Secret Body

Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions

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Jeffrey J. Kripal
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Secret Body is a remarkable ode to freedom. With acute self-reflexivity, Kripal here tries to catch a glimpse of himself writing himself into existence. In this sense, he does not merely write about how reading and writing truly are “technologies of the self” (to employ Michel Foucault’s term) but indeed turns these technologies upon himself, taking an active role in the production of his own subjectivity. Kripal therefore performatively demonstrates how consciousness constructs itself as a self and how it then maintains and cares for that self through the reiterative act of self-interpretation. The hermeneutical and the cosmogonic are, then, revealed as one in Secret Body, meaning that there can be no self without self-interpretation, and no meaning without a process of meaning-making. In short, Kripal shows his readers that “Jeffrey Kripal” is but a fiction, which is also why “Jeffrey Kripal” is free to re-imagine, re-read, edit, and write himself anew. The self is essentially a result—this is the heart of Kripal’s “textual mysticism.”

Kripal uses his cosmogonic powers to oscillate seamlessly between the “natural” and “supernatural” visions of reality. Through this oscillation, Kripal troubles the authority of both religion and secularism: the former by exposing mysticism’s material, embodied, gendered, erotic, amoralistic, and political dimensions (chapters 1-8), and the latter by exposing mysticism’s supernatural dimensions in terms of consciousness, evolution, the paranormal, and comparativism (chapters 9-15). Kripal plays the trickster, indifferent to any proposed limits of thought. And herein lies one of the great values of his work: an indifference to epistemic authoritarianism permits him to entertain the impossible.

Kripal has made a career out of problematizing the boundaries between the possible and impossible—being neither quite an academic nor mystic, neither quite an outsider nor insider, neither quite a public prophet nor personal gnostic. Drawing upon Mircea Eliade’s vocabulary, he himself describes his work as both “diurnal” and “nocturnal” in orientation (54). Kripal may be said therefore to be a thinker of “twilight” and “dawn”—moments that are neither quite daytime nor nighttime. Kripal may thus be understood as attempting to usher in the twilight of the heretofore seemingly impossible impasse of secularism and religion, and the dawn of something beyond this dualism: what he names “the Super Story” (271).

With the image of twilight, I invoke Friedrich Nietzsche (who figures prominently in chapter 12 on the “superhuman”). It is worth recalling that the subtitle to Nietzsche’s 1889 Twilight of the Idols is “How to Philosophize with a Hammer,” for Kripal has always approached religion with a hammer: a fact well-attested to in this volume. As he explains, “there is no way that the robust critical study of religion can be comfortably aligned with religion itself” (57). The same is true of secularism as well for him: the critical study of secularism, insofar as it is reductively historicist and materialist in orientation, cannot be comfortably aligned with secularism itself. No one is spared the hammer.

But Kripal is also more than a critic. He is a deeply constructive thinker, not only interested in wielding his hammer to smash idols but to build new worlds as well. He is, in this sense, possessed by Eliade’s vision of a “new humanism,” a humanism that is neither pre-modern nor modern, neither religious nor secular. Kripal is “waiting for the dawn”—as Eliade put it in an eponymously-entitled 1982 lecture—that is, he is waiting for the future (even while busily trying to write it as well).

Secret Body is thus a deeply utopian work, ultimately written from the far side of the impossible: from the future looking back onto the present, as it were. Of course, Kripal admits he does not fully know where the Super Story might take us. As he observes, “Who is to say how we will author, draw, and so become authors?” (421). He does not pretend to know it all even as he challenges both the religious and the secular alike to consider the possibility that we may all know a lot more than we think we do (or indeed more than we might like).

This volume serves as a fine introduction to Kripal’s career and to the story he has written of himself in order to make sense of himself within a Super Story that he admits he only dimly comprehends. And yet this lack of understanding does not signify theoretical resignation, much less mystical fascism (that only the mystic, finally, “knows”). Rather, it serves as prolegomena to the future of a “new comparativism” in the history of religions (359-98). But what makes this comparativism “new” and not the old essentialism in new clothes?

The difference between the “old” and “new” comparativisms is that the former operates upon a presupposed model of what the essence of religion is in response to the question: “What is religion?” The latter, however, operates through a posited model of religion in response to the question: “Religion is what?” In other words, the new comparativism makes progress through reverse engineering religion, so to speak, meaning its users cannot a priori know what religion is. The new comparativism is therefore generically “scientific” in orientation insofar as science operates in terms of precise stipulations concerning posited realities and entities that can be used to test whether any given theory is true or false.

While Kripal may not have “an established, respectable, fully rational, fully defensible program for the study of religion” (10), by calling for posited mystical, metaphysical, and paranormal experiences and entities to be subject to experimentation, he is calling for the implicit nature of religion to be made explicit to reason. In this light, we might say that the new comparativism operates under a principle that the religious and secular have only rarely understood, namely, the truth about religion comes last.

And since the truth comes last, we do not even know the limits of our freedom. Secret Body stands as a Promethean testament to taking this principle to its logical conclusion insofar as Kripal’s corpus encodes within itself the imperative to inaugurate organized research programs into the impossible.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Matthew Allison is an independent scholar who resides in Pittsburgh, PA.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey J. Kripal is J. Newton Rayzor professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University. He is the author of several books, including Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion and The Serpent’s Gift:Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion.


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