September 25, 2016

Integral Religion

Marc Gafni, Dharma, and Lineage artwork by Megwyn White

Marc Gafni, Dharma, and Lineage
artwork by Megwyn White

by Marc Gafni

This article was born in conversations with Ken Wilber in late 2005 and early 2006. I sent him an earlier version of it and appreciate his feedback, which was in part incorporated in the article.

This short piece attempts to get a grip and offer a more integral framework on the spirituality vs. religion dilemma which seems so pivotal in contemporary conversation of both religion and spirituality.

Nine out of ten people who read this article probably label themselves as spiritual and not religious. Book after book is published extolling the virtues of spirituality while dismissing religion as the relic of a past age which needs to be discarded and the sooner the better. Religion evokes in us images of Al Quadea, Taliban and various other forms verbally, doctrinally and physically violent fundamentalism. Spirituality evokes images, even if they are somewhat blurred images, of warm and gentle embrace.

However we rarely get beyond these primal evocations and actually examine these two expression of spirit in a more conscious and therefore profound manner.

This rather uncritical preference of spirituality over religion contains within it great danger to authentic spiritual growth and to the evolution of human consciousness on both the personal and Kosmic levels. That is bad news. The good news is that in this article we are going to try and look how we got here, which once understood, might well open us to new and deeper ways of thinking about the relationship between Spirituality and Religion and allows us to make conscious choices about their respective roles in our lives.

There are three core factors that gave birth to this preference for spirituality over religion. First, a misunderstanding of what religion means, the second a misunderstanding of the deeper implications of spirituality as it is popularly understood, and the third the powerful and correct critique of the classical forms in which religion actually appeared in Western Civilization. The result of these misunderstandings and the highly devastating critique of religion however is the implicit and explicit contemporary preference for a loosely defined and more loosely practiced spirituality. This kind of spirituality is often primarily focused on spiritual “experiences” and is for the most part devoid of the matrix of both classical religion and organized and committed practice which is rooted in a sense of core obligation to either a personal God or a transpersonal self. Personal preference replaces obligation. Indeed this preference itself is but a reflection of the underlying narcissism which lays at the heart of the both the modern and postmodern quests for meaning. This is a narcissism that must be transcended both by society and by every individual if we are to evolve to the next level spirit’s realization- an evolution that is essential for our very survival on this planet.

But as my kind reader may have been thinking to him or herself –we need to do more then make dramatic assertions about the underlying narcissistic core which is at the root of the ostensible modern preference for the spiritual over the religious; we do well to go back to the beginning and unfold both matrix of this narcissism and it’s antidotes step by careful step.

So here we go!

One of the core revelations of most of the great empirical researchers of human development over the past hundred years or so has been the validation of what is perhaps the most important single teaching of classical renaissance Kabbalah – the understanding that spirit is not static, rather it develops; it evolves stage by stage with each stage adopting the great truths of the stage before it while discarding it’s dross, even as it reaches for the next and higher level of spirit’s unfolding. So in order to get a clear sense of the relationship of spirituality to religion let’s follow, in very broad brushstrokes, the evolving stages of our relationship to spirit in the last few thousand years or so.

Stage one is unmediated spirituality or what I will term level one spirituality; This is the first meeting of the group or individual with spirit.

Stage two is the first expression of the institutionalization of level one spirituality. which is magical pagan and animistic religions.

Stage Three, more evolved then it’s previous stage, is also in direct response to the unmediated experience of spirit. Spirit yields a set of understandings about the world which are far more evolved then the early pagan intuitions about reality.

Stage Four is the concretization of these intuitions into a formal religious system. This religious system is far more universal then the previous expression in pagan and magical totem religion; its orientation is based on a more holistic sense of the underlying unity to the world. Stage Four then is the emergence of the great religions- religion being at its core the institutionalization of spirituality; The classical religions have at their core some sense of rules and some sort of unified field theories, there are based on the profound intuition that we are part of a great system that has both interior depth ad exterior expression; you did not need to placate local gods – rather you need to align yourself with the universe by aligning yourself with the universal system and all will be all right with you.

Stage Five is the devastating and in part very correct and necessary critique of the great religions leveled by both modernity and post modernity.

Stage Six which emerges in response to this critique of religion, is the sincerely seeking but profoundly dilettantish nature of contemporary spirituality. I will refer to this as level two spirituality. Level one spirituality is pre-religion level two spirituality experiences itself as being post – religion.

Stage Seven which has various manifestations is rooted in a deep critique and pervasive dissatisfaction with contemporary spirituality. Stage six is presently giving birth to three different movement of spirit.

The first movements are the manifold forms of pre-modern fundamentalism. Modernity did not fulfill it promises, progress did not yield the end of anxiety, and the spirituality which replaced religion did not make the grade, so many folks are making the fundamentalist pre-modern move and adopting some form of pre- modern religious belief. The second movement is the fostering of a genuine and committed post modern generic spirituality. That is happening in some places, there is a great desire for it to succeed, but it is very difficult to accomplish for reasons we will outline below, as so while occasionally achieving great depth, it is very limited in it’s span. The third movement which may well be the most vital of the three for the very survival of our plant, is the engagement in the spiritual renewal of the religions themselves.

Stage One: The Hills Are Alive

(c) 2010 Photo courtesy of Evgeni Dinev

2010 Photo courtesy of Evgeni Dinev

In the first stage of spirit’s unfolding there is an unmediated encounter with pure spirit manifested as a local God or Goddess. Spirituality level one is local spirituality.

In local spirituality the experience is that every bend of the river, every rock and every tree is alive with spirits that must be placated. This is the animistic magical or pagan stage. The spirits are for the most part localized expressions of the divine force and each one must be propitiated and placated separately. {This is a pre-personal, pre–rational and pre-personal level of spirit not to be confused with post modern and transrational, and transpersonal Gaia spirit consciousness with usually takes as it’s assumption a kind of systems theory in which all the local Gods are part of an underlying one, as well the implicit if often inchoate assumption of the goods of rational and personal consciousness which as we shall see below are the hallmarks of modernity.}

Stage Two: Pagan Consciousness and Human Sacrifice

The stage one meeting with spirit produces stage two which is magical animistic and pagan religion. For all of it’s glory – after all paganism is correct as far as it goes, indeed the hills are alive with the experiences of spirit – the refraction of spirit through the pagan lens yielded, what we now realize at our more evolved stage of spirit’s unfolding – are ethical and moral travesties. The world of witch craft and voodoo religion also yielded mass human sacrifice within one’s own tribe and mass murder of the neighboring tribe, a historical fact that seems to have been overlooked in the manifold modern idealizations of ancient pagan and magical culture and religion so especially popular in New Age teachings.

Stage Three: Insights of the Great Religions- The Perennial Spirituality

spiritual-bypassingAt a later stage a more evolved response to the meeting with pure unmediated spirit emerged. In this unfolding highly evolved individuals and occasionally also groups had unmediated experiences of spirit usually generated by intense spiritual practice. These experiences – which took place across the planet – in what we might term in modernity – double blind conditions – all yielded similar understandings at their deepest core.

These understandings which emerged from level on spirituality were of two distinct kinds. First they spoke to the very fundamental nature of reality. They invited the human being to a higher level of sanity. To be insane is to be disconnected from or misunderstand reality. To be sane is to understand and to be connected to reality. Spirituality then at its core is not for the flaky, unstable non-realistic types. Rather it for those who passionately pursue the discernment of the deepest core of reality. Spirituality one might say is a profoundly realistic enterprise.

Including in these understandings were the notion of the interconnectivity of the all and the all, what we might term the very wholeness and unity of reality. It was understood that all of reality was part of a unified field of spirit that had both telos and depth. And that in order to divine that telos one needed to enter that depth – which could only be done by consistent and ongoing spiritual practice. Second they spoke of this spirit which course through reality as being –at its ultimate core – a force for goodness, for the healing and transformation of reality. Third they understood that just as the divine force is good so to the human being is called to goodness, to compassion, to right and just action in the world. These similar understanding yielded world over across the aeons and in every part of the world are what has often been termed the Perennial philosophy.

Stage Four: Religion The institutionalization of Spirituality born of love

interfaith_world_symbolsNow these spiritual insights by these highly evolved individuals world over were most assuredly sufficient to guide the lives of those who had the insights themselves.

The translation of those insights into formal religion however meant the transcending of their natural narcissistic inclination to be live in the luxuriant aura of their own revelations of spirit. This transcendence required the developing of systems whereby these great revelations of Eros and Ethos might be transmitted to wider and ever wider circles. It might indeed be fairly said that while the core motive of the pagan spiritual systems was to get right with the Kosmos for the purpose of self protection and power, the core motive force in the forming of the great religions was love. A profound love which sought to transmit at the greatest possible depth of the goods of enlightenment to the largest possible number of people.

We are reminded as we unfold this map of ascending spirit that religions are at their core are various forms of institutionalized spirituality. Moreover they are institutions which were conceived in love – welling from desire to transmit both the community beyond the mystic him or herself and to the ensuing generations.

The primary tool for this transmission is religious teaching and ritual. On a revealed, exoteric level, teaching and ritual transmitted values, attitudes and evolved understandings of the nature of reality which resulted from the unmediated encounter. The transmission of religion was directed both to the great majority who did not have access to these experiences and to the minority who wanted a way to remain connected to these experiences even after they had returned to normal states consciousness.

The teaching. the law, and the ritual became the vessels that carried the light of spirit in history. Moreover on a somewhat esoteric level, religions understood law, ceremony and ritual as ways of evoking the original unmediated experiences of spirit that gave birth to them in the first place.

Stage Five: The Devastating Critique of Religion

Now if that was the whole story then the old religions in their original forms might never have fallen into to their well deserved contemporary disrepute. Stage five however is the powerful critique of classical religion first by modernity and then by post modernity.

The first critique is simply that religion over stepped it’s bounds made claims of knowledge, authority, power and dogma which far exceeded it legitimate rights. Thus the unified field intuition of most classical religions almost always degenerated into a chauvinistic and triumphalist moment in which, at least the popular understanding taught that all the non believers where dammed to eternal perdition.

Augustine speaks for this moment in all religions in his classic formulation; “there is no Redemption outside of the church.”

The second fissure in the edifice of classical religion lay in a very significant evolution in our understanding of the idea of authority. While classical religion was almost always based on heteronomy – that is a benevolent commanding other to whom one must be obedient in order to achieve redemption, modernity shifted the locus of authority to the individual and to the democratic stage, twin moves commonly known as autonomy and democracy. Autonomy was classically understood as move away from the authority structures of religion.

Both of these classic features of religion gave birth to a third feature of religion which did not survive the spiritual crusade of spirit unfettered in the form of modernity. This is the dimension of dogma based on pre-rational faith which is a core feature of much classical religion. Freed from the demand for evidence the church, as Habermas has pointed out, essential asserted it’s relatively arbitrary authority over what was good or evil, proper or improper in all fields of human endeavor including, government, science, the healing arts, economic and moral thought. The result was the total fettering of each of these arenas. A fettering that was not released until the critiques of religion rooted in modernity became so powerful that they assured religions downfall.

This third feature of religion gives birth to the fourth feature of religion which insured its downfall, that is murder and untold cruelty in the name of God. It is not unimportant that enlightenment philosopher Voltaire’s battle cry against religion was “remember the cruelties. “Or as Crosby Stills Nash and Young Sang it, “How many people died in the name of Christ I can’t believe it all.”

Stage Six: The Theology of Scientism

Image by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot (freedigitalphotos)

Image by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot

In light of these critiques, there is an attempt by modern man to turn to science and it’s handmaidens for an all embracing theology and redemptive worldview. This dogmatizing of science and it’s methodologies of inquiry which we will discuss in a moment is commonly referred to as scientism. Scientism however does not succeed in addressing the deepest and most authentic human intuitions of depth and meaning. Specifically it attempts to reduce the most profound human experiences of interior consciousness to their physical correlates. Love becomes serotonin secretion, consciousness becomes brain waves and meaning becomes behaviorism. Deeper human understanding realizes however that there are different realms of knowledge of which the scientific is only one and that each realm of knowledge has it’s systems of validation and it’s own hierarchies of authenticity. Not every claim of love is the same for example even though the method of examining the depth of a love does not involved a microscope. The collapse of scientism then yields in it’s wake two major movements; a return to pre-modern fundamentalism and a post modern spirituality of the modern new age variety which is long on vision and scope and short on commitment, depth, rigor or practice.

Stage Seven: Pre Modern Fundamentalism and Post Modern Spirituality

About the premodern fundamentalism nothing much needs be said – it suffers from all the weaknesses of the old classical religions in their xenophobic and chauvinistic versions. However we need to articulate the important critique of post modern spirituality as it is precisely this brand of spirituality that people refer to when they declare themselves to be spiritual and not religious.

The most important critique from which all other flow is a radical lack of obligation and Commitment. There is no sense of what Hebrew wisdom would call Mitzvah. Mitzvah which literally means commandment and is mistakenly translated as good deed speaks to the sense that something must be done. It speaks to the questions of why am I here? How must I live? What am I called to do? Obsessed with the why question; why should I do it – the essential imperative to clear and decisive action – goes for the most part unheard in the din of modernity and post modernity. The still voice of the call to action in this moment, in the here and know cannot be discerned, blocked as it is by the deafening deadness of a society whose true Gods are comfort and not pleasure. If my goal is truly pleasure – the pleasure of spirit which his growth, then I will be willing to engage the pain of committed service. But if my core goal is comfort then I will avoid pain at all costs. The definition of modern spiritual decadence is the linguistic assumption that the opposite of pleasure is pain. Indeed all pleasure includes the pain. The opposite of pain is not pleasure but comfort. Hence modern spiritual seekers anesthetized by the comfort of their pallid “spiritual search” remain at their depths comfortably numb. In all the great religions there is an overwhelming sense of urgency and seriousness to these questions even as they fill the human being with joy, clarity of intent, purpose and direction. There is something to be done. There is a destiny to be fulfilled. And not to do it would not be just to miss another “experience” but it would be to miss life itself. Contemporary spirituality is almost entirely lacking in this quality. The goal often seems to be to have “spiritual experiences,” virtually all of which are optional, few of which make demands on the very essence of the human soul or the way life is actually lived in the world. Spirituality has become a sophisticated form of leisure activity, another variety of the many therapies we apply in modernity in the worship at the altar of our selves.

(c) January 2012 Stuart Miles

(c) January 2012 Stuart Miles

The sense of obligation to either a personal God or a transpersonal self – and the two may be more closely identified then we might have otherwise thought – is entirely lacking. It is only from that place of obligation that the radical commitment to practice emerges. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of spiritual consumers in the western world flit from seminar to seminar, teacher to teacher, book to book and rarely buckle down to the real work of spiritual practice. There is a sense that to grow spiritually would be a nice extra if one could but schedule it in to one’s busy schedule. There is not the sense that the core obligation in living is to grow and that to grow means that I must act decisively. Instead of autonomy being an internal source of authority, modern and post modern freedom has come to mean free from the core obligation to grow; free to ignore the call of spirit to committed and consistent action.

A Corollary of the contemporary spirituality’s is the belief that people are born naturally good and hence our cultures obsession with babies who are thought to the be paragons of natural goodness. A deeper view however yield the simple truth that Babies while very cute are not necessarily good. Indeed they are often tyrants who completely ignore the fact that mommy and daddy have not slept through the night for six months, let alone the fact that they have been to tired to make love since before the baby was born. No amount of human evil shakes the modern spiritual seekers core belief that people are naturally good. This belief however is more then a naïve mistake. It is destructive at its very core. For several simple reasons. If people are naturally good then evil that does take place must come from causes outside of people. Those causes might be handguns, oppression, trauma suffered by real or imagined abuse, big government, or whoever. The important point is that once I locate the problem on the outside I can work to change the world but am free from the core obligation to work to change myself. If people are naturally good then we do not need to teach goodness or to be committed to a lifelong process of becoming good.

Of course it is true that the ultimate goal of deep mystical knowledge is the realization that “I am already there” – this however is a hard won realization of grace and not the default program of contemporary laziness masquerading as spirituality.

For all of the above reasons contemporary spirituality has not way of creating a system of normative practices, teachings and beliefs that can be shared and transmitted in a coherent way to the next generation. Indeed everyone is concerned with “my truth” and “my experience.” Thus our modern spirituality has become narcissistic at its very core. It is concerned only with itself. It by its self-chosen definition cannot be transmitted. It lacks religion which is born from the institutionalization of spirituality born in love and in the overwhelming sense of desire and obligation which was once a given in culture – that we owe it to the next generation to transmit to them the essential goods and insights of spirit. Narcissism is precisely that; the virtually obsessive involvement in one’s own subjective experience and truth at the expense of care concern and attention to others and to wider contexts.

In order to unfold the next level in the evolution of spirit we need to transcend the narcissism of contemporary spirituality for deeper and wider space of spirit.

Stage Eight: Committed Spirituality and Post Autonomous Religion

image courtesy of Stuart Miles (c) 2013

image courtesy of Stuart Miles (c) 2013

At this point there are two possible movement that need to emerge in response to the radical inadequacy of modern spirit. The first is the emergence of a committed generic spirituality, which while not committed to a specific tradition is committed to serious practice, teaching, study and ritual. What the contour of such a spirituality might look like is beyond the contours of our present conversation; however I hope to return to in a future article. The second movement involves the renewal of the religions themselves. This also is larger topic then the space remaining in this essay so let me conclude with but a few allusions as to the direction we need to be going.

At their core of all the great religions are not merely the popular understanding of their teaching. All the great religions have at their core profoundly evolved levels of universal care, practice and consciousness. All of them have a profound sense of what I have called in other writings a “level three trans-autonomous ethic.” To say it very simply in the language of my own tradition of Kabbalah and Hebrew Wisdom.

At level one Abraham {the biblical hero of he book of Genesis who is the father of all three theistic faiths} cannot see; he does not know how to reach the land of his destiny. God sees, Abraham his blind. Abraham must follow God – what is classically referred to in religious discourse as heteronomy. At level two – Abraham has gained vision. He can see himself. He knows – by himself – without reference to divine vision- how to reach the place of his destiny. This is commonly referred to in religious discourse as autonomy. However this is not the end of the journey. Level two by itself does not hold; it leaves on profoundly empty, lonely disassociated and alienated. At level three God’s vision is once again introduced. It is God and not Abraham that sees. But wait!

A closer read of the relevant texts seem to talk about Abraham seeing as well. Confusion, contradiction, how to read the text of spirit? Respond the Kabbalists-at Stage three Abraham sees with the eyes of God. This is a post or trans-autonomous ethics in which human freedom and authority emerges not from the flight from spirit but from the widening and deepening of personal identity in which man realizes that he is in some profound sense- one with spirit. It is the move from the personal to the transpersonal in which the personal with all of it’s values of choice responsibility and integrity is not negated but rather transcended and included as we move to the higher human identity with the transpersonal self.

Now – since as Ken Wilber has often reminded us – in his writing – seventy percent of the world is deeply enmeshed in the great religions of the east and west – it would seem that this second movement of renewing the religions in a way that their post triumphalist gorgeous mystical center become not peripheral but central to their teaching and popular understanding would seem to be a terribly important modern and post modern engagement. Indeed one upon which the future of humanity may well depend.

Presented by Marc Gafni

 

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