Dr. Jeffrey Kripal Explores the Erotic in the Mystical & Religious |369|


Dr. Jeffrey Kripal’s new book connects his interests in the paranormal and erotic elements of mystical religion.  

photo by: Skeptiko

(Indian music plays on bus as tour operator speaks) Alright, so welcome to Tantra Tour: The Heart of India.

That’s tantra guru, Laurie Handlers from the film, Tantric Tourists. She’s telling her brave band of loyal tourists how her tips for a better sex life can lead to spiritual enlightenment.

(Laurie Handlers) In tantra we use our sexual energy to fuel our bodies with our vital life force…

Well, at least if we can get the guys to go along…

From then, they’re usually shooting it out and when they shoot it out it robs them of their vital life force. So in tantra, men learn to experience their sexual energy internally, like women already naturally do.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to throw Laurie under the tour bus. As you’ll hear from today’s guest, the very excellent Dr. Jeffrey Kripal, the link between the esoteric and the erotic goes a lot deeper than we think.

In this interview, Jeff and I not only talk about his new book, Secret Body, but also the role that academics are playing in this struggle we have over religion and spirituality. We talk about UFOs since Jeff has done some incredible work in this area. But the main focus of this interview is the connection between the esoteric and the erotic, the moral and the stuff that we maybe, sometimes, too quickly discard as being immoral.

Alex Tsakiris: Is there a hierarchal nature to consciousness, because there sure as hell seems to be? I mean, that’s what all the near-death experience research says, research says. That’s what the past lives research says. That’s what the medium research says. It says there’s a hierarchical structure to consciousness.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Sometimes people have profound life-changing religious experiences in situations, which are dangerous or deadly or traumatic, and sometimes, deeply charismatic spiritual teachers, who can change people instantly with a touch or a look, can also engage in abusive, sexual abusive or physical abusive behaviors.

What I’ve seen over the years is people who want to say that it’s all either pure light and happiness and love or it’s all nonsense, it’s not real. What I’m trying to plead for is, actually it’s messier than that and sometimes we can have profound religious experiences in amoral or even immoral situations.

Stay with me, my interview with Dr. Jeffrey Kripal is up next on Skeptiko.

(continued below)


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Read Excerpts:

skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3Alex Tsakiris: The underlying question seems to be, okay, if we get to the point where we accept that we’re in a post-materialistic world and that there’s this extended consciousness realm, which you accept as, kind of, a given in your work, then don’t we have to ask the next question which is, is there a hierarchical nature to consciousness, because there sure as hell seems to be? I mean, that’s what all the near-death experience research says, research says. That’s what the past lives research says. That’s what the medium research says. It says there’s a hierarchical structure to consciousness. If there is, then I think this question that I just teed up, you know, is religion moral? Is God moral? and your reluctance to connect the moral and the mystical, I don’t know, I want to throw that on the table.

And in the spirit of having a good debate with you Jeff, because as you know, as we said, I so respect what you’re bringing to this conversation, but I’ve got to push you a little bit because these are the things that I care about and because we need to model, I think, that there needs to be a dialogue that isn’t always two people patting each other on the back and agreeing about everything.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: That’s fine. I think it’s a great question Alex, we could address it.

Alex Tsakiris: Please, go ahead.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: You’re referring to… one of the… there’s 20, what I call gnomons, and these are like little short phrases that summarize, basically the different ideas in the book. One of the early ones is, is there a connection between the mystical and the moral? And that’s a very complex statement.

What I mean by that is, sometimes people have profound life-changing religious experiences in situations, which are dangerous or deadly or traumatic, and sometimes, deeply charismatic spiritual teachers, who can change people instantly with a touch or a look, can also engage in abusive, sexual abusive or physical abusive behaviors.

What I’ve seen over the years is people who want to say that it’s all either pure light and happiness and love or it’s all nonsense, it’s not real. What I’m trying to plead for is, actually it’s messier than that and sometimes we can have profound religious experiences in amoral or even immoral situations.

It’s an observation I’m making. It’s not a moral claim that Jeff Kripal’s making. I consider myself to be very concerned about moral issues. I’m a social persona. I’m a citizen. I’m a family member, like the rest of us. So, I care about people. But, I don’t then draw from that, that every single religious experience has to somehow honor those moral codes, because they clearly don’t.

If you look at religious experience historically, what you realize fairly quickly, is that, what human beings have experienced as holy, is not the same as the good or the moral. Sometimes, when someone has an encounter with the holy, it’s terrifying and it’s even potentially deadly. You don’t get to look on the face of God, you don’t get to touch the Ark of the Covenant. If you get too close to this God, you’ll die.

So, clearly the holy there is not what we think of as the good, it’s something way beyond that, it’s something way beyond any moral category and it can manifest in terrifying or very redemptive and healing ways.

Let me bring this back to a single example. As you know, I’m really interested in the abduction literature and this phenomenon of modern people having these abduction experiences. Well, some of those abduction experiences are very positive and redemptive and healing and some of them are terrifying and traumatizing and destructive. I would say both of those kinds of abduction experiences are encounters with the holy, one in a positive frame and one in a negative frame.

I think, what I’m trying to argue against is saying, “Oh, one is demonic and one is real.” No. The demon and the angel or two sides of the same sacred coin here and we have to struggle with that, as human beings, because this is our religious experience over the centuries and millennia. We can find hundreds and thousands of cases of religious encounters that are incredibly positive and we can find the same numbers that are incredibly negative. So, why lop off one for the sake of the other, why not just say, they’re both there.

Alex Tsakiris: Because they don’t know, because we don’t know if some of those really horrific abduction experiences are at the hand of some MILAB, military industrial complex idiot, who’s doing some other mindless MKUltra type job and then there’s a whole other set of them that truly are spiritually transformative, because that was the intent of the people behind them. We don’t know. So, just in the same way that we can’t apply the filter that you just, kind of criticized, we can’t apply your filter either, because we don’t know the nature of those things.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: But we know that any religious experience before 1920, or just pick your date, had nothing to do with an MKUltra lab or any intelligence service. I mean, you can see these patterns as far as you want to go back in time, I mean, these are deep historical patterns. I don’t buy your critique there, I mean, I think these are ancient and they say something about our own humanity and how it interacts with whatever that is, that we’re interacting with.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m talking with Dr. Jeff Kripal from Rice University, author of this new, very interesting book we’re talking about, Secret Body, which you can see there on the screen, and we just had a really interesting chat about, really how bravely autobiographical this book is and some of the things that he covers in it. So, definitely check that out, but next Jeff, what I want to talk about, and again, I say brave, I mean, people get a sense for what I mean when the book just says, “Hey, here’s the problems with non-self-reflective Christians,” and again, I pretty much got this right out of your book, so if you would, if you feel up to it, it’s kind of throwing you right into the fire here, but again, let’s talk about some of the tough stuff and if you wouldn’t mind, maybe reading this excerpt from the book and then we can talk a little bit about that. Is that okay?

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Yeah, sure. This is the [unclear 00:01:07] chapter in the book in which I’m struggling with, essentially being an intellectual in our modern or contemporary American culture, a university culture and rural America, and it goes like this.

I go home to rural Nebraska every year. For decades now, I’ve been deeply struck, if not emotionally wounded, by the immense moral abyss that separates my university community from the general culture of rural America… I am thinking of practices and ideals like self-reflexivity, historical consciousness, religious pluralism, gender equity, racial and sexual diversity, environmental sustainability, the importance of privileging empirical data and thoughtful debate over received opinion and blind propaganda, and, above all, a secular public space that guarantees both freedom  of and from religion.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, you’re punching pretty hard there. Do you want to elaborate at all on that?

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Well, I mean there’s so much there we can elaborate on Alex. Those things I just read off, those are in any basic mission statement or value statement of any university or college in the country, for the most part. Certainly not all of them, but I would say most of them share all of those values and yet those are the same values…

Alex Tsakiris: They profess to share those values. I am highly, highly doubtful that they really do, but okay, I’m with you.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: The institutions I’ve worked in have. I mean, we nurture and defend those values, but those same values are demeaned as liberal. I mean, liberal has become a bad word in our public culture, even though it was a perfectly fine word 20 or 30 years ago. I mean, we still speak of a liberal arts education, none of us in higher education think that’s a bad thing, but that is a bad thing to huge swathes of rural America.

So, I’m trying to put my finger on that problem, on that rip, right through American culture and in…

Alex Tsakiris: I’m not sure the rip is where you’re putting it. I mean, it certainly is, I don’t want to kind of get too provocative for the sake of being provocative, because we get it, you know? We get what you’re saying, in terms of the fundy Christians, and like the crazy Christians, and get all that, but, we get that there’s a lot of crazy atheists out there and there’s a lot of crazy liberals out there and any side can go and get a little video of the craziness of the other side and show it out there, and all of a sudden, you know, it’s just this kind of division.

Let me tell you a little story from my life. Just last weekend, I attended this funeral ceremony for, kind of this soccer friend. So, my daughter plays soccer, a soccer dad, but I knew him pretty well, a really nice guy, I really liked him. I go to this guy’s funeral ceremony, celebration of life ceremony, at this evangelical church in Southern California.

So, you live in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I live in liberal, liberal, Southern California and I’m in an this evangelical church and it is full, first of all. I mean, you’re stunned by the fact that they can fill up a church with 400 people for somebody these days, you know? That doesn’t happen on a Saturday afternoon, and they go through this guy’s life. It’s an amazing life. It’s a quietly amazing life, of little things that he’s done and helped people.

The two gay soccer moms, who he initially meets by writing this letter saying, “Hey, Proposition 9 is coming out for gay marriage, and we should really rally against this,” you know, and it’s terrible, and they kind of gently take offence and this guy completely goes inside and says, “You know what? I’m wrong. I’m wrong about that. You are really great people and I need to reexamine what I believe,” and he turns out to be this tremendous friend, like he was to so many people, and he helps these people out constantly. He’s like their number one handyman, like perfect uncle that just does everything for them.

The guy lived an amazing life, and I’m sitting in this church, listening to a lot of evangelical bullshit, that I could barely get through, about empty tomb and about, “You’d better come over to our side,” and all the rest of this crap, but I’m struck by the fact that this guy, through all that, found a way to live and grow his spirituality, in a way that we all would look at and go, “That’s a beautiful thing.”

So, I don’t know. I get the anger at the crazy Christians and the non-self-reflective thing, but I just think the other side of that, that liberal side, the community that you’re at, is so filled with ridiculous atheist, “I am a biological robot in a meaningless universe,” kind of non-thinkers, non-self-reflective people as well, and I wonder which is worse, because my buddy in the evangelical church, he got it, and he got something out of that experience that, even though I don’t know how he did it, and I couldn’t, there’s something there that, I don’t think he could have gotten in the academy.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Yeah. Well, you’re using a lot of words I would never use Alex. I don’t talk about crazy Christians anywhere in the book.

Alex Tsakiris: No, no, I do, that’s me. I get called on for Christian bashing, but to me it’s just, you’ve got to look for the truth. Is the historical Jesus real? How much of that is occult thing? All that, but I’m sorry. Please continue.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Yeah. I think what you’ve just articulated is frankly part of the problem, it’s a false equivalency. You can always find examples on any side that are extreme and easy to make fun of, but I think it’s a false equivalency to point to the kind of, far right-wing propaganda that really controls so much of our public conversation today, and higher education, which is really about having conversations. Yes, there are excessive moments in higher education, but it’s really not the same thing at all.

So, I don’t see that frankly, from where I sit. I think we need a lot more calmness and we need to talk about these things, and that’s what I’m trying to do in the book. I’m trying to call out where I think the split is and I’m calling on intellectuals, like myself, to, not just talk to each other, but to go out into the public culture and talk to their families, talk to the public culture about what it is we do and in higher education, which I think is really still the answer. I think this lack of civil discourse and this constant demonizing of the other, is precisely what we don’t do in higher education, in our best moments.


Alex Tsakiris:  I want to try and hit one more point before I let you go onto your busy day.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Okay.

Alex Tsakiris: You’re so incredibly generous for sharing this time with us and sharing with so many people, your insights and your perspective about this new book, Secret Body, which is, as we’ve touched on a little bit, but I’ve pulled you in a lot of different directions, but it’s about this journey that you’ve been on. It’s a memoire, it’s a celebration for people to understand, really your whole body of work through these experiences that you’ve had, and the connection between the erotic, the esoteric and religion.

But, as you can see on the screen, the last topic that I want to talk about is something that you just led us into in this last section, because again Jeff, I don’t quite agree with you. This is your, kind of, famous, if you will, this is another influencer, Jeff Kripal influencer, where you’ll hear this over and over again, “We need better sci-fi, to understand UFOs.” That’s Jeff Kripal. If you hear anything like that, in any form or fashion, that’s Jeff Kripal talking.

You know, recently I had the opportunity to talk with both Jacques Vallée, who’s kind of come around and done some interviews again, and I also had a chance to interview Stanton Friedman. I interviewed Stanton Friedman, I wanted to really interview him, because I think there’s contrast where everyone says, “Oh, Jacque Vallée…” you know, Jacque Vallée is awesome, I love Jacques Vallée, but it’s like, “Oh, Jacque Vallée, he understands this stuff. He understands consciousness. He understands that this is ancient and forever,” and then Stanton Friedman, of course, is characterized as this guy, “Oh, he’s an old nuts and bolts UFO guy and he’s just flying saucers and nuclear propulsion systems and all this.” No. Go and talk to both. They’re both saying the same damn thing.

So, Jacque Vallée is very interested in the crashes. He’s very interested in MUFON, still. People say, “Oh, he doesn’t care…” Yeah, he cares about MUFON, he cares about the data that they’re collecting. He cares about how to gather this information. He cares about the technology, what we’ve gained, what we know and learned in the last 60 years. So, he’s broadened the discussion, in the way that you’re talking about, in terms of this extended consciousness realm, and we don’t know how it interacts. But, I don’t find him as willing, as most people have characterized him, to give up on the immediacy of the technology that is, kind of, coming out of that.

Then, on the flip side, you know, you have Stanton Friedman, who, like I’ve always saw with Stanton Friedman, he’s always talked about consciousness. Right? So, he’s talking about Betty and Barney Hill, the first major abduction case in the 50s, and he’s saying, “Hey, it’s all about consciousness, and they’re doing all these consciousness things, and we have to factor that in, and we have to factor in the technology of consciousness and how much we don’t understand it.”

So, my pushback on you Jeff, and what I’d like to hear you respond to, and I like pushing you, because you push back hard and that’s how you should do it. I think you’re overstating the UFO, consciousness, Jacques Vallée, fairies and angels throughout history thing, to the extent that it doesn’t jive with the technology angle that we know exists from the last 50 years of recovering flying saucers and trying to reverse engineer them and doing all of that stuff, which is not so much outed and in the news and Tom Delong and all the rest of that stuff, that we know now, that stuff is there and we’re living through, this kind of drip by drip disclosure. I’ll shut up now, what do you think about the technology angle to this?

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Well again, this goes back to something I said earlier, that one of the first rules, when you’re trying to write a book or you’re trying to be a responsible intellectual, is you don’t talk about things you don’t know anything about.

Alex Tsakiris: No, you already played that card. You’ve got to know about as much stuff as you can know about.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Well no, I’ve never seen any hard and fast evidence for recovered technology.

Alex Tsakiris: So, it is your opinion, from the evidence you’ve seen, you do not believe that there’s been any recovered technology?

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m pinning you down, I’m asking you. You’ve obviously been in this field, I mean, it’s not like you’ve had your head buried in the sand. I think what you’ve just said is, you haven’t found any evidence that convinces you that there’s a reality to that, so you accept the, kind of, government sanctioned opinion that there hasn’t been any.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: I don’t have any security clearances Alex. I haven’t seen any of these objects. I have nothing. But what I…

Alex Tsakiris: But Jeff, we all have nothing. We’ve been pushed into a position of having nothing. We have to work with the data we have. We have to work with the information we have.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Here’s what we have. Here’s what we have. We have people’s experiences. We have lots of experiences, and that’s what I do, as a scholar of religion, I study people’s experiences. So, when I talk about the UFO phenomena, I don’t talk about recovered craft, because I don’t know anything about it. I talk about people’s experiences of abduction or sightings or encounters, because those do, in fact, look just like the religious encounters in the past, and I can say something about that, because that’s my area. I actually can speak to that.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m shaking my head, because I don’t buy that Jeff, in the sense that it changes everything, if you push that to the end, it changes everything. It’s like when we’re talking about Christianity, you know, on this show we’ve gotten very interested in biblical scholarship and the mythicist kind of idea about Jesus. It changes everything, when we come to one conclusion versus another, about a historical Jesus.

I think there’s an exact parallel with UFOs. If you come down on the John Mack side and you say, “This is real. These people are having abduction experiences and they’re spiritual in nature,” that puts you in one camp. If you come down on the David Jacobs’ side, and you say, “These are abductions,” in the abduction, criminal sense of the word, and that it’s a project being run by someone in control in that MK-Ultra kind of world, then it puts a completely different filter on the experience.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: I’m very suspicious of the invasion mythology and the whole thing you just articulated. It sounds too much to me like a paranoid, kind of fundamentalist fantasy about extraterrestrial and invasions. I address that in the book by the way, if you remember.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t remember that part, but go ahead, tell us what you think.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: I think those kinds of fears and phobias are essentially religious and they’re fears of hybridity and they’re fears of the other and they’re fears of the religious other. They get framed in these abduction experiences, which are real by the way, people really have these abduction experiences, but that doesn’t mean I think there are actual extraterrestrials invading the US. That sounds way too cold war, way too fundamentalist to me, to believe. It’s not my job, as a scholar of religion, to believe any mythology I run into, I don’t. I don’t believe any of it. I think all of these things are stories that cultures tell themselves, at particular places in time, to make sense of the world, but I don’t believe any of the stories.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think liberalism is a story. I think feminism is a story. In particular, when we find out what was feminism was really about, it was a project run by the CIA to control and shape culture, and I say that in the sense that we can all get behind and say, “Going back to the 1950s and treating women in this subservient role is completely unacceptable,” but so is an engineered effort to shape culture in a particular way in order to control people.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: What I would say to that Alex, first of all, people have been trying to control the cultural narrative forever and you can blame the CIA today, but before that it was the Catholic Church or the puritans or you know, the empire or the British colonialists or the East India Company. Human beings always try to control the narrative and what I am, as a scholar of religion, is I’m always suspicious of the narratives, whatever they are, because I know they’re controlled, that’s my point, of course they’re controlled. But, it’s not the evil CIA doing everything, it’s human nature. Nation states do this. Bloggers like Alex do this. I mean, we all do this. We’re all, kind of, arguing about what the narrative is, and I’m just like saying, “Hey, okay, let’s wake up. Let’s admit we’re arguing about the story and let’s tell a better story.” That’s the source of the quote you put up there earlier. This is the ‘better sci-fi’ line. We need better science fiction, not because one’s true and one’s false, but because we’re living in a set of stories that are pretty nasty.

Alex Tsakiris: Our guest again has been the incomparable Dr. Jeffrey Kripal. You’re going to want to check out his new book, if you’re fan at all of any of his prior work, you really want to add this book. For me and for a lot of folks, it will just add such an enriched view of this whole body of work. It’s been absolutely terrific having him on.

If you’ve just tuned into this segment of the conversation, do check out, I plan on releasing this in a couple of different ways, altogether and in parts, so we can pull out some of the really interesting stuff that Jeff had to say. He kept saying I was pulling him away from the book. That’s the point Jeff, I want everybody to buy the book, but we want to know what you’re thinking about all of these other issues.

But, you’re terrific. I’m so honored to have you on and to have this kind of dialogue with you. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal: Thanks Alex, it was fun.


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