Rachael Kohn is the host of The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National and author of The New Believers, a popular book on contemporary trends in western spirituality. I recently had the opportunity to interview her on the launch of her latest book, CURIOUS OBSESSIONS in the history of Science and Spirituality.
Matt Stone: Rachael, it’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you about your new book and draw on your wealth of experience from hosting one of Australia’s leading spirituality-focussed programs. I was wondering if you could tell us about your new book. What inspired you to write it?
Rachael Kohn: I wrote CURIOUS OBSESSIONS In the History of Science and Spirituality first, to show that these two areas of thought are not strangers but actually interesting bedfellows. They influenced each other and have had some remarkable consequences, from brilliant to disastrous.
Matt Stone: You previously mentioned to me that there was a reasonable amount of Jewish material in it. Tell us about that.
Rachael Kohn: Jewish beliefs propelled the history of exploration, in particular the belief in the Lost Tribes of Israel had a hold on many eminent explorers, politicians and religious innovators, who went in search of them, and were convinced that the American Indians were none other than the lost Israelites. A 19th Century Jewish journalist, Mordechai Noah, even went to some lengths to regather the tribes and establish a Jewish colony in the contested waters between the Dominion of Canada and the United States. In another chapter, I explore the impact of the Jewish notion of the lost race, the Nephilim, who make an appearance in Genesis, but disappear thereafter. Their mysterious fate has been the subject of much speculation and confabulation, and eventually came to harbour highly antisemitic beliefs. In another chapter of Curious Obsessions, I look at the allure of the East and how it influenced the German Faith Movement of Nazi Germany, and its resultant repudiation of all things “Judeo-Christian”, that is Judaism and Christianity (the latter was considered ‘too Semitic’). In yet another chapter, I look at the origins and fate of “Mrs God”, the early consort of Yahweh, and her relevance to later feminist “histories”.
Matt Stone: Being a former New Age devotee I was personally interested with the references to the New Age in the promotional material. The New Age certainly had a reputation for spiritualising scientific theories and secularising spiritual language in its heyday. What do you think is the main legacy of the New Age Movement?
Rachael Kohn: The main legacy of the New Age Movement would be hard to pinpoint absolutely, but I would say that it is the combination of the scientific and the spiritual in a way that promises “results” for the practitioner in the short term. It is a highly practical approach to “outcomes” and is therefore short on ethics and long on expediency.
Matt Stone: Do you have any curious obsessions of your own? What do you see as some of the defining themes of your own personal journey and your explorations into the spirit of things?
Rachael Kohn: My curious obsession is big enough to keep me going for all time, which is the fascinating ways in which people revamp, revitalise and reimagine the religious life, its purpose and practice. The other side of that, however, is the serious threat to our values presented by highly traditional, exclusivist and paranoid religious expressions. These are the West’s undoing, and if there is an urgent obsession I have it is prevent authoritarian religions and cultures from gaining ground. That is why my books always sound a warning about groups and religions which refuse to participate in self criticism, self restraint and reform along the lines of democratic values and inalienable human rights.
Matt Stone: Yes, I’d agree that self criticism is a much under valued spiritual discipline these days. Once upon a time confession was considered essential for spiritual growth. May it be so again. Thanks for your time with us Rachael. I look forward to reading the book.
So, to my readers, are you curious about conjunctions between science and spirituality?