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50 years ago today, Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis followed different paths to the grave

Published: Friday, Nov. 22 2013 9:09 a.m. MST

Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Sept. 1960. Photo - Deseret News Archives

Deseret News Archives

President John F. Kennedy was aboard Air Force One between Fort Worth and Dallas when the famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis died of kidney failure in his brother's arms in Oxford, England. An hour later, at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, a sniper sent Kennedy out the same exit. Another famous author, Aldous Huxley, followed Kennedy and Lewis into eternity that same day, dying in Los Angeles of throat cancer as doctors in the hallway clustered around television sets for updates from Dallas.

Kennedy’s glamorous life and dramatic death has long overshadowed the other two, both on that day and at anniversaries since. But the three men together embody a trio of distinct spiritual and religious choices at a time when traditional Christianity was losing its historic grip on the Western mind.

They were three thoroughly modern men, three nearly simultaneous deaths, three very different lives. Kennedy was nominally Catholic but very much a man of this world; Lewis was an atheist who converted to Christianity; and Huxley was a worldly intellectual drawn to Buddhist mysticism. Fifty years later, with the grip of faith looser still, their three divergent paths remain compelling models to millions of skeptics and seekers alike.

Where doubt lives

Just how religious was Kennedy? "Not very," says David Holmes, an emeritus professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary and author of "The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents."

"He has to be looked at first as a Roman Catholic," Holmes said, "but he was a disengaged Roman Catholic." It is, Holmes agrees, thus ironic that Kennedy, a Catholic in a still-suspicious Protestant land, was compelled to sharply define himself by his religion, even giving a historic address on the role of faith in American politics.

"Jack hung out more with lapsed Episcopalians and secular people than with Irish Catholics," Holmes said.

If one sets aside Kennedy's compulsive adultery, the best evidence that Kennedy may have been religious at his core lies in comments from his close friends Kenny O'Donnell and Lem Billings, who both said Kennedy prayed each night before bed.

"That always puzzled me," Holmes said, "until shortly after my book was published and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s interview with [Kennedy’s widow] Jackie was released." In the interview, conducted shortly after Kennedy died, Schlesinger asked about JFK's internal religious views. Jackie replied, “Well, I mean, he never missed church one Sunday that we were married or all that, but you could see partly — I often used to think whether it was superstition or not — I mean, he wasn’t quite sure, but if it was that way, he wanted to have that on his side.”

According to his wife, JFK's nightly prayer ritual was essentially crossing himself on his knees and took only 3 seconds each night. “It was just like a little childish mannerism, I suppose like brushing your teeth or something,” she said.

"Church bored him. He hardly ever went,” said Henry James, a classmate of John F. Kennedy at Stanford. “Religion didn't interest him. He was all for being au courant, very much up to date with the things that were going on at the time, but not for eternal verities."

A Harvard classmate once asked the future president why he attended church. The friend, Holmes relates, reported that Kennedy "got this odd, hard look on his face and replied, ‘This is one of the things I do for my father. The rest I do for myself.’ ”

"Jack has traveled in that speculative area where doubt lives," said Chuck Spaulding, a Catholic and close friend of Kennedy.

But those travels apparently did not involve the intense searching that characterized Lewis and Huxley's parallel journeys. “The Letters of John F. Kennedy,” published in 2013, turns up numerous references to faith in the public square — but none at all to personal spirituality or belief.

Toward the light

In contrast to Kennedy's Irish Catholic heritage, Aldous Huxley came from a very secular world. His great uncle was Matthew Arnold, a prominent British intellectual, poet and religious skeptic. Thomas Huxley, a noted paleontologist and key defender of Charles Darwin, was his grandfather. Aldous’s brother, Julian, was a famous biologist (and eugenicist), knighted in 1958.

If anyone had a pedigree for skepticism, it was Huxley.

And yet, while his first wife was dying in 1955, Huxley chanted from the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” as she passed. Huxley’s second wife, Laura, did the same for him when he died. "You are doing this so beautifully — you are going toward the light," she described her words after he died.

Huxley is most noted for “Brave New World,” a dystopian vision of technological tyranny where human spirit is crushed less by force than by pleasure and distractions. But his body of writing as a whole often focused on a mystical connection to the divine.

“Huxley always blended his Buddhism with a scientific perspective,” said Joan Wines, a Huxley expert and professor at California Lutheran University. “What he’s trying to find out is truth that is both spiritual and scientific.”

In 1945, Huxley wrote “The Perennial Philosophy,” with excerpts of classic texts ranging from Eastern Hinduism and Buddhism to mystical elements of Islam and early Christianity — an effort to synthesize a common core of faith.

He wore Buddhism loosely, said Dana Sawyer, a professor of religion and philosophy at the Maine College of Art and author of a noted Huxley biography. Wines agrees. “He used Nirvana and Buddhism language because it was already there,” she said. “It was available in a way he could talk about it.”

Huxley’s famous drug experiments, according to Wines, were an effort to break through to higher awareness in the Buddhist or Hindu sense at the intersection of psychology, physiology and spirituality. He saw limited drug use as an aid to meditation, but he disapproved of recreational use for entertainment or escape.

In 1953, he experimented with mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote, used among Native Americans for ritual purposes. Huxley wrote a famous essay titled "The Doors of Perception" outlining that experience. The rock group The Doors took its name from Huxley’s essay.

While using mescaline, he was fascinated with color and texture. He described focusing intently on the tweed of his pants. Chair legs were "miraculous in their tubularity." And then he saw the books on the shelf, "whose color was so intense, so intrinsically meaningful …."

But Huxley also found that he lost all interest in other people while using mescaline, which seemed to disturb him. "The mescaline taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting.”

Sawyer agrees that Huxley was disturbed by how mescaline reduced his interest in other people. “Buddhism is not just about reaching enlightenment,” Sawyer said, but also about compassion and changing things for the better. Thus, the indifference experience with mescaline signaled to Huxley that something was amiss. “Huxley believed that even if the kingdom of heaven is within, we still have a responsibility to create the kingdom of heaven on Earth,” Sawyer said.

The Buddhist seeker, according to Sawyer, aims to be “less egotistical, less driven by desire, ambition, anger and fear, less self-interested, more altruistic, less willing to judge.”

“It’s an extinction of the self in the sense that once a wave on the surface of the ocean understands itself as ‘the ocean,’ that its fundamental nature and the fundamental reality of nature are the same,” Sawyer said. “Surrender of individuality at the end of my life is like when the wind dies down and the wave is subsumed back into the ocean. What is lost is individuality, the individual moment of the wave, but nothing is lost.”

Here again, Huxley may have been a rather unconventional Buddhist. “It is possible for a given human being to survive in more than one posthumous form,” he wrote. And Wines thinks Huxley did at least suspect that individuality could survive death.

The revered heretic

Lewis and Huxley were both religious skeptics at Oxford during the years just before World War I. But thereafter, their paths diverged.

Lewis describes his conversion to Christianity as a game of chess against God, with Lewis losing pieces as he tries to slow the advance of a superior player. "Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” Lewis writes. “Dangers lie for him on every side. You must not do, you must not even try to do, the will of the Father unless you are prepared to ‘know of the doctrine.’ ”

There was, of course, a mystical component in Lewis’ experience, says Devin Brown, a professor at Asbury University in Kentucky and author of "A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis." Lewis called this mystical experience “joy.”

"This isn't happiness or contentment: it’s longing for something that nothing in this world can satisfy,” Brown said. “But it's a beautiful longing, better than any satisfying thing you could ever have.”

Lewis first felt that joy when he discovered Nordic myths, which, he writes in “Surprised by Joy,” tapped in him a feeling something powerful, deep and urgent. “It's only later in life that he identifies this as a longing for God or a longing for heaven," Brown said.

When Lewis later read the New Testament, he found that its narrative combined the joy he felt in mythology with the authenticity of real events. The “old myth of the dying God … by becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."

Lewis famously describes setting out one day in the sidecar of a friend's motorcycle on an outing. "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. … It was more like when a man, after long sleep … becomes aware that he is now awake."

Lewis, like Huxley, argued the self must be surrendered to save the soul. “Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes. … Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead,” he wrote.

His theory was tested on this front in 1960 when, after a lifetime as a bachelor, he had befriended and married a soulmate, an American divorcee with two children coincidentally named Joy, only to see her die of cancer three years later. Lewis distilled the trauma into “A Grief Observed,” a wrenching account of his feeling isolated from God in grief.

Lewis and Huxley shared another bond in death. Both their mothers, to whom they were strongly attached, died in 1908. Lewis was 9, Huxley 14. And both lost wives to cancer.

Also like Huxley, Lewis was a heretic. A Google search of “C.S. Lewis” and “heretic” returns scores of websites “exposing” the most famous Christian apologist of the age — his books still sell more than 2 million copies a year — for his unconventional conclusions.

In addition to rejecting the infallibility of the Bible, for example, Lewis argued that non-Christians could be saved. "There are people in other religions,” he wrote, "who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”

Lewis also hinted at a divine destiny for man. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” he wrote, “to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship ….”

"Hand it over to me,” Lewis has God tell us, “the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self — in my image."

Three paths

While Kennedy's assassination still overshadows remembrances of the other two men, the coincidence of the three dying on the same day did not go unnoticed. In 1982, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft wrote a book titled “Between Heaven and Hell,” a postmortem dialog in a foggy purgatory where the three men debate what just happened and what comes next.

The book received mixed reviews, but few would disagree that the three men embodied three distinct paths through mortality at a moment when traditional Christianity was losing its firm grip on the Western mind — nor that the three alternatives they offer remain very much alive today.

Did they find what they were seeking?

"I don't think Huxley found the enlightenment he hoped for," said Devin Brown. “I think he was disappointed.” Of course, as a Christian and a Lewis aficionado, Brown may be biased.

Abraham Maslow, the humanist psychologist who constructed the famous “Hierarchy of Needs,” cited Huxley as one of a handful who had achieved “self-actualization.” He named eight by name: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Benedict Spinoza and Aldous Huxley.

Reasonable minds may differ in weighing the spiritual paths of Huxley and Lewis. Few, it seems, are asking the same questions about John F. Kennedy.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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