Review by J. S. Kupperman
Beyond the River’s Gateis the latest offering by Dr. Stewart Bitkoff, generally falling in line with his too previous books on universal Sufism, and especially the second: The Ferryman’s Dream. In this volume the ferryman is set to lead us to the ocean, the river’s source. To do so, Bitkoff divides the book into two sections. The first section is the longest of the two, consisting of 99 questions and responses. The second section consists of a number of stories, poems, and observations. Although there are 96 of these in all, part two is somewhat less than half length of part one.
In comparison to the previous two books on the subject, Beyond the River’s Gateis something of a let down. Admittedly, I was hoping for something like Aleister Crowley’s Liber Aleph, which I consider one of his most lucid, and important books on Thelema, and that was not what I found. That said, many questions in part one are often quite good and important. That is, they are things spiritual seekers should generally keep in mind. Others are simply questions spiritual seekers, especially those new to such seeking, might have in mind, such as “are all spiritual paths the same” or “how can we know God?”
The answers are something of another matter. Generally, they have the look and sound of answers coming from looks like a generic New Age group. They focus, for instance, in the universality of all spiritual paths leading to the same place, whether or not those paths understand their ends as such. Familiar tropes such as groups should never ask for money (unless it be given to charity) or they are not real spiritual groups show up as well, ignoring the every day life of paying rent on the space in which the group meets, working tools, incense, etc.. The wording of the responses is loose enough that they can be interpreted in multiple ways. This can be a strength, but can also lead towards such responses being useless, too. Sometimes the answers use vague terminology, such as “spiritual” without giving much by how the author understands the term. Above all, the “universality” of the answers is repeatedly brought to mind, with the undertone of those who disagree with this are mistaken. The answers are not all bad, or even necessarily at all, but they are also answers one can find in many different places already. That said, they also give the reader a great deal of latitude. While Bitkoff clearly has his own views on religion, philosophy, etc., in a broad sense, he does not force them on anyone. That is, his replies give plenty of room for religious and philosophical differences, even if they are sometimes relegates to the merely external forms of spirituality.
The second part of the book is something quite different. There are no questions and no answers, just stories, poems, and things Bitkoff has observed while on his path. They are offered without comment. Some of them are polemical, pitting the scholar against the simple desert mystic. Some of them show the expectations a spiritual teacher might have for their students, and so helpfully prepare the reader for such things, especially as such teachers can often, and often rightly, ask for a great deal from their students, and just as often things the student doesn’t expect. Topics, never explicitly given, range from philosophy to metaphysics to well hidden, but important, advice. The reader will have to work to pull meaning from this section, though; it offers no answers in neatly wrapped packages.
Beyond the River’s Gateis a mixed bag of wisdom, advice, metaphysics, philosophy and more. Its language and ideology will not be suitable to everyone, and there are places where good arguments can be made both for and against what Bitkoff says. For someone just starting out on a spiritual path, or looking for such paths, without having a particular path in mind, this may be a good start. For others, it may come across as invalid in relation to their own, very different path. The universality will be a turn off for many, especially those with an eye towards anthropology and history. For others, especially those coming from more modern modes of spirituality, it may be just what you’re looking for.