Review of Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms, by Jeffrey J. Kripal; with Ata Anzali, Andrea R. Jain, and Erin Prophet. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
Has there ever been a book like Jeffrey Kripal’s Comparing Religions? If there has, I haven’t seen it, and in my 24 years as a professor of religious studies I saw a lot of books on religion, mostly good ones.
Comparing Religions is beyond good. It’s about as close to unique as a book can get.
It’s a textbook–it has all the earmarks, down to the large, glossy, double-column pages–but it expands the category of textbook almost (not quite) out of recognition. Whether that’s entirely to its advantage, I’m not sure. But we’ll come back to that.
More than a textbook, it’s an initiatory journey. (Isn’t that what a first-rate college course ought to be?) Near the book’s beginning, Kripal tells of the ancient Greek practice of the “state pilgrimage,” in which a representative of the city-state would go traveling, in the literal physical sense, to acquire religious knowledge for the community’s benefit. The process consisted of “(1) leaving home; (2) witnessing divine things on a journey abroad; and then (3) returning to one’s own city in order to report on the witnessed spectacle” (page 16). Anthropologists have noted a similar threefold pattern in cultural rites of initiation: (1) separation, (2) transitional period, (3) incorporation. The second stage, according to anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, is “a gap between the ordered worlds where almost anything could happen” (page 88).
This is pretty much what happens as you work your way through Comparing Religions.
Its 12 chapters are divided symmetrically into three parts, 3+6+3. In the first two chapters you’re introduced to practices of comparing religions in the ancient world and in the conventionally defined religious “isms” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.), and in the Western traditions out of which our contemporary discipline of “religious studies” emerged. Chapter 3 gets you suited up and equipped for your own journey–through Part Two, the six central chapters of the book, Where The Wild Things Are. (My phrase, not Kripal’s.)
These “wild things” include sex and sacrifice, myth and divination, purity codes and kosher laws, levitating saints and seductive lady dolphins and a luminous raccoon who says, “Good evening, doctor,” to a Nobel-prize-winning biochemist. And of course UFOs. “Of course”–because this is Jeffrey Kripal’s Comparing Religions, where religious phenomena don’t get ignored just because they’re modern and disreputable and no one knows what to make of them.
(Do UFOs figure in any other textbook of comparative religion? I haven’t seen it.)
Then comes the return, the re-incorporation. The three chapters of Part Three present you with options for making sense of what you’ve experienced. Kripal classifies these into “faithful re-readings,” “rational re-readings,” and “reflexive re-readings.” The first group are those options rooted, sometimes very loosely, in the traditional faith communities and their perspectives. The second group are those that look at religion from the outside, with a frowning, critical eye, and reduce it to something other than itself. (The names “Freud” and “Durkheim” are prominent in this chapter.) And the third–
Well, the third–
” … reflexive re-readings are those that embrace the most robust rationalist re-readings of religion in order to ‘reduce’ religious phenomena back to human nature and human history, only to find that this nature and history cannot be fully explained by human reason, that something else or more, and often something truly fantastic, appears to be shining through” (page 367).
“Truly fantastic”–like, for example, a premonitory dream reported by none other than Mark Twain. I won’t retell the story here, and you don’t have to get hold of Comparing Religions in order to read it. Kripal recounts the episode in a piece that appeared a couple of weeks ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (And was treated to a thorough lambasting, nastily confrontational in its tone but making some points that merit attention, in The New Republic. I’ll say more about that critique, by a professor of evolution named Jerry Coyne who comes across as a militant atheist, in next week’s post.)
Kripal is scrupulously fair to all the “re-readings.” Like all good teachers, he cares less about what decision his students make than that each of them make that decision for him- or herself. His sympathies, however, are obviously (and openly) with the “reflexive” options. This is why he reserves the final chapter for them, and has paved the way for them in much of what’s preceded.
It helps that he’s had his own intense personal encounter with the “something else or more” that he talks about. He describes that encounter on pages 262-263, quoting his own earlier book Mutants & Mystics (from which I’ve quoted at some length in an earlier post.) “It is easy to dismiss such things when you have not personally witnessed them,” he writes on page 283; and he might almost be talking back to Jerry Coyne. “It is not so easy once you have.”
So possibly, just possibly, there might be something in us that transcends nerve and muscle and bone, that might still be there when body and brain have been laid to rot? Kripal leaves that possibility open, even while recognizing there are other, less optimistic options. “Put bluntly, doctrines of the soul and salvation may be so widespread and so consistent across human cultures because they reflect something fundamentally accurate about human nature” (page 295).
So what is that “nature”? Or, as the ancient gnostics phrased the issue: “Who are we? Where have we come from? … What is this world in which we find ourselves? How did we end up here, and why? Where will we ultimately go after we die?”
Kripal quotes the gnostic questions at the end of chapter 3, as he gives his student readers the final push to launch them on their fantastic journey through the realms of the sacred. He recasts them in modern language as the journey nears its end. “If I had to say what I thought the general history of religions is in the end really about … I would say that it is about the nature of the human being and, finally, about the nature of embodied consciousness” (page 275).
There is something completely marvelous about watching Kripal wrestle with these questions, and bring his readers with him into the arena. Because these, really, are the questions that students come to religious-studies courses hoping to find answers to. Academic detachment, the ability to contemplate others’ practices and beliefs from a humane and sympathetic distance, is an acquired skill, the preference for it an acquired taste. It never stops feeling a bit disconnected, a bit dead.
Those are adjectives I doubt students will ever apply to Comparing Religions.
But how will they respond to using it for their coursework? What will they make of a textbook that’s explicitly “designed to confuse and baffle, but also to enchant and bedazzle“ (page 88)?
One of Kripal’s former students, he says while introducing his subject, “felt each day as she left class that her tennis shoes had just burst into flames, that she had just stepped onto some very dangerous, but very exciting ground” (page 3). Some will surely have this reaction. But I have the uneasy sense that others may find themselves–well, confused and baffled.
Which is not a comfortable sensation, when you’ve got a grade point average to think about.
I remember a comic strip, from some years back. (Doonesbury? It feels like it ought to have been Doonesbury.) A professor stands at the head of the class, eloquently pouring out his heart and his years of learning on the subject about which he’s most passionate. He pauses, a bit breathless. “Questions?”
One hand raised: a loutish boy in the back of the lecture hall, slumped in his seat, baseball cap backwards on his head.
“Yes?” the professor says expectantly.
The student: “Will that be on the exam?”
A clod, no doubt about it. But he’s asked a legitimate question. And how do I answer, when I’m teaching from Comparing Religions?
How does one go about grading an initiatory journey?
Now I see the downside, the problem I hinted at when I began this post. Precisely those features that make Kripal’s book so thrilling and stimulating for me, are apt to make it downright maddening for a 20-year-old undergraduate who hasn’t spent the past 10 or 20 or 30 years meditating on the issues to which it’s devoted. Who hasn’t yet picked up my delight in the subtle and the paradoxical. Who’d like to make a living from his or her hard-won college degree, and can’t afford not to think about what’s going to be on the exam.
So how, if I were still at the university, would I use this wonderful book in my teaching? As I would most earnestly desire to do.
by David Halperin
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