A Separate Reality

Some bookstores classify them as “Anthropology,” others as “Religion.” In still others, you may find them shelved as “Science Fiction” or “The Occult.” The objects of this classificatory confusion are four books by Carlos Castaneda, sales of which to date total more than three million copies.

Graduate student turned sorcerer’s apprentice, Castaneda published his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in 1968. He watched it climb to the top of university best-seller charts, as did the three subsequent works, A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power. His books record experiences in his apprenticeship to an old Indian sorcerer named Don Juan (a pseudonym), who patiently guides Carlos to “warrior-hood.” In order to divest Carlos of traditional Western ways of thinking, seeing, and doing, Don Juan gives him drugs and leads him into the desert for lonely hikes interspersed with Socratic dialogue. The four books are ostensibly the result of meticulous notes taken by Carlos, to the initial annoyance and later amusement of his mentor.

There is still some question as to whether Castaneda’s books are fact or fiction, although as one critic puts it: “Either Carlos is telling the documentary truth about himself and Don Juan, in which case he is a great anthropologist. Or else it is an imaginative truth, and he is a great novelist. Heads or tails, Carlos wins.”

The following example of Castaneda’s dialogue illustrates why there is a fact/fiction controversy and shows the “Western logic” that Don Juan is attempting to dispel. The incident occurs quite early in the apprenticeship, after Carlos has been on a drug-induced “trip” in which he flies like a bird. Describing his hallucinogenic experience to his mentor, Castaneda asks:

“Did I really fly, Don Juan?”
“That is what you told me. Didn’t you?”
“I know, Don Juan. I mean did my body fly? Did I take off like a bird?” “You always ask me questions I cannot answer. You flew”.… [Then follows a dialogue in which Castaneda states that he thinks he flew only in his imagination, not literally.]
“Let’s put it another way, Don Juan. What I meant to say is that if I had tied myself to a rock with a heavy chain I would have flown just the same because my body had nothing to do with my flying.” Don Juan looked at me incredulously. “If you tie yourself to a rock,” he said, “I’m afraid you will have to fly holding the rock with its heavy chain” [Teachings of Don Juan, Ballantine, 1968, p. 132].

Castaneda would doubtless have understood Paul’s uncertainty in Second Corinthians 12:2, “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.”

Article continues below

Further on in the apprenticeship, after outgrowing his need for drugs to experience “non-ordinary reality,” Carlos wanders out to the mountains by himself and encounters a coyote:

I had never seen a wild coyote that close, and the only thing that occurred to me at that moment was to talk to it. I began as one would talk to a friendly dog. And then I thought that the coyote “talked” back to me. I had the absolute certainty that it had said something. I felt confused but I did not have time to ponder upon my feelings, because the coyote “talked” again … I had said, “How are you little coyote?” and then I thought I had heard the animal respond, “I’m all right, and you?” Then the coyote repeated the sentence and I jumped to my feet. The animal did not make a single movement. It was not even startled by my sudden jump. Its eyes were still friendly and clear. It lay down on its stomach and tilted its head and asked, “Why are you afraid?” I sat down facing it and I carried on the weirdest conversation I had ever had [Journey to Ixtlan, Simon and Schuster, 1972, p. 296.]

Carlos expresses more surprise at encountering a talking animal than did Balaam, the prophet in Numbers 22. Balaam was riding his ass on his way to visit Balak, king of the Moabites. Twice the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam’s way, visible only to the ass. When the animal stopped, Balaam beat her. And then it happened a third time:

And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these, three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am I not thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

In this case, it was the ass who saw the “non-ordinary reality” of the angel with a drawn sword. Balaam could not see the angel until the Lord opened his eyes.

Article continues below

Does Castaneda have anything to say to Christians? We have traditionally claimed belief in “a separate reality,” the classic statement of which is found in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The writer of Hebrews continues: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” In these two statements, the writer is testifying to the independent and objective validity of non-empirical reality. He goes further to claim that it is the revelations of the supernatural and eternal realities that give meaning to our pilgrimage in this temporal reality.

Few Christians will dispute the existence of these supernatural realities, but where are the Christians who believe in “a separate reality” outside the covers of the Bible? If I walked up to the typical Christian and mentioned that I had just had a conversation with my pet dog, I would probably be kept under close observation for other examples of abnormal behavior. Yet we claim to believe the story of Balaam and the ass. What would happen if your minister stepped into the pulpit next Sunday and stated that while you were driving to church that morning, he had been witnessing to a Hindu priest in a remote village in India? You would probably think he needed a long vacation. But notice what Acts 8:39 and 40 says. Philip had just baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, and when they came out of the water “the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip that the eunuch saw him no more … but Philip was found at Azotus.”

We have no reason to believe that Castaneda worships the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Paul. Yet if his writings are true, he has experienced a reality foreign to most Christians; and if it is not God who has opened his eyes, it is likely Satan. As Christians, we have access to the source of all power. We may not be anxious to talk with a coyote, but perhaps God wants to communicate with us in a dream as he did with Daniel or in a vision as he did with Peter. Or perhaps he just wants to shake us loose from some of our “Western logic,” the categories we prescribe for everything, including God. If the Holy Spirit wanted to speak to you through a donkey, would you let him?


Carol Prester McFadden is a free-lance writer living in Arlington, Virginia.

Article continues below
Affirming The Arts

Last month in Philadelphia two meetings occurred simultaneously, each suggesting half of Charles Williams’s two-part sentence, “This also is thou; neither is this thou.” The second part, the way of negation, was represented by the planning committee for the fourth meeting of evangelicals for social action (the first, at Chicago’s YMCA, developed A Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern). The major concerns of that group, part of the so-called young evangelical movement, are racism, sexism, world hunger, and living a simpler life-style.

In another part of the city a different group of “young evangelicals,” symbolizing the first part of Williams’s phrase, the way of affirmation, gathered to discuss the relation between Christianity and the arts. The movement among many young evangelicals to the arts is as significant as the move among others toward social issues, though it is less publicized. The arts now are taken seriously. The idea that the theater or fiction is sinful seems to be fading. Many of those attending the three-day conference were pursuing careers in the arts.

Regrettably, the two groups seem mutually exclusive. I served for two years on the social-action committee; only once did someone (not I) ask why artists were never included in our meetings. Artists, after all, have moved many people to work for better social conditions. Dickens is an obvious example. And Solzhenitsyn is both artist and social commentator.

At the Westminster Seminary-sponsored Christian Arts Festival, poverty and world hunger were ignored. While listening to Calvin Seerveld’s excellent lecture on “An Obedient Aesthetic Life” (Seerveld is from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto), I kept thinking that for much of the world the problem of how to live aesthetically doesn’t exist; people are too busy trying to sustain any life at all. But contemporary philosophy and popular culture were analyzed, and sexism was both discussed and seen in action. Of the major participants—lecturers and workshop leaders—only one was a woman, and she volunteered.

Although there have been other arts conferences sponsored by Christians, such as the annual fine-arts conference held at Calvin College, this too-packed program included performing artists as well as theoreticians, critics, poets, and those involved in the visual fine arts. And a small gallery gave artists a chance to display their work.

A myriad of workshops ranged from pottery and painting to twentieth-century music, architecture, and drama. Lectures on such topics as Wagner, Negro spirituals, and inspiration and the artist showed a fine breadth of planning.

Article continues below

H. R. Rookmaaker (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture) lectured on “The New Ultra-naturalism.” His fits of pique at mismounted slides lessened the impact of his point. Once, claimed Rookmaaker, artists painted what they knew; now they paint what they see: thus the depersonalization of painting. Unfortunately he loaded his case by ignoring contemporary artists who do not fall into the ultra-naturalism category.

Seerveld’s convoluted lecture on the theory of aesthetics needed editing. Clarity above all should be the goal when dealing with such a topic, and his main point, that great art should be judged not by its beauty but by its allusiveness, was succinctly and lucidly articulated. However, “ubiquitous obliquity,” to use one of his phrases, characterized the lecture.

This under-publicized conference drew 650 people from as far away as Kansas and Canada. Most of the lectures had overflow crowds. Those who couldn’t get into the auditorium saw the program over closed-circuit television.

The enthusiasm of the participants, and the broad scope of topics programmed suggest to me that next year Westminster ought to plan a week-long conference on the arts. And an important area not to overlook is the relation between the arts and the pressing social needs of our time.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.