Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History

Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History

Richard Smoley
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2013. 230 pp., paper, $12.95.

In the opening chapter of Supernatural, a collection of essays written by Quest editor Richard Smoley over the fifteen years between 1997 and 2012, he recalls a sensation he experienced as a child when listening to his parents and party guests occasionally discuss topics related to the paranormal, such as "Atlantis, UFOs, Edgar Cayce, and other matters that were of great interest to my father"

That sensation was a vast expansion of his sense of scale, in which he was no longer in a living room but rather "surrounded by a vast and limitless space that was both awe-inspiring and somewhat terrifying".

Smoley's late father would no doubt be proud of the erudition and critical acumen his son brings to writing on the "unknown history" of Western esoteric spiritual teachings.

In sixteen pithy chapters, written in a popular, accessible style, Smoley's Supernatural succeeds in not only creating but vitally informing the reader's own sense of "limitless space" that inevitably accompanies the act of questioning received doctrines and ideologies.

In this book, he touches principally on topics concerning the efficacy of prophecy and changes in the ages (e.g., Nostradamus, the Kali Yuga, 2012), the influence of esoteric traditions on civilization (the myth of Atlantis, the significance of Freemasonry, the influence of "hidden masters"), and the relationship between consciousness and its creations, including questions regarding the reality of demons and the effects of what best-selling author Larry Dossey called "toxic prayer"

Smoley likes to lay out what is known or can be known about his topics, put that knowledge in historical, personal, and cultural perspective, separate the grain from the chaff in a process of critical deconstruction of claims and attributions, and then see what remains that may be of value, what lessons we may learn, what morals may be drawn.

In general, Smoley does an excellent job of sketching the outline of his topic or profiling the personalities he describes.

His essay "Masonic Civilization," for example, is probably one of the best short overviews of the origins and development of the Masonic tradition anyone has written in recent years, both linking it to the development of liberal democracies and describing it as a system of spiritual development.

Likewise, his profile of the French Traditionalist René Guénon and his critique of the "reign of quantity" in modern civilization is a wonderful introduction to a philosopher who refused to accept that one's value equates to one's economic worth, and is a highly appropriate contribution in the wake of the economic apocalypse the U.S. and the world experienced in 2008.

There are times, though, when Smoley seems to miss a larger world of discourse that is relevant to his topic, and neglects to mention its implications and significance.

In "Secrets of The Da Vinci Code," for example, Smoley eloquently skewers some of author Dan Brown's assertions to the effect that the Bible was collated by the "pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great" and that Mary Magdalene was descended from the "House of Benjamin".

He also reminds readers who did not see the news years ago in the now-defunct magazine Gnosis (which Smoley edited) that the contemporary "Priory of Sion," which features prominently in Brown's novel, was a post–“World War II French right-wing political organization cloaking itself in the longstanding myths concerning a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and persons who claimed to be their descendants.

Smoley's culminating discussion of the significance of the theme of Mary Magdalene as a harbinger of a resurgent Divine Feminine ends on the bittersweet note that an appreciation of the Divine Feminine may in time "bear fruit in an age of healing, beauty, and wisdom" despite all evidence to the contrary.

It was remarkable, though, that Smoley did not describe or reflect the extraordinarily rich diversity of discussion the Magdalene has inspired in recent years among feminist theologians who aim to use her to reform Christianity itself, and other writers (notably Riane Eisler) who point to the popularity of the idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a harbinger of a new model of partnership in sexual relationships, rather than the dominance of one gender over another.

Surely those examples of the esoteric moving into the mainstream deserved more attention and reflection.

Throughout Supernatural, Smoley applies generous doses of common sense to topics and teachings that have long been made confusing by unprofessional popular writers, or distorted by cult leaders for personal gain. Given that we are now on the very uncertain "other side" of 2012, such an approach to the esoteric tradition is a welcome guide to navigating the deep and rising waters in which we all find ourselves on this beautiful blue planet.

Ed Conroy

Ed Conroy is the author ofReport on "Communion" (Morrow, 1989; Avon, 1990), an investigation of the UFO -related narrative Communion: A True Story by Whitley Strieber. He serves as director of development for the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas.