I love books. I probably feel more at home bookstores and libraries than I do in my own house. Books have had a profound influence on my spiritual evolution. In fact, I can mark certain spiritual transitions by the books I was reading at the time.
This is the first of two posts about the books that have served as markers on the path of my spiritual journey. This first part lists the books that impacted me before I discovered Paganism. This is not a list of my favorite books, but books that changed the course of my religious life. The dates below are the dates I read the books (to the best of my recollection), not the dates of publication.
1980-1985 — My Turn on Earth by Carol Lynn Pearson
This book (which is also a musical) set the stage for my spiritual life. The book came with a record (an LP) of the musical. I remember sitting on the floor of our living room in front of the record player and listening to the music with huge headphones, while I read the book. The book and musical tell the story of the Mormon “Plan of Salvation” following a girl named Barbara and her friends.
The part that had the most significant impact on me was the story of the “War in Heaven”, a war of ideas between Lucifer and Jesus in premortal heaven. Lucifer wanted to take away human agency so as to ensure that all of the premortal spirits made their way back to “Heavenly Father”. Jesus wanted to protect “free agency” even though doing so would mean that some of God’s spirit children would not make it back home. This planted a seed in me which would one day lead to my leaving the Mormon church, which I came to see as following Lucifer’s plan by valuing obedience and safety over freedom and growth.
This is not a book, but a short story, but it has to be included. I read this book my freshman year in college. It eventually gave me the courage to walk away from the Mormon church. It’s interesting how a story can have as much, or even more, power as a long list of rational reasons.
In LeGuin’s story, Omelas is a paradise that is built on the suffering of an innocent child. People in Omelas are told that the happiness of their paradise depends on the suffering of this child. And most eventually come to terms with it and return to their happy lives. But occasionally, one does not. The story ends with the rare the inhabitant walking away toward an unknown future. That was how I would come to feel when I left the Mormon church.
1993-1994 — Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
This is another book I read as a freshman. I still have my original copy. It’s sacred to me. Dillard has been called the “female Thoreau” and her Tinker Creek a modern day Walden. The book opened my eyes to many things. In fact, much of the book is about the act of seeing.
It’s study of the coexistence of beauty and horror in nature. Reading it was a step toward my understanding that the cruelty and suffering of nature (and life generally) are inseparable from its beauty and grace. When I became Pagan, I came to recognize both these sides of nature as faces of the divine. The book also introduced me to nature mysticism. In retrospect, I can see how these lessons prepared me for Paganism.
After the Mission
I picked up this classic in the bargain books section of a bookstore in Union Station in Chicago waiting for a train to return to college in Utah after my LDS mission in Brazil. It seemed fitting that I would be on a long distance journey to start a new phase of my life when I read this book.
Campbell’s book was important for two reasons. First, in a footnote, Campbell quotes Jung as saying “only an unparalleled impoverishment of symbolism could enable us to rediscover the gods”. I didn’t know anything about Jung at the time, but the influence of his ideas on my spirituality cannot be overstated. And that quote in particular describes exactly what I experiences, a death of symbolism and a rebirth of the gods.
Also, Campbell’s Monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” was to provide a template for the construction of a new Pagan mythology for myself. His mythological cycle reflected my own psychological journey from a divided psyche to spiritual wholeness. Along this path, I discovered the truth of Campbell’s prophecy:
“where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
I read this book my sophomore year of college. I was actually reading this book when I met my wife. It was required reading for a class on the anthropology of science. Kuhn is credited with coining the phrase “paradigm shift.” Though the book is about shifting scientific paradigms, it (and another class in the anthropology of religion) opened my mind up to seeing Mormonism itself as a paradigm and Mormon culture as an object that could be studied. In short, it helped me see the water I had been swimming in for my whole life. Once that happened, I was soon questioning much of what I had been taking for granted.
Anne RIce’s vampire characters planted the seeds of an idea that would later grow into my own form of Paganism. In The Vampire Lestat, there is a scene where the main character, Lestat, and his mother, Gabrielle, both recently-made vampires are struggling with how to live with in their new state, and to find meaning in a world where both the fear of hell and the promise of heaven had been ripped away.
Gabrielle says: “There must be other ways [to live].” Lestat writes:
“She had gone to the core. And the implications dazzled me. Always I’d felt that I couldn’t be a good human being and fight them [his family and the church]. To be good meant to be defeated by them. Unless of course I found a more interesting idea of goodness.”
I personally had felt that same sense of defeat — the defeat that comes with failing to live up to an externally imposed moral code, but also the defeat that comes with the success, because to succeed in that endeavor means to kill some part of yourself. Lestat suggests that there may be another way to live, “a more interesting idea of goodness”. This phrase haunted me for years, until eventually I found my own more interesting idea of goodness.
Rice’s characters also taught me an even more important lesson, one which was to transform my relationship to life, to the earth, to my own body, and to other people, as well as my own sense of what it means to be “spiritual”. While I was Mormon, I had a very transcendental sense of spirituality. Spirit was something separate from the body, separate from the earth, separate from other people. My ultimate goal was to escape all these things. In a way, I was striving for that statuesque spirituality that is represented by the immortality of the vampire.
Eventually, I came to see that I was cutting myself off from everything that was life. I was trapped in a solipsistic prison of my own mind. Anne Rice’s passionate vampire characters gave me the key to the door that led out of that prison. In Interview with a Vampire, Claudia advises Louis, “Let the flesh instruct the mind.” And in The Queen of the Damned, Maharet warns:
“In the flesh all wisdom begins. Beware the thing that has no flesh. Beware the gods, beware the idea … It is not man who is the enemy of the human species. … it is the spiritual when it is divorced from the material; from the lesson in one beating heart or one bleeding vein.”
But, this does not abandonment to our senses, as the titular character in Rice’s Pandora explains: “To yield is not to abandon. It is to honor. I speak of a prudent life; I speak of the wisdom of listening to our bodies. I speak of the ultimate intelligence of kindness, and enjoyment.”
I didn’t fully understand what all this meant for several years, but I could feel its significance while it gestated in my psyche. To honor the physical, to listen to body, to enjoy the senses: This was the ethic ultimately I was to discover in Paganism. In The Vampire Lestat, Marius speaks of losing “the sense of sin and subordination, the false grief for things supposed to be lost” and replacing it with “love of and respect for what is right before your eyes.” This describes my slow transition from Mormonism to Paganism.
Leaving the Mormon Church
I read this book on the steps of a monument in the center of Indianapolis during my lunch breaks, while I was working as a summer intern in federal court after my first year of law school. Watts is known for popularizing Buddhism for a Western audience, but he actually wrote a lot about Christianity. The book is a criticism of traditional Christianity and (as the subtitle states) an argument for the necessity of mystical experience in the religious life.
What’s unique about Watts is that the kind of mysticism he describes is “incarnational”, a mysticism which grounded in matter and in the body. God, according to Watts, is already, always present, and living fully in the present is how we accept God’s grace. My copy of this book, which I still have, is thoroughly marked up by me. It became a new “Bible” for me at the time. It’s not a coincidence that this was the same year I formally withdrew from the Mormon church. It was many years until I came to see any need for religious institutions again.
I didn’t jump right out of Mormonism and into Paganism. There was a period during which I was still Christian (followed by a period during which I was atheist). In fact, one of the reasons I left the Mormon church was because I became convinced that Mormon doctrine does not grasp the real meaning of Christian grace. After the leaving the LDS Church, I struggled to understand the meaning of grace and to accept it as God’s free gift. Eventually, I had a salvific experience, which (ironically) freed me finally from Christianity.
Along the way, I read several books about Christian theology, but the most significant was probably this simple paperback primer, which I picked up on at a used book sale at the public library. This book introduced me to the ideas of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say this simple book transformed my relationship to Christianity.
I’m especially grateful for being turned on to Tillich, whose 3-volume Systematic Theology I later read. Existential Christianity was my last stop on my way to atheism. I am especially grateful to Tillich for an idea which was one of the most transformative of my life: That person power comes, not from trying to use one part of myself to dominate another part, but from acting from a place where all of my many parts are brought into a centered unity. I put this together with this advise from a character in Hermann Hesse’s Demian to “treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning–and they all do have meaning.” Years later, the product of these ideas is a significant part of my current Pagan practice.
I actually stole this book (an earlier edition) from my high school library when I was a senior in 1993. Something about the introduction captured my teenaged contempt for the world. But I didn’t read all of it until over a decade later when I left the Mormon church. The book is a study of the ideas behind the 60’s counterculture. The potential which Roszak saw in the counterculture is the same potential I see in Paganism (with some of the same weaknesses too):
“… I am at a loss to know where, besides among these dissenting young people and their heirs of the next few generations, the radical discontent and innovation can be found that might transform this disoriented civilization of ours into something a human being can identify as home. They are the matrix in which an alternative, but still excessively fragile future is taking shape. Granted that alternative comes dressed in a garish motley, its costume borrowed from many and exotic sources … Still it looks to me like all we have to hold against the final consolidation of a technocratic totalitarianism in which we shall find ourselves ingeniously adapted to an existence wholly estranged from everything that has ever made the life of man an interesting adventure.”
2000 — Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
I was still struggling to stand on my own two feet at this time, spiritually speaking, and interpersonally I was feeling what Mary Oliver described in her poem, “The Journey”: “the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. ‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried.” During this time, Emerson’s essay became a personal manifesto and gave me the strength to stand on my own. I’m tempted to quote too much from it here. Instead, I here are the most impactful words for me:
“Absolve you to yourself.”
“I will so trust that what is deep is holy.”
“On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”
“I will live then from the Devil!” That was my cry of defiance to a world that had too long held me in a narrow box. Eventually, this idea led me to a new religion with a different Horned God.
In the next part, I will discuss the books that had the most significant influence on me after I discovered Paganism.