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What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture

Last night I digitally stumbled across this:

High Weirdness: Visionary Experience in the Seventies Counterculture

It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.

For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
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What if God is horrifying?

Yes, of course, this is a topic that I have broached many times before. But this recent — and fantastically brilliant — video from The Onion brought it roaring back to the forefront of my thoughts. (Hat tip to J. F. Martel for alerting me to it.)

And of course that reminded me of — and may well have been partly inspired by — this, which remains one of the quintessential moments in my religious education and one of the most astonishing moments of divine truth ever to erupt into cinema:

Then there’s the essay by Barbara Ehrenreich about this very thing that I just stumbled across today at The Baffler. Like so many other people, I was surprised and fascinated last year by the revelations about Ms. Ehrenreich’s spontaneous mystical experiences and the accompanying shift in her general worldview and philosophical thinking. Now I find that she is actually deeply read in the science fiction and horror literature devoted to speculating about the horror of a monstrous God or gods, as evidenced by an essay in which she takes Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as a springboard to talk about the works of Philip Pullman, H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, along with the ideas of the New Atheists and various prominent works of sociology and religious history. Says Ms. Ehrenreich,

[What Prometheus presents] is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. . . . Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. . . . The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.”

. . . If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?

. . . [Philip K.] Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”

. . . [C]ontra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god — say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust — do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.

MORE: “The Missionary Position” by Barbara Ehrenreich

With my personal religious/spiritual status as a kind of nondual Protestant Christian influenced by equal amounts of Zen, Vedanta, Jungian psychology, Fortean trickster ontology, Robert Anton Wilsonian reality tunnel skepticism, and a few additional factors, all of them infused with and underlaid by intimations of deepest gloom emanating from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti, I can honestly say that my immediate and heartfelt response to Ehrenreich’s words can be summed up in a single word: amen.

Recommended Reading 9

This week’s recommended articles, essays, and blog posts cover: various possible modes of doom that await us (or that are facing us right now), including climate change, economic collapse, and some other usual suspects; the hijacking of global culture by money and its possibly psychopathic servants; the historical role of alchemy in giving birth to our modern-day economic system driven by credit-based currency; a philosophy professor who has taken it on himself to publicize the anti-technological cultural critique of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, since in many ways these critiques may be pointedly on-target; an essay from no less authoritative a source than MIT Tech Review explaining why Facebook is not the new Google but the new AOL, and why it may collapse and bring down much of the rest of the Web with it; a 2008 report from The Wall Street Journal about one rather shocking way (in my opinion, at least) that American megachurches have begun to exploit corporate marketing tactics; and excellent essays (plus a video) about the life, thought, and work of Philip K. Dick, Whitley Strieber, and Ray Bradbury.

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