Accompanying me on the journey was the photographer Michael Rauner. Like me, Rauner is a native Californian. He grew up Catholic and was trained by nuns at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the Mexican and African-American environs of East San Diego. Another Anglo teenage seeker, Rauner would come to explore the liminal zone between sacred and profane in his art.
Excerpted from "The Visionary State; A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape" (Chronicle, 2006) by Erik Davis with Photographs by Michael Rauner, with permission.
When I’m abroad, I usually tell people I am from California rather than the United States. I’m not just trying to be clever, or to slough off the increasingly heavy load of being an American in foreign climes. I actually identify that way. I was born in the Bay Area in June of the Summer of Love, and grew up in Del Mar, a town of university profs and mellow longhairs name-dropped by the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” When I was a teenager, my family moved to Rancho Santa Fe, into a rambling ranch house that lay about a mile from the Spanish Revival mansion where the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult later committed mystic suicide. Since 1995, I have lived in San Francisco, where my great-great-great-grandfather I. C. C. Russ disembarked with his family from the Loo Choo in the fortuitous year of 1847. My roots are here, in this rootless place.
When I tell people I’m Californian rather than American, I’m also letting them know something about the forces that shaped me. Like Texas and New York City, California seems in some ways separate from the rest of the United States, a realm apart. Even as a little kid, I knew that my home was different: the granola state, the land of fruits and nuts, the space-case colony with a moonbeam governor that collected, like a dustbin, everything in America that wasn’t firmly rooted down. Time has not dulled this reputation. Californians are still routinely mocked for our flakiness, our self-obsession, our fondness for fads and health regimens and strange notions. But the familiar jokes also reflect something much more substantial about the place: its intensely creative and eccentric spiritual and religious culture. If the American West is, as Archibald MacLeish once said, a country of the mind, than California is clearly a state of mind—an altered state, for sure, or better yet, a visionary one.
After the United States seized the territory from Mexico in 1848, California became the stage for a strange and steady parade of utopian sects, bohemian mystics, cult leaders, psycho-spiritual healers, holy poets, sex magicians, fringe Christians, and psychedelic warriors. There are many and complex reasons for this efflorescence of marvels. Between its Edenic bounty and multicultural mix, its wayward freedoms and hungry dreams, California composed an imaginative frontier exceptional in the history of American religion. Less a place of origins than of mutations, California came to host a laboratory of the spirit, a sacred playground at the far margins of the West. Here, deities and practices from across space and time are mixed and matched, refracted and refined, packaged and consumed anew. Such spiritual eclecticism is not novel, of course, and similar scenes have popped up throughout history, often with more rigor and depth. But nowhere else in the modern world has such unruly creativity come as close to becoming the status quo. I call this spiritual ethos “California consciousness”: an imaginative, experimental, and often hedonistic quest for human transformation by any means necessary.
Defining California consciousness is no easier than defining the New Age, which is really not very new at all. Though world faiths like Buddhism and Christianity have marked the West Coast’s alternative spirituality in fundamental ways, many of the paths that cross California are, in the words of the religious scholar Robert Fuller, “spiritual, but not religious.” Even that wan word spirituality barely works, since many paths crisscross the realms of sacred and profane, and look more like exercise routines or art or crazy fun than sacred pursuits. But that is the point, since the quest for insight, experience, and personal growth can take you anywhere: a mountaintop, a computer, a yoga mat, a rock ’n’ roll hall.
California seekers could be said to have taken the bait that William James dangled in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, where the psychologist defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” For James, personal experience was the cornerstone of the religious life, rather than dogma or institution or even belief. Because of his interest in individual experience, James opened up the wunderkammer of consciousness, accepting mysticism and so-called “altered states” as valid points of departure. Experimenting with psychedelic compounds like peyote and nitrous oxide, James argued that such exalted states of consciousness had to be integrated into any philosophy worth its salt. Though James’ approach hardly exhausts our understanding of religion, it certainly helps illuminate California consciousness. Solitude, especially, is key: though California has hosted scores of sects and cults, seekers are often driven by the sneaking suspicion that, in crucial ways, they are largely on their own. In California, though, James’ “individual men” are as often as not women—the feminization and even “queering” of the sacred being one of California’s defining, and most controversial, characteristics.
Although I was not raised within the bosom of religion, my adolescence was shaped by a variety of religious experiences. Like most of my peers, I received only the most garbled version of the good word that has sustained most Westerners for centuries. Neither baptized nor churched, I learned the gospel from obsessive and repeated listenings to my mom’s beat-up recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. For the most part, the world around me was defined by skate parks, Star Wars, Led Zeppelin, and pot. But because I grew up when and where I did, I was also surrounded by the spent fuel rockets of the spiritual counterculture. By the time school beckoned me East, I had met and broken bread with teen witches, born-again surfers, Hare Krishnas, wandering Christian mendicants, Siddha yogis, est seminar leaders, psychedelic Deadheads, and a spindly metaphysician who taught English at my junior high and read my aura after class. All of these encounters deepened my appreciation and hunger for visionary experience and the lore that lines the world’s spiritual paths.
Years later, in a time of existential freefall, I yearned for something more: I wanted to be rooted in an authentic religious tradition of my own. I was envious of the people I knew who had been raised with faith, for they at least had something formative to wrestle with, something they had no choice but to engage. I had nothing but what sociologists call “the religious marketplace”—the vast array of books, gurus, practices, paths, and healing modalities that burdens the modern seeker with choice. Conversion felt too much like consumerism; real religion, it seemed to me, should lie at the root of the self, before choice enters the matter. But then it dawned on me: what if California itself was my tradition? Like Hinduism, which is really just a catchall term for a riot of sects and paths and teachings, California consciousness is a great polytheistic collage. It is essentially pluralistic, even contradictory, although it speaks so much of wholeness and the One. To study this tradition, then, was to take it all in: transplanted religions, self-help systems, nature mysticism, Jesus freaks, creepy cults, tools of ecstasy.
California consciousness, I came to see, is like the landscape of the state: an overlapping set of diverse ecosystems, hanging, and sometimes quaking, on the literal edge of West. This landscape ranges from pagan forests to empty deserts to the shifting shores of a watery void. It includes dizzying heights and terrible lows, and great urban zones of human intensity. Even in its city life, California insists that there are more ways than one, with its major urban cultures roughly divided between the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Indeed, Northern and Southern California are considered by some to be so different as to effectively constitute different states. But that is a mistake. California is not two: it is bipolar.
If California consciousness is a kind of landscape, then it makes sense to study the tradition by hitting the road. And so I traveled across the state, visiting monasteries and mountaintops, churches and homes, storefronts and desert arroyos. I found that, while so many of California’s spiritual subcultures have come and gone, many relics remain, preserving traces of spiritual passage in physical space. Some of these locations are well-known structures, monuments to God or Art or both; others are marginal places, slipping into oblivion, or disguised by later owners. I found nearly all of these spots to be beautiful or strange, and they brought to life, if only for a spell, the people and stories that created them and that continue to shape the spirit of the West. My research began to take the form of a psychogeography: a dreamlike movement through space that uncovers hidden stories and symbolic connections. This book is a reflection of those trips.
When we first met, he showed me two books of photography he had shot and designed, one about the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and a more ambitious project devoted to California’s hidden world of amateur bullfighting—a bloodless ritual with sacred roots. An earlier project, Reliquary DNA, offered a mystical take on genetic research. Rauner not only resonated with the vision I was pursuing, but brought a tremendous sensitivity to the task of capturing the unusual character of the state’s spiritual landscape.
The Visionary State is not a general overview of religion in California. I have not spent as much time as I would have liked on the Native American and Mexican roots of California, nor with the mainline faiths that have shaped the lives of millions of Californians, from the synagogues of Los Angeles to the evangelical churches of the Central Valley. With some important exceptions, The Visionary State focuses on the restless, even heretical edge of the Anglo-American experience as it probes inside and outside conventional religious institutions. And even here The Visionary State only scratches the surface.
What ties together the sites we have chosen is their visionary quality. What do I mean by visionary? It is a singular seeing, rooted in imagination and personal experience and the deep verities of the sacred. The visionary person sees farther, or sees differently, and then draws others into the dream. These visions can be tacky or mad or even terrifying. Disneyland was a vision, as was Hearst Castle, or McDonald’s. What I find compelling in the life of California is the vital connection between the visionary imagination and cultural invention, and how these two forces have together created an enchanted and sometimes sacred landscape that overlays the conventional world we know. As a place that has always been imagined as much as it has been lived, California is, perhaps, inherently visionary. The Gold Rush was a vision, and so was Los Angeles, which bootstrapped itself into being through self-mythology and hype. In this sense, California’s colorful and unique spiritual culture is simply one aspect of the creative mania that has made the state the great American exception. But it also reveals something deeper: the continuing call of spirit at the frayed edges of the modern world, a call that demands novelty and reinvention, and the equal invocation of ancient ways.
Welcome, then, to California’s theme park of the gods.