by Philip Clayton
What the Free Speech Movement, Jesus Freaks, Esalen, and Goddess worship have in common
This is an excerpt of an article from Boom Winter 2015, Vol 5, No 4.
We are in the midst of a major transformation in the way Americans practice—or don’t practice—religion. Old paradigms are losing their relevance and sometimes disappearing altogether. Religious institutions once at the center of American life have gradually drifted to the margins. It’s not that spirituality matters less to our contemporaries—even famous “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris emphasize that they are deeply spiritual people.
Religions are like living organisms, constantly finding new ways to be meaningful by deconstructing and reconstructing practice. Religious movements can’t be understood from a distance. They must be observed in action and judged by the deeds they inspire. They can only be understood fully from the inside, on their own terms. Many people think of California as secular—even post-religious. But they are mistaken. For decades, California has been at the forefront of transformation in religion.
California Zen, the ethos of the hippies and the antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s, the first women’s studies classes—which quickly expanded across the country—the uniquely Californian evolution of transpersonal psychology at the Hutchens School of Sonoma State College: each has articulated a worldview, has urged its members to change the world and themselves, and is rooted in a spiritual connection to people and place. We might even consider plays and musicals—whether traditionally religious such as Godspell, or California-inflected such as Hair, with its proclamation of the Age of Aquarius and its naked call to “Let the sunshine in”—as part of this tradition. Film, art, and architecture could each demand their own separate studies.
I’d like to look at just four California spiritual movements and their leaders in this light: Lonnie Frisbee’s Jesus People, Michael Murphy’s Esalen, Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement, and Starhawk’s neo-paganism. Each movement reveals a central spiritual dimension, and each leader functions as a sort of prophet for his or her followers, moving out in front of the rest, casting a new vision of better ways forward, breaking out of the mold, and re-creating something new, something with religious dimensions. With all four stories as examples of California religious phenomena, the concept of religion itself begins to bend, grow, and become more interesting. By the end, religion, California-style, may emerge as a new and intriguing area of study, breaking free of old ways and challenging traditional definitions.
I write with a particular love for this topic and with no claim to neutrality or distance. As a religion scholar and fifth-generation Californian, I draw deeply from my own experiences as a participant-observer. My route through these stories is also unashamedly autobiographical: I was born in Berkeley, joined the Jesus People in high school, spent years working with Michael Murphy in research conferences at Esalen, was a colleague and friend of Mario Savio at Sonoma State University, and came to teach environmental ethics through the influence of Starhawk and other ecofeminists.
Reverend Chuck Smith founded the immensely successful Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, which, for a time, was a leading fellowship within a larger “Jesus movement” in the 1960s and 1970s. “Jesus People” (or “Jesus Freaks” as even members called themselves) were the product of a California marriage between elements of the hippy counterculture and mainline Protestantism. Calvary Chapel grew slowly at first. Chuck Smith was too straight-laced to build a movement of Jesus People by himself. He needed someone who could give testimony to the transformative power of Jesus for the lost young souls of the 1960s. He needed someone like Lonnie Frisbee. Everything about Frisbee—well, almost everything—suited him perfectly for the role: his long hair, effeminate voice, and Jesus-like appearance; his intelligence, poise, and voracious memory for scripture texts; and above all the simple sincerity of his testimony. As one biographer wrote, “Lonnie Frisbee put the ‘freak’ into ‘Jesus Freak.'”1
Lonnie Frisbee spoke as prophetically for the religious side of the hippie movement as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others sang and spoke for its secular side. The Jesus People spread from beach baptisms in Orange Country across the United States, and then overseas.
But Lonnie was John the Baptist to another major cultural development as well. In an age (and a religion) that was homophobic, Lonnie was gay. He would party with the underground gay community of Laguna Beach on Saturday nights and preach the gospel to huge crowds of Jesus People on Sunday mornings. When confronted by Chuck Smith and other Calvary leaders, he was upfront about his homosexuality. The leaders of the movement stripped him of his leadership roles and finally cut him out of the movement and its historical narrative altogether. Lonnie later died of AIDS in 1993.
Today, the Calvary Church’s website embraces Frisbee’s hippie ethic but credits it to Chuck Smith: “With a sincere concern for the lost, Pastor Chuck made room in his heart and his home for a generation of hippies and surfers; generating a movement of the Holy Spirit that spread from the West Coast to the East Coast, and now, throughout the world.”2 Note the reversal of that quintessentially American doctrine, Manifest Destiny: in the California mind, the Holy Spirit spreads from West to East, not the opposite.
The advancement of gay rights in today’s California would have been unthinkable in Chuck Smith’s Calvary Church half a century ago. Lonnie Frisbee was a prophetic figure for a rainbow of sexual diversity some fifty years before his time—not only in secular but also in religious context. As it was for ancient prophets, being marginalized and ostracized was part of Frisbee’s prophetic experience. Frisbee envisioned a spiritual community to come, even if he himself never fully experienced it.
No part of the California landscape more aptly expresses the geography of California religion than Esalen in Big Sur. Esalen’s founder, Michael Murphy, had already become part of America’s mythology before he even reached the age of accountability, thanks to his father’s friendship with John Steinbeck. Murphy once told me that Steinbeck based the central characters in his classic American novel East of Eden on Michael and his brother, using Michael as the model for Aron, the good kid, the Abel character, of course. Michael dropped out of Stanford in the late 1950s and went to live on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in southern India. When he inherited his father’s coastal property in Big Sur a few years later, Michael formed Esalen. Founded in 1960, Esalen quickly became a hotbed of religious innovation, meditation, drug experimentation, and theorizing about human potential—in short, all things California.3
Jeffrey Kripal’s history, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, puts the Esalen phenomenon in perspective.4 In one sense, no retreat center has ever been as inwardly focused, as practiced at navel gazing as Esalen. As Michael Murphy describes it, Esalen’s history brought endless ego battles as different resident leaders sought to “capture the flag.” Esalen remains a place where the impossible happens. I have watched intellectuals transformed by psychic readings, wizened scientists accepting the laying on of hands for a disease, “psi” skeptics bending spoons, and uptight East Coast conservatives luxuriating naked in the baths. Rarely has the quest for inner enlightenment been so closely tied to sexual pleasures and psychedelically induced states of the mind.
But throughout it all, the quest—”to explore into the undiscovered country,” as Murphy put it in the documentary Supernature—remained spiritual.5
The same film also describes the goal in psychological terms: “We all have a second kind of consciousness; that subliminal self is also in touch with the cosmic reality around us.” But repeatedly, today as much as in the past, they are also drawn to use theological terms as well: “There is what Meister Eckhardt called a Divine Ground of Being underlying all reality. So everything in the world lifts up out of this Divine Ground of Being, the way waves rise up out of an ocean.”6
Esalen is about transformative experiences of body, mind, and spirit—and also about the theologies to which they give rise. For most of the half-century since Esalen opened, Murphy has had his finger on the pulse of an emerging California spirituality, which has spread, like the message of the Jesus People before him, eastward across the continent. Through Esalen, Murphy has been a prophet, even while Esalen itself, which remains a vibrant retreat center, has evolved into something of a more stable, not as surprising place, like so many once groundbreaking California institutions.
I gratefully acknowledge the knowledge and research of Elizabeth Singleton, who helped draft the section on Starhawk. My students at Claremont School of Theology, Sinnamon Wolfe and Carmen Moorhadian, located the images and arranged for permissions.
1 The Jesus People Film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmUvnN3mtuc.
2 From the Calvary Chapel website, http://calvarychapelassociation.com/general-information/history/.
3 See Loriliai Biernacki and Philip Clayton, eds., Panentheism Across the World’s Traditions (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).
4 Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
5 “Supernature: Esalen and the Human Potential: Beyond Reason. Beyond Belief,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljYNAo1nM1o.