Participatory Turn

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Book: The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies. Edited by Jorge Ferrer with Jacob H. Sherman. SUNY Press, 2008


Here are the publisher details:

“Cuts through traditional debates to argue that religious phenomena are cocreated by human cognition and a generative spiritual power.

Can we take seriously religious experience, spirituality, and mysticism, without reducing them to either cultural-linguistic by-products or simply asserting their validity as a dogmatic fact? The contributors to this volume argue that we can, and they offer a new way: the “participatory turn,” which proposes that individuals and communities have an integral and irreducible role in bringing forth ontologically rich religious worlds. They explore the ways this approach weaves together and gives voice to a number of robust trends in contemporary religious scholarship, including the renewed study of lived spirituality, the postmodern emphasis on embodied and gendered subjectivity, the admission of alternate epistemic perspectives, the irreducibility of religious pluralism, and the pragmatist emphasis on transformation—all trends that raise serious challenges to the currently prevalent linguistic paradigm.

The first part of the book situates the participatory turn in the context of contemporary religious studies; the second part shows how this approach can be applied to various global traditions, ancient and contemporary, from Western esotericism to Jewish mysticism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism, and socially engaged Buddhism.

Contributors include G. William Barnard, Bruno Barnhart, William Chittick, Jorge N. Ferrer, Lee Irwin, Sean Kelly, Brian L. Lancaster, Beverly J. Lanzetta, Robert McDermott, Donald Rothberg, and Jacob H. Sherman.

Jorge N. Ferrer is Chair of the Department of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and the author of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, also published by SUNY Press. Jacob H. Sherman is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of the Divinity at the University of Cambridge." (


Best in-depth review is at

1. George Adams

In: Journal of Contemporary Religion

"The Participatory Turn is divided into two sections: Part One is largely theoretical and offers four essays which attempt to unpack various aspects of the participatory vision that were left undeveloped in Ferrer’s earlier book. A lengthy, 80-page introductory essay by Ferrer and Sherman defines the concept of the participatory vision or “turn” in considerable detail. A second selection by Sherman attempts to put the participatory vision in historical context, suggesting that it actually has a rather lengthy pedigree. Sean Kelly’s essay endeavors to clarify the participatory vision through reference to the contemporary French thinker, Edgar Morin, and his concepts of the “paradigm of complexity” and “recursivity.” The first part closes with another lengthy, in-depth essay by Ferrer, focusing on the relationship between the participatory perspective and religious pluralism. This essay and the introductory essay truly constitute the heart of the book, and readers new to Ferrer’s notion of the participatory vision would be well-advised to begin with these two excellent essays.

In Part Two, the authors attempt to demonstrate how the concept of participation can be applied to various religious traditions, producing a richer and more meaningful understanding of both the uniqueness and commonalities of the traditions examined. In this section, various contributors apply the participatory approach to Jewish mysticism, Western esotericism, Teresa of Avila, the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi, Jesus, the Bhagavad Gita, Henri Bergson, and contemporary Buddhist practice. This is an important section of the book, since the usefulness of Ferrer’s participatory model can only be determined by applying it to specific religious traditions. The degree to which the authors in this section succeed in demonstrating the extent to which “participation” is a useful concept in interpreting these traditions varies considerably. The participatory model seems to offer a very natural and insightful approach to understanding Jewish mysticism, as seen in the essay by Lancaster. By contrast, Lanzetta appears to struggle to incorporate the participatory vision into her analysis of Teresa of Avila, producing interpretations which sometimes seem to strain to fit into the participatory model."

More at: Jorge Ferrer's Participatory Vision of Spirituality

2. Chris Clarke

Source: Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network, 101 (2009)

"This participatory baton carried by Tarnas was then taken up in 2002 by Jorge Ferrer (Revisioning Transpersonal Theory) from the standpoint of the study of religion. Now in The Participatory Turn he is joined by 10 other authors to present a powerfully convincing picture of what may be the most significant philosophical turn since Kant.

Ferrer’s work stands amongst modern reactions to the scandal of religious diversity. How can it be that the major religions claim access to absolute truth, and yet appear to teach contradictory accounts of what this truth is? Indeed, how is it that respected teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton can be deeply versed in interfaith studies and still advocate their own distinct path? The standard answer in the past has been that the religions are many paths ascending the same mountain; that as each path progresses towards increasingly general concepts, so these concepts converge into a single apprehension of reality. Ferrer, however, has summarised with great care and academic rigour the shift towards the position that this is not the case. Rather, the paths remain essentially different. He quotes the Dalai Lama’s view that even within Buddhism the ultimate goals of different spiritual schools are essentially different. Unity does exist, but it is achieved only after the path has ended and all concepts and linguistic expressions have been deconstructed and one is left not with “reality” as it has been classically understood in the West, but mystery. Rather than “many paths up one mountain”, Ferrer advocates the metaphor of “many rivers leading to one ocean”, an ocean that represents not “things as they really are” but rather “the overcoming of narrow self-centredness and thus a liberation from corresponding limiting perspectives”.

From this viewpoint religious diversity is not a scandal that invalidates religion, but it becomes the essential clue to the world. Following this clue, Ferrer proposes that diversity is a necessity, because existence is not pre-given, but is always a creation in which we participate, in diverse ways. More precisely, Ferrer and his co-editor Jacob Sherman argue for “an enactive understanding of the sacred, seeking to approach religions phenomena, experiences and insights as cocreated events.” In other words, they “suggest that religious and spiritual phenomena are ‘participatory’ in the sense that they can emerge from the interaction of all human attributes and a nondetermined spiritual power or creative dynamism of life.”

Presented baldly, as I have just done, without the context that the editors carefully develop, this formulation is hard to grasp; so I will enlarge on some of their concepts. “Enactive” is a term drawn from the influential work of the biologist Francisco Varela on the evolutionary of organisms. The word describes the way in which an organism, when sufficiently complex, can manifest a genuine agency, initiating a particular response to a particular selection of external stimuli. The organism thereby breaks open the chains of cause and effect with a novel causation, and at the same time asserts its own particular sensitivity to the selected stimuli, thus creating a primitive form of “meaning” within the relationship between the organism and its environment. In the human case, the word “enactive” emphasises the active nature of what is being done, in contrast to the passive sense usually carried by “experience”. Varela’s emphasis on action is also echoed in Ferrer and Sherman’s phrase “all human attributes” in the quotation above: we are not just speaking here about a mental experience, but it could be any combination of attributes such as intuitive, emotional, bodily and so on.

The use of the words “cocreated” and “nondetermined spiritual power” are an attempt to express the idea that this action extends outside oneself, but without presuming in advance anything about what exists outside oneself. The action is not a purely internal imagination, but neither is it an interaction with any external entity to which one could ascribe in advance any existence or any nature. The act of participation itself defines and specifies what it is that is other than the self. “Participation” introduces a category that goes beyond the older philosophical concepts of thing-in-itself and reality. It describes an action of the whole person that transcends the duality between self and other.

It becomes clear as the book unfolds that, though the editor’s definition of the participatory turn is phrased in terms of “religious experience”, its implications extend to a domain much wider than that which is traditionally implied by these words. This particular sense of participation engages with science and complexity theory through the idea of enaction. The stress on multiple human attributes reflects a celebration of multiplicity that links with feminist spirituality as well as body-based and indigenous spirituality. The approach not only challenges previous philosophical concepts but reconstructs them. And it reunites the internal (contemplative) and external (active) spiritual paths. Clearly many books would be required to do justice to all this, yet this volume does an excellent job of at least touching on all these, and exploring quite a few in detail. I can mention only part of this below.

Jacob Sherman, the co-editor has a chapter in his own right surveying the history of the multifaceted term “participation” from Plato to the present day, which helps a lot in fleshing out the idea. Aquinas plays a pivotal role in this history by exploring the dynamic act-of-being (esse) as distinct from “being” as “what something is” (essentia), a distinction that he obtained from Avicenna and Al-Farabi. According to Aquinas, everything has being (esse) through participation in absolute being, which is of course identified by him with God. Sherman stresses that this participation is dynamic, and not a merely a logical matter: as Aquinas puts it, “the act of being is the most intimate reality in any being, and that which is most profound in all things.” Since being comes from participation, and participation is a movement out from oneself, “to be created is to be fundamentally ecstatic”. Participation flows through the chain of being (as Dionysius had described earlier) so that “beings are dyadically constituted as an inseparable polarity of substantial existence in themselves and for others.” Participation thus builds a universe that is fundamentally relational.

At this point in the history, however, participation is unidirectional, with “being” descending from God as the sole creator. Meister Eckhart takes this one step further in recognising that human artistic activity is in itself creative, and that by participating in God the human and God “work one work”. On this conception we give being as well as receiving being in a two-way participation. Sherman then traces this line of thought to Schelling and thence to modernity. (This theme of humanity participating with God in the evolution of creation is fascinatingly taken up in detail by Les Lancaster in a chapter on Kabala.)

Although the image of the ocean with many rivers emphasises plurality, it is definitely not the case the “anything goes”. Ferrer insists that there are genuine ethical distinctions to be made in terms of “a variety of markers and practical fruits.” There is a whole area here of relating ethics to the concept of participation which is only sketched at this stage, principally through the chapter by Beverly Lanzetta on feminine theosis (deification) in the writings and life of St Teresa of Avila, and by Donald Rothberg in a chapter on relating inner and outer transformation in Buddhism. Ethics also arise implicitly from the notion of participation in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s teaching, paraphrased here by William Chittick in the saying: “the divine face turned towards each thing is identical with the thing’s face turned towards God” (reminding us of Eckhart’s “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me”). This suggests that in a participatory, relational cosmos the only alternatives may be either to love others as ourselves or to hate others as ourselves."

3. Ann Gleich and Nicholas Boeving

Excellent in-depth review at, May/June 2009. More at: Jorge Ferrer's Participatory Vision of Spirituality

From Ontological/Spiritual Democracy to Political Democracy:

"Implicit in the participatory turn is an extension of democracy from the political to the ontological realm. Here we extend the thought of social theorist Anthony Giddens, who has traced the growth of democracy from the political sphere to the world of family, relationships, and sexuality. The latter have been radicalized through what Giddens calls a "democracy of the emotions." This denotes how the traditional concept of marriage as an economic contract constituted by an inherent gender inequality has been replaced by the "pure relationship," which is characterized by equality, intimacy, and communication. Pointing out that all of these qualities are inherently democratic, Giddens illuminates the striking parallels between the pure relationship and public democracy.

There are similarly striking parallels between political/emotional democracy and a participatory sensibility. As noted, the participatory turn is fundamentally a rethinking of the relationship between the human and the metaphysical. In this approach, a top-down authoritarian model of divinity is replaced by a more intimate and equal partnership and democratic redistribution of creative power. Also, just as the rejection of prescribed and oppressive gender roles is central to a democracy of the emotions, so the feminist stress on sacred immanence, wholeness, and relationality is central to the participatory turn. Ontological hierarchy—whether in the theistic guise of God as Lord and Father or an elitist perennialism—has too often reflected, generated, and justified social and political systems of domination. While the radically democratic dimensions of the participatory turn have been celebrated by John Heron and Jeffrey J. Kripal, a further exploration of its democratic influences and implications will support the full manifestation of its liberative promise.

Hence, just as Giddens calls for a further democratizing of political democracy, we call for a deepening of the ontological democracy implied within a participatory ontology. Included in this call is the question of who is admitted to, as well as left out from, the ostensibly round ontological table to which Ferrer and Sherman invite us. Those of us lucky enough to share our lives with animal companions don't need to read the latest groundbreaking research "proving" the authenticity of their inner emotional lives to know that they have them. They, like us, are conscious beings with an awareness of others. And consciousness, inasmuch as it participates in the mystery our editors invoke, is the crux upon which this model rests. So, to put it rather bluntly: what happens when they die? The problem of atheism is equally ignored. After all, what does the spiritual path (ultimate) look like when spirit itself is denied? It's not that Ferrer and Sherman's model can't account for animals or atheists; it potentially could, but they simply don't go there. One hopes that in the future such quandaries will be afforded greater attention, as these are the kinds of theoretical knots that, once unraveled and reworked, only strengthen a model and lend it greater appeal and explanatory power.

Thinking about the participatory turn as a type of ontological democracy also sheds light on other ethical dimensions. Far from weakening family duties and obligations, Giddens insists a democracy of the emotions fosters and demands more responsibility. The same applies to participatory ethics: the move from a monarchical to a democratic ontology also necessitates a re-envisioning of ourselves from children under the Lord/Father to individuated adults in relationship with the mystery. Many will undoubtedly decry this as Promethean and hubristic. As Ferrer recognizes, to claim that human creativity influences the nature and workings of the mystery may sound arrogant or inflated. Yet with power comes responsibility. And foremost among our responsibilities, Ferrer declares, is to evaluate the different co-constructed religious worlds: "because such [worlds] are not simply given but involve us as agents and cocreators, we are not off the ethical hook where religion is concerned but instead inevitably make cosmo-political and moral choices in all our religious actions." (

Source: Gleig, Ann and Boeving, Nicholas G. Spiritual Democracy-Beyond Consciousness and Culture [Review of the book The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies] Tikkun 23(4): 64.

Bruce Alderman

Source: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 2012, 7(2), pp. 120–126

Correspondence: [email protected]

From a detailed review:

"Integral and participatory approaches to religious studies arguably share a number of core questions and concerns. How might we chart paths through and beyond the cultural-linguistic paradigm that prevails in the Western academic study of religion? How might we foster visionary, meta-paradigmatic approaches that honor the gifts of premodern, modern, and postmodern forms of religious belief and praxis, and that integrally engage and affirm the diversity of theoretical orientations and academic disciplines that have emerged within the field to date? Can we develop culturally sensitive and philosophically robust approaches to the challenge of religious diversity that neither promote hegemonic inclusivism nor slide into depthless relativism? Can we cultivate and train a generation of religious scholar-practitioners capable of navigating within both metaphysical and post-metaphysical spaces with equal facility and finesse?

Readers who find the above questions to be relevant and engaging will find much to reward them in Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman’s (2008) landmark text, The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies. Consisting of an introduction, which provides a scholarly and erudite survey of current challenges and movements within the field of religious studies; three theoretical essays, which outline a number of the important historical and philosophical dimensions of the participatory paradigm; and eight theological essays, which both review and enact a participatory approach within their respective traditions (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Western esoteric, among others), the anthology provides much food for thought for religious scholars and practitioners alike. Of particular interest to integral practitioners, I believe, will be the nuanced discussions of the pragmatic and enactive turns within religious studies, the participatory-enactive model of religious pluralism outlined by Ferrer (2008) and several other authors, and a genealogical survey of the participatory paradigm, which spans thinkers well familiar within the integral corpus: from Plato and Plotinus, to Meister Eckhart, to Schelling and Peirce, to name a few.

One of the central aims of this text, which is multiply realized by its contributing authors, is the articulation and enactment of a participatory approach to religion that recognizes and acknowledges the role of language and culture in the mediation of religious knowledge, without reductively concluding (as some modern religious scholars do) that linguistic and cultural factors ontologically exhaust religious phenomena. Such reductionist approaches tend to overlook the irreducible complexity of religious phenomena, which include many non-linguistic factors, such as somatic, affective, energetic, contemplative, and imaginal modes of knowledge and experience. However, Ferrer and Sherman are equally interested in avoiding the perennialist universalism or inclusivism common in transpersonal circles, which hold that, at depth, there is a singular spiritual experience which all mystics or religionists ultimately access, but which then gets variously interpreted or explained according to cultural or other conditioning factors. Participatory scholars are attempting, in other words, to navigate a path between the Myth of the Framework, which in its strong constructivist form regards religious phenomena as primarily linguistic or cultural creations; and the Myth of the Given, which posits a pre-given, underlying metaphysical reality or spiritual dimension that is available to be uncovered and experienced by all.

Drawing on a diverse range of influences (from Francisco Varela’s enactive model of cognition, to postmodern and feminist critical thought, to post-metaphysical and neo-pragmatist inquiries into the nature of truth, to postcolonial revaluations of emic, experiential, and extra-linguistic sources of knowledge), Ferrer and Sherman thus propose a participatory-enactive model of spiritual knowing and a pluralistic, ontologically “thick” orientation toward spiritual truths. More specifically, in terms of their individual contributions to the text, Ferrer (2008) outlines a participatory model of religious enactment that is capable of non-reductively accounting for the plurality of religious worlds and forms of salvation described by the world’s major (and minor) religious traditions, and Sherman (2008) situates the participatory-enactive paradigm within a broad historical stream of participatory models that helps readers to contextualize and better understand both the venerable roots and the novel promise of this approach.

As mentioned above, and as Wilber (2000, 2006) also does in his recent work, Ferrer (2002, 2008) adopts an enactive epistemology to aid him in the development of a broadly integrative, radically pluralist orientation.

For readers not familiar with this approach, the enactive paradigm is a biological model of embodied cognition that was first articulated by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch (1991) in The Embodied Mind. In the context of their discussion of the possible interface of cognitive scientific and Buddhist epistemologies, the notion of enactive, embodied cognition was proposed as a “middle way” between representationism (the Myth of the Given) and strong constructivism (the Myth of the Framework). According to this view, the representationist perspective is naïve and no longer can be sustained. Our concepts do not simply represent observer-independent, self-existing objects, unrelated to our activity in the world; our categories do not objectively reflect what is already there. On the other hand, however, the enactive paradigm also rejects the strong constructivist idea that reality is entirely an intersubjective creation, or that it is wholly determined by our linguistic or cultural conditioning. From an enactive point of view, then, the world for any organism is best understood not as a pre-given reality which the observer passively and more or less accurately reflects, but as an emergent domain of distinctions enacted by the organism’s unique history of sensorimotor involvement with its wider environment.

Within the context of religious experience, Ferrer (2008) argues, an enactive approach suggests that religious phenomena are neither metaphysical givens nor cultural-linguistic constructions, but rather are creatively emergent, ontologically thick enactments, ineluctably shaped but not wholly determined by, or reducible to, our linguistic categories or cognitive frameworks. More specifically, Ferrer contends that distinct religious worlds and soteriological horizons are enacted through disciplined and spontaneous engagement of religious practitioners with a non-determined spiritual power or reality, such that emergent religious phenomena and spiritual realizations must be regarded as both constructed and revealed.

This move accomplishes two ends at once:

1) it rescues religious phenomena from metaphysical erasure by reductive approaches that seek to explain religion wholly in linguistic or other non-religious terms; and

2) it allows for the justification of a robust religious pluralism, since the plurality of religious worldspaces and soteriological ends is a logical consequence of a participatory view which regards all of reality as creatively and interdependently emergent.

Regarding the latter end, while Ferrer (2008) indeed holds that there are multiple religious worlds and forms of realization, he stresses that this does not lead to a flatland relativism in which there can be no basis for comparison or evaluative critique among traditions. To illustrate his position, he suggests the metaphor of an ocean with many shores: genuine religious paths converge in a common expanse, but this expanse is bounded by multiple distinctive landscapes and ecologies. What is the common ocean or expanse?

Ferrer (2008) argues for a pragmatic rather than a metaphysical meeting point: the overcoming of selfishness and limiting perspectives. Various traditions can be compared and evaluated for the degree to which they help practitioners realize these or related practical ends, for instance, without having to presuppose that spiritual experience or realization in each tradition involves engagement or enactment of the same spiritual realities. Integrally informed readers may find Ferrer’s model of enactment to be less developed or sophisticated than Wilber’s (2002, 2006), in some respects, but I believe they will nevertheless appreciate his creative use of the model to address the thorny problems of religious diversity and conflicting religious truth claims. Integral religious scholars and practitioners may also appreciate his compelling critique of many common models of interreligious ranking, as he points out that comparative theologians have frequently used quite similar comparative criteria to come up with disparate and incommensurable rankings of metaphysical systems. Is a personal or theistic approach superior, for instance, or an impersonal, non-theistic one? He argues that, in a participatory context, the comparative ranking of such metaphysical factors is no longer tenable, since a single underlying metaphysical substrate is no longer presupposed. Such a conclusion is compatible, as well, with the post-metaphysical, enactive framing of Integral Theory, particularly since mystical states are no longer hierarchically arranged and the quadrant model (which supports and informs the notion of the Three Faces of Spirit) posits the co-emergence of personal and impersonal, first- and third-person, perspectives on reality (Wilber, 2006). For readers interested in a fuller discussion of the relation of Ferrer’s work to Wilber’s post-metaphysical spirituality, please see my article, “Opening Space for Translineage Practice” (pp. 57-79)."

Reviews of Individual Essays

Jacob Sherman

From: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 2012, 7(2), pp. 120–126

Bruce Alderman:

"In this issue Ferrer’s participatory-enactive model is helpfully contextualized, as I noted above, by an essay by Jacob Sherman (2008) that traces a genealogy of participatory approaches from Plato to the present day. The overview is quite instructive, and should help readers to better appreciate both the evolution of participatory thinking over the centuries, and the close historical relationship between participatory and integral lineages (since many of the same thinkers are cited as integral pioneers) (McIntosh, 2007; Wilber, 1995).

In a broad overview, Sherman (2008) identifies three major phases of participatory thinking,

  • from Plato’s methexis or

formal participation, in which all objects are participant in, and suffused with, the divine, timeless forms;

  • to Thomas Aquinas’ existential participation, which sees the dynamic act of being (esse) as simultaneously

each being’s most intimate core, distinct from its formal being (essentia), and as an active (ever-renewing) participatory gift of the divine;

  • to Eckhart’s or Schelling’s creative participation, which recognizes creativity

not as an exclusive property of the divine, but as properly belonging to each creature as well, such that human creativity is itself inseparable from (though not necessarily equal with) the creative, generative power of divinity. Here, then, are the foundations of the evolutionary forms of spirituality now gaining popularity, where the human and divine are co-participant in, and co-implicated in, the evolution of the cosmos (Cohen, 2011; McIntosh, 2007; Skolimowski, 1995; Wilber, 2006). Ferrer’s participatory-enactive paradigm is a further extension or development of creative participation, although as Sherman points out, these three forms of participation are not mutually exclusive and may be employed, in different measure and to different ends, by various participatory philosophers.

Sean Kelly

Bruce Alderman:

"In “Participation, Complexity, and the Study of Religion,” the second theoretical essay in the volume, Sean Kelly (2008) reflects on the contributions that Edgar Morin’s complexity theory can make to participatory thought. Of particular interest to integral readers may be the useful, clarifying distinctions and recursive relations he draws between embedded and enactive forms of participation (oikos and autos in Morin’s work).

While Kelly’s initial discussion of these distinctions will likely be familiar to integrally informed readers— embedded and enactive participation are reminiscent of communion and agency in holonic theory—his explanation of their complex, generative co-implication in the process Morin describes as auto-eco-reorganization is insightful, and nicely illustrates the complexity of tetra-enactive processes. (The tetra-enactive dimensions of auto-eco-reorganization become apparent when Kelly points out that, for Morin, these dialogical and recursive relations include subjective and cultural as well as objective and systemic features of the world.1)

Kelly notes the similarity of Morin’s model to Wilber’s, in fact, but also stresses their difference with regard to the role that holarchy plays within their respective systems.

Morin accepts the existence of hierarchical or holarchical patterns of organization, but argues that the move from systems to complexity thinking involves, among other things, the recognition that a whole is not only greater, but in important respects also less, than the sum of its parts (Kelly, 2008). The whole is exceeded by its parts in several important ways (i.e., the parts possess withdrawn qualities or potentials that are not presently included in the “order” of the integrating organism, and retain the potential for autonomous activation), and to some extent the health of the whole depends on the presence of these relatively autonomous agents.

Thus, an adequate description of living systems requires the inclusion, Kelly (2008) argues, of hierarchic, heterarchic, and anarchic patterns of organization together, in complex (complementary and antagonistic) interrelation. Each of these organizational patterns can be further correlated with the concepts of mono-centrism, poly-centrism, and a-centrism, respectively. A model which privileges holarchy is likely to miss or downplay this complexity, and following its own auto-logic (the logic of autopoietic or systemic closure) may lead in religious or political contexts to various forms of monistic inclusivism. Wilber is, of course, quite aware of the potential to misuse hierarchical thinking, and is careful to distinguish between healthy and dominator hierarchies. Kelly suggests, however, that a focus on healthy hierarchy is not sufficient to address this particular issue. Hierarchy in any form, when relied upon as a privileged or primary organizational metaphor, has the potential to over-privilege systemic closure or mono-centrism.

Thus, following Morin, and relating these ideas to the field of religious studies, Kelly argues that a complexity view—which holds hierarchy/mono-centrism, heterarchy/poly-centrism, and anarchy/a-centrism in interdependent relation—can provide participatory religious scholars with the conceptual resources to adopt a similarly complex, non-reductionistic stance in relation to the perennial religious antagonisms such as those among monotheistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic traditions, or among universalist and relativist religious orientations. Regarding the latter, and in agreement with Ferrer (2008), Kelly suggests that perennialist/ universalist approaches, in their celebration of oneness, tend to emphasize the closed auto-logic of enactive participation. And relativist/pluralist orientations, in their prizing of alterity, conversely stress open eco-logic and embedded participation. But from a participatory view, which recognizes enactment and embedment as not only dialogically but recursively related (enactment is embedded, and embedment is enactive), these antagonisms are not problems to be resolved ultimately in the direction of one pole or the other. They are creative and generative tensions in perichoretic play.

Lee Irwin

Bruce Alderman:

In the second half of The Participatory Turn, eight religious scholar-practitioners contribute essays that explore a participatory approach within the context of a variety of religious and philosophical orientations, from Judaism to Christianity, Islam, Western esotericism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the philosophical work of Henri Bergson. For the purposes of this review, I will highlight only a few which I believe may be of interest to readers of this issue, but each essay demonstrates a participatory sensibility in action, and many offer resources from within the represented traditions that can help deepen, expand, and refine participatory understanding.

In “Esoteric Paradigms and Participatory Spirituality in the Teachings of Mikhaël Aïvanhov,” Lee Irwin (2008) discusses the participatory and enactive dimensions of the spiritual life and practice of the Bulgarian-French mystic, Mikhaël Aïvanhov. The chapter is of note particularly for its introductory discussion of the problem of metaphysics in postmodern, humanistic, and transpersonal approaches to religious studies, and for its insightful reflections on the scope and promise of a participatory metaphysical orientation. With my own interest in interreligious dialogue, comparative theology, and translineage practice, I especially appreciated his remarks on the problematic or overly limiting orientations toward metaphysics commonly exhibited by both “insider” and “outsider” approaches to the study of religion. Irwin argues, in short, that proponents of insider approaches to religion tend to absolutize their particular metaphysical perspectives, and consequently end up advocating either exclusivist or inclusivist interreligious orientations; whereas proponents of humanistic or postmodern, outsider approaches are often dismissive of metaphysical claims altogether, choosing instead to explain religion in non-metaphysical terms (e.g., as a linguistic, cultural, or biological activity), and to bracket out or deny many of a tradition’s core ontological beliefs (p. 199). A participatory approach, Irwin suggests, offers a middle path between these extremes—allowing for a tradition’s ontological claims to be taken seriously, within a participatory-enactive framing, while also avoiding the problematic metaphysical closure of many insider or even universalist/transpersonal approaches to the study of religion. Regarding Aïvanhov himself, Irwin presents him as an exemplar of a participatory approach. This portion of the essay, however, was less compelling for me. I am not very familiar with Aïvanhov’s teachings, but from Irwin’s descriptions, his participatory orientation strikes me as a modernist form of esoteric metaphysics similar to that found in theosophical or other early 20th-century movements. It is participatory to the extent that it encourages practitioners to creatively engage with and strive to embody spiritual truths in a multi-dimensional way (involving spirit, mind, heart, and body), but its epistemology appears to be essentially ontotheological or committed to the metaphysics of presence. As such, it does not exemplify the post-postmodern, enactive sensibility that characterizes either Wilber’s (2006) post-metaphysical project or Ferrer’s (2008) participatory one. It certainly can be re-interpreted from either point of view, and it may be fruitful to do so, but it does not appear to embody such an understanding in its own teachings."

Donald Rothberg

Bruce Alderman:

"In “Connecting Inner and Outer Transformation,” Buddhist teacher Donald Rothberg (2008) presents an integrative, participatory model of Buddhism that equally engages personal and social dimensions of spiritual practice. Suggesting that the complex challenges of our age demand the development of new religious approaches that honor and integrate subjective, objective, and intersubjective domains of experience, Rothberg reviews several examples of the fissures between spiritual and social approaches that have predominated in the past, and then introduces a matrix model of spiritual practice he developed to help his own students and colleagues better integrate these fundamental orientations. In particular, he suggests a nine-field matrix based on three fundamental perspectives (individual, relational, and collective), which are visualized as mutually interactive and interpenetrating domains. For instance, one can take an individual approach to individual practice (meditation), or a relational approach to individual development (psychotherapeutic practice), or an individual or relational approach to exploring collective conditioning (analyzing the impact of sexism on individual or community spiritual life), or even a collective approach to relational reconciliation or healing (through broad institutional programs or reforms), and so on.

For readers knowledgeable of Integral Theory, these recommendations will likely sound strongly reminiscent of aspects of the Integral model. Rothberg (2008) mentions Wilber’s work in his essay, but does not appear to directly give him credit for any of the above concepts.3 I highlight this essay here primarily for its consonance with Integral Theory, and more particularly for the insight it might give spiritual practitioners into a richly recursive application of Wilber’s quadrant distinctions to generate overlapping and mutually informing and supporting fields of inquiry and practice."

William Barnard

Bruce Alderman:

"Many of the other essays in the text either take a participatory approach to, or reveal participatory sensibilities and resources already present within, traditional religious paths—from unfolding a Kabbalistic understanding of our participatory, co-creative involvement in the evolution of the cosmos (Lancaster, “Engaging with the Mind of God”); to exploring the participatory dimensions of the Christ-event (Barnhart, “One Spirit, One Body”); to demonstrating how the Bhagavad Gita has been diversely employed in the participatory-enactive unfolding of distinctive spiritual visions and emancipatory horizons (McDermott, “Participation Comes of Age”). G. William Barnard’s (2008) “Pulsating with Life” is the only essay in this section of the text that deals with an explicitly philosophical topic: Bergson’s notion of durée. While Barnard (2008) does not regard Bergson’s philosophy as compatible in all respects with a participatory orientation, he suggests that the subtle temporal concept of durée, which conceives of time as an unfolding/enfolding movement similar to Whitehead’s (2007) “creative advance of nature,” can be used by participatory theorists to support a coherent, persuasive vision of the world in which everything and everyone is understood to possess individual integrity, a world in which particularity, difference, uniqueness, and pluralism are central and deeply valued, while it simultaneously affirms that an underlying continuity, interconnection, and unity also exist and are equally crucial. (p. 344)

Importantly for a participatory approach, the nature of durée, in its dynamic and decidedly musical enfolding/ unfolding movement, necessarily implies that each participatory enactment or event will be subtly or significantly different—a unique unfolding of novelty in continuity, consonant with Ferrer’s (2008) metaphor of spiritual experience or realization as an ocean with many shores.

While not all of the essays in this volume are equally compelling or successful, especially in terms of expressing or embodying a post-postmodern, participatory-enactive approach to religion and mysticism, the text as a whole serves as an excellent introduction to participatory thinking past and present; and with its many references alone, it provides students and scholars alike with a richly representative selection of the promising work currently being done in the field of religious studies. The professional and theoretical differences between Wilber and Ferrer notwithstanding, I can recommend The Participatory Turn to integral religious scholars and students as worthy of appreciative and serious engagement, and stand in hope of future collaborative inquiry among practitioners in both of these communities."

Short Reviews

“What a truly hopeful and beautiful book this is. Skillfully negotiating between the Charybdis of a reductive but precious rationalist contextualism and the Scylla of the profound but not always sufficiently critical religious traditions, these authors propose a new, more dialectical path for the future of religious studies—a path of participation that recognizes in a rare fashion the truly creative nature of that fundamentally mysterious process of human consciousness we so mundanely call ‘interpretation.’ Catalyzed by a marvelous opening essay on the history and meaning of this participatory turn, the volume promises to become for a new generation what Katz’s and Forman’s pioneering volumes were for earlier ones.”

— Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion

“In its quiet, careful way, The Participatory Turn is at once a nuanced portrait of a great sea change taking place in religious studies and a clear-eyed manifesto on behalf of that change. In their brilliant introduction, Ferrer and Sherman have managed to condense and summarize a vast and complex field, clarified its multitude of diverse strands, and set forth a richly coherent philosophical synthesis. One senses that with this book and the intellectual shift it describes, the academic study of religion has, quite dramatically, come in from the cold. The book delineates a pathway for the discipline to enter back into direct engagement with the great mystery it seeks to illuminate, employing the many critical advances of the past century’s scholarship but in a manner that is no longer constrained by the hidden reductionism of many conventional academic assumptions. The Participatory Turn presents an emerging orientation for religious studies that is not only cogent and empowering but perhaps even inevitable.”

— Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (

More Reviews

A review by Craig Chalquist, appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2009, Vol. 41, No. 1


Text: The Participatory Turn. The Plurality of Religions and the Spirit of Pluralism. By Jorge N. Ferrer

From a version of the introduction, produced for publication in Tikkun magazine. (titles are ours)


Jorge Ferrer:

"My intention is this essay is to first uncover the spiritual narcissism characteristic of our shared historical approach to religious differences, as well as briefly discuss the shortcomings of the main forms of religious pluralism that have been proposed as its antidote. Second, I introduce the “participatory turn” in the study of spirituality and religion, showing how it can help us to develop a fresh appreciation of religious diversity that eschews the dogmatism and competitiveness involved in privileging any particular tradition over the rest without falling into cultural-linguistic or naturalistic reductionisms. Then I offer some practical orientations to assess the validity of spiritual truths and outline the contours of a participatory critical theory of religion. To conclude, I suggest that a participatory approach to religion not only fosters our spiritual individuation in the context of a shared spiritual human family, but also turns the problem of religious plurality into a celebration of the spirit of pluralism.

Critique of Spiritual Narcisssism and the existing interpretations of religious pluralism

A few marginal voices notwithstanding, the search for a common core, universal essence, or single metaphysical world behind the multiplicity of religious experiences and cosmologies can be regarded as over. Whether guided by the exclusivist intuitionism of traditionalism or the fideism of theological agendas, the outcome—and too often the intended goal—of such universalist projects was unambiguous: the privileging of one particular spiritual or religious system over all others. In addition to universalism, the other attempts to explain religious divergences have typically taken one of the three following routes: exclusivism (“my religion is the only true one, the rest are false”), inclusivism (“my religion is the most accurate or complete, the rest are lower or partial”), and ecumenical pluralism (“there may be real differences between our religions, but all lead ultimately to the same end”).

The many problems of religious exclusivism are well known. It easily fosters religious intolerance, fundamentalist tendencies, and prevents a reciprocal and symmetrical encounter with the other where divergent spiritual viewpoints may be regarded as enriching options or genuine alternatives. In the wake of the scope of contemporary theodiversity, the defense of the absolute cognitive superiority of one single tradition over all others is more dubious than ever. Inclusivist and ecumenically pluralist approaches suffer from similar difficulties in that they tend to conceal claims for the supremacy of one or another religious tradition, ultimately collapsing into the dogmatism of exclusivist stances. Consider, for example, the Dalai Lama’s defense of the need of a plurality of religions. While celebrating the existence of different religions to accommodate the diversity of human dispositions, he contends that final spiritual liberation can only be achieved through the emptiness practices of his own school of Tibetan Buddhism, implicitly situating all other spiritual choices as lower. In a way, the various ways we have approached religious diversity—exclusivism, inclusivism, and ecumenical pluralism—can be situated along a continuum ranging from more gross to more subtle forms of “spiritual narcissism,” which elevate one’s favored tradition or spiritual choice as superior. The bottom line is that, explicitly or implicitly, religious traditions have persistently looked down upon one another, each believing that their truth is more complete or final, and that their path is the only or most effective one to achieve full salvation or enlightenment. Let us now look at several types of religious pluralism that have been proposed in response to this disconcerting situation.

Insufficiency of Earlier Varieties of Religious Pluralism

Religious pluralism comes in many guises and fashions. Before suggesting a participatory remedy to our spiritual narcissism in dealing with religious difference, I critically review here four major types of religious pluralism: ecumenical, soteriological, postmodern, and metaphysical.

As we have seen, ecumenical pluralism admits genuine differences among religious beliefs and practices, but maintains that they all ultimately lead to the same end. The problem with this apparently tolerant stance is that, whenever its proponents describe such religious goal, they invariably do it in terms that favor one or another specific tradition (e.g., union with God, nondual liberation, and so forth). This is why ecumenical pluralism not only degenerates into exclusivist or inclusivist stances, but also trivializes the encounter with “the other”— after all, what’s the point of engaging in interfaith exchanges if we already know that we are all heading toward the same goal? The contradictions of pluralistic approaches that postulate an equivalent end-point for all traditions have been pointed out by students of religion for decades. A genuine religious pluralism, it is today widely accepted, needs to acknowledge the existence of alternative religious aims, and putting all religions on a single scale will not do it.

In response to these concerns, a number of scholars have proposed a soteriological pluralism that envisions a multiplicity of irreducible “salvations” associated with the various religious traditions. Due to their diverse ultimate visions of reality and personhood, religious traditions stress the cultivation of particular human potentials or competences (e.g., access to visionary worlds, mind/body integration, expansion of consciousness, transcendence of the body, and so forth), which naturally leads to distinct human transformations and states of freedom. A variant of this approach is the postulation of a limited number of independent but equiprimordial religious goals and conceptually possible ultimate realities, for example, theism (in its various forms), monistic nondualism (à la Advaita Vedanta), and process nondualism (such as Yogacara Buddhism’s). The soteriological approach to religious difference, however, remains agnostic about the ontological status of spiritual realities, being therefore pluralistic only at a phenomenological level (i.e., admitting different human spiritual fulfillments), but not at an ontological or metaphysical one (i.e., at the level of spiritual realities).

The combination of pluralism and metaphysical agnosticism is also a chief feature of the postmodern solution to the problem of conflicting truth claims in religion. The translation of religious realities into cultural-linguistic fabrications allows postmodern scholars to explain interreligious differences as the predictable upshot of the world’s various religious beliefs, practices, vocabularies, or language games. Postmodern pluralism denies or brackets the ontological status of the referents of religious language, which are usually seen as meaningless, obscure, or parasitic upon the despotic dogmatism of traditional religious metaphysics. Further, even if such spiritual realities were to exist, our human cognitive apparatus would only allow us to know our culturally and linguistically mediated experience of them. Postmodern pluralism recognizes a genuine plurality of religious goals, but at the cost of either stripping religious claims of any extra-linguistic veridicality or denying that we can know such truths even if they exist.

A notable exception to this trend is the metaphysical or deep pluralism advocated by some process theologians. Relying on Alfred North Whitehead’s distinction between “God’s unchanging Being” and “God’s changing Becoming,” this proposal defends the existence of two ontological or metaphysical religious ultimates to which the various traditions are geared: God, which corresponds to the Biblical Yaveh, the Buddhist Sambhogakaya, and Advaita Vedanta’s Saguna Brahman; and Creativity, which corresponds to Meister Eckhart’s Godhead, the Buddhist emptiness and Dharmakaya, and Advaita Vedanta’s Nirguna Brahman. A third possible ultimate, the cosmos itself, is at times added in connection to Taoism and indigenous spiritualities that venerate the sacredness of the natural world. In addition to operating within a theistic framework adverse to many traditions, however, deep pluralism not only establishes highly dubious equivalencies among religious goals (e.g., Buddhist emptiness and Advaita’s Nirguna Brahman), but also forces the rich diversity of religious ultimates into the arguably Procrustean molds of God’s “unchanging Being” and “changing Becoming.”

The co-creation hypothesis as solution to diversity

"Can we take the plurality of religions seriously today without reducing them to either cultural-linguistic by-products or incomplete facets of a single spiritual truth or universe? I believe that we can and in the anthology I recently co-edited with Jacob H. Sherman, The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies (SUNY Press, 2008), we are calling this third way possible the “participatory turn” in the study of religion and spirituality.

Briefly, the participatory turn argues for an understanding of the sacred that approaches religious phenomena, experiences, and insights as cocreated events. Such events can engage the entire range of human faculties (e.g., rational, imaginal, somatic, aesthetic, contemplative, and so forth) with the creative unfolding of reality or the mystery in the enactment—or “bringing forth”—of ontologically rich religious worlds. Put somewhat differently, we suggest that religious and spiritual phenomena are “participatory” in the sense that they can emerge from the interaction of all human attributes and a creative spiritual power or dynamism of life. More specifically, we propose that religious worlds and phenomena, such as the Kabbalistic four realms, the various Buddhist cosmologies, or Teresa’s seven mansions, come into existence out of a process of participatory cocreation between human multidimensional cognition and the generative force of life and/or the spirit.

But, how far are we willing to go in affirming the cocreative role of the human in spiritual matters? To be sure, most scholars may be today ready to allow that particular spiritual states (e.g., the Buddhist jhanas, Teresa’s mansions, or the various yogi samadhis), spiritual visions (e.g., Ezekiel’s Divine Chariot, Hildegard’s visionary experience of the Trinity, or Black Elk’s Great Vision), and spiritual landscapes or cosmologies (e.g., the Buddha lands, the Heavenly Halls of Merkavah mysticism, or the diverse astral domains posited by Western esoteric schools) are largely or entirely constructed. Nevertheless, I suspect that many religious scholars and practitioners may feel more reticent in the case of spiritual entities (such as the Tibetan daikinis, the Christian angels, or the various Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon) and, in particular, in the case of ultimate principles and personae (such as the Biblical Yaveh, the Buddhist sunyata, or the Hindu Brahman). Would not accepting their cocreated nature undermine not only the claims of most traditions, but also the very ontological autonomy and integrity of the mystery itself? Response: Given the rich variety of incompatible spiritual ultimates and the contradictions involved in any conciliatory strategy, I submit that it is only by promoting the cocreative role of human cognition to the very heart and summit of each spiritual universe that we can preserve the ultimate unity of the mystery—otherwise we would be facing the arguably equally unsatisfactory alternative of having to either reduce spiritual universes to fabrications of the human imagination or posit an indefinite number of isolated spiritual universes. By conceiving spiritual universes and ultimates as the outcome of a process of participatory cocreation between human multidimensional cognition and an undetermined spiritual power, however, we rescue the ultimate unity of the mystery while simultaneously affirming its ontological richness and overcoming the reductionisms of cultural-linguistic, psychological, and biologically naturalistic explanations of religion.

What I am proposing here, then, is that different spiritual ultimates can be cocreated through intentional or spontaneous participation in a dynamic and undetermined mystery, spiritual power, and/or generative force of life or reality. This participatory perspective does not contend that there are two, three, or any limited quantity of pregiven spiritual ultimates, but rather that the radical openness, interrelatedness, and creativity of the mystery and/or the cosmos allows for the participatory cocreation of an indefinite number of self-disclosures of reality and corresponding religious worlds. These worlds are not statically closed but fundamentally dynamic and open to the continued transformation resulting (at least in part) from the creative impact of human visionary imagination and religious endeavors.

In the context of the dilemmas posed by religious pluralism, one of the advantages of a participatory account of religious knowing is that it frees religious thinking from the presupposition of a single, predetermined ultimate reality that binds it to reductionistic, exclusivist, or dogmatic formulations. Once we do away with this assumption, on the one hand, and recognize the ontologically creative role of spiritual cognition, on the other, the multiplicity of religious truth claims stops being a source of metaphysical agnosticism and becomes entirely natural, perhaps even essential. If we choose to see the various spiritual ultimates not as competing to match a pregiven spiritual referent but as creative transformations of an undetermined mystery, then the conflict over claims of alternative religious truths vanishes like a mirage. Rather than being a source of conflict or a cause for considerate tolerance, the diversity of spiritual truths and cosmologies becomes a reason for wonder and celebration—wonder inspired by the inexhaustible creative power of the mystery and celebration of our participatory role in such creativity, as well as of the emerging possibilities for mutual enrichment that arise out of the encounter of traditions. In short, a participatory approach to religion seek to enact with body, mind, heart, and consciousness a creative spirituality that lets a thousand spiritual flowers bloom.

Although this may at first sound like a rather “anything goes” approach to religious claims, I hold to the contrary that recognizing a diversity of cocreated religious worlds in fact asks us to be more perspicuous in discerning their differences and merits. Because such worlds are not simply given but involve us as agents and cocreators, we are not off the ethical hook where religion is concerned but instead inevitably make cosmo-political and moral choices in all our religious actions.

How can we evaluate religions in the context of co-creation?

This does not mean that we cannot discriminate between more evocative, skillful, or sophisticated artifacts.

Whereas the participatory turn renders meaningless the postulation of qualitative distinctions among traditions according to a priori doctrines or a prearranged hierarchy of spiritual insights, these comparative grounds can be sought in a variety of practical fruits (existential, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal), perhaps anchored around two basic orientations: the egocentrism test (i.e., to what extent does a spiritual tradition, path, or practice free its practitioners from gross and subtle forms of narcissism and self-centeredness?) and the dissociation test (i.e., to what extent does a spiritual tradition, path, or practice foster the integrated blossoming of all dimensions of the person?). As I see it, this approach invites a more nuanced, contextual, and complex evaluation of religious claims based on the recognition that traditions, like human beings, are likely to be both “higher” and “lower” in relation to one another, but in different regards (e.g., fostering contemplative competences, ecological awareness, mind/body integration, and so forth). It is important then not to understand the ideal of a reciprocal and symmetrical encounter among traditions in terms of a trivializing or relativistic egalitarianism. By contrast, a truly symmetrical encounter can only take place when traditions open themselves to teach and be taught, fertilize and be fertilized, transform and be transformed.

Two important qualifications need to be made about these suggested guidelines. The first relates to the fact that some spiritual paths and liberations may be more adequate for different psychological and cultural dispositions (as well as for the same individual at distinct developmental junctures), but this does not make them universally superior or inferior. The well-known four yogas of Hinduism (reflection, devotion, action, and experimentation) come quickly to mind in this regard, as do other spiritual typologies that can be found in other traditions. The second qualification refers to the complex difficulties inherent in any proposal of cross-cultural criteria for religious truth. It should be obvious, for example, that my emphasis on the overcoming of narcissism and self-centeredness, although arguably central to most spiritual traditions, may not be shared by all. Even more poignantly, it is likely that most religious traditions would not rank too highly in terms of the dissociation test; for example, gross or subtle forms of repression, control, or strict regulation of the human body and its vital/sexual energies (versus the promotion of their autonomous maturation, integration, and participation in spiritual knowing) are rather the norm in most past and present contemplative endeavors.

The need for embodied spirituality

The embodied and integrative impetus of the participatory turn is foundational for the development of a participatory critical theory of religion. From a participatory standpoint, the history of religions can be read, in part, as a story of the joys and sorrows of human dissociation. From ascetically enacted mystical ecstasies to world-denying monistic realizations, and from heart-expanding sexual sublimation to the moral struggles (and failures) of ancient and modern mystics and spiritual teachers, human spirituality has been characterized by an overriding impulse toward a liberation of consciousness that has too often taken place at the cost of the underdevelopment, subordination, or control of essential human attributes such as the body or sexuality. Even contemporary religious leaders and teachers across traditions tend to display an uneven development that arguably reflects this generalized spiritual bias; for example, high level cognitive and spiritual functioning combined with ethically conventional or even dysfunctional interpersonal, emotional, or sexual behavior.

Furthermore, it is likely that many past and present spiritual visions are to some extent the product of dissociated ways of knowing—ways that emerge predominantly from accessing certain forms of transcendent consciousness but in disconnection from more immanent spiritual sources. For example, spiritual visions that hold that body and world are ultimately illusory (or lower, or impure, or a hindrance to spiritual liberation) arguably derive from states of being in which the sense of self mainly or exclusively identifies with subtle energies of consciousness, getting uprooted from the body and immanent spiritual life. From this existential stance, it is understandable, and perhaps inevitable, that both body and world are seen as illusory or defective. In contrast, when our somatic and vital worlds are invited to participate in our spiritual lives, making our sense of identity permeable to not only transcendent awareness but also immanent spiritual energies, then body and world become spiritually significant realities that are recognized as crucial for human and cosmic spiritual fruition.

This account does not seek to excoriate past spiritualities, which may have been at times—though by no means always—perfectly legitimate and perhaps even necessary in their particular times and contexts, but merely to highlight the historical rarity of a fully embodied or integrative spirituality. At any rate, a participatory approach to spirituality and religion needs to be critical of oppressive, repressive, and dissociative religious beliefs, attitudes, practices, and institutional dynamics.

Conclusion:Spiritual Individuation in a Common Spiritual Family

Let me conclude this essay with some reflections on the future of world religion and spirituality.

Briefly, to embrace our participatory role in religious knowing may lead to a shift from searching for a global spirituality organized around a single ultimate vision to recognizing an already existent spiritual human family that branches out from the same creative root. Traditions may then be able to find their longed-for unity not so much in a single spiritual megasystem or global vision, but in their common roots—that is, in that deep bond constituted by the undetermined dimension of the mystery (or the generative power of life, if one prefers more naturalistic terms) in which all traditions participate in the cocreation of their spiritual insights and cosmologies.

Like members of a healthy family, religious people may then stop attempting to impose their particular beliefs on others and might instead become a supportive and enriching force for the “spiritual individuation” of other practitioners, both within and outside their traditions. This mutual empowerment of spiritual creativity may lead to the emergence of not only a rich variety of coherent spiritual perspectives that can potentially be equally aligned to the mystery, but also a human community formed by fully differentiated spiritual individuals. Situated at the creative nexus of immanent and transcendent spiritual energies, spiritually individuated persons might become unique embodiments of the mystery capable of cocreating novel spiritual understandings, practices, and even expanded states of freedom. If we accept this approach, it is plausible to conjecture that our religious future may bear witness to a greater than ever plurality of creative visionary and existential spiritual developments. This account would be consistent with a view of the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit as moving from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity towards one of infinite differentiation-in-communion.

The affirmation of our shared spiritual family may be accompanied by the search for a common—nonabsolutist and contextually sensitive—global ethics. It is important to stress that this global ethics cannot arise out of our highly ambiguous moral religious past but needs to be forged in the fire of contemporary interreligious dialogue and cooperative spiritual inquiry. In other words, it is likely that any future global ethics will not be grounded in our past spiritual history but in our critical reflection on such history in the context of our present-day moral intuitions (for example, about the pitfalls of religious dogmatism, fanaticism, narcissism, and dissociation). Besides its obvious relevance for regulating cross-cultural and interfaith conflicts, the adoption of a global ethics may be a crucial step in bringing about the mutual respect and openness among practitioners necessary for sustaining and invigorating both their common roots and their individual spiritual blossoming.

To conclude, I propose that the question of religious pluralism can be satisfactorily answered by affirming the generative power of life or the mystery, as well as of our participatory role in its creative unfolding. The time has come, I believe, to let go of our spiritual narcissism and hold our spiritual convictions in a more humble, discriminating, and perhaps spiritually seasoned manner—one that recognizes the plausibility of a multiplicity of spiritual truths and religious worlds while offering grounds for the critical appraisal of dissociative, repressive, and/or oppressive religious expressions, beliefs and practices. To envision religious manifestations as the outcome of our cocreative communion with an undetermined spiritual power or dynamism of life allows affirming a plurality of ontologically rich religious worlds without falling into any of today’s fashionable reductionisms. The many challenges raised by the plurality of religions can only be met by embracing fully the critical spirit of pluralism.


Extracted, with some original passages, from J. N. Ferrer & J. H. Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies, State University of New York Press, October 2008 ( The author would like to thank Jacob H. Sherman for his helpful feedback and editorial advice.


Jorge N. Ferrer, Ph.D. is chair of the Department of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, and author of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, State University of New York Press, 2002. Prof. Ferrer offers talks and workshops on integral spirituality and education both nationally and internationally.