Participatory Vision of the Future of Religion

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Essay: The Plurality of Religions and the Spirit of Pluralism: A Participatory Vision of the Future of Religion. Jorge N. Ferrer, California Institute of Integral Studies. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies


"This paper first uncovers the subtle spiritual narcissism that has characterized historical approaches to religious diversity and discusses the shortcomings of the main forms of religious pluralism that have been proposed as its antidote: ecumenical, soteriological, postmodern, and metaphysical. It then argues that a participatory pluralism paves the way for an 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. Discussion includes the question of the validity of spiritual truths and the development of a participatory critical theory of religion. The essay concludes with an exploration of different scenarios for the future of religion—global religion, mutual transformation, interspiritual wisdom, and spirituality without religion—and proposes that such a future may be shaped by spiritually individuated persons engaged in processes of cosmological hybridization in the context of a common spiritual family. A participatory approach to spirituality turns the problem of religious plurality into a celebration of the critical spirit of pluralism.

When David B. Barret, the main editor of the massive World Christian Encyclopedia (Barret et al., 2001), was asked what he had learnt about religious change in the world after several decades of research, he responded with the following: “We have identified nine thousand and nine hundred distinct and separate religions in the world, increasing by two or three religions every day” (cited in Lester, 2002, p. 28). Although there may be something to celebrate in this spiritual diversity and ongoing innovation, it is also clear that the existence of many conflicting religious visions of reality and human nature is a major cause of the prevailing skepticism toward religious and spiritual truth claims. Against the background of modernist assumptions about a singular objective reality, it is understandable that the presence of a plurality of mutually exclusive accounts leads to the confident dismissal of religious explanations. It is as if contemporary culture has succumbed to the Cartesian anxiety behind what W. E. Hocking called the “scandal of plurality,” the worry that “if there are so many divergent claims to ultimate truth, then perhaps none is right” (cited in Clarke, 1997, p. 134). This competitive predicament among religious beliefs is not only a philosophical or existential problem; it has also has profoundly affected how people from different credos engage one another and, even today, plays an important role in many interreligious conflicts, quarrels, and even holy wars.2 As the theologian Hans Küng (1988) famously said, there can be “no world peace without peace among religions” (p. 194) to which we may add that “there might not be complete peace among religions without ending the competition among religions.”

Typical responses to the scandal of religious plurality tend to fall along a continuum between two drastically opposite positions. At one end of the spectrum, materialistic, scientifically-minded, and “nonreligionist” scholars retort to the plurality of religious world views to downplay or dismiss altogether the cognitive value of religious knowledge claims, regarding religions as cultural fabrications which, like art pieces or culinary dishes, can be extremely diverse and even personally edifying but never the bearers of any “objective” truth whatsoever (e.g., Rorty, 1998). At the other end, spiritual practitioners, theologians, and “religionist” scholars vigorously defend the cognitive value of religion, addressing the problem of religious pluralism by either endorsing the exclusive (or ultimately superior) truth of their preferred tradition or developing universalist understandings that seek to reconcile the conflicting spiritual truths within one or another encompassing system. Despite their professed integrative stance, most universalist visions of human spirituality tend to distort the essential message of the various religious traditions, hierarchically favoring certain spiritual truths over others and raising serious obstacles for interreligious harmony and open-ended spiritual inquiry (see Ferrer, 2000, 2002).

My intention is this essay is to first uncover the spiritual narcissism characteristic of our shared historical approach to religious diversity, 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 avoids 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 explore different scenarios for the future or religion and suggest that a participatory approach to religion not only fosters our spiritual individuation in the context of a common human spiritual family, but also turns the problem of religious plurality into a celebration of the critical spirit of pluralism."


The 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."

The Future of Religion: Four Scenarios:

Jorge Ferrer:

"In light of our previous discussion, let us now consider four scenarios for the future of world religion and spirituality. As we go through them, I invite you, the reader, to not only consider their plausibility but also inquire into what particular scenario you feel is the most desirable: What would you like to see happening?"

A Global Religion:

The first scenario portrays the emergence of a single world religion for humankind.7 This global religion may stem from either the triumph of one spiritual tradition over the rest (e.g., Catholic Christianity or the Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism) or some kind of synthesis of many or most traditions (e.g., the Baha’i faith or Wilber’s neo-perennialism). The former possibility would entail that religious practitioners—except those from the “winning” tradition—recognize the erroneous or partial nature of their beliefs and embrace the superior truth of an already existent tradition. The latter means that most or all traditions would ultimately come together or be integrated—whether in an evolutionary, hierarchical, systemic, or perspectival fashion—into one religious megasystem embraced by all religious people. A contemporary defense of a converging world faith emerging from interreligious interactions is offered by Braybrooke (1998).

Mutual Transformation of Religions:

In this scenario, the various religious traditions conserve their identity, but are enriched and transformed through a variety of interreligious exchanges and interactions (Cobb, 1996; Streng, 1993). This approach paves the way for not only the adoption of practices from other traditions (e.g., Gross & Muck, 2003), but also the emergence of deeper understandings and even revisions of one’s beliefs in light of others’ religious perspectives (e.g., Ingram & Streng, 1986)—a phenomenon aptly described by Sharma (2005) in terms of “reciprocal illumination.” A historical precursor of this possibility can be found in religious syncretism (i.e., the mixture or two or more traditions), such as the Haitian Vodou’s blending of Christianity and African traditions or the Brazilian Santo Daime Church’s incorporation of the indigenous use of ayahuasca into a Christian container. Today this religious cross-fertilization is visibly taking place in the interfaith dialogue, the New Age movement, and a legion of eclectic and integrative spiritual groups. Interestingly, the Jesuit thinker Teilhard de Chardin believed that this cross-fertilization would lead to a “global consciousness” characterized by religious “creative unions in which diversity is not erased but intensified” (Cousins, 1992, p. 8).

Within this scenario I would also locate the growing phenomenon of “multiple religious participation” (Berthrong, 1999), in which an individual partakes in the practices and belief systems of more than one tradition, leading to a “multiple” or “hyphenated religious identity,” such as Jewish-Buddhist, Hindu-Christian, Buddhist-Taoist, and so forth. Also related to this picture is the ongoing renewal of many religious traditions through cross-cultural encounters, a trend that can be discerned in contemporary American Buddhism, Neo-Hindu applied spiritualities, and the novel social understandings of salvation in Asia (Clarke, 2006). What is more, some sociologists claim that this phenomenon may also be impacting secular culture. This is the gist of Campbell’s (1999) “Easternization thesis,” according to which the West is changing its ethos via the importation of Eastern religions and adopting Eastern ideas and practices such as interconnectedness, reincarnation, or meditation (see also Bruce, 2002; Hamilton, 2002). A contemporary way to speak of all these richly transformative religious and cultural interactions is in terms of processes of “cosmological hybridization” (Lahood, 2008), which, I suggest, can be not only conceptual (of spiritual beliefs and understandings), but also praxis-oriented (of spiritual practices) and even visionary (of spiritual ontologies and cosmologies).

Interspiritual Wisdom:

Another scenario is the affirmation or emergence of a number of spiritual principles, teachings, or values endorsed by all religious traditions. Küng’s (1991) proposal for a global ethics heralded this possibility, but it was the late Christian author Teasdale (1999) who offered its most compelling articulation in terms of a “universal mysticism” grounded in the practice of “interspirituality” or “the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions” (p. 26). Though seeking to avoid the homogenization of traditions into one single global religion, Teasdale uses the traditional metaphor of the blind men and the elephant to convey his perspectival account of a given “ultimate reality” of which all religions have partial perceptions that nonetheless constitute paths leading to the same summit. Developing a similar intuition but eschewing Teasdale’s objectivist assumptions is Lanzetta’s (2007) recent proposal for an “intercontemplative” global spirituality that affirms the interdependence of spiritual principles and can “give birth to new traditions and spiritual paths in the crucible of dialogue” (p. 118); as well as Forman’s (2004) articulation of a “trans-traditional spirituality” that feeds on the insights of all religious traditions, moving beyond the confines of any particular credo.

Spirituality without Religion:

This scenario is composed by the impressive number of contemporary developments—from secular to postmodern to Jungian and from naturalistic to New Age spiritualities—that advocate for the cultivation of a spiritual life free from traditional religious beliefs and/or transcendent or supernatural postulates (e.g., Elkins, 1998; Heelas & Woodhead, 2005; Van Ness, 1996). Two prominent trends within this category are postmodern secular spiritualities and the New Age movement. Though the former rejects or remains agnostic about supernatural or transcendent sources and the latter tends to uncritically accept them, both join hands in their affirmation of the primacy of individual choice and experience, as well as in their criticism of religious dogmas and authoritarian institutions. Calls for a “democratization of spirit” (Tacey, 2004), a “direct path” to the divine (Harvey, 2009), or the reclaiming of one’s “inner spiritual authority” (Heron, 2006) are intimately linked with these developments. We could also locate here scholarly spiritualities that combine experiential participation and critical reason (e.g., Ferrer & Sherman, 2008; Neville, 2002), “postsecular spiritualities” (e.g., King, 2009), most forms of religious naturalism (e.g., Kauffman, 2008), modern “religious quests” (Roof, 1999), “secular surrogates” for religion (Ziolkowski, 2007), and proposals for a “humanizing spirituality” (Lesser, 1999). Expressions such as “spiritual but not religious” (Fuller, 2001), “religion of no religion” (Kripal, 2007), and “believing without belonging” (Taylor, 2007) capture well the essential character of this orientation.

A Participatory Vision of the Future of Religion

As should be obvious, with the possible exception of a homogenizing global religion, the above scenarios are not mutually exclusive, and it is likely that they will all become key players in shaping the future of world religion in the next millennium. And yet, there is something intuitively appealing in the search for spiritual unity, and here I would like to outline how a participatory perspective can not only respond to this concern, but also house most of the above scenarios while avoiding the hidden spiritual narcissism and other ideological pitfalls of traditional and modern universalisms.

To begin with, to embrace our participatory role in spiritual knowing may lead to a shift from searching for a global religion organized around a single ultimate vision to recognizing an already existent spiritual human family that branches out from the same creative root. In other words, traditions may be able to find their longed-for unity not so much in an all-encompassing megasystem or superreligion, but in their common roots—that is, in that deep bond constituted by the undetermined dimension of the mystery or generative power of life 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,8 but also of a human community formed by fully differentiated spiritual individuals. In this context, individual and collective spiritual perspectives can mutually illuminate and transform one another through countless conceptual, practical, and visionary processes of cosmological hybridization. And this access to an increased number of spiritual insights, practices, and visionary worlds will in turn foster our spiritual individuation, as it will expand the range of spiritual choices available for us as individuals in the cocreation of our path (cf. Heron, 2006). As Tacey (2004) states, contemporary spiritual culture is already moving in this direction: “Spirituality has become plural, diverse, manifold, and seems to have countless forms of expression, many of which are highly individualistic and personal” (p. 38). It may be important to sharply distinguish between the modern hyper-individualistic mental ego and the participatory selfhood forged in the sacred fire of spiritual individuation. Whereas the disembodied modern self is plagued by alienation, dissociation, and narcissism, a spiritually individuated person has an embodied, integrated, connected, and permeable identity whose high degree of differentiation, far from being isolating, actually allows him or her to enter into deeply conscious communion with others, nature, and the multidimensional cosmos.

In this scenario, it will no longer be a contested issue whether practitioners endorse a theistic, nondual, or naturalistic account of the mystery, or whether their chosen path of spiritual cultivation is meditation, social engagement, conscious parenting, entheogenic shamanism, or communion with nature.9 The new spiritual bottom line, in contrast, will be the degree into which each spiritual path fosters both an overcoming of self-centeredness and a fully embodied integration that make us not only more sensitive to the needs of others, nature, and the world, but also more effective cultural and planetary transformative agents in whatever contexts and measure life or spirit calls us to be.

The affirmation of our shared spiritual family may be accompanied by the search for a common—nonabsolutist and contextually sensitive—global ethics (Küng, 1991; Küng & Kuschel, 1993). It is fundamental to stress, however, 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 possible 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). As Smart (2003) points out, however, it may be more sensible to search for a global pattern of civility that “does not lay down who is right and who is wrong but rather determines how peacefully the differing groups and beliefs can live together” (pp. 130-31).10 In any case, besides its obvious relevance for regulating cross-cultural and interreligious conflicts, the adoption of global guidelines—including guidelines about how to cope with disagreement—is crucial to address some of the most challenging issues of our global village, such as the exploitation of women and children, the increasing polarization of rich and poor, the environmental crisis, coping with cultural and ethnic diversity, and fairness in international business. Let me draw this section to a close with the following: 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 grounded in a deeply felt sense of spiritual unity. 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. If you let me wear my visionary hat just a bit longer, I would say that the future of religion will be shaped by spiritually individuated persons engaged in processes of cosmological hybridization in the context of a common spiritual family that honors a global order of respect and civility. Or, to return to my earlier invitation to the reader, this is the scenario I would personally like to see emerging in the world and that I am thus committed to actualize.


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 us to affirm 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. In addition, a participatory approach allows us to discern the long-searched-for spiritual unity of humankind, not in any global spiritual megasystem or integrative conceptual framework, but in our lived communion with the generative dimension of the mystery. In other words, the spiritual unity of humankind is not to be found in the Heavens (i.e., in mental, visionary, or even mystical visions) but deep down into the Earth (i.e., in our vital, embodied, and cocreative connection with our shared roots). The recognition of our common roots may allow us to firmly grow by branching out in countless creative directions without losing a sense of deep communion across differences. Such recognition may also engender naturally a sense of belonging to a common spiritual family committed to fostering the spiritual individuation of its members and the transformation of the world.

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