Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, mines the backwaters and undercurrents of religion — the kinds of experiences many people would not even call “religious.” He co-wrote a book on UFOs with Whitley Strieber (author of the best-selling Communion about his purported alien abduction). Kripal tracks all manner of mind-bending experiences: precognitive dreams, near-death experiences, ghost stories. He’s a historian of the paranormal and has written extensively on major figures in the field, from Frederic W. H. Myers and Charles Fort to C. G. Jung and Philip K. Dick.
Kripal also has a penchant for being slightly outrageous. When he talks about the history of Christianity, he quickly veers into what he calls the homoerotic — and “very queer” — roots of Catholicism. In fact, his interest in the erotic origins of religion is what launched his academic career — and nearly ended it. Kripal started out as a scholar of Asian mystical traditions, and his first book, Kali’s Child, explored the homoerotic leanings of the Indian mystic Ramakrishna. It infuriated Hindu nationalists, who launched a bitter and relentless campaign that eventually drove Kripal away from Hindu scholarship. Around that time, he discovered the Esalen Institute, the mecca of the human potential movement perched on top of a cliff in Big Sur, California. Kripal wrote the definitive history of Esalen and remains heavily invested in its activities; he helps run its Center for Theory & Research, and also chairs Esalen’s Board of Trustees.
Kripal’s book Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions weaves together these various strands of his work. Part memoir, part exegesis, it’s a wide-ranging and subversive reinterpretation of religion. And, I might add, it’s like no other book I’ve read.
STEVE PAULSON: At the beginning of your book, you say “the unvarnished truth is that things have been very trippy.” I might expect to hear that from someone who’s taken a lot of hallucinogens but not from a scholar of religion. Is that a comment about your own life or do you think religion itself is trippy?
JEFFREY KRIPAL: Well, religion is trippy. The only reason we think it’s not trippy is because we’ve grown too accustomed to our own religious worldviews. All we have to do is look at another religion and see that it looks like a psychedelic trip. I mean more than this, though. It’s been especially trippy for me because I’ve written about things that then reflect back and become real in my own life.
Yet most discussions about religion are rather stodgy and church services are rarely trippy. What am I missing?
Nothing. That’s perfectly accurate, but I’m not even interested in that sort of religion after it’s been established and become part of an ideology. I’m interested in the experiential sources of religion — in religion before it becomes religion. I’m interested in anomalous events or extreme experiences that formed the basis of various religious ideas, like the existence of the soul.
Then what kinds of extreme experiences interest you?
I just finished a book, called Changed in a Flash, with a woman in Houston named Elizabeth Krohn. In 1988, Elizabeth was attending the first anniversary of her grandfather's death at her synagogue. She stepped out of the car with her two-year-old boy and was immediately struck by lightning. What followed was this incredibly elaborate near-death experience that completely changed her and convinced her that the soul is real and immortal. When she was healing from the lightning burns, she began to have all kinds of dreams of things like plane crashes and earthquakes that would then play out in the next day’s news. Those experiences did not fit into her particular religious tradition but led her to a series of beliefs and convictions that she simply wasn’t aware of earlier. She did not think them. They were given to her.
So she had precognitive dreams about things that later happened?
Yes. They showed up on the next day’s news. Eventually, she learned to send herself time-stamped emails immediately after the nightmare so that she had some proof that she actually dreamed it. She was trying to convince herself she was not going crazy, which is all our public culture can do with these things. Here’s my point. If you keep hearing stories from people like Elizabeth, they get weirder and then weirder. They never make sense. That was the case with Elizabeth. I could tell you many other stories — stories of reading minds, of a haunted necklace, of a plant that dies when its owner dies, and so on.
These kinds of paranormal experiences are not usually considered part of religion. We put them in an entirely different category.
And that’s a mistake. The word “paranormal” was coined in 1903 by a French scientist as an attempt to secularize and make “natural” experiences that had always had a religious framework. These experiences happen every day to thousands of people. They’re as common as water. But we live in a culture that suppresses them, in various explicit and implicit ways, so people don’t talk about them. Elizabeth waited 30 years to come out of her closet to talk about these experiences because she was afraid of what her social peers would think. And she was afraid her children would be made fun of at school, so she waited till they were grown up. She simply doesn’t care anymore. She’s ready to tell her story.
When I think of religion, it’s usually about God or sacred scriptures. That’s not what you’re talking about.
No, God and scripture are later developments that come out of these experiences and then get remembered in a community and turned into ideas, beliefs, and texts. For example, if you had a hundred people like Elizabeth who had similar kinds of near-death experiences, you would have stories floating around in the community about how the soul survives bodily death and can know the future. Then you would develop beliefs in the existence of the soul, prophecy, and divination. Of course, that’s exactly what you see in the history of religions. My position is that these beliefs are not crazy, superstitious things that silly people make up. They are the direct outcome of actual experiences. It doesn’t mean the experiences are metaphysically or ontologically true. I don’t think I can determine that as a scholar of religion.
Does this idea of religion go all the way back to your childhood?
Yeah, it does. I grew up in Nebraska in a farming community. I wasn’t particularly religious as a boy, but I grew up Roman Catholic, sort of assuming a lot of things like this. When I hit puberty, I became super pious and ended up in a monastic seminary wanting to be a monk.
How long did you stay in the seminary?
Four years. At the end of the day, my monastic mentors thought — and I agreed with them — that I didn’t actually have a religious vocation. I had an intellectual vocation, and I needed to go to graduate school, not enter the monastery. So that’s what I did.
You’ve written that most of the other men in the seminary were gay and you weren’t.
It was definitely a gay community. Most of the seminarians were closeted young gay men, good men who had turned to the priesthood as a way of creatively sublimating their sexuality into some kind of productive spiritual life. I was highly repressed and wildly neurotic, but I was ultimately straight. I just didn’t fit in.
Was that just a weird quirk of this particular seminary? Or does it reflect something deeper about the nature of religion?
The argument I make in Secret Body is that this kind of sublimated male homoeroticism is orthodox in the history of Christianity because God is always male. And if you are going to be in love with God or marry Jesus — to use the traditional Catholic language — a male homoerotic orientation works very well. If you happen to be a straight man, it makes no sense. It’s an impossible emotional and spiritual orientation to think yourself into.
Why is homoeroticism part of the foundation of Christian history?
I’m not sure I would make that kind of sweeping claim. I would say that Roman Catholicism is an institution controlled by males who are celibate. Many of them are living in all-male or same-sex communities and are promoting the love and worship of a kind of alpha male in the sky — God or Jesus. They’re not worshiping a woman. They’re eating the body and drinking the blood of a divine male. So that privileges or selects for men who have what we today would call “gay genders” or “gay spiritualities.” None of this implies a moral judgment. Quite the contrary, I think gay men are often more spiritually gifted than straight men. I didn’t leave the seminary because I was angry or had experienced anything negative. I left because I didn’t have what it takes. I was not so spiritually-sexually gifted.
What does that say about the life of Jesus? Are you saying there’s something homoerotic in his story?
Yes. Neither Jesus nor Paul was married. Jesus had a beloved disciple who was another man. Paul wanted all his followers, both male and female, to be virgins and marry Christ, which is a very queer, homoerotic notion for men — a kind of spiritual gay marriage. I think the origins of Christianity lie in this kind of sexual spiritual orientation that could not fit into the heterosexual structures of first-century Jewish society. This is one of the things that made it all so radical, so revolutionary.
Are you suggesting that Jesus was gay?
That’s an anachronistic question. The safest thing to say is that he was anything but straight. He was certainly preaching against the heterosexual family and essentially asked his disciples to leave their families. And he asked his closest disciples to castrate themselves for the kingdom of heaven. That’s what the famous passage in Matthew says, though of course, it’s almost never read or preached on, mostly because people don’t know what to do with it or simply they don’t want to deal with it.
You went on to graduate school. Why did you end up studying Asian mystical traditions?
I became convinced that there were no heterosexual mystical models in Catholicism or Christianity. There was nowhere in my birth tradition for a straight man to be erotically related to divinity. And Hinduism in particular fascinated me because there were all these female deities with whom human males erotically or spiritually unite. So I was really interested in Hinduism because it seemed to offer heterosexual mystical traditions for straight men.
You’ve written about a profound, transformative experience you had in Calcutta in 1989. Can you describe that experience?
I was studying a tradition called “Shakta Tantra.” The central iconography involves a black or blue goddess standing on her husband, Shiva, who is lying prostrate and is imagined as asleep or in meditation or as dead. She’s often described as erotically engaging him. During Kali Puja, a fall festival dedicated to this particular goddess, I had just been visiting all the temples and was embedded in this beautiful ritual display. I woke up early in the morning and couldn’t move. I was paralyzed. I was lying on my back, exactly like Shiva, and this astonishing erotic energy entered the room or came out of me and started to engage my body. I was perfectly awake, but I was paralyzed. My first assumption was that there was an electrical dysfunction in the wall and that I was being electrocuted. That’s how strong it was. Then I thought I was having a heart attack and was dying. And when both of those didn’t happen, I surrendered to it until it sort of imploded into my chest region. At that point, I had the sensation of leaving my body and floating up to the ceiling in a kind of classic out-of-body experience or near-death experience. When I eventually got back into my body and could move my fingers and feet again, I felt as if this tremendous download had been transmitted into my body and my mind, though I had no idea what it was about. I just had this sense that something profound had happened.
You’ve had a lot of years to think about this experience. Can you explain what happened?
I can’t. Early on in the ’90s I thought my job was to get to some single interpretation of this event, as if there were one correct interpretation. Since then I’ve abandoned that idea. I think the event was, for all practical purposes, infinitely meaningful, and every book I’ve written so far has been an attempt to express that excess or overflow. And that, I now think, was the point of the original experience. Perhaps that was precisely what was downloaded into me then — the future books, all of them, all at once.
Clearly you don’t believe you just had an overactive imagination. Do you think you encountered some transcendent dimension of reality?
Or of myself. I was electrocuted by some incredibly powerful presence that was intelligent and had information in it. I totally believe that. I’m not actually a fan of belief. Belief shuts us down and gives us easy answers. I’m simply describing what happened to me and how I’ve spent my life trying to make sense of it — very imperfectly, I would add.
You spent years studying Hindu mystical traditions, which then became a dangerous line of work when Hindu nationalists targeted your scholarship. Later, you moved in a different direction and connected with the Esalen Institute in California. How did that happen?
Starting around 1997, I was being harassed and targeted by Hindu nationalists and fundamentalists who hated my first book, Kali’s Child, dedicated largely to these ideas we’ve been talking about, applied to an important Hindu saint. I received a lot of threatening emails, and there were horrible things written about me in the Indian newspapers and by major politicians. It was scary and went on for years and years. Eventually, I concluded that I had to leave the field. I was just a young professor without tenure, about 35 years old at that point. I had spent 15 years studying this culture that I loved; it took me years to let go. It was really a death process.
In the summer of 1998, Michael Murphy [the co-founder of the Esalen Institute] called me one night. He had just finished Kali’s Child and was extremely enthused by it, especially for the way it discussed the human body and the material universe as physical expressions of divinity or consciousness. He asked me to come out to Esalen that year. Which I did and then went back the next two years. It gradually dawned on me that if I left the study of Hinduism, I could write a history of Esalen and become an Americanist. The real reason I wrote the Esalen book, then, was professional survival. I was simply trying to stay alive intellectually after I couldn’t go back to India or continue to write on Hindu matters.
Why did Esalen fascinate you?
There were a couple of things. Asian religions played a major role in the founding of Esalen. So I got really fascinated by the American reception of Hindu and Buddhist ideas. The other thing that fascinated me was that Mike and a number of Esalen figures were really interested in parapsychological phenomena and had placed them in a kind of evolutionary context, which I found really interesting as a historical subject.
There is a common stereotype about Esalen that’s not so positive. In his book Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen regards it as a cautionary tale. He writes: “Essentially everything that became known by the 1970s as New Age was invented, developed or popularized at the Esalen Institute.” He says Esalen was “driven by a suspicion of science and reason and an embrace of magical thinking, and also massage, hot baths, sex, and sex in hot baths.” What do you make of that description?
I think it’s silly. You can find whatever you’re looking for at a place like Esalen that’s been around for well over a half a century. You can certainly find the sex, and there are hot tubs, but the Institute simply doesn’t fit into these grotesque stereotypes that Andersen is promoting. Thousands of spiritual, psychological, and somatic techniques have been taught there, many of them very effective, often life-changing. As for the alleged “suspicion of science,” I’ve worked with hundreds of scientists — many of them world-class, and I’ve met them all at Esalen. So those kinds of stereotypes are simply ignorant. There’s a real intellectual current that runs through Esalen, one filled with very serious people with PhDs in everything from neuroscience to cosmology to quantum physics.
One of the most influential intellectuals in Esalen’s early history was Aldous Huxley, who wrote about psychedelics in The Doors of Perception. Why was he so important?
Because he was writing about something he called “human potentialities.” Aldous was very interested in psychical abilities. He was very learned in the world’s mystical traditions, and he himself had had some profound mystical experiences on mescaline. He was one of the intellectual keys to the founding of Esalen, which eventually coined the phrase “the human potential movement” in the mid-1960s. That was right out of Aldous Huxley’s playbook.
One of Huxley’s big ideas is that the mind exists independently of the brain. This cuts against our scientific paradigm, which sees the mind as an emergent property of the brain or the manifestation of all those billions of neurons and synaptic connections. It’s a radically different way of thinking about the mind-brain problem.
Huxley articulated what he called the “Mind at Large” in The Doors of Perception, in 1954. He says the naïve idea is that when you take something like mescaline, this trippy experience is produced by these molecules messing with your synapses. This is not what his experience was at all. It was more like the mescaline shut down his brain, its cognitive processes, and these other forms of mind, which were already there, then rushed in, and he could perceive reality as it really is and not as his brain was filtering it through language and cognitive categories. He argued that the Mind at Large — or what we might call “consciousness” with a capital C — is distributed throughout the natural world, probably throughout the entire universe. The brain is a highly evolved biological filter or translator of this cosmic mind that essentially turns the consciousness into a local particular person.
So in this model, the brain detects consciousness and enables us to experience it but doesn’t actually generate consciousness.
Correct. When the brain dies, what we generally think of as the person probably does go away because this person and its ego are connected to the body and the brain. But consciousness itself is completely unaffected. Just like when you take your smartphone and throw it against the wall: you’re not going to harm the wi-fi signal, but you’ve just made it physically impossible to receive, translate, and personalize it.
I see this debate over materialism as one of the great fault lines in our intellectual life. It’s really the big question about religion and transcendent experience. It shapes how we interpret all kinds of powerful experiences, like near-death experiences, psychedelics, the paranormal. It’s fundamental in terms of how we talk about the nature of consciousness. What is at stake here?
Everything. I think everything hinges on what we think mind or consciousness is. If we think it’s just the brain doing what the brain does, then it’s pretty damn depressing, and we live in a bleak world in which all meaning and all life cease when we cease. But if we live in a different world where everything is somehow embedded in consciousness, and we’re highly evolved transmitters or receivers of this broader cosmic life, then suddenly the universe is a marvelous place, and we live in a naturally ecstatic, evolving conscious cosmos that is waking up to itself. I’m not arguing that everything about mental life is transcendent. I think it’s quite likely that ordinary cognition and sensory perception are entirely brain-dependent.
How do paranormal phenomena fit into these questions about consciousness? When people say they’ve seen a ghost or had a precognitive dream, should we try to determine if they are literally true?
The first thing to do is to recognize that they happen. The conversation gets shut down by the debunkers who want to say such things never happen, or that they’re always fraudulent or mistaken, which clearly is not the case. Once we acknowledge that these things happen, then we can begin to play with models in which they are possible or impossible. What we consider impossible is simply a function of our present models of the natural world. There are things that happen all the time that are impossible given our models, but they’re clearly not impossible, since they do happen. Paranormal phenomena push us to develop new models of the natural world and new models of ourselves. So they’re productive, they’re creative, they’re intellectually stimulating. That’s why I find them so fascinating, not because I “believe” them or can prove them.
You tell one story about Mark Twain, who dreamed that his brother died. Can you describe what happened?
This is one of millions of such stories. What happened is that Twain had this very realistic dream in which his brother died, and he visited the body, which was in a particular suit and in a metal casket. There was a bouquet sitting on his chest with a bundle of white roses and a single red rose in the center. A couple of weeks later his brother was in fact killed in a boiler accident on a steamboat. When Twain visited his brother’s body, he saw exactly what he had seen in the dream: he saw him in a metal casket in that exact suit. The only thing that was missing was the bouquet. As he was sitting there, stunned by the fact that he’d already seen all this, a woman walked in and laid that exact bouquet on his brother’s chest. That’s a classic case, but it’s not unusual.
It sounds like you’re saying these paranormal stories have their own narrative structure. We’re entering the mythic realm and perhaps we need a new kind of narrative to account for these stories.
Right. The way I got into the paranormal was this: I was sitting around symposia at Esalen with a bunch of physicists and neuroscientists who were talking about paranormal phenomena as objective events that could be measured. They spoke as if there is some kind of causal chain that they wanted to find and measure. I grew skeptical of all of that. I kept pointing out that paranormal stories are actually stories. They always have a beginning, middle, and end, and they seem to be aimed toward the production of meaning or comfort or guidance in a person’s life. They’re stories about meaning; they’re not about math. That is why I do not think science is our best approach here. Science is great at math and mechanism, but it’s simply not cut out to explore meaning and subjectivity.
But don’t we have to ask: Did it really happen? Is this real? Isn’t that a foundational question about these stories?
It’s not a question in my mind. Of course, they happen. I’ve witnessed them happening firsthand, and I see no reason why people would be lying about this. I know there are frauds and hoaxes, but I’ve just seen too much, and I’ve read too much. That’s just not even a question for me. I’m not interested in having that debate, because I think it just freezes the conversation. And that’s what the debunkers and deniers want. No, thanks.
A lot of these stories — like Mark Twain’s dream — seem to be triggered by some trauma. Often something cataclysmic has happened or is about to happen.
That’s correct. They’re largely about suffering and illness and death and danger and love. They usually spark between loved ones where one of them is in mortal danger or is dying. That’s why you can’t shove them into a laboratory procedure: they presume real trauma.
They are hard to reproduce in a lab.
They’re impossible to reproduce! At least the robust ones. You can get minor but real statistical significance in a lab, for sure, but you can’t produce these really robust drop-your-jaw cases.
I think a lot of people can accept the possibility of a telepathic dream, but you also write about UFOs and alien abductions, which stretch the limits of credibility. Why are you so interested in UFO stories?
Why draw the line there? I’m essentially an empiricist, and for me something is empirical if it happens to even one person. I see no reason to lop off UFOs. If people report UFOs, then UFOs are part of our empirical world. And we know they are. There was a story in The New York Times last December about fighter jet pilots tracking UFOs on radar. You could watch the radar for yourself. There are UFOs. Now, what they are, we don’t know. That’s another question. As a scholar of religion, I’m extremely skeptical of the interpretations that people give to UFOs and abduction events. I do not buy the stories, though I think they are key to the phenomena.
What stories don’t you accept?
Pretty much all of them. For example, I think some kind of extraterrestrial invasion is simply a Cold War narrative developed in the ’50s and ’60s. I think this story is also, frankly, dangerous. It props up a military complex and a threat mentality, because it’s about extraterrestrials invading American airspace, but there’s not actually a lot of evidence for it. If you watched the UFO radars in the New York Times piece, the objects are not doing anything threatening. The only threat implied in the radar footage is the radar itself, taken from our fighter jets pursuing them. We are the threat. Or if you look at abduction reports, some of them are scary and terrifying, but some of them are also positive and even ecstatic. It’s a really complicated picture that makes any single interpretation look a bit silly or ridiculous.
For believers, there are different theories about what’s happening. Some people think alien spaceships have flown from some distant planet into Earth's atmosphere. Others say that’s far too literal an interpretation, and they believe it’s happening at a psychic level.
Again, you can find evidence for both of those interpretations. What fascinates me about the UFO is that it doesn’t behave. It violates both of those theories. You can watch radar reports that suggest some kind of object flying in space, but you can also read about UFO encounters or abduction events in which dead loved ones appear and in which the UFO is essentially a soul — some kind of conscious plasma. I don’t know what the correct interpretation is, and I seriously doubt there is a single correct interpretation. I’m simply saying these phenomena happen. They’re real. They’re part of our world. I am also saying that they often carry religious or spiritual dimensions, and that we should be fascinated by them and not mock people who express interest in them or who are changed by them.
Why do you say they have a religious dimension?
The gods have always come from the sky or the heavens. They’ve also always been messing with human beings. The gods are weird beings that come out of the sky and have sex with human beings, grant them new technologies, give them ideas, and warn them about the future, which today includes fears like nuclear warfare and environmental collapse. This is classic religious behavior. Just because it’s framed in modern techno garb, a kind of occult science fiction, doesn’t mean it’s not religious. It just means it’s speaking to us in the only frame that we can hear today.
I have to say I find it astonishing: you are a professor at a highly regarded university and are saying all these things that are way out there. Do you get much pushback?
I get asked that a lot. There’s a double answer. The first answer is that there’s a totem pole in the academy. Physics is on the very top, and the study of religions on the very bottom. Now, the higher you go on this imagined totem pole, the less likely you are going to say these “outrageous” or “impossible” things, because you need to protect your privilege and your authority — that is, your place on the totem pole. But the reverse is also true. The lower you are on that totem pole, the less you have to lose. I sit on the bottom of the pole, in religious studies, a field most people haven’t even heard of, so I have almost nothing to lose. I can say whatever the hell I want, or so it seems, because I am not supposed to know anything worthwhile knowing. But I do.
But what happens when you get together with other religion scholars? Are they snickering behind your back, saying Jeff Kripal has a few screws loose?
That’s where the second answer comes in. You’d have to ask my colleagues what they think of me. I can’t speak for them, but I do know a lot of them are in the closet on this one. I go to many universities to give lectures on this material and afterward, almost always, some colleague will come up and say: “You know, I had this experience — can I tell you about it?” Or: “Wow, I’m really glad you’re saying that.” But, generally speaking, they’re not going to stick their necks out and say it themselves, not yet anyway. So I think there are a lot of intellectuals in the closet on all things paranormal, but they’re fascinated by these things nonetheless, and they actually appreciate someone like me trying to make sense of them. So I keep going.
Your reinterpretation of religion doesn’t fall into any of the usual narratives. It’s certainly not what atheists say about religion, but also not what you hear from Christian theologians arguing for the historical truth of the Resurrection. It’s also not the kind of cultural or sociological analysis of so many contemporary scholars in religious studies. So how should we talk about religion?
In many ways. My way is just one way, not the only way. In my own mind, and this is what Secret Body is really all about, my job is to forge a new comparative way of talking about religion that neither falls into the category of belief or the category of dismissal. I’m really trying to push into a third space where we can take religious experience, anyone’s religious experience, very seriously but not fall into some traditional answer or some traditional non-answer. So that’s what I do. I mean, that’s who I am. I’m a historian of religions, someone who thinks about extreme religious experiences comparatively and historically, ideally across all cultures and all times. No exceptions.
Should we read the story of the Resurrection of Jesus as a ghost story?
The New Testament critic Dale Allison at Princeton Seminary has written a beautiful essay called “Resurrecting Jesus.” Among many other elegant moves, he takes the Resurrection encounters in the Gospels and compares them to encounters that widows and other people have had with dead loved ones in the 20th century, which are available in the parapsychological literature. And they’re remarkably close. People encounter dead loved ones in apparent physical form in the modern world. It’s not that unusual. These are very comforting and very powerful experiences, but few, if any, become world religions. What I take from Dale is that the Resurrection appearances were probably real. They probably happened, but — and this is just as important — they’re not historically unique. They happen all the time. What is unique is that those real experiences eventually formed into a world religion. That is very rare. We can study that, too. This is the kind of new comparativism that I am promoting and trying to develop further. This kind of approach makes Christianity more real and plausible, but it also challenges the tradition’s claim to uniqueness or exclusive truth. So you have to give up your illusions of being special, and you have to acknowledge that all human beings, potentially at least, have these extraordinary capacities.
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (2010).