Christianity, Nondualism, and the Dream of the Separate Self: Notes on Alan Watts's 'Beyond Theology'
Plus brief thoughts on Watts's legacy and influence
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Two months ago I was interviewed by Quique Autrey for his podcast Therapy for Guys. The title of the episode was “Beyond Theology: Christianity, Nonduality, and the Play of Existence.”1 It was the first interview I had ever given where the topic didn’t touch on horror at all. The whole conversation was devoted to spirituality, philosophy, and their real-life implications. It was not, however, the first interview in which I mentioned Alan Watts; in 2017 Watts played a prominent role in an interview that I did for This Is Horror, as indicated by the episode’s title: “Matt Cardin on Horror and Spirituality, Thomas Ligotti, and Alan Watts.”2
From this, one might gather that Alan Watts is important to me. One would be correct: The man numbers among my foundational philosophical influences. As I explained in a 2019 article at The Teeming Brain,3 I read Watts’s classic The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are as a late adolescent in college — at just the right age for a book like that to hit me with the approximate force of a spiritual hydrogen bomb — and from there I went on to devour many more of his works, including The Wisdom of Insecurity, The Supreme Identity, Psychotherapy East and West, The Joyous Cosmology, This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality, Tao: The Watercourse Way, and Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. I also read his 1972 autobiography, In My Own Way. Today I still revisit his books not infrequently. I also listen to his recorded talks and lectures. He ranks among the half-dozen most important influences on my philosophical maturation and overall outlook, with The Wisdom of Insecurity, Psychotherapy East and West, and The Book being particularly impactful.
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By the by, this is why I have been so interested to witness the widespread resurgence of interest in him that has occurred over the past ten to fifteen years. Rather suddenly, it seems, the memory of him has returned to enchant a new generation during the first few decades of the twenty-first century. His general reputation has now become that of a rediscovered modern sage who speaks piercingly relevant wisdom to our current cultural moment. Many of his highly quotable comments have been memefied. Hundreds of his recorded talks are now available, and quite popular, on YouTube and elsewhere. New articles and essays about him have appeared in prominent publications.4 New editions of his books have been released, as in the 2013 edition of The Joyous Cosmology from New World Library, which I myself reviewed for New York Journal of Books.5 His son, Mark Watts, has created many new titles from transcriptions of his father’s lectures. The name “Alan Watts” now represents a bona fide growth industry.
Despite all this, it wasn’t until three years ago that I read his 1964 book Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship all the way through, even though I had owned a copy for two decades and dipped into it several times. From the few snippets I had read, I basically knew what to expect. But I was unprepared for the force with which the book as a whole would hit me.
The memory of Alan Watts has returned to enchant a new generation. His reputation has now become that of a rediscovered modern sage who speaks piercingly relevant wisdom to our current cultural moment.
In Beyond Theology, Watts does something innovative by applying the interpretive frame of the Eastern spiritual outlook, and of Advaita Vedanta in particular, to the theology articulated by Christian mythic symbolism, in order to illuminate the unique contribution of Christianity to certain all-encompassing problems in the modern world. “Only such a uniquely ‘impossible’ religion,” he writes in the preface, “could be the catalyst for the remarkable developments in human consciousness and self-knowledge which distinguish Western culture since 1500. These developments are now swelling into a crisis on every level of human life — a crisis that cannot be handled unless we know, among other things, the role that Christianity has played in bringing it about.”
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