The Burning Bush They’ll Buy, but Not ESP or Alien Abduction

The Burning Bush They’ll Buy, but Not ESP or Alien Abduction
November 12, 2010
by Mark Oppenheimer
The New York Times

Practically anything goes at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, where scholars of dozens of religions convene annually to debate, relate and on occasion mate. Conversation ranges from the Talmud to tantra, from Platonism to Satanism. This year, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 in Atlanta, nearly 5,000 people attended panels including “Seeking New Meanings of God and Dao” and “Madness, Smallpox, and Death in Tibet.”
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Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University in Texas, advocates including the paranormal in religious studies.
What was almost impossible to find, at this orgy of intellectual curiosities, was discussion of the paranormal: ESP, premonitions, psychic powers, alien abduction and the like. This is a conference concerned with all sorts of supernatural and metaphysical claims. In panels, over coffee and during cocktail-hour quarrels, they talk of Moses at the burning bush, the virgin birth, Muhammad’s journey on a winged horse. So why nothing about, say, mental telepathy?

That is the question posed by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston and a renegade advocate for including the paranormal in religious studies. In his new book, “Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred” (University of Chicago Press), he tries to convince serious religion scholars that they ought to study, say, ESP or alien abduction.

Most scholars study traditions even nonbelievers are comfortable talking about, like Judaism and Christianity. And a growing number study kinds of “spirituality”: the belief in guardian angels, for example, or in an invisible force, not specific to a major religion.

But Dr. Kripal wants to go further, into supernaturalism that seems bizarre to most Westerners. His book is about four pre-eminent writers on the paranormal: the 19th-century psychical researcher Frederic Myers; Charles Fort, who died in 1932; the contemporary French ufologist Jacques Vallee, who inspired the character Claude Lacombe in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and his fellow ufologist Bertrand Méheust. None are widely studied, but Dr. Kripal says all prove that one can write in a sophisticated way about the paranormal.

According to Dr. Kripal, their omission is evidence of a persistent bias among religion scholars, happy to consider the inexplicable, like miracles, as long as they fit a familiar narrative, like Judaism or Christianity.

“There is resistance in the way our universities are set up, in the elite culture of higher education,” says Dr. Kripal, 48, who grew up in Nebraska and once planned to be a Benedictine monk. “Paranormal events completely violate the epistemologies around which we have formed our own knowledge.

“The sciences study objects and use mechanistic cause models to track them. The humanities specialize in subjectivity, meaning, consciousness, art, religion. Paranormal events violate that division. They clearly involve human subjectivity, and they clearly involve objects out there.”

In other words, it is one thing to study a miracle a thousand years old — that seems a safe question for the historian or the theologian. But what to do with people who say they were abducted by a U.F.O. last week?

“The easiest way to deal with them is to dismiss them, or humiliate them, or claim they are fraudulent, or mistaken,” Dr. Kripal says. “That allows us to preserve our forms of knowledge. For not only do they violate the sciences and humanities, they also violate orthodox forms of religion, which often want to read these things” — like speaking with the dead or reading minds — “as demonic.”

Ann Taves, a past president of the American Academy of Religion, says that other scholars are interested in esoteric religion outside the major traditions, but that Dr. Kripal is different, because he is sympathetic to the possibility that the paranormal may be real — not just the product of people’s false perceptions.

“Jeff brings certain metaphysical commitments or leanings to the study that gives his work a certain intensity,” Ms. Taves says. “Some of the rest of us consider these kinds of claims like other religious and metaphysical claims. We don’t lean toward the metaphysical claims — we distance ourselves from that.”

And she is right: Dr. Kripal “leans toward” the paranormal — he does not dismiss it as the fruit of deluded minds. He thinks there is some external reality being talked about, something real out there. In this regard, he is like the four mystics he writes about in “Authors of the Impossible.”

In a previous book, “Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism,” Dr. Kripal discusses a mystical experience of his own, in 1989, in India. He describes being asleep one night: “Suddenly, without warning, a powerful electric-like energy flooded the body with wave after wave of an unusually deep and uniform arousal. I watched my legs and torso float uncontrollably towards the ceiling.”

Dr. Kripal says that night prepared him, in a way, to encounter his four “Authors of the Impossible” — like Mr. Vallee, whose 1969 book, “Passport to Magonia,” places flying saucers in a tradition that includes elves, fairies, sylphs and leprechauns.

“I suppose I’ve come to the conclusion,” Dr. Kripal says, “that one of the functions of those earlier experiences I have written about was so that I could write these books.” He is referring in part to his next book, to be published in 2011, about the paranormal experiences of the artists and authors of superhero comics.

What his fellow academics will make of that book, only someone with telepathic powers — Professor X of the X-Men, perhaps? — could tell us for sure.
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