Ken Wilber on the Role of Religion in the Evolution of Human Consciousness

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Ken Wilber:

"Everybody is born at square one. There will always be people at red, and that is fine. There will always be people at amber, and that is fine. There will always be people at orange, and that is fine (and so on). An enlightened society would always make room for that by recognizing that stages in development are also stations in life. And somebody can stop at any of those stations (of Spirit’s own unfolding) and they deserve honor and respect at whatever station they are at.

But the earlier stations—archaic to magic to mythic—involve stages that, nonetheless, are ones that humanity’s leading edge passed through in its infancy, childhood, and adolescence. But because religion alone is the repository of the myths created during those times, religion alone is the institution in today’s world that gives legitimacy to those earlier stages and stations for men and women. Religion alone gives legitimacy to the myths. And religion alone owns that 70% of the world’s population at those stages.

All of which is good and beautiful. But precisely because of its ownership of the pre-rational heritage of humanity (and the pre-rational corpus of the great myths), religion alone can help its followers move from the pre-rational, mythic-membership, ethnocentric, absolutistic version of its message to the rational-perspectival, worldcentric, postconventional versions of its own message. This jump from ethnocentric amber to worldcentric orange is the great leap that religions alone can help humanity make.

The great religions alone can thus be the conveyor belt that gives legitimacy (in both the sociological and religious sense) to the orange (and higher) versions of their essential story and their essential spirituality. This is a difficult jump, as everything from terrorists to closeted college students attests.

The prime contributor to this difficulty is a massive Level/Line Fallacy, which both modern science and religion—secular humanists and religious advocates—have embraced with stunning rigor, confusing the mythic level of the spiritual line with the entire spiritual line, and then freezing spiritual intelligence at that childhood stage. Both religion and science have fought eagerly to preserve this absolutely ludicrous layer cake, which creates—to abruptly switch metaphors—a pressure-cooker lid around the world, with rational science and the modern world owning everything orange, and religion stuck with all things amber—premodern, prerational, and mythic.

Small wonder that every militant (“terrorist”) said exactly the same thing: the modern (orange) world makes no room for my (mythic amber) religious beliefs, and therefore I will blow up the modern world in the name of my God.

This categorically will not stop until the particular religion itself makes room in its own catechism for the orange, worldcentric, modern interpretations of its religious message, and sanctions as kosher those orange interpretations (e.g., Vatican II).

The number of brilliant religious and spiritual writers who have emphasized the orange worldcentric interpretations of, say, Christianity, are enormous.

Particularly well known (and recommended) are the works of

  1. Bishop John Shelby Spong (e.g., Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born);
  2. Marcus J. Borg (e.g., The Heart of Christianity);
  3. Stephen Carter (e.g., The Culture of Disbelief);
  4. F. Forrester Church (God and Other Famous Liberals).

And there is a swelling tide of green/postmodern interpretations of Christianity. A few are

  1. John R. Franke and Stanley J. Grenz, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context;
  2. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason;
  3. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology;
  4. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy; The Bible and Culture Collective, The Postmodern Bible.

One would expect many of these adherents to be Gen X and Y, as the green wave continues its swell. What Is Enlightenment? magazine (March–May 2006) reports: “Proving that pomos are gaining tremendous buying power and increasing cultural influence, a study on religious books by Publishers Weekly found that the average age of buyers was a youthful thirty-eight and that the largest group of buyers fell between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four.

And, of course, one of the real pioneers in moving Christianity into the modern and postmodern world: any of the works of Hans Küng. The works of Raimon Panikkar are also provocative in many profound ways.

But, to return to religions in general, helping individual practitioners to particularly negotiate the amber-to-orange horizon is of primary urgency. This difficulty is best analyzed using quadrants:

  • In the UL, psychologically, an individual needs to move from ethnocentric beliefs to world-centric beliefs. This is a difficult transformation from a role-based identity to a person-based identity. This allows the individual to adopt a postconventional, worldcentric moral stance and not just an ethnocentric, us-versus-them mentality. For an individual with a Christian-faith background, the leap comes in realizing that Jesus Christ can be my personal savior, but others may find a different path that also leads to salvation—that the Holy Spirit speaks to men and women in different ways, in different tongues, in different lands, but is fully present nonetheless.
  • Crucially, in the LL, the individual needs to feel that his or her religion supports a truly universal or catholic Jesus, and not merely an ethnocentric creed. In some cases, this is a hotly contested issue, with, for example, Vatican II opening the door and the last two Popes trying to close it. The dominant mode of discourse of Vatican II allowed healthy orange (worldcentric) Christianity; the last two Popes, for all their embrace of mystical states, and all their outward shows of liberal piety, have toed the line on a dominant mode of discourse that is oppressive amber—an amber that tragically represses their own higher, emergent stages of spiritual intelligence.

How this will be institutionalized (in the LR) will help determine the behavior (UR) that is allowed by a person of faith in the modern and postmodern world.

What is particularly required is an institution that embodies the stations of life in its own concrete social (and cultural) system. Will there be a conveyor belt that individuals can safely ride from pre-rational to rational to trans-rational floors, or will religion remain merely the repository of humanity’s childhood?

If religion chooses the latter, then all around it, the other disciplines (law, medicine, science, education) will continue to move into the things that adults do, and religion will remain the things that children (and adult children) do—like blow up things. But if religion lives up to its promise as being that endeavor in humanity that allows Spirit to speak through it, and Spirit is indeed evolving in its own manifestation, then religion becomes a conveyor belt for humanity, carrying it from the childhood productions of Spirit to the adolescent productions of Spirit to the adult productions of Spirit . . . and beyond that into the great tomorrow of Spirit’s continuing display.

This, surely, is the great role for religion in the modern and postmodern world."

(Excerpt From Integral Spirituality, Ken Wilber)