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Supernatural Horror, Spiritual Awakening, and the Demonic Divine

Liminalities1The major theme that I have pursued in my books and other writings is the complementary nature of the divine and the demonic. Or rather, it’s the truth of the divine demonic or demonic divine, that searing fusion of the horrific with the beatific in a liminal zone where supernatural horror and religion are inextricably merged with each other, and where it’s not just the conventionally demonic that is the source of deepest dread and horror, but the very divine object itself: God, the One, the Ground of Being. If God is or can be the ultimate horror, then the experience of religious illumination or spiritual awakening is inherently dangerous, since it constitutes a true personal apocalypse, a removal of reality’s obscuring veil that can be experienced not just as a wonderful liberation but as an awe-ful nightmare. “It is a dreadful thing,” says the author of the biblical Book of Hebrews, “to fall into the hands of the living God,” who is “a consuming fire” and should be worshiped “with holy fear and awe” (Hebrews 10:31, 12:28-29). The experience of numinous horror thus reveals itself as a route to, and maybe a marker of, an authentic spiritual transformation, although of a sort whose unpleasant subjective aspects often call into question its fundamental desirability.

It has been one of my most passionate pleasures and obsessions in life to read and hear other people’s explorations of these things. This is why you’ve seen me refer so many times to, for instance, Rudolf Otto’s seminal formulation of the idea of the numinous and the mysterium tremendum and daemonic dread, and Lovecraft’s open recognition that the psychology of weird supernatural horror fiction and its basic emotional response is “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it,” and William James’s assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that the “real core of the religious problem” lies in an experience of cosmic horror and despair at the fundamental hideousness of life.

Right now I would like to call your attention to two items in this very vein that are distinctly separate in objective terms but intimately related in their articulation of the demonic divine conundrum. The first is a clip from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. The second is an excerpt from an interview with contemporary spiritual author and teacher Richard Moss. Both of them articulate a very important truth: that one’s individual perspective and inner state at the moment of a supernatural parting of the veil is what determines whether the experience will tilt toward the divine or demonic. Read the rest of this entry

Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred

Dr. Angela Voss is an expert in mythology, astrology, and Western esotericism. She’s also one of the two editors of Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, whose imminent publication I recently talked about here. In conjunction with that post, she has asked me to help spread the word about an exciting new graduate program in these subjects that she has helped to create in the UK. Conveniently, this is a request that plays right into my already-existing plans, since I was planning to mention the new graduate program at some point anyway! In the past few months I’ve seen various announcements and updates about its development and planned launch in January 2014, and have thought the whole thing looks and sounds quite fascinating.

As you’ll see from the following description, the program also lands right in the middle of the same territory explored not only by the Daimonic Imagination book but by portions of this very blog. I urge you to click through the title link below to the program’s page at the Canterbury Christ Church University site, where you can read more details on the specific subjects to be covered. Items that leap out at me personally include “”The nature of mythopoeic thought: symbol and metaphor,” “Renaissance art and theurgic magic,” “Jung, Corbin and Hillman on active imagination,” “The return to the gods in transpersonal psychology,” and “Subliminal mind and the unconscious.”

Maybe somebody among The Teeming Brain’s audience will find that this is just the thing they’ve been looking for.

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Announcing a new Masters programme in Canterbury, UK:

MA in Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred


To begin January 2014, 1 year full-time or 2 years part-time

Wilma Fraser (director)
Geoffrey Cornelius
Angela Voss
Marguerite Rigoglioso (guest lecturer)

This interdisciplinary Masters programme draws on studies in psychology, anthropology, theology, esoteric philosophy, a range of wisdom traditions and the arts. It offers a discerning investigation into seemingly non-rational modes of knowing, exploring the cosmological sense of the sacred, the widespread practices of symbol-interpretation and divination, and the cultural role of the creative imagination. The programme will appeal to all those seeking to enrich their lives through the study of the history, philosophy and rituals of Western sacred and esoteric traditions, and will be of particular interest to teachers, practitioners and therapists in the fields of contemporary spirituality and well-being who would like to engage more deeply with the foundations of their work. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation. The MA is taught at alternate weekends Jan-June, with additional Wednesday mornings for full-time students. The second half of the year consists of supervised research with a presentation weekend in September. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation.

For the student handbook and all admin information (including fees) contact Michelle Childs, 01227 863458. For information regarding course content, contact Angela Voss

We also welcome enquiries for M.Phil and Ph.D research in related areas.

Art, creativity, fate, and the end of the world: Revisiting Joseph Campbell

When The Power of Myth, the six-part PBS television series featuring Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, first broke upon the unsuspecting American public in 1988, it became an instant sensation and Campbell became an instant celebrity (I mean in a pop cultural sense, beyond and in addition to the substantial academic fame he had already achieved for his groundbreaking work in the scholarship of comparative mythology). The series became the most widely viewed program in the history of American public broadcasting, and it uncovered a massive television audience made up mostly of middle-class, educated individuals who were hungry for information and conversation about mythological, philosophical, psychological, religious, and spiritual matters. Ironically, Campbell himself never got to see this, because he died in 1987, shortly after his interviews with Moyers were completed but before the television series was put together.

Campbell’s work has also had a massive impact on popular culture. Star Wars is only the most famous instance of his monomyth of “the hero’s journey” being employed by filmmakers. The same storytelling pattern was also the direct basis for Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King. The Wachowski brothers channeled it into the Matrix mythos. It influenced the 2007 I Am Legend adaptation and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. It even shows up in the Rambo franchise; as David Morrell explains in The Successful Novelist, his thoroughly wonderful book about the art, craft, and business of writing, he consciously employed the Campbellian monomyth when charting John Rambo’s character arc and relationship to Sheriff Teasle in First Blood. Read the rest of this entry

The hidden face of the age as discerned by a priestly confessor

Here’s Tomáš Halík, the Czech public intellectual, Roman Catholic priest, and scholar who was persecuted by the secret police as an “enemy of the regime” during his country’s communist period, and who later served as an advisor to Vaclav Havel, talking about the fundamental outlook of the collective contemporary soul as he has come to understand it over several decades of hearing people pour out their deepest secrets to him in his role as a confessor:

For many years of my service as a priest, more than a quarter of a century, I have been regularly available for several hours each week, to people who come to the sacrament of reconciliation, or, because many of them are anabaptized or nonpracticing Catholics, for a “spiritual chat.” I have thus lent an ear to several thousand people. It is likely that some of them confided to me things they had never spoken about even with their nearest and dearest.

. . . Despite the uniqueness of individual human stories, after years of practice as a confessor one discovers certain recurrent themes. Through the multitude of individual confessions, which are protected by the seal of absolute discretion, the confessor comes into contact with something that is more general and common to all, something that lies beneath the surface of individual lives and belongs to a kind of “hidden face of the times,” to their “inner tuning.”

It is particularly when you accompany young people on their spiritual journey that you have access to a kind of seismograph enabling you to gauge to a certain extent impending tremors and changes in the world, or a Geiger counter recognizing the level of spiritual and moral contamination within the society in which we live.

It sometimes strikes me — even though I’m very rationally minded and have a powerful aversion to the fashionable shady world of occult premonitions and spiritualist table tapping — that the events that subsequently erupt onto the surface and shake the world, such as wars, terrorist attacks, or even natural disasters, have some kind of analogy or even augury in people’s inner world and are presaged long in advance by changes in the spiritual lives of many individuals and the “mood of the times.”

In that sense, therefore, my extensive “confessional experience” colours my view of contemporary society. I constantly compare it with what is written by my professional colleagues: philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and theologians, as well as by historians and journalists, of course. At a time when evil is becoming globalized in a striking fashion — its most blatant manifestation being international terrorism, although natural disasters also constitute one aspect of it — and our human intellect is incapable of sufficiently grasping these phenomena, let alone averting them, there seems little chance of resuscitating the optimism of the modern era. Our epoch is definitely a post-optimistic one.

. . . Much has already been written about the naiveté of secular optimism (an Enlightenment faith in “progress” as the panacea) and its failure. However, I would like to take a stand against “religious optimism” — facile belief, making use of people’s anxiety and suggestibility for a manipulatory “bargain with God,” and providing simplistic “pious” answers to complex questions. It is my deeply held belief that we must not conceal our crises. We must not evade or elude them. And we must not let them scare us. Only when we have passed through them can we be “remoulded” into a state of greater maturity and wisdom.

MORE: Tomáš Halík, Paradoxical Faith in a Post-Optimistic World,”
ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), February 1, 2012

The dying roots and sacred origin of Western culture

British classical scholar Peter Kingsley is widely known for having achieved mainstream academic credibility in his field before launching out in a new direction by writing several books in which he argues that (in the words of Wikipedia) “the writings of the presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles, usually seen as rational or scientific enterprises, were in fact expressions of a wider Greek mystical tradition that helped give rise to western philosophy and civilization. This tradition, according to Kingsley, was a way of life leading to the direct experience of reality and the recognition of one’s divinity. Yet, as Kingsley stresses, this was no ‘otherworldly’ mysticism: its chief figures were also lawgivers, diplomats, physicians, and even military men. The texts produced by this tradition are seamless fabrics of what later thought would distinguish as the separate areas of mysticism, science, healing, and art.”

Here he is talking to the editors of Parabola magazine in 2006 and saying things that resonate in some ways with my semi-ad hoc musings on the philosophical and spiritual side of the apocalyptic-seeming events of recent days and years here in America and elsewhere:

Every civilization comes into existence and lasts a few hundred or thousand years and then dies. We think we are different, but I’m sure the Babylonians felt the same way and the Egyptians and the Romans. Every culture is a certain experiment. Civilizations don’t just happen. As Rumi says, look back to the origin of every science and culture and you will find revelation or divine guidance at their source. We reject revelation in favor of reason, but what we have forgotten is that reason and logic are themselves gifts from the gods and have a sacred purpose. At the beginning of the Western world it was understood and taught that before you can start to learn chemistry or biology or astronomy or anything else you have to learn to breathe consciously, you have to learn a certain quality of attention and respectfulness. That is what Empedocles and other ancient teachers tell us. Reason, logic, the scientific disciplines, were all brought into existence from another world into this one as divine gifts and with certain warning labels attached: before attempting this, read the manual. Learn common sense, what it really is. Learn that everything given you is to serve a cosmic purpose.

So has this been a failed experiment? I don’t think it’s right to talk in terms of failure or success. What I do know is there is a certain quality of consciousness that appears at the beginning of civilizations which has to come back and be present at the end of civilizations. To me it is quite obvious that this is the end of a certain period in world history. We’re going through a period of huge transition from what used to be Western culture into something new. And now a certain stock-taking is needed. A return to the essence is required. The essence of each civilization needs to be carried consciously from the past into the present for the sake of the future. The legacy of the West, its true legacy, is a tradition now calling out to be redeemed. The spiritual impulse that originally gave rise to our Western culture is still present in its genes, its DNA; and if we ignore this impulse I think we are doomed. We will walk into the future empty-handed. There is a sacred purpose behind this culture and if we forget it we can import every other spiritual tradition in the world but nothing will make up for the dying, shriveling roots of our own culture.

More: “Common Sense: An Interview with Peter Kingsley” (pdf)

Collapse and awakening: Thoughts on the American apocalypse

“When we get past the chaos, the horror, and the paradoxical hope of all that’s unfolding, what we’re talking about and living through is apocalyptic collapse as a spiritual path.”

Last Thursday I noted that we were then living through a week of apocalypse here in America. The very next day saw the first-ever police (and military) lockdown of an entire U.S. city in the service of a massive manhunt for a single (so we’re told) suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. This prompted the Associated Press to produce its own article about the sense of collective calamity that had engulfed us:

Moment after nail-biting moment, the events shoved us through a week that felt like an unremitting series of tragedies: Deadly bombs. Poison letters. A town shattered by a colossal explosion. A violent manhunt that paralyzed a major city, emptying streets of people and filling them with heavily armed police and piercing sirens. Amid the chaos came an emotional Senate gun control vote that inflamed American divisions and evoked memories of the Newtown massacre. And through it all, torrential rain pushed the Mississippi River toward flood levels.

. . . America was rocked this week, in rare and frightening ways. We are only beginning to make sense of a series of events that moved so fast, so furiously as to almost defy attempts to figure them out.

. . . In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends. “There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

. . . “Is this week feeling a little apocalyptic to anyone else?” tweeted Jessica Coen, editor in chief of the blog. “Boston. Poison. Explosions. Floods. Tomorrow, locusts.”

— Jesse Washington, “Across America, a Week of Chaos, Horror — and Hope,” ABC News (AP), April 20, 2013

And so now we’re living with the open — and troubling — question of what the Boston phenomenon in particular may mean for life going forward: Read the rest of this entry