Re-Kindling Alan Watts, Part Two | Counter-Currents Publishing

Posted: January 5, 2018 at 10:46 am


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Part 2 of 2. Part 1 here.

Partings II Watts and The Church Today: Real Presence or Real Estate?

Watts was quite successful in his attempt to express the religio perennis in the language of Christian theology; not just in my opinion today, but among his Episcopal peers at the time (one bishop even called it the most important book on religion in this century[1]), yet within four years he resigned his position, left the Church and embarked on his more characteristic career as an alt-academic and, eventually, something of a counter-cultural guru. What happened?

According to his letter of resignation, it was what he later called the Churchs dogmatic imperialism:

During the past years I have continued my studies of the spiritual teachings of the Orient, alongside with Catholic theology, and, though I have sometimes doubted it, I am now fully persuaded that the Churchs claim to be the best of all ways to God is not only a mistake, but also a symptom of anxiety. Obviously, one who has found a great truth is eager to share it with others. But to insist often in ignorance of other revelations that ones own is supreme argues a certain inferiority complex characteristic of all imperialisms. Me thinks thou doth protest too much. This claim of supremacy is, for me, the chiefest sign of how deeply the Church is committed to this self-strangulation, this anxiety for certainty, and I cannot support the proselytism in which it issues.

In an interview in LIFE magazine in 1961 Watts said that he left the church not because it doesnt practice what it preaches, but because it preaches.

In 1964 in Beyond Theology he concluded:

My previous discussions did not take proper account of that whole aspect of Christianity which is uncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious, and invincibly self-righteous.

Of course, forcing his hand would have been concern over his somewhat irregular lifestyle, which would ultimately include divorcing his first wife, Eleanor (who was, at the time, having an affair with the choirmaster), and marrying a former student. A bit tame compared to a Weinstein, but not really the done thing for an Episcopalian chaplain in the 1940s.

One cant help but wonder if Watts would have found a more comfortable pew in todays Church, especially the Episcopal branch. Surely the relentless liberalization of the last 75 years has enabled the Church to catch up with Watts?

Surprisingly, the answer is: no, not at all. Or perhaps not surprisingly; for the liberalizing in question has mostly in the political sense.

True, a church that positively welcomes gay and transgendered clergy would find Watts serial monogamy charmingly old fashioned; or perhaps dangerously cisgendered and triggering?

But more importantly, Watts as clergyman or congregant would find the contemporary Church even more boring and pointless than before, for liturgies, both Catholic and Protestant, have been rationalized and popularized more than ever, making contemplative prayer all but impossible, and the Social Gospel, the Good News in the Protestant, adolescent form of changing the world in the light of rigid principles of justice (all men are equal here and now, not in the Spirit), has not faded away in the growing light of the Spirit, but instead metastasized and taken over.

However much Watts might agree with those politics in his autobiography he mentions the tedium of having to kowtow to the conservative businessmen who make up (then) the most important congregants Watts was interested in the Spiritual, not such surface fripperies. As he insisted in his new Preface, itself now almost 50 years old, all this is a

[M]ere matter of changing the externals of having rock bands instead of organs and Kyrie eleison set to jazz, [or] even of turning churches into social service centers with the idea that this would be practicing Christianity seven days a week instead of just talking it on Sundays. Indeed, one may well hope that monarchical Christianity will not be practiced, even on Sundays, since the dutiful spirit in which it dispenses charity breeds resentment in the giver and the receiver alike, for when the one gives with reluctance the other receives with guilt.

Speaking of social service centers (today, most likely to be Mary and Joseph were illegals- style immigrant service centers), Watts goes on to frame the issue in blunt, Trumpian terms of real estate:

The practical problem is, what are we going to do on Sunday mornings? How are ministers to continue their work? What is to be the use of church buildings, funds, and administrative machinery? Naturally, institutional Christianity will, in its present form, continue to supply the demand which remains for a monarchical [civil] religion. But a considerable number of ministers and even congregations not to mention millions of reasonably intelligent young people realize that churches must put up or shut up, and that the chief business of religious facilities and assemblies is to provide a social milieu for religious experience. Ministers and their congregations must instead consider what need there may be for churches as temples for contemplation and meditation, stripped of the courthouse furniture of stalls, pews, pulpits, lecterns and other equipment for throwing the Book at captive audiences. They must consider also the need for retreat houses and religious communities, and for guidance and instruction in the many forms of spiritual discipline which are conducive to mystical vision [non-dual knowing]. (pp. xx xi).

Ironic, since the Episcopal Church has indeed taken the path of forcing change down the throats of those conservative vestrymen, and taken over the very buildings themselves a quirk of the Episcopal Church is that the national body owns the buildings, the churches control their own endowments and other investments but hardly to promote contemplation:

Convention attendees were told that they had spent $18 million this year suing their own local congregations those which have protested the denominations policies by trying to secede. The New York hierarchy has consistently won in court asserting that the local members signed over their buildings decades ago. As a result, some of the largest Episcopal congregations in the United States have been forced to vacate their buildings and meet elsewhere. So now, convention delegates were told, the denomination is the proud owner of scores of empty buildings nationwide and liable for their upkeep in a depressed real estate market where empty church buildings are less than prime property. Its the classic dog in a manger. The denomination has managed to keep the buildings for which it has little use. However, they made their point refusing to allow the congregations which built the facilities to have any benefit after generations of sacrifice, donations and volunteerism.

One former Episcopal priest wrote me, The irony is that after all their property suits to get control of empty buildings, they now are losing their main property.

One might hope that at least some of these buildings could be turned over to or acquired by some new Peter Gatien, who could turn them into pagan dance clubs, which at least would be more in line with Watts program.[2]

Ironies abound, of course. Watts makes the interesting point that while he has no doubts at all that Jesus really existed,[3] the refusal to crack the shell of scripture to obtain the nut of spirit has led, especially among Protestants, to obsessions with Biblical literalness and inerrancy. Today, of course, the very existence of Jesus is a hot topic,[4] but ironically the last man standing among the candidates for the stripped-down, 100% real Jesus tends to be the wandering Jewish teacher or political zealot; the Spirit seems to have been found in the supposed political shell, not even the scriptural shell.

Indeed, the Episcopal Churchs new leader a black man, since after Obama all leaders will have to be black has proudly made his motto We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, a pretty explicit statement of a proud retreat to the most adolescent stage of the Western Spirit, rather than an advance to the fully mature life of the Holy Spirit.[5]

Of course, the Episcopal Church has always been mostly the WASP elite at prayer (answering Watts question, what are we going to do on Sunday mornings?) so its hardly surprising that it serves mainly as a vehicle for SJW virtue signaling in the Present Year; thus:

In America last week a church in Virginia took down two plaques of men who had worshipped there, one of George Washington, the other of Robert E. Lee. The plaques distracted our worshippers, said the cowardly rector.

Rather than openness to other religions, its the phony openness of multiculturalism and unlimited immigration, in the service of global conformity.[6]

Watts seems to have underestimated the ability of the adolescent Protestant conscience to sustain itself in its infinite regress of idealistic guilt. Like a collapsing neutron star, it needs more and more fuel, and it now gets it from endless spasms of masochistic White guilt. As we now know, SJWs always double down.

Anti-Whiteness has replaced Christianity as the religion of post-1960s White America. Original sin has been replaced with racism and white privilege. Jesus Christ has been replaced with Martin Luther King. Satan has been replaced with Adolph Hitler. Anti-whiteness is not rational, it is an irrational and superstitious religion.

The entire facade of anti-Whiteness is based on the idea that its moral, the religious notion that people of European ancestry are uniquely evil and born with original sin. In order to atone for this original sin, White people must marry someone of another race, promote mass immigration into White countries and only White countries, make public apologies and displays of subservience for other races, and demean and disparage white people, white history, and white culture while at the same time loudly proclaiming such things dont exist.[7]

No matter how bohemian his lifestyle, no matter how welcoming to other religions, spiritually Watts was profoundly conservative or rather, archeofuturistic. A bohemian Tory?

In any event, Watts was aware of the difference between biblical symbols intended to promote the awareness of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and secular notions of purported social improvement.

Individual morality cannot just be mapped onto social morality or politics. Discussing the Old Testament image of a vengeful God, Watts observes that

God has no need to punish in the vengeful sense because he has no need to protect himself. He is not weak and vulnerable like human society. [211]

Delivered from the vicious circle of bad self-consciousness, the infinite regression of chasing oneself around and around, it is possible for man to move forward. But in moving forward his principle of action will no more be a moral code; it will be the indwelling Holy Spirit. [211]

Mature Christian morality will lose the adolescents itch to change the world overnight, which has long characterized Western Christianity in its schemes[8] for spiritual and material reforms. [214]

This will help free our idea of the Christian life from the false heroics of adolescence, that running around in search of great moral deeds to do, which is so often no more than hypocritical interference with the lives of others. [224}

It is not charitable to the poor to try all at once to abolish poverty, with the exception, indeed of really abject poverty. Most of the wholesale and impersonal charity we practice today is mere patronization of the poor, motivated by pity and fear of their estate and not by respect and honor. [220]

In short,

The work of the Church is to share a sense of union with God by all the means at its disposal, symbolic or otherwise. The Christian morality of love, as distinct from the secular morality of justice, has meaning and value only in relation to this background. Apart from it, it disrupts the natural order of society, which based as it is on fear and collective self-interest, is to be preferred to Christian and supernatural virtues running amok in separation form their source. [221-22; italics in original]

Some people still understand this:

Christian belief contests all politics, its visions of human flourishing and the ethical claims it makes of people being so demanding that no political leader or political programme can fully satisfy them.[9]

Again, as the dog returns to his vomit, the Christian returns to his infinite regress.

Excursus: Neville and Watts The Same Man?

Alan Watts is the Norman Vincent Peale of Zen.[10]

Right about the time Watts was writing Behold the Spirit and serving as a paradox priest, as he titles the relevant chapter in his autobiography, Neville Goddard was in the initial stages of a very successful career as a metaphysical lecturer, author, and broadcaster.[11]

These are essentially the roles Watts took on after leaving the priesthood, and Ive called attention before to the remarkable resemblances between Watts and Neville (he always went by name alone). [12] Revisiting Watts gives us a chance to review and expand on those similarities.

Both men occupied adjacent slices of the space/time continuum, and although Neville Lancelot Goddard was born in 1905 and Alan Wilson Watts in 1915, both died within months of each other (October 1, 1972, aged 67; 16 November 1973, aged 58, respectively). Both men had long before emigrated to the USA from parts of the British Empire (Neville from Barbados) to seek their fortune, mostly in California. Although Watts fitfully attended good schools he described himself in his autobiography with Shaws line about being half-miseducated;[13] Neville seems to have skipped schools altogether.[14]

On a somewhat more relevant note, both men were tall, handsome, spoke with those authoritative British accents (Nevilles with an island lilt to it); charismatic, in short. I call this more relevant because this was an essential element to their careers: both men became great successes on the modern lecture circuits, utilizing the cutting-edge technologies of radio, TV, LP recordings, even airplanes (to appear at venues from coast to coast). And, although Neville was fading a bit as Watts was getting into stride,[15] both men have had a remarkable resurrection on the internet,[16] where Nevilles books and lectures are freely available,[17] and both men are all over YouTube.

But what did they lecture on, surely that is the relevant point here? Again, the similarities are remarkable.

Both men had been attached to oddball gurus Watts first with the rascal guru Dimitrije Mitrinovic,[18] then with the iconoclastic Krishnamurti;[19] Neville with a black, Ethiopian rabbi named Abdullah[20] but the ironic lesson they took from both was: ignore gurus and do it yourself![21]

As for the content of their teaching, Watts concerns here and later in Beyond Theology can perhaps be expressed in the title of Nevilles 1944 book: Feeling is the Secret.

Writing in 1949, Neville summed up what he modestly calls his simple formula for changing the future:

People have a habit of slighting the importance of simple things; but this simple formula for changing the future was discovered after years of searching and experimenting. The first step in changing the future is desire that is: define your objectiveknow definitely what you want.

Secondly: construct an event which you believe you would encounter following the fulfillment of your desirean event which implies fulfillment of your desiresomething that will have the action of self predominant.

Thirdly: immobilize the physical body and induce a condition akin to sleeplie on a bed or relax in a chair and imagine that you are sleepy; then, with eyelids closed and your attention focused on the action you intend to experiencein imaginationmentally feel yourself right into the proposed actionimagining all the while that you are actually performing the action here and now. You must always participate in the imaginary action, not merely stand back and look on, but you must feel that you are actually performing the action so that the imaginary sensation is real to you.

It is important always to remember that the proposed action must be one which follows the fulfillment of your desire; and, also, you must feel yourself into the action until it has all the vividness and distinctness of reality.[22]

We can see two things here: first, the demand for experimental verification, not dogma; the same post-Protestant, post-adolescent demand Watts identifies as still necessary for the new mysticism to be acceptable to modern man.

The second, the importance of desire, or more generally, feeling, or aesthetic perception. As I noted above, in Partings I, Watts insists that our feeling is as valuable as our thinking, and that if we think otherwise it is only because we have, in fact, neglected to develop our feelings as we have our intellect. As it is, our outdated and in any event inadequate symbols of God, Christ, etc. make it impossible for modern man or someone from a traditional culture as aesthetically developed as the Chinese or Hindu to take the Christian message seriously.[23]

As weve seen this is the nub of Perrys disagreement over Watts iconoclastic approach to symbols,[24] but pace Perry, it is soundly based in Tradition. Nevilles method seems definitely related to the discussion of the dry and wet paths discussed in the journals that Evola edited in the 30s, UR and KRUR, in which one must first create a mental image, and then bathe it in love and devotion, until it is realized on the material plane.[25]

Another technical detail is in order. In order for any image to act in the way I am talking about, it must be loved. It must be assumed in a great, inner calm and then warmed up, almost nourished, with sweetness, without bringing the will or any effort into play, and much less without expectations. The Hermeticists called this agent sweet fire, fire that does not burn, and even fire of the lamp since it really has an enlightening effect on the images.[26]

As Neville explains the general conception behind the method:

Sensation precedes manifestation and is the foundation upon which all manifestation rests. There is an unbroken connection between your feelings and your visible world.

All creation occurs in the domain of the subconscious.

The subconscious transcends reason and is independent of induction. It contemplates a feeling as a fact existing within itself and on this assumption proceeds to give expression to it.

Ideas are impressed on the subconscious through the medium of feeling. No idea can be impressed on the subconscious until it is felt, but once felt be it good, bad or indifferent it must be expressed. Feeling is the one and only medium through which ideas are conveyed to the subconscious. [27]

As Neville unpacks his simple method, more parallels to Watts appear. As weve seen, the central insight Watts propounds in his mystical Christianity is that the Incarnation, God becoming Man, is a timeless event, always and already, so that rather than being pursued which implies it hasnt happened yet, and thus creates a Zeno-like infinite regress it must simply be assumed as the ground note of our existence.

And so Neville emphasizes:

To impress the subconscious with the desirable state, you must assume the feeling that would be yours had you already realized your wish. In defining your objective, you must be concerned only with the objective itself. The manner of expression or the difficulties involved are not to be considered by you. To think feelingly on any state impresses it on the subconscious. Therefore, if you dwell on difficulties, barriers or delay, the subconscious, by its very non-selective nature, accepts the feeling of difficulties and obstacles as your request and proceeds to produce them in your outer world.

You are already that which you want to be, and your refusal to believe this is the only reason you do not see it.[28]

Watts says that trying to achieve union presupposes its lack right now, thus stultifying the effort; Neville says that asking/praying for some change of circumstance assumes and therefore concretizes the present situation of lack.[29]

We might also note a subtle implication: ordinary political action, especially of the SJW type, falls under that same ban

The world cannot change until you change your conception of it. As within, so without.

Nations, as well as people, are only what you believe them to be. No matter what the problem is, no matter where it is, no matter whom it concerns, you have no one to change but yourself, and you have neither opponent nor helper in bringing about the change within yourself. You have nothing to do but convince yourself of the truth of that which you desire to see manifested.[30]

which certainly comports with what weve seen of Watts disinterest in the Social Gospel aspects of Christianity.

Whats interesting here is that while Neville never, like Watts, attempted to take on a formal role in mainstream religion, he also never abandoned Christianity or rather, the Bible.

Neville once said that if he was stranded on an island and was allowed one book, he would choose, The Bible, without hesitation. If he could squeeze in more, he would add Charles Fillmores Metaphysical Dictionary of Bible names [sic][31], William Blake, ( Why stand we here trembling around, Calling on God for help, and not ourselves, in whom God dwells?) and Nicolls Commentaries.[32] These were the books he recommended at his lectures.[33]

How was Neville able to express his teachings entirely within the world of the Bible, while Watts found himself forced to increasingly make use of Eastern teachings? Perhaps because, although Watts, as weve seen, rejected the uniqueness of Christ, he still assumed the Bible, especially the New Testament, to be basically historical, while for Neville, the Bible, like all scriptures, is a psychological document, not a historical one: it is mans own psychological drama, taking place within his own skull (Golgotha).

Today those to whom this great treasure has been entrusted, namely, the priesthoods of the world, have forgotten that the Bibles are psychological dramas representing the consciousness of man. In their blind forgetfulness they now teach their followers to worship its characters as men and women who actually lived in time and space.[34]

This point is closely connected with the previous emphasis on experience, experiment, and testing, rather than dogmatic wrangling:

[The resurrected Christ] offers his knowledge of Scripture based on his own experience, for that of others based on speculation. Accept his offer. And it will keep you from losing your way among the tangled speculations that pass for religious truth. [35]

And, of course, it puts the kibosh on drawing any political instructions from what is intended to be an entirely psychological document.

Although Watts firmly believed in some kind of historical core to the New Testament,[36] and in Behold the Spirit even provides some kind of Chestertonian-Thomist metaphysical argument for historicity (a timeless event must be communicated in time to creatures like us[37]), while Neville just as firmly denied that the whole Bible was anything but an entirely psychological document, Watts surely would have had sympathy with Nevilles idea that the more you understand it historically the less you think to apply it to yourself instead of the story of You, it becomes a story about those people out there and back there. As Watts says about Protestants, they cracked the shell but devoted all their time to studying the fragments and trying to put them back together in improved ways (including, pre-eminently, by the search for the historical Jesus.), rather than consuming the kernel.[38]

Writing in 1947 the same year as Behold the Spirit! Israel Regardie (formerly Aleister Crowleys private secretary), noted that Neville would seem to have some difficulty dealing with the more legalistic portions of the Old Testament.[39] Yet Protestants routinely interpret such passages, or the risqu parts, such as the Song of Songs, in more or less forced analogies to Christ or the Church. And why not? As Neville says,

[The writers of the Gospels do not] hesitat[e] to interpret the Old Testament according to their own supernatural experiences. [40]

Indeed, many suggest today that the writers of the Gospels composed those pseudo-historical narratives entirely from their re-interpretations of the Old Testament.[41] Either from being self-educated, or from the secret teachings of Abdullah, Nevilles psychological interpretation of the Bible is actually consistent with what was the early 20th century scholarly consensus, which is now, like Neville himself, being resurrected via the Internet; while Watts academic seminary training has rooted him in the mid-century historicist consensus.[42]

But it must be emphasized that this is not clever hermeneutical sleight of hand or interpretive strait-jacket. In fact, while the laws, battles and genealogies Regardie refers to may indeed require a good deal of re-working, on an everyday basis Neville relies on a handful of familiar passages where he simply takes at face value texts that the usual clergyman strains[43] to explain:

Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. Mark 11:24

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

He calleth things that were not seen as though they were and things that were not seen become seen. Romans, 4:17

Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? John 10:34

I and my Father are one, but my Father is greater than I John, 10:30

Before Abraham was, I am. John, 8:58

The Kingdom of Heaven is within Luke 17:21

While giving overall a positive, even enthusiastic account of Neville, Regardie has makes a few negative points, at least one of which is also relevant here. While never questioning Nevilles own success, or his sincerity, Regardie doubts that Neville has fully realized the difficulty his audiences would have with his simple method.

The method, as weve seen, requires entering a state akin to sleep, a state of profound relaxation, on the very edge of sleep, but with the imagination still under conscious control; today, we might call this lucid dreaming. Regardie suggests that Neville underestimates the ability of his audience to achieve this kind of deep relaxation, due to his own previous training as a professional dancer on Broadway.

[T]he fundamental psychological factor in Nevilles teaching, [and] the fundamental fact about Neville himself is a very simple fact: Neville is a dancer. [44]

This has been a frequent criticism of Watts throughout his career: that he counsels an easy, fake, non-practicing kind of practice. As weve seen, Watts takes the Incarnation, the union of God and Man (or Atman and Brahman, in Hindu terms) as a given fact, which cannot be gotten by any method (prayer, sacraments, penance, meditation, austerities, whatever); in fact, the use of such methods presupposes and reinforces the presumption of a lack of union, leading to an infinite regress of futility. Such methods are as useless as painting legs on a snake, and to the extent that they trap us in a hall of mirrors, they are futile, unless, indeed, one suddenly wakes up and drops the pretense of needing to re-unite with that which we have never been severed from; the only subsequent use of such methods as prayer or meditation is simply to express or celebrate that union. At times Watts even adopts Nevilles talk of sleep and relaxation:

Egoism is like trying to swim without relying on the water; your whole body becomes tense, and you sink like a stone. Swimming requires a certain relaxation, a certain giving of yourself to the water, and similarly spiritual life demands a relaxation of the soul to god If it is hard to relax the superficial tensions of jumpy nerves and insomnia, it is impossible to relax by any contrivance of our own a tension which grips the very core of our being. (p.70)

Obviously, this can seem like an excuse for inaction, a kind of more or less hypocritical perfectionism, along the lines of Well, if something is worth doing, it must be done well although here, and throughout his career, Watts does a pretty good job of relating it to the darker extremes of Protestant self-doubt.[45]

The rest is here:
Re-Kindling Alan Watts, Part Two | Counter-Currents Publishing

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January 5th, 2018 at 10:46 am

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