Monthly Archives: October 2007

Thoughts on 19th century Unitarian writings about Buddhism

Reading through works on Buddhism by 19th century Unitarians and their liberal religious kin is a humbling exercise. Their hermeneutical tunnel vision is at times painful to behold, particularly because it raises obvious doubts about our own understandings. The only consolation can be that in the modern academy we at least attempt a form of self consciousness and positioning. In comparison these pioneers of the American encounter with Buddhism didn’t merely wear tinted interpretive lenses–frankly, they often seem to have donned glasses made of lead.

The artist who originally crafted these glasses was Luther. Most 19th century essays and books by Unitarians that deal with Buddhism begin with fully formed a priori assumptions that are quintessentially Protestant in nature. The most obvious is that the Buddhism of the Buddha is the true Buddhism, the only authentic expression of the Buddhist impulse. Later developments in Buddhism are treated as degradations, whatever they may be. American Protestants of the 19th century were obsessed with the idea of returning to primitive Christianity, so it is little surprise that they likewise prefer what they imagine as primitive Buddhism.

Another prominent feature of these early writers is that they sought this primitive Buddhism exclusively via texts–the older the better–which conveniently can be appropriated and employed by Western scholars and critics. Again, there should be no surprises here–the Bible was the center of all Protestant religion, even the Unitarianism of the time. The result, of course, was that virtually nowhere in the Unitarian “encounter” with Buddhism were actual living Buddhists consulted. Buddhism was first constructed from Western readings of ancient manuscripts, and then interrogated using Protestant categories and concerns.

A third central feature of such essays that derives from Protestant, especially Unitarian, assumptions is their near universal respect for Buddha the man. Even the most vehement opponent concedes a certain grudging admiration for the reconstructed historical Buddha. But regardless of the level of appreciation shown, it all flows from a single source: esteem for the Buddha’s morality. The cosmology and complex of praxis that supports and flows from this morality is largely dismissed, but Buddha himself is spoken of almost as a little brother to Christ: pure, chaste, self-abnegating, kind, pacific. It’s just too bad he was such a pessimist, you can hear these writers saying, since it resulted in a soul-crushing nihilistic dream of escapist self-obliteration.

Buddhism for 19th century Unitarians and similar liberal Protestants really only came into focus when it was assimilated to previously understood phenomena. Of course the prevailing question was whether or not Buddhism is or is not like Christianity. But the most interesting thing to observe is when and how Buddhism is similar to what type of Christianity. When looking at Buddhist praxis, these commentators were quick to point out the parallels to Roman Catholicism, usually to Buddhism’s detriment. But when looking at philosophy or morality, Buddhism suddenly appears to them as a species of Protestantism, and their regard increases. However, even when Buddhism is being treated relatively sympathetically, there is a common anxiety about the number of Buddhist adherents in the modern world. Unscientific estimates range wildly in the texts–400 million seems to be a particular favorite–but all guesses include a certain alarm that a religion at once so familiar and yet so alien has captured such a large portion of the planet, and may even be poised to pounce upon America.

On a final note, there is the interesting question of Buddhist-related language that has now passed out of the American discourse on Buddhism. How different would our understanding of Buddhism be today if the once popular term “enfranchisement” had won out over “enlightenment,” or “sublime” had continued in the place of the four “noble” truths? Observing early alternative language for common Buddhist concepts partially reveals the value-laden and historically-situated nature of the very words we ourselves use today, even in academic discussions of Buddhism.



Filed under Book Notes, Buddhism, Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism

Individualism as a Corporate Identity: a brief look at the Free Religious Association, Reform Judaism, and Ethical Culture

The post-bellum period in 19th century America saw the rise of several important strands of religious liberalism. For Unitarian-Universalists, the most significant is the Free Religious Association, largely founded and run by Unitarians. It was a fascinating experiment with total freedom in religion, one that was not entirely successful.

Every association is composed of individuals, but it was the distinction of the Free Religious Association to be composed of individualists. Not surprisingly, this was not the recipe for a cohesive, enduring organization. In reading through the history of the Free Religious Association it can be maddeningly difficult to determine precisely what they believed in, which of course was in some ways the point. The Free Religious Association seems to have been less about the content of belief as about its absence, less an affirmation of any doctrine as the negation of any possibility of dogma. Just as freedom is essentially a negative connoting the lack of bondage, sympathy with the Free Religious Association consisted mainly of earnestly lacking the ability to remain comfortable within the fold of even the most liberal sectarian Christianity.

If a common core can be discerned in the Free Religious Association, it consisted of a commitment to individual conscience in religion, a universalism that expected that all religions reflect a certain measure of truth, a commitment to rationality (variously understood), and a general optimism about the future. If these sound similar to the commitments cherished by Unitarians of the time, that’s because they are the same. In an odd way, the Free Religious Association, and the Transcendentalists before them, represent a sort of Unitarian errand into the wilderness. Like the Puritans fleeing the Church of England the better to reform it, the Free Religious Association slipped away from the new National Conference of Unitarian Churches, and then proceeded to use essentially Unitarian thinking to argue for a rather post-Christian conception of religion. Much of their writing follows in the familiar vein of the Jeremiad, decrying the declension which they have finally fled, the better to hold to the spirit of true liberal religion. And like the Transcendentalists, they failed to sustain themselves as a movement, and ultimately had their largest impact on future generations of avowed Unitarians, who folded their ideas back into the denomination. This laid the ground for yet another Unitarian heresy that would appear in the next century: religious humanism.

Meanwhile liberal rumblings had been developing in American Judaism since the antebellum period, and it is not so surprising that Reform Judaism of the day, at least in the vein of Isaac Wise, looked rather like Jewish Unitarianism. The Jewish Reform movement was nothing if not an attempt to rationalize religion, making it modern, reasonable, and respectable. But the situation was complicated by Reform’s roots in Europe and its development in several different parts of the world. This is not a simple story of Americanization, even if the role of America can not be removed from the history of Reform. Therefore, it forces a re-evaluation of other Americanist narratives: how much of the change that we perceive in other religions in the United States is truly Americanization as Americanization, and how much is general adaptation to new situations that can be observed operating in parallel in other countries? Reform Judaism was far more successful than the Free Religious Association, and today is one of the largest and most vital Jewish denominations. One reason for this difference in fate would seem to be that while the Free Religious Association fled all tradition and lacked a cohesive core, Reform Judaism operated in the specific boundaries of a particular religious heritage, at times dramatically rethinking and paring the tradition, yet always in overt relationship to a shared body of ritual, text, story, and community.

Those who found even Reform Judaism too constrictive helped to fuel the creation of the Society of Ethical Culture. The emergence of Ethical Culture seems to be the basis for testing a general hypothesis: reformist movements in religion, especially those including an emphasis on individual conscience, will always generate their own dissatisfied reformers. Unitarianism reformed Protestant Christianity and in the process spawned the Free Religious Association; Reform Judaism reformed the Jewish religion and in the process beget Ethical Culture. The irony of such developments is that their adherents typically display a concern for corporate action and a desire to unify people, often through seeking a lowest common denominator in religion–yet the inability to retain people through a lowest common denominator approach to religion, both because it fails to meet all the needs of devotees and because no one can agree on what is common in the first place, means that such groups always contribute to the further splintering of the community and fail to develop large masses of adherents. The Free Religious Association and Society for Ethical Culture can rightfully claim that they have had an important and disproportionate impact on American religion and culture, but their small numbers prevented such movements from ever achieving their ambitious goals on a truly significant national scale.

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Supernatural Rationalists: Precursors to the Unitarians

Conrad Wright’s 1970 collection of essays The Liberal Christians is a classic of American church history, especially for those of us who work on the more liberal streams of the tradition. Wright is a major historian of Unitarianism in particular, and it is with the Unitarians that The Liberal Christians is concerned. Perhaps most important is Wright’s opening essay on rational religion, which is of great importance for understanding the world of eighteenth century American Christian thought. Wright’s major achievement in this essay is the highlighting of an awkward but nonetheless highly useful term, supernatural rationalism, describing a phenomenon that is otherwise hard to discern. Supernaturalism and rationalism seem like opponents to the modern reader, so the term is helpful in pointing away from anachronistic approaches to the subject.

Wright calls attention to a middle way between Deism and Christian enthusiasm which appears to have been widespread. In so doing, he not only points out a common attitude but also draws the Deists and revivalistic evangelicals into sharper focus. The supernatural rationalists shared with the Deists an appreciation of reason and natural religion, while they also shared with the evangelicals a belief in the Christian revelation. For them, natural religion serves as the launching point for the special revelation of Jesus Christ, which not only doesn’t oppose reason, it is confirmed because of its accordance with reason. Christianity for them is rational, not mysterious: even miracles are basically the logical actions that an orderly God would take to intelligently demonstrate his intentions to humanity. One could call it a theology that promotes the reasonableness of the miraculous. Christianity thus functions to guide people in a Newtonian, Lockian universe, discernible through the senses and intelligible to the mind that approaches it empirically. Natural religion sets the stage, and revealed religion becomes the star performer.

The term is especially important for historians of Unitarianism and for Unitarians wishing to understand our history. Wright is a major historian of Unitarianism and as he points out in The Liberal Christians, it is these supernatural rationalists, not the vaunted Deists, who are our direct forebears. It brings to mind Channing’s intention in entering the ministry, which was not to fight the conservatives but rather because he was alarmed by the growing levels of non-belief in the United States and Europe.

A few excerpts from Wright will help illustrate his main points:

“There were, in short, two kinds of rationalism in religion in the eighteenth century. One was Deism, which maintained that the unassuming intellectual powers of man can discover the essential doctrines of religion: the existence of God, the obligations resting on men of piety towards their Creator and of benevolence towards one another, and a future state of rewards and punishments. For the true deist, these tenets of Natural Religion were enough, without any doctrines of Revealed Religion. The other kind of rationalist agreed with the deist that there is such a thing as Natural Religion, but denied its adequacy, insisting that it must be supplemented with additional doctrines which come to us by a special divine revelation of God’s will. We shall never understand the religion of the Age of Reason until we recognize that, from the point of view of that century, the difference between these two kinds of rationalism was simply tremendous. We have been led to suppose that because both groups believed in Natural Religion, they were, after all, pretty much alike. It is historically much more nearly correct to say that because one group accepted the Christian revelation, while the other did not, the gulf between them was considered to be unbridgeable.”

“[From the point of view of our supernatural rationalist forebears] Revealed Religion is as rational as Natural Religion, not in the sense that its principles are discovered by the bare use of reason, but in the sense that reason accepts them and approves them as soon as they are known.”

“Here, then, are the essential principles of what we have called–for lack of a better name–‘Supernatural Rationalism.’ Like the deists, the supernatural rationalists asserted the validity of Natural Religion, arguing for the existence of God largely in terms of a Creator who set the heavenly bodies moving harmoniously in their orbits. Unlike the deists, they also asserted the validity of Revealed Religion, which may present doctrines that are above reason, but not contrary to it. Like the deists, they assumed that acceptance of the claims of a particular religion to be a divine revelation is solely a matter of historical evidence and logical analysis. Unlike the deists–and skeptics like Hume–they were persuaded by the historical evidence for Christianity, especially the miracles. Other bases for Christian faith were set aside; its claims do not rest on religious experience, or on tradition, or on the authority of the Church, or on the witness of the Spirit, which had once assured the Puritan that the Bible was truly the Word of God.”


Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism

Book Note: Zen and the Birds of Appetite

From James Pike it’s now time to take a look at Thomas Merton, a convert to Roman Catholicism who, strangely enough, ended up creating a sort of liberal Catholicism from inside a monastic cell in Kentucky. Perhaps it is significant that his journey to Catholicism took him through many other religious bodies, including liberal churches such as the Quakers. The first book of his to consider is Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which well demonstrates that his turn to Catholicism was not a turn away from appreciation for other forms of religion as well.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite is a somewhat unusual book—a collection of favorable essays about Buddhism by a Catholic monk. Nowadays, partially as a legacy of Merton’s work, we find a number of such books. But back in 1968 it is natural to ask why someone would undertake such a project, which seems to conflict with the sectarian motivations one would expect.

The first thing to be said about ZBA is that Thomas Merton’s understanding of Buddhism and Zen is far less than he seems to think it is. Statements such as “To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it—or rather to miss it completely (p. 3)”, “Buddhism itself . . . demands not to be a system (p.4, italics in original)”, and “by Zen we mean precisely the quest for direct and pure experience on a metaphysical level (p.44)” demonstrate the sort of Orientalizing and projection characteristic of Western encounters with Buddhism in the fifties and sixties. If anything, Buddhism is a far more systematic religion than Christianity, which took several centuries to organize itself into the coherent doctrines and institutions we are familiar with; whereas the Buddhist “church” (the monastic Sangha) was instituted with its numerous rules by the Buddha, and his first sermon laid out a system of eight progressive trainings designed to bring about religious liberation. Zen too is inherently systematic, with its structured advancement through set sequences of koans and rigid adherence to clearly defined lineages. Merton’s ignorance is most clearly revealed when he states “Zen is not easily classified as ‘a religion’ (it is in fact easily separable from any religious matrix and can flourish in the soil either of non-Buddhist religions or no religion at all) (p.45).” In an absence of exposure to anything except poorly translated textual sources centered on meditation techniques, he has mistaken one strand of Zen (meditation) for the whole tapestry, not an uncommon misapprehension in this time period. Nonetheless, it shows that Merton is not talking about Zen itself, but his idea of what Zen is. Therefore, it is to this idea and its implications that we must look.

His quote from p. 44 provides a pretty good window into what his purposes are for using Zen: “the quest for direct and pure experience on a metaphysical level.” Here his agenda comes into focus, for Merton’s religious journey has been characterized by a desire for such experiences, to be lost in God, soaked in grace, overwhelmed by glory and thus to escape the troubles and limitations of his purely mortal life. He creates a Zen other in order to argue for the place of such mysticism in the face of a “developing Christian consciousness [that is] activistic, antimystical, antimetaphysical (p.29)” and a “Western tendency to focus not on the Buddhist experience, which is essential, but on the explanation, which is accidental and . . . completely trivial and even misleading (p. 38, italics in original).” That scholars no longer feel that experience is privileged in Buddhism any more than in Christianity is beside the point: Merton is not asserting the primacy of Buddhism, but creating a Buddhist doppleganger with which to examine the place of experience in Christianity (and argue for its necessity).

What are the implications of Merton’s call for direct religious experience? He suggests that one needs a “metaphysical intuition of Being [as] an intuition of a ground of openness, indeed of a kind of ontological openness and an infinite generosity (pp. 24-25).” This contact with openness is advocated as a solution to the Cartesian dualism that creates the neurotic self-awareness that Merton feels is characteristic of modern life and all its negativities. He lays this out plainly as the fourth and most important “great need” of humanity: “On the contrary, I might suggest a fourth need of modern man which is precisely liberation from his inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with being simply what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.” (p. 31, italics in original)

Here we find the heart of Merton’s ZBA project. It is not that he wants us all to forsake Christianity and become good Zen Buddhists, nor that he wants to create some sort of Christian-Buddhist amalgam. Rather, he sees reflected (as in a mirror, seeing his own face) in Zen the image of a religious system that offers a release from the self-centered malaise that he himself suffers from (see Seven Story Mountain), a purifying purgation of the Cartesian cogito that haunts him (and, arguably, all of modern Western society and religion) like a devil ever perched on his left shoulder.

He seeks not conversion, but reform: for Western religion to return to pure experience rather than dogma, for Catholic monasticism to embrace internal mysticism over activism, rite, or comfort: “It is essential to true Christianity that this experience of the Cross and of self-emptying be central in the life of the Christian so that he may fully receive the Holy Spirit and know (again by experience) all the riches of God in and through Christ.” (p. 56, italics added)

In this quest for reform he is surprisingly close to Pike, even though he proceeds in the opposite direction: both feel a deep disease operating within Christianity and seek to revitalize their tradition. While Merton’s emphasis on experience and interest in Eastern religion is similar to that of Leary et. al., his motivation is to restore the health and relevancy of his mainstream religion, not to break with the past in favor of a New Age.


Filed under Book Notes, Buddhism, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

Book Note: If This Be Heresy

Yesterday’s brief discussion of You and the New Morality pointed out some ways in which Bishop James Pike’s concerns and approach to religion differ from those of Leary and his fellows, who were explored in previous posts. The contrast between these two camps continues with Pike’s book If This Be Heresy. Unlike the previous authors, Pike doesn’t seek justification for his religious ideals/methods through a pre-existing lineage of “ancestors,” is unconcerned with demonstrating linkages between and correspondences with various world religions, evidences no interest in methodical praxis, and is not seeking to found counter-culture and semi-hermetic spiritual communities. These concerns on the part of Leary, Dass, and Ginsberg arose from their marginal status as participants in a minority religious movement attempting to achieve legitimacy and expand their power-bases.

Pike, on the other hand, writes from within a majority tradition hypersensitive to its own decline. His obsessive concern is therefore with relevance–how must the things of the past be renewed and reinterpreted so that they can speak to new generations and new problems? Some things, apparently, can’t: Pike is on probation from charges of heresy, since he repudiates the dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Birth. He uses the first third of his book to demonstrate that the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, the liturgies, and the denominational Confessions of Faith are all insufficient sources of authority. He explicitly rejects the doctrine that one’s afterlife is sealed at the time of death, denies traditional eschatology, and even removes the role of God as judge and guide. One begins to wonder what segments of Christianity this bishop actually wishes to argue for.

One thing, surprisingly, that Pike does believe in is the reality of the paranormal. Though Pike doesn’t appear willing to grant God the power to create miracles such as virgin births or resurrection, he does believe in people’s ability to project their thoughts telepathically, to communicate with the deceased, and to reincarnate in future lives. This is one linkage that he does share with Leary et. al.–this feeling that there are forces unaccounted for in modern science seems to be emblematic of religious movements in the 50s-70s. Another type of linkage is the self-consciousness of the times as a break from the past: our previous writers spoke of the “New Age,” and Pike offers us a “New Morality.”

A tremendous ego and self-confidence seem to lay behind Pike’s writings. He never believes that he is anything other than right. He can’t conceive that he could make poor decisions or has legitimately earned the opposition he regularly encounters. His universal prescription that one must rely on one’s conscience apparently derives from the supreme ability he attributes to his own. With a forceful personality, unconventional relationships, dabblings in spiritualism, and a predilection for turning even the most sacred cows into ground chuck, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have been charged with heresy.

These two books by Pike tend to leave the feeling that he doesn’t really want to be a Christian, nor does he want to give up his status as a powerful member of the Christian hierarchy. In fact, Pike basically seems to be a Unitarian in disguise. His God is singular nor triune, his Jesus is a role model rather than a savior, his heaven, hell, and genesis are thoroughly demythologized, he seeks authority in personal experience, reason, and empiricism, he is highly concerned about social justice, his approach is completely intellectual, he views the Bible as allegorical, he makes room for non-doctrinal phenomenon and evaluates non-Christian religions positively, he’s optimistic about human nature and the progress of history, and his morality is entirely situational. A better basic formulation of core Unitarian ideas could scarcely be imagined. Even his paradigmatic contemporary icon is a Unitarian, the civil rights martyr James Reeb. Perhaps if Pike had lived longer (he died in an accident in the Middle East), he would’ve eventually affiliated with the UUA.

None of this is to say that Pike isn’t thoroughly shaped in his assumptions and priorities by mainstream Christianity. Rather than the focus on individual internal exploration characteristic of Leary et. al., Pike is interested in fulfillment through personal relationships, though not necessarily with God. His religious concerns are fundamentally extroversive, and the arena of religious concern, expression, and achievement is the public sphere. His spiritual model is the “man for others,” a saint whose primary religious practice isn’t ritual but a living expression of care for others, particularly those disenfranchised by society or traumatized by individual circumstances. Pike never recommends prayer, meditation, study of Scripture, church attendance, confession, or any other stereotypical Christian praxis. Instead, he locates the crucial heart of true religious practice in the making of choices–choices of belief and of general behavior, which are expressed as dynamic responses to new situations. The ability to choose (the basis of the word “heresy”) is what sets humans apart in the universe; therefore, the exercise of choice is the most human of actions. Anything that impedes choice, such as dogma or conservatism, is evil, as is the refusal to make choices or the abdication of one’s power of choice to an institution or exterior authority. Thus Pike’s status as heretic is conveniently revealed as the proper religious stance for the truly honest man to take.

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Book Note: You and the New Morality: 74 Cases

James Pike was a famous religious liberal of the mid-20th century and the Bishop of California for the Episcopal Church in the 1960s. With Pike we have entered a different realm of religion than that we explored with Leary, Dass, and Ginsberg. While each of them had views and experiences particular to themselves as individuals, they frequently displayed overlap rather than significant difference. The central motifs of psychedelics, Hinduism, Buddhism, consciousness-expansion, counter-culturism, pacificism, perennial philosophy, and self-actualization were present in each–their differences were mainly in the stresses each gave to these factors, not in disagreements about whether these constituted the important issues and sources for modern spirituality.

But Pike is immediately outside of this stream of American religious thought. His book You and the New Morality announces one of the fundamental differences right at the start: Pike is concerned about morality, a subject that receives little direct investigation in the three previous figures we’ve examined. Another subject that concerns him, but not Leary et. al., is the importance of discerning the truth. This isn’t meant to suggest that Ginsberg never addressed morality or that Dass didn’t think he was making truth claims about religion and consciousness. Rather, morality and truth were peripheral issues in their agendas, perhaps even suspect realms that primarily belonged to the “menopausal, robotic” institutions they were opposing. Morality and truth in their systems amounted to secondary qualities that issued dependently from the central concern: heightening one’s consciousness and discovering one’s own nature.

For Pike, morality and truth are the central concerns. This may relate to his position as a Christian bishop, as morality and truth claims have been at the core of Christianity in the West. The underlying implication is that Pike is concerned about behavior, specifically what constitutes proper behavior. Looking around, he discovers himself in an uncertain world undergoing rapid social change and cultural upheaval, and the traditional sources for discerning proper behavior–the Bible and the Church’s teachings–strike him as inadequate. Betraying his background as a lawyer, he sets out to present and examine seventy-four tests cases and to systematically build up a set of authoritative principles for judging truth based on their implications.

Strikingly, his text is almost completely free from Scriptural quotations. Pike does not approve of proof-texting, and even those quotes he does offer in the relatively short section dealing with (or rather, dismissing) the place of Biblical injunctions in modern morality are mostly truncated. This is a far cry from how many other Christian writers approach the subject.

Ultimately, Pike’s argument is that traditional sources of Christian morality and truth are no longer reliable (if they ever were), and that they must be replaced in the modern era by complex decision-making based on an orientation of service and love toward one’s fellows. In this, he sees a return to the core elements of Jesus’ actual teaching, as opposed to the “Code ethics” that developed by placing emphasis on following static rules derived from absolute ontological revelations. Pike is a moral relativist (“Therefore no judgments at all? No, this would be an absolute, and like all absolutes, destructive of responsibility in certain cases.” p. 105) who places his faith in the process of deciding, not the decision made: proper behavior is that which derives from a properly considered (i.e. rationally weighed, and informed by one’s love for others) investigation of the consequences and motivations involved in one’s actions. “Procedure is substance.” (p. 118)

He begins his book with several cases centering around sexual morality, but defers commenting on them until the end. Pike makes some claims that this method is meant to prevent criticisms that he has buried sexual concerns elsewhere in the book, and speculates that people would rush ahead to find the sex parts anyway. These explanations are somewhat disingenuous: more likely, Pike knows exactly what he is doing by opening the discussion with several scandalous sexual situations.

First, Pike is a consummate public rhetorician, used to press conferences, rallies, and sermonizing. He uses the naughty bits to draw in the reader, then deliberately withholds his analysis of these situations until the final pages of the book, provoking the reader into digesting his argument in order to reach the ultimate payoff. He thus hooks the audience, and ensures that they will read the book in its entirety.

Second, despite his unconvincing statements to the contrary, it seems likely that sex is indeed exactly what Pike wants to discuss as central to the “New Morality” he sees emerging. Pike’s own life was a minefield of sexual indelicacies, replete with multiple wives, multiple mistresses, and the occasional homosexual encounter. By framing the book in terms of sexual matters (i.e. beginning and ending with sex), he is able to address his personal issues indirectly in moral terms, which not unexpectedly, turn out to vindicate his behavior: adultery is affirmed in certain cases where it contributes to the well-being of those involved, as is casual sex. Even prostitution fails to elicit condemnation–Pike dodges answering the test case by burying it beneath a mountain of potential factors.

In effect, Pike’s book disarms his critics by redefining the terms by which judgments can be applied to behavior. Furthermore, the subjects of morality and truth are not framed in explicitly religious terms: Pike does not suggest that there are actual religious consequences (such as sin or Hell) for incorrect moral behaviors or heresy. Since morality is relative to intention in the specific situation and truth lies not in an external arbiter of any type but in one’s conscience, the conclusion must be that the religious element of decision-making is one that the individual consciously adopts as a choice born from love and a desire to act responsibly. Morality is thus a heroic undertaking: by choosing to act in ways consistent with religious values of love and tolerance, one’s actions are sacralized and religion, morality, and truth become dynamic expressive forces in the present, rather than fossilized dogmas from a previous age.


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Book Note: Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996

Many religiously significant visions and experiences take place during moments of heightened emotion and energy, but few commentators would be as frank as Allen Ginsberg in admitting that their defining spiritual breakthrough occurred while masturbating. Abandoned by his lover Neal Cassady, left behind by friends William Burroughs (Mexico), Jack Kerouac (Long Island), and Herbert Huncke (Riker’s Island), he was facing graduation from Columbia and entry into a world he felt held little opportunity for a freethinker and poet like himself. Moments after ejaculation in his rundown East Harlem apartment, a book of William Blake’s poetry open across his thighs, Ginsberg received a revelation of Blake’s voice, a visitation that revealed the mysterious depths of reality and the fragmentary nature of our ordinary perception of that reality. Immediately he made a vow to never deny or forget his experience, and from these late afternoon moments in 1948 grew a career of spiritual exploration, political agitation, and ever more self-revealing poetry that impacted an entire generation.

Spontaneous Mind differs somewhat from the other books discussed so far because it is a collection of interviews. As such, it is not designed strictly as apologetics, biography, art, entertainment, or an instructional guide, although all of these elements are present within the various interviews. Rather, the editor is attempting to portray the breadth and depth of Ginsberg’s thought, essentially establishing the argument that Ginsberg was a uniquely insightful, artistic, and important individual who deserves our attention. There are therefore a variety of voices operating with different agendas in the text: Carter, the editor, advancing the idea that Ginsberg’s life and words matter; Ginsberg, the primary speaker, telling and re-telling his experiences and thoughts over four decades; and the diverse interviewers, ranging from radical college students to Playboy reporters to born-again Christians, many of them with not so hidden motives.

Ginsberg’s vision is the starting point for his religiosity: “I had absolutely no interest in religion, God or spirituality before the vision. . . I never had any religious conditioning and I never came back to any.” (pp. 396-397). The point may be a bit overstated–he had been exposed to Judaism through his relatives and community, which shows in such poems as “Kaddish”–but is essentially correct, as his mother was a Communist and Judaism as a living religion occupied a minor place in the Ginsberg household. At the same time, Ginsberg’s sense of his cultural Jewishness was full and intact, but this did not drive his emerging religious quest. Instead, he turned to psychedelics and Eastern religions, first Hinduism and then Buddhism as a full-fledged convert with a Tibetan guru. The extent of his adoption of Indo-Tibetan ways can be seen in how he called upon Sanskrit mantras to quell violence and encourage lovingkindness during the clashes surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He even followed instructions from his guru not to write poetry during long meditation retreats, a commandment that would seem to go against the very fiber of his being.

It is significant that Ginsberg experienced a revelation from the poet William Blake, rather that a more “conventional” vision of God, Jesus, Buddha, or some accepted religious figure. Religious visions usually spring from the conditioning and deeply-held religious beliefs of the individual, such that Christian monks see Jesus or Mary, not Krishna or Mohammed, for instance. Ginsberg doesn’t get a visit from God or one of the Old Testament figures; instead, he encounters the voice of poetry, of Blake as muse and ancestor, indicating that Ginsberg’s fundamental faith is placed in verse, not in specific religious texts of any kind. Like Leary and Das, he articulates lineages of forbearers that legitimate his work, but unlike them his spiritual ancestors are all poets and writers, not necessarily overtly religious figures or seekers. Poetry for Ginsberg is an act of awareness, and it is awareness that he believes to be sacred above all else (“An unnoticed corner of the world suddenly becomes noticed, and when you notice something clearly and see it vividly, it then becomes sacred” p.524). This reflects the common theme among these counter-culture figures that the mind is the important arena where social-political battles are fought and where true religion finds its home. Religion for Ginsberg is essentially all about religious consciousness, which is to say it is about a mind attuned to find the religious element of the present moment, as well as an individual consciousness that reflects a greater universal consciousness believed to inhabit all things. This emphasis on religious experience and consciousness is a trait that characterizes religious liberals, and can be traced back at least to Schleiermacher. Because religion is believed to be about mind, particularly the mind of this moment, religious rituals and techniques become tools designed to heighten consciousness, used for their utilitarian value rather than from strict allegiance to a particular dogmatic worldview. Thus Ginsberg and sympathizers are able to move among various religious frameworks (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the indigenous religion of Mexican Indians, etc) with ease–they are looking not for traditional religious answers, but for tools by which to find their own answers, such as peyote, meditation, and mantra.

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