The Impossible Exists – an interview with Jeffrey Kripal

On October 17, 1917, sixty thousand people gathered at a field outside a town called Fatima, Portugal, in anticipation of an appearance of Mary, Mother of God. They did so after such revelations occurred on the previous five months. The first time the Madonna appeared, in May, she was seen by three little children. Since she promised them she would appear again over the next few months on the same date, in June they brought the people of their village. She did indeed show up. In July the audience numbered in the thousands, and she appeared again. The audience kept growing until by October there were tens of thousands in attendance, and they were not disappointed. Just as she promised, the Blessed Virgin appeared on the top of a tree.

Or did she? Many did indeed see the figure of a woman atop the tree, but others actually saw a cloud, or a ball, or an airplane, or a disk, or something large descending from the sky, emitting sounds akin to prolonged thunder, or lightning and flames and fireworks. Some saw “a large cross emerging from the sun”, and others “an illuminated boulevard” in the sky. There was also multi-colored fog. Some of the witnesses – and, as mentioned above, there were thousands of them – testified that “the earth divided into squares, each in a different color.” Some felt the earth move. Some saw a white matter falling from heaven and accumulating on the ground.

artwork by Michael Brehm of the University of Chicago Press, used with permissionSo what happened at Fatima? For the Catholic Church, there was no question. It was divine revelation. The site was declared holy and today it is the location of the church of Our Lady of Fatima. Some thought the end of the world had come. Some tried to explain it as a novel natural phenomenon, and, as of the 1960s, many associated the matter with UFOs, seeing it as evidence for aliens visiting earth.

So what did happen at Fatima? According to Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, one of the foremost living scholars of religion, we really don’t know. All attempts to explain the apparition are nothing more than projections of our symbolic world outward onto the phenomenon. According to Prof. Kripal, the UFO narrative is also nothing more than a translation of the supernatural into the technological age in which we live. But that’s less important. What is significant is that something indeed did happen there which simply cannot be explained without turning to the realm of what Kripal terms “the impossible”; and Kripal wants us to understand that even if it is difficult – or actually impossible – to define, “the impossible” does exist. And it impacts us. And it’s a very essential part of us.

Kripal himself is hard to define as well. He is a professor specializing in the study of contemporary spirituality, but his readership is not limited to academics. Nearly every book he published has become a story in and of itself, and his research has ranged over the years from an analysis of the tantric-sexual motives of the great Indian saint Ramakrishna, through a summary of the history of one of the mainsprings of new-age and counterculture in the US, the Esalen Center, to the study of the paranormal – which is to say, “the impossible.”

“the impossible” is the name Kripal gives to various phenomena of the paranormal, supernatural, religious and sacred realms. These phenomena, he stresses, arise as a sort of dialog between one and the world, perhaps between one and existence itself, and will therefore always manifest as a reality one can relate to (for instance, the Holy Mother). Later on one will interpret them accordingly, and add description from one’s own imagination. This is the moment at which the impossible becomes a narrative, and in essence a myth. It is in this form that we receive it through the stories of all religions. But in its essential form the impossible is always inexplicable, always alien. Those arriving at Fatima today will hear about a revelation of the Madonna, although from testimonies gathered later it is clear that many did not understand it this. Did not, in fact, understand it at all.

In the modern, Western secular world the impossible is twice-removed from us. Firstly, because, as usual, we do not understand it. Secondly, because we deny its existence. We won’t even accept the religious myths about it. Both the impossible and the symbolic story it’s wrapped up in are rejected by modern secular society, so that we are left with no contact with the mysterious dimension of life. In his most recent book, Mutants and Mystics, Kripal points to the last place that allows us contact with the impossible: Fantasy and Science Fiction novels. According to Kripal, in modern Western society the impossible has been exiled and marginalized to the spheres of literature and cinema.

Kripal finds it in particular in the superhero stories of American comics. These develop super-powers due to exposure to radiation (Spiderman, Hulk), or sometimes they are creatures from another planet who actually lose their powers upon exposure to radiation (Superman); at times they are simply humans who have mutated (X-Men) and thus acquired powers which anywhere outside the confines of the comics universe would be considered spiritual and even holy. Adolescents today dream of becoming superheroes and not saints or spiritual guides. They immerse themselves in fantasy tales such as “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” which talk of epic battles between absolute good and absolute evil, while religious myths of the exact same nature are left to collect dust.

The paranormal is something that occupies Kripal’s life. In fact, while writing his PhD dissertation, he himself underwent an out-of-body experience in which he felt “electrocuted by God” and began floating above the ground. He claims that this experience has influenced all of his research since, and the fact that he is willing to speak of it is exceedingly rare in the academic world. Most researchers maintain a strict separation between their personal lives and their studies, and discussing personal mystic experiences is almost taboo.

In late May Kripal will be coming to Israel, to speak at the opening of The Fifth Israeli Conference on the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality, to be held at Tel Aviv University on May 28-29. The conference will feature over seventy lectures, which will touch upon a wide range of topics (spirituality and philosophy in India, spirituality in economy and business, spirituality in psychology and more), and will particularly examine the (paradoxical) process of the creation of new traditions. Kripal will give the opening keynote lecture. I used the opportunity to speak with him a little about his research and ideas.

Jeffrey Kripal - photo by Michael Stravato, used with permission

Let’s begin at the end: Looking at the books you’ve written, one gets the odd feeling you are not interested in simply producing academic knowledge. What, if I may ask, is the hope you hold concerning your research? What might be added to the lives of your readers from it – or to our cultural life in general?

It has certainly felt to me like the books were orbiting around a something, a kind of “black hole,” if you will. As the dark metaphor suggests, I do not claim to be entirely clear or even conscious of what that work might mean. If I had to say, I would suggest that my books are, first, about challenging false religious and cognitive dualisms (sex/spirit, mind/matter, human/divine), and, second and more speculatively, about the cosmic dimensions of human nature as that supernature is glimpsed in extreme religious experiences.

Now about the sex/spirit dualism… In your writings one can note a leitmotif that connects the sacred with the sexual. What do you think is the connection there? Why do you think sex especially prominent in encountering the sacred (and not food, property/money, social status etc’)?

This is an immense and complicated subject, but, very generally, I think it comes down to “energy” and the ways that erotic energies can mediate and morph between the material and spiritual dimensions of our experience, from the most carnal to the highest flights of religious ecstasy. I do not think we actually know what these energies are. They have something to do with the secret of life, with biological evolution, and with cultural, artistic, and religious creativity. They are certainly more, way more, than we imagine.

I think you might have heard the word “controversial” attached once or twice to descriptions of your work. Why do you think such work is at this time “controversial”?

Yes, I’ve heard that. Part of this, I think, is a function of the fact that much of our religions depend on the dualisms that I seek to challenge and move beyond. My early work was “controversial” because it denies any ultimate difference between the mystical and the erotic (sex/spirit). My later work is “controversial” because it denies any ultimate difference between consciousness and the material world (mind/matter). It’s really the same project in two different forms. In any case, to the extent that any intellectual project in the study of religion gets at important matters, it is bound to be “controversial.”

I want to understand better: you say that you oppose false cognitive dualisms – now what’s so irritating about that? What does our (Western? Modern? human?) culture have invested in these dualisms as to make them so dear to it, and make any change of them “controversial”?

It’s not that I oppose them. All human cultures work out of cognitive dualisms. They appear to be necessary for social life. As a member of society, I live them by them, too. It is simply that I do not think they are finally true. Whether something is necessary is one thing. Whether it is true is quite another. I am after truth, not functional necessity.

Following that, you talk a lot about “the human as two” (from your first answer it can be understood you mean that us humans have both a nature and a supernature) – why isn’t that a false cognitive dualism?

By this phrase, I do not mean that there are two things in a human being, say, a body and a soul. Not at all. I mean that the human being is far, far more than the social ego or conscious self. We tend to think of ourselves as one thing, as a stable singular body-self. But this is not what extreme religious experiences reveal at all. They reveal that this singular body-self is fundamentally an illusion, and that there are other dimensions, other states of consciousness, matter, and energy just “below the surface” or “beyond the physical ego.” I do not claim to know what these other forms of self and body are; only that, if we are to take comparative mystical literature seriously, that they exist and are us, too. Hence my little four-word poem: “the Human as Two.”

artwork by Michael Brehm of the University of Chicago Press, used with permission

In your book Authors of the Impossible you described the paranormal as semiotic dialogical events, collapsing the subject-object structure. Now that certainly sounds good, but I wonder if you could explain it in a way understandable by a teenager. Is there any simple way to “get” what you mean, short of experiencing it?

I do think real understanding requires actual experience, but I would guess that about a half to two-thirds of the people I lecture to have known just such an event, so this is hardly a minor “knowing” audience. In any case, the basics are quite simple to explain, even to someone who has never had such an experience. A paranormal event is one in which the world “out there” and the world “in here” manifest themselves as the same world. It is as if the mental and material dimensions of our experience have “split off” the same deeper Ground or One World. The physical world now begins to behave like a story or a series of signs. Hence the common descriptors of these experiences: “It was as if I were a character in a novel” or “It was as if I were caught in a movie.” These sensibilities, I suggest, are very accurate perceptions, because, of course, we all are caught in novels and movies, which we call culture and religion. A paranormal moment is one in which we realize that this is so. What we then do with this realization is up to us.

As such, I think you would agree that any question about the actuality of paranormal events is very difficult to phrase, since the paranormal is not – it’s a dialectical hermeneutical occurrence, not a thing. Yet, you claim it holds something real. Pray tell, what???

If by “real,” you mean “that which can be measured and controlled as an inert object,” then, no, these events are not “real.” But what if that is not what reality really is? What if there is some deeper dimension of the world that is fiercely alive, super-conscious, neither an “object” nor a “subject,” but something Other and More? This, it seems to me, is precisely what paranormal events suggest or point to.

And why should we care about it?

Because thinking that your “subjective” experiences “in here” are separate from an inert and dead “objective” world “out there” is (a) likely false and (b) depressing; while realizing that you are an intimate part of a living conscious universe is (a) likely true and (b) really, really cool.

It definitely is cool, though what people have done with the intuition of this is about as uncool as it gets, beginning with religious hierarchies and wars, and ending with low-brow New-Age mambo-jambo. It is almost as if this deeper dimension has a real knack for making us act like total asses. Dear God, why???

Yep. I couldn’t agree more, Tomer. And this is why we so desperately need a way of addressing these states that is free of any traditional religious authority or tradition. We need a new way of talking and thinking about them that is at once deeply sympathetic and radically critical. My own answer here is simple: we need to think and speak of them comparatively. Once, after all, we realize that these special states are in no way unique to any particular religion or culture, that they are globally distributed and appear to be universal human potentials, we are well down the road of addressing their most problematic, and frankly dangerous, characteristics.

What about experiencing the paranormal, or the mystical for that matter? Should we try to? Why? Have you noticed that some people are better at it than others, and do you think that may be part of the reason for experiences being a taboo in academic circles?

Although some people appear to be more gifted when it comes to such states, I do not think these events are reliably replicable, not at least in their most robust forms. They tend to occur in moments of life-crisis, trauma, or physical danger. Individuals who are more “open” to such gifts are often more open because they have themselves been “opened” by some previous trauma, injury, or near-death experience. This is one reason that rational people rationally reject them. Reason and science depend upon publically verifiable and replicable truths. But the paranormal simply does not play by these rational rules. Studying paranormal events in the light of pure reason is like studying the stars in the middle of the afternoon, and then claiming that they don’t exist. As long as one can only know things in the afternoon, that is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. It is also perfectly false.

Let’s ask the opposite as well: if experiencing IT is revelatory in terms of the awakening to truth is can bring to our lives, what is the value of academic research? Why bother spreading and spending your intellectual and spiritual strength and capacities all over, and not just enter into an esoteric tradition, delving with all of your dedication into its depths? Surely with this intensity you will enhance your chances at “getting” the paranormal (I know a number of Kabbalah schools here in Jerusalem if you want a quick conversion and career change).

I tried this. I began my youth in a monastic seminary. It was wonderful, but I ultimately decided that my vocation was an intellectual one. I understand that vocation to involve engaging matters of great importance in a more or less public fashion and free of any religious or political control. I see my own specific task to be about carving out “safe spaces” within public discourse—in this case, my books—into which thoughtful people can enter to engage in discussions that are otherwise impossible. As for esoteric communities, I deeply admire them, but there are two problems here. One is that such traditions are, by definition, esoteric and so generally against open, public discussions of these matters. They thus tend to shut down, deny, or censor conversations that I want to begin and help develop.

The other problem is that these communities too often conflate their own histories and symbolic mediations of the real with reality itself. That is, they fail to see that their specific experiences of revelation, salvation, or enlightenment are conditioned and shaped by their place and time and can never be universally true for all human beings.  The basic paradox of the history of religions is that every manifestation of the sacred reveals and conceals, illumines and distorts, at the same time.  It is as if the real can only show itself to us in forms that are limited and finite, and so fallible.  Any religious tradition that does not understand this basic truth and communicate it to their faithful in honest and open ways I find both unhelpful and unconvincing, if not actually dangerous, at this historical moment.

In your book Mutants & Mystics you write about the paranormal’s (and parts of the sacred, and the religious) exile to the fantasy worlds of pop-culture. Let’s return to the above mentioned teen. She has a fascination with vampires. What can you tell her about her love for blood-sucking misfits? What is lurking in its dark depth?

Well, I don’t do vampires. Or zombies. But I suspect what is lurking here is a spiritual eroticism (the vampire) and a critique of a materialist worldview that understands the human being as a walking corpse without real life or true consciousness (the zombie).

Would you then say that what attracts us to these myths is our own inability to put up with the materialistic-secular worldview forced upon us by hegemonic scientific (and, I might add, bourgeois-protestantish-religious) discourse?

Yes. That is what I am trying to say. This is basically my thesis in Mutants and Mystics. The paranormal migrates into popular culture because it has been exiled from both the religions (which want to demonize it) and elite science (which wants to demonize it). It goes where it can get away with being something of itself—fiction, fantasy, and film. And it makes billions of dollars there, since these genres speaks so directly and beautifully to that part of us that has been denied by orthodox religion and orthodox science.

Where does contemporary spiritual culture come into all this? What do you think is the New Age’s business vis-à-vis the paranormal, the mystical and the religious? Certainly, aside from the more superficial masses, there are some very devoted and serious spiritual seekers out there. What is their place according to the way you understand current western culture?

I understand paranormal phenomena (telepathy, precognition, apparitions, out-of-body experiences) as proto-religious, that is, as “building blocks” of future religious systems, to invoke the language of my colleague Ann Taves. So too with the New Age movements. Many of these are quite profound and very sophisticated, but they have not had enough time to take stable forms and become recognized “religions.” Most interesting to me is the fact that they tend to locate divinity in the human being, and so they are much more comfortable with psychical and paranormal phenomena, which point in the same direction.

Concerning the paranormal, Modern-Orthodox Judaism must be one of the most schizophrenic religions on earth. It tries to uphold a distinguished, (divine-)law-abiding and “moral” front, while at back, and down under, and really all over, it carries the symbols and effects of the Kabbalah, the esoteric, magical-mystical tradition. Why, the major Halakhic lawyer, on whose books most of contemporary halakhic law is based, Rabbi Joseph Karo, held a diary in which he recorded his daily talks with a female angel – talks which are of course never discussed by contemporary rabbis. What do you make of this? What is your assessment of Judaism as one looking from outside?

Well, on one level, I doubt that modern Orthodox Judaism is any different than other established religious systems. Similar public/esoteric splits could easily be found in any of the other established religions. On another level, however, Orthodox Judaism probably shares the same “mystical challenge” that any theistic tradition does: as a public religion, it wants to locate the divine outside the human being, in an external or transcendent “God,” but as a tradition of countless human beings extending over centuries and millennia, it is always stumbling over cases in which the divine manifests in and as the human being. One way to handle this disjunction is by creating what amounts to a dual tradition, with both a public and an esoteric face. Christianity, of course, handled the problem differently: it embraced the divine human, but restricted it to a single historical case. I don’t find that particularly helpful either.

What will you be talking about in your keynote address in the 5th Israeli conference for the study of contemporary spirituality and religion?

I will be giving my lecture “Authors of the Impossible: Telepathy and the Study of Religion.” I’ve honed this at various universities in the States and Europe. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here. In any case, I am honored and grateful to be invited to this event.

My lecture Is about how paranormal events so often manifest in narrative or textual forms (hence we still speak in English of “psychical readings” and “automatic writing”), that is, how they work like stories that appear to be written (by whom, it is not at all clear).  Basically, I will focus on how the paranormal is a kind of writing and reading and, to flip this, how writing and reading are potential paranormal powers.


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Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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