6.1.C. Participative Spirituality and the Critique of Spiritual Authoritarianism

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6.1.C. Participative Spirituality and the Critique of Spiritual Authoritarianism

Traditional mystical and religious paths are exclusionary, based on strong divisions between the in and the out group. Internally, they reflect the social values and organizational models of the civilizations in which they were born. Thus they are premodern in authoritarian manner, patriarchal, sexist, subsuming the individual to the whole. Or, in their latter manifestations they are run as corporations and bureaucracies, reflecting the early emergence of capitalism as in the case of Protestantism, and in the case of the “new age", operating explicitly as a spiritual marketplace reflecting the capitalist monetary ethos, where every spiritual experience can be bought, for the price of attending a workshop or a seminar. When traditional religions of the East move to the West, they bring with them their authoritarian and feudal formats and mentalities. Epistemologically, in their spiritual methodologies, they are authoritarian as well, far from an open process, traditional paths start from the idea that there is one world, one truth, one divine order, and that some privileged individuals, saints, bishops, sages, gurus, have been privileged to know this truth, and that this can be taught to followers. The seventies and eighties have been characterized by the emergence of new religions and cults with a particularly authoritarian character, and by the appearance of a number of fallen gurus , characterized by abuses in terms of finance, sexuality, and power. If one decides to follow an experiential path, it is always the case that the experience is only validated if it follows the pregiven doctrine of the group in question.

It is clear that such a situation, such a spiritual offering is antithetical to the P2P ethos. Thus, in the emergence of a new participatory spirituality, two moments can be recognized, a critical one, focused on the critique of spiritual authoritarianism, and with books like those of June Campbell, J. Kripal, the Trimondi’s, the Kramer’s, and many others who have been advocating reform within the Churches and spiritual movements, and the more constructive approaches which aim to construct a new approach to spiritual inquiry altogether, those that explicitly integrate P2P practices in their mode of spiritual inquiry. The two pioneering authors who discuss ‘participative spirituality’ are Jorge Ferrer and John Heron.

Heron has given a good summary of the post-WWII evolution of spiritual culture and describes the current moment as follows:


- (a) The erosion of guru status as a result of sexual and financial abuse and bullying scandals among both Eastern and homegrown Western gurus and spiritual teachers.

- (b) The erosion of 'enlightenment' claims by the proliferation of the number of people, especially in the West, making the claim: the more people who make the claim, the more its narcissistic inflation stands revealed. For the 'enlightenment' claim is also an authority-claim to have followers, a recruiting drive; and the more claims that are made, the stronger the competition among claimants in the market-place for attention.

- (c) A growing awareness that spiritual authority is within and that to project it outward onto teacher, tradition or text is an early, adolescent phase of spiritual development in the one projecting, and counter-spiritual manipulative abuse in any guru/teacher who seeks to elicit, to appropriate and to sustain the projection.

- (d) The emergence of peer to peer spirituality, which democratizes charismatic, enlightened leadership, and realizes that it is a role which different persons assume at different times, either in the initiation of a peer group or in the continuous unfolding of its process.

Ferrer’s book, Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology: Towards a Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, not only is a strong critique of spiritual authoritarianism, which integrates poststructuralist arguments against absolute knowledge claims, but also a first description of an alternative view . In it, a spiritual practice operates as an open process in which spiritual knowledge is co-created, and thus cannot fully rely on old ‘maps’, which have to be considered as testimonies of earlier creations, not as absolute truths. Spirituality is understood in terms of the present relationship with the Cosmos (the concrete Totality), accessible to everyone here and now . Instead of the perennialist vision of many paths leading to the same truth, Ferrer advocates for an ‘ocean of emancipation’ with the many moving shores representing the different and ever-evolving approaches to spiritual co-creation. In an article on ‘Integral Transformative Practices’ , Ferrer also records new practices that reflect this participatory turn, such as the ones pioneered by Albareda and Romero in Spain: open processes of self- and group discovery that are no longer cognicentric, but instead fully integral approaches that collaborative engage the instinctual, emotional, mental, and transmental domains as equal partners in the unfolding of spiritual life. J. Kripal, who is very appreciative of Jorge Ferrer's contribution, does conclude that one more lingering illusion about religion and mysticism should be abandoned: that it is somehow quintessentially 'moral' or 'ethical' and essentially emancipatory in character, a claim that he disputes .

New Zealand-based John Heron expounds, in the book “Sacred Science", the specific peer to peer practice that he has created, called Cooperative Inquiry. In such a process, individuals agree on a methodology of inquiry, then compare their experiences, adapting their inquiry to their findings, etc… thus creating a collective intelligence, which is totally open and periodically renewed, experimenting both with the ‘transcendent’ practices of eastern nondual religions (transmental ‘witnessing’) as well as with the immanent grounding methods of the nature religions, thus creating a innovative dipolar approach which does not reject any practice, but attempts to integrate them. Peer circles (check the concept in a web search engine) have sprung up worldwide. Remi Sussan stresses that the chaos magick groups on the internet, explicitly see themselves as self-created religions adopting open peer-based processes.

John Heron, in a personal communication, has outlined which conditions a contemporary spiritual practice based on interdependent relationality, should uphold, with explicite P2P characteristics:

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-line integration and consummation. Such collegial applied spirituality has at least eight distinguishing characteristics.

(1) It is developmentally holistic, involving diverse major lines of human development; and the holism is both within each line and as between the lines. Prime value is put on relational lines, such as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, peer communion, morality, human ecology, supported by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.

(2) It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a fully embodied and vitalized way of being.

(3) It is epistemologically holistic, embracing many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant form and process, by conceptualizing, by practising. Such holistic knowing is intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic and political.

(4) It is ontologically holistic, open to the manifest (nature, culture and the subtle), to immanent life and transcendent mind. To relate (4) back to (3), there can be experiential knowing by presence with the manifest, the immanent and the transcendent, either relatively independently of each other or in full integration.

(5) It is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem.

(6) It embraces peer-to-peer relations and participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a radical discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego.

(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice.

(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence."