Transcendental Temptation

Reviewer: David Christopher Lane
Publisher: FATE magazine
Publication date: mid-1980s

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Book Review: The Transcendental Temptation

The Transcendental Temptation by Paul Kurtz, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 1986, 500 pages, $19.95.

Does God exist? Is there life after death? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is there any scientific evidence for ESP? Have UFOs visited earth? Does astrology work? Is religion necessary?

The answers to these questions is no, according to Paul Kurtz, author of The Transcendental Temptation. (Its title apparently was inspired by Jean-Francois Revel's book on the dangerous seductiveness of Communism, The Totalitarian Temptation.) Dr. Kurtz argues that we should critically investigate the claims of mystics, prophets, astrologers and other seers of the supernatural to see if they are true. Instead of relegating spiritual questions to the untestable outposts of faith, dogma and scriptural authority, Kurtz contends that all religious and paranormal issues should be open to logical scrutiny.

Indeed, man's hesitancy fully to explore and test religious and paranormal claims serves as the basis for Kurtz's provocative thesis: Why do we succumb to the transcendental temptation, believing in things like angels, heavenly worlds and reincarnation, when they have not been empirically proven? No doubt there are many reasons, but death may be the principal one, Kurtz claims. We simply don't want to die and thus tend to believe in things that immortalize us or, at the very least, make us appear not so finite and vulnerable.

Although I agree with Kurtz (and Ernest Becker who made the issue famous in his classic book The Denial of Death[1974]) that death is a motivating factor behind much of human culture, I think there is something more in man's quest for God than just wishful thinking for eternal survival. Genuine mystics, East and West, have experienced at the core of their beings the realization that life is not merely material but rather represents a grand and infinite mystery: consciousness. The absolute substratum of existence is not materialism (as Kurtz would have us believe) but being and awareness.

Kurtz's difficulty in understanding mysticism (his chapter on the subject, "The Appeal to Mysticism," is exceptionally shoddy and out of date) stems from his own metaphysical assumptions and philosophical leanings. He lacks any veridical experience of the mystical dimension and thus reduces the findings of other findings of other religious thinkers to the mundane (as he does in a Freudian way with St. Theresa of Avila and her raptures, alluding to their "phallic symbols" and "orgasmic overtones," forgetting in the process that mystical description and experience are not equivalent).

I applaud Kurtz's drive for critical intelligence and open- mindedness, but if he's really serious about the whole endeavor, I suggest he read Fritz Staal's Exploring Mysticism (1975) and Wilber, Engler and Brown's Transformation of Consciousness (1986) and personally take up one of the prescribed practices and then see if mysticism is based on imagination or direct experience. Naturally such a project would involve a good amount of time and energy, but doesn't the study of quantum mechanics or of any science necessitate the same?

This is not to suggest that Kurtz's critique of religion and the paranormal is entirely without merit. To the contrary, most of Kurtz's analysis of Western religion is pointed and insightful, especially when he deals with their historical claims (for example, in the matters of the origins of life and the universe, reflected in the creation-versus-evolution controversy).

Kurtz's controversial and exciting book is sure to awaken even the sleepiest of minds. Whether or not you agree with his philosophy of "secular humanism," the fact remains that he is a stimulating thinker who deserves to be read, thought about and debated with care.
--David Christopher Lane

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