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Richard Smoley's Blog

Super Natural: A Review

The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2016.

A review

Disclosure: Tarcher/Penguin is the publisher of four of my books, including the forthcoming How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible. Mitch Horowitz, editor for Super Natural, is my editor as well. I have never met Whitley Strieber, although he graciously hosted me on his radio program, Dreamland, and we have occasionally exchanged e-mails. I have never met Jeffrey J. Kripal or communicated with him.

Note: This book should not be confused with my own book,
Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, which is also published by Tarcher/Penguin.

In 1957 C.G. Jung wrote, “The information at the disposition of the public is so scant that one just does not know enough to decide with certainty about the physical existence of Ufos.”

Today, nearly sixty years later, we have not advanced much beyond that.

Thus it’s gratifying to see this new offering from Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal. Strieber is one of the best-known UFOs contactees, and his 1987 book Communion brought the subject of alien contact to the center of public attention. Kripal is a professor of religion at Rice University who focuses on contemporary spiritual phenomena. His previous books include Esalen: The Religion of No-Religion, and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.

The authors write in alternating chapters, each in the first-person singular. Strieber describes some of his experiences in one, while in the next Kripal suggests how we might look at, and study, such things. He argues that they must be taken seriously, without facile and premature dismissals. This is refreshing. To the extent that they have been given scholarly attention at all, paranormal encounters have mostly been written off in some pseudoclinical way (“What sort of disorder must someone have to experience delusions like this?”).

From a literary point of view, dual voices in the first-person singular are hard to pull off. Inevitably there is a sense of disjuncture. (I have tried to edit one or two books of this kind myself, usually without success.) But the book does hold together as a coherent statement. In terms of style, Strieber, a best-selling author, is by far the more accomplished writer. He is in his way the Stephen King of nonfiction: everything he touches he makes disturbing. And the material is certainly that: an ear implant made of quasi-organic material; ecstatic sex with an alien; evil blue kobolds appearing in the bedroom. One has no way of knowing whether these events really happened or not, but they do have an eerie plausibility.

Kripal is a less graceful writer. Although he avoids academic jargon, his style sometimes displays a jocular colloquialism (“Stuart was waiting for his roommate to take a pee”; “Go Girl Genius!”) that strikes an off note. It is rather like having to call a politician by his nickname—Jeb or Bernie or Ted—to make you feel as if you know or like him more than you do. Kripal also has the occasional habit—pandemic in academe—of throwing flashy neologisms at the wall to see what will stick: “empirical imaginal”; “symbolic imaginal”; “erotics.” To his credit, he resorts to this measure less than many scholars.

In terms of substance, there is much of value in this book. Kripal, for example, provides a superb outline of materialists’ tactics for dismissing paranormal claims. I will quote this passage at length:

“One confronts the ideological debunker (as opposed to the fair and open-minded skeptic), standard scientist, or conventional materialist who seeks to protect a flatland materialist worldview by simply keeping off the table all of the fantastic stuff that suggests that we are living in a super natural [sic] world that is anything but flat. There are many protective strategies employed here. Five of the most common are: (1) the automatic conflation or unconscious identification of science with materialist interpretations of science; (2) the invocation of the adjective ‘anecdotal’ to dismiss these events as somehow meaningless and not part of the real empirical experienced world; (3) a naive understanding of mind that classifies all visionary phenomena as simple ‘imaginary’ products of brain matter (without the slightest clue how this works); (4) the public shaming of sincere and serious people from all walks of life, who see or say otherwise, and, related to the last, (5) a certain historical amnesia with respect to all of those scientists and intellectuals who have been fascinated by the unexplained and have seen these phenomena not as meaningless anecdotes to dismiss and demean but as important clues to a future superscience.

“At the end of the day, though, most of these objections boil down to a simple (and simplistic) attempt to control what is on the table so that the only permissible evidence left there is evidence that supports the materialist assumptions.” (Emphasis Kripal’s.)

This passage alone is practically worth the price of the book.

I certainly found Super Natural thought-provoking in a way that few recent books have been. Admittedly my line of thinking does not always go in the way the authors might intend. For example, Kripal encourages us to “‘make a cut’ between the appearances themselves [i.e., paranormal experiences] and may, or may not, lie behind them. Whitley practices such a phenomenological cut naturally and effortlessly when he writes . . . that ‘I am reporting a perception, not making a claim, and there is a world of difference between those two approaches.’ Indeed! That’s the phenomenological cut.”

This step is no doubt necessary, but it does not take us as far as we might think. Phenomenology entails ontology. By this I mean that the minute you have an experience, you are immediately forced to decide whether it was real or not: Was I dreaming? Did I imagine it? Am I going crazy? Indeed we see Strieber doing this constantly. After one experience, for example, he writes, “I looked in on my brother. He was sleeping peacefully, so I attributed it to a waking dream on my part and forgot about it.”

In some respects I found this book unsatisfying. In his chapters, Strieber, as usual, tells his story well. His writing is persuasive at least to this extent: even if only a very small number of these experiences were true, they would overturn the standard materialistic worldview. But because he focuses so much on these experiences, many of them will already be familiar to readers of his previous books. Instead I wish he had given us more of a more comprehensive picture of how sees the UFO phenomenon as a whole. For example, at one point he tells of his meeting with a General Arthur Exon, who tells him, in regard to the 1947 Roswell event, that “everyone from Truman on down knew what we had found was not of this world within twenty-four hours of our finding it.” I wish Strieber had gone more into matters of this kind.

Kripal’s chapters, necessarily more theoretical, present problems of their own. He is quite happy, for example, to connect “Indian Tantric traditions and American abduction literature,” but all he can tell us about Tantra is filtered through the work of Western scholars such as David Gordon White. So we have the Tantric tradition—which may indeed have some very useful things to tell us about these matters—but we have it at third-hand, through White’s scholarship rather than through any kind of discussion with a living Tantric master.

It is true that there are difficulties here. The Tantric master who might have something valuable to say about paranormal phenomena is probably not the one who is advertising Tantric vacation retreats in the back pages of Yoga Journal. The most reliable and authoritative exponents of the esoteric traditions, Eastern and Western, are not the ones who are writing facile best-sellers about (say) seven sure keys to happiness the Kabbalistic way.

How could it be otherwise? If you were a mystical adept, would you bother to appear on “Oprah”? Very likely you would want the complete opposite, especially since for these things, as Strieber so bitterly learned, the usual response is vituperation and ridicule.

In any event, Kripal’s analysis often displays a certain oversimplification and a tendency to confuse related ideas. Unlike Kripal, I am very far from sure that UFO phenomenon has anything to do with the soma pneumatikon (spiritual body) mentioned by Paul the apostle (1 Corinthians 15:45-49). In fact I rather doubt it does. In such cases comparisons are far more misleading than they are helpful.

I certainly believe that the esoteric traditions need to be explored and related to these phenomena. Super Natural invokes the usual cast of characters: Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme, Hildegard of Bingen. But I am suspicious of the tendency to look at paranormal issues purely with reference to the esoteric traditions of the past. Academics in these fields to believe, or pretend, that there are no living representatives of these traditions that could be usefully consulted. This unhealthy custom may have started with Gershom Scholem, who treated the Jewish Kabbalah with the greatest seriousness—up to the eighteenth century. If he ever talked to any contemporary Kabbalists, he said little or nothing about them.

For his part Strieber mentions that he studied for fifteen years with the Gurdjieff Foundation, an organization that teaches and practices the esoteric system of G.I. Gurdjieff. It would have been interesting and useful to hear how Strieber related his experiences to Gurdjieff’s teachings.

Kripal urges us to “say again”: “Decide for yourself whether the story that your cultural trance-forms have put you in is a story you really want to live in. If it is not, then wake up out of that story, step off the page, and begin to think about telling another, but try to tell this story in a new way.”

Rhetorically this is inspiring—but not that inspiring. We today resemble the Athenians that Paul met on the Areopagus—always in search of something new. At this point nothing is quite so stale as this newness. The “new paradigm” trumpeted in certain human-potential circles is one that was already starting to look shopworn in 1990. It is rather like the art world, which is all about “subverting conventional forms.” These days, what is more conventional in art than subverting conventional forms?

It is not that I am opposed to rebelling from “cultural trance-forms.” But I doubt that such tactics are likely to take us very far. You try to pull out of the Chinese finger trap, but that just makes it tighter.

In any event, paranormal phenomena—particularly those related to UFOs—remain very much an enigma. Today it is impossible for the ordinary person to sort through the lies, disinformation, and delusions and see what is really going on here. It may be impossible even for the president of the United States—which would explain Barack Obama’s recent cryptic comments about UFOs. Intellectually, we are nowhere near to sorting out this material. The first step—and one that many will still not take—is to look at such material honestly and fairly, without blind acceptance or smug derision.

Thus Super Natural is a welcome addition to the discourse. Despite my criticisms, the book did stimulate my thinking in a number of new directions, not all of which I have discussed here. And the notes mention several books that I am glad to be made aware of. Finally, the authors are to be commended for their courage in exploring this topic—Strieber for discussing his weird and often humiliating experiences, and Kripal for standing up in an academic context and speaking about these subjects without contempt or ridicule.
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