The Spiritual Tourist:
a Personal Odyssey through the Outer Reaches of Belief
by Mick Brown (London, Bloomsbury 1999), ISBN 0-7475-4282-1, 310 pp
With the recurring stress on studying the 'principal religions' (represented in Great Britain or otherwise) it is easy to forget that there are no neat divisions between religious traditions 'in the field', so to speak. A boy telling me as happened on a recent visit to a school that he went to both church and synagogue (because one parent was Christian, the other Jewish) was describing the world as it was, to him. No neat boundaries here!
In recognition of the 'untidiness' of the religious world, I remember Dr Eleanor Nesbitt telling me some years ago that at Warwick University (where she works on the 'Warwick RE Project' with people like Professor Bob Jackson) they avoid talking about "isms" Sikhism, Hinduism etc. (with the implication of fixedness). They prefer, instead, to speak of the Sikh tradition, and so on.
Mick Brown's book The Spiritual Tourist as its subtitle suggests is an odyssey through many of the religious and spiritual groups, traditions and happenings which are a marked feature of the contemporary world. He recounts, for example, his visit to Puttaparthi in India where a huge ashram has grown up around the Indian mystic and guru Sathya Sai Baba. He also visits Sera Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Bangalore where he meets a young, Spanish-born lama who is believed to be a tulku a reincarnation of a previous lama. Again, he travels to Germany to receive darshan the experience of being in the presence of a guru from 'Mother Meera' (made famous by Andrew Harvey in his book Hidden Journey). He also visits a church in the Bible Belt of Tennessee where, it was claimed, crosses and angels had suddenly appeared in the window glass. Miracles were being claimed by some who had witnessed this phenomenon.
As well as recounting his experiences and articulating his personal responses, the author gives a great deal of interesting historical background. He tells of the origins of Theosophy and the life of Madame Blavatsky (1831-91), for example. The life and teachings of the Indian teacher Krishnamurti (1895-1986) are also detailed.
But Mick Brown remains, essentially, an outsider, being both attracted and repelled by the life-changing faith experiences of the many devotees whom he meets on his travels. In reading accounts of miraculous events associated with Sathya Sai Baba he writes that, "The ardour and devotion of these books made me feel both humbled and slightly uneasy. Like so much writing about the spiritual they had the perverse effect of deflating the spirits rather than raising them; I distrusted the naοve simplicity of their faith, and yet, at the same time, found myself almost envying it" (p52).
Again, told that he needed to "open his heart" and stop asking questions, he expresses the dilemma which is perhaps shared by many in the West today: "It was what people kept telling me. I felt as I always did at such times, stranded between reason and a craving for faith, uncomfortable in the knowledge that while a spiritual belief may lead you to believe in anything, a materialist outlook on life will lead you to believe nothing" (p290).
Not only is this a fascinating and informative read, but it will succeed in reminding teachers that religion 'in the world' and religion 'in the textbook' are nowhere near the same thing!
Review by Bill Gent, Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service, June 2000