Monday, September 28, 2009

The Enlightenment Triumphs: Esalen and America

"Esalen: America and the religion of no religion" --by Jeffrey J. Kripal

This article starts well back into history of ideas, for another look to at least the time of the 17th century in Europe. The impact of the Enlightenment, while not a de facto part of the major religions of the world has, in its own time, come into a major success. Success here is termed as the success of the insertion of an idea or ideas so powerful that they change the course of the development of human civilization.
For some of us in modern America who can trace our family and cultural ancestry back to the Europe of the Enlightenment, we will recognize that in the history of the West, and of the beginnings of America, these ideas proved crucial in the formation of the United States of America.

Indeed our Constitution and Bill of Rights hark directly back to Europe, in particular to France and England, as well as Germany. Read in their own context, these documents, for example, are masterpieces of Enlightened thought. And they are our very own, American. Read the US Constitution and Bill of Rights; note the assertions made in those documents as a manifesto of the 'enlightened' thinker.

Some define the Enlightenment period as: Enlightenment is a call for human lives to be directed by rational thought and science, rather than by faith, monarchy or superstition.
The Rationalists, as they are also called, held a strong belief in the power of human reason to change society and free persons for the pursuit of life, liberty and justice.
Individuals were not to be constrained by custom or arbitrary authority; in the world of Reason all was to be proved and solved by science and technology. Religion was to have little, if any, role.

The advent of the American Revolution and the French and English revolutions that followed solidified the presence of this new way of acting, thinking and being in the world.
In his recent book Esalen, by Jeffrey J. Kripal, professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, located in Houston, Texas, examines the early American ideas and attitudes that wrought a society which ultimately came to accept a belief, or a group of beliefs fashioned into a new "American mysticism," some nowadays call Esalen.

True to its heritage the "founders" of Esalen saw that the simple re-arrangement of existing religious bodies and institutions would not effect the great social changes they desired, nor would the universities as a social system, reap the rewards of increased scholarship. Thus writes Kripal, "the approach [of] Esalen as an American mystical tradition has changed the rules of the game." More specifically he writes that "the old rules had to go. Esalen thus chose to operate with modern democratic principles, individualistic values, celebration of science... secular notions of religion as primarily a private affair of personal choice, and creativity and socially liberal agendas... for the past 50 years, Esalen sets out to embody a religion of no religion"

Yet science and technology has not as yet solved human grief or suffering. Indeed a tromp through the 20th century reveals that increased science and technology have led to increased barbarism and killing on the most massive scale in all of human history. Science clearly cannot be the answer to what ails the human race. Curiously, in the thinking of some, "the religion of no religion," is the religion of all religions. Kripal goes on to explain. He says, "in this mystical humanism... one finds in the play of the divine, that, embracing all paths is an effective path." Like buckshot in the dark, one is bound to hit a target.

By refusing to identify with any single truth,
and by preferring "a metaphorical or symbolic understanding of all religious language... [Esalen] inhabits a different existential religious position..." Thus a religion of no religion; a religion of all religion. The ideas joined together to form Esalen are without any single historical tradition, beyond Enlightenment; such a deconstructive, revisionist view of human civilization is powerful, even when not fully engaged.

Yet it is deeply American to want as the Constitution reads, a separation of Church and State-- so, "no one captures the flag." In political terms when this notion succeeds, it results in a democratic pluralism in which no one group stands before any other; in religious terms, in a sort of "metaphysical secret," since religion is a private matter per the mythology of Esalen. Thus saying that "we hold our dogmas lightly" is a form of "this same mystical secularism," writes Kripal. This is embodied in the person who holds himself as 'spiritual, but not religious.' Does this person know, or care anything about enlightenment?

Recalling that the drive for religious liberty, in large measure, propelled many American patriots forward, and while some would argue that over the course of the past 300 years, the democratic and egalitarian forms visioned by the American Founding Fathers to free the person from political domination, from tyranny, from monarchy, from state instituted religion, have by and large resulted in some quarters of America, in continuation of the religious notions and practice which preceded the Founding Fathers; in other quarters, it has enveloped a sort of dream, a utopian hope to counter what many presently experience as religion in America today.

Humanists seek pattern, beauty and meaning, wonder within themselves; science, meanwhile, pursues cause, and explanations in the world around the self. In extension of reason or Rationalist thought, faith then is not in their vocabulary. Esalen has dedicated itself, however to the fusing of the spiritual and the scientific, the rational and the wondrous. And yet Esalen seeks to, in the American way, fuse and celebrate the " fullest scope of human knowledge and experience, even and especially, if those mediating fusions were subversive to traditional science and traditional religion. Of course they often were." John Heideger, Esalen teacher, wrote, "all creation reveals meaningful interconnectedness."

Such paradoxes exert a profound understanding of history. In this mind, history is neither linear nor narrative; rather it is creative, re-visioning, some times mysterious, and truly unknowable, setting the stage for the teaching of the new way, the new American history according to Esalen. The American Mormon has done it, the Scientologists have roared onto the American scene along with the Seventh Day Adventist and the Christian Scientists, among others, so why not?

1 comment:

Simple said...

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