Dear Tom

,

By David Pendery

Dear Tom, Since I returned to school I have spent a lot of time studying an interest that has long simmered just below the surface of my consciousness: religion. It began two years ago when I took a "Philosophies of Religions" course in junior college. At that time I convinced myself that I was simply satisfying a humanities requirement toward my degree, but the truth is I was ready to look into religion and spiritualism with new eyes. But first I had to explore my (then current) views. I wrote this piece at that time, Tom:

Maybe
Maybe we atheists feel that we have an advantage in life because we are cool and remote, above the fray of religious fervor, dogmatism, narrow-mindedness and ritual. Free from these liabilities, we rely on reason, and dispassion, rather than passion, steers our lives and choices.

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Maybe we atheists feel that we have an advantage in life because we are never reduced to submitting to a God— known, seeking unknown, guidance. or In unknowable; short, named, we unnamed, atheists or feel unnameable—begging for mercy, praying for forgiveness, or maybe guiltless, unfettered, and confident in ourselves. Maybe we atheists feel that we have an advantage in life because we are more aware. We have made our life discoveries on our own, and our interpretations and assessments are free from the emotion and pat answers of religion and pseudo-spiritualism. Maybe we atheists are self-assured, uncompromising, realistic, and unflappable. Or maybe we atheists are just outside looking in, faces at the window…

That's where I stood, Tom—I felt like my plate was empty. Yet, somehow I knew there was an unperceived, or unappreciated, feast right in front of me. So I took a second look at the world's religions. That required a leap of faith on my part, but I was ready for such a leap. Remember my "don Juan" phase, Tom? The key concept in Castaneda's philosophy is to break free of the attention you lavish on the everyday world and your own affairs, in order to access a whole spectrum of other experiences. As you remember, Tom, he called these experiences "separate realities.” I myself had only nominal success peering into these alternate realities, but the idea always seemed sound to me. Recently my assumption was given some support by none other than William James. You probably remember this passage:

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[O]ur

normal

waking

consciousness,

rational

consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without their suspecting their existence; types of but apply the which requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all completeness, definite mentality probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation.

In years past, I attempted to access these other realities by searching for waking awareness during my dreams, as don Juan urged. Attempting to look at one’s hands in one’s dreams is one of the most useful meditative techniques I have ever discovered. Nowadays it’s called “lucid dreaming,” and I still believe it is a key to enlarged appreciation of everyday life, and those alternate realities. As don Juan said:
The first truth about awareness…is that the world out there is not really as we think it is. We think it is a world of objects and it’s not…[W]hat man senses is such a small portion of [the world; reality] that it’s ridiculous to put much stock in our perceptions.

My newfound interest in religion is a shift in my attention—a shift in my "personal center of energy" as James put it. My former study of Castaneda prepared me for my current explorations, Tom. I am waking up to a new consciousness, or a new appreciation for whole new areas

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and explanations of human existence and behavior. They are called religion. Yours, Chris

Dear Chris, I must say I was a little amused with your letter. Who would have guessed old Chris—the inveterate atheist—would be toying with religious conversion? And so now you're reading every ecclesiastical and philosophical treatise you can get your hands on. Good enough, Chris, but keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. Sigmund Freud asked, “In what does the peculiar value of religious ideas lie?” His answer was less than salutary. Religion is simply “a store of ideas…born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race.” Does this apply to your current interest in religion, Chris? You asked if I remember your "don Juan" phase, Chris. Of course I do. I also remember your self-actualization phase, your Eastern phase, your Timothy Leary phase, and your Aldous Huxley phase. Need I remind you of Screwtape's words to his nephew—

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A moderated religion is as good for us [Devils] as no religion at all—and more amusing.

So take care against watered down, secular spiritualities; you have indulged in them before. Yet, I worry that I am prodding you into a full-blown conversion. Before you attempt such a thing, Chris. I think you should examine your sources. James was, in a sense, a sham. He hems himself in with all sorts of inconsistencies. Throughout "The Varieties of Religious Experience," one senses the ramblings of a man who doesn't really know what he's talking about. He was not religious, and his method of constantly reducing religion and spirituality to so much psychology, emotions and "centers of energy" is tepid. Castaneda, on the other hand, wrote of “a universe of energy fields,” and “aligning [oneself] with…[external energy] emanations….” This is new age gobbledygook at its worst. James writes that ineffable mysticism is the very substance of religious experience, yet then he quietly slips in the fact that "my own constitution shuts me out from [the] enjoyment [of mystical states] almost entirely, and I can speak of them only at second hand." The old conniver had dismissed second-hand religious experience as “profit[ing] us little” earlier in the book, but now he figures he is above his own criticism. A few sentences after the example you cite James claims that "One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony." True enough! But James’s descriptions of religious experience, while compelling and brilliantly

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exposited, come from someone with a tin ear for the music. He ignores that the real pleasure lies in the music itself:
“The Lord is my strength and song…” Psalm 118:14

James was a rank rationalist, Chris, excising God from religion, and denuding the very idea of the divine ("any object godlike" indeed!). Yours, Tom

Dear Tom, I was surprised at your attack of James. I mean, excising the concept of God from religion is probably exactly what religion needs! Until recently, Tom, I had formulated no particular idea of God or the specifics of what such an entity could or would accomplish in the universe. Yet, I could very much feel and understand the idea of religious experience. After all, most everyone feels that there must be some purpose or object to humanity’s existence. Identifying and personifying that purpose are difficult and abstract to the extreme; but getting to the realities of how we feel about, communicate with, and connect to the larger object is

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fairly down-to-earth. This is essentially what James attempted to do, and admirably in my view. Additionally, attempting to concretely identify conceptions of God and his methods can be arrogant. Don Juan said, “As long as you feel that you are the most important thing in the world you cannot really appreciate the world around you.” Humanity has always conceived anthropocentric (that is, egoistic) descriptions of God, and thus we have set ourselves apart from divinity. James’s antidote to anthropomorphism’s inherent vanity is to say up front that humanity’s conceptions of God have always been imperfectly and vaguely described. Thus, at a personal (egocentric) level, our anthropomorphic views are not truly influential. Nonetheless, life is so permeated, “through and through…by [a] sense of [God’s] existence,” that we can attempt to understand religious experience “as if” God exists. James wisely excises anthropomorphism (codified and solidified in theologies) from religious experience. Yet, the experiences remain, and they are the true doors of perception and awareness. I mentioned James’s view of the unseen and unknown aspects of existence in my last letter, and as you know he deeply explores this idea. You may call him a “rank rationalist,” Tom, but thoughts such as this one are useful and, I think you would agree, uncannily perceptive:
Were one…to characterize the life of religion in the

broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.

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This is the crux of my current feelings, Tom. In observing the capacities and propensities of humans, I now believe that there is an “unseen order” (consisting of both good and evil), which is the stuff and sinew of humanity’s purpose. Perhaps I am idealistic when I place the greater importance of our purpose as being connected to the good, the compassionate, the just, the constructive, and the truthful. But we must also “harmoniously adjust” ourselves to the evil force in the world. We must, in short, be prepared to face anything, including evil. Castaneda also wrote of adjusting oneself to larger forces, though he never labeled them as values such as good or evil. Rather, don Juan’s descriptions were quite abstract and mystical. The forces that are available for us to align ourselves with (with the “requisite stimulus” James wrote of) are the infinite other realities, and are given the name “the Eagle’s emanations” by don Juan (no doubt you scoff at such incarnations). Through constant repetition of our routine lives, we cement our connection to only a small band of the emanations and thus limit our understanding and experience. Until we learn to shift our attention and awareness to the unperceived universe at large, we are forever limited in the way we perceive the world and thus any associated values (including religious experience)…
[T]he world we all know…is only a description…a description that had been pounded into [us] from the moment [we were] born.

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The description that has been pounded into me since youth, Tom, is the atheism I wrote of previously. Mine was a family of agnostics and atheists (“steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings,” as Screwtape wrote). Although I was certainly aware of the existence of religious experiences, I had always denigrated them. Such was my arrogance, for I was denigrating and shutting myself out from a whole spectrum of experience. This is the foolishness of humanity, as don Juan so perspicaciously observed:
For me the world is weird because it is stupendous,

awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being herein this marvelous world…in this marvelous time. I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make every act count, since you are going to be here for only a short while; in fact too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.

The world is too complex, mysterious, and unfathomable to limit it, Tom. This is the source of my change of heart. Yours, Chris

Dear Chris,

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So I have a wholesale conversion on my hands, do I? Well, have you examined your “change of heart” in light of Varieties, Chris? If you do, you may be in for a shock. James, for all his apparently respectful attitude toward religion, is in fact condescending to the whole business. But you have got me on one point: You are right in that by excising God (or more specifically, tracts about God) from religion, James focuses on the animating energy that makes religion tick. That focus in turn may lead one to God. You have been rather vague about the nature of your conversion and beliefs, Chris, and in this respect you are right up James’s alley. Although James claims vague religious experiences possess a “reality” that warrants our attention, he is back-handedly dismissive of their worth. When James writes of the “absolute determinability” of one’s outlook when under the influence of the “abstractions” of religious belief, I somehow feel he meant that we are all a bunch of malleable idiots, ready for mindless conversion. He then passingly refers to religious experience as “dumb intuition,” with no possibility of rational support (or, conversely, undermining). Given your hedging about consciousness, reality, God and creation, I am not so sure that James might be correct, Chris. But no offense is intended. For that, simply read some more James. According to him, your religious experiences are “quasi-sensible realities;” your belief in God is merely your overactive “ontological imagination” giving birth to something “like that of an hallucination.”

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Such respect for the world’s religious traditions, Chris! They are so many “hallucinations” which we may address “as if” they exist. Of course, James is careful throughout Varieties to qualify everything he writes with his claim of simon-pure objectivity, and thus his observations are free of any judgments—good or bad, considered or foolish, valid or ridiculous. In a sense, James is committing the cardinal sin of scientific observation and research: he adorns (by his own admission) the most subjective material in a cloak of objectivity. James’s religion is a secular religion—a contradiction in terms. Neither does Castaneda allow for God, which is perhaps a characteristic of such encompassing mystical philosophies. As James wrote, “[M]ysticsm…is too private (and also too various) in its utterances to be able to claim universal authority.” Still, Chris, I am interested in your beliefs. Just how do your conceptions of God, only hinted at in your letters, fit into your current views? Yours, Tom

Dear Tom, You always were the quick one, the skeptic ready to probe an idea, searching for its validity. And perhaps you’re right: perhaps James spends too much time describing

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only the surface of religious experience. After all, the magnificence of Jesus’ behavior in John 8:3-11—
He said to her, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord!” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go on your way and from now on sin no more.”

—does

not simply result in a shift if my “personal

centers of energy.” The awe I feel is not “the same organic thrill that we feel in a forest in twilight, or in a mountain gorge.” The way I feel when I read the above passage is different from any other feelings in my “common storehouse of emotions.” Rather, I believe I am witnessing humanity’s messiah, and that this realization influences me in ways that James seems to overlook. The results that ensue from my realization that Jesus is a perfectly loving and forgiving Lord are good “fruits” indeed, but the cohesive philosophy (or theology) that surrounds Jesus and his teachings are important rational works as well. Further, I sense that Jesus was indeed a divine being—not simply “godlike,” but a god indeed—and thus is greater than James’s pragmatic, objective observations and conclusions. And so there you have it, Tom. I am a Christian. I am a bad Christian, for as I wrote you before, I have no conception of God to connect to Jesus (as his “Father”). Yet, I accept several other of the underpinnings of Christianity: that Christ is humanity’s Messiah; that humanity is sinful and must atone and change; and that one must be unstintingly tolerant and generous to all people.

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These beliefs are not “feeling at the expense of reason,” nor “translations of a text into another tongue.” They are rational conclusions about life as I have witnessed it. James wrote “The more concrete objects of most men’s religion, the deities whom they worship, are known to them only in idea,” and I feel that in this respect too, he is rather dry and chalky. Seeing a child’s birth, reveling in the fantastic and evolving complexity of life, or communing with and drawing strength from the divine—these are more than ideas, and may be viewed as true manifestations of God and divinity. And so James’s conclusion that “Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion,” while close to the truth, dodges a key (admittedly sometimes difficult to quantify) element of religious experience. Look at me Tom! You have me criticizing James. But I hope I have given you some insight into my current “conversion.” Yours, Chris

Dear Chris, You have indeed given me insight into your views. Yet, I sense there is more. The tone of your letters suggests as much. But that has always been true of your letters, Chris.

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Your exploration of Christianity does not surprise me. Christ always stuck up for the underdog, and that suits you. As well, Christ’s ignominious ending (if it was an ending), squares with your tendency to view life pessimistically. Your morbid state of mind also puts you in James’s camp, as you know. He went on and on about the deadly-serious “sick soul,” and that poor soul’s inclination toward religious explanations and solutions to life’s vicissitudes. The sick soul, according to James, has access to a more profound and well-rounded grasp of life’s mysteries. Yet, is this really true, Chris? Are “The completest religions…those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.”? I hope that I am not making a sort of false appeal to authority when I ask you to recall Hemingway’s discerning words:
They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.

We have both noted the rich connection to life’s animating spirit that “those who make jokes in life” possess. Don Juan’s message was always infused with laughter and spirit:
“[T]here are examples of people, sorcerers or average men, who…get peace, harmony, laughter, knowledge, directly from the spirit.

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James’s focus on the serious and melancholy as conduits to more profound awareness, to deeper initiations into the religious and spiritual, is heavy-handed at times. Remember how we laughed at don Juan’s delightful insouciance:
You take yourself too seriously,…You are too damn

important in your own mind. That must be changed! Your are so goddamn important that you feel justified to be annoyed with everything. You’re so damn important that you can afford to leave if things don’t go your way. I suppose you think that shows you have character. That’s nonsense! You’re weak, and conceited!”

Don’t forget to laugh, Chris. Your citation from John shows that Christianity can be a very optimistic and forgiving creed. I have always believed this myself, though I can’t believe that Christ was “a god indeed” as you write. In any case, I want to hear that you are not weighted with the “unease” that there is “something wrong about us” that James’s identified as one of religion’s universal precepts. Yours, Tom

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Dear Tom, In answer to the question at the close of your last letter: “Yes and no.” Isn’t that just like me, Tom!! The “unease” that James wrote about, the “wrongness” that “takes a moral character,” is not truly the source of my current explorations. Yet, there is certainly something wrong in my life. My “wrongness” is connected to things James said earlier in his book, and has parallels in Castaneda as well. The wrongness is indeed the morbidity that you noted in your last letter. The wrongness is sadness and depression, Tom. My sadness is rooted in a constant feeling of isolation that has pervaded my life since I was a child. The feeling appears so prosaic, so mundane, when put in writing. Perhaps this poem I wrote as an adolescent will shed some light:
all loneliness it seems springs from one source cold, sweet, eternal and when you have tasted of that deep well you become part of a long tradition I know of no one who has never drank, or lapped, or sipped of that source and relinquished innocence to become part of the vastness that the springs of loneliness flow to and feed

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I want a man or a woman
—it

makes no difference—

who has not nourished his or herself from the wellsprings of loneliness. I want to see their eyes and look deep into the vastness

Isn’t it curious how these images match (my universalized images of) James’s:
But [some people can never] become what we have called healthy-minded. They [have] drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness a ever yet to forget broke its the taste….They effective was preserved [have] of a as realized [their] good which edge

sadness;

the

sadness

minor ingredient in the heart of the faith by which was overcome.

As in my poem, as in James: I have drunk too deeply of isolation’s cup. How I want to know pure happiness, Tom! My plate was, and in too many ways still is, empty. Yet, sadness is not an altogether debilitating element. You rather lightly dismissed James in this respect, quoting Castaneda to support yourself. A tad incautious of you, Tom. Recall Castaneda:
Yet at the same time, there was a frightening feeling of sadness and longing that went hand in hand with that freedom and joy. Don Juan had told me that there is no completeness without sadness and longing, for without them there is not sobriety, no kindness. Wisdom without

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kindness, he said, and knowledge without sobriety are useless.

And further,
In the life of warriors it is extremely natural to be sad for no overt reason.

But my sadness and isolation did not point me toward a reexamination of my beliefs, through some inherent quality they possess. They were not the conduits or concomitants to deeper religious experience as James and Castaneda suggest, but rather, because they had become so prevalent in my life, they pointed to a Jamesian “wrongness” that needed attention. (In fact, James’s wrongness points toward a religious conception of sin, rather than simply personal isolation or disquiet). Christianity provided the key to understanding my own isolation and depression, Tom. This passage from the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas guides me:
Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

That is what I am doing, Tom: reaching inside myself, just as we did when we studied Castaneda those years ago; examining the experiences of my life in a new context, just as James examined experience; seeking to connect myself to the “MORE” of James, and the “separate realities” of Castaneda. Religious study fits all of these aims. If the

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whole edifice collapses, so be it. I guess I will then have to look up another alley, go through another “phase.” But I won’t forget to laugh, Tom. Yours, Chris

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