[Final Draft] Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity

Below I’ve written a paper using the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead to construct a secular divinity. For Deleuze, this is an especially serious act of buggery on my part. Deleuze of course approved of that method in his own projects, but I wonder if he would approve of the baby jesus child that I’m trying to make him have in this paper. I’m directing Deleuze’s demand that we philosophers think immanently by believing in the world toward an interpretation of the Christian religion and faith. This is exactly what Whitehead does in Adventures of Ideas where he looks to the martyr Jesus for the exemplification of something that the philosopher Plato first divined as an ideal. Plato made a world-historical intellectual discovery, as Whitehead puts it, or as Deleuze would say he created a concept that has continued to reverberate across the ages. Where traditional monotheistic theologists create a concept of divinity as a transcendent and omnipotent imposer of form and order and law upon an entirely separate derivative world, with Plato you have the idea of divine immanence in the world working through persuasion–through desire, eros, beauty, and love–to transform the world “slowly and in quietness,” as Whitehead puts it, rather than by hurling thunderbolts from heaven. Plato invented a new idea of God working within the world as love, which is a kind of power, but not the power of brute force. God is no longer a creator who shapes the whole thing from outside. Rather, God is involved in, caught up with the process of cosmogenesis and spatiotemporal becoming, such that the world is as necessary for the nature of God as God is for the nature of the World… 

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Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity


cover of process paper


“Behold, I am making all things new.”

-Revelation 21:5


The purpose of this essay is to unpack Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions to the task of re-thinking religion in an increasingly fenced in, post-everything world no longer certain of its own secularity.1 “The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world,” argued Whitehead in 1927, “is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience.”2 With a similar sense of urgency, Deleuze (and Guattari) argued in 1991 that, in an age when “we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world,” philosophy’s most pressing task is to “give birth to new modes of existence, closer to animals and rocks,” modes of existence which renew “[belief] in this world, in this life.”3 Deleuze’s emphasis on immanence as against transcendence, on this world as opposed to the next, should not be read as a blanket dismissal of spiritual practice. On the contrary, for Deleuze, the creative thinking demanded by philosophical inquiry invites infinite cosmic forces into the finite mind, making philosophy akin to an “initiatory…spiritual ordeal.”4 Philosophers are those who dare to welcome such dangerous forces, risking not only their academic reputations,5 but the habit-formed security of their egos. Philosophers do not simply reflect ideas, they allow ideas to enter into and transform them:

This is because one does not think without becoming something else, something that does not think–an animal, a molecule, a particle–and that comes back to thought and revives it.6

Deleuze calls for a radical break with all forms of commonsense–whether it be religious, artistic, philosophical, or scientific–through the intercession of concepts with personalities who are willing to continually confront the absolute horizon of the plane, and so who are able to fold the infinite movements of Nous and Physis back into one another “in such a way that the plane of immanence is ceaselessly being woven, like a gigantic shuttle.”7 Philosophy, unlikes dogmatic religions, does not paint the firmament on an umbrella, rather it “[tears] open the firmament and [plunges] into the chaos.”8 As we will see, however, philosophy’s role is to not only to descend into the underworld, but to return with the good news.

Whitehead, for his part, has Jamesian tendencies that would at first glance seem to ally his philosophical efforts to the pragmatic interests of commonsense. “The philosophy of organism,” he wrote, “is an attempt, with the minimum of critical adjustment, to return to the concepts of ‘the vulgar.’”9 Whitehead made this comment in the context of a skeptical attack on behalf of commonsense experience mounted against the mechanistic abstractions of Newton (who dismissed the mathematically-naïve sense-based opinions of “the vulgar”) and the transcendental abstractions of Kant (who opposed derivative sensory appearances to ultimate substantial reality). Whitehead was well aware of the danger of hyperbole.10 In this case, however, it seems he fell prey to the danger of understatement. The “critical adjustment” his cosmology requires of the opinions of modern people can hardly be described as “minimal.” By the time Whitehead has finished his adventure in cosmologizing, not only will God have become creaturely, but energy vectors will have been transformed into emotional currents and atoms will have been endowed with life. Further, the very substance of the soul, the continuity of personal identity, will have become but a precariously linked “route of presiding occasions…[wandering] from part to part of the brain,” always vulnerable to dislocations and interruptions which “in primitive times [were] interpreted as demoniac possession.”11 Rather than having been made in heaven by God and beginning life fully-formed and eternally the same, the soul comes to matter to us precisely because it is what is always at risk, “what might be captured, reduced to wandering, enslaved.”12 No longer given as one, already whole, the soul becomes a social value to be achieved, a swarming community of larval subjects needing to be repeatedly composed or concresced out of the chaosmic raw materials of life (i.e., intensive percepts and affects). “Being a soul” in Whitehead’s process ontology is deeply problematic, even dangerous, because one never simply is but must become-soul. “Losing one’s hold [going mad],” in the context of Whitehead’s psychology, “becomes…the paradigmatic disaster, or else…the precondition of any initiation or any spiritual transformation.”13 It would seem that neither the traditional theologian nor the classical physicist, much less the average modern business owner, government employee, or homemaker, could feel at home in such a strange Whiteheadian universe! 
 Both Deleuze and Whitehead generated concepts rooted in non-ordinary problematics, which is to say that the solutions distilled by their concepts problematize naïve egoic subjectivity by acting as alchemical catalysts that alter not only the contents of conscious thoughts, but the unconscious imaginative background of thought itself, thereby repositioning thinking on some as yet undetected plane of immanence. They are hermetic thinkers whose philosophizing sought not rational explanation, but the instigation of worldly renewal and the intensification of the depth of aesthetic experience. It is important in this context to forge connections between their efforts to creatively transform commonsense experience and the wider projects of establishing coherent social values and just political institutions. Deleuze’s philosophy has been criticized for being “politically irrelevant” by Peter Hallward due to its perceived “otherworldliness.”14 Isabelle Stengers has also criticized Deleuze’s tendency to celebrate the adventures of solitary, heroic creators who fearlessly dive into chaos while at the same time downplaying the conditions provided by their habitat and their inevitable need for social recuperation upon returning to consensual reality:

…all creators have learned [what] makes them able to “dive” without being swallowed. A dive cannot be improvised, but demands equipment. Unlike those who may happen to “sink” into chaos, creators are those who know what they experience “matters,” and that they will be able to recount something of what has happened to them, that is to come back…even from the land of the dead.15

Stengers’ contrasts Deleuze’s celebration of unhinged creativity with Whitehead’s tremendous respect for history and continual emphasis upon the importance of acquiring new habits in a way that is sensitive to the habitat they depend upon. “Each task of creation,” writes Whitehead, “is a social effort, employing the whole universe.”16 While Hallward’s claim may or may not be justified, Stengers’ modest Whiteheadian corrective to Deleuze’s penchant for skinny dipping in the Acheron allows us to receive much insight and inspiration from the latter without forgetting the perhaps more pertinent imperative of the former regarding the worldly responsibility of the philosopher:

…[to] seek the evidence for that conception of the universe which is the justification for the ideals characterizing the civilized phases of human society.17

When it comes to the influence of the mainline religious traditions of the West upon philosophy, both Whitehead and Deleuze lob devastating rebukes. Whitehead’s ire is almost always directed at the “idolatrous” habit of conceiving of God along the lines of an all-powerful imperial ruler or distant unmoved mover.18 “Religion,” writes Whitehead, “has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination.”19 Deleuze also mocks the idea of a “great despot” or “imperial State in the sky or on earth” typical of monotheistic commonsense.20 While this particular habit of religious thought is deemed dispensable, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison religious values outright, despite calls by the modern-minded to found civilization instead upon the abstractions of mechanistic science:

Unfortunately for this smug endeavor to view the universe as the incarnation of the commonplace, the impact of aesthetic, religious, and moral notions is inescapable. They are the disrupting and the energizing forces of civilization.21

In particular, Whitehead points to the “Galilean origin of Christianity” as an example of a non-despotic religious persona: Christ. Christ “neither rules, nor is unmoved,” but “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.”22 Deleuze also singles out Christian philosophy, both for praise and for disparagement. Those pre-modern Christian philosophers (like Cusa, Eckhart, and Bruno) who were bold enough to challenge church authority and risk their lives by injecting at least a dose of immanence into Physis and Nous still refused in the end to “compromise the transcendence of a God to which immanence must be attributed only secondarily.”23 Later modern Christian philosophers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard), though they were still men of faith, created concepts that recharged, rather than diminished, immanence. They were

concerned no longer with the transcendent existence of God but only with the infinite immanent possibilities brought by the one who believes that God exists.24

Deleuze suggests that, in the modern period, belief replaced knowledge as the dominant image of thought.25 The “will to truth” that had guided philosophy for so long lost its viability, as with the new technical power of modernity came also a crippling epistemic skepticism, an inability to grasp truth outright. No longer could the productivity of thought be “guaranteed in advance by the inherent connection between the good and the true”; rather, Deleuze believed that philosophical thought in the modern period required “trespass and violence,” treating the thinker of thought not as a trustworthy friend, but as an enemy.26 Truth is now to be inferred at best, tracked with suspicion but without certainty. The new plane of belief is not simply destructive or crippling, however: it is also the condition for the possibility of new forms of mental and physical experience. As with the Christian thinkers of immanence, Deleuze emphasized the “unforeseeable directions of thought and practice” that belief makes possible, directions to be judged not based on the object of a belief, but on a belief’s effect.27 A related feature of modern philosophy for Deleuze results from thought’s encounter and struggle with the unrepresentable natural forces underlying perceptual and affective experience, forces which paradoxically “must but cannot be thought.”28 Given modern thought’s confrontation with the infinite forces of the universe, its concepts can no longer be understood to represent a stable reality or to mirror a harmonious nature; rather, “what matters…in an idea is…the range of experimental possibility it opens onto.”29

Whitehead shares with Deleuze a sense for the importance of experimental thinking. In the context of religious experimentation, asking whether or not God really exists becomes irrelevant. What becomes important is the sort of thoughts and practices that belief in God makes possible for the believer, and for the society to which the believer belongs. “The power of God,” writes Whitehead, “is the worship He inspires.”30 “The fact of the religious vision,” he continues,

and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.31

The “religious vision,” as Whitehead understands it, “gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension,” providing life with “something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”32 The vision, though aesthetically and emotionally ultimate, cannot be monopolized by the limited doctrines of any religion in particular. It can be said, however, that the rising or falling tide of each religious tradition through the ages depends upon the ability of its concepts, symbols, rituals, myths, architecture, and personae (etc.) to inspire worship in such a way that the intuition of God is called forth naturally from spiritual recesses deeper than can be rationally understood.33 The psychology of modern civilization, from Whitehead’s point of view, has little patience for the traditional image of God as an omnipotent dictator. In this respect, such images are “fatal,” since “religion collapses unless its main positions command immediacy of assent.”34

More often than any religious image per say, Deleuze’s target is the illusion of transcendence as such, which results whenever we “[interpret immanence] as immanent to Something.”35 The illusion of transcendence resonates with 3 other illusions, or “thought mirages”: 1) universality, which results when the immanent planomenon is conceived as immanent “to” a concept, 2) eternity, which results when we forget that concepts must be created and are not waiting in the sky for thinkers to discover, and 3) discursiveness, which results when concepts are reduced to logical propositions.36 These illusions become a thick fog obscuring the plane of immanence, condemning the philosophical and religious thinker alike to continually grasp after immanence as though it might be made immanent “to” something, whether it be “the great Object of contemplation [the neo-Platonic One], the Subject of reflection [the Kantian transcendental subject], or the Other subject of communication [the Husserlian intersubjective transcendental].”37 The plane of immanence cannot itself be thought, since it provides the very condition for thought.38 Whenever a thinker believes he has thought the plane, we can be sure he has only contemplated, reflected, or communicated an idol.

The pure immanence of the philosophical planomenon can be likened to the friend, i.e., Wisdom, She who provides the condition for the possibility of philosophy.39 The friend is the paradigmatic “conceptual persona” of philosophy. Conceptual personae, according to Deleuze, have a “somewhat mysterious…hazy existence halfway between concept and preconceptual plane, passing from one to the other.”40 In the case of the friend, it must be asked what it could mean to become friendly if the friend had not once been, and could not become again, a stranger. On the philosophical planomenon, the friend and the stranger, the thought and its thinker, never engage in discussion with one another. Discussion is useless to philosophy, since all a discussion implies is that concepts have been mistaken for propositions, as if they could be deliberately expressed in sentence form (the illusion of discursiveness).41 Once the discursive mirage has captured a thinker, thought can only circle about itself in dialectical pursuit of a shallow truth extracted from the agonism of opinion.42 The more interesting dialectics end in aporia (Plato’s aporietic dialogues and Kant’s table of antinomies); or even more interestingly, they swallow up opposed opinions into the absolute as necessary moments in the historical unfolding of the eternal concept (Hegel). But there can be no dialectic that resolves itself in absolute identity–this would mean the end of philosophy (which is why Hegel claimed no longer to be a philosopher, but to have become wise). Both the friend and the stranger are necessary illusions for philosophy: philosophy, in other words, “requires this division of thought between [friend and stranger].” The philosophical creator of concepts must remain divided against himself at the same time that he befriends the image of thought projected in the division. The progress of philosophy depends upon a philosopher’s willingness to dwell within (without becoming immanent “to”) continual crises of agonism and reconciliation, meeting therein a proliferation of strange friends and friendly strangers. Deleuze writes:

It is as if the struggle against chaos does not take place without an affinity with the enemy, because another struggle develops and takes on more importance–the struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself.43

To dwell in crisis is no easy task. But this is the task required of a modern thinker, especially a Christian philosopher who has accepted the risks of thinking God’s immanence. To secularize the concept of God, as Whitehead and Deleuze demand, is to uncover “thought’s relationship with the earth,”44 to dig up what has been buried beneath the foggy illusions of transcendence estranging humanity from its home. To think with the earth is still a creative act; but it is also a matter of recovery, or resurrection, and of uncovering, or apocalypse.45

Christian philosophy’s paradigmatic conceptual persona is Christ, “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”46 At first blush, He may seem, like other personae, to possess a less than incarnate, hazy existence somewhere between the immanence of the plane (matter/earth) and the transcendence of the concept (spirit/heaven). As John said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”47:––Traditional theology has all too often emphasized Christ’s transcendence, making Him more spirit than human (and making humanity more sinful than blessed).

Despite His initially ghostly outline, Christ’s ideality cannot be understood to be in any way abstract: He is rather an (the?) intercessor, the seed of a peculiarly Christian mode of thinking. “A particular conceptual persona,” writes Deleuze, “who perhaps did not exist before us, thinks in us.”48 Of Christ it is said that He both was in the beginning before us and will be in the end after us. His omnipresence lays out a uniquely immanent image of thought based on incarnation. The Christian plane of immanence demands a creation of concepts whose central problematic, or spiritual ordeal, is death, and whose solution, should it be realized, is an earthly form of resurrection. The Christian planomenon is unique because it is founded upon the birth, death, and resurrection of God on earth, which is to say it depends upon the possibility of the becoming-immanent of transcendence itself. Only then can the Christian thinker become inhabited by living thinking. “My old self,” writes Paul,

has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.49

Like the philosophical friend, Christ’s teachings can appear strange. “I tell you,” He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”50 How can an earthly human being–normatively tied to family, friend, race, and nation–possibly live up to such an impossible, indeed infinite, demand? It is a demand that does violence to opinion and breaks with all commonsense. Nonetheless, this demand provides the peculiarly Christian problematic, an ordeal whose resolution requires becoming-incarnate, and thereby participating in bringing about an as yet unrealized providential plan(e), “on earth, as it is in heaven.”51 This is the strangeness of the “Galilean origin” of Christianity mentioned by Whitehead, where the transcendent power of divine coercion is replaced by the immanent love of divine persuasion. While Whitehead did not believe it possible, or even desirable, to construct a doctrinal unity out of the world’s diversity of religions, he did believe

that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook.52

In other words, while humanity will certainly continue to disagree as to the particular qualitative aspects of religious facts and their proper moral interpretations, some coordination of these facts along a single plane of immanence may at least be attempted. Whitehead’s cosmological candidate for the ultimate religious theme is Divine Eros. His philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.” 53 Given humanity’s recently seized god-like powers of technology, sustaining our planetary civilization would seem to depend upon the realization of such a secular “earth ethos.” Our civilization is in dire need of a world-renewing metaphysical consensus regarding the divine nature. If we are unable to believe in the divinity of the world, our collective behavior runs the risk destroying that world. The spirit of religion, though it is from time to time “explained away, distorted, and buried,” has never once entirely left us, according to Whitehead, “since the travel of mankind towards civilization.”54 Whenever religion takes flight from worldly concerns, it is the sure sign of a world nearing its end.

Whitehead traces the gradual realization of the concept of divine immanence through a “threefold revelation” stretching approximately twelve hundred years: 1) it begins in Athens with a intellectual innovation by Plato, 2) then passes into Jerusalem where the person of Jesus Christ exemplified the apocalyptic (ἀποκάλυψις- to “un-cover”) power of Plato’s concept, 3) and finally it culminates in a metaphysical interpretation of these events generated during the formative period of Christian theology.55

Whitehead regularly praises Plato’s depth of intuition. Just as often, he admits Plato’s failure to achieve a coherent overall statement of his conceptual scheme: “the greatest metaphysician, the poorest systematic thinker.”56 It is for one concept in particular, though, that Whitehead was lead to crown Plato “the wisest of men”: the idea that

the divine persuasion [Eros] is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such a measure of harmony as amid brute forces [Chaos] it was possible to accomplish.57

It was this idea, conceived in principle by Plato, that the person of Jesus Christ was to reveal in actual deed. Though the historical records of His life are scattered and inconsistent, “there can be no doubt,” writes Whitehead, “as to what elements…have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:

The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.58

Finally, it was the early Church fathers who made the first sustained effort to grope towards a coherent account of God’s persuasive agency in the world.59 The major fruit of their labor was the doctrine of the trinity (the mutual immanence of the theos-anthropos-cosmos multiplicity); more specifically, their most important contribution was the direct statement of the divine immanence in the world in the third person of the trinity. Unfortunately, despite this theological statement, the Church fathers failed to attain adequate metaphysical generality because they still exempted an infinite God from the categories applicable to the finite actual occasions involved in the becoming of the spatiotemporal world.60 Like Plato in many of his written dialogues, they were unable to disavow the notion of a derivative physical world poorly imitating the Ideas eternally realized in the mind of a disincarnate God.

Deleuze’s work has been read as an attempt to “overturn” Plato.61 In any attempt to “overturn” Plato it should be remembered that little more is required than continuing to “turn over” Plato–as in continuing to turn over the pages of his dialogues to be reminded that, like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes.62 As Emerson put it:

the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him.63

Plato was equal parts poet and philosopher. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Reading him, like reading the metaphysical experiments of Whitehead or Deleuze, is an infinite interpretive activity. For Whitehead, the entire history of European philosophy can be safely characterized as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”64 This despite the fact that Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language.” “[Setting] down [one’s views] in written characters” is especially denounced.65 Written words lay in their parchment graves, still, silent, and dead. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. 
 On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s unwritten secret teaching had something to do with the way that

ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen.66

If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato! 
 Deleuze’s reading destroys the Platonic two-world theory of perfect ideas poorly copied by sensory images, but he is allured by Plato’s alternative conception of the idea of pure Difference. Where Aristotle reduces difference to that derived from the commonsense comparison of similars, understanding Plato requires risking the sanity of one’s mind in pursuit of the dark, difficult, and dangerous idea of Difference in itself. For Plato, individuals are not constituted by their substantial forms, or by their special determinations of a genus, as they are for Aristotle; nor is knowledge of individuals constituted by generalizations from a series. Rather, Plato’s is an ontology of singularity, where knowing an individual (be it ideal or actual) requires directly intuiting its uniquely authentic line of descent, rather than representing, identifying, or abstracting its general form. As Ramey puts it, “Knowledge is not a matter of generalization but of participation.” He continues:

The claim to participation is not simply the claim to be identified as a member of a class or token of a type. It is a claim to have passed a test or to have a basis for one’s claim. The difference between the just and the unjust, pretenders to justice and authentic stewards of justice, is not a difference between any two, but an internal and constitutive difference. It is the difference an ‘immediate fact’ of participation makes…It is the selection of an icon from within a prodigious field of idols, false images.67

The difference is initiatory, “acquired by each person on their own account.”68 That is, it has to do with undertaking the descent into the chaos of the underworld and returning to tell the tale. Philosophy without initiation would quickly turn stale and become abstract. Without stories to perform on infinite plane(s) stretching beyond the relative horizons of commonsense experience, a philosopher’s concepts cannot catch fire, nor acquire the persuasive life of personality. Once the journey into the darkness of pure Difference has been undertaken, in the difficult idea one has partaken are discovered signs of its ingression into the light of physical appearance: like a flower blooming, the idea incarnates out of earthly soil. “What man of sense,” writes Plato of his pedagogy of the concept,

would plant seeds in an artificial garden, to bring forth fruit or flowers in eight days, and not in deeper and more fitting soil?69

After the Christian-Platonic initiation, the world is transfigured into a problematic network of occult icons whose meaning can only be uncovered intuitively by the mental magic of talismanic thinking. Ideas are traced into appearances as signs, moments of discontinuity in extensive physical time-space out of which the intensive oddity of self-reference emerges.70 These recursive oddities unfold themselves into the physical plane, erupting as problematic forces requiring of the flesh-hewn mind not new representations of a supposedly extra-bodily world, but self-immolation through constant death and resurrection. Thinking is an ecstatic, violent act, always killing the neurons which support it, “making the brain a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us.”71

Deleuze’s Plato creates concepts not only iconically, but ironically, in that he never claims to represent an idea as true, but only to participate in an idea as “a way of problematizing, a manner of posing questions.”72 Deleuze pushes his Platonism as far away from any two-world caricature as possible by positing, according to Ramey,

the genesis of mind in direct encounters with imperceptible forces of perception, moments when the subtle and elusive patterns of difference and repetition animating life force the mind to interpret and even to create.73

Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s immanental reading of Christianity, along with their reading of Plato’s participatory doctrines of Persuasion and Difference, provides a world-renewing medicinal brew sorely needed in the contemporary world. Deleuze writes of the “medicinal thought” of a people to come who, according Ramey,

would, at an eschatological limit, have passed beyond the segmentation of knowledge in art, science, and philosophy in some as-yet-unrealized integral life of knowledge, such as that long dreamt of in the esoteric tradition of mathesis universalis.74

For Deleuze, mathesis is “a thinking of incarnation and individuality,”75 a form of symbolic knowing that allows for the discovery (and creation) of life’s (and death’s) deepest secrets. Knowledge of life’s individuating tendency, its power to repeatedly differ from itself, reveals how “the whole [can symbolize] itself in each individual.”76 Initiation into such knowledge would not only empower individual decision and action, but could rejuvenate the social and political life of civilization. We await the people to come who will be capable of completing creation through the incarnation of this Christogenic “body without organs.”77 “If you want to make a new start in religion,” writes Whitehead, “you must be content to wait a thousand years.”78


1 Perhaps even post-apocalyptic. See Sam Mickey’s attempt to “compost” the territorialized “postal discourses” of disintegral thought in his dissertation, Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology, (2012), 321cf [http://search.proquest.com/docview/1017705422?accountid=25260 (accessed 12/17/2012)].

2 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), 207.

3 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 74.

4 Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012), 2.

5 See Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6: There exists a “general academic-philosophical prejudice against the threatening proximity of intuitive, mystical, or even simply more emotional modes of mind to the cold calculations of pure reason…”

6 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 42.

7 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 38, 89, 177.

8 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 202.

9 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 72.

10 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7: “The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”

11 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 107-109.

12 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 443.

13 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 443.

14 Peter Hallward, Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006); quoted in Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 226n9.

15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 272.

16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 275.

17 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 105.

18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

19 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 192. The contemplative conception of God as unmoved mover is obviously not as crude; what it lacks is the emotional and moral intensity required to engender religious vision.

20 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 43.

21 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 19.

22 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

23 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 45. 

24 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 74. 

25 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 53. 

26 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton(London: Continuum, 1994/2004), 139.

27 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 13.

28 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16.

29 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16-17.

30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.

31 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 193.

32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-192.

33 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 133.

34 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191.

35 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 45.

36 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 49-50.

37 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 51.

38 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 37.

39 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 3.

40 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 61.

41 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 22, 28.

42 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 79.

43 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 203. 

44 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69. 

45 These Christological concepts can be read in parallel to Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophical concepts of “reterritorialization” and “deterritorialization” (What Is Philosophy?, 69-70).

46 John 1:14.

47 John 1:5.

48 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69. 

49 Galations 2:20.

50 Matthew 5:44.

51 Matthew 6:10.

52 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 161.

53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343.

54 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.

55 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.

56 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.

57 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 160.

58 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167.

59 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167-169.

60 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 169.

61 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, Ch. 4: “The Overturning of Platonism,” 112cf.

62 See Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 51.

63 Journal entry, Oct. 1845.

64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.

65 Ironically, of course, as Plato was himself a prolific author.

66 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006), 56n8.

67 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 118.

68 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946), 147.

69 Phaedrus, 276c-277a.

70 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21-22.

71 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 216; Curiously, Christian esotericist Rudolf Steiner says almost the same thing: “The chief characteristic of ordinary thinking is that each single act of thinking injures the nervous system, and above all, the brain; it destroys something in the brain. Every thought means that a minute process of destruction takes place in the cells of the brain. For this reason sleep is necessary for us, in order that this process of destruction may be made good; during sleep we restore what during the day was destroyed in our nervous system by thinking. What we are consciously aware of in an ordinary thought is in reality the process of destruction that is taking place in our nervous system” (Lecture: 1st May, 1913; http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/OccSciOccDev/19130501p01.html [accessed 12/16/2012]).

72 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 121.

73 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 125.

74 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 89.

75 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” 143.

76 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 98.

77 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004), 102; see also Ramey’s discussion of Cusa’s anthropocosmic Christology (The Hermetic Deleuze, 236n29).

78 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.



Deleuze, Gilles. “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946).

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Deleuze, Gilles Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 1994/2004).

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004).

Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006).

Hallward, Peter. Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006).

Ramey, Joshua. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012).

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Whitehead, A. N. Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960).

Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978).

Whitehead, A. N. Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961).

Whitehead, A. N. Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968).

“Logic of Imagination: The Expanse of the Elemental” by John Sallis

I just finished John Sallis‘ latest book:

It was my first experience of his writing, which was lucid and even rose to imaginal and inspired heights in places. I haven’t read continental phenomenology in a while, though thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty definitely shaped my entry into academic philosophy as an undergraduate. What I loved about Sallis’ project was his sense for the elemental. He distinguishes natural and cosmic elementals from finite things, since unlike finite things (the ontic), elementals are not subject to the law of noncontradiction and so can’t be distinctly (i.e., conceptually) determined. They are unruly and obey no logic, unless it be a logic of imagination. To the extent that he succeeded in articulating the look of natural and cosmic elementals as they are projected into the subject by the sublime sights and sounds of earth, sky, sea, and stars, Sallis is able to break free of the anthropocentrism so characteristic of the phenomenological tradition. Sometimes his focus on the earthly and cosmic awakens a sense for the spiraling schema he hopes to trace through imagination. Other times I have no sense of what he is talking about; his logic becomes loopy. Still other times he falls back into his phenomenological training, lifting the human off the earth and making it the transcendental condition of earth and cosmos (what of the fact that geo- and cosmogenesis are the conditions of human consciousness?). Transcendental phenomenology has been critiqued by object-oriented speculative realists for being too subject- and/or human-oriented. I think there are aspects of this object-oriented critique, by Bryant, Brassier, and others, that seem to hit their target with Sallis, but I’ll refrain from saying more until after I’ve also read Chorology and Force of Imagination.

Sallis’ history of formal logic includes the contributions of Aristotle, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Cantor, Whitehead, Russell, and Gödel, among others. He provides a clear and compelling summary of what is at stake in the development of logic from ancient into modern philosophy. After the “end of philosophy” as prophesied by Nietzsche and hammered home by Heidegger, Sallis tries to root logic, if not in the disincarnate order of the intelligibles, then in the imaginal life of speech itself as it is encompassed by the wondrous universe. Like the presocratic physiologists, Sallis tries to turn to the elemental, a word whose original Greek sense he regrets can but barely be heard by the modern ear. In Sallis’ lingo, there are natural elementals (earth, sky, storms, etc.), proper (i.e., to humans) elementals (birth, death, language, etc.), and cosmic elementals (galaxies, black holes, dark energy, etc.). Each elemental opens into an infinity, bringing forth a abyssal space within and before which finite things come to show themselves and then pass away.

Due to the speech proper to humans (our language), Sallis at times also seems to want to join Socrates on his “second sailing” (Phaedo 99d) by turning primarily to the sound of Logos (λόγος) and away from the sense of Physis (φύσις) in his philosophizing. This tendency is checked by his commitment to a “logic” of imagination that hovers between the false dichotomies of intelligible v. sensible, subjective v. objective, interior v. exterior, etc.

The last chapter of his book, titled “Elemental Cosmology,” attempts to turn back to the physical, but there Sallis discovers only the theoretical objects of natural science: “dark energy,” “dark matter,” “black holes,” etc. He quotes several physicists cautioning the lay reader that these words should not be mistaken for an actual understanding of the phenomena in question. The are just empty designations for what remain fundamental mysteries requiring further observation. It is here that I think the phenomenological effort to bracket the scientific picture of the world falls short of what a full scale speculative reconstruction of the cosmological data would be capable of effecting. Of course, considering that much of physics and cosmology is written in mathematical formula, such a reconstruction would beg the question concerning how one is to transition between mathematical and philosophical discourse. Sallis is aware of this problem. For my part, I still need to study the issue more closely.

Responses to Archive Fire and Immanent Transcendence: Egos, Ideas, and Eternal Events

Jason/Immanent Transcendence and Michael/Archive Fire have been continuing the discussion that began almost two weeks ago HERE and HERE. In his latest response to me, Michael writes:

Matt wants to think the Absolute (unity), with an eye towards cultivating the existential implications which flow from an acquaintance therein, while I want to think the Possible (multiplicity), with a wonky fish eye towards negation and the positive mutations that come from reigning in our animal speculations.

Michael goes on to defend “speculative pragmatism” and “creaturely thinking.” He wants us to remain attentive to the raw contingencies unraveling the seams of the seemingly unified perceptual horizon of conscious awareness. This all sounds right-minded to me. I am all for relativizing the rational ego’s claims to mastery of an “external” world. [See, for example, my recent essay on the metaphysical implications of psychedelics.] Whatever “mind” we may be said to possess–or perhaps to be possessed by–it must be fundamentally continuous with its physical, biological, cultural, and cosmological habitats. “Inner” experience, soul, is not something given to us at birth, not a spiritual substance, but something we are tasked with making. Soul-making means not only learning to share flesh with others, but learning to share a language.

Whitehead, somewhere in Adventures of Ideas, writes:

“The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other. If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: He gave them speech, and they became souls.”

The ego is not as free as it tends to think, nor “external” nature as determined. Both “ego” and “external nature” are artifacts of a particular species of Cartesian-Kantian language game. But I would distinguish all particular languages from Logos. Logos is the language of the universe.

If we are haunted by a spirit, it is the spirit of the universe itself. Logos is the potency of energy that thinks in me, the pregnancy of matter that makes my world. Whatever else the human imagination is, it is also fully animal, fully incarnated. Ideas arise and travel with the warm, damp breath of speaking animals and not apart from it.

In his latest contribution to the conversation, Jason writes:

Matt is using most of that “eternal form” talk.  He takes a religious-spiritual perspective on the ontological, whereas I’m willing to be a quietist.  I also accept a Jamesian “will to believe” on this point, and Matt could argue from that as well.

Jason is right, I could and in fact have argued from a Jamesian perspective before. He goes on to say that, while forms do not exist in their own right, they effect reality as tendencies and future possibilities for actualization. To ask “where” forms are is to falsely spatialize time, as though the future threw itself ahead and is now waiting “out there” for us “in here” to catch up with it. The definite possibilities of the future do not ex-ist, and yet they have perfectly real effects on present actualities. That this is so may be testable by experimentation at the quantum level, and is even easier to prove at the level of conscious animality (“It will be spring soon, I better sow these seeds”). The future doesn’t exist yet. This not yet should not, Jason reminds us, be reified into a divine designer’s giant mould that descends from the sky to shape earthly occasions from beyond. Forms cannot be so simply located “outside” or “inside” actual occasions. They happen only where they are not, since they are eternal events and not finite occasions.

Participatory Psychedelia: Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness [final draft]

Participatory Psychedelia: 

Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-

Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness

Photo: Tree of Life by Ron Barnett

Preface: Take it and eat it.


Walking alone on a quiet beach at dawn, I found an old, leather-bound book half buried in the sand whose title, once stamped with golden letters, was now too worn to decipher. I opened it, discovering inside that a cavity had been carved out of the pages to make room for its pharmacological contents: seven nearly dried psyilocybe cyanescens mushrooms. I removed and ate them one by one, leaving behind a bluish-purple outline on the page. As I swallowed the last mushroom, I noticed the text beneath the blue stains and realized I must be holding the Bible. The text, from Revelation, chapter 10, read:

Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land…Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.

I looked up from the page and was immediately struck by the first beam of light from the Sun as it rose above the ocean horizon. Its light carried with it a powerful sound, like a cosmic trumpet, which knocked me to the ground. I dropped the book and laid in the sand with my hands covering my face to shield me from the synesthesic storm. A sinkhole opened beneath me, as though I were passing through an hourglass. My body descended into darkness. In a moment, all was silent and still, until suddenly, my consciousness was turned inside-out.

I awoke to find myself in bed, the first gentle glow of sunrise gleaming through a crack between the curtains. It had been a dream. As I rubbed my eyes to greet the new day, all sorts of metaphysical questions occurred to me. The dream was vivid and visceral enough that I wondered if I should expect the onset of a psychedelic experience in the next 15 or 20 minutes as a result of the placebo effect having lead my pineal gland to release a bit of its own secret stash of DMT.1 Might my psyche find a way to blend my psychedelic dream with what “I” call “reality”–“I,” the “normal waking, rational consciousness” that William James so eloquently relativized in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Alas, no such alteration of my consciousness was forthcoming, but I was left wondering, like James, what the meaning of this abrupt transition could be. As James put it, reflecting upon his psychedelic encounters with nitrous oxide,

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.2

As James well knew, consciousness is not easily made into an object fit for scientific study, if it can be so studied at all. The nearest approach to such a study appears most effective when one pays close attention to alterations in consciousness, to the transitions between dreaming and waking, or indeed, to the transformations brought about by the ingestion of one of many psychedelic chemicals. These peculiar chemicals, found throughout the plant and fungi kingdoms, and often close cousins of mammalian neurotransmitters, provide the fields of consciousness and transpersonal studies with the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or Hooke’s microscope.3 The effect of psychedelic instruments has been variously described by experimenters as an expansion and/or an intensification of everyday consciousness. But these are metaphors: unlike normal scientific instruments for observation of the very large or the very small, consciousness has no size and cannot be measured. As transpersonal instruments and participatory technologies, psychedelics call into question the very identity of the scientist doing the observation. In such experiments, the “object” of study, consciousness, becomes both observer and observed. These recursive effects make psychedelic experiments an especially fruitful method of participatory spiritual inquiry.


Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Alchemical Consciousness


Transpersonal theory emerged in the wake of the radical political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s, finding its principle expression in the work of Abe Maslow and Stanislav Grof. As Gregg Lahood has argued, the so-called Philosophia Perennis functioned for this first wave of transpersonalism

as a masking device, or a prestigious, protective, and seemingly authoritative sacred canopy with which to wheel a marginal, subversive, and unimaginably anomalous psychedelic epistemology into the heart of what William Blake called Newton’s sleep, or the hyperrational West.4

In other words, through what Lahood calls the “post-rational sorcery”5 of countercultural figures like Aldous Huxley,6 Timothy Leary,7 and Alan Watts,8 the psychedelic experience became sutured to a precariously universalized but nonetheless rhetorically powerful hybridization of the world’s great religious traditions. According to Lahood, transpersonalism is “still evolving through a major conceptual crisis in its worldview.”9 The second wave of transpersonalism could be said to have emerged with Jorge Ferrer’s publication of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (2002). Ferrer deconstructs the explicitly universalist and residual Cartesian assumptions of the first wave of transpersonal thinkers in order to reconstruct the discipline within the context of “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.”10

The principal aim of this essay is to explore the influence of chemically-altered, or alchemical consciousness, not only on the founding and ongoing articulation of transpersonal theory, but on the origins of spirituality more generally. Alchemical consciousness has been intimately bound up with religious innovation for thousands of years. Accordingly, I argue that the emergence of transpersonalism out of the foment of the 1960s is just the most recent example of the radical rhetorical effects of psychedelics on spirituality. I also attempt to support and expand Lahood’s notion of psychedelically-induced cosmological hybridization by drawing upon Richard Doyle’s thesis that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the evolution of spiritual discourse,11 as well as Michael Rinella’s study of the interplay between speech (the logistikon) and psychedelics (the pharmakon) in ancient Greek spirituality.12 From Doyle’s perspective, rhetoric is not simply persuasive speech leading one astray from the truth, but, due to its role in sexual selection, the engine of biological novelty; rhetoric, in other words, is an ecological practice.13 Just as flowers evolved as rhetorical devices for getting the attention of bees, and male peacock plumage for getting the attention of female peacocks, human rhetorical strategies have been evolutionarily selected for their eloquence.14 The degree to which such rhetoric truly or falsely corresponds to reality is biologically irrelevant, since it is precisely the creative appearance of beauty and its boundary dissolving effect as an “attention sink” that has guided the evolution of life on earth, determining through genetic and symbolic inheritance the bodily and behavioral patterns that shape our lives.15 What begins as appearance can in the future become reality. Psychedelics function as “rhetorical adjuncts” for many species,16 and for humans in particular

are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect…they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical…[such that] language…becomes the occasion for a feedback loop, where utterances and writings that seem to enable the endurance and enjoyment of psychedelic experience are replicated, programming further ecodelic investigations…17

Rather than seeking some form of authoritative disambiguation,18 as Lahood argues the first wave of transpersonalism did by turning to Perennialism, the “anomalous,” ineffable, and participatory nature of alchemical consciousness are affirmed as a fertile source of open-ended rhetorical strategies for both consciousness transformation and cosmological (re)construction. Before tentatively defining religion with help from Robert Bellah, and exploring the rhetorical influence of psychedelics on religious consciousness, I unpack Ferrer’s participatory contribution to the study of human consciousness and spirituality.


The Participatory Turn and the Representational Paradigm

Ferrer’s major contribution to the field of transpersonal studies was to defend the validity of spirituality without basing this validity upon the authority of the Perennialist tradition, at least as this tradition has been interpreted through the subjectivist and scientistic biases of modern Western culture. These biases are rooted in the representationalist paradigm that has held sway, consciously or not, since the time of Descartes. As Richard Tarnas notes in his foreword to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, despite the radical intensions of the first wave of transpersonalism, its theoretical framework “[retained]…certain essential and usually unexamined assumptions” carried over from the historical background out of which it emerged.19 From within the representationalist paradigm, truth is thought to consist in a correspondence between a subjective picture or concept in the mind and an objective state of affairs in the world. Both the Myth of the Framework (subjectivity constructs reality) and the Myth of the Given (reality is objectively pregiven) are potential symptoms of this representationalist dualism.20

For the initial Perennialist wave of transpersonalism, every genuinely mystical or spiritual experience, despite potential differences in its explicit description, must implicitly refer to a single underlying and so pregiven spiritual reality. The research program for transpersonal theorists within the Perennialist paradigm is therefore to seek scientific validation of spiritual experiences by applying a broader form of the empirical method than that used in the natural sciences, one that includes not only outer, but also inner experience.21 According to Ferrer, though appeals to scientific verification were perhaps “historically inevitable,” and even “methodologically crucial” in establishing the academic legitimacy of transpersonal theory at the time of its founding, such an approach “has become today problematic and detrimental.”22

There are many reasons a representationalist/scientistic approach is problematic for transpersonal studies, several of which have been singled out and skillfully deconstructed by Ferrer in Revisioning. One of the crucial problems with the representationalist paradigm for psychedelic studies in particular is that interpreting alchemical forms of consciousness from such a perspective leaves them especially vulnerable to dismissal as subjective misrepresentations of a pregiven objective reality. Despite the attempts of transpersonal theorists to expand the epistemology of empirical correspondence so as to include inner realities, contemporary academic research on altered consciousness by those outside the field of transpersonal studies has tended to argue for precisely such a dismissive characterization. For example, Revonsuo et al. recently argued that, while during a “normal state of consciousness…the mechanisms of conscious representation in the brain…carry accurate information from ‘world’ to consciousness,” during an “altered state,” “consciousness…deviate[s] from the natural relation in such a way that the world and/or self tend to be misrepresented.”23 Revonsuo et al. go on to explicitly dismiss what they call “higher and mystical states of consciousness”:

…despite their intensely positive emotional tone and significance for the subject, these states…tend to induce a variety of misrepresentations for the subject’s conscious experience.”24

There are many question-begging assumptions here, not the least of which are the dogmatic reduction of consciousness to neural mechanisms, and the substantialist reading of consciousness in terms of experiential “states.” It would appear that transpersonal theorists cannot beat natural scientists at their own representationalist game, since it is all too easy for the latter to reduce “inner experience” of spiritual realities to some kind of neurological malfunction. Instead, it is necessary to change the rules of the game by shifting the critique to the epistemological and ontological foundations of modern scientism.

Ferrer’s remedy for the representational residue in first wave transpersonal studies is his participatory, or enactive, vision of spirituality. Enactivism was first articulated as a paradigm shift in the cognitive sciences by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991).25 As Ferrer describes it,

Participatory knowing…is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions cocreated by the different elements involved in the participatory event.26

Rather than rooting the foundation of knowledge in a secure, unaffected and largely aloof subject who modestly witnesses the behavior of an external world (as natural science tends to pretend), Ferrer’s participatory approach to human consciousness uproots knowledge from the the solid self, such that the act of knowing is transformative of both self and world.27 Alchemical forms of consciousness are accordingly best understood, not as “states” of the mind, but as world-transfiguring events. As Ferrer suggests:

…this transfiguration of the world is not…a mere change in our individual experience of a pregiven world, but…the emergence of an ontological event…in which our consciousness creatively participates.28

Religion as Participation in Non-Ordinary Realities

In his study of religion in human evolution (in a book of the same title), sociologist Robert Bellah attempts to define “religion” in the context of a wider discussion about non-ordinary realities, like those encountered in quantum physics, cinema, dreams, play, after ingesting a psychedelic chemical, or when approaching death.29 He contrasts such non-ordinary realities with the ordinary (or at least culturally dominant) reality of “waking, rational consciousness,” or what he, following Alfred Schutz,30 calls “the world of wide awake, grown up men.”31 Unlike the participatory consciousness of religious realities brought forth through ritualized symbolic play and/or chemical alteration, the solid self of the “grown up” world of instrumental rationality tends to bracket the ontological implications of such “offline” activities, while attending instead to everyday practical needs and desires.32 In this everyday world, a world Bellah connects with a felt sense of lack or deficiency, space is experienced as discretely separating my body from every other body (and so my mind from every other mind), and time passes in a linear fashion according to the minutes and hours of a clock and the days and weeks of a calendar. The world of rational consciousness is the world of isolated bodies colliding in a crowded container, bidding for survival in the course of neutral (i.e., non-teleological) time, all the while haunted by a fundamental anxiety rooted in the fear of death. But, as Bellah is careful to point out, “nobody can stand to live in [such a world] all the time.”33 Ordinary reality is inevitably interrupted and overlapped by non-ordinary realities, typically with dramatic effects:

It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that…bracketing [the vague sense on the fringes of rational consciousness that other forms of reality are possible] is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life.34

In the case of religious realities, the distinguishing feature is that they emerge from what Bellah refers to as “unitive events.”35 Such events bring forth worlds of non-standard space and time, where the boundaries between bodies and minds becomes porous and the flow of events is inherently creative and meaningful. Accordingly, unitive events are notoriously difficult to describe in a predominantly representational language, which tends to construe such events after the fact as subjective experiences. Bellah, like Ferrer, is sensitive to the modern Western tendency to speak of experience in terms of something “had” by a private, inner self, and so chooses the term “event” deliberately to avoid the implication that religious realities are somehow not “objective” or real. It is also important to note that by designating non-ordinary religious consciousness as “unitive,” Bellah does not mean to equate all such non-ordinary events with the realization of some nondual ultimate reality. Rather, “unitive” refers to the way in which the dichotomous subject-object consciousness of ordinary space and time is transformed, such that formerly sharp boundaries become relativized in a whole variety of ways.

As for a simple and unambiguous definition of religion, Bellah admits that cultural biases make this difficult. Following George Lindbeck,36 he lists three current alternative approaches to defining religion: 1) the propositional, 2) the experiential-expressivist, and 3) the cultural-linguistic.37 The propositional theory of religion holds that religion is essentially a series of conceptually stated beliefs concerning what is true. Bellah argues that this approach is inadequate since, while the conceptual/propositional aspects of religion are important, they are not essential to religious practice. The experiential-expressivist theory holds that a universal human potentiality for religious experience underlies all particular cultural manifestations of religion. The perennialist, quasi-empirical approach of first wave transpersonalism owes much to this theory. Finally, the cultural-linguistic theory holds that the symbolic forms of religion are primary, though

not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.38

This theory emphasizes the irreducible plurality of religions, and so also tends to bracket the ontological significance of religious symbolism. Bellah does not believe it is necessary to choose one approach over the other, but suggests that both the experiential-expressivist and cultural-linguistic theory can be utilized as “coordinate approaches.”39

In their introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008), Ferrer and Jacob Sherman construe the field of religious studies in a way similar to Bellah. They critique the “linguistic Kantianism” of postmodern scholars who would deny the possibility of real religious knowledge by pointing out the ethnocentric presuppositions underlying such dismissals.40 There is no privileged neutral ground from which to judge the metaphysical claims of religious practitioners, since academic scholars are no less ambiguously situated within their own cultural and historical contexts. In keeping with the participatory approach, Ferrer and Sherman gesture beyond the scholar/practitioner dichotomy by suggesting that

some kind of personal engagement or even transformation…may be required for both the apprehension and the assessment of certain religious truth claims.41

The “linguistic rationality” of ordinary consciousness simply is not capable of judging the non-ordinary unitive events at the generative core of the world’s religions. Ferrer and Sherman’s approach to the issue nicely complements Bellah’s, in that while none of them want to dismiss the experiential component of religion all together, all three call attention to the ways in which language and experience mutually transform one another. “In short,” says Bellah, “we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form.”42 Rather than seeing this entanglement as an unescapable epistemic limitation, Bellah argues that religious symbolism is potentially a way of knowing capable of reaching beyond the “dreadful fatalities…[of the]…world of rational response to anxiety and need.”43 In a similar vein, Ferrer and Sherman call into question the skeptical postmodern claim that non-ordinary religious consciousness is “overdetermined by cultural-linguistic variables” and therefore cannot possibly refer to “translinguistic” realities.44 At the same time, they call for a “resacralization of language,” such that religious symbolism is understood to carry its own “creational weight,” since it arises out of the semioticity of reality itself.45


Alchemical Consciousness and Cosmological Hybridization

The entangled relationship between symbolic formation, alchemical consciousness, and the generation and regeneration of religious realities has been fruitfully explored by a number of thinkers, to whom I now turn. As mentioned above, Lahood has argued persuasively that, by aligning themselves with a hybrid form of “psychedelic perennialism,” the “sorcerers and shamans” of first wave transpersonalism effectively participated in “the emergence of a novel mutating religious process on the West Coast of the United States.”46 While Lahood praises Ferrer for “re-booting” transpersonalism by destroying the perennialist “idol” worshipped by its first wave of theorists, he criticizes Ferrer’s “Ocean with Many Shores” metaphor for its “tacit appeal to religious purity”:47

Ferrer’s redeployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores…may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity [the nondual One of Perennialism] we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other).48

Following cultural theorists like Bhabha, Rosaldo, and Roof, Lahood articulates an approach to religious studies and transpersonal theory within which the default condition of every human culture is to be in open-ended transcultural mutation. In this sense, orthodox purity cannot be opposed to heretical syncretism, since there has never been a time when hybridity did not go all the way down.49 As Roof has argued:

…religions are anything but immaculately conceived; purity is a fiction…they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.50

Such redrawing of boundaries remains especially pronounced in the “contact zone of late capitalism’s religious borderlands,”51 lands like the West Coast of California, where for more than half a century, psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” bringing forth novel forms of hybridized spirituality. First wave transpersonalism, though helpfully deconstructed by Ferrer for its universalist assumptions, can nonetheless be read as “an early attempt at coming to terms with globalization and its related phenomena.”52 This first wave’s psychedelic perennialism was “a legitimate but largely culturally contextual project”53 whose major shortcoming was failing to recognize the extent to which it had cocreated a novel form of cosmological hybridization, rather than simply rediscovered a pure traditional source.

Historically, psychedelic consciousness has a marked tendency to generate rhetorical strategies for

…blurring…religious boundaries; breaking apart while, at the same time, binding together multiple cosmological postulates.54

This is what happened in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s among the “educated theory-making literati,”55 as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece,56 which almost certainly involved chemical alterations of consciousness57 and represent

the most important religious experience of anyone who could speak Greek…for close to a thousand years.58

In his study of the tension between Plato’s development of the dialectical logistikon and the ecstasy-producing pharmakon of the Eleusinian rites, Rinella describes Plato’s discovery of the psychedelic qualities of language itself:

…the spoken word does not simply effect the audience–it has a ‘feedback’ effect that affects the rhetor himself.59

Plato, an alchemical initiate, was also one of the most literate and rhetorically skilled men of his age. Like later intellectual sorcerers of the 20th century, he was empowered by both the alphabetic and psychedelic technologies available to him to bring forth a novel, countercultural religious reality.60 Unlike later sorcerers, however, he did so not just by making new theories, but by disentangling theory itself from a heretofore polytheistic and mythic consciousness.61 He stepped out of the cave in which the rites were performed in an attempt to integrate what he had learned into the “waking” world of daily political life. All subsequent attempts to theorize our human participation in religious realities are, in one way or another, indebted to Plato’s original form of participatory cosmological hybridization.62

If, historically and logically, alchemical experimentation has been closely wed to participatory transpersonal research, then it is to be expected that new forms of more relaxed spiritual universalism will continue to emerge from its theorization. These forms will be “more relaxed” because researchers who adopt the participatory approach become more self-aware of the way their ambiguously situated bodies and the languages they speak have the potential to cocreate hybrid worlds with others.

As Doyle has suggested, psychedelics (or as he prefers to refer to them, “ecodelics”) function as “transhuman technologies,” or again as “deeply participatory media technologies.”63 By this he means that they intensify the everyday “problem” of awareness, a problem that waking, rational consciousness tends to repress, namely, “its inability to narrate its own conditions of emergence [and submergence]”:

This difficulty of observing the conditions of observation…leads to a further difficulty of observing the conditions of observing the observation, and so on into an infinite regress of observation, until observation forms the entirety of both the subject and the object of observation and all other objects disappear from consciousness and only a mandala…can orient the attention.64

Though often characterized as ineffable, Doyle notes the paradox encountered by many alchemical experimenters, that the rhetorical challenge of psychedelics–“the continual disavowal of language in language”–itself becomes an endlessly fertile site of open-ended cosmological inquiry.65

Ferrer’s metaphorical Ocean with Many Shores is a crucial corrective to the Perennialist longing for the One Destination. Adding the psychedelic “trip trope”66 to this oceanic analogy may open up even more possibilities for spiritual exploration. The origins of the rhetorical trope of a psychedelic “trip” can be traced back to analogies made in ancient Homeric Greek culture between drinking alchemically-enhanced wine and setting out on a nautical journey.67 Norman Mailer may have been the first to use the noun “trip” in an attempt to describe his indescribable encounter with mescaline published in 1959.68 By the mid-60s, it had spread throughout the psychedelic counterculture to become the trope of choice.

According to Doyle, the trope succeeds in that it

…[maps] the whorl of space-time characteristic of psychedelic experience…[and thereby] recuperates a psychonaut’s capacity to articulate by compressing a thoroughly distributed experience into a serial one. 69

Alchemical consciousness is “thoroughly distributed,” straddling sea and shore at once. Psychonauts are never again able to plant both their feet on the seemingly solid ground of everyday, rational consciousness. The trip trope functions not simply to describe psychedelic events to others, but to relativize one’s own consciousness by rendering into language recipes for self-transformation.70

Logos itself–that which, following Aristotle, has been said to define the human71–is, according to Corey Anton, best described as “a never ending tide of ambiguous merger and division.”72 Anton, building on the work of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, brilliantly explores the way our human capacity for speech and so self-consciousness implicates us in an anxious search for some prevailing authority who might relieve our fear of dying, of becoming permanently lost at sea:

Logos transforms an otherwise submerged transpiring of organismal [birthing and dying] and vegetative [dreaming and sleeping] processes into a highly abstract, complex, and agonizingly lived-through drama enacted by personae whose lives play out within bids for cosmic relevance.73

But even these submerged biological processes are recognized by Anton to participate in the ambiguous mergers and divisions of non-conscious logos, as when a sperm merges with an ovum, which then divides within itself before merging with the uterine wall on its way to becoming a baby that will eventually divide itself from the mother through the process of birth. In other words, “logos [is] already rooted in the body.”74 Or, as Ferrer and Sherman put it:

In our poetic powers, we do not leave the world behind but create after the manner that nature herself creates.75

When logos becomes routinized in the form of instrumental rationality, it tends not only to estrange us from our earthly embodiment, but to struggle to authoritatively disambiguate the ineradicable mystery of our cosmic situation. However, logos can also, given the right religious or alchemical conditions, “reunite us with nature on a higher realm of contact”76 by granting conscious participation in unitive forms of space-time, or even participation in eternity. Rational consciousness, of course, can never,

with one summative and eternal word, say all of our different mergers and divisions.77

But research on chemically-altered, spiritually-attuned consciousness suggests at least the possibility of “rhetorical patterns consistent with…an epic eloquence,” verging on “eternal speech.”78 According to Doyle, participating in alchemical experiments to “[listen] for the logos” requires

subjects…willing to be healed, perhaps even subjects willing to be healed of being subjects.79

As much contemporary research is also suggesting, psychedelics provide the spiritual practitioner with a potent technology for overcoming the fear of death responsible for the fundamental anxiety dominating the world of ordinary rational subjectivity.80 Alchemical consciousness has the “disorienting ability to negate any essentializing voice by merging its symbols,”81 and so unlike an exclusively rationalistic consciousness, need not continually seek out authoritative forms of death denial. Their role in the ancient mystery traditions of Greece, not to mention the Vedic traditions of India,82 the shamanic traditions of South America,83 and perhaps even the Biblical tradition of Israel,84 shows that their influence upon the birth and development of transpersonalism in the 1960s is hardly a new religious phenomenon. As more scientific research is conducted, legal barriers restricting the free expression of psychedelic religion are sure to be broken down, and the open-ended cosmological hybridization so characteristic of transpersonal theory has the potential to blossom even more, gently grafting various branches of the world’s spiritual traditions together with its own creative discoveries into some as yet unrealized form of planetary mystery religion, a single cosmic tree producing an endless variety of salvific fruits.


Postface: A Book Sweet as Honey

After the dream with which this essay opened, I came across Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina’s identification of psilocybin mushrooms with the logos, referring to them as “a Book”:

A book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.”85

May these new words continue to be learned in dialogue with sacred chemicals, with a multiplicity of unique others, and with the universe itself.



1 Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 21, 33.

2 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1982), 388.

3 An analogy that many psychonauts have found appropriate, including Stanislav Grof [in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, ed. Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 125], Ralph Metzner [Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), 81] and Alan Watts [preface to The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965)].

4 Gregg Lahood, “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007): 4.

5 Gregg Lahood, “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008): 159.

6 See The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945) and The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).

7 See The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel, 1964).

8 See The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965).

9 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.

10 Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),183.

11 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy.

12 Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012).

13 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 121.

14 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 127-173.

15 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 146, 170.

16 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 165-166.

17 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 114-115.

18 Corey Anton, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010), 28.

19 Richard Tarnas, preface to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, vii. 

20  Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 156-157.

21 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 69.

22 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 70.

23 Antii Revonsuo, Sakari Kallio, and Pilleriin Sikka, “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 194.

24 Antii Revonsuo et al., “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” 200.

25 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).

26 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 123.

27 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 122.

28 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 118.

29 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-43.

30 Alfred Schutz, “Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), 207-259.

31 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2.

32 “Offline” activities take place outside the strictly biological context of Darwinian survival. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xx-xxi.

33 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3.Italics are Bellah’s.

34 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 4.

35 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12-13.

36 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984), 31-41.

37 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution,11.

38 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 11.

39 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.

40 Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (New York: State University of New York, 2008), 26.

41 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 26.

42 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.

43 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 9.

44 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 29.

45 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 17.

46 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160-161.

47 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 163, 179.

48 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.

49 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 167.

50 Wade Roof, “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998), 5.

51 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.

52 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 182.

53 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.

54 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 161.

55 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160.

56 Camille Paglia has compared the “transnational mystery religions” of the ancient world, like that at Eleusis, to the marginalized and subversive psychedelic movement of the 1960s (see “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.

57 Rinella, Pharmakon, 85-87.

58 Rinella, Pharmakon, 137.

59 Rinella, Pharmakon, 214.

60 See Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 29-31, where Doyle analogizes the co-evolution of writing and human consciousness to the co-evolution of plant and fungi-based psychoactive chemicals and consciousness. See also Rinella, Pharmakon, 192-195, where Rinella discusses Plato’s mobilization of philosophy as a form of counter-magic.

61 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 387-398.

62 As Alfred North Whitehead suggested, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato” [Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 39]. See also Jacob Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, 81-112.

63 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 43, 51.

64 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 77.

65 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 45.

66 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 21.

67 Rinella, Pharmakon, 9.

68 “…a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe.” Norman Mailer, Advertisements For Myself, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 245.

69 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 49.

70 “Trip reports are fundamentally rendering algorithms, clusters of recipes to be tried out, sampled, and remixed by psychonauts.” Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 50.

71 Humans are the zoon logon echon, “the speaking animal.”

72 Anton, Sources of Significance, 28.

73 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.

74 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.

75 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 20.

76 Anton, Sources of Significance, 42.

77 Anton, Sources of Significance, 43.

78 Doyle cites an international study (Beach et al., 1997) wherein “over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called ‘the logos’” (Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 109).

79 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 110.

80 Lauren Slater, “How Psychedelics Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012, accessed April 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html?pagewanted=all

81 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 176.

82 The Rigveda describes a psychedelic drink named “Soma”: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (8.43.3, transl. by R. T. H. Griffith).

83 Archaeological evidence of psychedelic sacraments being used in South America dates back to at least 1500 BCE. Dennis McKenna, “Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History,” in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999), 42.

84 See Benny Shanon, “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.

85 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 108; and “The Vaults of Erowid,” accessed April 23, 2012, http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_quote1.shtml




Anton, Corey. Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010.


Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 7, 1:12-17 (1997).


Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.


Doyle, Richard M. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.


Ferrer, Jorge. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.


Ferrer, Jorge and Sherman, Jacob, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. New York: State University of New York, 2008.


Grof, Stan, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.


Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.


Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.


James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1982.


Lahood, Gregg. “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008).


Lahood, Gregg. “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007).


Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel, 1964.


Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984.


Metzner, Ralph. Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.


Metzner, Ralph, ed. Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.


Paglia, Camille. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.


Revonsuo, Antii. Kallio, Sakari. Sikka, Pilleriin. “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 187-204.


Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.


Roof, Wade. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998).


Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.


Shanon, Benny. “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.


Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.


Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York: Vintage, 1965.


Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Robert N. Bellah: The Big History of Religion in Human Evolution.

I just returned from a lecture by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He was invited to speak about his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by the Dominican University of California. The University has just started a program in Big History, which concerns not only the study of human culture (east, west, and indigenous), but the history of life on earth and of matter and energy in the universe. Bellah spoke to an audience of perhaps 400 people not primarily about religion, but about science. Bellah’s lecture might be best characterized as a “biological sermon” (as one attendee suggested). He began by establishing the common ground of evolution. Most educated people, he said, can agree on the basic scientific story of evolution. We human beings all descend from a common ancestor. At one time, tens of thousands of years ago, we were an endangered species.  A few thousand of us inhabited the African sub-continent. A few million years before that, we were primates, swinging in the trees of a pangean jungle. Before that, we were reptiles; before that amphibians; before that fish, and before that plants, photosynthesizing bacteria, cells, amino acids, molecules, elements, particles, photons.  If we trace our genealogy back far enough, we come to the beginning of the universe itself. Everything that exists now was implied in the initial moment of creation. All of it enfolded.

Our human existence–and the human, I think Bellah would say, is that being who knows it exists–is no less significant than the big bang. Cosmos and Anthropos are metaphysically basic. The universe, as we know it, cannot but be human; of course, the human with all of its religion and culture, is no less natural than the seagull or the stellar nebula. Anthropos (and Logos) is written into the universe from the beginning. That which is most human in us is most cosmic in the universe. Stars, carbon atoms, and cells are intelligent actors in and producers of this world, alike in kind to Christ, even if not alike in power.

Imagining the Future with Owen Barfield: Towards a Participatory Turn

I’ve been reading Owen Barfield‘s recently republished philosophical novella Unancestral Voice (1967, 2010). Like many of his books, its aim is to make the esotericism of Rudolf Steiner more digestible to a 20th century audience. Barfield begins by setting the late industrial scene ~1967, situating us within the toxic detritus of a decaying civilization we have by 2012 come to know all too well. Society is crumbling, tearing apart at the seams that once bound the generations together. The young no longer trust the old, and so they rebel against every established authority to secure the as yet empty freedom of mere negation. “Generally speaking,” says Steiner, “people are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future.” It is easy, in other words, to either affirm or reject the dominant world-picture, but rather difficult to bring forth an entirely new one out of the smoldering ashes of the old. What the world needs now are poets more than voters; citizen-participants at play in an emerging planetary imagination more than wage-slaves at work in the Satanic mills of global capitalism. The #Occupy movement is a hopeful sign that the young no longer seek freedom from authority, but freedom to be co-authors of themselves.

What Steiner, and Barfield after him, sought to communicate to the world was not simply the need for self-expression. The creation of a new world is not meant to be the total rejection of the past in favor of the whims of the passing moment. There is a power higher than the fancy of the private ego that must be tapped to renew our civilization. The universe, in both its historical and natural guises, is at its roots a process of perpetual transformation. Old structures die and are reborn anew; and yet, if the natural history of the universe suggests a true transformation, then something, some agent, must be weaving together the entire process from the inside out. Otherwise, we are not dealing with transformation, but with mere substitution. This agent, capable of passing through the threshold of death again and again to bring forth “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (as Darwin puts it in the surprisingly theological closing lines of his On the Origin of Species), is the common source of both cosmos and consciousness, of both nature and culture: it is the Logos, the Christ.

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Keats Fall of Hyperion are both examples of the the Logos at work within the soul, there shaping the organs of spirit necessary to perceive the new earth and in so doing redeem humanity. Poetry, after the Romantics, became Bildung, a process of self-formation and spiritual education brought about by the secret power of Imagination. Keats called this process soul-making, while Blake called the Imagination “the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever […] He is the only God…And so am I and so are you.”

“The transforming agent in nature,” writes Barfield, “is also the ultimate energy that stirs in the dark depths of [our] own will” (p. 151). As Wordsworth put it in book 6 of The Prelude:

Imagination–here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say–
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.


In the final chapters of Unancestral Voice, Barfield discusses the doctrine of Filioque emerging out of the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). The doctrine effectively denied the human soul “any participation in the creative spirit that informed the world of nature” (p. 198). Barfield places much blame upon this doctrine, established in a time when authority still weighed heavily on the hearts of Christians, for the social and ecological alienation that would later befall humanity. Humanity–“severed from the start from every link with the world around it, except the link through sense-perception, set apart from and outside of the inner being of the world that it was struggling to know”–could do nothing but build abstract models of a mechanistic universe (ibid.). With the Quantum Revolution of the early 20th century, a physical science long based on model building met its limits. Quantum events, which had been successfully described mathematically, were impossible to model physically, since they seemed to disobey the classical laws holding true of spatiotemporal happenings in the sensory world. The electron, for example, is paradoxically conceived of both as a mathematical point occupying no space at all and as a wave-function occupying the whole of space at once. The supersensible power of Imagination had been tapped into by the introverted Romantic poets more than a century before quantum physics, but now it seems this power needs to be extended beyond the self and into nature. The old doctrine that alienated the human soul from its body, itself part of a supposedly soullness nature, must be overcome if post-quantum science is to continue to generate knowledge as easily as it has continued to generate technology. What has physics to learn from the likes of William Blake?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Following the physicist David Bohm, Barfield suggests that science must move past the admittedly useful but deceptively abstract Cartesian coordinate plane, since it has come to distort our natural perception of space-time, not as a mere neutral extension, but as a living topological scheme where inside and outside, above and below, before and after, etc., are each qualitatively distinct.

“Our habit of beginning, as it were, with space and time, as if they were existents, and then planting a number of objects in them, may be traceable to the Cartesian innovation. Whereas it would perhaps be possible to begin with the process itself–in this case the structural process–and look at the order of events, as it were, from their own point of view. We should then perhaps find that the relation between structure and space is reciprocal and that it is not the inevitable nature of our minds, but the Cartesian abstraction, that makes us find the notion of space without structure less absurd than the notion of structure without space” (p. 178).

Space without structure, the neutral and soulless vacuum of classical physics, must be replaced by what can be called for now the “negative” space of Imagination. The inner organizing power responsible for threading the endless forms of cosmogenesis together is “inner” as mind is interior to matter, not as the flesh of an orange is interior to its rind. Barfield sums up this new doctrine thusly: “interior is anterior.” Quantum phenomena are the very edge of the physical domain; classical physics can penetrate no further. But an imaginative science can find in the limit of the physical world the doorway to a spiritual world. What could the source of the “complex interacting rhythms of energy of which we now find that the physical universe consists” be other than “a system of non-spatial relationships between hierarchies of energetic beings?”

This would imply, Barfield continues, that we not think of these beings, but begin, instead, to think their activity itself. “Perhaps it will involve so thinking that their energy, transformed, becomes our thought” (p. 194).
This sort of transformation of our thinking is precisely what the participatory paradigm aims to secure. I’m taking a course with the editors of The Participatory Turn (2008), Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, this semester, and so the ideas explored above will continue to develop in the coming months. Stay tuned….

Thinking in media res.

My Muse’s ideas remain mute to the world until given voice by the poet who courts her.  For this I use my mouth, my tongue, my teeth, and my lungs. As I inhale and prepare to name the world, it dawns on me that I have lost the ability to tell the difference between my thinking and my words.

A problematic statement: Thinking itself, the I behind the me I “use” language to call myself, cannot be written.

But then what did I just say? If my I cannot be predicated, if nothing at all can be said about it but what it says of itself as me, then what relation does my I bear to its body, other bodies, and the world?

An important confession: I cannot but think in media res. I am a bodying, a worlding. My thoughts are always already events in the world.

Language cannot be “used” like some kind of tool, because the me that is supposed to employ it is in fact (re)constructed in the act of speaking. Language is a technology, but in the ancient sense of techne, a craftwork or artworkrather than the modern sense of tool or machine.

Is not language the Archetype itself most fully incarnated into the material dimension, the Word become almost fully flesh and bone? I speak, therefore I am, and in speaking I become mediated, my consciousness awakened from the dream of solipsism into the pulsing, breading, bleeding matrices of inter-bodily co-existence.

Because of a series of technological “advancements” and economic “developments,” I can now type my thinking into a laptop, which then teleports it around the world in an instant. Miniaturized by my laptop is the alphabet, an ancient technology still every bit as essential to our kind of consciousness as neurons and microchips. My mind accesses the meaning of this screen through the symbolic sounds my fingers have learned to play on the keyboard. My alphabetic computer becomes the condition for my thinking being heard (by myself and others). I think with it, and so my identity has hybridized with it. We are/I am a cyborg.

Whatever the Internet “is,” I think we can say with some assurance that it is already sutured into the human nervous system, and the planetary ecosystem, at a very deep level, so deep as to have fundamentally transformed what it means, materially and spiritually, to be an earthling. There is a computer consciousness binding the world together in an electrical co-presencing of faces and words, a digital concrescence of souls. Problem is these techno-human lines of communication are completely out of rhythm with the rest of the earthly and cosmic lines of force. Industrial civilization has turned up the volume of our technosphere’s speakers so loud, and so brightened the bulbs that light it, that the rest of the gaian ecosystem and galactic community can hardly be seen or heard anywhere on earth. At least not by human ears.

We are embedded, creatures within creation, each an individualized organ of world-perception, another unique example of the Cosmic Psyche’s desire to see deeper into a universe in which there is always more to see.

Think with the heart of the world, or there will be no earth worth living in.