and their newfangled notions. Cassam argues that Conspiracy Theorists are far more insidious. They are often committed to undermining scientific consensus thinking, so that ultimately they throw rationality itself under the bus, along with prudence and morality.

Therefore Conspiracy Theorists see themselves as daring mavericks and wild free spirits, unafraid to combat the misapprehensions of blind “sheeple.” But they’re actually spreading ideologically motivated falsehoods. Cassam seems to think he can’t stress this point enough, and maybe he’s right. It’s one of the best takeaways from this slender volume.

Conspiracy Theories, the author notes, are “implausible by design.” They are not rooted in fact but are merely speculative, which is to say “already disproved.” Your standard-grade conspiracy theories might simply be the result of wishful thinking (Elvis lives!); on a more elevated plane, they might constitute a type of fabulism: modern-day versions of ancient myths designed by hierophants to explain how things came to be.

But Cassam is a philosopher by trade, and offers up a far more intricate explanation. The success of Conspiracy Theories is that they “tell stories that people want to hear.” This points to a question: why do people want to hear them? Cassam addresses scientific explanations. Some psychologists posit that conspiracy thinking may stem from built-in cognitive biases in the way we think and might also be explained in terms of personality. Cassam refutes these generalizations but concedes that there is such a thing as a “conspiracy mindset” and asserts that conspiracism is “an ideology rather than a personality trait.” Not all extremists are conspiracists, he concludes, but “conspiracism is integral to [such] ideologies” among both the successful and the marginalized.

Cassam also mentions, more than once, that Conspiracy Theorists only listen to experts who are themselves Conspiracy Theorists, because they exist in a “self-sealing” bubble of “crippled epistemology.” If they are against some recent development, they tend to mutter darkly about government conspiracies and the “deep state.” But if they’re in favor of some quack theory, then a single study, later debunked, stating that kiddie vaccines cause autism is good enough for them.

Cassam goes on to argue that conspiracy apologists, who often are in it for the money, might be labeled “Conspiracy Entrepreneurs.” He doesn’t go so far as to call them enablers, but apparently that is exactly what they are.

Conspiracy Theories, then, are far from harmless. Such wrongheaded thinking can be pernicious, and ultimately downright destructive. Cassam runs down a list: antivaxxers; anticredentialism in general; “the death of expertise”; Brexit; anti-Semitism on both the left and the right. Therefore Conspiracy Theories promote symbols and beliefs that have consequences unforeseen by moderates. Furthermore, they “diminish the credibility of legitimate criticisms and are also a “distraction from big-picture social issues.”

In his final chapter, the author recommends the best way to respond to Conspiracy Theorists: through careful, well-documented factual rebuttals; education of the young in the crucial skills of critical thinking and morality; and outing the usually amoral hardcore conspiracists as merely camouflaged propagandists.

Cassam concedes that the committed may be beyond convincing, and instead recommends reaching out to those who are still on the fence: the susceptible but not yet thoroughly indoctrinated. It’s not enough to say to them, “That’s ridiculous” or “You’re crazy”—you have to engage with the conspiracy narrative and refute it with facts and logic. No easy task. But this valuable book shows the way.

Francis DiMenno

 

 

 

 

The End of Quantum Reality
Written and produced by Richard Deland
Philos-Sophia Initiative Foundation: https://philos-sophia.org/about-the-film/#trailer. DVD, 1 hour, 26 minutes, $17.

You hold a red apple in your hand and see it as a red apple. Yet another view says that it is a collection of particles. The corporeal view of a red apple gives way to the physical view, yet they both occupy the same space. Which is real, then? The world of measurements is free of qualities such as red. Then there is the world of potentialities, which, according to quantum theory, can only become actualities in the presence of measurements.

Questions such as these have occupied great intellects such as Descartes, Heisenberg, Planck, and Einstein. Wolfgang Smith joins them as a pioneer. Born in 1930, Smith is a mathematician, physicist, philosopher of science, metaphysician, Roman Catholic, and member of the Traditionalist school of philosophy.

For a common man, questions posed by the quantum enigma are daunting. Early in the twentieth century, physicist Niels Bohr proclaimed that there is no quantum reality, only quantum description. In 1925, as we learn in this film, Werner Heisenberg “postulated that what exists in general, prior to measurement, are not actual values of an observable, but only their probabilities.”

This thesis led to the less than satisfying confusion that classical reality, with its external objects, does not exist. There are no particles as such in the quantum world: they only come into existence with the act of observation. The obvious question: what is there before measurement? The answer: not a thing!

By the time the quantum reality debate had passed the half-century mark without a resolution in sight, Smith became interested in the subject. When he applied to Cornell at the age of fifteen, as he says in the film, “We were asked what we wanted to major in, and I said, ‘Physics,’ and then the question was, ‘Why? Why did you choose that major?’ And I remember to this day my response. I wrote down, ‘I want to study physics because I believe that physics is the key to the understanding of the universe.’

“Needless to say,” he adds, “I have changed my mind in the interim.” Smith realized that there were ways of entering into higher, spiritual realms, which were far more profound than the world revealed by our five senses. He was deeply influenced by the works of the revered Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore.

Later Smith was accepted as a fellow in philosophy at Cornell, but he gave it up immediately. Philosophyphilo-sophia—means love of wisdom, but Smith found that in academic philosophy, “people were not interested in sophia (wisdom); nor there was any philos (love). Everything was dry.” Something fundamentally sacred was missing.

Smith traveled to India and met many great saints and sadhus. He returned a changed man, yet a certain nagging dissatisfaction remained, indicating that he still didn’t have the answer.

Smith then met his wife-to-be, Thea, who was deeply rooted in her Catholic faith. He studied Augustine’s commentary on the Gospel of St. John and the biography of Catherine of Siena. Here he found the answer: “God became man so that man could become God.” The link to what happens to human nature after enlightenment was now clear to him. Smith started writing, inspired by his wife and his newfound Catholic faith.

“Such was Smith’s background when he approached the quantum reality quandary some twenty years ago,” the film says. “From his study of Platonism and the metaphysical traditions of the world,” Smith realized “that the universe comprises not just quantities but qualities as well and . . . moreover, that qualities have primacy—that, in fact, they resemble a light from higher spheres shining into this world.” The implication of this revelation is stunning.

The film introduces us to the Islamic Traditionalist philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a great champion of Smith’s work. We also meet Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian thinker who has introduced Smith’s work to circles of physics professors and students interested in resolving the quantum enigma.

The Philos-Sophia Initiative Foundation, launched by this film’s producer, Richard DeLano, has drawn thousands (see the website: https://philos-sophia.org/). DeLano shares how Smith has changed his life: “My friend Wolfgang Smith has taught me to never, ever forget that the cosmos and everything in it, at every second, is being both brought into existence by something incomparably higher than those aspects of reality which can be reduced to an equation. I love Professor Smith.” We can agree with DeLano when he says that only one or two men like Wolfgang Smith can be found in a century.

DeLano has produced a masterful work, which captures the dilemmas, breakthroughs, and gateways to answers in this perplexing field. It is a beautiful movie. See it as many times as you can.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Awaken the Power Within: In Defense of Self-Help
Albert Amao
New York: TarcherPerigee, 2018. 287 pp., paper, $11.99.

Finally someone arises to call out the hucksters and frauds who promise to make you rich, make you wise, make you whole, and make you over. Albert Amao, PhD, is just that man. He is a sociologist, author, and national lecturer for the Theosophical Society in America. His recent book casts a shadow over false saviors while examining some of the most effective elements of self-help practice from traditional esoteric thought.

Hucksters in self-improvement are nothing new, Amao complains, but they continue to pop out of nowhere with promises to take away our pain, worries, and confusion, announcing themselves as New Age messiahs. Typically they disguise themselves as authors, workshop leaders, teachers, or life coaches who offer self-help to misguided souls.

Amao’s book suggests how many teachers and healers in the so-called self-improvement arena will simply dumb down ancient insights and attempt to repackage them in a diluted form for mass marketing.

 Amao debunks many of these attempts, outlining what has worked and not worked in the history of self-help. He distinguishes modern self-help culture from earlier mystical and occult movements and shows how we got to the current interest in the power of positive thinking.

Real growth, understanding, and transformation, Amao argues, come only from deep within you. The Indian sage J. Krishnamurti famously said that truth is a pathless land that everyone must negotiate personally. That is the hero’s journey of self-discovery.

Amao’s earlier work, Healing without Medicine, published by Quest Books in 2014, offered a similar message. Real healing comes from within you. Spiritual unfolding is uncomfortable, like peeling away layers of skin, but only you can do it. The answers are all inside you. The truth is there too. And you will find your true inner self along the way.

As Amao sees it, you won’t typically hear any of that from the snake-oil sales agents who offer to make your transformation easy, bring you instantly to self-realization, and grant you enlightenment in a few easy lessons.

Yet this popular self-help culture has become a pervasive social system worldwide and a staggering $12 billion industry in the United States alone. There are more than 300,000 self-help books available on Amazon.

The hidden harm Amao sees in this market is the blind faith people often place in seminars, books, and tapes. Self-help gurus tell them that redemption comes by empowering themselves with a new life script, as provided in the books, CDs, DVDs, and workshops they sell. Discouraged customers blame themselves when the material doesn’t deliver promised benefits. Thus the effects can be detrimental, and the self-help program can do much more harm than good.

Amao believes that a pattern of powerlessness plagues many people. From early childhood, they have been disempowered and indoctrinated with false ideas about their true nature by parents, mass media, and conventional wisdom. Over time, these acquired ideas of disempowerment become part of a personal belief system, and they subconsciously create a wrong self-image. Moreover, Amao says, some religious organizations create a sense of guilt in people.

Amao counters that quantum physics and metaphysics demonstrate how humans are creators of their own reality and destiny. As William James wrote, “Man alone, of all the creatures on Earth, can change his own pattern. Man alone is architect of his own destiny.”

People are responsible for creating their own reality with their thoughts and beliefs, Amao argues, and they are the only ones who can take back their power and correct whatever isn’t working for them. With that in mind, Amao’s book offers a deeper perspective on the culture of self-help and self-improvement. It empowers individuals to rely on their own inner voices for authentic self-empowerment and self-reliance.

In Defense of Self-Help is well worth exploring for anyone serious about self-empowerment and would be a welcome addition to professional libraries as well.

Von Braschler 

Von Braschler is a Life Member of the Theosophical Society and author of several books on consciousness, including two forthcoming works on conscious thought forms.

 

 

 

 

Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
Brian Greene
New York: Knopf, 2020; 428 pp., cloth, $30.

Reading H.P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine opened up for me the worlds of science and Eastern philosophies. That led to my studies of quantum science, in addition to those of Hinduism and Buddhism, over the past twenty years. Many times while reading the latest book by Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, I was reminded of The Secret Doctrine, especially as he traced the history of the universe from the Big Bang to—well, whatever would come next.

I knew from the outset that this was going to be different from Greene’s previous books, The Elegant Universe (1999), The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), and The Hidden Reality (2011).All of these take us deep into the cosmos and the laws of the universe,which provide order, symmetry, and pattern (something we humans like) as well as exploring new ideas such as string theory and the multiple universe (multiverse) theory.

Until the End of Time however, sets a different tone. It addresses ideas that Greene did not address (or mentioned briefly) in his previous books, such as mind and thought, philosophy, and the big questions, including why we seek immortality, meaning, and purpose in life. I was introduced to a different Brian Greene—one who is now twenty years older than when he wrote his first book, and who may himself be pondering the big questions of life, including Gottfried von Leibnitz’s question: why is there something rather than nothing? We can answer these questions only by going beyond in our search for meaning.

I am reminded of Bill Moyers’ PBS interviews of Joseph Campbell. At one point Moyers asked Campbell, “What is the meaning of life?” Campbell gave an answer that I’ve never forgotten: “Life has no inherent meaning. We bring meaning to it.” Greene also quotes from Campbell: “We are tasked with the noble charge of finding our own meaning.” It is your experience of life and my experience of life that give meaning to each of us.

Greene speaks of his feelings, writing that there are times when he rises above his “own identity,” which has been “subsumed by what I can only describe as a feeling of gratitude for the gift of experience.”

Greene opens his book looking at man’s search for immortality. He quotes Jean-Paul Sartre: “Life itself is drained of meaning ‘when you have lost the illusion of being eternal,’” hinting that this comment may hold some meaning for Greene himself.

Greene injects some stories from his life into his book. One significant story was of the time in the 1960s when he and his father went on a walk through Central Park in New York.A group of Hare Krishna devotees with shaved heads were drumming, chanting, and dancing. Seeing that one of the drummers looked familiar, Greene saw that it was his brother. Greene, who was raised Jewish, at that moment learned of the divergent paths he and his brother had taken. Greene notes that both “Hinduism and Buddhism seek a reality beyond the illusions of everyday perception, a characterization that also describes many of the most surprising scientific advances of the last hundred years.”

If science and spiritual traditions had once been light-years apart, the twentieth-century’s foray into the quantum world, far beyond the materialist’s sensible realm, along with the introduction of Eastern philosophies to the West, brought the two together in remarkable ways. Greene tells of the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who in an epilogue to his What Is Life? “raised some eyebrows (and lost his first publisher) when he invoked the Hindu Upanishads to suggest that we are all part of an ‘omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self.’”

Greene reminds us often that we are all merely “an enormous number of particulate constituents”infused with consciousness, called by some atman, anima, or immortal soul. These names all imply “the belief that the conscious self taps into something that outlasts the physical form, something that transcends traditional mechanistic science.” This is a clue, he says, “to why the hard sciences have long resisted all things [related to] consciousness.”

How will it end? We don’t know, but Greene assures us that all is impermanent. Ultimately, the particles—“star stuff,” as astrophysicist Michio Kaku calls it—from which the phenomenal universe is made disintegrates, and all things die. Stars die. The sun will die. We will die. “The examined life examines death,” says Greene. 

You can read Greene’s other books and learn about the formation of the cosmos through the Big Bang; the continual expansion of the universe into the far reaches of space; and string theory, matter, and reality. In this latest book, however, you will get to know Brian Greene and learn of the experiences that have shaped his life and given it meaning and purpose. While he may never find the physicists’ Holy Grail—the theory of everything—I think he is well on his way to solving the mystery of Brian Greene.

Clare Goldsberry 

Clare Goldsberry has been a member of the Theosophical Society for twenty years. Her newest book, on death and dying, will be out this year from Monkfish Book Publishing.

 

                                                                       

 

 

 

Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart
Diane Musho Hamiton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Loh
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2020. 212 pp., paper, $16.95.

Three practitioners of Zen meditation, each from a different nationality and professional background, have set out to meld concepts from the practice of Zen and Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory with their own experiences in facilitating conversations professionally. Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Loh claim that talking about our differences is something human beings are just now learning to do in a new way. They wrote Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart to show how we can let our differences inform and inspire us in conversations rather than overwhelm and divide us.

Each of the twenty chapters employs crisp, clear language to explore relevant evolutionary and Zen concepts, and applies them to skills readers can use in approaching difficult or even confrontational conversations. Real stories from the authors’ experience illustrate some of the points.

I especially appreciated the authors’ efforts to add an additional perspective to the individual adult development stages as articulated by Ken Wilber and others. They point out how as adults we may mature from an egocentric through an ethnocentric toward a cosmocentric worldview. Awareness of this fact can help us see beyond our own biases and accord validity to the values and priorities of others who may appear at odds with us.

One particularly important point is that as one moves through this process of maturation, an adult person comes to experience himself or herself as less fixed and solid. The self becomes more fluid, shifting according to varying situations and conditions. This allows for more confidence and stability, especially when facing potential conflict. At the same time the process also affords greater personal humility.

The concept of developmental stages offers many other understandings that run counter to the assumptions of our mainstream culture. For example, allowing ourselves to (compassionately) confront difficult situations and divergent opinions allows us to practice trusting in our common humanity and allowing awareness itself to support our healing. Insulating ourselves against stances that diverge from our own chains us to a growth-limiting provincialism. Rather, these authors claim, “it is a sign of health to want to include and integrate what’s hard, uncomfortable, or deeply painful into a wider appreciation of our experience.”

This book also adds dimension to the Jungian concept of the shadow—those “aspects of the personality that remain out of the light of awareness because we find them unacceptable, shameful, or dark.”

Sometimes we project our own shadow aspects onto someone else. Such projection may occur innocently, even in groups that otherwise think of themselves as inclusive, socially aware and/or centered around a philosophy of fighting injustice. A simple exercise is recommended when such groups meet. Each person could be asked to tell one incident in which they had oppressed or injured someone else. Getting people to admit that they too have created human suffering would leave them less polarized against someone whose view of the “right” way may differ from their own. This leads to greater integrity, a freer and more flexible (therefore more spiritually mature) identity.  

This kind of freedom allows a person to focus on the present moment, releasing preoccupation with the past and the future. It is our behavior and the choices we make in the present moment that contribute to a more positive future for everyone, and we can only do this if we free ourselves from pain and injuries from the past.

Hamilton, Wilson, and Loh assure us that loosening our grip on our personal identity (that is, expanding our worldview, or the amount of the universe we can see ourselves as part of) will bring greater humility, patience, and generosity into our engagements. It is a road to a greater and more vibrant personal freedom.

Despite vocal elements in our society that seem to want the opposite, many quieter but far wiser voices are expressing ways we might move our culture forward toward a more inclusive, evolved, and compassionate stance. This book is a very solid contribution to that effort. 

Margaret Placentra Johnston

Margaret Placentra Johnston is the author of two award-winning books on spiritual development: Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012) and Overcoming Spiritual Myopia: A View Toward Peace Among the Religions (2018).

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind and Overcoming Spiritual Myopia: A View Toward Peace Among the Religions.

 

 

 

Creativity, Spirituality, and Making a Buck
David  Nichtern
Somerville, Mass., Wisdom, 2019; 225 pp., paper, $16.95.

Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.

  —Barack Obama

Many years ago, I arrived in the U.S. for graduate studies and was also staying in a monastery for training. On the second day, the senior monk approached me and said, “So you are in America. You need to know four things: baseball, hot dog, apple pie, and Chevrolet, and you have to make a few bucks to get the last one.”

With graduate studies in the rearview mirror and after six years in the monastery, I started a career in a multinational corporation, creating complex algorithms. I also cofounded the Chicago Meditation Center, which I ran from my three-bedroom apartment. Many retreats were held there, and many wonderful spiritual masters visited. Now that I’ve retired from the industry and am not making bucks any more, my spiritual journey continues.

I was naturally drawn to Nichtern’s book, which weaves a tapestry integrating the three aspects of a unique journey. He has an impressive background for writing the book. He has been teaching Buddhism for most of his adult life. He has also been a professional composer (receiving four Emmys and two Grammys) and an entrepreneur, running several businesses. Nichtern’s deep practice of Buddhist teachings, received from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, resonates throughout the book and forms the underlying thread in his creative and entrepreneurial endeavors as well. This book is a result of his own direct experiences.

Commonly we think of success as making a buck. Nichtern looks at success a little differently. It is not just getting what you thought you wanted but incorporating a sense of wholesome well-being in your life.

The book is divided into six parts. Appropriately, the first part introduces a mindfulness practice. It is, so to speak, an operating system for enlightened living. The core principles are “As It Is” (what is presented to you) and “Up to You” (what you do with it), with help from clarity, intention, and effort.

The second part, “Getting Down to Business,” reminds us that conducting business is not separate from our innate wisdom. Nichtern offers profound tips, such as “Link your creative offering to your livelihood offering.” Trungpa taught the concepts of ground, path, and fruition. Simply put, ground is the starting point, path is the practice or the journey, and fruition is what we receive after persevering on the path. Nichtern reframes these principles for business purposes as “vision, plan, and execution.”

Part 3 addresses “Some Simple Business Principles” grounded in “confidence, simplicity, and authenticity.” Nichtern points out that having confidence in our business and having faith in our mindfulness practice are not different.

Part 4, “Interpersonal Skills and Ethical Conduct,” is a guide to behavior in business relationships. Blaming, making excuses, and whining have no place here. We learn to appreciate everyone and to be kind. In this section, Nichtern points us towards “the notion of Karma, the dance of cause and effect.” Our thoughts, speech, and actions may be impermanent in a higher sense, but they do matter on another level. He quotes one lojong (traditional Tibetan aphorism): “Don’t bring things to a painful point.”

Part 5, “Personal Attitude and Cultivation,” migrates from the interpersonal to the intrapersonal. Nichtern explores the strengths that one can cultivate. We look at “As It Is” and activate “Up to Us.” Here we contemplate impermanence. We may have vision and a creative plan, yet we also have an open door when change occurs. It is like examining the game plan at half-time and making adjustments. We need not take ourselves too seriously! Just as we train our body in the gym, we train our mind by honing our attention.

Part 6, “Creativity: The Wild Card,” reveals that creativity is pervasive if only we look. It is not just bringing a new product to the market; we are creative when we cook dinner! Nichtern challenges us to be daring and at the same time to “know when to stop polishing the turd.”

This book includes a treasure of resources such as websites and links to videos and music. Meditations for individual practice are included throughout (“Put the book down and practice!”). The lojong aphorisms are direct pointers. The most important resource is the workbook in every chapter. Nichtern provides probing questions for our own workbook. It is the door to spontaneity and expressing ourselves with utter honesty. It is asking a question to ourselves: “How are you doing?” Saying “fine” is not good enough. The journey begins by looking inward. Nichtern provides help at every step.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.


 

 

 

 

 

Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being
Agustin Fuentes
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019, 206 pp. Hardcover, $28.

In this book, Agustin Fuentes, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, addresses belief, why we believe, and how our beliefs shape ourselves and the world around us. He explores belief in three areas: religion, economies, and love.

Fuentes takes us on an anthropological deep dive into what makes us human and how the “human niche” developed. He gives a detailed time line of this development, as well as the evolution of plants and animals and the construction of the “human place.” He stresses that “the capacity for belief is not rooted simply in neurobiology.”

One third of the way through the book, Fuentes defines human culture as a system of the “distinctive processes of humanity that evolves as a central component of the human niche.” He tells us that “how we believe is explicitly an aspect and outcome of human culture . . . and why it is central to the processes of belief.”

To believe, explains Fuentes, “is to invest in something, utterly, wholly, and authentically such that it is one’s reality. So cultural constructs are real for those who hold them.” He goes on to say, “Much of what humans do is structured by what they believe.” Evolution of culture is ongoing largely because “becoming human is ongoing . . . We are humans evolving past, present, and future.”

The human mind enables belief by giving us our ability to imagine. According to Fuentes, imagination consists of “mental representations of objects or events not present in the subject’s current or recent external context.” Obviously our idea of God would be a mental representation as well.

In Fuentes’s view, belief, especially religious belief, “is not about being fooled.” Indeed it can be a “certainty of something that cannot be seen.” He considers religious belief to be just a small part of what humans believe, although “it is a major element in the human story.” Indeed religious beliefs, perhaps more than any other kind except love, have shaped our world and culture. As he says, religious belief “has massive impacts on the processes and experiences of humanity, and thus is central to an understanding of becoming and being human.”

Fuentes goes on to address belief in economies, which has relevance for us today, given the dissonances regarding the role of government in the economy and the economic system that best serves our needs. Economic systems, Fuentes says, “are not naturally occurring features of the world. Economic systems and ideologies . . . are human made, certainly creative and imaginative and very real, but the products of human society. They exist because we created them, and they are maintained because we believe in them.”

When it comes to love, Fuentes says that “belief and love are intertwined” and that “humans have to believe in some, or many, forms” of love. Perhaps love is the form of belief that is most vital for becoming human. “Our capacity to believe emerges from evolutionary processes and is intrinsically tied to our abilities to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, and to infuse the world with meaning. This enables us to love.”

Does belief matter? Fuentes concludes that it does: “Knowing why and how we believe is central to making belief matter for the better in the future.”

Does what we believe matter? Again, Fuentes says it does—in matters such as climate change, social justice, and inequality. He notes that “patterns of . . . inequality, driven by beliefs, are not uncommon.” Fuentes deplores fundamentalism in both religion and in “scientism,” writing that fundamentalism is “an abuse of the human capacity to believe.”

If you are looking for Fuentes to enter the realm of truth in his discussion, you will be disappointed, because the truth of belief is far beyond the anthropologist’s purview. The most beneficial act might be for us to learn to hold our beliefs lightly as we constantly progress in the act of becoming human.

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Group, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times
THOMAS WATERS
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019. 350 pp., hardcover, $65.

This is what many people believe about witchcraft: In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church cracked down on survivals of the old pagan nature religion. Its practitioners were labeled as witches and persecuted, often burned. This antiwitch rampage lasted into the eighteenth century, when the Enlightenment convinced the world that witchcraft had no effects; those who practiced it were simply deluded. After that point, belief in witchcraft died out until it was revived in the mid-twentieth century.

As this book, which focuses on witchcraft beliefs in Britain from the eighteenth century to the present, shows, much of this view is simply wrong.  It is true that Britain's Witchcraft Act of 1735 eliminated penalties for witchcraft per se, although it created penalties for those claiming to practice it. But popular belief in witchcraft never went away. It diminished somewhat, especially in the early twentieth century, but came back in full force during the century’s second half. In fact, witchcraft has been alive and well in Britain from the earliest days to today.

Neither the British government nor the Church of England played any role in perpetuating witchcraft beliefs; indeed they did everything they could to stomp them out. But belief persisted. Nor was it merely a matter of scary stories told around a fire. Witchcraft accusations were leveled by local people at local people, and these locals often took vengeance into their own hands. One example was a man from Westminster in 1831, who, “though living within sight of Parliament,  tried to shoot his neighbour—a woman who, he claimed, had bewitched him for the previous four years.”

 Witchcraft has many, often contradictory, meanings. Today some people call  themselves witches because they believe they are continuing the Old Religion. Wicca, the best-known version, derives its name from the Old English word wicca (pronounced witcha), which means male witch. (A female witch was a wicce, and the practice was wiccacraefte). Oddly in light of all this, today Wicca (pronounced wicka) is an abstract noun referring to the reconstructed present-day religion.

In the minds of the British common people, however, witchcraft generally meant doing harm to others through occult powers. This could range from causing cows to dry up to inflicting illness and death on the victims themselves. By contrast, individuals who used these methods to heal or protect people from witchcraft were commonly known as cunning-folk.

The authorities’ position was ambiguous. The Witchcraft Act (not repealed until 1951) was based on the idea that witchcraft was nonsense. On the one hand, this meant that the magistrates tried to protect people (usually women) accused of it. On the other hand, it meant that they often prosecuted cunning-folk who were trying to heal or rescue people from witchcraft.

Waters tries to connect his story with the larger history of occultism, but a short and perfunctory chapter entitled “Occultists Study Dark Arts” shows only the most basic knowledge of Theosophy, Christian Science, and the occult revival of the late nineteenth century.

Otherwise, Cursed Britain is well informed and well told. On a more theoretical level, it leaves a great deal to be desired. Waters does not satisfactorily explain why beliefs in witchcraft persisted so doggedly in an age of science and supposed enlightenment. He falls back on two suggestions. One is belief: “for it to work, you must quash your doubts.” But there are cases in which people suffered from the effects of witchcraft without believing in it or knowing that anyone had put a curse on them. He also relies heavily on the idea that this “imaginative, uncanny, and wishful way of thinking” is chiefly due to a human desire to make sense of the inexplicable. These do not do full justice to the evidence.

Waters is a lecturer in history at University College, London, who published this book with Yale University Press, so he is unlikely to give any explanation that does not line up with rationalistic materialism. But his theoretical arguments are neither forceful nor convincing: the reader suspects that he himself is baffled by the phenomenon—perhaps because he has researched it so thoroughly.

Waters bemoans the rise of belief in witchcraft in present-day Britain and wonders what should be done about it. Again, he does not come up with much of an answer, writing, “Witchcraft reached its lowest ebb in modern British history when  the state clamped down on the market for alternative health care, with targeted regulation and more policing. Perhaps a similar campaign could be mounted today, against the most unscrupulous spiritual healers operating in Britain.” An updated version of the Witchcraft Act, perhaps?

Richard Smoley

 

 

 

 

English Illuminati: Including the History of the Order of the Illuminati and the Mysteries of the Illuminati
ALASTAIR McGAWN LEES
Shepperton, Middlesex, U.K.: Lewis Masonic, 2019; 224 pp., casebound, $43.95. 

A more commercially minded publisher would have titled this Final Secret of the Illuminati.

Whether that’s accurate or not, this book gives us a deep look into the European occult revival of the late nineteenth century and some of its key figures—practically all of whom were connected to the Theosophical Society.

The story starts in 1776, when Adam Weishaupt, a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, started a quasi-Masonic secret society called the Illuminati. The society’s goal, among others, was to promote liberal ideals in an age when monarchy and ecclesiastical dominance were crumbling rapidly.

These aims did not suit the Elector of Bavaria, who had the organization shut down only a decade later, in 1786. But he failed to extinguish rumors about the Illuminati, and in the subsequent decades, authors such as the Abbé Barruel and John Robison blamed them for the French Revolution and related social unrest. Twentieth-century conspiracy theorists asserted that the Illuminati were a secret elite bent on world domination. (You can draw your own conclusions about these claims.)

In 1880, a German esotericist named Theodor Reuss tried to revive Weishaupt’s Illuminati.  He succeeded for a couple of decades. In 1900, he even managed to interest William Wynn Westcott, an English physician, Mason, and Theosophist (best known as cofounder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), into creating an English branch.

This volume centers on the rituals for the English Illuminati, which Westcott had translated and adapted from Reuss’s rituals. These papers had been buried unknown for decades in the archives of the British Masonic organization Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, but were accidentally discovered by author Alistair Lees. In this volume, Lees publishes the papers, along with a fascinating array of other material about the ins and outs of the Masonic organizations, lodges, and degrees that proliferated at the time.

In the end, nothing came of the English Illuminati project. In a 1902 letter to Reuss, Westcott wrote, “The Illuminati system as a whole may suit your country, but I could not work it here.” Lees explains: “England did not traditionally have such a rich tapestry of haut-grade or high grade orders and rites such as Europe had enjoyed for the previous three hundred years.”

This, at any rate, is a bare-bones account of the panoply of figures, degrees, organizations, charters, and paraphernalia that appear in this book. It is ideally not for beginners but for those who already have some basic idea of these figures and their milieu. Readers interested in Masonic history will find it most valuable.

For others, one of the most useful sections is Reuss’s history of the Illuminati, which he portrays not as “a new creation of this man [Weishaupt] but rather as an institution which we can trace back to the oldest time.” He cites connections ranging from Moses and the ancient Mysteries to the Spanish Alombrados and the Rosicrucians of the early modern era.

Another useful part is a series of short biographies of the leading figures in the book, including Westcott, Reuss, the English Mason John Yarker, and Gérard Encausse (Papus), founder of the Martinist Order in France.

The book has its drawbacks. There are many typos and glitches in editing, and it is often frustrating to have Lees jump back and forth between the story of his own discoveries and the historical narration. But it is richly illustrated and gives the reader an idea of the visual aspect of these lodges—their documents, paraphernalia, and diagrams, many of them elaborate.

Many of the rituals and documents are reproduced, but they do not reveal a great deal of esoteric knowledge to the reader. There are small items here and there. The ceremonial of initiation to the Rose-Croix Grade, for example, tells us that the word INRI has several meanings: its familiar one (an acronym of Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”); a more esoteric, alchemical one (Igne Natura Renovatur Integra: “By fire is nature restored to wholeness”); and a yet more esoteric one, “the climax of all occult sciences according to the poem of Hermes”: Ioithi, Nain, Rasith, and Ioithi, referring respectively to the “active creative principle . . . the passive principle . . . a combination of the two principles, and the constant eternal transformation of all created things,” and “again the creative, godly principle as a symbol of the eternal circle of the world and all things created.” This resembles the exposition of the Tetragrammaton YHWH in Papus’s Tarot of the Bohemians.

The book does not answer the chief question it is likely to raise: what were all these men on about? Why did they chase back and forth across Europe, exchanging degrees and initiations (many of which they had invented themselves) like boys swapping Pokémon cards? The interchanges are so intricate that Lees had to create two detailed diagrams just to show the flow of orders in 1901 and 1902.

The answer—that they were simply charlatans—does not hold up. They did not profit from these degrees, and most of them had prominent and successful careers outside the initiatic world. 

Nevertheless, I think the answer is partly sociological. No one today can imagine the hold that titles of nobility held over nineteenth-century Europe. I suspect that one motivation for this panoply of quasi-Masonic titles and degrees was to create a kind of alternative aristocracy, because the conventional aristocracy was nearly impossible to enter.

In addition, the Western esoteric traditions, after centuries of repression, were beginning to shake themselves and move into the present. Because Masonry was no doubt the key inspiration for this awakening, many of the newly proliferating forms used Masonic terms and titles.

Today there seems to be a revival of interest in fraternal orders, especially Masonry, among those with serious esoteric interests. This is no doubt to be welcomed. Lees’ book illustrates how those esoteric lodges functioned in the past—as well as mistakes that lodges of the present can avoid.

Richard Smoley

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giza’s Industrial Complex: Ancient Egypt’s Electrical Power and Gas Generating Systems
James Ernest Brown, Dr. J.J. Hurtak, and Dr. Desiree Hurtak
Pagosa Springs, Colo.: Ancient Energy Research Center and Academy for Future Science, 2019. 150 pp., paper, $35.99.

Ancient Egypt has arguably been the source of more fringe speculation than any other historical culture, from tales about ancestral links to Atlantis to theories about pyramid-building aliens. Although modern scholarship has worked hard to throw cold water on the more extravagant variants, there is still no shortage of vexing mysteries involving this civilization, which even hard-nosed moderns continue to grapple with.

How did the Egyptians manage to move such large stone blocks, sometimes hundreds of miles overland? Why does Egyptian culture seem to have reached its peak near the earliest stages of its development? How did they achieve such extraordinary precision with some of the hardest stones on earth, as evidenced not only in works like the famed seated statue of Khafre in the Cairo museum but the many gargantuan sarcophagi down in the Serapeum of Saqqara? How does one explain the astonishing holes bored in hard stones around the Giza plateau, which look like the result of advanced machine tooling? The list goes on.

One of the most enduring mysteries of all, of course, is the Great Pyramid. What exactly was it used for? Despite its official reputation as a tomb, no pharaonic body was ever found inside it. This massive structure incorporates a series of extraordinary alignments, both geometrical and astronomical. Some claim that it served as initiation chamber and consciousness-raising device, while others point to the peculiar sonic properties in various parts of the structure. Having experienced some very strange acoustical phenomena in it myself, I have no doubt there is far more than meets the eye to this monument.

In recent years a growing chorus of voices has been suggesting that the monuments of the Giza plateau represent a kind of advanced technology normally associated with modern industrial societies. This school of thought was spearheaded in recent years by engineer Chris Dunn (The Giza Power Plant) but has been developed in a different vein by authors James Brown and J.J. and Desiree Hurtak in their new book.

The potentials of water play a pivotal role in this work. The authors propose that various structures around (and beneath) the Giza plateau were designed to activate sophisticated processes of “water splitting,” which in turn could exploit the enormous potential of hydrogen as a fuel source. Though we normally experience water in its liquid, gaseous, or solid states, they suggest another possible form: electrified or energized water. They go on to say that there is “good evidence that the Great Pyramid was a gigantic water processing plant to create electrified water and other chemical transformations.” It all sounds very space-agey, of course, but as the authors point out, the Egyptians “had the technology to build extensive pyramid structures, why could they not produce something as simple as energy from salt water batteries or hydrogen gas from water that high school students can do today?” We already know as a result of such discoveries as the so-called Baghdad Battery that some ancient cultures had devised ways of generating electricity, so it’s conceivable that the Egyptians could have developed related technologies.

What exactly would they have used this energy for? One possibility would have been electric lighting sources for their temples or for use in constructing tombs and tunnels deep underground. The authors theorize that structured or energized water could have also been utilized for agriculture, health and healing purposes, or ritual applications. As they point out, sacred water has long played a role in the ceremonies of religious cultures, from baptism to ritual purifications and cleansings.

Much of what the authors are proposing is speculative, of course, but as someone steeped for decades in highly speculative writings—including Theosophical ones—I admittedly have a high tolerance for far-out ruminations. What distinguishes this book from several others, however, is the science. While I don’t have an extensive enough background in electronics or chemistry to pass final judgment on the finer details of their research, I have just enough to suspect that they may well be on to something and that their work merits serious attention. The book could open the door to important insights into this ancient culture and our collective history.

A good-sized chunk of the book is technical in nature, which could make it tough sledding for non–technically minded readers. For them, I’m tempted to suggest skipping ahead to the conclusion, then going back to the beginning and reading forward from there. I’d like to think the authors might consider publishing a more accessible version of their research down the road in order to reach a wider audience.

In the end, their work brought me back to an idea I’ve pondered for years about the ancient Egyptians myself—namely, that they likely employed a more holographic way of thinking about the world, which operated on multiple levels simultaneously (like Egyptian hieroglyphics, which can be read on several levels). For that reason, I suspect their extraordinary structures may have served multiple purposes–spiritual, aesthetic, magical, geometrical, as well as technological. So should we view impressive structures like the Great Pyramid as deeply spiritual temples or as highly advanced machines? It may well be that they were both.

Ray Grasse 

Ray Grasse worked on the editorial staffs of Quest magazine and Quest Books during the 1990s. He is the author of several books, including The Waking Dream, An Infinity of Gods, Urban Mystic (excerpted in Quest, fall 2019), and Under a Sacred Sky. His website is www.raygrasse.com.


 

 

 

 

 

 

A Short Philosophy of Birds
Philippe J. DuBois and Elise Rousseau, translated by Jennifer Higgins
New York: HarperCollins, 2019; 157 pp., paper, $19.99.

The authors of this book write:

Like Mongolians, birds don’t travel with a compass, GPS, or a map, because they intuitively possess all these internally. Take the bar-tailed godwit. This little wader (also known as a “limicole” or mud-dwelling bird) is a close relative of the curlew and spends its life in coastal marshes or estuaries. In spring, the godwit migrates to make its nest in the Arctic. By tracking one of these godwits with a satellite tag, researchers have discovered that they are capable of covering the distance between Alaska and New Zealand—over 7000 miles—in one go. That equates to flying for a whole week at forty-five miles per hour. Consider, too, that the godwit weighs just 250 grams. What’s more, during this non-stop flight, the godwit only allows one half of its brain to fall asleep at a time—allowing it to fly continuously during its sleep. Imagine if we humans could sleep this way.

The authors of this book ask: whatever happened to our sense of direction? Wherever we go, whether it be a vacation or a deeper spiritual journey, we depend on some version of an external GPS. We don’t trust our internal instincts, as the godwits do.

Philippe J. Dubois is an ornithologist and a writer who has traveled all over the world watching birds. He is an author of several books on climate change and biodiversity. Elise Rousseau is a conservationist and author of several books on nature and animals. Their book provides twenty-two profound lessons on qualities we can learn from birds.

Tukaram, a famous Marathi saint, sang that our closest friends are in the nature around us. This elegant book reminded me of that teaching from my childhood. The authors inspire us to take a step back and reconnect with the nature and listen to the “tiny philosophers of the sky.”

The first chapter is titled “Embracing Our Vulnerability.” For a species of duck, the molting period is a period of vulnerability. When new plumage is replacing the old, these ducks are temporarily unable to fly. “Eclipse plumage” is a phrase used to describe “a liminal twilight that occurs while the bird waits for the essential feathers that it has to shed to regrow.”

The lesson is profound. Why don’t we humans do the same and cultivate the patience needed to “eclipse” ourselves whenever we face vulnerable situations? After great losses, we feel the pressure to move on. We rarely take the time to be with our sadness, gather our strength in our own version of eclipse plumage, and reemerge.

Many years ago, a goose family laid eggs in the planter on my deck. The mother goose would sit on them, hatching, for days, and the male goose would stay put on the deck, protecting his family. I couldn’t go on my deck because he would sit in a position to attack. I didn’t understand this fully till I read Dubois’s and Trousseau’s book: it is the geese’s commitment to their family.

The authors tell us about many such qualities. The hen takes a dust bath (live life to the fullest); the eagle glides high in the air, looking for its prey (true courage); doves fall in love (tenderness); a bowerbird builds his nest, beautifully decorating it in bright colors (adding beauty to the world); a robin brawls and fights (audacity in defending oneself); a corvid uses tree branches to reach hard-to-access foods (using one’s intelligence—forget the expression birdbrain!); and a bird loosed from its cage uses its freedom to roam while staying near the safety of the cage (dealing with fear).

In their conclusion, Dubois and Rousseau say that in “our changing world, threatened by climate change and destruction of natural habitats, many bird species are disappearing.” How do we adapt? How do we survive and, more importantly, how do we help our dear friends, the bird species, to survive? The authors say, “The day we decide to protect birds will be the day we decide to protect ourselves.”

This was an inspiring book. Lately a red-crested bird has been coming and sitting on a shrub that I can see from my reading chair. He sits there and watches me read. I wonder if he has something to tell me. I intend to ask the next time I see him.

Dhananjay Joshi


 

 

 

 

I Know What I Saw: Modern-Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore
Linda S. Godfrey
New York: TarcherPerigee, 2019. 322 pp., hardcover, $25.

You might believe that the trouble with people is that, to paraphrase the humorist Josh Billings, they know so many things that just ain’t so. If so, prepare to have your worldview shaken. This lively book of eyewitness accounts boasts chapter descriptions that alone would be worth the interest of any dedicated cryptozoologist: “Crybaby Bridge,” “The Texas Lobo Girl,” “Ohio Manwolves,” “Hawaiian Flying Dogman,” “Hairy Men of the Ancients.” As we proceed through the book, we are offered a seemingly endless procession of stories about cryptids. Upright canines, dire dogs, hybrid mystery cats, Lilliputian people, prehistoric creatures that time forgot, chupacabras, Snarly-Yows, and other “elements of lore and legend”—all are accounted for and anatomized here. This book is neither a cynically credulous, Weekly World News–like sensation-mongering grab bag of shaggy dogmen stories nor a dusty tome with a creaky and hedging scholarly apparatus, but an interesting, if sometimes exasperatingly discursive, collection of weird encounters.

The book is also a treasure-trove of odd facts. Did you know that wolf apes like chewing gum? I certainly never suspected as much. Were you aware that upright canines like to hang out around cemeteries, but also favor “deserted buildings, campgrounds, and military bases”? (Apparently they fear television cameras the most, particularly ones which happen to be pointed in their direction.) 

Linda Godfrey piles incident upon incident of first-hand accounts of sightings of strange and hybrid creatures, some of which bring to mind the 1896 H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. The author stresses that she has only included reports which are “sincere and truthful to the eyewitness’s experience.” Sometimes her accompanying theories seem rather far-fetched, but she usually brings out some interesting points: for instance, that there have been many sightings of “upright canines” which “bear a resemblance to Anubis.” Or that accounts of Bigfoot may go back as far as Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or may even be connected to the biblical character Esau, who, according to Genesis, “was large, smelly, and entirely covered with red fur!” 

True to its subject matter, I Know What I Saw is itself something of a hybrid: part journalism, part oral history, part speculation, and with a certain amount of scholarly apparatus applied, if none too rigorously. The bibliography is not impressive, consisting principally of citations of website articles, magazine pieces, pop paranormal tomes, and a superfluity of the author’s previous published works. Furthermore, although Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, and even Hawaii are mentioned as frequently cited sources of strange phenomena, the book seems rather Wisconsin-heavy, which is no surprise, since the author is a lifelong resident of that state.

Nevertheless, the tone is evenhanded and informal throughout, and there are occasional references to Greek myths, Native American legends, and “ancient traditions” which lend the book some gravitas. Godfrey admits she is no folklorist, but she seems to be well able to distinguish between fake news, urban legends, folktales, myths, and “creepypasta,” a new genre which consists of crowd-sourced, “collaborative, never-ending stories” about uncanny beings. Her narrative also displays welcome flashes of humor. Two examples will suffice: 

[A] legend says a local minister shot and killed a wolf ape that measured ten feet in length. He nailed the carcass to the church wall and displayed it, perhaps as a lesson to any other half-ape, half-wolf creatures, referring to it as Satan’s pet. He was said to have sold the putrefying carcass to a sideshow and moved to San Francisco, where he was gruesomely killed for some unstated reason, sparking an additional legend of a curse on killers of wolf apes.

Prince George’s County [Maryland] rates high on the list of goat man-infested places if urban legends are to be your guide. It features three—count ’em—three related legends stemming from an unknown scientist’s animal experimentation running amok . . . In all the legends, the scientist is driven to the woods, armed with an ax. One variant says his departure was due to his going mad over the experiments, another says it was remorse over ruining the cure for cancer, and finally, my personal favorite claims the scientist accidentally changed himself into a half-man, half-goat creature and fled to the nearby wilds where he resides today.

Books about inexplicable occurrences and improbable anomalies have a long pedigree: among the most famous are the myriad citations collected in four books by Charles Fort, published from 1919 to 1932. Nearly 100 years later, Godfrey, who has published over a dozen books on this topic, and can therefore reasonably be cited as an authority, has written another book about Things Which Shouldn’t Be So—but which, apparently, are.

Can we trust the evidence of our senses? Ms. Godfrey is somewhat noncommittal, but seems to think that, in most instances, we can and we should. Aren’t the stories we tell one another akin to the warning cries that animals exchange among themselves to signal predators in their midst? Ms. Godfrey speculates that they may at least be “subtly disguised handbooks for survival in a ‘goblin universe’” and concludes with the wise admonition that “legend is not synonymous with untruth.”

Francis DiMenno

Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and longtime music critic who blogs at https://dimenno.wordpress.com/.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God and Love on Route 80: The Hidden Mystery of Human Connectedness
Stephen G. Post
Coral Gables, Fla., Mango Publishing Group, 2019. 301 pp., paper, $18.95.

Stephen G. Post is the best-selling author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People. He has taught at the University of Chicago Medical School, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. His latest book, God and Love on Route 80, attempts to show how compassion improves the lives of others and explains how this can apply to everyone on the planet.

God and Love on Route 80 describes episodes in Post’s trip from New Hampshire to Oregon after his graduation from prep school. The book has interludes between each episode with pictures of and quotes from spiritual teachers. It gives the reader a feel for the people he met on his journey, the towns he was in, and how he embarked upon his spiritual path regardless of obstacles.

In the prelude, the author recalls himself as a boy in New Hampshire. He never heard the voice of God, although he didn’t dismiss the possibility. When he was young, he had a repeating dream in which he saw the light-blue image of an angel’s face and heard it say, “If you save him, you too shall live.” The boy knew that some dreams could express divine intent. He was able to understand this calling years later at the Pacific end of Interstate Route 80, nearly 3000 miles away in Oregon. His trip there enabled him to experience synchronicity and the way it works.

The car that Post started out with broke down, so he hitched rides and met a variety of interesting people. For income, he played guitar in restaurants to earn tips. He went into a Buddhist temple for the first time and started chanting with others. He liked chanting because it gave him a sense that the boundaries between himself and others had disappeared. In his travels, Post had a conversation with the author Ken Kesey while he was writing his book Sometimes a Great Notion. In a bookstore, Post heard the poet Robert Bly read sections of his book Light around the Body.

The author purchased a Buddhist gohonzon scroll, a sacred object that helps the person who possesses it to solve problems. It assisted Post in keeping someone from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The experience gave meaning to the words he had heard in his dream: “If you save him, you too shall live.” After his journey, Post completed his college education and went on to teach medicine and become the president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. In 2016 the institute’s website was taken down and replaced with the black flag of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. To counteract this, Post came up with the idea of the Route 80 Youth Essay Contest. It was for young people to write about how others encouraged them to hate and how they turned that into something positive. They shared their abilities to support the principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and love for all of humanity.

Post was invited to the United Nations Population Fund to help reflect on spirituality and a sustainable future. He spoke about the essay contest and how the ISIS hacking had inspired it. The UN had the contest winners present their essays, and the event was broadcast to 80 million young people worldwide.

I found this book enjoyable and easy to read. It shows how the writer had the courage to be adventurous and turn opposition around in order to bring God and love into the lives of others on a global level.

Marie Otte

Marie Otte is a writer, meditation teacher, and astrologer. Her work has appeared in Quest, DreamNetWork.net, and Satvidya. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from Northern Illinois University.


 

The Art and Science of Initiation
Edited by Jedidiah French and Angel Millar
Shepperton, Surrey, U.K.: Lewis Masonic, 2019. 285 pp., paper, $18.

What is initiation? Its fundamental meaning of “to begin” sounds straightforward, but its effects in magical or religious practices are often hotly contested. There is an ongoing argument, for instance, as to whether initiation simply confirms what candidates have already attained through their own efforts, or whether it ushers them into an entirely new state. Perhaps it can be both, with varying emphasis. If there is no element of shock or surprise, such as in the modern-day ordainment of a priest, where everyone knows every step of the ritual in advance, it is more of a confirmation, although the ordinand may well still experience a change of state during the service.

If it is an initiation pertaining to a magical or mystery tradition, then a shock is almost always included, which can propel the candidate into a new form of consciousness. This can take the form of extreme conditions, which will still work their effect even if known about beforehand. The budding shaman may be sealed into a “vision pit” for several days, for instance, and aspiring knights of chivalry often passed a night-long vigil in total darkness before admission into the order. Other shocks may come unexpectedly: cold-water baths, nakedness, insults, solitude, and abandonment are all the stuff of traditional initiation rituals, as well as of modern esoteric and ceremonial initiations. The ritual usually ends in a redemptive way, such as emerging into bright light and being given a warm welcome from one’s fellow initiates.

As well as shock tactics, simple tasks which must be performed perfectly under scrutiny can also trigger a new state of consciousness. Perhaps the initiation requires you to light a candle in front of your fellows—a seemingly simple act, but one that demands every atom of composure that you can muster as you walk the length of a long hall, between rows of observers, towards the altar at the far end. Then you must pick up the match, strike it without fumbling, light the wick, and hope—maybe even pray!—that it will stay alight. Perhaps the rules of your initiation even depend on the success of this act. If you can do this, you will almost certainly have achieved a state of heightened awareness, notwithstanding any pain or pleasure along the way.

Initiation is a perennially fascinating subject, with no two views on it being the same, as this book proves. The collection of essays is a kaleidoscope of different takes on initiation, mostly within Masonic and magical traditions. It opens with the excellent definition: “Initiation appears to be a set of practices, and/or processes of realization, through which certain human beings across time have endeavoured to achieve deeper knowledge and higher wisdom.”

The book is deliberately compiled as a selection of both scholarly and speculative studies, allowing the authors full rein in topic and viewpoint. This takes us from a survey of cultural initiation practices (Richard Smoley) to Aleister Crowley’s magic (Richard Kaczynski), with different forays into Swedish Freemasonry (Susannah Akerman) and the mysteries of Samothrace (Greg Kaminsky) along the way. There is value here in bringing together different areas of research, and different kinds of insight. However, it is a bumpy ride if one attempts to travel the whole terrain at once. I found the inconsistency of viewpoint awkward—some articles are addressed primarily to Masons, some to lovers of magic, some to scholars. It is a difficult book to read consecutively, and certainly I found it easier to pick out a few essays at a time.

But it gives food for thought. Smoley’s essay boldly puts forward the notion that we are missing out on initiation rites in present-day society: “Many adult men today are not men; they are boys. Many adult women are not women; they are girls. In our society it is possible to go through all the stages of life, even successfully, without maturing emotionally, much less spiritually.”

Without disputing Smoley’s main point, I would add that for many women, the process of giving birth can be a profound initiatory experience. For me, many years ago, the initiation of childbirth propelled me to accept another spiritual initiation which I was offered a few months later. I had “come of age” and was ready to step up. And the possibility of childbirth as an initiatory act might explain why societies have traditionally held more male initiation rites than female ones.

Another favorite essay for me is Herbie Brenman’s personal and engaging account of being initiated into the Society of the Inner Light, founded by the British occultist Dion Fortune. Brenman writes with both humor and solemnity. Sometimes we learn more from story-telling than from weighty sermons.

And there is C.R. Dunning’s “Contemplation and Ritual Initiation,” affirming the principle of awareness as the active transformatory ingredient in both ritual and initiation.  “Our present concern is not about bringing something new into Masonic experience but rather about intentionally and comprehensively practising contemplation to make the most of Masonic initiation.”

Quite. Dunning’s analysis points out the value of silence, of study, of reflection; in other words, not the dramatic blindfoldings and dunkings of initiation, but the consciousness that we have at our disposal to transform our inner state of being. By being present in the action, and being aware of whatever is around us, we act out our own initiation.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist’s latest book is The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within.


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