Reality Sandwich asked two of our leading occult scholars, Richard Smoley and Mitch Horowitz, to share their observations about the current state of mysticism in America, and where they see the field heading in the future.
Mitch Horowitz: One of my privileges as a publisher is to work on things that I personally want to read. And I have noticed over the past several years you've been producing an output of very high-quality articles and essays on occult and esoteric subjects, and I've found that you have the ability to move in and out of a subject with deftness and speed, while at the same time taking a panoramic look at it. So, I first wanted to ask you: Do you think terms such as occult or New Age have a place in the 21st century?
Richard Smoley: I certainly do. I think in fact a lot of what was considered New Age or occult has become so much a part of the mainstream that we don't recognize it as such anymore — simple things like focusing on the present moment, mindfulness, awareness, focusing on the breath. These are becoming part of the mass culture, and you see people joking about them as if they're just part of the current scene now. But these were all really esoteric things not so long ago. Or, to take another example, the idea of changing reality by changing your mind — that's a subject that's of interest to you because it's the subject of the new book you're working on.
But that too was something that was very esoteric and very hidden until comparatively recently, and now it's gained enormous amounts of currency. So the question for the people who are involved in the occult or the New Age world is, what next? Where does it go, now that so much of it has succeeded and triumphed and made itself part of contemporary culture?
Horowitz: That's true. One of the things I'm writing about in my new book, One Simple Idea, which is a history of the positive thinking movement, is how this notion of using your mind as a causative agency colors almost every aspect of our culture. It's spoken about from evangelical pulpits by figures like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes. It's heard in political speeches, such as when Ronald Reagan used to say, "nothing is impossible"; it's at the heart of our business motivation philosophies; it appears in the recovery movement; and it's a form of popular religiosity that's spread all across the culture.
In fact, there's almost no place you can't find it. You could turn on the television and on a sitcom one character is telling another to think positively, and they're having a laugh about either the potential, or the dismal irony, of trying to use your mind to change a situation. It surrounds us. Americans tend to embrace ideas and discard terms, hence you don't hear terms like occult or New Age, or even ESP for example within mainstream culture, yet the assumptions around them are everyplace.
Regarding your question of where we go from here, in some ways that speaks to why I wanted to publish your new book, Supernatural, because I think that there's a part of ourselves and our history in the West that we've rejected. We have no conception of how shaped we are by occult and esoteric philosophies. And I think we've failed to produce a good literature around many of these topics — a literature that has posterity, that not only can explore the history of these movements, but can explore their uses today in a serious way. And I was interested in how self-disclosing you are at certain points in this book. In your opening essay for example, you write very bluntly about your study of Kabbalah back in your days at Oxford, and you also talk about how certain exercises in conscious thought can wield a kind of force in our outward lives.
Smoley: Yeah I think that's definitely the case. The teaching that I've probably worked with the most along those lines, which I discovered quite by accident 30-plus years ago, is A Course in Miracles, which as you know is a subject of one of the essays in Supernatural. I happen to find its teachings very powerful, and I know a lot of other people do as well, because it's had a tremendous impact on society, often in unacknowledged ways. One idea that I think has seriously affected U.S. culture is one that to my knowledge first appears in A Course in Miracles, which is basically a criticism of judgment, in all the forms it normally takes. It's fit in with the kind of cultural relativism that a lot of people feel. Many people today regard being judgmental as a negative thing, whereas, say, in Victorian England that would certainly not have been the case at all. It was almost de rigueur to be judgmental to some degree or another.
And then you can ask, to what extent has this shaped political discourse? Obviously the most striking political fact in recent years has been the enormous change of sentiment toward gay marriage. And although the esoteric tradition doesn't really say anything about gay marriage and no one seems to have thought of it until comparatively recently, this idea that we can't judge, or shouldn't judge, has been a major factor in helping it to be accepted.
Horowitz: That's very interesting. I find that in the opinion-making institutions of our culture — book reviews and literary journals — New Age philosophies are almost invisible, except as subjects of mockery. And I find that that kind of conformist thinking can color the spiritual culture as well — there are parts of the spiritual culture that serious people rush to disavow or have no interest in. A Course in Miracles, for example, is not widely understood to be a teaching of significant depth. People would acknowledge its influence but not that it's a teaching of substance. And there are certain aspects of the positive thinking tradition that I would say also represent teachings of substance, and yet they get made fun of or are overlooked.
For example, in the 1920s the French hypnotherapist Émile Coué popularized his famous mantra, "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." And that is a source of mockery nowadays but I don't think people have gotten their arms around what Coué was dealing with, and why during his lifetime his ideas experienced a certain renown and he had followers who swore by his methods. So, has the New Age done a bad job of communicating its ideas, or is it simply that so much of our intellectual culture is caught up in prejudice and conformity that it's unable to weigh these things on their own terms?
Smoley: Popular culture is remarkably open-minded to this; otherwise it couldn't have had the effects that we've already been discussing. But the intellectual world is remarkably closed-minded, and I don't see that changing enormously. For example, in The New York Review of Books, one of the most respected intellectual journals in the country, the coverage of these things has always been disgraceful. There have been criticisms of G.I. Gurdjieff, for example, by people who obviously hadn't even read his books, something The New York Review of Books would simply not tolerate in any other arena. The subject is treated with remarkable contempt, remarkable fraudulence, and it's a disgrace from any intellectual point of view.
Now there is some change in that, at least in some areas of academe, where as you know, scholars are beginning to take Western esoteric traditions seriously as part of our civilization. That's very interesting and it's potentially valuable. There's always a danger in that one can see the academic intellectual view as being the totality of the picture, which it isn't. And the academic world isn't always very good at admitting that.
Horowitz: You're absolutely right that the New York Review of Books and other organs of opinion would never tolerate commentary on subjects by an unread writer in any other area of inquiry. And I've also found that there are well-known writers who will sometimes make a contemptuous or a very offhanded dismissal, or condemnation, of a figure like Carl Jung, for example, obviously having no experience with Jung's works, or even a thumbnail background in Jung's personal history.
Jung will occasionally be accused of having been a source of ideas behind the Third Reich, for example, which is absolutely absurd. Or having been some sort of Nazi collaborator, which he certainly was not. I find it's almost impossible for most intellectuals who are writing in the public sphere to weigh any of these figures at all. For example, Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of the New York Times, recently wrote a very good biography of Gandhi. But he simply couldn't come to terms with the fact that Madame Blavatsky had been an influence on Gandhi.
This is a fact that Gandhi referenced in his own letters and diaries and articles and autobiography — it's as plain as day. And Lelyveld went so far as to acknowledge that Blavatsky had some sort of a fuzzy, glancing influence on Gandhi's thought, but that it amounted to little, it was brief, and it reflected nothing more than a youthful dalliance. That is squarely at odds with what Gandhi wrote himself; he said it was Blavatsky who had reawakened his interest in Hinduism when he first met her in London in the late 1880s, and that she ignited the earliest stirrings of his belief in the essential equality of all people.
This kind of omission is not so much an attempt to squelch occult influence as it is sometimes a reflection of the absolute lack of interest that many mainstream journalists and historical writers have in the occult tradition. It's boring to them, it's not something that they were ever educated to look at, to examine, or to consider as a fount of ideas. So I would say it's less been suppressed than it has been absolutely overlooked due to the conformity of our intellectual culture.
Smoley: If you have no interest in a subject — which is highly legitimate; there are plenty of subjects I have no interest in — the least you could do is shut up about it, because you don't really know anything about it and you're just going to make an ass of yourself in front of someone who knows. But even intellectuals who take any personal interest in New Age ideas will very carefully conceal it, sometimes even from themselves. Or occasionally they seem to have a certain kind of mental partition in them whereby they say, "Yeah, I'm interested in this, but this has nothing to do with any sort of intellectual reality. It's just my own personal little quirk." So the intellectual world is by far more schizophrenic about these topics than most other parts of the culture, where there's a lot of openness to it.
Horowitz: That brings us back to an element of Supernatural. In the opening essay of the book, when you write about some of your earlier encounters with Kabbalah, you make an interesting note, which is to point out that while writers frequently make a practice of disguising or changing names and places, you recorded everything as you encountered it, in this article, in which you meet a kind of master of wisdom, back in your Oxford days, who was steeped in the study of Kabbalah. So it was obvious, both from that note and from your positioning it at the end of the essay, that it was purposeful. What did you have in mind there?
Smoley: There's been a lot of writing about these subjects that partially explains the kind of contempt that occult and New Age ideas have been exposed to: people who write about it are sometimes very fishy about details. They don't want to mention people by name, and I wanted to make sure that I wouldn't do that. These are people who are alive, were alive, and whom I knew personally. I haven't changed or disguised any details, so there's no need to speculate on who they really were.
To take a counterexample, there were H.P. Blavatsky's Masters, whoever they were, and Blavatsky felt the need to disguise their identity; they may have disguised their own identities for their own purposes. But it got to the point where people just didn't believe they existed at all, and that really hurt Blavatsky's movement. She said at one point that she would rather be taken as a fraud than have the Masters' identify revealed or compromised, so she was aware of this issue, and chose to deal with it in the way she did. But from my own point of view, I wanted to have it be intellectually honest, to say, "This is what I experienced; this is where I experienced it," without a lot of magic-mirror stuff.
Horowitz: I do think it's important for people who write on occult and New Age themes from a serious perspective to be more self-disclosing, and I've committed myself to that. You know, I wrote Occult America as what might be called a "believing historian." I'm a critical believer. I spend much more time discouraging people from excesses than I do throwing myself into credulous belief, but I do feel that occult and esoteric practices represent an authentic and a serious religious tradition, and they're part of my life; although I was surprised that people would often come up to me and ask me what my position on all of this stuff was — did I actually believe any of it?
So I wasn't as disclosing as I thought in the first book, and in the new book on positive thinking, I'm much more self-revealing. I open the book by talking about some of my own commitment to these ideas, where it came from in my life, and some of my own experiences. I was nervous in doing so because I often find that the fee of entry to mainstream intellectual culture, or the mainstream media, is disavowal. To write about these subjects, you have to start by disavowing any authentic interest in them, so that you're not written off as some sort of a woo-woo type character.
But I think that we risk allowing ourselves to be defined by our critics, or by people who are unable to take any measure of the values or the qualities that emerge from occult and New Age movements, if we don't forthrightly speak to some of our own experiences and interests. I think it behooves serious writers today to do that, and it's also ethically important that we pull back from the overreliance on disguised or changed identities, and especially composite characters, or altered events or things of that nature, because I think that while those devices may have their place in certain circumstances, and while privacy and discretion is sometimes important, I believe that any followers of new religious movements, or any followers of esoteric, or occult, or New Age philosophies — because charges of chicanery, fairly or not, have been so often directed at these cultures – have a special obligation to try to be as straightforward as possible.
Smoley: I agree, and that was certainly part of the reason that I made that point in that particular essay. I think it had gone a bit too far in the matter of discretion or refusal to disclose. Now there might be good reason not to disclose certain things, whether they're ideas or identities, but in that case the solution is to simply not write about them rather than write about them in a coy way. A lot of books that have been written on these matters have had some element of that, and it leads people to disillusionment if they find out the facts are a little bit different than they've been portrayed.
Horowitz: Here's another kind of question. This is an issue that crops up around the edges of your essays in Supernatural. It seems to me that within the spiritual culture there are certain people who feel that tradition bestows seriousness, that antiquity bestows substance. And yet there are subjects in your book that may not necessarily have tradition at their back but are still very powerful.
A Course in Miracles is one of them. You talk about your Kabbalah teacher, Glyn, and you mention that he had some charts up in his apartment of the kabalistic tree of life and certain correspondences to Tarot images. Now there are lots of excellent Tarot scholars, some of whom are mutual friends, like Robert Place or Ronald Decker, who point out that Tarot may have some great substance to it but it did not make its appearance in the Western world as an esoteric tool, and its correspondences to Kabbalah, in the estimation of some historians, are paper thin, at best, and perhaps just a latter-day invention or novelty. And I want to ask you two questions here. The first is: specifically what do you think about that? And the second: is novelty a barrier to revelation? Does something have to have posterity, or ancient roots, to communicate a universal message, or speak to a real human need?"
Smoley: The historical dimensions of the Tarot have been explored a lot more than they had been a half century ago, and it looks like the Tarot was, to begin with, a game that people in Italy still play — tarocchi or tarocco. I gather it's a trick-taking game like whist, which itself is kind of like bridge without the bidding. I think that view of the Tarot makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn't necessarily mean it didn't come from an esoteric impulse. It would seem that the inspiration for the Tarot came from what were called the triomphi, which were triumphal pageants in medieval Italy, a lot of which had esoteric ideas at their core. Petrarch wrote a famous poem on the triomphi; obviously he thought there was a higher message in these forms of popular entertainment that were probably the source of the Tarot.
Whether the Tarot originally had anything to do with the Kabbalah is a good question. Scholars today would probably tend to think it didn't, and I can deal with that. But it is a problem. One reason occultism had such a bad reputation is that a lot of extravagant claims were made about it. Some of these traditions probably go back to Egypt. But even if some kind of initiatic line may, really does, go back to ancient Egypt — and no one would be able to know this — it would stand to reason that a lot of the ideas and concepts and formulations would change over that time. So you're not necessarily going to find anything that's recognizably ancient Egyptian there apart from some very general connections.
But people made all these claims about the Tarot and Hermeticism and said that this was the religion of the ancient Egyptians. They were believed for a while, and then when people started to doubt them, it brought the whole subject into disrepute. There have been a lot of charlatans and people talking out of both sides of their mouth in the world of esotericism, and that certainly is part of the reason for the reputation it has.
Horowitz: I think another part of the reason why the occult has suffered a poor reputation in the modern West is that it won't submit itself to a kind of "either/or" thinking. Occult tradition itself requires that you get your arms around a very broad number of factors. We're very accustomed in the West to saying something is either fact or fiction. It either has veracity or it's fantasy. The occult has traditionally resisted that kind measure; it's more subtle.
In the late Renaissance, the Hermetic literature, the literature that was attributed to the mythical sage Hermes Trismegistus, was thought to date back to earliest antiquity and when the timing was corrected to point out that the Hermetic literature in fact was produced in late antiquity, in the centuries immediately following the death of Christ, this body of writing was effectively written off in Western intellectual culture. And that was a huge mistake because the Hermetic literature, while it was, in fact, produced in late antiquity by Greek Egyptians living in Alexandria, was a precious, written record of what was very likely a much more antique oral tradition. And it has great value. But because it was written off as having been produced later than was originally thought, the result is that we have precious few really good translations of Hermetic literature.
People can't even agree on what belongs in the Hermetic canon. It's neglected wisdom and yet it represents a thread of what was probably a written version of a very ancient Egyptian tradition. It may have been bastardized, it may have passed through different hands, but it's something real and valuable. It seems to me one always gets into that kind of conundrum with occult topics. You have one element of the culture, either presently or historically, who says it's all nonsense — and might have some reason or cause for saying that — but you have a whole other body of facts and considerations that gets overlooked, and we lose our attachment to some very substantial and important things.
Smoley: In the Hermetic literature there's even some internal evidence that suggests that it was an attempt to capture the essence of certain types of Egyptian knowledge in the language of Greek philosophy, because Egyptian tradition was dying in the early centuries of the Christian era. There is a strange passage in one of the Hermetic texts that says, "Egypt, soon no one will know of your glories."
Horowitz: Yes, I used that as the epigraph to Occult America.
Smoley: I think what they were trying to do was recapitulate some of this knowledge in what was then the current philosophical terminology of the time and the language of the time, which was Greek. That was around the time when people were forgetting how to read hieroglyphics — the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphics seems to have vanished around the fourth or fifth centuries. Probably not coincidentally, that was the time of triumph of Christianity.
Anyway, the idea that these texts go back only two thousand years is not as problematic for us as it probably was in Renaissance times, when the appeal to authority and antiquity was much more important. Today authority basically comes from some kind of scientific or quasi-scientific validation — empirical experiments, quite apart from the fact that repeatable scientific experiments are simply not possible in many areas of knowledge. But in those days it was an appeal to authority, it was an appeal of a tradition, that had the most force, so that would make Hermetic literature seem vitally important. And when it lost that reputation of antiquity it lost some of its sheen and never really quite regained it, at least in the eyes of the educated world.
But tradition has its plusses and minuses; one of the latter is that it tends to get ossified. It can easily turn into something frozen and meaningless. What body in the Western world has more of a continuous tradition than the Catholic church? And yet for a lot of people the Catholic church doesn't have that much authority. The fact that it's ancient and there is some kind of continuous lineage that, if it doesn't go back to the time of Christ, certainly goes back pretty far — it just doesn't mean anything; the institution itself has become ossified and frozen and all living pith has been squeezed out of it.
Horowitz: A topic that comes up every now and then is whether we are poised for some sort of an occult revival in the early 21st century. I'm of different minds about it, frankly. A couple of years ago when people would ask me if I saw a new occult revival on the horizon I would say no. I absolutely did not. In fact, I was very concerned that large precincts of the New Age were giving themselves over to conspiracy theories, to a certain degree of paranoia, and other outposts of the New Age just couldn't run away fast enough from terms like New Age or occult or ESP, and they were desperate to try to appear serious, or to try one last ditch effort to make themselves appealing to the New York Times Book Review, which I'm afraid is never really going to work out.
And yet maybe, maybe I feel a little less grave about things today than I did a couple of years ago, if only because, by whatever labels people live under, I do see a lot of people in this country very freely adapting practices and ideas from different religious traditions and fashioning something very personal out of it all. Of course critics or cynics refer to this as "cafeteria religion," and yet I find something very appealing about what people critically call cafeteria religion.
I think we are living in an age of dissemination right now. This is not an age of secrecy, I don't think it's an age of large organizations, and I don't think it's an age of great teachers, but it is an age in which ideas are dispersed to large numbers of people and ingathered in new ways. I find in my own life, for example, a deep interest in meditation, a deep interest in the writings of Transcendentalism, a deep interest in the ideas of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, an interest in the writings of a brilliant spiritual thinker, who was not widely known, who died in 1992, named Vernon Howard. I find some of these things permeate my own family life, too. So if there's any part of me that feels there's something fresh bubbling up, it's in this determination with which people around the world, where they're able to, are selecting among different spiritual traditions, and doing so with great vigor. I'm interested to see what comes out of that.
Smoley: Like you, I work as a book editor: I work for Quest Books, which is an arm of the Theosophical Society. It's interesting to see what comes in unsolicited. Among the most common things that come in are books on reinterpreting Jesus. Whether it's in fictional form or whether it's some kind of attempt at stating the true teachings of Jesus, most of these are written by people who have very little expertise and are just not very knowledgeable, so the books aren't usually very good. But it's interesting to see that so many people feel compelled to make this effort, to reinterpret who Jesus was for themselves, rather than take what's handed to them. So I think that's one element of it, people simply reinventing and recasting religious traditions and even viewing very standard figures like Jesus in a completely different way.
Horowitz: Each night I've been reading my kids two pages out of The Jefferson Bible, and that was an early attempt on the part of a great thinker and statesman to come to a new reckoning of Jesus.
Smoley: It's always interesting when they try to do that, because Jesus has become something of a Rorschach blot. What you say about Jesus ends up saying more about you than it does about Jesus. There are some fairly basic facts known that most scholars would agree on, and there are a lot of holes in the story, which gives just enough data for people to fill in what they want Jesus to be.
For example, as I remember, Jefferson took out all of the miracles; the miracle stories for him were highly problematic. They still are for academic scholars. But in many corners of the New Age the miracle stories aren't really quite as problematic. What's acceptable in Jesus in terms of what he really said and did all tends to vary in terms of fashion and intellectual respectability. But I think people are recasting and reinventing their views of religious figures, and it is kind of a cafeteria spirituality, as it's sometimes called. But I think we're at a point where you have not only the right but the duty to create your own spirituality. The idea that you should take something handed down just because it has been handed down is no longer satisfying for many people, because they were asked to take a lot of things on faith that turned out to be not so true after all.
Horowitz: What was it that sealed your fate as a writer in the occult tradition? Obviously you could have gone in more traditional directions. What got you on this path?
Smoley: Well, it was certainly a matter of personal interest. In terms of a career decision, it really came in the '80s. I had a job for much of my twenties as an editor for a farm magazine in California, California being a very large agricultural state. It was a big industry and quite a powerful one, and I learned a great deal about it. What I know about political power and how it works comes from those years. But there was a point at which I left it, because I had just been there too long.
At the time I realized that I could pitch myself as an agricultural expert: there are plenty of experts who don't seem to know anything about the subjects they're experts in. But I decided this really wasn't interesting enough for me, important though it is, to really give the rest of my life to. So I thought I might as well start writing in areas that do interest me, and so I started sending out letters to various New Age publications. There were a lot more out there in those days — it was the time before the print industry had gone through the various crises that it has since — and I wrote for some of them. The magazine I ended up staying with was a magazine called Gnosis, which was about the Western esoteric traditions. It was published between 1985 and 1999. And eventually I became editor of that. Jay Kinney, my boss and collaborator, was the founder of the magazine. And I found that this was a lot more interesting than a lot of things I could do.
Moreover, I had to ask, "What is there a real need for?" Is there really a need for more political commentary? There are plenty of perfectly bright political writers and commentators out there — I might have my own take on it, but it's not a subject that's been sorely neglected or ignored, nor is it likely to be. But this definitely was. And I began to see more and more of an opening in it.
Also, to me the Western intellectual tradition as it now is seemed very barren. In an essay in Supernatural, and also in another book of mine called The Dice Game of Shiva, I talk a little bit about my experiences at Oxford. One thing I studied there was philosophy, and the philosophy there was incredibly arid. It was all a kind of warmed-over positivism. It was de rigueur for a philosopher to be an agnostic, or if you weren't really an agnostic you should at least act like one.
A lot of the skeptical Richard Dawkins-type attitude really comes out of British academe. More, I would say, than in America, where people are a little humbler about making categorical pronouncements, whereas the British tend to feel very comfortable doing that. For people like Dawkins and other skeptics — a lot of them are British incidentally, if you've noticed — that's their religion. That's the religion of the secular West, and it's gotten very influential. The new atheists and so on have become very prominent, largely, I think, because after the 2004 election they were convinced that the United States was about to be taken over by a theocracy. Although it didn't quite turn out that way, they all started writing books attacking religion because they were afraid the fundamentalists were going to take over the country.
Horowitz: The thing that disturbs me about the scholastic intellectual climate that you're describing is that it has given birth to a kind of very weakened, very bastardized strain of skepticism, which isn't skepticism at all. True skepticism is questioning. True skepticism is the ability to balance intellectual discretion with radical inquiry. I think that that was something the American philosopher William James helped instill in a generation of students. And that's becoming lost today.
Among many of the new atheists, or among many of the materialist skeptics, you often find not the wish to have a debate, and to win the debate, but the wish for there to actually be no debate. The thing I find corrupt is that many of these people don't want there to be an opposing side. They define their position as illuminated and other positions as delusory. And when you define the other side as delusion, it's almost wishing that no debate at all take place. You don't want to prevail, you simply don't want there to be a debate. I find that very dispiriting because, in that sense, they've defined a new kind of anti-intellectualism.
Smoley: The West has prided itself on its great intellectual freedom and its great open-mindedness, but for most of its history it's been remarkably totalitarian from an intellectual point of view. For a long time that was the doing of the church. While I'm sure the church would be entirely happy to have things go back to that day if they possibly could, they're not really the problem at this point, at least not in the way that they were. Instead you have the same kind of intolerance among atheists and agnostics. I mean, who is really an agnostic? There may be some, but the typical agnostic to all intents and purposes acts as if he knows the answer. "Obviously, I'm not willing to take a position on this, because it would be too laborious to prove that God doesn't exist. But for all intents and purposes I'm going to act as if God doesn't exist."
Horowitz: Right. And the typical agnostic always knows that the answer is never outside of materialism.
Smoley: That's right. Ironically, science itself has started to get very weird, and conclusions that they're drawing are suggesting that our ideas of material reality are pretty inaccurate. You would think that it would make people more humble.
This is an age when everything is reduced to brain states. Moods are brain states, psychological problems are brain states — all that kind of thing.
Horowitz: And religious conversion experiences are considered brain states.
Smoley: Right, but then the same thing would be true for scientific reasoning and scientific discovery. They're also just a question of brain states, and of what our senses represent to us. We know perfectly well that there are huge realms of physical reality that we just don't have any experience of. We can only see a very small part of the spectrum of light and vibration. We can hear another small chunk of it. We've managed to expand our capacities to see a little further by means of telescopes and so on, but we have no real reason to believe, and every reason to disbelieve, that this picture that we're getting is complete. And yet there's this schoolboyish attitude — that of the kid who's just learned the first law of thermodynamics — that you can explain everything through science. And no, it doesn't really look as if you can.
Horowitz: There was a humility in the idealist philosophers, which we've lost today, and that humility was the acknowledgment that ultimately the mind is limited by the experience of itself. It's a sensory organ that has a limitation. And I think there was a great deal of intellectual integrity and humility to that position. If nothing else, it made you keep searching.
Smoley: We haven't really ever dealt with the implications of Kant's philosophy, which was so revolutionary. He argued that our perceptions of reality are very much bound up with the nature of our own consciousness. Interestingly, the problem that he was most vexed by, and which is extremely vexing, was causation. What exactly is causation? Well, it turns out we don't really know too well what causation is. The philosophical explanations of it are pretty shaky, as Hume showed 200 years ago, which is what led Kant to some of his insights. But we don't really act on any of this. We act as if causation is some sort of fixed and real thing rather than a very arbitrary structure that our minds are placing on reality. The skeptical philosophers, the skeptical scientists are very much a part of that.
Horowitz: And that brings us back to what you are covering in Supernatural. We've used terms throughout this conversation like occult and New Age and esoteric, but in fact the topics that populate Supernatural are actually rejected forms of inquiry. Forms of inquiry that have nonetheless persisted throughout modern life.
Smoley: That's very true. All of the religious experience of humanity constitutes a huge body of data. If nothing else, it's information. Is it information in the sense that the results of a scientific experiment are? No, but it is empirical information, and not wanting to deal with it at all, to pretend it's all just some sort of hallucination to be written off without any real inquiry, is intellectually dishonest. It will be interesting. We talk about the future of these ideas. Is all this going to change? Is a new generation going to be more open-minded than the old generation has been? It's possible.
The generation that came of age in the '60s was certain that it was going to change everything for good. Pretty soon everything would be not only revolutionized but revolutionized in the way they wanted. And it never really worked out that way. People of that generation, I often sense, have a great deal of bitterness about it, because they didn't really get their way after all. But it's not as simple as that. As I said at the beginning of our conversation, I think a lot of these new currents have taken root; it's just that they haven't taken root in the ways and forms that people expected at that time.
Horowitz: Yes. And to write and speak about these currents in ways that are clear, whether pertaining to outsider forms of spirituality, or a metadata analysis of quantum physics experiments, to be able to document and clarify and speak about these things in plain ways is very important, because it keeps people's options open. As long as we're seeking, we don't get weighted down with labels; and when we get a label attached to us, or when we embrace a label, that seems to be when inquiry starts to die. When we claim tradition as a virtue by itself, and we feel somehow that we have reached a resting place because we've found a school or a tradition or a philosophy or an outlook, inquiry can start to wither. The thing I wish for my own children is that they grow up in the world where someone asks you "What is your religion?" and you don't have to have one at all. To me that would be very hopeful.
Smoley: I think we're pretty much there. There are a number of people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious, and people defining themselves as not religious at all are growing very rapidly as a population. Obviously this is more socially acceptable in certain parts of the country and certain cultural milieus than others. But I think that's definitely happening.
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Richard Smoley has over thirty-five years of experience in studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. His latest book, Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, was published in February 2013 by Tarcher/Penguin. He is also the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). Smoley is also the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books.
Mitch Horowitz is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin, the division of Penguin books dedicated to metaphysical literature. He is the author of Occult America (Bantam), which received the 2010 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. His new book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, is forthcoming from Crown in January 2014. Horowitz frequently writes on and discusses alternative spirituality in the national media, including CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, All Things Considered, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and CNN.com. He is online at: www.MitchHorowitz.com.
Image by Neon 23, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
Transcription by David Wilder.