October 17, 2012
Exploring the Future of Religion
This is the second Guru & Pandit conversation that we’ve pulled from the archives in preparation for Andrew’s next virtual dialogue with integral philosopher Ken Wilber, taking place this Saturday, October 20th at 2pm ET (USA), where they’ll be discussing the nature of the soul. Register Here. If you want a sense of the profundity that’s in store when these two great thinkers come together, this article will definitely deliver…and then some!
If you’re interested in the future of religion and spirituality, you had better buckle your seat belt and hold onto your hat because this incredible Guru & Pandit dialogue, pulled straight from the pages of the award-winning EnlightenNext magazine, will take you places you might never have imagined!
We all live in an rapidly changing world that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Are current forms and expressions of spirituality, that may have served humanity well for thousands of years, sufficient to meet the growing challenges and demands that we now face? And, if not, does this mean that religion, as we know it, will soon become extinct? Or is there another possibility for its future? Read the thrilling and powerful dialogue below to hear what Andrew and Ken had to say:
“The third millennium will be dominated by the ‘religion/spirituality paradox’: the decline of organized religion on one hand coupled with a growing interest in spirituality and wisdom on the other. . . . This demands a reordering of priorities in terms of the spiritual, and an urgent need for a relevant faith. . . . By relevant, I mean a faith that speaks to the current and future concerns of our time.”~ Caleb Rosado, ‘What Is Spirituality?’
“The devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics. We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ultimacy, the irreversible closing down of the Earth’s functioning in its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself. . . . The human is at a cultural impasse. . . . Radical new forms are needed.”~ Thomas Berry, ‘The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future’
SPIRITUALITY IN A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD
ANDREW COHEN: It seems that the unprecedented complexity of the time we are living in demands from many of us a profound reevaluation of the spiritual context and direction of our lives. The world is changing faster than it ever has, and this rapid pace of change is simultaneously thrilling, frightening, bewildering, and overwhelming. It is increasingly difficult to sustain perspectives, worldviews, and spiritual and philosophical beliefs that are not broad enough to embrace the enormity of our circumstances. I can definitely tell that many of the people that I come in contact with are searching for new answers.
It suddenly seems that for many of those who are, as you would say, at the leading edge, satisfying answers are no longer being found in the great traditions.It really seems that a new spirituality with a higher reach and a deeper embrace is necessary at this time, one that will enable us to discover our true identity, the timeless source of our being, while simultaneously compelling us to face the actuality of the world context that we’re living in.
Indeed, it would seem that now, the spiritual path must free the individual in a very specific way, a way that would cultivate enough strength and maturity to bear the incredible emotional and psychological urgency of the life conditions we’re in the midst of. We need a path that will free the awakening human in the face of fear, despair, and self-doubt, a path that will make it possible for him or her to respond with a worldcentric passion and God-centered devotion to the evolutionary needs of the life process at this point in time.
So I thought it would be great if we could speak together about what this new spirituality might be like. To begin, maybe you could briefly describe what an integral perspective on spirituality would be.
KEN WILBER: First, it would be good to talk about what the meaning of “spirituality” is because it can get very confusing. An integral spirituality, I believe, would be a conception that would take into account, and attempt to honor, all of the different meanings of spirituality, and also draw some conclusions about what happens when you stop using a merely partial approach to spiritual potential. I’ll give you three of the main ways that people use the word spiritual. I’m not saying any of these uses are right or wrong—actually, I’m saying they’re all correct. But it’s important that we know what we’re talking about.
One very common definition of spirituality is a “peak experience.” Somebody actually has a spiritual experience. It can be a satori, it can be an experience of nature mysticism, it can be a revelation from the Divine, it can be luminosity or light. It’s some sort of a peak experience that has a beginning in time, confers a great deal of meaning and value, and sometimes includes overwhelming emotion—bliss, love, gratitude, humility, compassion. These things tend to be so overwhelming that the separate self is blasted to smithereens in the moment of the experience and has some deep and profound understanding or realization about the world and his or her place in it. If you look at a lot of the world’s great religious traditions, they all started when their founder had one of those experiences. So that’s one definition of spirituality—a direct, immediate realization or experience.
Another way people use the word spirituality, and this can be a little more scholarly, is to mean the highest levels of development in any line of development. There are about a dozen major lines of development—cognitive, emotional, moral, interpersonal, psychosexual, and so on. So, for example, people tend to call the highest type of cognition spiritual. Lower types of cognition, like a word or an image or a logical concept, people don’t generally call spiritual.
But if you have a transrational awareness or a higher intuition or something that’s transverbal, people will tend to call that spiritual. Or in the emotional line, for example, if you have low levels of emotion like hatred, anger, or greed, people don’t generally call that spiritual. But highly developed emotions, like universal compassion or love or bliss, people tend to call spiritual. Higher levels of moral development are called spiritual. Higher levels of interpersonal development are called spiritual. This definition is very common. And you can start to see how there’s tension between these definitions as well.
KW: Because that second meaning is based on a developmental process, so only someone who is highly developed would have those kinds of spiritual experiences. Whereas, in terms of the first definition, anybody can have a spiritual experience—a two-year-old, a five-year-old, a ten-year-old, an elderly person, and so on. People in the field argue about which definition is right, but I think they’re all right.
The third common definition is that spirituality is neither a state nor the highest level in a line, but is its own developmental line. And therefore, you can be at a low level of development in the spiritual line, you can be at a medium level of development in the spiritual line, or you can be at a high level of development in the spiritual line. There has actually been some very respectable scholarly work using that definition. So there we have three major definitions, and there are others that I’ve outlined in some of my writings.
If we look at spirituality as a line of development, as a series of unfolding levels—for example, archaic, magic, mythic, rational, and integral, then you could say there’s archaic religion, there’s magical religion, there’s mythic religion, there’s rational religion, and there’s integral religion. A lot of people are implicitly using that third definition—including both Thomas Berry and Caleb Rosado, whom you quoted. And what they’re both saying is that magic and mythic religion no longer protects the earth, so therefore, we need an integral or higher spirituality. And I agree. But what they’re saying is also very partial. It has to be balanced with these other types of understanding.
I also think that in addition to looking at those three different definitions, we also need to understand a kind of broad orienting generalization, which is that a lot of the traditions, past and present, and a lot of the realized teachers, past and present, make an important distinction between the manifest world of form, the unmanifest world of emptiness, and then their nonduality—the union of emptiness and form. I think that we have to be careful, when we talk about spirituality yesterday, today, and tomorrow, to find a balance in those three domains as well. So, for example, both Thomas Berry and Caleb Rosado were, in essence, just talking about the world of form. Both of them left out an experience of the unborn, or the pure emptiness before the big bang.
And unless you have that emptiness as your fundamental background, then you’re basically just talking about the manifest world itself and playing in finite forms. Then your idea of spirituality is merely saving that finite form: “We don’t want the earth to croak.” Well, that’s fine. But who were you before the earth was born? Who were you before the big bang? What is this emptiness that never enters the stream of time? Spirituality, integral spirituality, certainly has to include a profound realization of the unborn, the unmanifest, the timeless, the spaceless, combined with a reverence for the world of form—all of it, ecological, personal, global, and so on. My experience is that people tend to err on one side or the other. Either they get into this transcendental purity that doesn’t care about the earth and Gaia, or they merely identify with Gaia and they forget the unborn. What we want to try to do, of course, is include both. So that’s my overview on some of the essentials that we would want to include in an integral approach to the topic.
A REASSESSMENT OF OUR FAITH
AC:So I think we agree that the religious traditions, because they emerged at a very different time in history, generally do not appear to be equipped to appropriately deal with and respond to the fast-changing life conditions that we find ourselves in the midst of. Therefore, it would seem that this extraordinary time we’re living in demands a radical reassessment of our faith.
KW: I think that’s exactly right. Most of what we call the world’s great religions were born in the magic and mythic eras. They were born about fifty thousand years ago, all the way up to about two thousand years ago. And it’s not that the great shamans, saints, and sages of those periods weren’t realized. They could, all of them, be plunged into that vast emptiness—because emptiness doesn’t change. So a great saint, like Gautama Buddha, for example, could plunge into nirvana and be just as in touch with that emptiness as anybody can be today. But the world of form, the actual manifest world, is evolving. So they didn’t fall short of the mark in terms of their own realization of emptiness. It’s just that the world of form has so dramatically changed that they are short of the mark on that side of the street, so to speak. So that’s where they definitely need updating. And both of those two people whom you quoted are quite right, in my opinion, that the rules of the manifest domain that were developed in the magic and mythic eras are really inadequate for today’s world. So in that sense, the great traditions are woefully inadequate.
AC: And because the world of form is constantly evolving, without that half of the story being taken into consideration—and always being updated—it’s inevitable that our responses are going to miss the mark.
KW: Right. It’s also important to take into consideration that in today’s world, less than two percent of the population are at integral waves of development. Seventy percent of the world’s population is at mythic or lower, which are ethnocentric levels of development. You know, there were a lot of people, particularly us boomers, who felt we had the new paradigm that was going to be the greatest transformation in the history of the world—this holistic, “everything is one, Gaia great Goddess” kind of thing. And that can be a wonderful turquoise belief [For an explanation of the basic stages of Spiral Dynamics, see
A NEW RELIGION?
AC:Now, a direction I’d really like to explore with you, one I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, is: What would an evolved theism, appropriate for our times, look like? In other words, how would a new religion, founded upon authentic, radical, nondual realization, emerge in a postmodern cultural context?
Part of the background to this line of inquiry is that I’ve noticed that many of the people at the leading edge today, specifically those who are interested in spiritual development and the evolution of consciousness, seem to have outgrown many of the traditional religious paths, simply because those individuals have evolved to a higher stage of development than the one out of which the traditions originally emerged, in some cases, thousands of years ago. Many of the traditions are felt to be inherently limiting because of their often outmoded responses to the individual and collective needs of human beings who are at the leading edge as we move into the twenty-first century. Indeed, the traditions are no longer seen to represent a relevant path to freedom and unrestricted evolution, and therefore, many individuals have become interested in alternative approaches. But what often happens, for many of those people, is that the overarching context becomes blurred, and then being on the path almost always becomes a strictly personal matter.
What’s very compelling is that I think we’re coming to a point where, sooner or later, the higher potentials realized in the steps and leaps that these individuals are taking are going to require some kind of structure—a spiritual or religious structure, if we want to use that kind of language—to actually be able to embrace and organize the higher-level experiences they are having. It’s possible we may need to give birth to a new tradition. In other words, we need to create a framework or context in which we can come together to make sense out of these experiences so that we can really use them as a foundation from which to restructure our whole relationship to the human experience.
KW: Yes, I think so. I think what you’re talking about is a very important point. It’s pretty common nowadays, and understandable, for people to say that there is a difference between being “religious” and being “spiritual.” They say, “I am spiritual, but I’m not religious.” And what they mean by that, of course, is that “spirituality” is not dogmatic or based on traditions—it’s based on personal experience and personal understanding, and so on. But if that spirituality survives them, and other people can take up that spiritual approach, then it becomes a religion. Because all “religion” means is established, organized spirituality.
So when people say, “Well, I don’t like religion, but I am spiritual,” all they mean is that they don’t like organized forms of spirituality. But what they’re really saying is that their own personal experience is all that counts. But what happens if they have a spiritual realization that’s important, or they’re part of a practicing sangha or community that has a realization that’s important? If that’s going to be passed on to subsequent generations, then it’s going to be organized spirituality—and that’s religion. They’re going to have to create a religion, a structure in which to carry it on, to institutionalize it—
AC: God forbid!
KW: Most people don’t like religion—they just have their own spiritual experience in this moment, and they don’t think beyond that. But if that spiritual experience is going to have meaning to anybody other than their own ego, it’s going to have to be carried forward. And that means it would be what I call a four-quadrant affair. [See diagram below.] That means it has to be anchored in the lower right quadrant (collective exterior) in terms of social institutions—structures that can actually carry it on. It has to have a lower left (collective interior) intersubjective worldview—a set of beliefs, interpretations, and understandings that indicate how you orient yourself toward these higher potential experiences that you’re having. And of course, it also has to have the upper left (individual interior) and upper right (individual exterior) domains.
So when you say we may need a new religion, I’d say that it’s happening right now, but it’s happening in very small groups or practicing communities that are having these higher, what I would call third-tier spiritual experiences. But they have to bring them down, so to speak, and start to give them structure. They have to embody them, they have to institutionalize them, they have to find some way to reproduce them and carry them forward. However, that’s only going to be happening in very small pockets of practice for the time being, in practicing sanghas—yours is an example, and there are also some terrific Buddhist communities and Taoist communities and Christian contemplative communities that all, in their own way, are attempting to embody higher potential states and trying to bring them down and give them structure so that they carry on. And that means creating a new religion.
AC:To take this further, it seems to me that this next step that we’re speaking about points beyond individual enlightenment. It points way beyond the personal domain of the individual to the emergence of some kind of collective or intersubjective higher mind. I’m talking about a kind of emergence that would release an awakened consciousness whose source of power comes directly and miraculously from the merging of minds beyond individual and collective ego.
Of course, this is a challenging concept for us to grasp because those of us who come from the privileged classes all over the world, and especially in the West, have been brought up in a cultural climate where a kind of inauthentic ego-based autonomy is nurtured. And also, because the concept of enlightenment itself, up until very recently, has generally been very much about an individual journey. But this cult of individuality, I feel, is what we may all be called to transcend for the sake of the emergence of our own higher potentials. Obviously this would begin to occur in those focused contexts that we’ve been speaking about, but the implications for all of us are enormous. In terms of the evolution of consciousness, it seems to me that a higher level of development does point toward the emergence of a capacity of mind that literally transcends individuality.
KW: Oh, I think so. My own opinion, of course, is that every holon has four quadrants, so every awareness has an intersubjective component. But what happens in the higher waves, levels, or stages of development is that all of the quadrants, in a sense, become more vivid and vibrant, so you tend to notice them more. I mean, on the one hand, it’s true that higher stages involve a sort of intensification of intersubjective consciousness. But on the other hand, paradoxically, the people experiencing that also become more autonomous.
AC: That’s absolutely true.
KW: So it’s not that autonomy is decreasing and intersubjectivity is increasing. I think they both just become much more vibrant, more noticeable. And in that sense, intersubjectivity does stand out in a way that it doesn’t at earlier stages.
AC: Definitely, because in these higher stages, there would be a much greater degree of egolessness. And contrary to what most people may imagine, the natural result of a decrease in ego is always a greater and more authentic autonomy. And if this greater autonomy beyond ego begins to manifest in a number of individuals simultaneously, then the liberated mind of enlightenment itself automatically emerges through an awakened intersubjective context in a way that simply would not be possible through a singular individual.
KW: Yes, and also, that wouldn’t be possible in earlier stages of development. Another way to put this is that, as you well know, what happens when you’re getting into these more evolved spiritual states, the One Self becomes more and more obvious in others. So you can be sitting there looking at another person, and all of a sudden you experience an intimate oneness with their interior. And simultaneously they’re looking back at you experiencing an intimate oneness with your interior because you’re both resonating to the only Self there is in the entire universe. So intersubjectivity, so to speak, becomes a kind of harmonic resonance that just jumps out.
AC: And what if the kind of event that you just described became the foundation for the emergence of our own higher potentials? In other words, don’t you think that in our future—assuming we survive and we’re able to carry on with all this—there is going to be a level of development where the distinction between autonomous individuality and higher unity is going to become thinner and thinner?
AC: And that through this greater nondual intimacy, unimaginable potentials—many of which you’re beginning to have access to yourself, I think, through your own work—are going to begin to emerge—
KW: Yes. I think that’s right. And I think that at a sort of rarified level, so to speak, even though a lot of the distinctions in the finite domain, the manifest domain, become clearer and simpler and more obvious, paradoxically, those distinctions all start to fade. They become kind of pale—and not just the distinction between self and others. You get this intersubjectivity that is constantly vibrating and vivid. For example, the traditional distinctions between masculine and feminine fade away as well. Agency and communion—it’s hard to tell the difference. It’s like you have both more communion and more agency at the same time.
AC: Right! Because when gender begins to identify more with the authentic self and less with ego, that singularity begins to emerge.
KW: But it’s not a meltdown. That’s what’s interesting. In other words, you become both more masculine and more feminine—
KW: And more autonomous and more group or intersubjectively oriented—transcending opposites in this very paradoxical way. I think that clearly happens. And it happens across the board.
AC: Yes. And what’s so significant about this, I believe, is that what begins to emerge in this awakened context of nondual intersubjectivity is a completely new possibility—a different order of human potential altogether. I mean, it’s literally like a new world emerges in this one, with new rules, because now the context has completely changed. It’s the future, experienced now. It’s a world or state of consciousness beyond ego, where together, as one, we can begin to consciously participate in the evolution of consciousness itself.
AC:You know, I’ve been intuiting for many years these kinds of higher evolutionary potentials that I had no objective evidence for. I simply saw them in the eye of my own intuition and found myself mysteriously compelled to do whatever I could to enable them to become manifest within my body of students. This was often disconcerting because when you see something that you’re sure can exist, and indeed will if you try hard enough, but you continue to have no evidence to prove it, it can make you feel a little crazy. But finally, as a result of not giving up and continuing to exert tremendous pressure, these very potentials have actually begun to emerge.
I have found the things you’ve written about what you call a “post-metaphysical spirituality” to confirm my own experiences and also to enlighten my understanding of them. According to what I’ve understood, what I was seeing in the eye of my own intuition did not yet exist—not in the metaphysical sense of the perennial philosophy [Term used to refer to the common core of the world's great wisdom traditions], which holds that all higher levels are preexisting ontological structures.
In fact, what I was seeing was only a potential, not yet an actual preexisting level that simply needed to be reached. Indeed, my own experience confirms your declaration that those newly emerging levels of consciousness/being have not yet appeared with enough consistency to become self-existing levels, or what you have called “Kosmic habits.” But, and this is the most thrilling part of it, they do in fact become existing levels or Kosmic habits to the degree that we ourselves co-participate with consciousness to mutually develop that very capacity in ourselves.
KW: That’s exactly right. I really do believe that is the case. And it’s mutually supportive, in a sense, to have people’s own inner realization and experience confirm that. Because it’s certainly my own realization, but it’s also obviously the product of a kind of philosophical orientation. And now we’re thinking through what some of these things mean in conjunction with your own spiritual practice and spiritual awareness.
AC: Before I’d become familiar with your ideas on this topic, I had assumed that these levels and potentials I was intuiting already existed. And then I realized, “No, they exist as potentials and therefore don’t yet actually exist because not enough individuals have reached that level of development.”
KW: That’s just how I see it. And this understanding allows us to get rid of an enormous amount of metaphysical and ontological baggage that not only is not needed but that completely prejudices the spiritual orientation in the eyes of the modern and postmodern world. You see, the modern and postmodern world has developed very powerful arguments for why those merely ontological and metaphysical structures don’t exist. And they don’t. But you can still derive every single thing you need for a fully integral spirituality without using that baggage.
So using the levels defined by Spiral Dynamics as examples, we can say that once the lower levels emerge—beige and purple and red and blue and orange and green—once they emerge and take on structure and become Kosmic habits, then they exist independent of individuals. So in today’s world, the structures of those lower levels are so old that every infant has to go through those stages. There is no getting around them—they are just there. So they become real, and that means in a very concrete, not metaphysical, way, as actual levels of development among real human beings in a real world. And so these levels or structures, right up to around turquoise, are, in fact, fairly fixed. And the older they are, the more they’re a Kosmic habit, and the harder it is to break them.
But when you get up around turquoise and coral,* those levels are just now lightly getting formed. So that’s where evolution’s edge is right now—at turquoise and coral—and it’s frothy and it’s creative and it’s emergent. And everything we do right now is going to contribute to how those levels are laid down as Kosmic habits.
KW: So that’s very interesting. And then there are even higher levels, but those are just vast potentials in the subtle and causal and nondual domains.
AC: That’s what is so thrilling about this and what makes it infinitely more satisfying than the traditional take on all this—the shocking recognition that we are actually creating these levels of consciousness, and of course, in an evolutionary context, we are desperately needed to do it. It ain’t going to happen by itself because they don’t yet exist!
AC: And what could make the meaning of the spiritual impulse more clear than the recognition of the necessity for our own conscious participation in the evolution of consciousness itself? What could make more sense and be more compelling for the awakening human on an emotional, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual level than this? If we assume that these levels already exist, we are completely leaving out of the picture the all-important role that we have to play in the actual creation of these levels. And that’s the most thrilling part of all this—because the purpose of human incarnation is revealed in the most obvious way when one realizes, “It is up to me.”
KW: Yes, it really is co-creation because right at that frothy, foaming, chaotic, emerging edge of spirit’s unfolding is where leela, the creative play, is. And all that’s required, of course, is that whatever emerges has to transcend and include its past because those are past forms of spirit. Molecules emerge, they transcend and include atoms, atoms include quarks, and so on. So we have to embrace the past, and that’s called love. But looking at it the other way, you’re bringing down that creative edge every time you have these kinds of experiences.
AC: Exactly. Speaking of bringing down the creative edge, there’s something profound I’ve noticed, and also that some of my students have experienced, that I’d like to tell you about. When one is actually engaging with the evolution of consciousness in the way we’ve been discussing, there is literally the sense that—God, I don’t know what metaphor to use to describe this, but—it’s almost as if a thing (if we can call consciousness a thing) is being “cooked” by the individuals who are consciously realizing it. In fact, as those individuals would move in and out of this state of conscious realization, it seemed like it was informing them and they were informing it. And then at a later point in time, when they awakened to it again, it literally seemed as if the thing—consciousness itself—had moved forward, evolved.
KW: I believe that’s exactly how it happens.
AC: I’ve had this kind of experience for a long time, but recently, many of my students have described having the same recognition collectively. They realize that when they give attention to this thing, it begins to inform them and they evolve as a result, and when they return to it, they find that a mysterious moving forward has occurred in the thing itself. So in this one can actually intuit—you can’t quite say see because it’s on a more subtle level than that—but whatever consciousness is, you can almost see that it is evolving in just the way that we’ve been speaking about.
KW: That’s exactly right. You can do a thought experiment where you think back fifty thousand years, where everybody’s at a much earlier stage of development, sort of beige and purple. Purple is the leading edge at that time, and yet there are small groups of people that start to have an experience of the next level, which would be red. And red at that moment is not fully formed, so there are still a lot of different ways that red can go. And all it has to do is transcend and include purple and beige—it’s fixed in that sense because its past has to be carried along to some degree. But at that creative edge, large parts of red could have gone in any number of different directions. And I’m sure that as the first pioneers in consciousness pushed into red, they were having just the kinds of experiences you described. They would sort of touch into it and then come back, and go, “Wow, what was that?” And then they’d go and touch it again and come back.
And then eventually it starts to flow, it comes out, it sediments down. And the more people have that experience, the more it becomes a Kosmic habit available to other human beings, who then begin to move into that domain. And then ten thousand years later, it’s become such a Kosmic habit that people have no choice at that point. They automatically evolve through red on the way to the next level, blue—that’s just the way it is. Later on, at the leading edge of creative evolution, people at blue are starting to have experiences of orange. That was a very exciting time—it was called the Western Enlightenment (with previews of that emergence in early Greece when the bright boys down there pushed into orange and higher). So I think that’s exactly what happens. You know, a thousand years from now, they’ll be looking back on all this as “that kindergarten stuff” that we were pushing into back then.