Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Great Conveyor Belt?

In his book, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World, Ken Wilber argues that “religion alone, of all of humanity’s endeavors, can serve as a great conveyor belt for humanity and its stages of growth.” (p. 192). This is because the great religious traditions are the repository of every level of human consciousness: from the archaic to the magical to the mythic to the rational to the pluralistic to the integral worldview and beyond. Every human being may progress through these stages in her own interior life, and the religions provide the map of the territory.

Not only do the religions contain within their traditions the stages of consciousness that each individual may recapitulate in her own development; they provide the religious and social legitimacy for each stage of development. In a world in which the vast majority of the population remains at a mythic level of spiritual consciousness, with religion at that stage too often providing absolutistic justification for egocentric behavior (the varieties of fundamentalist terrorism), this is of great importance. Religions also can provide the cultural resources, spiritual practices AND authority to legitimate higher stages of spiritual consciousness, aiding people to move through the mythic to higher levels.

Thus, Christianity is not only a religion of biblical fundamentalists. There is a mythic Christianity, a rational Christianity, a pluralistic Christianity, etc. – Christianity contains within its own spiritual line each of these stages of development (as do the other world religions). One of the important roles of religion in the postmodern world is to consciously embrace the work of assisting people to advance in their spiritual development to higher stages, incorporating and transcending the valuable insights of prior stages.

As Wilber points out, one unique resource that the religious traditions bring to bear on this work are the various techniques for attaining more expansive states of consciousness. People at every stage of spiritual development have the capacity to experience authentic spiritual states of consciousness through meditation, contemplation, charismatic experiences, and ritual observances. Granted that the “interpretive depth and inclusive embrace becomes greater at higher stages,” (p. 195), anyone can learn to cultivate these experiences.

Wilber argues that making contemplative states a core of their training is crucial for religions, because “the more you experience various states, the more quickly you develop through the stages . . . When you meditate, you are in effect witnessing the mind, thus turning subject into object – which is exactly the core mechanism of development (‘the subject of one stage becomes the object of the next’). (pp. 196-197) States-training is a necessary but not sufficient aid to advancing to higher stages of consciousness.

The modern and post-modern West is suffering from two related diseases: the secular culture’s repression of higher stages of spiritual development and the fixation of religion at the mythic level of consciousness. These serve to reinforce each other, with secularists assuming that all religions represent an infantile stage of human consciousness, and religionists acting in ways that reinforce the stereotype. The former reject religion, while the later become ever more defensive in their embrace of religion (at a particular stage). The problem is exacerbated by the repression of the contemplative traditions in Christianity, which provides an important antidote to the current lower-stage fixation (although as Wilber points out, it is possible to be both “deep” and “narrow”: experiencing all manner of mystical states of consciousness, while remaining fixated at a lower stage of spiritual development).

I think Wilber’s insights provide a way of understanding the current conflict within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church as a whole, at least among its leadership, is intentionally embracing a commitment to transcend (while incorporating) the stage of mythic Christianity AND to retrieve the practice of contemplation: moving to higher stages and states of consciousness. The minority within the Church that is still fixated at the mythic stage is resisting this movement with all its might, justifying all manner of violence to the Body of Christ in the process.

This is exemplified by the criticism of our Presiding Bishop’s Christology: she is operating out of a pluralistic stage of Christianity, in which Christ-consciousness is available in other religions (by other means) and revelation is ongoing. Her critics are operating out of a magical or mythic level of Christianity, in which Christ is the only way of salvation, and everybody who doesn’t believe the (closed) revelation contained in the Bible is going to hell. Those on the lower level really can’t see or understand what she is talking about.

This is a description, not a judgment. People have every right to be at whatever stage of consciousness they are at, and deserve the care and support of the Church. What we can not allow, is those fixated at a particular stage to hold back everyone else. In a healthy system, the least mature members have to adapt themselves to the most mature, not the other way around. Otherwise, Christianity will no longer be able to serve as a great conveyor belt, and the religious fundamentalists will continue to terrorize, while the secular culture denies itself the benefits of spiritual development necessary to heal a planet in peril.

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