Book Review: In Search Of Stones

In Search Of Stones: A Pilgrimage Of Faith, Reason, And Discovery, by M. Scott Peck, MD

It takes a special breed of narcissist to write a book like this. It takes a rare mixture of glib pretension at honesty and integrity, a certain openness to sharing one’s sins and struggles and be so deeply critical of one’s family, while still professing to be a spiritual guide to others. Unfortunately, as the author and I share the precise Myers-Brigg personality score (this author is clearly an ENTJ), I recognize that the author and I share the same sort of tendencies and therefore the most critical things I have to say about him, and there are plenty of critical things to say about him based on this book, are criticisms I must make of myself. Whether they are humble or arrogant in their own fashion is something of which I am not qualified to be the judge.

This book is organized as a set of essays on such profound subjects as reason, romance, addiction, holiness, change, religion, aging, parenthood, money, death, pilgrimage, gratitude, peace, adventure, consideration, space, time, art, integration, and despair that is structured around a vacation that he and his wife Lily (an INFJ from the account presented, the same type of personality as my own mother and one of my fellow teachers here at Legacy). It is difficult to determine who the precise audience of this book is, as the book is a strange mixture of deeply uncomfortable oversharing about his family life, including his problems with his children, his rather hostile thoughts about his own parents and the WASP culture in general (the two are probably not unrelated), his marital infidelity, his largely unrecognized addictions to smoking, drinking, and painkillers, his unconventional religious beliefs, but his smug superiority over fellow New Agers, and his sometimes tedious ramblings about the importance of his search for understanding community and peacemaking.

One addiction the author is willing to admit is his shared addiction, with his wife Lily, over the megalithic stones of a prehistoric culture. As someone who shares an attraction for the romance of ruins, and an interest in general archeological material, as well as “art” in its larger sense, I can understand where the author is coming from. But one issue I found with the book that might be common is the rather unsettling feeling of being both too close to the author in approach as well as too far in worldview to be truly in sympathy with this author’s narcissistic journey through Wales, northern England, and Scotland in search of ancient pagan standing stones as well as luxurious hotel rooms, and his general attitude of hostility toward sharing this beauty with other people. The author strikes me as a particularly offensive sort of hypocrite, but also the sort of hypocrite I must be very careful to avoid becoming, making him instructive and unsettling at the same time.

One striking similarity the author and I share is our identity at the point where faith and reason meet, with a strong inclination for rationality, but also an appreciation of the irrational within ourselves and others and our world in general, and a general acceptance of tension and paradox that many ascribe (in my case falsely) to a sort of Eastern religion approach. The author talks a lot about his previous practice as a psychotherapist, as well as a little about his participation in a couple of exorcisms, and about numerous other matters as well, which are quite varied, sometimes entertaining, and sometimes highly awkward and uncomfortable. He comments, wisely, at the beginning of the book that he pities the booksellers who have had difficulty sorting this book, and this difficulty is genuine, as this book is a strange mixture of travel book, personal memoirs, and speculations on matters far beyond the author’s competence.

The fact that the author considers himself a person of high sensitivity to others and high personal integrity despite his rather open admission of numerous sexual affairs suggests a level of self-deception that is rather frightening. But it is a level of hypocrisy to which none of us are immune, and as a sensitive soul he is perhaps a bit too prone to reflect on the guilt-induced sufferings of being born into privilege as a sign of genuine spirituality rather than being a self-loathing pathology typical of “white liberal guilt.” The fact that the author’s Christianity is largely doctrine free, and that he certainly is of the antinomian variety of Christianity that thinks nothing of committing sins of massive syncretism (of which this book is a product), therefore completely failing to understand the just and moral aspect of God’s character, and the fact that moral laws were created for all people to obey, even intellectuals like ourselves.

The author does have some wise insights to make, but his knee-jerk hostility to the accoutrements of traditional religion and culture (including his hatred of the military, and his rather lengthy rant about locked bathrooms at a Scottish memorial that he happened to visit on Sunday, totally oblivious to the serious Sundaykeeping of the Scottish Presbyterians of the area, which he comments on as being a sign of a “Sunday-morningism” rather than being a legitimate part of a different and coherent worldview to his own rather vague and wishy-washy one and his extreme dislike of sheep, which seems to suggest an arrogance at being above the common herd of humanity), cut against the value of those insights. Instead, he offers somewhat trivial cliches about the need to build genuine communities through frequent community-building workshops, to develop personal integrity (without some kind of firm moral code to base that integrity upon), and frequent travel critiques about the poverty of such cities as Cardiff and Glasgow and their effects on his own creature comforts. He therefore misses the chance to make more substantial contributions to amateur archeology because of the basic indulgent and trivial approach he takes to his journey. He talks about numinous places, but in such a solipsistic way that it fails to offer relevance to anyone who does not think as he does.

Therefore, this book is overall a rather mixed bag. It offers occasionally valid critiques of traditional culture, while at the same time showing that neither the faith nor ultimately the rationality of the author are founded on the ground of a sufficiently deep spirituality as to appreciate God as lawgiver and judge as well as loving Father and gracious giver of good gifts. In having a universalist approach to God and religion, the author appears to deny anything distinctive about Christianity, making this a poor case for Christ, given that it comes from someone whose genuine biblical knowledge and practice is slight. If he is not a Sunday morning Christian, he might be something that is just as offensive, a Christmas and Easter Christian who cannot understand that the proper grounding of his personal crusade for peace and social justice lies in the severe moral justice of the Law under which all of us are sinners in need of grace, and where God shows no partiality. The book, which is a somewhat lengthy work at more than 400 pages of solid text (no scholarly footnotes or endnotes here), will prompt serious reflection in the reader, but also a fair degree of well-earned harsh criticism towards the author’s rather smug and self-satisfied version of left-wing New Age spirituality. Caveat lector.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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16 Responses to Book Review: In Search Of Stones

  1. tim kraemer says:

    A refreshing critique.
    Dr. Peck has given us a lot of good things and I believe that he has acted to provide correction to modern psychiatry’s avoidance of the spiritual. It was interesting that when he would give a lecture at a psychiatric conference there would be literally standing room only, even though many of those in attendance were not at all spiritually or even morally inclined. Nevertheless, you characterized many of the problems with Peck’s work that are hard to name. I have appreciated Peck’s definition of evil, but have always believed that it was incomplete. Your overview makes it clear that a broader definition of evil would include not only scape-goating in order to avoid truth about oneself, but anything that avoids truth. Even well-intentioned critiques, self-generated worldviews, and selective reception of God’s revelations.
    Again, although I have appreciated Peck’s work and insights, yours is one of the very few good critiques of shortcomings in his work. I have often thought that he was spared much criticism and I think your observations of syncretism and solipsism are what kept him a moving target and therefore hard to criticize.
    I liked and appreciated Dr. Peck, but I think your insightful article put a lot of things into an honest and long overdue perspective. Unfortunately, you are correct in that you exhibit some of his same characteristics – already in the first two paragraphs. Nevertheless, thank-you for a useful article.

    • You’re very welcome. I did not have the chance to know the man, but a man like him (or myself) is not that difficult to know. It is easy to understand those who are like ourselves, and I did not wish the critique to be too negative, but rather a helpful balancing act overall.

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