Top ten of 2011

Da stand das Meer‘s Top Ten of new sacred music heard (though not necessarily composed) in 2011, listed alphabetically:

  • Eriks Esenvalds (1977-) Passion and Resurrection (Hyperion recording with Stephen Layton, Carolyn Sampson, Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia)
  • Vladimir Godar (1956-) Mater (ECM recording with Iva Bittova, Milos Valent, Marek Stryncl, Solamente Naturali, Bratislava Conservatory Choir, Dusan Bill)
  • Galina Grigorjeva (1962-) Molitva for saxophone and organ (live recording with Virgo Veldi, Ulla Krigul)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) In tempus praesens (Deutsche Grammophon recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra)
  • Betty Olivero (1954-) Neharo’t, Neharo’t (ECM recording with Alexander Liebreich Kim Kashkashian, An Raskin, Philipp Jungk, Lea Avraham, Ilana Elia, Münchener Kammerorchester)
  • Roxanna Panufnik (1968-) Tallinn Mass ‘Dance of Life’ (Estonian Radio broadcast with Mihhail Gerts, Patricia Rozario, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and chorus)
  • Arvo Pärt (1935-) Adam’s Lament (live performance with Olari Elts, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-) Mass (live performance with Michael Gläser/Netherlands Radio Choir)
  • Terje Rypdal (1947-) Lux Aeterna (ECM recording with Kjell Seim, Palle Mikkelborg, Iver Kleive, Åshild Stubø Gundersen, Bergen Chamber Ensemble)
  • Valentin Silvestrov (1937-) Sacred choral works (ECM recording/DVD-ROM with book To Wait for Music (Duh i Litera)) with Mykola Hobdych, Kiev Chamber Choir)


Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (ii)

In the next couple of episodes in our ongoing series of posts on the spiritual dynamics of 1960s counter-culture I find myself confronted with the unenviable task of trying to say something coherent about rock music’s bizarre fascination with a man whom I consider to be one of the most unattractive figures in modern British intellectual history, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Why Britain’s most infamous occultist, pornographer and drug addict should have been elevated from relative obscurity to the status of a cult hero in the late 1960s is something I have always found strange. Perhaps stranger still, however, is the fact that the revival of occultism was not confined to hard rock acts such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, nor to patently Dionysiac bands such as the Doors and Rolling Stones. Although all these bands made explicit reference to Crowley, arguably the most significant moment in the renaissance of posthumous interest in the self-styled ‘Beast’ was his puzzling inclusion in the top left-hand corner of the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What this post will hopefully demonstrate is that this bizarre reference to Crowley can only be understood in the context of the Beatles’ growing alienation from Christianity, in which the year 1966 emerges as pivotal.

At first sight Crowley might seem a highly unlikely candidate for membership in the club of  ‘people we like’ on the packaging for an album by the one 1960s group to attain immediate respectability outside countercultural circles. In April 1967, by which time the Beatles had acquired a status in Britain comparable to that of the Royal Family, no less than Leonard Bernstein was already waxing lyrical about the Beatles on American Public Television in a CBS broadcast entitled Inside Pop – the Rock Revolution. In this compelling documentary, which also features remarkable historic performances by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Surf’s Up) and 15 year-old Janis Ian (Society’s Child), Bernstein, who had been turned on to the Fab Four by his children, went as far as to compare the melodic sweep of Paul McCartney’s Got to get you into my life on the album Revolver to Schumann.

That the composer of West Side Story should have been so impressed by the Beatles ought not to be surprising; it is likewise understandable that his admiration should have focused on the evident points of contact between Lennon & McCartney’s songwriting and ‘classical’ compositional techniques (Bernstein for example makes much of their deft asymmetries in phrase construction and piquant tonal shifts, as well as noting the use of a ‘high Bach trumpet’ in Penny Lane and string quartet in Eleanor Rigby).[1] Many of  the Beatles’ songs, at least prior to 1966, are after all far more assimilable to classical melodic and harmonic analysis than the blues-derived rock of ‘harder’ amplified groups of the period such as, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This is not to say that Bernstein views the Beatles through an exclusively classicizing prism, but it is clear that his approving nods towards Love You To‘s use of Hindu raga[2] (or the ‘sensuality of Arab café music’ he finds in the Rolling Stones’ Harrison-influenced Painted Black) are essentially expressions of ‘orientalism’, the Western fascination with the ‘exotic’ that has been a part of European art-music ever since the ‘Turkish’ idiom of the late eighteenth century exemplifed by works such as Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Bernstein’s remarks give no indication of a deeper significance to be found in the Beatles’ turn to the East, one that becomes apparent on closer examination of Revolver‘s startling finale in which Asian religion meets psychedelia, modern technology and musique concrète, generating one of the most musically and philosophically radical tracks in the Beatles’ output, Tomorrow Never Knows.

Leonard Bernstein, 1973 (photo: Allan Warren)

Recorded in April 1966, Revolver‘s final number perhaps embodies the fusion of drugs and monistic thought better and more consistently at every level than any other song of the era. Shortly after their first experimentation with LSD in 1965, the Beatles discovered The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. This had made its way to London via the efforts of Michael Hollingshead, an acquaintance of Aldous Huxley’s who claimed the dubious honour of having introduced Leary to LSD and subsequently carried out psychedelic research with him at Harvard. Hollingshead had established a ‘World Psychedelic Centre’ in London’s fashionable Belgravia district and brought a considerable amount of psychedelic literature with him for the launch of what he dubbed ‘Operation London’. In his 1973 confessional autobiography The man who turned on the world (by which point the author described himself as a ‘confessed Franciscan’)[3] Hollingshead later gave a description of experimental neo-Tibetan rituals in London in which LSD was administered in conjunction with readings from The Psychedelic Experience and an interesting selection of music:

‘Shortly after dropping the acid, I played a tape of Buddhist Cakra music, followed by Concert Percussion by the American composer, John Cage. […]Next I played some music by Ravi Shankar and some bossanova. Interval of fifteen minutes. Then some music by Scriabin and part of a Bach cello suite. Interval. Some Debussy, and Indian flute music by Ghosh. Interval. Bach organ music and some John Cage ‘space’ music. Interval. The Ali Brothers and Japanese flute music.'[4]

It was the manager of the fashionable Indica Bookshop in Southampton Row who, according to his own account[5] introduced John Lennon to Leary’s and Alpert’s book on April 1, 1966. Following its instructions to the letter, Lennon composed Tomorrow Never Knows with its famous opening lines taken straight from Leary’s introduction:

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

These words (fed through a rotating Leslie speaker inside a Hammond organ) were integrated within an unprecedentedly dense musical texture featuring multiple tape loops, distorted sitar, reversed guitar and treated percussion over a C drone, with the non-developmental structure mirroring an Eastern, circular approach to time.[6] If the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen (concerts of whose music Paul McCartney had attended) is evident, so to are the striking parallels with American minimalism (Terry Riley’s and La Monte Young’s In C pieces).

It is in this context of the Beatles’ involvement with the thought of Leary/Alpert, drug culture and Asian mysticism that Crowley’s inclusion within Sergeant Pepper‘s pantheon of Beatles influences begins to become comprehensible. To this however needs to be added the Beatles’ extremely negative experience of institutional Christianity in the violent backlash towards the band in the Southern U.S. during their tour of August 1966, which has to stand as one of the defining moments in the history of the divorce in recent decades between the Church and popular culture. The vociferous opposition of conservative Christians towards the Beatles was sparked by John Lennon’s London Evening Standard interview with Maureen Cleave of March 4 of the same year (immediately prior to Lennon’s reading of The Psychedelic Experience). In this interview  he had made the now legendary statement that

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.'[7]

Lennon’s reference to the ‘twisting’ of Jesus’s message by his disciples was influenced by his reading of the 1965 bestseller The Passover Plot by New Testament scholar Hugh Schonfield (one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls team), who claimed that Jesus had planned to fake his own death on the Cross, but that the plan failed when a Roman soldier ran a spear into his side.

It needs to be emphasized that Lennon’s remarks caused no outcry in Britain but set off an international furore when reprinted out of context by the American teenage magazine Datebook; following the boycotting of the Beatles’ music and effigy-burning by the Ku Klux Klan, Lennon attempted to defuse the crisis at the outset of the Beatles’ summer 1966 U.S. tour by issuing an apology at the Astor Towers Hotel in Chicago on August 11.[8] He asserted that he had basically been making a descriptive sociological comment on the decline of Christianity in England, not a value judgment on the relative merits of Christ and the Beatles. He maintained his belief in the accurary of his factual assessment of the state of the Church in Britain as ‘shrinking and losing contact’, a verdict supported by George Harrison who agreed that it was ‘on the wane’. Intriguingly, Lennon claimed that he had been ‘deploring’ the demise of British Christianity in the Evening Standard interview, and that he was was not impressed by Church attempts to be relevant to the younger generation:

‘Well, my reaction is that I was deploring it, you know. I was pointing it out. I mean, if somebody like us says it, people sort of do take notice, you know – even church people are trying to be ‘with it’ with pop groups and things. They’re still doing it the wrong way, and I was just stating a fact as I saw it.’

Stating that all the Beatles had received an essentially Christian upbringing, Lennon defined his own religious views in immanentist terms that could easily have been culled from a superficial reading of Tillich and Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God: ‘I believe in God, but not as an old man in the sky. I believe what people call ‘God’ is something in all of us’.[9] Clearly struggling to express himself coherently, Lennon voiced his opinion that ‘I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right; It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.'[10]

Beatles record-burning, Birmingham, Alabama, 1966

Having encountered the full fury of the most conservative U.S. Christians it is understandable that the Beatles’ negative position with regard to institutional Christianity should have been reinforced in the months following the release of Revolver and continued in the direction of an exploration of Indian religion seen as more experientially authentic than an ossified Church. As George Harrison commented on his first visit to Bombay in September 1966, “The religions they have in India I believe in much more than anything I ever learned from Christianity […] Their religion is not like something which Christianity seems to be, which is you turn it on Sunday morning and go to church because you’re supposed to go rather than because you want to go. It’s every second and every minute of their lives. It’s them – how they act, how they conduct themselves, how they think.”[11] Lennon would echo this sense of the inadequacy of the Church in 1967: ‘The youth of today are really looking for some answers, for proper answers the established church can’t give them, their parents can’t give them, material things can’t give them’.[12]

In the context of the Beatles’ alienation from the institution of the Church they felt no taboos about including Aleister Crowley on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It seems evident that their (probably John Lennon’s) interest in him was not so much related to the lurid stories of his orgiastic rituals but rather his appropriation of Eastern philosophical thought and use of hallucinogens.[13] Viewed in such a light, it is not difficult to see how Crowley could be part of a narrative including other figures on the cover such as Huxley, Burroughs and various Indian gurus such as Yogananda. While Nietzsche was not featured among the Beatles’ ‘people we like’, there are hints of ‘beyond good and evil’ to the artistic and spiritual genealogy implied by the artwork, which (as photographic evidence attests) was initially to have included both Jesus and Hitler. The shadow of the author of Also sprach Zarathustra looms large over the aspect of Crowley’s thought which, more than any other, would be explicitly championed by Leary and others in the late 1960s, encapsulated in Crowley’s ‘Law of Thelema’ (a notion taken from Rabelais and derived from the Greek for ‘will’): ‘Do what thou wilst shall be the whole of the law’. With this creed Crowley was promoting the Nietzschean elevation of Will to the status of an absolute imperative; it may be questioned how seriously this was taken by the Beatles in 1967,  but Crowley’s Thelemic doctrine would be taken in absolute earnest by the most radical elements of the late 1960s counterculture, with extremely serious consequences.



[1] The ‘classical’ perspective on the Beatles is humorously shown by the four songs which a young Louis Andriessen (to whom we will be returning in subsequent posts) wrote for Cathy Berberian while studying with the Armenian-American singer’s husband, Luciano Berio, in Milan in 1966.

[2] George Harrison first heard Ravi Shankar’s ensemble in 1965, then studied with the Indian master in 1966 (having already collaborated with Asian musicians on Love You To). It should be noted that Bernstein was already familiar with the use of Hindu musical elements in a Western context, having premièred Messiaen’s Turangalîla with the Boston Symphony Orchestra back in 1949.

[3] In the conclusion of The man who turned on the world Hollingshead acknowledged the ultimate futility of his chemical pilgrimage (which had included a serious methedrine addiction and a spell in London’s notorious Wormwood Scrubs Prison):

‘And how do I now think of LSD et al.?—as certain truths about the nature of my inner self came to be manifest in my conscious mind, my interest in psychedelics began to wane proportionately, so that today I do not believe that LSD can help me towards self-realisation. It had never been more than preliminary, one may say, a pretext to me to explore inwardness and unfamiliar mental states for whatever they might reveal. But LSD has nothing more to give me. And I am therefore determined to return to the world, and in time, to integrate myself with it. In relation to any religious beliefs I now hold, I am a confessed Franciscan, though I freely admit that I have a very long way to go before I shall be able to express this outwardly—with my entire being—the love Saint Francis of Assisi showed was for all living creatures, and in respect to love of this kind, I must to this extent be regarded as clumsy. Yet in Saint Francis evolved Love of the very highest order for his delicate and feminine sensibility offered Love a unique possibility of manifestation. And thus, in the light of this knowledge, I can no longer take my psychedelic trips seriously. I know that many readers, and by no means the worst among them, would disapprove of such measures as taking LSD; one should be strong enough, they say, to exist by faith without the aid of drugs. Yes! One should be, but what if one is too weak?
And the impulse which now drives me back into the world is precisely the same as that which drives so many into monasteries or to keep the offices of prayer—the desire for self-realisation.’ (Michael Hollingshead, The man who turned on the world (London: Blond and Briggs, 1973)

[4] Ibid., ch. 5. Scriabin’s inclusion seems particular noteworthy given the Russian composer’s adherence to the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and his plans for his unrealized Mysterium to be performed during a mass ritual in Tibet.

[5] Barry Miles, The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years (London: Omnibus Press, 2001).

[6] A fascinatingly detailed analytical discussion of the recording of Tomorrow Never Knows, including transcriptions of the compositional sketches and tape loops, can be found in Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] The Maureen Cleave Evening Standard interview is reprinted online at is interesting to note that among ‘objects he still fancies’ in Lennon’s house, Maureen Cleave noted ‘a huge altar crucifix of a Roman Catholic nature with IHS on it; a pair of crutches, a present from George; an enormous Bible he bought in Chester; his gorilla suit.’

[8] Transcripts of the two Astor Towers Hotel press conferences can be found online at and .

[9] Quoted Larry Kane, Lennon Revealed (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2007), 118.

[10] Quoted Tony Barrow, John, Paul, George, Ringo & me: the real Beatles story (New York: Avalon, 2005). Barrow was the Beatles’ press officer, and it was in his 27th floor suite in the Astor Towers Hotel that the press conferences occurred.

[11] Quoted in Steve Turner, The Gospel according to the Beatles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 10.

[12] Ibid., 134.

[13] I have found no hard evidence to support the interpretation of the opening lines of the album’s title song, ‘it was twenty years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play’ as referring to the death of Aleister Crowley in 1947, a rumour which has been widely circulated by occultists and conservative Christians alike.


Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (i)

After a prolonged summer break, it is now time to pick up the thread of this post where it left off, namely with the 1960s counter-cultural migration to Europe via the Beatles. Over the next couple of episodes we will be dealing with the radical and in some respects highly sinister musical and spiritual direction taken in 1966-1969 by the prime movers of those heady years, terminating in the gruesome Manson Family murders and the Rolling Stones’ disastrous appearance at Altamont Speedway in December 1969,  which many cultural historians see as ‘the day the music died’. This was the time when, to paraphrase Yeats’ The Second Coming, the 1960s ‘ceremony of innocence’ was definitively drowned.

Eglise de la Réconciliation, Taizé (photo: Damir Jelic)

There is no doubt that the stamp left on popular culture at many levels by the music of this brief but incredibly intense era has been an enduring one, with the songs of the late 1960s still functioning for many as an interpretive framework for their experience of the world. During my summer travels I was provided with some humourous but telling evidence of this from some seemingly unlikely quarters. One instance of this was at the Taizé ecumenical community in France, where one of the brothers (not wearing his monastic attire at the time, I have to say) interspersed his thoughts on the parable of the Prodigal Son with quotations from the Beatles’ Piggies (from the ‘White’ album of 1968) and even Serge Gainsbourg’s and Brigitte Bardot’s/Jane Birkin’s infamous Je t’aime … moi non plus (1967/1969). A second instance was at the windswept castle of Fort La Latte in Brittany, where my family and I had gone for what had been billed as a ‘medieval children’s festival’, a description which proved somewhat thin when we discovered that the sole entertainment on offer was from a local musical comedy act of decidedly limited ability. On seeing them appear in period costume I imagined that they would be providing the pseudo-troubadour fare that I have heard at similar events in French historical venues, so it was very much to my surprise that they launched into a spoof cover version of ‘Sympathy for ze deveel’ by Les Pierres qui roulent (the Rolling Stones). Making up in attitude for what they clearly lacked in basic artistic talent, they came up with some lines in what I can only describe as pidgin franglais which had at least one member of the outdoor audience splitting his sides with laughter. Let me try to transliterate a couple of examples from a language which has no official written form but which is all too commonly practised in this part of the world:

‘Medieval food is dégueulasse [disgusting]. It taste zhjust like McDonaldsse’ [that actually rhymes reasonably well in franglais when pronounced properly]

‘We not look for la bagarre [We’re not trying to pick a fight]. We zhjust wanna be medieval rock-stars [see comment above. The final ‘s’ of ‘rock stars’ is silent] !’

I have to admit that to call this a ‘song’ would be stretching the meaning of the word a little beyond its normal limits, and yes, the Jimi Hendrix imitation at the end when the amplified lute player started trying to play his instrument with his teeth was frankly pretty limp, but this bizarre piece of humour did serve to illustrate the mythological place that the Golden Age of Rock continues to occupy in popular consciousness.

As part of their caricature, the group ended by making mock ‘Devil’s horns’ signs (an integral element of Heavy Metal’s grand guignol behavioural code[1]) with their index and little fingers, a gesture which was not so much sinister as interestingly indicative of a certain stereotype concerning a supposed alliance of popular music and the demonic which, as we shall see, has been around for a very long time.

Fort La Latte, Brittany (photo: Benh Lieu Song)

At this point I would like to issue some immediate caveats concerning the perception of a connection between the evolution of rock music during the period under question and a resurgence of interest on both sides of the Atlantic in the occult. It seems that two interpretive extremes need to be avoided here. The first is that represented by many accounts stemming from conservative Christian circles (whether Protestant or Catholic) demonizing rock music per se as occult to its very core. This approach is perhaps best typified by an obsession with finding hidden messages encoded backwards in songs such as Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; anyone who has made an objective attempt to assess the so-called ‘evidence’ adduced by the conspiracy theorists in this respect is likely to be as unconvinced as I am that there is some kind of supernatural origin to purported messages such as ‘start to smoke marijuana’ in Queen’s Another one bites the dust that some claim to have found ‘inexplicably’ engraved on vinyl when played in reverse. The mere fact that it takes a high degree of intentionality for anyone to want to sift through the repertoire backwards (a fairly masochistic aural exercise) suggests that the researchers have simply found exactly what they were looking for – to construe the slurred and barely distinguishable syllables of Freddie Mercury’s back-to-front voice in this way requires some pretty creative imaginative work. It is furthermore interesting to speculate what might be found if some warped soul subjected Bach’s St Matthew Passion to the same kind of ‘analysis’; I am more than willing to bet that somewhere in the three hours of gobbledygook German in retrograde someone might after repeated listenings hear the odd mildly subversive line or two such as ‘time to get out of our brains at the Biergarten’ (in 18th century Leipzig dialect, of course).

In my opinion one of the problems with the blanket demonization of rock music by religious fundamentalists (which needless to say are particularly widespread in the blogosphere) has been to overshadow any kind of more nuanced appraisal of the spiritual dynamics of rock in its formative years, a serious subject which clearly calls for a balanced and historically-grounded account.[2] As a result commentators can frequently fall into the opposite error from that of rock’s religious despisers, namely that of failing to engage with the evidence that something strange and in some respects unnerving was indeed going on at a social level in the late 1960s that merits substantive comment. Merely to brush off the sudden and dramatic turn to occult themes in the counter-culture of the late 1960s as a temporary fad or an inexplicable case of mass psychosis best left untouched is an act of considerable intellectual laziness which abandons the field to zealous but undiscriminating writers who evidently lack the analytical equipment to deal with the topic in an intelligent manner.

In trying to approach this subject responsibly, it seems that some points of method are in order. Firstly, it is evident that one of the main reasons for the paucity of responsible mainstream scholarly discussion of the phenomenon of rock music’s love affair with occultism is the fact that those who have been willing to approach the topic at all have normally done so on the basis of an a priori commitment to a certain metaphysical position regarding the reality of supernatural beings (other than God) and their dealings with humanity. Secondly, this is all too often linked to an uncritical attitude towards widely-circulated and unsubstantiated master narratives of plots to destroy Western culture from within (launched by a variety of candidates including the CIA, British Intelligence, the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations and a Theodor Adorno supposedly not only writing all the Beatles’ lyrics but also taking 12-tone music from the Baal priesthood and the cult of Dionysus). As with all such conspiracy theories, the fatal flaw of too many religiously-motivated accounts of the 1960s attempting to prove the innate evil of rock ‘n’ roll is the forcing of often undocumented evidence into a pre-determined scheme. It ought to be patently obvious that serious sociological and historical research cannot be carried out in this manner. Not only are such readings ruled out of court at the outset by those for whatever reason are unwilling to share the metaphysical outlook of  the conspiracy buffs (i.e. belief in the existence of non-human personal evil), but they are almost always undermined by their penchant for exaggeration, over-simplification, sensationalism and the failure to distinguish fact from urban legend. The premature introduction of simplistic theological arguments as a substitute for careful analysis of a complex web of human interactions makes no contribution to genuine understanding of rapidly evolving, multi-layered cultural situations. What seems clear is that, in order to come to grips with the subject-matter, we have to find some way to talk rationally about the rôle played, not so much by the question of ‘supernatural’ agency (even if ultimately that is a challenge which theology cannot evade) as by human belief in the working of supernatural forces.

One study which attempts to do this, but which ultimately fails to avoid the interpretive traps I have just attempted to outline, is the highly ambitious and initially promising study of Catholic author and recovering hippie E. Michael Jones published by Ignatius Press in the mid-1990s, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music, a sustained and flamboyant polemic against what Jones perceives to be the Nietzschean dimension of counter-culture. At first glance his eloquently written and frequently fascinating analysis might seem to merit serious consideration, not least for its attempt to link the emergence of the 1960s counter-culture to the void left in the wake of classical music’s demise in the decades following World War II. Jones argues that

‘a massive shift of allegiance took place, similar to the first shift from Schönberg to jazz that had taken place when the first black jazz band arrived in Paris after World War I. Only this time it took place on a much more massive scale. Faced with a choice between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters, British working-class teenagers in the early fifties had the sense to choose at least some semblance of musical life, and they went with Muddy.’[3]

Muddy Waters, 1971

Jones supports this with the example of a British professor who attempted to bring a Stockhausen recording to some jam sessions

‘in the empty art-school classrooms that were now the hangouts of the British youth who in another age would have gone into the military or an apprenticeship. There is no indication that anyone listened twice. As the sixties progressed, a massive shift of allegiance took place. The postwar generation coming to maturity in the early sixties converted to rock ‘n’ roll’.[4]

This bold thesis is not without a certain prima facie plausibility. It should be acknowledged that the explosion of popular music did indeed occur during a time when ‘classical’ music was struggling to find its way (many young European composers feeling, not without a certain justification, that the high bourgeois culture whose history was deeply intertwined with the Austro-German symphonic tradition was fatally compromised during the Third Reich). The correlation between these two phenomena clearly does merit exploration, but Jones overstates his case in his efforts to lay the blame for what he perceives as the collapse of Western culture at the feet of ‘degenerate moderns’ (the title of another of Jones’s book-length studies). For the author of Dionysos Rising, who unsurprisingly makes frequent allusion to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the chief culprits in classical music are clearly identified as Schönberg and Adorno, representatives of the ‘arriving German professoriat’ who took up residence in the US when fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s:

‘Bauhaus was installed in Black Mountain College in the woods of the South; Gropius ended up at Harvard, Marcuse in California, and Tillich at Union Theological Seminary – and Kulturbolschewismus became our national educational policy. […] The German professors injected the Nietzsche virus into the bloodstream of American education, which has had an immune deficiency ever since.’[5]

The tone of these remarks is unfortunately typical of the book’s tendency to construct a politically–oriented master narrative out of half-truths, insinuation and sweeping generalizations. Where, for example, is the proof that British teens after World War II were actually making a ‘massive shift of allegiance’ away from classical music, which would imply that they had been interested in it previously? Jones’s blanket term ‘British youth’ fails to take account of the diversities in class background within those embracing rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s; there is no evidence that ‘working-class teenagers’ were actually choosing between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters (as if they would have opted for Brahms or Chopin against the Chicago Blues), especially in the early fifties, when New Music in England in any case primarily meant Benjamin Britten rather than cultural ‘Bolshevism’ from Donaueschingen. It would seem far more credible to assert that the working-class felt that classical music per se was essentially a highbrow activity closed to them (as Paul McCartney explained in a televised interview in the late 1960s). And if we are to bring Stockhausen into the discussion at all, can a general thesis really be constructed on the basis of Jones’s example of a jam session rejection of the Darmstadt school in South London?  What is to be made of the fact – inconvenient for Jones’s thesis – that the composer of Kontakte was one of the figures on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top row, fifth from the left) and exerted a major influence on the experimentation of the ‘White’ Album?

More troubling still than Dionysos Rising’s one-sided historiography are the racist overtones of its overall narrative of increasing Western cultural degeneracy. We for example find such disturbingly reductionist statements as

‘The 1960s were an erotic Great Awakening. As Nietzsche had predicted, the Negro was the catalyst for the overturning of European values, which is to say, the most effective enculturation of Christianity. The civil rights movement was nothing more [!!!] than the culmination of an attempt to transform the Negro into a paradigm of sexual liberation that had been the pet project of the cultural revolutionaries since the twenties.’[6 – emphasis mine]

Jones attempts to lend academic respectability to his reading by making certain qualifications such as admitting that the modernist fascination with ‘the Negro’ was largely the projection of white fantasies, which had begun with Nietzsche. He likewises correctly recognizes that ‘the Negro’ as white socio-historical construct had little to do with the reality of African-American life which was if anything more deeply impacted by Christianity than white society. However, there remains something insidious in Jones’s insinuation that responsibility for the portrayal of the ‘Negro as a paradigm of sexual liberation’ lies not only with the white moderns but also with ‘the Negroes who were willing to go along with the white boys’ Kulturkampf for whatever gain it would bring them.’[7] For all its literary flair and mine of information about the 1960s, the flaws of Jones’s overall argument and tendency to overstep the boundary between responsible scholarship and ideological polemic ultimately make for frustrating reading.

In contrast to the two extremes I have mentioned – either a reduction of rock culture to ‘demonism’ or a flat refusal to engage with a mass of phenomenological evidence suggesting an extremely tight correlation between musical developments of 1966-1969 and a sudden surge of interest in the dark side of mysticism – what seems required is an approach which looks dispassionately at the evidence on an a posteriori basis, distinguishing rigorously between what can be established as fact and what is to be treated as conjecture or metaphysical speculation. Such an approach simply ‘brackets’ the question of whether ‘occult forces’ are at work as outside the scope of inquiry (whatever one’s personal convictions on the matter). Neither the positing of the existence of such forces nor their a priori denial should be allowed to colour the discussion; only by proceeding in such a manner can anything cogent be said on a sociological level about the frenetic end of the 1960s and its subsequent legacy for popular culture. From such an analysis the reader should then be free to draw her/his own theological conclusions, if any.

The difficulty of such an endeavor is compounded by the fact that distinguishing truth from the mass of disinformation and partial truths abounding in the literature concerning the birth of rock music in the 1960s is not in itself sufficient for an appraisal of the period. Like any sub-culture, rock has its own foundational myths whose importance is in some way independent of their grounding in real history. The facts about John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or any of the other cultural icons of rock music are in this respect certainly less influential than their perception within popular consciousness, however distorted this may be with regard to actual historical data.

As an illustration of this, let us take as an example the strange case of the man who is widely regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of rock music,  the ‘King of the Delta Blues’ Robert Johnson (1911-1938), whose iconic status since the 1960s is out of all proportion to the size of his output (29 songs recorded in Texas in 1936 and 1937, plus 13 ‘lost’ takes only issued in 1970). The recordings are certainly remarkable in themselves for Johnson’s innovative guitar playing, the disturbingly expressive quality of his voice, and the haunting imagery of his poetry. However, within his own blues community Johnson was not regarded as particularly important during the two decades following his early death. Despite its intrinsic quality, his ouput is not in itself enough to explain the extraordinary rise of Johnson as a cult figure in the 1960s and his canonization as the spiritual as well as musical ancestor of rock by a generation of white musicians living an ocean away from the Mississippi Delta.

It is clear that the Robert Johnson revival was catalyzed by the release in 1961 of the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers at the instigation of Columbia Records’ John Hammond (who had sought out Johnson for his Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1938, where Count Basie topped the bill, the program notes of which effectively started the Johnson mythmaking by claiming that the bluesman died the very day that he was told that he was to play at Carnegie Hall).  The importance of the Delta Blues idiom for the emergence of rock in the years immediately following the release of King of the Delta Blues is acknowledged by all commentators as immense, with the songs both of Johnson and Muddy Waters providing both the inspiration for bands such as the Rolling Stones (whose name was derived from the title of Waters’ first hit in 1948 after moving from the Delta to Chicago), Cream and Led Zeppelin. The influence is of course readily apparent on a technical level in terms of the blues structure of the songs, vocal delivery and guitar style. It is however also clear that the blues were equally important on a symbolic level, with Johnson – whose persona was essentially fabricated by Frank Driggs’ liner notes for King –, becoming the equivalent of an African-American Arthur Rimbaud. Here was a poète maudit, mistakenly described by Driggs as having recorded his songs as a teenager, whose frequently tormented lyrics (assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be autobiographical) spoke to a generation who projected their own existential concerns back into the radically different socio-cultural environment of the American South of the 1920s and 30s. The appeal of Johnson’s lyrics is captured memorably by a description by Giles Oakley: ‘visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled with secret fears and anxieties. At times he seems … on the edge of an abyss of complete psychic disintegration.’[8] It is arguably this poetic element – seen through the romanticizing lens of the 1960s – which made Johnson rather than Waters or other bluesmen the ‘ancestor of choice’ for rock’s British pioneers such as Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Part of the attraction undoubtedly lay in a dark and disturbing side to Johnson’s words which on occasion featured precisely the same combination that would, unfortunately but incontestably, characterize certain streams of post-1966 rock and which persists to this day as the default position in much Metal – the combination of an invocation of the occult with violent masculine sexuality. What are we to make, for example, of the threats in 32-20 Blues (‘And if she gets unruly, thinks she don’t wan do, Take my 32-20 now and cut her half in two‘) or the famously chilling text of Me and the Devil Blues?

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, oooo
When you knocked upon my door
And I said hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go

Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, woooo
Was walking side by side
And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

An integral part of the Robert Johnson mythology was clearly (and still is) the morbid fascination exerted by the legend that Johnson’s remarkable guitar playing was the result of a pact with Satan made at the crossroads of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi (where Muddy Waters also grew up). The origins of this story will be assessed later, but it acquired considerable traction after 1966 when related in an article by blues scholar Pete Welding in the widely-read Down Beat magazine entitled Hellhound on His Trail: Robert Johnson. In this article Welding presented the legend not as hearsay but as a serious belief transmitted by one of the Delta Blues’ founding fathers, guitarist Son House, who had been both Johnson’s and Waters’ teacher.[9] In the course of the next few years – when rock’s flirtation with the dark arts was at its height – making cover versions of Johnson’s Cross Road Blues would become almost obligatory for any aspiring rock band laying claim to the heritage of the Blues, the most famous being the rendition of Eric Clapton’s Cream in 1968.[10]

Robert Johnson

Musicologists Susan McClary and Patricia Schroeder are surely correct in asserting that the legend of Robert Johnson was essentially a projection born of the fantasies of the 1960s. McClary for example claims that for British rockers, ‘African Americans were thought to have access to real (i.e. preindustrialized) feelings and community – qualities hard to find in a society that had so long stressed individuality and the mind/body split’.[11] Schroeder surmises that ‘[i]t could be that the story of Johnson’s pact with the devil (which, as we have seen, was not widespread until the mid 1960s) burgeoned because of the alienated sensibilities of the generation that resurrected him: it is a product of the Age of Aquarius.’[12]

However, while this Faustian myth undoubtedly possessed a powerful transgressive mystique in the late 60s, it was not merely a literary construct. It also spoke to the musical intuition of young musicians such as Clapton, Page and Keith Richards seeking to explain for themselves the unprecedented power of amplified guitar music (linked to the psycho-acoustic phenomenon of aural saturation). It is phenomenologically extremely striking that many leading rock musicians of the time would speak of the actual experience of live, collective music-making at high volume levels – frequently intensified by the use of psychedelics – in terms of openness to external forces (the concept of the ‘shamanistic’ rock musician, a recurring image from the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead to Carlos Santana’s Shaman album of 2002, would merit a post in itself). Given that the Robert Johnson ‘crossroads’ legend was entirely consonant with their musical experience, it is not surprising that, as Patricia Schroeder contends, rock’s pioneers should have ‘made a cult figure of a Robert Johnson with preternatural skills and supernatural connections.’[13]

Intersection of Highway 49 and 61, Clarksdale (photo: Joe Mazzola)

The question of the extent to which the Robert Johnson mythology is rooted in fact is extremely difficult to answer for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has proved notoriously hard for scholars to assemble verifiable details about his life for the lack of solid written documentation in an oral culture marked by the frequent embellishment of eyewitness reports (meaning that even statements by Johnson’s entourage are often contradictory) and where the boundary between historical reality and mythologizing seems highly fluid. Secondly, it is clear that, even if the entry of the legend of Johnson’s crossroads deal with the devil into the popular white consciousness can be dated to Welding’s article of 1966, it stems from a mythology of the blues as the ‘devil’s music’ which was already well in existence in Robert Johnson’s own lifetime in his own African-American culture. As blues scholar Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick pointed out in a compelling 1992 documentary made in the Delta by John Hammond’s guitarist son, Johnson’s decision to become a professional musician seems to have been a response to the condemnation he received from his family on the death of his first wife Virginia during childbirth while Johnson was away from home playing music at Delta juke joints. McCormick argues persuasively that the appearance of diabolical imagery in many of Johnson’s songs is a reflection of the charges laid against him by a deeply religious community for which to play the blues (rather than Christian hymnody) was already to have sold one’s soul to the devil.[14] It seems psychologically more than credible to assert with McCormick that Johnson simply assumed an identity that others had effectively created for him, taking his images from an existing stock of archetypal myths circulating in the Delta. His fellow musicians such as Son House and Honeyboy Edwards being equally impregnated with this collective mythology, it is wholly logical that they should have attributed Johnson’s seemingly miraculous transformation from a mediocre blues musician to a guitar master during his absence from the Delta in 1930-31 to supernatural forces. It moreover seems that Robert Johnson’s was not an isolated instance, a similar equation of superior guitar playing with a Satanic pact having been made in the case of his namesake Tommy Johnson (1896-1956). Whether the singer of Hellhound on my trail propagated the myth of his own diabolical musical abilities is a matter of scholarly debate, but it is certain that he did nothing to oppose it and that he derived a certain notoriety from the persona generated by the legend.

The question of whether Johnson made a bargain with a genuinely existing spiritual entity of whatever nature is not only of course totally unverifiable (and therefore to be bracketed from discussion), but far less rich in implications than the historical and sociological issue of the broader perception of the blues as the music of the devil and the subsequent appropriation of this association by the rock vanguard in the 1960s. This appropriation would in some cases see the confluence of two legends originating on opposite sides of the Atlantic, which would merge as a result of the American-British cross-fertilization that was very much a feature of the later 60s (the most spectacular instances of this convergence being provided by Keith Richards and Jimmy Page). If the myth of Robert Johnson, and the blues more generally as the ‘devil’s music’ was one mythic hero, the second would be a figure whom I would personally prefer to ignore as intensely distasteful, but who unfortunately cannot be left out of any account of rock spirituality in its strange post-1966 quest for negative transcendence – Aleister Crowley.



[1] Although the origin of this hand sign is contested, it is widely attributed to John Lennon, who can be seen making the gesture on several photographs from 1967 which provided the basis for the cartoon art in the Yellow Submarine film (1969). It is sometimes asserted that Lennon was actually making the American sign language gesture for ‘love’; while this is plausible, the two signs are similar yet distinct, and it was Lennon’s hand position which – for whatever reason – was subsequently adopted by overtly occult bands from the end of the 1960s onwards.

[2] In this respect a particularly welcome development is the recent establishment of the Rock and Theology project spearheaded by Fordham University professor and rock bassist Tom Beaudoin.

[3] E. Michael Jones, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 160-161.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Dionysos Rising, 156.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 94. In recent years, E. Michael Jones, presently editor of Culture Wars magazine, has increasingly been perceived as a conspiracy theorist rather than a serious scholar, dogged by persistent accusations of anti-semitism from many sources. The Catholic University of America’s cancelled a scheduled appearance by Jones in a lecture series in 2008, while in 2006 the Archbishop of Prague mentioned Jones by name as a panel participant in his condemnation for political extremism of a talk by Prof. John Rao, President of Roman Forum, titled “Novus Ordo Seculorum and the War on Terror”. Typically, Jones – whose claim to be ‘anti-Jewish’ but not ‘anti-Semitic’ speaks for itself – saw the Cardinal’s statement as the result of manipulation by local Jews.

[8] Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music: a History of the Blues (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 219. Quoted Patricia R. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, mythmaking, and contemporary American culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 38.

[9] It is clear that Johnson’s fellow musicians made major contributions to the propagation of the Johnson mythology; it was for instance Sonny Boy Williamson who spread the idea that Johnson (who probably died of internal bleeding after being given poisoned whiskey) spent his last hours in a state of total breakdown, barking like a mad dog. This story naturally gave birth to the legend of the bluesman overtaken by the ‘hellhounds’ which can still be found in popular sensationalist treatments of Johnson’s life. In Robert Johnson: lost and found, scholars Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch make the important point that Johnson’s peculiar vocal delivery and playing on Hellhound seem to refer to an existing blues genre practised by artists such as Skip James, thereby suggesting that ‘autobiographical’ readings of the song are musicologically inappropriate.

[10] Intriguingly, Eric Clapton himself, whose descriptions of Johnson’s playing and singing verge on the religious, saw the Crossroads legend as baseless (see Andrew James Kellett, Fathers and Sons: American blues and British rock music, 1960-1970 (ProQuest: Ann Arbor, 2009), 231).

[11] Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: the Content of Musical Form, (Berkeley/Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2000), 55.

[12] Patricia A. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, 40. As evidence of the continued hold of the Clarksdale myth over musicians’ imaginations,  it is interesting to note that in a PBS interview in 2004, Bob Dylan mysteriously referred to himself as making a ‘big deal’ at the ‘crossroads’ when asked about the source of his extraordinary creativity in the early 1960s, describing his own songwriting as inhabited by a type of magic. Dylan’s reasons for making this deliberate public reference to the Johnson legend are as unclear as the nature of this ‘deal’, but the poetic/symbolic allusion is explicit (Dylan began quoting  Robert Johnson in his songs as early as 1963 (‘Corrina, Corrina’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)).

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] This is illustrated by the etymology of the word ‘juke’ or ‘jook’, whose origins are to be found in the Wolof word ‘dzug’, meaning ‘wicked, disorderly’ (Kellett, Fathers and Sons, 236n.). The links between the blues and folk ‘hoodoo’ religion in the American South have been powerfully explored by African-American scholar Julio Finn (The Bluesman: the Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas (New York: Interlink Books, 1986) , who argues that Johnson’s Cross Road Blues alludes to the traditional guardian of the crossroads, the ‘trickster’ deity Legba of African folk religion, fused with the Christian Devil in the syncretistic context of the encounter of African religion with Southern Christianity. Finn asserts that it is by no means implausible that Johnson should be describing a ‘hoodoo’ ritual (Johnson’s acquaintance with local hoodoo practice being suggested by the inclusion of the hoodoo term ‘hot foot powder’ in Hellhound), and that the unwillingness of white academics to take the ‘supernatural’ accounts of Johnson’s work seriously merely reflect an inappropriate imposition of Western thought categories on a local situation heavily influenced by its African spiritual heritage.


Close to the edge

‘It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center. This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it.’ (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 30)

The South African-Australian writer Alan Hirsch is a provocative thinker whose work on the mission of the contemporary Church in a post-Christendom context has provided me with much food for thought over the last few months. One of his main theses, as expressed by the quote above, is that the Church needs to return from its status as a pillar of the Western social and political establishment since Constantine to the radical engagement of its early centuries as an illegal movement working at the margins of society (pointing to the example of the unprecedented growth of the Church in China in the teeth of Maoist persecution as a template for Christianity today). The context for Hirsch’s remark quoted above concerning the relationship of the fringes and the centre is primarily socio-economic, but I see an intriguing parallel with what I have been observing for a while now on a geographical level in Europe, an area in which Hirsch has – perhaps a little sweepingly – argued elsewhere that there are no credible signs of Christian witness. On the pages of this blog I have tried to contend on a number of occasions that there are in fact such signs in the area of music, of which one seems to be the emergence of spiritually vital artistic initiatives at the Western and Eastern extremities of the European cultural space. This it seems to me is where signals of a renewal of sacred music currently seem to be the strongest in this continent, signals which just maybe serve as a barometer of a more general spiritual re-awakening. There is an uncanny commonality, it seems to me, between the new sacred art presently emerging from the Western edge of Europe (Britain and Ireland), and from the former Eastern bloc, one which will, given time, ‘bring life to the center’ (to adopt Hirsch’s phrase). It is maybe not surprising that the periphery is often the best place to look for creative innovation, as this is where centralizing bureaucracy – the principal instrument of forces wishing to maintain the status quo – are least capable of surveillance and stifling genuine innovation by the imposition of conformity. I could cite many musical examples in support of this intuition, but let me restrict myself to two recent ones. The first was the discovery of the work of the Slovak composer Vladimir Godar (1956 -) in the form of his haunting and powerful Mater, recorded by ECM in 2005. It made me wonder how much creativity from Central and Eastern Europe’s smaller nations may be going unnoticed at an international level for the lack of exposure in the West, and what the impact may be once figures such as Godar come to broader attention.  The second was a radio broadcast of Roxanna Panufnik’s new large-scale Tallinn Mass, a British-Estonian collaboration whose near-hypnotic conclusion (compellingly performed by Indian-British soprano Patricia Rozario and local Estonian forces) struck me as some of the strongest contemporary choral music I have heard for a long time.

What counts as the ‘fringes’ of Europe is of course a matter of personal opinion, but the question of whether it is to the continent’s apparent backwaters rather than to Europe’s major cultural hubs that we should be looking for signs of renewal did cross my mind this week as I travelled to Sarospatak in Eastern Hungary, a stone’s throw from borders with Rumania, Slovakia and the Ukraine. Technically this is still Mitteleuropa, but the four-hour train ride eastwards from Budapest definitely gave me the feeling of heading out towards some kind of cultural rim. For several years now, the historic Reformed Collegium in Sarospatak has been the scene of the Crescendo Institute, a pioneering venture in combining high-level music-making and Christian spirituality which has become the region’s largest summer musical academy, drawing participants from a wide range of countries from the US to Vietnam and China. Last year my Hermosura de Dios orchestral song-cycle on words of Saint Teresa of Avila was given its first performance at the Institute (twinned with the Zemplen Festival) by the leading Hungarian mezzo-soprano Andrea Melath. The orchestra conducted by fellow Soli Deo Gloria board member Delta David Gier featured both highly talented students coming from everywhere between Lisbon and Moscow as well as members of the Prague Philharmonia, Dallas Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras. This year, as well as making a couple of spoken presentations on music and faith to the students, I had further proof of the talent on view in Sarospatak when acting as one of the judges of the Institute’s Concerto competition, having the privilege of hearing young Eastern European violinists and flutists every bit as accomplished as the leaders and soloists of many a Western European orchestra.

One particularly interesting event at the Institute was an enthralling lecture on the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt in 1811 by the Dutch musicologist Marcel Zwitser, dealing with the intriguing question of the apparent contradiction between Liszt as the 19th century’s foremost rock star and Liszt the musical Franciscan, the composer of almost frighteningly stripped-down scores such as the Via Crucis, whose harmony not only seems to anticipate the Grenzwelt of late Reger, early Bartok or Scriabin, but even the ‘spiritual minimalism’ of the late 20th and 21st centuries. What is remarkable – though clearly not to all tastes – in the late Liszt is that he seems to be the first composer (with the notable exception of Schubert in his bleakest songs such as Der Leiermann or Der Doppelgänger, which Liszt significantly transcribed for solo piano) to have grasped that what is left out of a composition can in fact be just as if not more important than the actual notes on the page. Whether in his overtly religious works of his late period or in the existential wanderings of pieces such as Nuages Gris and the Funeral Gondolas, it is clear that Liszt’s primary interest is in the empty and frequently desolate space between the notes. In opening himself up to this space, Liszt effects an astonishing philosophical reversal from the virtuosity of his early compositions. He no longer dominates the musical material through technique but rather allows the silence to speak for itself – a stance which constitutes the very essence of spiritual minimalism. It is in the embrace of this concept that Liszt is a true radical: there is a remarkable coherence between his ‘Franciscan’ ideal of renunciation and the ‘voluntary poverty’ of an Arvo Pärt, embodied in the decision not to use all technical means at the composer’s disposal, but rather to seek artistic truth through an act of what Valentin Silvestrov has referred to as musical ‘disarmament’ [разоружение].[1] In the case of the Via Crucis the correspondence between the extreme frugality of musical means and the subject-matter of the self-emptying of God could not be clearer: what we have here is the equivalent of musical ‘kenotic’ theology, an exploration of the Godforsakenness of the Cross as disturbingly modern in its own way as the expressionism of Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God or Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale a century later.

This quality in Liszt of the struggle of faith with the apparent absence of God was recently pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI (one of von Balthasar’s collaborators) after a concert of Liszt’s music performed in the Vatican by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Zoltan Kocsis, featuring Liszt’s extended and rarely-heard setting of Psalm 13. Dating from 1855, this 25-minute work is not written in the extreme idiom of the Via Crucis, yet there is a distinct similarity on the level of textual content:

‘This piece dates back to the years in which Liszt stayed in Tivoli and Rome; it was a period when the composer lived his faith intensely, so much so that he almost exclusively wrote sacred music. Let us remember that he took minor orders. The piece which we have heard gives us an idea of the quality and depth of this faith. It is a Psalm in which the praying person is in a difficult situation, the enemy surrounds and besieges him, God seems absent and seems to have forgotten him. And his anguished prayer rises in the face of this situation of abandonment: “How long, O Lord”, the Psalmist repeats four times. The tenor and the choir repeat “Herr, wie lange?”, in an almost incessant way. It is the cry of man and of humanity that feels the weight of evil that is in the world. Liszt’s music conveys to us this sense of heaviness and distress. But God does not abandon. The Psalmist knows this, Liszt does too; as a man of faith, he knows. From the anguish, a cry full of faith leading to joy is born: “My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me”. Here Liszt’s music transforms itself: the tenor, choir and orchestra raise an anthem full of confidence in God, who never betrays, never forgets, never leaves us by ourselves.'[2]

Pope Benedict’s appeal to Liszt as a composer steeped in prayer is certainly historically grounded, but how does it sit with the near-universal cliché of Liszt as an inveterate womanizer (with his virtuoso piano recitals as domineering acts of seduction), the ‘ultimate Romantic’ in his dealings with the opposite sex? A discussion of the truth of such a view is beyond the scope of this post (and my musicological competence), but what is absolutely undeniable is the passionate eroticism of much of Liszt’s piano music, not excluding works with explicitly religious subject-matter such as the composer’s own favourite piece (and mine), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Listening to the work being played eloquently during Marcel Zwitser’s lecture by the highly gifted young Russian pianist Polina Kulikova, I was struck by the proximity of the Bénédiction‘s ecstatic nature mysticism to the harmonic progressions of the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde (the object of another of Liszt’s transcriptions for solo piano). While Liszt’s Catholicism and the longing for a pantheistic absorption into the Weltall expressed by Wagner are in many respects very different, the fact that the music is so similar gives pause for thought. A powerfully erotic spirituality seems to characterize both these instances, but one which in my opinion is (contrary to the view of many of Liszt’s critics) not reducible to a will to sexual domination. The shared element found both in the Bénédiction and the Liebestod is rather a passionate longing for the ultimate communion, the dissolution of the subject-object dialectic, a desire that has been a mark of mystical thought in many religious traditions (the Song of Songs being a prime example). Already in the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses Liszt seems to want to transcend the self, whether in the ecstasy of Romantic love or in the rapt contemplation of Creation. For Liszt, eros and agape are definitely not polar opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. If in his late works this urge towards self-transcendence takes a radically pared-down form, this should perhaps not be viewed as such a suprise, being simply a new expression of an intense desire  for self-surrender which had already been present in his earlier music. In this respect Liszt’s spiritual evolution is maybe not so much a reversal as a purification of a basic attitude which remains consistent throughout his life.

'Four Ages of Liszt', Etude magazine, 1913

One composer to have grasped this aspect of Liszt was Olivier Messiaen (whose ‘ecstatic’ use of the key of F sharp major in works such as Le Banquet céleste and Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is clearly Lisztian), whose work is marked by a very similar juxtaposition of the sacred and the unashamedly erotic. In his book of conversations with Antoine Goléa (1961), Messiaen responded to critics of his own patently sexual pieces such as Cinq Rechants bycomplaining that the notion of Romantic love in the popular imagination is a pitifully debased and misunderstood caricature of a noble spiritual ideal. For Messiaen, the placing of human and divine love in essential contradiction to one another is a fundamental mistake. Great lovers are as rare as great saints in Messiaen’s view, presumably because they share the same quest for self-abandonment (in this context it is interesting to note that, like his Hungarian predecessor, Messiaen found himself irresistibly drawn to Francis as the epitome of human sainthood) in the other. Against the reduction of notions of the erotic to the exploits of Don Giovanni, Messiaen remarked, with typical Gallic vigour:

“I prefer the attitude of Liszt, answering the importunate question of what he thought of Mme d’Agoult: “What do I think of her? But I would throw myself out of the window for her!'[3]

Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend, 1840 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Liszt is depicted between George Sand and Marie d’Agoult (reclining against the piano)


[1] Valentin Silvestrov, To Wait for the Music: conversational lectures (Kiev: Duh i Litera, 2010), 263 ff.


[3]  ‘Je préfère l’attitude de Liszt, répondant à un fâcheux qui lui demandait ce qu’il pensait de Mme d’Agoult : « Ce que j’en pense ? Mais je me jetterais pour elle par la fenêtre ! »’ Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Julliard, 1961), 42.




Sacred art or ersatz worship?

Last week, waking up after the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion conducted by John Nelson at the Festival de Saint-Denis, I found an intriguing message in my email box, quoting three remarks by a four year-old girl in the United States, who had watched the concert on the internet via Medici TV’s live webcast. The first comment was on baritone Stephen Morscheck singing the part of Jesus: ‘He sounds like Captain Hook’. Well, I guess we can forgive that one. The second concerned the conductor, as our young viewer was unconvinced by her mother’s explanation of the necessity of his role in setting a tempo and shaping the flow of the musical discourse: ‘Well, he should just show them once, and then they musicians could just do it on their own.’ Now there’s a debate that will run and run, as various conductorless orchestras beginning with the Russian Persimfans ensemble in the 1920s through to the Orpheus and Australian Chamber Orchestras today have attempted to dispense with the maestro with varying degrees of success. But the comment which really fascinated me was the one which our pre-schooler made watching the audience file into the historic St-Denis Basilica: ‘the people have come to hear about God’. Really? On one level I am inclined towards scepticism. Two days before, wandering into the church prior to the first orchestral rehearsal just as Sunday evening Mass was beginning, I was not the only one to be struck by the fact that over half the chairs in the basilica were turned away from the altar towards the concert platform at the West end of the building, while in the chancel there were perhaps 20-30 people present for the liturgy. Not many coming to hear about God over there…

Saint-Denis Basilica

Is sacred music a form of ersatz worship, as some cynics claim? All too often I have heard the complaint that all that is left of ‘Christendom’ is a great artistic heritage which now constitutes little more than a set of museum artifacts as incomprehensible to the general public as Egyptian hieroglyphics, given that society has completely lost contact with the religious symbolism and narrative on which such art is based. According to this logic, we are deceiving ourselves if we believe that the fact that the Basilica was full for the performance of the St Matthew Passion means anything at all on a spiritual level. The sceptics are only too ready to proclaim that the public is merely there to consume a luxury product like any other, one that was once the living expression of a vibrant Christian culture but which is now nothing more than a beautiful but meaningless relic. Indeed, there are some who would tell us that it is only once even those relics have disappeared that we will be lulled out of a false sense of security and finally wake up to the seriousness of the spiritual situation around us, from which it follows logically that it might be best if classical sacred music were simply allowed to die.

And yet my theological as well as artistic instinct tells me that naïveté of the four year-old is in some ways nearer to the truth than the hard-boiled sociology of sacred music’s cultured despisers. Yes, we are clearly living at a time in Western Europe of considerable alienation from the institutional Church, a phenomenon whose roots I have been trying to probe in my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. Contrary to many media reports there are powerful signs of renewal (I was recently at a vibrant Eucharistic celebration in my local Catholic parish attended by over 1000 people from across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum), yet we should be under no illusions; vast swathes of the population react allergically to our preaching, are deeply suspicious of our Scriptures and find our liturgies at best exotic, at worst irrelevant. And yet it is my personal experience that they may well cross the threshold of the Church for a concert of sacred music. Their motivation may be mixed – the couple in front of me at the St-Denis performance giggled their way through Part One of the Passion and left at the interval -, but the fact remains that a large audience paid not inconsiderable sums of money to sit through three hours of demanding music, as dense as many a sermon or theological lecture, most following the libretto intensely. For them, so it would seem, this was no mere entertainment.

What is going on here? In his ‘Letter to Artists’ of 1999, Pope John Paul II suggested that it is precisely at a time of great secularization that the arts acquire a particular significance in reminding society of the transcendent openness and innate spiritual quest of the human being:

‘the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.’

In the secular Western European landscape it can be argued that the undisputed masterpieces of sacred art such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as the repository of Christian humanism at its most profound, have become more important than ever. The case of Bach seems very telling: the Lutheran culture generating his peerless body of work seems to have disappeared from the historic Protestant European heartlands (Germany and Scandinavia) just as spectacularly as Catholicism in France, and yet Bach’s music – as a distillation of the best of Christian tradition – has somehow survived. It moreover remains contemporary in a way that a museum exhibit cannot, for a number of reasons. Firstly, a musical score, like a work of literature, is a pattern of information rather than a chunk of matter; it is not subject to the ravages of time as that pattern is infinitely reproducible and does not decay with the paper on which it was originally inscribed. At the same time, inbuilt into the very fabric of a piece such as the St Matthew Passion is the need for actualization, translation into sound through an act of performance unfolding in real-time, meaning that Bach’s works can be experienced today as a living aural reality. The principal reason for the survival of this music, however, is surely that while rooted in the specific historical narrative of the New Testament and Bach’s own cultural location, it simultaneously gives us a glimpse of a transcendent eternal reality of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. As the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, perhaps the foremost living composer of sacred music, remarked in 1968 while still living in a Soviet Union relentlessly hostile to Christianity, Bach cannot simply be relegated to history (even by the You Tube viewing figures for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, one might add):

‘Many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art. How do we explain it? […] I think the modernity of Bach’s music will not vanish in another two hundred years, and perhaps never will […] the secret to its contemporaneity resides in the question: How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries and mysteries?

Two pages from the fair copy of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1736)

And this is where the great sacred masterworks of the past can and surely must serve as an inspiration for the future. In his letter, John Paul II re-iterated his belief in the continued action of the Holy Spirit in the conviction that present-day artistic creativity has its roots in the Divine creativity that brought our universe into being:

‘The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe. Looking to the Third Millennium, I would hope that all artists might receive in abundance the gift of that creative inspiration which is the starting-point of every true work of art.

Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning.’

It is both humbling and inspiring  for a composer of faith to recall these words. For all the stylistic differences between the works of Palestrina, Bach, Bruckner, Franck, Messiaen or Arvo Pärt (just to mention art-music in the classical tradition), we can – if we pay sufficient attention – feel the breathing of the one Holy Spirit in them all across boundaries of time and space. Yes, the St Matthew Passion does leave me speechless and dumbfounded, as there is something almost inexplicably miraculous in the sheer level of inspiration, range and intellectual mastery running through its 68 movements. Yes, it may well be that Bach’s incredible achievement will never be equalled: somehow JSB’s own statement that anyone who worked as hard as he did could do the same is a little hard to believe. But that doesn’t mean that contemporary composers shouldn’t be willing to try, to fail boldly -after all, there is no reason why the same Spirit who infused Bach’s work should not be blowing in the artistic world of today, and it is my experience that the Paraclete is indeed at work in our times through the arts in sometimes bewildering yet profound and powerful ways.

I know from many recent conversations that this sense is shared by many European Christians from Lisbon to St Petersburg who find themselves hovering between excitement and discouragement. Their vision of what could be is tempered by the reality of what is (just yesterday I for example saw a headline proclaiming the imminent disappearance of the Church of England); their enthusiasm for the cause is frequently dampered by geographical isolation, disillusionment with the music profession, lukewarm reception within the Church, and by severely limited resources which prevent their creativity from flourishing not merely for the benefit of communities of faith, but for the common good of believers and unbelievers alike. This is why some of us are convinced that there is a need for the establishment of some kind of network specifically devoted to the realization of projects involving sacred music on this continent, led by those who have a grasp of the particularities of the multiple European cultural situations with their challenges and opportunities, but in conversation with Church circles with serious resources at their disposal, i.e. in North America. There is surely a powerful case to be made for trying connect the great sacred artistic heritage of the past, in whose DNA the Christian tradition somehow remains indelibly engraved, with the energy of contemporary creators seeking to draw upon it and push it in new directions. As I have written before on this blog, there is compelling evidence that remarkable creative initiatives are taking shape along these lines; if many of these are, intriguingly, bubbling up from the ‘periphery’ of Europe (on the ‘Celtic fringe’ or in the ex-Soviet Union), I remain convinced that there is also a potent undercurrent of artistic spirituality waiting to be unleashed in countries such as Germany and France. It is not dead, merely lying dormant, awaiting a revival such as the French renouveau intellectuel catholique of the early twentieth century that produced the writing of Claudel and Bernanos, the paintings of Georges Rouault or the music of Poulenc and Messiaen.

Maybe we would do well to recover the unjaded vision of a four year-old in Illinois watching all this from afar and start believing that the concert audience really has come to hear about God. It may well be that the freshness, generosity, organizational skills and enterprising spirit of North America have a role to play in catalyzing renewal in Western Europe (just as its material reconstruction after World War II would have been unthinkable without the Marshall Plan). We may not yet know what forms such a partnership may take, but it is my intuition if this Transatlantic connection can be nurtured appropriately, then something may well change for good on both sides of the ocean separating our two continents.

Pour la gloire de Dieu et le salut du monde

(For the glory of God and the salvation of the world)

Spirituality in and out of focus – Paul Tillich: an open verdict

Having tried to avoid passing judgment on Paul Tillich during the last two posts, it is now time to attempt some kind of preliminary verdict (at least given our immediate context) on a figure who was once America’s best-known theologian but is portrayed by his detractors as the epitome of all that is wrong with twentieth-century theology. I apologize in advance for a post that will feature no musical references except for at the very end, but there are some scores to be settled here before we can move on.

I have tried to suggest that a case can be made out for saying that, regardless of his actual performance as a theologian and preacher, there is much potential in Tillich’s method that merits renewed exploration on the part of those who accept the need for ‘public theology’. However, it is undeniable that serious repristination is required before this potential can be salvaged in any meaningful way.

First there are the personal charges which need to be addressed before any retrieval of his ideas can get started. The reality has to be faced that for many, Tillich’s work was definitively discredited by the salacious details of his personal life revealed in his widow’s From Time to Time. Here it would seem that a path needs to be trodden carefully between two extreme judgments. The first error would be to assume that an ad hominem dismissal of Tillich the womanizing theologian absolves his critics from the responsibility of undertaking a proper evaluation of his ideas. After all, disordered private lives are not the exclusive domain of theological liberals, as anyone familiar with the story of the painful triangular domestic relationship between Karl Barth, his wife Nelly and assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum (without whom the Church Dogmatics would never have seen the light of day) ought to be aware.[1] Nor does the uncovering of moral failings on the part of a theologian automatically mean that their work should be declared null and void of ethical power. Martin Luther King Jr., who corresponded briefly with Tillich in the early 1950s during his Boston University doctoral project on his work and famously quoted Tillich in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,[2] serves as a telling example in this respect. King’s extra-marital activities have long been public knowledge, as has his tendency to plagiarism, most flagrant in the case of his doctorate (of which entire passages were taken verbatim from the work of fellow BU student Jack Boozer). And yet to regard these flaws as somehow invalidating King’s status as one of Christianity’s greatest ever prophets arguably says more about the small-mindedness of his critics and the hypocrisy of our ambiguous desire for morally perfect heroes – whom we wish to admire rather than imitate – than anything else.

At the same time it would be equally erroneous to argue that Tillich’s private life and theological work can be considered in hermetic isolation from one another. It would be naïve to deny a link between Tillich’s intentionally Bohemian lifestyle and a theology in which self-realization has such a central place. There is much to be said in favour of Tillich’s stress on God as our ‘ultimate concern’, but it is not difficult to see the the coherence between the elevation of human concern to definitive status in theology and the unbridled self-expression of Tillich’s sexuality. Strange as it may seem, this is actually consistent with Tillich’s emphasis on the utterly transcendent and ineffable ‘Ground of Being’ or ‘God above God’ who is absolutely removed from the realm of the finite and cannot in Tillich’s ontology become incarnate.[3] The possibility that this Ground can address human beings in the form of Divine commandment (real personal encounter being presupposed by traditional Judeo-Christian ethics but extremely difficult to integrate with Tillichian categories[4]) is effectively excluded by such an ontology, Tillich explicitly rejecting the idea of a “Will of God” external to human nature.[5] Tillich’s suspicion towards the notion of Divine commands per se – human discourse masquerading as Divine speech – is surely the explanation for his otherwise inexplicable rejoinder to his son René who challenged him as how he could combine his adultery with being a religious minister, to which Tillich Sr. replied ‘that he had never spoken out against adultery’, which ‘ended the conversation.'[6]

While acknowledging that there is a valid element of protest against bourgeois hypocrisy in Tillich’s rejection of middle-class mores, there is also an indisputable commonality between his lifestyle and the logic of an individualistic consumer society predicated on affluence.  This has been insightfully pointed out by Villanova University’s Eugene McCarraher, who makes the strong sociological claim that ‘Tillich’s psychological (or existential) rhetoric, together with his tortured personal life, his celebrity, and his status as an unofficial mentor to many postwar liberals and radicals, makes him indispensable to an account of religion, therapy, and selfhood in modern American culture.'[7] Tillich’s ‘bohemian Protestantism’, contends McCarraher, was ‘one experiment in a culture of consumption, partaking of the rootless and acquisitive “consuming vision” that increasingly defined the moral horizon of capitalist societies’. His philandering was consumerist, oriented not towards genuine relationship but rather ‘his own search for transcendent experience’, and divorced from any ‘larger communal purpose.’ Significantly, McCarraher makes the serious allegation that the same can be said of his ‘rootless’ theology of culture, which Tillich himself realized ‘could be absorbed easily by the culture industries'[8] due to its lack of a coherent alternative vision to society’s values (or as Hauerwasians might say, Christian distinctiveness). Reading such comments, they seem to encapsulate not only the negative aspect of Tillich’s own trajectory, but that of the times in which he lived and the Bohemia of the 1960s counterculture with which several of his students were directly associated.

At this juncture three points ought perhaps to be made in the interests of a balanced appraisal which neither exonerates Tillich nor demonizes him. Firstly, Paul and Hannah Tillich both seem to have shared a misguided but mutual commitment to an ‘open marriage’, with René Tillich portraying his mother as no less er… emancipated than her husband, although she clearly felt abused by Paulus’s implementation of their arrangement. Secondly, although few argue that Hannah Tillich’s revelations were fabricated, it seems that she herself subsequently regretted the publication of From Time to Time, refusing to sign a copy of the book for Tillich scholar Frederick Parrella in 1985 out of embarrassment.[9] Thirdly, the Tillichs’ tortured married life seems to have ended on a redemptive note; it appears that Paul Tillich could not completely escape from traditional pangs of conscience, as Hannah Tillich herself relates regarding his final illness: ”’My poor Hannachen,” he said at the beginning of his stay at the hospital. He cried, “I was very base to you, forgive me.”[10]

Bust of Paul Tillich by James Rosati in New Harmony, Indiana (photo: Richard Keeling)


Even if we decide that Tillich’s sordid private life is not enough in itself to warrant a wholesale dismissal of his work, what are we to make of the substantive philosophical and theological issues at stake in an assessment of Tillich? In seeking to draw conclusions I find myself pulled in two directions in the dispute between Hauerwas and Tillich; if my theological sympathies primarily stand with the former (or perhaps rather with less polemical critics such as Grenz and Olson writing in 20th-Century: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992)), my philosophical and artistic instincts tell me not to discard the broader Tillichian project prematurely. Despite the critical weakness of Tillich’s preference for the abstract over the particular,[11] his thought-categories and encyclopedic knowledge of Western history still seem to offer compelling tools for the intellectual challenge of genuine cultural engagement. The messy task of correlation – or whatever other term one might like to coin for a dialogical approach to the  contemporary world –  may be problematic, but a retreat into a hermetically sealed realm of Church Dogmatics or the ‘Christian colony’ whose language is only understood by insiders is no less so. It is reasonable to assert that Tillich’s effort to re-deploy Christian symbols ended in evacuating them of their content, but the challenge of rediscovering ‘the basic questions’ to which he calls Christian theology is one which can scarcely be disputed. The need for authentic theological dialogue with culture (which implies listening as well as preaching) is too serious to be ignored, whether the conversation is with the natural sciences, psychology, the arts or other religions.[172] Among Protestant students of  Tillich, Max Stackhouse’s cogent, while not uncritical defence of the essence of Tillich’s Christian humanist project [13] for example suggests that there may yet be a future for such an approach in tackling questions of public theology such as globalization, while many Catholic authors since the 1950s have demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the many faults in Tillich’s system while simultaneously drawing on its strengths.

Here the distinguished Jesuit Avery (Cardinal) Dulles is a case in point, his 1956 essay ‘Paul Tillich and the Bible’ being a model example of a fair-minded but constructive critique that avoids both blanket condemnation and undiscriminating approval. On one hand Dulles makes no bones about his reservations towards Tillich, making the same charges which have been rehearsed against him ever since. Tillich’s failure lies in the fact that he ‘lets the exigencies of his philosophical system determine in advance what God’s revelation can and cannot be. The biblical message is reduced to the dimensions of an all-too-human philosophy. Because of this initial error in method, Tillich’s efforts to translate the “primitive personalism” of biblical religion into a sophisticated theological scheme are vitiated at the source.’ Yet this does not prevent Dulles from asserting nonetheless that Tillich’s ’emphasis on the “answering” function of systematic theology is in full accord with Catholic teaching on doctrinal development and adaptation.’ He goes on to quote fellow Jesuit Gustave Weigel: “The Tillichian principle of correlation is not a new discovery but only an urgent exhortation to use efficiently the principle always functioning in the theological enterprise, though it often functions with less than desirable energy.”[14]

This jury – while feeling incompetent in the face of the complexity of the issues – therefore delivers an open verdict in the case of Hauerwas vs Tillich, but with the following comment to the court: applying the logic of Tillich’s correlative method to his own biography, maybe it is best to see the interest of his life and work as lying in the epitomization of the questions of an era, its ‘situation’ rather than its answers or ‘message’. Paul Tillich remains an ambiguous figure, too accommodating towards secularism for some, too much the manipulative Christian apologist for others; as a final symbolic thought, it is perhaps emblematic of this ambiguity that for all his openness to contemporary culture, he refused to be ‘turned on’ by Timothy Leary. As his assistant Paul Lee recalls, Tillich, for all his hedonism in other areas, shared the doubts of Thomas Mann, RC Zaehner and Martin Buber towards the psychedelic project, not being so naïve as to believe in the promise of ‘heaven in a capsule’:

‘I remember Leary mentioning how he and Alpert saw Tillich at a hotel having breakfast and introduced themselves and told him what was happening now that they had synthesized the mystical experience. Tillich asked me if the whole context of the medieval town where his father was minister and all the formative forces that shaped his religious life could be condensed in a small tab of minute dosage. It was a little rhetorical, but, I conceded, I doubted it.'[15]

Paul Tillich died on October 22, 1965. What his theology of culture would have made of the remainder of the decade is impossible to say, but what is certain is the tumultuous events of 1966-1970 would not be conducive to the tradition of complex and abstract intellectual theology to which he belonged. As a mark of the social and cultural context, it is worth noting that six days before Tillich’s death one of the most famous of all his readers, John Lennon[16], having spent the summer dropping acid in a Beverly Hills mansion, was in London recording the LSD-inspired Day Tripper in the middle of sessions for the Beatles’ ‘pot album’ Rubber Soul. The Psychedelic Revolution was effectively now in progress on both sides of the Atlantic. It is to the world of the Fab Four’s Revolver and Sgt Pepper, to Woodstock, Altamont, ‘Hair’ and the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius that we must now turn.



[1] For an intriguing exploration of the parallels between Barth and Tillich in this respect, see Raymond J. Lawrence Sexual Liberation: the Scandal of Christendom (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), ch. 16. Lawrence concludes that ‘in their private lives they signaled, however obscurely, the approaching Sexual Revolution, which arrived as their time was ending. The challenge they presented consisted not of private indiscretions, but of consciously made life choices that went against the stream of the religious consensus in the Western, as well as against the mores of the modern middle class’ (Sexual Liberation: the Scandal of Christendom, 113). Whether Lawrence is overly charitable in his assessment of Tillich’s and Barth’s critique of conventional morality is of course a matter of opinion, but in the context of our present post the connection that he makes with the sexual revolution of the 1960s – in all its ambivalence – is certainly worth pondering.

[2]”How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.” (the full text of King’s letter is available on-line at )

[3] ‘The assertion that “God has become man” is not a paradoxical but a nonsensical statement'[..] ‘it is a combination of words which make sense only if it is not meant to mean what the words say. The word ‘God’ points to ultimate reality, and even the most consistent Scotists had to admit that the only thing God cannot do is to cease to be God. But that is just what the assertion that ‘God has become man’ means'(Systematic Theology vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 94).

[4] The extent to which Tillich’s God as ‘being-itself’ can be encountered personally is a matter of intense debate in the secondary literature. Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson for example bring out the tension in his thought in a strongly critical but fair-minded assessment of Tillich;  stressing that his God is neither a person nor less than personal, they comment that Tillich was aware of the critique of his concept as incompatible with the Biblical witness to the profoundly relational God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus: ‘Tillich was well aware of this objection and the entire line of biblical personalism that underlies it. He strove to solve this dilemma by synthesizing ontology and biblical personalism. Ultimately, however, he failed’ (20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992), 127). Tillich is confined to the statement of a paradox: ‘Our encounter with the God who is a person includes the encounter with the God who is the ground of everything personal and as such is not A person’. For Grenz and Olson, however, this paradox falls between two stools, being neither logically nor phenomenologically convincing as it ‘satisfies neither reason nor religious experience’ (ibid.)

[5] ‘[A] moral act is not an act in obedience to an external law, human or divine. It is the inner law of our true being, of our essential or created nature, which demands that we actualize what follows from it. And an antimoral act is not the transgression of one or several precisely circumscribed commands, but an act that contradicts the self-realization of the person as a person and drives towards disintegration’ (Paul Tillich, Morality and Beyond (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1963), 20). It is not hard to understand Tillich’s reaction against notions of  a Divine will completely ‘an arbitrary law laid down by a heavenly tyrant, who is strange to our essential nature and therefore whom we resist justifiably from the point of view of our nature.’ The rejection of such a view leads him to affirm that ‘the “Will of God” for us is precisely our essential being with all its potentialities, our created nature declared as “very good” by God as, in terms of the Creation myth, He “saw everything that he made”‘ (ibid., 24). This might superficially appear similar to the wholly orthodox Christian doctrine of the possibility of theosis (divinization) for the human being, but a crucial departure from orthodoxy is apparent in that Tillich speaks of human nature as effectively already divinized by virtue of an ontological connection to the ground of Being rather than requiring radical regeneration through the Holy Spirit.

[6] René Tillich, ‘My Father, Paul Tillich’ in Ilona Nord and Yorick Spiegel (eds), Spurensuche: Lebens- und Denkwege Paul Tillichs (Münster: LIT, 2001), 9-22:14. See Frederick J. Parrella, ‘Paul Tillich and the Body’, published on-line at . In his efforts to reacting against theologies positing a radical disjunction between Divine and human nature, Tillich can justifiably be accused of having fallen into the opposite error, namely that of giving carte blanche to human nature in its present state rather than in the eschatological realization of transfigured humanity’s full potential as anticipated in and made possible by the very Incarnation that Tillich’s philosophical assumptions force him to deny.

[7] Eugene McCarraher, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 121.

[8] Ibid., 128.

[9] Frederick J. Parrella, ‘Paul Tillich and the Body’.

[10] Hannah Tillich, From Time to Time (New York: Stein & Day, 1973), 223.

[11]  Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s critique of Tillich in The Beauty of the Infinite in this regard ties in closely with the reservations in the previous post in this series about the neglect of the particular that marks both Tillich’s reading of individual art-works and his Christology. Writing from a Balthasarian perspective on theological aesthetics, Hart criticizes the ‘subordination of every concrete form to a “system” that resists the aesthetic precisely because it rests upon the assumption that some truth deeper than form has been grasped: but the content of Christian faith abounds in particularities, concrete figures, moments like the crucifixion, which cannot simply be dissolved into universal truths of human experience, but stand apart in their historical and aesthetic singularity‘ (The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27). For a not dissimilar critique of Tillich’s aversion to the concrete, see Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise (London: T & T Clark, 1991), 72-74.

[12] Among theologians coming to prominence at the end of Tillich’s life, the work of Jürgen Moltmann is maybe the best indicator that such engagement does not necessarily have to mean theological capitulation. In the same volume as their primarily negative assessment of Tillich, Grenz and Olson note the similarity between his correlative methodology and that of Moltmann, for whom ‘theology seems to aim at the same sort of answering function’ (20th-Century Theology, 176). They however note a crucial difference between the two in that Moltmann’s eschatological focus prevents him from collapsing the manifestation of the Divine into the world in its present state.

[13] See Max Stackhouse, ‘Humanism after Tillich’ in First Things 72 (April 1997), 24-28, available on-line at

[14] Avery Dulles, ‘Paul Tillich and the Bible’ in Theological Studies 17 (Sept. 1956), 345-67:366, available on-line at

[15] Paul Lee, ‘Ecotopia and Political Expectations: Three Lectures on Paul Tillich’, published on-line at

[16] According to a feature on the Beatles in LIFE magazine in 1967: ‘Of the four, 26-year-old John’s life is the most complicated. An awesome world of literature, art, philosophy and thought has opened up to him. He reads copiously – everything from Bertrand Russell to Paul Tillich to Allen Ginsberg, and he writes poetry which only he can understand’ (Life, June 16, 1967, p. 105).

Spirituality in and out of focus – on being fair to Paul Tillich (ii)

Artistic style and Ultimate Concern

In the last instalment of this post we looked at Christian theology’s ambiguous relationship to the developing counterculture of the 1960s, with a lead role being played by Paul Tillich and his students. If Tillich’s influence has waned considerably since his death, his engagement with the arts is one area where he continues to command respect if not agreement. In the current instalment we will take a closer look at Tillich’s provocative views on the nature of ‘religious’ art, asking among other things whether his comments, which are primarily focused on the visual arts, might also have a musical application.

One of Tillich’s basic contentions, expressed with great cogency in his essay Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art [1] is that it is a mistake for theological aesthetics to concentrate attention uniquely on works which have a directly religious subject, since all art is revelatory of humankind’s spiritual situation in an existential sense. As such it contains a message to which Christian theology needs to respond, but whose substance requires eliciting through careful reading. Tillich identifies four levels at which art and religion interact, with religion defined in two senses. Of these, the first is broad: ‘being ultimately concerned about one’s own being, about one’s self and one’s world, about its meaning and its estrangement and its finitude’, while the second is more narrow: ‘a belief in the existence of a God, and then […] intellectual and practical activities following out of this belief.’ Leaving aside the question of the validity of such definitions, this leads Tillich to a thought-provoking classification.

Firstly there are works which seem purely secular, but which express ‘power of being in terms of an unrestricted vitality in which the self-affirmation of life becomes almost ecstatic’ (thinking musically, here one might place the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bartok’s Dance Suite or much jazz). These Tillich sees as ‘indirectly religious’ on accounts of their dynamism, since ‘God is present in secular existence as much as he is present in sacred existence’.

His second level – and the one which is perhaps the most interesting, as it offers the tantalizing possibility of a bridge between theology and music history, is that of ‘religious style, non-religious content’. At this ‘existentialist’ level the intensity of the work both in terms of form and content is such that it attains a metaphysical depth by ‘going below the surface’ both of nature and of human personality. Here Tillich’s examples include Van Gogh’s Starry Night (the same could be said of Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement inspired by the Dutchman’s picture) and Picasso’s Guernica (for which we could substitute, say, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony or Penderecki’s Lament for the Victims of Hiroshima), the ‘metaphysics of time’ in Chagall (paralleled in Messiaen’s ) or the ‘uncanny, that which you cannot grasp’ in Munch (mirrored in the early atonal works of Schoenberg such as the Opus 16 Orchestral Pieces). While in all these paintings there is definite subject matter, Tillich contends (not unlike Adorno, whose Habilitationsschrift Tillich supervised while teaching philosophy in Frankfurt between 1929 and 1933) that it is the approach to form which speaks volumes about the human condition, whether the artist realizes it or not. He compellingly asserts that ‘the disruptedness of expressionism, surrealism, and all the other recent forms of styles, such as cubism and futurism, is nothing else than an attempt to look into the depths of reality’. The shattering of form is a way to penetrate beneath appearances in order ‘to see the elements of reality as fundamental powers of being out of which reality is constructed’. Such a line of interpretation would seem to provide rich possibilities for theological exploration of, say, the early Stravinsky, a piece such as Webern’s Six Pieces, the mysteriously elemental music of Edgar Varèse or Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question. Or for that matter any work characterized by what Tillich calls ‘religious style’, ‘because it puts the religious question radically, and has the power, the courage to face the situation out of which this question comes, namely the human predicament.’ This is not merely a question of  the artist’s individual subjectivity; if he ‘cannot help but betray by his style his own ultimate concern'[2], personal style is also inevitably related to the concerns of a human group and epoch. Tillich’s point here is surely well-taken, even if one may find his broad definition of ‘religious’ problematic.

The third category, for which Tillich reserves his unmitigated scorn, is that of ‘non-religious style, religious content’, i.e. art which although dealing with religious subject-matter, makes no attempt to reach any level of existential depth. Here Tillich would appear to be attacking the school of thought which locates the ‘sacred’ in art uniquely at the level of thematic material while seeing its artistic realization as irrelevant (musical examples are too numerous to mention, as any church music director reading this will probably testify!). The kitsch which constitutes the great majority of sentimental religious imagery is not only clearly regarded by Tillich as inferior to his second level, but indeed as ‘dangerously irreligious’, ‘something against which everybody who understands the situation of our time has to fight’. Here my only addition would be an even more dangerous sub-category marked ‘non-religious style, religious content, commercial motivation’ …

It is only at the fourth level that religious style and content are in harmony, as in the crucifixions of El Greco or Matthias Grünewald, whose Isenheim Altarpiece shows that ‘expressionism is by no means a modern invention’. As fourth-level musical examples we could of course cite the Passions of Victoria, Schütz, Bach or Arvo Pärt, as well as the greatest sacred works of Bruckner, Messiaen, Gorecki, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, MacMillan …

El Greco, La crucifixión, 1597

Rediscovering the questions?

Tillich argues powerfully that the Church needs to take heed of art – and particularly in his case the existential art of the twentieth century – in the light of its smug participation in the ‘petty bourgeisie resistance against modern art and against existentialism generally’. The Church refused to engage with the metaphysical questioning implicit in art because it felt that it had no need to do so, having all the answers to the human situation, but such answers ‘were no longer understood because the questions were no longer understood, and this was the churches’ fault.’ Tillich’s conclusion would seem to bear repetition as having lost none of its validity half a century later; existential art, says Tillich, ‘has a tremendous religious function […] namely, to rediscover the basic questions to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understandable to our time. These symbols can then become again understandable to our time.’

It is sometimes objected that the credibility of Tillich’s view of art is vitiated by an arbitrary bias in favour of expressionism as the criterion of religious style. While this equation of aesthetic authenticity with art that is ‘form-shattering’  is understandable given Tillich’s own life experience (not least of the trenches in World War I), it can hardly be raised to a general principle. When his metaphysical concerns are back-projected into the art of distant epochs his position becomes extremely dubious . An example of this is Tillich’s interpretation of Giotto as analysed by Michael Palmer in his monograph Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Art. Tillich praises Giotto as epitomizing the spiritualizing ideals of the High Middle Ages in his portraiture; his St Francis is ‘the expression of a divine power by which man is possessed and elevated beyond his individual character and personal experiences’, marked by the ‘transcendent reality to which Giotto subjects all individuals'[3] Such a reading, argues Palmer, completely ignores the revolutionary formal breakthrough in Giotto’s ‘restoration of naturalism and in his belief that the visible world must be observed before it is understood'[4], an attitude which attributes significance to the surface in a manner far removed from Tillich’s own idealist metaphysics. Palmer effectively objects that Tillich’s interpretation does not arise from the artwork, but treats the latter as a means of illustrating the former, a strategy which can only be carried out by ignoring crucial aspects of the art which are uncongenial to his thesis. Here Palmer joins the many critics of Tillich’s application of the correlative principle, namely that for all his laudable talk of listening to the ‘questions’ coming from culture, his brand of apologetics is only interested in rediscovering those questions which can be paired conveniently with answers which a theological reading of history has already determined in advance. Anything which might raise the possibility that the answers might need to be rethought finds itself screened out.

Giotto - St Francis (Confirmation of the Rule)

There is certainly no doubt that Tillich’s aesthetics are historically, geographically and socially conditioned, and yet this can arguably be seen to be their strength as well as their weakness; if his view that the period from the seventeenth century to 1900 was empty of authentic religious expression in art seems like a gross exaggeration, his readings of the European artistic production of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century remain compelling, for the simple reason that Tillich is talking about his own cultural Hintergrund. Again the comparison with Adorno’s writings on music seems apposite, in which the philosopher’s remarks on the Austro-German tradition, and particularly the expressionist works of the Second Viennese School, are far more insightful than his ill-considered diatribes against Sibelius or jazz.

A reading of North American avant-garde culture in the late 1950s and 60s, the time of Tillich’s greatest influence, in terms of a search for religious or pseudo-religious answers to existential questions likewise seems well-founded with regard to a period characterized by great idealism, however naïve and inchoate. For example, the turn to psychedelic drugs and Eastern spirituality among the American intelligensia in the 1950s and 1960s clearly corresponds to questions to which young intellectuals could find no answer within their own tradition, as we saw when discussing the crucial role of disaffected Protestants in the foundation and early years of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. The account given by Jeffrey Kripal of Esalen director Frederic Spiegelberg’s rejection of institutional Christianity in favour of nature mysticism provides striking evidence of this progression:

‘Spiegelberg’s phrase “the religion of no religion” had deep existential roots. It was based on a mystical encounter with the natural world he experienced as a young theology student. He was walking in a wheat field on a bright day when, quite suddenly, his ego vanished and what he calls the Self appeared. Through this altered perspective, he began to see that God was shining through everything in the world, that everything was divine, that there was nothing but holiness. As he reveled in this revelation, he came around a corner and found himself confronting a gray church. He was horrified. How, he asked himself, could such a building claim to hold something more sacred, more divine, than what he had just experienced in the poppies, birds, and sky of the now divinized cosmos? It all seemed preposterous, utterly preposterous, to him.'[5]

A generation felt compelled to resort to chemical experience and Asian religious traditions  in order to fill a spiritual vacuum that the conformist mainstream American culture of the 1950s and a Church oblivious of its own mystical foundations had left empty. Tillich scholar Donald F. Dreisbach makes this plain when recalling his years at MIT as one of many students ‘looking for solace and some freedom from the world’:

‘Except for stories coming down Massachusetts Avenue from the Psychology Department at Harvard, I knew nothing of anyone using drugs more powerful than alcohol, caffeine, and aspirin. But I did know several aspiring engineers who were reading the Eastern mystics.'[…] ‘I knew nobody who was interested in the Western mystical tradition, perhaps because of young people’s rejection of Christianity, but more likely because most students of my generation did not know that a Western mystical tradition existed.’[6]

Paul Lee corroborates Dreisbach’s remarks: ‘The pity is that our everday religious experience has become so jaded, so rationalized that to become aware of the mystery, wonderment, and confusion of life we must resort to the drugs.'[7]

The foregoing comments have tried to suggest that there may well still be theological mileage in applying Tillich’s question-answer methodology inasmuch as the culture of a given epoch is characterized by its engagement with existential concerns, whether these are expressed in overtly religious language or not. That such an existentialist thrust was germane to the world of European expressionism and the 1960s counterculture seems beyond dispute. If Tillich’s method seems less applicable to cultural contexts characterized by an apparent indifference to existential questions (which might be said to be a feature of the West in the late 1970s and 80s), a case can be made out for saying that the present context of global ecological and financial crisis, together with heady and bewildering technological change, is sparking a new ‘age of anxiety’ favourable to a revival of Tillich’s work.

The charges against him nonetheless remain serious, and it remains to be seen whether Tillich’s reputation has been damaged beyond repair. In the light of the evidence of the last two posts it is now therefore time for a verdict in the case against the author of The Courage to Be. The jury is out and will return in the next instalment.



[1] In Carl Michalson (ed.) Christianity and the Existentialists (New York: Scribner, 1956), 128-146. Except where noted otherwise, the following series of quotations are all taken from this essay, the full text of which can be found online at

[2] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: OUP, 1959), 70, quoted in Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 155. Fordham professor Richard Viladesau makes impressive use of Tillich and Tracy in his constructive proposals for theological engagement with the arts as offering texts not only of theology (‘as an expression or embodiment of the Christian tradition and, hence, as an extension of the revelatory word of God in Christ’) but also of texts for theology, since art ’embodies and expresses the “spiritual situation” of a particular culture to which a religious message is addressed. For a more detailed but also more critical appraisal of Tillich’s views on art, see Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise (London: Continuum, 1991), Part I.

[3] Paul Tillich, Writings in the Philosophy of Culture (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990), 172.

[4] Michael Palmer, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Art (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1983), 178.

[5] Jeffrey Kripal, ‘From Altered States to Altered Categories (And Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement’, published on-line by the Martin Marty Center at ), 13. The role of the ‘gray church’ in this passage is curiously similar to that of the white Dutch Reformed Church in Van Gogh’s Starry Night as commented on by Makoto Fujimura: ‘Notice that the church is the only building in the painting that doesn’t have light shining inside. He’s trying to tell you through this visual parable that though the church still holds these disparate matters of the Spirit and Nature together in the world, the Spirit has left the church and went swirling into Nature and the Cosmos.‘ See the post ‘Fujimura’s Refracted Light’ on this blog.

[6] Donald F. Dreisbach, ‘Tillich’s Ambiguous Attitude Toward Mysticism’ (402-414) in Gerd Hummel and Doris Lax (eds) ‘Mystical Heritage in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology’, Proceedings of the VIII. International Paul-Tillich-Symposium, Frankfurt/Main 2000, (Münster: Lit, 2000) 402-414:410. As Donald Dreisbach and James Horne have emphasized, Tillich defended Christian mysticism, but distinguished it clearly from ‘absolute’  mysticism, as is shown by his discussion of the issue in his History of Christian Thought:

“Can mysticism be baptized?” I. e., can it be Christian? is that possible? Mysticism is much older than Christianity, it is much more universal than Christianity. What about the relation of Christianity to mysticism? Now in this seminar we came to the final answer that it can be baptized if it is made a concrete Christ-mysticism – in a very similar way as it is in Paul – -a participation in Christ as Spirit. And now this is just what Bernard of Clairvaux did. He is really the baptizing father in the development of Christian mysticism. This is his importance. And whenever you are attacked, and some Barthians tell you that Christianity and mysticism are two different things; you are either a Christian or a mystic, and the attempt of almost 2000 years to baptize mysticism is wrong – then you must answer that perhaps the most important figure in whom mysticism is expressed is Bernard, and this is the mysticism of love, and only if you have a mysticism of love can you have Christian mysticism. (See Donald F. Dreisbach, ‘Tillich’s Ambiguous Attitude Toward Mysticism’ and James R. Horne, ‘Mystical Characteristics Of Tillich’s “Absolute Faith”‘ in John Jesse Carey (ed.), Theonomy and Autonomy: Studies in Paul Tillich’s Engagement with Modern Culture (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 157-170.

[7] Quoted in Timothy Leary, High Priest (Berkeley: Ronin, 1995), 288.


Tillich rightly rejects the notion of an ethical imperative based on Divine commands as the expression of an ARBITRARY Divine will completely alien to human nature and therefore unknowable to humanity. For Tillich, the term “Will of God” “is not an external will imposed upon us, an arbitrary law laid down by a heavenly tyrant, who is strange to our essential nature and therefore whom we resist justifiably from the point of view of our nature. The “Will of God” for us is precisely our essential being with all its potentialities, our created nature declared as “very good” by God as, in terms of the Creation myth, He “saw everything that he made.” For us the “Will of God” is manifest in our essential being; and only because of this can we accept the moral imperative as valid. It is not a strange law that demands our obedience, but the “silent voice” of our own nature as man, and as man with an individual character.’ (24)

Spirituality in and out of focus – on being fair to Paul Tillich (i)

The psychedelic professor

We ended our last post with Huston Smith’s 1964 reflections on the ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’, conducted at a time when psychedelic research was still being carried out under (relatively) controlled  conditions by shirt-and-tie Harvard academics. By 1966 this picture had changed radically, as accounts of an historic LSD conference in San Francisco that year make plain. Some of the participants were the same as in the Marsh Chapel Good Friday Experiment (Leary, Huston Smith), but the cultural scenery was utterly different:

‘It was a phenomenology of freaks. We were from Harvard with button-down shirts and three-piece Brooks Brothers suits – even Leary wore the [academic] uniform. And there were these California freaks, and it was like, Who gave them permission to look like that? We thought of ourselves as the guys running the show, and here was this whole West Coast development that we hadn’t a clue about until we got here. The Psychedelic Bookstore had just opened in Haight-Ashbury, and Owsley [who manufactured and supplied LSD for Ken Kesey’s early Acid Tests] was in the house handing out acid to everybody.”[1]

The week-long event was launched by a er…social gathering at a mansion in San Francisco with 200-300 guests (the majority clotheless and doped out), with the Grateful Dead providing the musical entertainment. Huston Smith delivered a sharply critical paper at the conference and effectively severed his relationship with Leary’s circle.

LSD was banned a month later.

The above account of the San Francisco conference comes from the recollections of Paul Lee, now a retired professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an establishment which he remembers in the 1960s as a ‘university organized around acid […] like a country club for psychedelics in the redwoods’. Lee, closely involved with Leary and Alpert for several years before his move to Santa Cruz as an editor of the Psychedelic Review, had taken LSD as a Harvard student and described it as ‘the most profound existential or mythical experience one can have’.[2] Such a reading of the drug experience was not an exceptional statement in itself at the time, as we have already seen. What is however more noteworthy are the connotations to Lee’s use of the word  ‘existential’ – Paul Lee the Californian ‘psychedelic professor’-to-be was also the teaching assistant of the legendary ‘existential’ theologian Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich: the Timothy Leary of theology?

Few modern theologians have proved more influential and divisive than Paul Johannes Tillich, who arrived in the USA in 1933 at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr after being removed from his teaching post in Nazi Germany (where his books were burnt) after Hitler’s rise to power. Turning from German to English at the age of 47 as his medium of expression, he rose to prominence with a series of works written in the years after World War II during his time at Union Theological Seminary, whose intention was to translate his Christian convictions into the thought categories of contemporary society by ‘correlating’ the existential questions of humanity with the answers offered by Christian faith. These included Shaking the Foundations , Dynamics of Faith and The Courage to Be as well as Tillich’s massive three-volume Systematic Theology. In 1959 he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, whose article on Tillich commented:

‘Though Harvard’s University Professor Paul Tillich is a rarefied philosopher and theologian, speaking and writing in a language he had to learn at the age of 47, in a country noted for its impatience with theology, he has come to be regarded by the U.S. as its foremost Protestant thinker. And though his working vocabulary is viscous with such terms as ontology, theonomy, numenous and the Gestalt of Grace, he is now devoting most of his time to teaching any Harvard or Radcliffe undergraduate who signs up for his highly popular courses. […] Traditionally, the U.S. has imported new theological thought from Europe. Tillich’s thought is now moving the other way. His books are rapidly being translated into German (he is too busy to do the job himself) as well as French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Fellow theologians are increasingly coming to view his work as a monumental and unique effort to match the insights of Christianity with the predicament of modern man.'[3]

This acclaim was however far from unanimous. Many more orthodox theologians felt that Tillich’s brand of apologetics had fatally compromised Christian witness by replacing traditional language about God with terms such as ‘New Being’ or ‘Ultimate Concern’, redefining ‘Christ’ in such a way as to render the word separate from the historical Jesus of Nazareth and effectively reducing theology to anthropology. William Sloane Coffin’s view on reading the first volume of the Systematic Theology was that Tillich was ‘not a Christian thinker but a Greek mystic who held the heretical views of Plotinian dualism, Hegel, and Schelling’, whereas the Swedish émigré Nels Ferré of Andover Theological Seminary famously remarked that there was ‘no more dangerous theological leader alive’ when reviewing Tillich’s New Being in 1955.

‘I don’t believe in California …’ (Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, 248)

In more recent decades Tillich seems to be just as much of a whipping-boy as ever in some quarters as a byword for all that is considered wrong with theological liberalism. This is in part attributable to the prurient revelations about the theologian’s private life in his widow Hannah’s From Time to Time (1973) which, although regarded as exaggerated by Tillich’s supporters, are regularly marshalled as evidence against ‘Paulus’ by his detractors. Although the publication of From Time to Time undoubtedly damaged Tillich’s reputation, criticisms of the last great figure in the liberal German lineage going back to his hero Schleiermacher go well beyond accusations of hypocrisy related to Tillich’s sexual foibles. This can be seen in the case of perhaps the most trenchant latter-day critic of the Tillichian project, Stanley Hauerwas, who went as far as to call him ‘the great enemy of Christianity in this country’ in his lecture, ‘Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church’ and subjected him to an extensive critique in his two books co-written with William Willimon Resident Aliens (1989) and Preaching to Strangers (1992). In the preface to the latter Hauerwas for example attacks Tillich’s Shaking of the Foundations, in which Tillich argues that ‘a sermon in traditional Biblical terms would have no meaning’ when preaching to a congregation consisting largely of those from outside Christian circles. Hauerwas comments:

‘Notice it is Tillich’s presumption that he must constantly find a way to “translate” the language of the gospel, to map the language of the gospel, onto experiences that are already well understood. One must say, moreover, he did it brilliantly. He was particularly effective for audiences not unlike that of Willimon, as he made it possible for them to assume their concern for their own significance, their “ultimate concern,” was in fact at the heart of what Christian faith was about. Thus the inherent narcissism of the high-culture bourgeoisie was not fundamentally challenged by the gospel of Christ.'[4]

Religion of no religion

It would be tempting at this point to draw parallels between Tillich’s alleged reduction of religion to a humanistic ‘ultimate concern’ and the emerging drug culture’s reduction of religion to a vague, non-theistic ‘experience’, to which Huston Smith alerted his readers in 1964. It is certainly true that Tillich interacted with some key players in the psychedelic scene of the 1960s, for example taking part in an MIT centennial discussion panel in 1961 alongside Aldous Huxley, or lecturing in the last year of his life at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, the home of the Huxley-inspired Human Potential Movement which would become for many the epitome of a New Age Spirituality, many of whose advocates would cite Tillich as a formative influence. Esalen, founded in 1962 by Stanford graduates Michael Murphy and Richard Price, grew out of the American Academy of Asian Studies directed by Tillich’s friend, colleague and former student Frederic Spiegelberg, proponent of a ‘religion of no religion’; Esalen would fast become a centre for avant-garde intellectual and artistic activity, with participants including figures such as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and B.F. Skinner.

John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, London 1964

At Big Sur Tillich ‘talked about the parallels between the Oriental notion of self-transcendence and the Western idea of self-actualization. He talked about the Eastern and Western images of eternal life: Nirvana and the Kingdom of God. He talked about the possibility of an intellectual renaissance built on creative dialogue between Oriental and Occidental thought.'[5] Another prominent theological presence at Esalen was a former student of Tillich’s, the controversial Bishop of California James Pike (who like Tillich and Barth (1962) made the cover of TIME magazine). Pike was instrumental in opening the San Francisco chapter of Esalen and hosted its inaugural event at Grace Cathedral on February 6, 1966.[6] The flamboyant bishop, who had already become a celebrity as Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York and through his regular TV show, was notorious for his questioning of core Christian dogma and was eventually censured by the U.S. house of bishops, although he narrowly avoided a full-blown heresy trial.[7] He subsequently left his post, and ultimately the church, spending the final years of his life as a somewhat pathetic figure obsessed by the paranormal, going as far as making public attempts to contact his dead son (a recreational drug user who had committed suicide at the age of 20) with the help of mediums. His ‘experiences of psychic phenomena’ were published in 1968 in a book entitled The Other Side … which he dedicated to Tillich, with whom he claimed to have communicated posthumously.

The overlap between Esalen and the liberal wing of the Anglican-Episcopal Church was considerable. Michael Murphy himself attributed his spiritual awakening to his Episcopalian childhood in Salinas, California, while in addition to Pike and his colleagues Robert Warren Cromey and David Barr (first director of Esalen San Francisco) English ‘Honest to God’ Bishop John A.T. Robinson and ex-Episcopal priest turned Zen interpreter Alan Watts (fictionalized as Arthur Wayne in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, the inspiration for John Adams’ 2003 electric violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur)were all highly active figures in the early years of Esalen’s development. Whether one sees theological liberalism’s championing of Esalen as emblematic of the gradual demise of the American Episcopal Church and ‘mainline’ Protestantism more generally over the last forty years by way of syncretism and dissolution into culture, or more charitably as a well-intentioned if problematic attempt at constructive cultural engagement is of course a matter of opinion. So too is the question of Tillich’s personal responsibility for the direction taken by his students and admirers. It can be argued that the fact that he would be quoted by figures such as Bishop Pike in support of an openly heterodox theological agenda does not necessarily render Tillich culpable for the more extreme actions of the radical liberals any more than the superficial appropriation of Bonhoeffer’s writings by the ‘Death of God’ theologians of the 1960s means that atheism is the logical conclusion of a reading of Letters and Papers from Prison. At the same time, viewed from an orthodox Christian perspective, it is not difficult to see how Tillich’s language of the Ground of Being, or his controversial talk of ‘God above God’, while retaining some commonality with the Christian apophatic tradition of negative theology, could be construed as a denial of the ultimacy of Divine personality. That this line should have been developed by those interested in non-theistic Asian spiritualities such as proliferated in California in the 1960s is wholly logical. It also has to be admitted that Tillich’s Christology, although still too traditionally ‘exclusivist’ for thorough-going advocates of the equality of all religions, possesses none of the centrality of that of Bonhoeffer – or for that matter of Karl Rahner, with whom he is frequently compared and whose concept of the ‘anonymous Christian’ from another religious tradition corresponds closely to Tillich’s notion of a ‘latent church’ outside organized Christianity.  Tillich’s demythologized Christ is certainly not ‘God become man’; Jesus’s teaching is in the last instance a distillation of human wisdom. The Christ for Tillich may be a unique instantiation of ‘New Being’, but with traditional notions of Incarnaton and bodily Resurrection both discarded this is not a sufficient counterweight to the secularizing tendencies in Tillich’s thought which would inevitably be seized upon by those eager to reduce religion to self-actualization of purely human potential. It is not difficult to see how this could fit seamlessly into the 1960s counter-cultural project which may have been a rebellion against conformism but had affluence as its condition of possibility. As Baudelaire remarked a century earlier in his Paradis Artificiels, ‘any perfect debauchery’ [of which the later 1960s provided perhaps unprecedented exemplification] requires perfect leisure[8]. Tillich, for whom ‘meaninglessness’ remained a constant threat to humanity, may have been less rosily optimistic about human nature than his younger followers, but Hauerwas’s comment about his complicity with their ‘narcissism’ – the fatal weakness of the hippie culture –  is surely apposite.

Imagining a different world

Is there a case for the defence of the Liberal Christian involvement with the 1960s counter-culture? For all his criticisms of Tillich, Stanley Hauerwas himself exhibits a certain ambivalence about the Sixties. On one hand he relates his incomprehension, coming from a blue-collar background, at the flower power generation when he first encountered it towards its end:

‘I left Yale in 1968. Yale exploded in 1969. I did not know what to make of the explosion or of the alleged revolution associated with Woodstock. The latter seemed to me indulgent. I was from the working class. I wondered where people got the money or the time to do nothing but listen to music and smoke dope. Did they not have to work for a living?'[9]

At the same time the Sixties were not merely a time of psychedelic excess, but also of the Civil Rights movement (in which even Bishop Pike played a role) and anti-Vietnam protests, leading Hauerwas to characterize them as ‘a strange, terrifying, sad, yet wonderful time’. With a tinge of nostalgia not atypical of those old enough to have lived through the decade as adults, he comments:

‘Many of the students I had at the time, people who sought “alternative lifestyles”, ended up selling insurance for a living. That they did so is not a bad thing, but it is a bit sad. I have always lived a conventional life, but I would like to think that the radical challenge the Sixties represent have stayed with me. Of course, it would be a mistake to romanticize that time. The liberations heralded destroyed many. But for me the sheer energy, the willingness of many to put their lives on the line, and the challenge to imagine a different world remain gifts. The way things are is not the way things have to be.'[10]

Hauerwas may not want to admit it, but the positive side of such idealism is also mirrored in Tillich, whose writings touch on many themes which, harnessed to a more orthodox Christian theology, would be embraced by the Second Vatican Council. The ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions’ entitled Nostra Aetate is not assimilable to the ‘East-West’ synthesis envisaged by Tillich at Esalen, but it nonetheless constitutes a milestone in inter-religious dialogue[11], while the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes specifically recommended a correlational theological approach to contemporary culture:

‘The church has the duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that it can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continuing human questions on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related.'[12]

Such a formulation – which would not prove uncontroversial – could have come straight from Tillich’s pen; even if his critics would probably say that he rather examined the Gospel and interpreted it in the light of the signs of the times, this is not to disqualify the validity of correlative theology in itself. Given the correspondence noted above with Vatican II, it is perhaps not surprising that Tillichian method should have found a resonance with  Catholic writers such as David Tracy (University of Chicago) or Richard Viladesau (Fordham University).

Paul Tillich and Theology after Google

Despite Tillich’s generally low current standing within Protestantism, there are intriguing signs of renewed interest in his approach within ‘Emerging Church’ circles which may well prove fruitful. A stimulating and courageous example of this is Philip Clayton and Tripp Fuller’s recent article ‘Theology and the Church after Google’ (available on-line at, in which Clayton specifically refers to Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith in terms of engaging openly with the very real questions of those both inside and outside the institutional Church. At a time when technology is bringing about momentous changes in the nature of the dissemination of knowledge, which can no longer be conceived in terms of transmission from an ‘active’ teacher to a ‘passive’ recipient, dialogue, interaction and collaborative construction (as with Wikipedia) are everything. This has consequences for Christian theology, argue Clayton and Fuller, which we have hardly begun to contemplate, as it radically changes the location of ‘authority’. A good example is blogging, where feedback to any stated opinion is immediate, direct and ongoing; in the blogosphere there is no choice but to accept that there can be no definitive closure of discussion (not even if you hit ‘disactivate comments for this post’) on any topic. The idea that the parameters for any conversation can be imposed in advance is no longer an option; this is a fact of life ‘after Google’ which should not be bemoaned but rather seen as an opportunity:

‘The new theologians write theology for the needs of the church today. For us this means: we write theology not just for the comfortable insiders within the churches, but for those who are slowly drifting away—and for those who have moved so far away that it’s hard for them to imagine being part of the traditional churches any longer at all. We write with their needs and concerns in mind; we write in language they can understand; and we compose arguments that pay attention to their plausibility structures, not just our own.‘[13]

If Tillich the systematic theologian is not likely to make a comeback, both due to the severity of the critiques to which his work has been subjected and a general feeling that the whole Germanic tradition of systematics has had its day, Tillich as a Christian philosopher of culture may have life in him yet. In the second part of this instalment we will see his correlative approach in action in one area where his thought seems particularly fertile – his contribution to the dialogue between theology and the arts.



[1] Michael Downing, Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2001), 85-86.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] ‘To Be or Not to Be’,  TIME Magazine, March 19, 1959. Reprinted on-line at,9171,937001,00.html

[4] William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Preaching to strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 7-8. Matthew Lon Weaver offers a well-argued but respectful defence of Tillich against Hauerwas’s critiques in an article entitled ‘The Vehicles of Salvation according to Paul Tillich and Stanley Hauerwas’ in The North American Paul Tillich Society Newsletter, Volume XXVIII, Number 4 (Fall 2002), 5-13 available on-line at . Leaver contests Hauerwas’s and Willimon’s reading of Tillich as an over-simplification, additionally arguing that Tillich’s brand of apologetics allows for an engagement with secular culture and other religions which is problematic for neo-Barthian approaches.

[5] Walter Truett Anderson, The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement: the First Twenty Years (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 1983), 105). On the basis of conversations in 2004 with Michael Murphy,  Esalen’s historian Jeffrey Kripal reports Tillich as commenting that ‘it was now time, he thought, to bring together the linearity of Western theology and the circularity of Eastern mysticism – time and eternity, immanence and transcendence – into a more adequate spiral-like worldview’ (Jeffrey Kripal, ‘From Altered States to Altered Categories (And Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement’, published on-line by the Martin Marty Center at ) Kripal likewise claims that Spiegelberg owed his concept of the Ground of Being to Tillich.

[6] Entitled ‘Heretic or Prophet?’, the TIME article notes that Pike gained a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary without taking a single course in theology. This constituted his sole formal theological education (he held a doctorate in Law) before he was offered the post at St John the Divine in 1952. He had been responsible for bringing Paul Tillich to Columbia University as an adjunct professor during his time as chaplain in the late 1940s, and attended at least one class of Tillich’s on Martin Luther at Union in 1947. The TIME article, an interesting document on the state of theology in the mid-1960s, notes Pike’s vulnerability to the criticism of being ‘a shallow and derivative thinker who much too glibly skims the cream from other men’s insights —demythologizing from Bultmann, a ground-of-being God from Tillich, Jesus as the man for others from Bonhoeffer.’

[7] The statement of the US House of Bishops on Pike’s death in the Judean desert in 1969 is indicative of the internal struggles within Episcopalianism in terms of responding to the 1960s counter-culture. It provides telling evidence of the long-standing and as yet unresolved Episcopalian tension between orthodoxy and inclusivity, recognizing of the problem of the wholesale departure of Pike and others from Christian orthodoxy, while simultaneously acknowledging the  opposite danger of failing to understand the legitimate as well as the heterodox aspects of the spiritual quest of a generation. There is clearly a sense of ecclesial guilt at Pike’s eventual exit from the Church:

‘Many in the Church were and are hurt and bewildered at the seeming inability of our normally inclusive community to accept and understand James Pike in his pilgrimage, so that at the end he felt forced to renounce our brotherhood; now therefore, be it Resolved, that the House of Bishops give thanks to God for the life and prophetic ministry of James Albert Pike, and recognize the depth of our loss in the dying of this creative and compassionate man.’ (quoted in William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, The Death and Life of Bishop Pike (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007).

[8] ‘Toute débauche parfaite a besoin d’un parfait loisir‘ (Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels ( Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1860), 50).

[9] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 73.

[10] Ibid., 84.

[11] ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.’ (Nostra Aetate, October 28, 1965)

[12] See Frederick J. Parrella, The theologian as preacher in Marc Dumas, Mireille Hébert and Douglas Nelson (eds), Paul Tillich, prédicateur et théologien pratique, Actes du XVIe Colloque International Paul Tillich, Montpellier 2005 (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2007), 73-84:78.

[13] Philip Clayton, Theology and the Church After Google, The Princeton Theological Review, Issue 43, Vol. XVII/2 (Fall 2010), 7-20:18. Clayton’s final point here is important, and echoes comments made by David Tracy back in 1975 in his proposals for a modification of Tillich’s form of correlation. Tracy contends convincingly that Tillich’s method  does not go far enough; it is insufficient, Tracy asserts, to correlate society’s ‘questions’ with Christian ‘answers’ without proper investigation of secular society’s own responses, since ‘no one (not even a Christian theologian!) can decide that only the questions articulated by a particular form of contemporary thought are of real theological interest.’ For Tracy what is needed is the initiation of ‘critical comparison of the Christian “answer” with all other “answers”‘ (David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: the New Pluralism in Theology, 1996 edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 46).


Spirituality in and out of focus: the 'Marsh Chapel Miracle' (ii)

Spirituality in and out of focus: the ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’ (ii)

(L to R: Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, Igor and Vera Strainsky, Maria Huxley and Radha Rajagopal Sloss, Wrightwood, CA, 1949[1])

Aldous Huxley’s spiritual gadget

‘What is Aldous ‘like’? Well, he is ‘like’ Beerbohm’s willowy drawing, especially the long, ever folding and unfolding legs. He is passionate about music. He is morbidly shy. He cannot resist new gadgets, whether “spiritual” ones like LSD or physical such as the vibrating chair in his study which relaxes me about as much as would a raft ride in the English Channel.’ (Igor Stravinsky to Robert Craft, Dialogues (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 95)

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley gives a detailed account of his experimentation with mescaline and attempts to draw far-reaching metaphysical conclusions from his visionary experience, to which he attributed transformative spiritual significance. Huxley’s discussion is deeply informed by his prior acquaintance with both Buddhist and Christian mystical traditions, concluding with reflections on St Thomas Aquinas’s experience of Infused Contemplation in the final years of his life; it not only sold in large quantities but also provoked huge philosophical and theological debate. Those alarmed at what they viewed (perhaps a little unfairly) as a simple panegyric on the virtues of mescaline charged Huxley with promoting aesthetic escape from an engagement with the problems of society and human relationships. Thomas Mann for example wrote caustically to Ida Herz on March 21, 1954:

‘It demonstrates the last, and I would almost insist, the most audacious form of Huxley’s escapism, which I could never appreciate in this author. Mysticism as a means to that escapism was, nonetheless, reasonably honorable. But that he now has arrived at drugs I find rather scandalous. I get already a guilty conscience because I take a little seconal or phanodorm in the evenings in order to sleep better. But to put myself during the day in a position in which everything human becomes indifferent to me and I should succumb to unscrupulous aesthetic self-indulgence, would be repulsive to me.'[2]

Mann’s letter ended with a remark which would prove tragically prophetic with regard to the decades following the publication of The Doors of Perception:

‘encouraged by the persuasive recommendation of the famous author many young Englishmen and especially Americans will try the experiment. For the book sells like hot cakes. It is, however, a completely – I don’t want to say immoral, but one must say irresponsible book, which can only contribute to the stupefaction of the world and to its inability to meet the deadly serious questions of the time with intelligence.'[3]


The ethics of Chemical Holidays

A similar charge was levelled at Huxley by the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who disputed Huxley’s positive gloss on the mescaline high as a flight from selfhood and environment. For Buber, chemical escape is tantamount to an illegitimate refusal of one’s own personhood and the challenge of relationship

‘Huxley calls it, to be sure, the “urge to go beyond the self,” by which he means that here man escapes the entanglement in the net of his utilitarian aims. But in reality the consumer of mescalin does not emerge from this net into some sort of free participation in common being; rather merely into a strictly private special sphere given to him as his own for several hours. The ‘chemical holidays’ of which Huxley speaks are holidays not only from the petty self, enmeshed in the machinery of its aims, but also from the person participating in the community of logos and cosmos – holidays from the very uncomfortable reminder to verify oneself as such a person.'[4]

While Huxley had argued that the human use of intoxicants is inevitable as a means of transcending the depressing monotony of their circumstances, Buber sees this as the evasion of an ethical imperative:

‘Man may master as he will his situation, to which his surroundings also belong; he may oppose it, he may alter it, he may, when it is necessary, exchange it for another; but the fugitive flight from the claim of the situation into situationlessness is no legitimate affair of man. And the true name of all the paradises which man creates for himself by chemical or other means is situationlessness'[5]

Interestingly, Buber then points out both the similarity and distinction between the ecstatic gaze of the mescaline user and that of the creative artist:

‘Huxley distinguishes, as mentioned, two stages within the trance. In the first, one sees the things from within, as the creating artist sees them, at once objectively deepened and transfigured by an inner light. In the second, from which he looks down almost scornfully on his beloved art as on an ersatz, one experiences to some degree what the mystics experience.
In fact, the artist too is removed from the common seeing his decisive moments and raised into his special formative seeing; but in just these moments he is determined through and through, to his perception itself, by the drive to originate, by the command to form.'[6]

Artistic practice, like drug use, implies a form of  heightened consciousness. Buber however contends that genuine art, marked by intentionality, is volitional in a way that drug use is not: ‘the enjoyer of mescalin, for instance, produces the alteration of his consciousness arbitrarily. The vocation of the arts, in contrast, sets him in his unarbitrary special relation to existing being, and from there, willing what he should, he does his work in conscious realization. Where arbitrariness interferes, the art becomes illegitimate.'[7] Crucially, Buber opposes Huxley’s monistic tendencies to his own quintessentially Jewish philosophical framework, emphasizing the irreducible I-Thou structure of personal encounter in spiritual experience:

‘Let us leave to one side the problematic medium and content ourselves with the observation of the great visions and mystical experiences of human history so far as they are accessible to our observation. One thing is common to all of them: He to whom this happiness is overtaken by something from a sphere in which he does not dwell and could not dwell, a ‘face’, a ‘hand’, a ‘word’, a ‘mystery’.[…] What takes place here is no flight: one is seized, one is overpowered, one is called. Neither the artist nor the mystic transposes himself into the condition in which, from time to time, he beholds the vision; he receives it. They do not take themselves out of the communality, they are taken out. And they must deliver up not less than themselves, the whole living person and his whole personal life, in order to withstand what has taken possession of them.'[8]

Heaven in a capsule?

The most thorough-going and publicized theological critique of Huxley came from the Oxford Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics R.C. Zaehner (a Roman Catholic), who reacted as early as 1954 with an article entitled ‘The Menace of Mescalin’, which opened with the words:

‘Mr Aldous Huxley has recently published yet another book. It is not a very good book; nor is it a very attractive book; but it is, alas, in its way an important book. Its importance consists in this: that anyone who may feel an inclination to enjoy, here and now, what Christians call the Beatific Vision or the experience which the Zen Buddhists call satori, has merely to buy himself three-pennyworth of mescalin at the nearest chemist’s, and behold, the ineffable vision is his […] there it is for any who may care to make the experiment – heaven in a capsule’ [9]

In this and his more extended treatment in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, Zaehner took up what he considered to be the profound theological and ethical challenges thrown down by the capsular approach to spirituality which effectively suggested that the traditional Christian moral framework was redundant; as with Thomas Mann, the pertinency of his controversial comments would be borne out by history. Mescalin, he asserted, ‘presents us not only with a social problem, – for how on earth could a society composed exclusively of ecstatics possibly be run? – but also with a theological problem of great magnitude’,[10], since Huxley was essentially describing what Zaehner termed a ‘natural mystical experience’ which could ‘occur to anyone, whatever his religious faith or lack of it, and whatever moral, immoral, or amoral life he may be leading at the time’.[11]  Consequently this type of mysticism was unrelated to God, Zaehner contended; to think otherwise would be to admit
‘that the vision of God is a natural concomitant of mania, that it can be induced by drugs, and that since the vision makes nonsense of common morality, let alone of the virtues of humility and charity, then the picture of God which we derive from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth must be false’.[12]

Zaehner attacked Huxley’s interpretation of psychedelic experience as illegitimate, but not without undergoing a clinical trial himself in Oxford in December 1955. For Zaehner this did not issue in a revelatory encounter with reality, but rather hysterical laughter; Zaehner began to giggle uncontrollably when shown Gentile da Fabriano’s painting ‘Adoration of the Magi’,  convinced that one of the three wise men was trying to bite the infant Jesus’s foot. ‘In Huxley’s terminology, he commented, ‘self-transcendence’ of a sort did take place, but transcendence into a world of farcical meaninglessness. All things were one in the sense that they were all, at the height of my manic state, equally funny’, adding ‘the fact that I am an assiduous reader of Alice through the looking-glass is probably not irrelevant to the nature of my experience.'[13]

Marsh Chapel window (photo: John Stephen Dwyer)

Marsh Chapel window (photo: John Stephen Dwyer)

This whole controversy around Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, raising fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and of religious experience, constitutes the essential background to the 1962 ‘Good Friday experiment’ in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel discussed in our previous post. The conclusion of the latter was that the descriptions offered by 9 of the 10 participants given psilocybin were classified by the investigator Walter Pahnke as having had a ‘mystical experience’, as opposed to only 1 in the placebo group. Recalling the experiment in a recent video, the now 91 year-old Smith particularly remembers having ‘the most profound religious experience’ at the conclusion of a soloist’s rendition of the hymn ‘my times are in your hands’ piped into the basement from the Good Friday liturgy going on in the Chapel above him. Here the comparison with Huxley and Zaehner is instructive – it seems evident that the similarities and divergences in their experiences (and their subsequent interpretations of those experiences) can largely be attributed to their differing prior expectations and philosophical frameworks with which they approached their experiments. Zaehner, for example, had a sophisticated interpretive grid at his disposal, being just as if not more aware of the mystical traditions of the world’s religions as Huxley, but by the time he took mescaline in 1955 he had already penned his first denunciation of The Doors of Perception. Smith, like Zaehner, brought to his participation in psychedelic experimentation Christian belief allied with a substantial background in comparative religion; however, as his comments penned in 2000 make clear, he was also driven by a definite desire for ‘religious experience’ which he had found lacking in his own Protestant upbringing:

‘The [Good Friday Experiment] was powerful for me, and it left a permanent mark on my experienced worldview …. For as long as I can remember I have believed in God, and I have experienced his presence both within the world and when the world was transcendentally eclipsed. But until the Good Friday Experiment, I had had no direct personal encounter with God of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe'[14]

Huston Smith 2005

Churches and Hipsters

It is perhaps easy for us to ridicule the ‘Marsh Chapel miracle’ in the light of the subsequent development of the 1960s drug culture and to excoriate the practitioners involved as sorcerer’s apprentices, but this would be to commit the widespread ‘retroactive fallacy’ of using our present historical knowledge to judge those who had little or no inkling of what lay ahead. If the exchanges of the 1950s and early 1960s are read in such a way as to bracket out our consciousness of the later historical evolution of psychedelic counter-culture, several points emerge which perhaps facilitate an understanding of the conjunction of chemistry and spirituality investigated by Pahnke’s experiment that might otherwise appear incomprehensible to us (although a mass of anthropological evidence suggests that the notion of pharmakeia as a gateway to the Divine it goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greek Eleusian Mysteries).

i) The belief that the ability of modern science to unlock a Door in the Wall of consciousness could bring about radical social change and even a qualitative evolution of the human being may have been misguided, but it was certainly sincere in the minds of figures such as Aldous Huxley, whose utopianism was by no means uncommon in the early 1960s. It was however restricted to an intellectual and cultural elite in the years between 1954 and Huxley’s death in 1963, with no indications that the use of psychedelic drugs would subsequently become a mass phenomenon. Experimentation was carried out under clinical control and in full legality, not least because initial results in treating chronic alcoholism with LSD appeared to offer real prospects of tangible medical benefits. Timothy Leary’s increasing lack of respect for scientific controls and indiscriminate drug administration in the years following the Good Friday Experiment which would alter this scenario fundamentally. The disrepute engendered by his activities – together with later exposure of the sinister covert use of LSD for brain manipulation by the CIA for intelligence purposes – would effectively stop all legitimate scientific research into clinical applications of psychedelic substances for nearly 40 years (although here it should be said that FDA-approved investigation has recently recommenced at institutions such as John Hopkins University).

ii) The immediate and serious engagement with the religious implications of mind-altering substances was logical to anyone familiar with traditions of spirituality not only in Eastern religion but also within Christianity (RC Zaehner, Huston Smith and Olivier Messiaen clearly all fall into this category); the issue of the relationship of psychedelic experience to the Beatific Vision was grasped both by proponents and opponents alike. This is perhaps most bizarrely illustrated by the case of one of LSD’s most notorious activists, ‘Captain’ Al Hubbard, an enthusiastic Catholic who even managed to persuade the clergy of the Cathedral of the Rosary in Vancouver to issue a statement in 1957 entitled ‘Introduction to LSD Experience’ (which I would have considered spurious had I not seen a reproduction of the original document) that read:

‘True scientific knowledge is the honourable objective of man’s inquisitive intellectual faculties […] Each division of scientific knowledge has produced proof conclusive of the Supreme Being responsible for the perfection of order our scientific minds uncover. We are aware of man’s fallibility and will be protected in our studies by that understanding and recognition of the First Cause of all created things and the laws that govern them. We therefore approach the study of these psychodelics [sic.] and their influence in the mind of man anxious to discover whatever attributes they possess, respectfully evaluating their proper place in the Divine Economy. We humbly ask our Heavenly Mother the Virgin Mary, help of all who call upon Her to aid us to know and understand the true qualities of these psychodelics, the full capacities of man’s noblest faculties and according to God’s laws to use them for the benefit of mankind here and in eternity’

iii) Although no-one could have predicted the developments of the late 1960s at the time of the publication of The Doors of Perception, the notion of ‘heaven in a capsule’ was, as we have seen, subjected to penetrating philosophical and theological critique from the very outset. Even Huxley himself s aw that the ‘cleansed perception’ which he found in drug-induced contemplation of Reality begged the crucial question (posed with such acuity by Martin Buber) of how such ecstasy was ‘to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion?'[15] As for Huston Smith, the final section of his celebrated article ‘Do Drugs Have Religious Import?’ drew some insightful conclusions from the Good Friday Experiment which have lost little of their currency. While controversially defending Huxley’s interpretive line rather than Zaehner’s in relation to chemically-altered states, he emphasized that

‘Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives. It follows that religion is more than religious experiences. This is hardly news, but it may be a useful reminder, especially to those who incline toward “the religion of religious experience,” which is to say toward lives bent on the acquisition of desired states of experience irrespective of their relation to life’s other demands and components.'[16]

Smith ends with a warning to those attracted by the promise of mystical experience seemingly offered by chemical experimentation:

‘If the religion of religious experience is a snare and a delusion, it follows that no religion that fixes its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences can be expected to come to a good end. What promised to be a shortcut will prove to be a short circuit; what began as a religion will end as a religion surrogate.’

At the same time, Smith predicts a bleak outlook for institutionalized religion unless it can connect doctrine with lived experience. What is clearly needed in his diagnosis is a combination of experientially-based faith and spiritual rigour, but he laments that ‘nowhere today in Western civilization are these two conditions jointly fulfilled. Churches lack faith in the sense just mentioned, hipsters lack discipline.‘ As we will see in the next instalment of this post, in which the action shifts from Boston to California, New York and Amsterdam, Smith can with this last sentence be said to have predicted and analyzed both the psychedelic degenerescence of the late 1960s and the inadequacy of the Christian response to it (the failure of the Church to retrieve its own authentic spirituality, leading emerging generations to seek transcendence elsewhere). His much reprinted essay concludes by citing a question posed by Paul Tillich – himself one of the key figures of the discussions of the 1960s whose legacy is not without its own special ambiguity – to the Harvard Hillel Society which remains as relevant today as ever:

‘The question our century puts before us [is]: Is it possible to regain the lost dimension, the encounter with the Holy, the dimension which cuts through the world of subjectivity and objectivity and goes down to that which is not world but is the mystery of the Ground of Being?’

‘Tillich may be right’, Smith comments; ‘this may be the religious question of our century. For if (as we have insisted) religion cannot be equated with religious experience, neither can it long survive its absence.’



[1] Stravinsky and Huxley (to whose memory the composer dedicated a set of serial orchestral variations in 1963-4) were united by a strong friendship lasting two decades. It was Huxley who recommended W.H. Auden to Stravinsky as an opera librettist, a collaboration which issued in The Rake’s Progress.

[2] Letter reprinted in Conrad Watt (ed.), Aldous Huxley (London: Routledge, 1975), 394.

[3] Ibid., 395.

[4] Martin Buber, Judith Buber Agassi, Martin Buber on psychology and psychotherapy: essays, letters, and dialogue (The Estate of Martin Buber, 1999), 100.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid..

[7] Ibid..

[8] Ibid., 103.

[9] R.C. Zaehner, ‘The Menace of Mescalin’ in Blackfriars vol 35 (July 1954), 310-323:310.

[10] R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Oxford: OUP, 1961), 13, quoted in Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of excess, palaces of wisdom; eroticism and reflexivity in the study of mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 180. In my discussion of Zaehner I am following Kripal’s lucid account.

[11] Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, xv.

[12] Ibid., 124.

[13] R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane (Oxford: OUP, 1961), 226, quoted in John Horgan, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border between Science and Spirituality (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 26n. and Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of excess, 180.

[14] Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), 100-101.

[15] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1972), 40. Ethical considerations are considerably less apparent in the essay Heaven and Hell, whose focus is predominantly aesthetic, concerning visionary experience from a phenomenological rather than primarily metaphysical standpoint.

[16] Huston Smith, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. LXI, No. 18, September 17, 1964. What has not necessarily stood the test of time is Smith’s somewhat naive assertion that, when allied to ascetic discipline and genuine faith, chemicals can be an ‘aid to the religious life’.


Spirituality in and out of focus: the 'Marsh Chapel Miracle' (i)

The ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’

One cold and extremely windy evening in October 2007 I found myself in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel during an inter-disciplinary conference on the work of Olivier Messiaen whose proceedings were published last year by Ashgate as Messiaen the Theologian. In what was one of the most stimulating moments of the weekend, we were treated to a screening of Paul Festa’s extremely thought-provoking Apparitions of the Eternal Church. This film, an extraordinary exercise in musical phenomenology, consists of the reactions of a very colourful selection of participants to the experience of hearing Messiaen’s organ work Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle through headphones (the piece being unannounced and only heard at the end of the film). Although Festa’s interviewees included a fair number of musicians, such as organist Albert Fuller, violinist Robert Mann (first violin of the Juilliard String Quartet) and the electro-acoustic composer Richard Felciano (a pupil of Messiaen himself), there are also intriguing appearances from luminaries such as Harold Bloom on one hand and on the other avant-garde film makers, drag artists, a Korean-Jewish rabbi-cantor and a fire-eater. As you might imagine, this cast came up with a bewildering range of comments on the piece (played by Olivier Latry of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris) ranging from the extremely perceptive to the outrageously obscene or downright deranged. Without doubt the spookiest came from a character known as ‘Squeaky Blonde’ (second left on the poster below), about whom Paul Festa’s highly informative website says:

‘Not much is known about the performer, club personality and substance abuser Squeaky Blonde. Her MySpace profile says she is a 102-year-old female in Los Angeles, among other questionable claims not suitable for inclusion on a family-oriented Web site.’

Apparitions is nothing if not deeply provocative, and perhaps understandably engendered some opposition from more conservative Messiaen enthusiasts as demeaning to the composer’s memory.  However, it also garnered extraordinary praise from Alex Ross of the New Yorker and in the pages of the Village Voice; indeed, the leading Messiaen scholar Stephen Schloesser, SJ went as far as to call it “One of the most amazing musical/artistic/religious experiences of my life.” The film’s genius lies in its portrayal of the capacity of Messiaen’s music, and by extension any music, to affect human consciousness at an extremely deep level; although I at moments found it both aesthetically and ethically repellent, it is undeniably gripping, at times hilariously funny, at others highly disturbing, and all things considered ranks as one of the most penetrating studies of the nature of musical phenomena that I have ever seen. I have actually viewed it twice, the second time being at a Messiaen symposium in 2008 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and on both occasions Apparitions was followed by the excellent, substantive and responsible discussion that this compelling piece of (adult) cinema undoubtedly merits. “A knock-out Messiaen-on-acid documentary”, wrote Chicago Sun-Times music critic Andrew Patner in The Year in Review in 2008, which I guess comes fairly close to the mark.

At the 2007 conference one representative of the Boston media jokingly remarked that the film confirmed his long-standing contention there was an intimate connection between Messiaen’s ecstatic religious music and drug use. This is not so outlandish as it may at first seem. Messiaen himself appears to have been fully aware of the parallels between his own frequent references to synaethesia (his famous habit of associating chords with colour-combinations) and drug-induced visions. In an interview with Claude Samuel he for example discussed the physiological synaesthesia of his friend, the Swiss painter Charles Blanc-Gatti (who saw colours on hearing music) and their close promixity to the effect of ingesting peyote. Although elsewhere Messiaen would emphasize that his own colour-chords were neither the result of actual vision or the ‘dangerous and monstrous phantasmagoria’ provoked by mescaline [1], it is clear that he was well-informed both as to the drug’s derivation and its religious use in ancient Meso-America:

‘I can add that one can contract Blanc-Gatti’s disease quite simply, though expensively, by going to Mexico and swallowing a toxic beverage named Mescaline, a drink which comes from a small cactus, Peyote, which was a sacred plant in ancient Mexico and which still grows – the priests and Mexican initiates used it for religious or prophetic ends related to the myth of the sun.'[2]

What I did not realize at the time of the 2007 Boston University Conference screening of Apparitions in Marsh Chapel was that five years prior to the publication of Claude Samuel’s interviews with Messiaen, in the basement of the chapel in which where we were watching chemically-influenced responses to his music, an infamous epoch-making experiment had been carried out into the correlation between religious, musical and psychedelic experience. A consideration of this complex and ambiguous conjunction is critical to our subject in this series of posts, i.e. an understanding of the underlying spiritual trajectory of 1960s counter-culture.

In this experiment, which came to be known as the ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’, a group of theology students were subjected to a double-blind clinical test in which half of them were given the drug psilocybin (derived from ‘magic mushrooms’) and half a large dose of Niacin as a placebo. The participants were then observed for their reactions to the 1962 Good Friday liturgy in the church above led by the renowned African-American preacher Howard Thurman, Dean of Chapel. The idea for the test came from Walter Pahnke, a graduate student at Harvard, who conducted the experiment  in order to see whether psychoactive substances could engender religious experience as part of his doctoral research project in History and Philosophy of Religion which issued in the thesis An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness. The theological consultant to the project – one of the group given the psilocybin – was none other than MIT professor and ordained Methodist minister Huston Smith, who was already well-known for his classic The World’s Religions published in 1958.[3] Pahnke’s thesis advisors were two Harvard psychologists who at the time were respected academics but who would later acquire great notoriety in America for other reasons in the years after their subsequent expulsion from Harvard: Richard Alpert (who later became the Hindu-influenced spiritual teacher Ram Dass) and Dr Timothy Leary …

The idea behind this experiment may seem to us totally bizarre, but was part of a broader investigation centred at Harvard on the effects of mind-altering substances[4] conducted in the wake of the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception in 1954. This small book, titled after a phrase in William Blake’s gnostic text The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [5], would prove to be of immense historical significance; Huxley’s heady and intensely controversial metaphysical interpretation of his experimentation with mescaline as ‘without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision'[6] would effectively light the touch-paper for the whole psychedelic explosion of the 1960s (for instance being the direct inspiration behind Jim Morrison’s The Doors, all four of whose members read it). In the process Huxley would unleash a philosophical and theological furore which will be the subject of our next instalment.

Page from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1794


[1] ‘Il ne s’agit pas d’une vision oculaire, dans le genre de ces fantasmagories dangereuses et monstrueuses que sont les hallucinations colorées provoquées par la mescaline (alcaloïde extrait d’un petit cactus mexicain, l’Enchinocactus williamsii ou Peyotl’ (Anik Lesure & Claude Samuel, Olivier Messiaen: le livre du centenaire (Lyon: Symétrie, 2008), 157. In Volume 1 of Messiaen’s monumental compositional treatise, he quotes Alexandre Rouhier’s Le Peyotl. La Plante qui fait les yeux émerveillés (Paris: Doin, 1927). The composer concludes that ‘mescalinic visions bear a family resemblance to those of ‘Synopsie’ [i.e. synaesthesia]. My coloured dreams were of the same order’ (‘les visions mescaliniques ressemblent comme des soeurs à celles de la Synopsie. Mes rêves colorés étaient du même ordre’ (Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie, vol. I (Paris: Leduc, 1994), 68). Given that Charles Baudelaire was one of Messiaen’s prime poetic influences, it is unthinkable that the composer would not have read Baudelaire’s famous words on drug-induced synaesthesia: ‘Sounds take on colours, and there is a music contained in the colours. The is nothing more natural than this, one might say, and any poetic brain in its normal healthy state, easily conceives these analogies’ (‘Les sons se revêtent de couleurs, et les couleurs contiennent une musique. Cela, dira-t-on, n’a rien que de fort naturel, et tout cerveau poétique, dans son état sain et normal, conçoit facilement ces analogies.‘ (Les Paradis Artificiels: Opium et Haschisch (Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1860),50).

[2] ‘J’ajoute qu’on peut contracter la maladie de Blanc-Gatti de façon assez simple quoique coûteuse en allant au Mexique et en avalant un breuvage nocif qui se nomme la Mescaline, lequel breuvage provient d’un petit cactus, le Peyotl, qui était une plante sacrée dans l’ancien Mexique et qui pousse toujours – les prêtres et les initiés mexicains s’en servaient à des fins religieuses ou prophétiques en relation avec le mythe solaire‘ (Claude Samuel, Entretiens avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1967), 36).

[3] The now 91 year-old Smith’s recollections of the Good Friday experiment can be watched on video at .

[4] The psychedelic experimentation in Harvard in the early 1960s has recently received a book-length treatment in Don Lattin’s Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America (New York: Harper Collins, 2011). A 50-minute presentation by Don Lattin outlining the thesis of his book can be viewed at

[5] ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narow chinks of his cavern.’

It is important to note that Huxley had already quoted the phrase ‘the doors of perception’ in his Perennial Philosophy of 1945. In this work he had revived the notion, traceable at least as far back as Augustinus Steuchius in the sixteenth century but attributed by Huxley to Leibniz, of a philosophia perennis which he defined as:

‘the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being’ […] ‘Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions’ (Aldous Huxley, Perennial Philosophy, London: Chatto & Windus, 1946)

Although Huxley is able to quote extensively from Christian sources, it is evident  that his concept of ultimate Reality differs from that of the classical Abrahamic framework, being essentially monistic. This can clearly be seen in his introduction to  Bhagavad-Gita of 1947, in which he includes among the principles of perennial philosophy the notions that
‘Man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit […] man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.'(Introduction to Swami Prabhavananda (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita (London, 1946), 7, quoted in Johannes Bronkhorst, ‘The Perennial Philosophy and the Law of Karma’ in C.C. Barfoot (ed.) Aldous Huxley between East and West (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2001), 176. The extent to which philosophia perennis can be synthesized with Christianity is a matter of debate, representing as it does a key issue in inter-faith dialogue. Among modern composers working within the Christian tradition, those whose positions most closely resemble those of perennial philosophy are Olivier Messiaen and John Tavener; if in Messiaen’s case, a bedrock commitment to Catholic orthodoxy remains indisputable in spite of his frequent references to Eastern thought, Tavener has been explicitly perennialist in his recent engagement with the work of the philosopher Fritjof Schuon.

[6] Aldous Huxley in a letter to his editor at Chatto & Windus after taking mescaline: “It is without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision; and it opens up a host of philosophical problems, throws intense light and raises all manner of questions in the fields of aesthetics, religion, theory of knowledge . . .”