Hip Homiletics

Beyond Theology

by Alan Watts
Pantheon, 236 pp., $4.95

This book deserves to be considered as a social phenomenon. According to the dust-jacket the author, “who holds both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. Standing apart…from sectarian membership, he has earned the reputation of being one of the most original…philosophers of the century. He is the author of some seventeen books on the philosophy and psychology of religion, and has been a guest lecturer at most of the principal universities in this country. He has just completed a two-year research fellowship at Harvard…”

Dr. Watts’s earlier books were on such subjects as The Way of Zen and the effects of drugs like mescaline and LSD 25. The present work is less easily characterized. He suggests in his Preface that he is going to introduce us into the green room of the cosmic drama, and that his role is that “of the Court Jester…in Heaven…The function of the Fool was to keep his monarch human and, with luck, even humane…” Yet this explanation chimes oddly with the subsequent assurance that “the Lord God” is not in need of these services. Nor does that assurance in turn cohabit easily with latter suggestions that there is not really a Lord God to stand in need or not to stand in need. For insofar as Dr. Watts does have any central theme of thesis it seems to be that none of the “characters” in the theological systems of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is ultimately real or eternal; but that men of all sorts, God, angels, and devils, are somehow—in the last analysis—all one, or all aspects of the same unity. “He has therefore,” to quote the dust-jacket, “written a new kind of Divine Comedy in which the whole Christian cosmos of God and man, Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, is seen as a superb drama enacted by the Hidden Player who turns out to be the central and eternal Self in us all.” But this—or any other—assertion about the author’s theme should be taken more as an indication of atmosphere than as a summary of an argued progress to definite conclusions. Sustained argument about the truth or the falsity of theological propositions is precisely what we do not get. Instead we have a curious sort of doctrinally boneless preaching about putting things into new perspectives. It is preaching adorned with violent imagery: for instance, “the stink of piety” (p. 86); or “real bread, not the edible foam rubber of America” (p. 140). There is, too, plenty of the fashionable unconventionality of slang and sex in the sermon: thus “The would-be materialist who renounces mysticism is either a slob or a bore…After a while the bottoms feel like plastic” (p. 161).

It is cruel, but also illuminating, to compare this performance with the nondenominational and generally non-Christian religiosity …

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