The Role of Transpersonal Psychology in a Postsecular Society
The idea of the ‘postsecular’ is introduced as potentially the defining characteristic of developed societies in the third millennium. Using the idea of a spiritual typology that emphasises the plurality of individual spiritual impulse, we see how tensions between these impulses have played out in the historical evolution of Western religion and its subsequent rejection by secular society. Democratic freedoms have since allowed the spiritual to re-emerge in a range of secular contexts, suggesting a renewal of the spiritual life in an emerging postsecular society. The transpersonal is playing a key role in this. Some issues in the transpersonal are looked at from a postsecular perspective, including the relationship between the shamanic and the transcendent, and between the devotional and non-devotional spiritual impulse. (This paper is a highly shortened version of a forthcoming book Towards a Postsecular Society, and is hence rather telegraphic at times.)
1. What is Postsecular?
The term ‘postsecular’ is relatively new, and its meaning as yet rather pliable. It has emerged in various contexts, and hints at a world that is prepared, after long abstinence, to re-engage with the spiritual. In the course of discussion and debate the following elements have emerged as contributing to a definition of postsecular:
· a recognition that the spiritual impulse is innate, genuine, distinct, multifaceted and worthy of fostering in its own right
· a renewed interest in the spiritual life as a mode of being in the world
· a growing recognition of the legitimacy of spiritual questions
· a recognition that secular rights and freedoms of expression are a prerequisite to the renewal of spiritual enquiry
· a spiritual and intellectual pluralism, East and West
· a cherishing of the best in all spiritual traditions, East and West, while recognising the repression sometimes inflicted on individuals or societies in the name of 'religion.'
To summarise: the postsecular recognises both the tremendous advances made in the secular era, and at the same time that the spiritual impulse, far from being an archaic irrelevance, is innate and worthy of fostering. It says therefore that the secular world was right to reject the absolutist and authoritarian structures of the feudal era, but that it was wrong to reject the spiritual impulse along with those structures.
The term postsecular suggests a quite different way of looking at history. It suggests that we can usefully divide history into three eras: the presecular, the secular, and the postsecular. This division creates for us a questions which have previously had little impetus: for example what is the anatomy of the secular worldview and how did it come into being? After all, if the secular worldview is simply the historical destination of all previous development of thought, then all that matters is that ignorance and superstition has been banished. If on the other hand the secular worldview is seen to be a transition, perhaps a necessary and painful stage in growing up, or even an aberration of the human intellect, then it becomes more urgent to dissect its nature and origins.
2. Evidence: 7 Postsecular Contexts
What though is the broader evidence for the postsecular, other than wishful thinking on the part of those who find the secular world something of a materialist desert? In searching for this evidence we need to bear in mind the particular quality of the postsecular, that it involves a spirituality born out of a secular substratum. Hence we are not principally looking at mainstream religion, which can be regarded as a somewhat beleaguered survival of the presecular into the postsecular era. Instead we are examining contexts where the spiritual emerges or re-emerges through discoveries and modes of thought peculiar to the secular world. In searching across Western culture today the following seven postsecular contexts emerge:
1. the 'new' sciences of quantum mechanics, relativity and chaos (complexity) theory, which challenge the deterministic, mechanistic and reductionist worldview
2. the emerging field of consciousness studies
3. transpersonal psychology from its origins in James, Jung, Assagioli, through Maslow and Grof, to Wilber and beyond
4. sections of Postmodern thinking and its precursors, including Heidegger and Levinas, and sections of Christian theology, in particular the 'Radical Orthodoxy', inspired by Postmodernism, including Don Cuppit
5. the creative arts in the 20th C, for example artists from Brancusi to Bill Viola who have explored a wide range of conventional and unconventional spiritualities in their art
6. Deep ecology and ‘ecosophy,’ mystical approaches to Nature, from Thoreau to Dillard; the neo-shamanism
7. New Age and new religious movements
The new physics of quantum theory and relativity, emerging in the early 20th century, has had a radical effect in halting the progress of the reductionist worldview. We can suggest that a hundred years intervened between Laplace’s famous remark to Napoleon on being asked why God did not appear in his scientific work (‘Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis’) and Einstein’s discovery of the photoelectric effect in 1905. As a cornerstone of quantum theory, it led many scientists to suggest that we do indeed need ‘that hypothesis’, or something like it. However it was not until 1975 that Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physic brought the parallels between physics and mysticism to a broad readership (over a million copies have been sold in many languages). Many more books followed, bringing into mainstream culture the idea that not just quantum theory, but also relativity and chaos theory, challenged mechanistic notions of the Universe.
Quantum theory has been one, but not the only, impetus behind an emerging science of consciousness. This field of study has grown up in the last decades of the 20th century and draws on a wide variety of disciplines. It is divided however between a reductionist brain science approach, and a more mystical and philosophical endeavour, characterised by Michael Chalmer’s proposed distinction between the ‘hard problem’ and the ‘easy problem’ (Chalmers 1995). The so-called easy problem comprises the conventionally scientific investigation of the brain. The hard problem is how to account for subjective experience, including the ‘qualia’ – that is the redness of red, the painfulness of pain and so on.
Transpersonal psychology needs no introduction here, apart from to say that it is possibly the secular context with the greatest hospitality to the spiritual, as we will explore later.
Postmodernism, defined by Lyotard (1984) as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives,’ is a site of mixed hospitality to the spiritual. On the one hand, its desire to attack the modernist agenda allows for space to reconsider the atheist assumptions of modernism, but on the other hand the incredulity towards metanarratives means that conventional (presecular) religion is one of its prime targets. An interesting exchange between Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas points to the tension between the philosophical and the theological. Levinas (1969), in grand postmodern style, attacks the absolutism of presecular religion as a ‘totalising’ force in his great book, Totality and Infinity, which is at the same time an intensely spiritual text. Derrida (1978), though sympathetic both to the attack on absolutism, and to some forms of spirituality – in particular the ‘negative theology’ or apophatic Christian tradition – critically responds with his famous essay ‘Violence and Metaphysics.’ Derrida senses that Levinas, while following the form of philosophy, is actually doing theology, and fights to retain the crown, as it were, for philosophy. Levinas (1987) responds in turn with a later essay, ‘God and Philosophy’, where he defends his right to be unphilosophical in a philosophical essay, to ‘reserve a domain from the authority of philosophy,’ i.e. the domain of religion.
Some contemporary Christian theologians have seized upon postmodernist thinking, often that of Derrida, to invigorate theology. Examples include Don Cupitt, founder of the Sea of Faith movement, and Britain’s current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. There are a number of good essay collections containing the writings of these two theologians and many others in this genre, including Ward (1997), Blonde (1988) and Berry and Wernick (1992). Given that some find theology and postmodernism somewhat abstruse singly, it may not be surprising to find a meeting of the two even more obscure. However a perusal of these texts reveal a number of interesting features of the contemporary relationship between the spiritual life and the philosophical life. At the same time the writings can reveal an agenda that is more presecular than postsecular.
The artist underwent a complete revolution of role and function in the secular age, from religious painter of the medieval period and aesthetic genius of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic strands, to that of the subversive. The prime function of artist in the 20th century was to challenge received orthodoxy. This is a vast over-generalisation of course, and the trend developed over a period of time, but we can see it in Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst in the early part of the century, and in ‘Britart’ practitioners like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst at the late end. This does not even include the more extreme polemicists, such as the Situationists in the 1960s, who were aligned with revolutionary Marxist politics. The implications for the postsecular in this is that artists were both in the vanguard of Modernism – with its secular atheist assumptions – and also the first to attack its values, if not all values. Artists have formed a small sector of society always prepared to live outside normality, which might mean a vehement rejection of traditional religion and its proscriptions, but also, by virtue of their artistic sensibilities, often inclined to the spiritual. Kandinsky and Mondrian were Theosophists, Joseph Beuys an Anthroposophist and the American Abstract Expressionists were influenced by Navajo Indian shamanism and the symbolism of C. G. Jung. Constantin Brancusi, a sculptor working in Paris in the first half of the 20th C, and Bill Viola, a video artist working in the late 20th C, were both greatly influenced by Buddhism.
In the arts therefore we do not find a mass transition from the presecular to the secular and then to the postsecular, either in individuals or in art movements. The Suprematists and Constructivists in Russia for example are upheld as pioneers of modernist, and therefore secular atheistic values, particularly considering the Marxist soil from which they sprang. But at the same time many spiritual issues were implicit in their work, sometimes deriving from P. D. Ouspenksy, and, by association, with the great spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. By the same token we find that early Modernist art critics would largely ignore the explicitly stated spiritual intentions of Kandinsky and Mondrian, as their ‘occultisms’ were incongruous to the modernist rhetoric. Nor did Christian religious art disappear, often taking new and vigorous forms, for example in the extraordinary work of Sir Stanley Spencer.
In turning to Nature as a potential source for new forms of spirituality, we find a rich source indeed. The American Transcendentalists, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman (and his relatively unknown friend John Burroughs); the Scots-born John Muir (acknowledged founding father of ecology, and instigator of the US National Parks System), and the Englishman Richard Jefferies (author of The Story of My Heart), all put forward a new Nature-based spirituality. They rejected conventional religion, seeing instead that a route to the transcendent lay in Nature – effectively a precocious postsecularism. The more recent thinkers of the ecology movement draw, interestingly, both on such writings in their approach to Nature, and also on what we might term a ‘neo-shamanism.’ It may well emerge that under the umbrella terms of ecology, Nature mysticism, and neo-shamanism we find one of the most sustained postsecular movements to come in the following years. The threat to the environment is beginning to loom so large in popular consciousness, that people from all walks of life are turning to these issues, and engaging with the ideas of holistic thinking, central to ecological theory.
The ‘New Age’ movement, amorphous and vague as this term might be, represents yet another important site for the investigation of the postsecular. It includes a spectrum from the highly superficial, symbolised in the popular imagination through crystals, tree-hugging and Taro cards for example, to the phenomenally erudite, as in its key philosopher: Ken Wilber. At the same time we can include new spiritual movements, such as neo-paganism, neo-shamanism, and the neo-Advaita. The latter group has its origins in the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, and includes young American teachers such as Andrew Cohen and Wayne Liquorman.
In this brief examination of seven, somewhat arbitrarily constructed, categories of postsecular emergence, we see quite different dynamics at work in each area. By the same token, it is only when we assess this picture as a whole that we can suggest that a culture-wide phenomenon is taking place. It is the tolerance of the secular world that allows these developments, but at the same time its deafness to the spiritual often allows the implications to go unnoticed.
3. A Spiritual Typology
The postsecular has learned a profound lesson from the secular: to trust the person in the street. Democratic advance has been painfully slow to extend its franchise, arguments always being put forward that such-and-such a sector of society cannot be trusted with the vote: at various times those distrusted included everyone except the aristocracy; the working man; women; those under 21, and so on. Each time that the franchise was extended, society failed to disintegrate, as predicted, but instead it became more open, creative, and just. The lesson is that authoritarian and top-down structures fail their communities, whereas bottom-up grass-roots communities work. It is in this spirit that a spiritual typology is put forward: a way of thinking about the spiritual life that is based on the variety of spiritual impulse and orientation that spontaneously emerge within individuals and groups, rather than those imposed by tradition. What is put forward here is a ‘baggy schemata,’ involving simple distinctions that do a specific ‘work’ for us in contemplating the variety of spiritual expression.
The schemata, drawn from a survey of the world’s spiritual heritage, is based on four sets of simple distinctions regarding the spiritual impulse:
1. shamanic / polytheist / monotheist / transcendent
2. social / occult / transcendent
3. bhakti / jnani
4. via positiva / via negativa.
The shamanic is a spiritual impulse that underpins the ur-religion of humankind, a set of practices and inner states that seem to have emerged in all cultures across the globe at the dawn of human life. The essence of the shamanic is to perceive the elements of nature as imbued with spirit. The shaman, as a person with a specialised role in early society, intercedes with the spirits on behalf of the social group. Shamanistic practices are associated with hunter-gatherer and nomadic lifestyles. With the development of agrarian societies, and in particular with the growth of cities, the shamanic vision gives way to a polytheistic impulse, more suited to a life removed from purely natural surroundings. The localised and specific spirits of places, trees, plants and animals become abstracted as more general principles or deities, such as those of fertility, war, or good fortune. In turn the polytheist vision may give way to a monotheist religion, where all the attributes of the various deities are subsumed into a single ‘God.’ In turn this vision gives way to the transcendent, where ‘God’ is firstly seen in a new light of ‘apophasis’ or attributelessness, and finally vanishes in the pure transcendence of a mystic like Plotinus or the Buddha.
While we can detect historical evidence for some of the transitions (shamanic to polytheistic to monotheistic to transcendent) in some cultures, it is hard to find the sequence intact within a single culture over its history. Rather we find cultures like the Hindu which preserve and value each of these phases on an equal basis, or we find a clear example of a single transition, such as from polytheism to monotheism in the Judaic tradition. The diagram below shows how the four phases can be arranged in such a way as to give them equal weight, while still recognising that development can take place.
Taoism is clearly a transcendent spiritual form, and, as far as the Taoist texts can show us, it developed directly out of shamanism (hence its great regard for Nature, not usually shown in the monotheistic route to the transcendent). In Tibetan Buddhism we find an extraordinary synthesis between the shamanic (from the Bon tradition) and the incoming transcendent Buddhism, which, in its roots, had no trace of the shamanic.
The curved lines in the diagram are there to suggest that boundaries are blurred, and that while the distinctions may do useful work in considering the world’s religious traditions, they are to be considered provisional and expendable.
Setting aside the previous distinctions for the time being, we now consider a three-way distinction of spiritual impulse or orientation: between the social, the occult and the transcendent. This is not a developmental or historical issue, but a question of what proportion of a population are drawn to what spiritual form. Perhaps 90% of any population are drawn to a social form of spiritual life, meaning the collective practices and communitarian elements of religion. In here we find the inter-subjective, the ‘participatory turn’ of Ferrer, the moral imperatives, and all that is about sharing in the spiritual life. Perhaps 9% of the population have what is loosely termed an occult gift, that is a capacity to perceive and interact with the spirit world. These include mediums, clairvoyants, spirit healers, and great exemplars might include Swedenborg and Rudolf Steiner in the West, and Sri Aurobindo and Paramahansa Yogananda in the East. Perhaps one percent or less of the population have a gift for the transcendent, also known as the unitive or non-dual. Great exemplars here would include Plotinus, the Buddha, and Ramana Maharshi. We can say that the social category is easy to approach and understand, the occult category difficult to approach and understand, and the transcendent neither easy nor difficult to approach and understand. This is by way of flagging up that the transcendent is paradoxical, and not open to discursive investigation in the way that the other two categories are.
We can see how these three impulses work in the response to Jesus. A reading of The Gospel of Thomas would convince those familiar with the unitive that it is a text of transcendence. Christianity, however, being in its initial conceptions largely the work of St Paul, becomes a social religion, where the emphasis is on love expressed for Christ through good works and care for the sick and the poor. The occult interpretation of Christianity abounds through the centuries, some of its most recent articulation expressed through Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner. A social interpretation of Christ says that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is amongst us (Revised English translation), an occult interpretation posits Christ as occupying a key position in the spirit realm, while a transcendent or mystical interpretation says that ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is within us (King James translation).
In principle all of us have access to the social dimension of the spiritual life, at least where secularism and materialist atheism have not triumphed. I am going to suggest that the occult dimension, also understood as esoteric and closely related to the shamanic, requires a certain faculty, not developed in most of us. This faculty, often present in children, allows for contact with the spirit world, and may be related to psi phenomena and other related abilities. The shaman is often selected from the wider community because of signs of esoteric gifts in childhood, and their occult faculty trained over a long period. The gift may arise quite spontaneously, as in the case of Rudolf Steiner, with little understanding or support from the community. His only mention of a teacher relates to a herb-vendor who used to travel on the train to Vienna to sell his herbs: the account hints that the old man pursued shamanic practices in the remote Austrian countryside (Steiner 1986, p.41).
More controversially I am going to suggest that the transcendent is also a question of a faculty, present in us all, but rarely developed. The transcendent faculty has no relation to the occult faculty, rather is the capacity for a direct apprehension of the unmanifest, the non-dual, the infinite, or the eternal. Gandhi (1970) is quite insistent that one cannot ‘apprehend the imperishable,’ but he simply had not developed the faculty that was so manifest in his contemporary, Ramana Maharshi for example. Gandhi was not inclined to the mystical or unitive, and we can suggest that he is a great exemplar of the social dimension of the spiritual life.
It is the distinction between the occult / shamanic and the transcendent, not just in terms of impulse and orientation, but in terms of two radically different faculties, that is put forward here as vital to a better understanding of the spiritual life, and the whole question of the transpersonal. We will return to this later.
Setting both of the previous distinctions aside, we look at a third way of considering the spiritual impulse. ‘Bhakti’ and ‘jnani’ are words from Hinduism, and mean respectively devotional and non-devotional. (The ‘jn’ in jnani is pronounced as the ‘ny’ in canyon.) While the occult / transcendent distinction is very important, I believe that the bhakti / jnani distinction is even more so, something of a Rosetta Stone of the spiritual life. We find that the world’s traditions are equally divided, between the devotional and the non-devotional, with the former dominant in the West and the latter dominant in the East. Further, it is likely that any population is roughly divided on a 50-50 basis between these two orientations, meaning that approximately half the world’s population is out of sympathy with the dominant religion they are born into. Although individuals may find themselves with any proportion of the two impulses within them, it is very rare to find someone balanced neutrally between the two. This has created a historical gulf of understanding between them, with only one rare culture, Hinduism, creating a true balance. Hence a bhakti account of the spiritual life is usually dismissed by the jnani, and vice versa.
So what exactly does it mean for a person to have either a jnani or bhakti spiritual orientation? Quite simply it means that their initial spiritual response is either from the head or from the heart, a pattern that is probably observable in the person’s wider responses to life. In its highly developed form we see the genius of the two orientations represented by examples such as the Buddha and Plotinus for the jnani impulse, and Ramakrishna and Teresa of Avila for the bhakti impulse. One of the best meeting places and dialogues between the two is in the lives and accounts of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, beautifully recorded in Rollan (1992), though sadly such sympathetic encounters are rare. The bhakti’s impulse is to love, devotion, surrender, and prayer, while the jnani’s impulse is to enquiry, use of the will, intellect and meditation.
We can also understand whole religions as attempted dialogues between jnani and bhakti. If Christianity is a bhakti tree, then Neoplatonism is the jnani vine that grows around it. Conversely Buddhism, planted as an entirely jnani tree by the Buddha quickly accrues to it the bhakti practices of puja (devotional ritual), at least in some of the Mahayana variants. We say ‘attempted’ dialogue because in both cases there can be some discomfort about attempts at integrating the two orientations. Meister Eckhart for example presents us with a quintessentially jnani exposition in his famous Essay on Detachment, but he is forced to operate within a devotional context. It is no accident at all that he faced hostile enquiry from the Inquisition, and remains uncanonised to this day. The Kabbalist Dion Fortune (1976) has called Roman Catholicism the ‘bhakti yoga of the West,’ and a closer examination of the origins and development of Christianity bear this out.
Although each of these four sets of distinction can stand on their own, we suggest that the bhakti / jnani distinction operates best in a context of transcendence. This is also true to some extent of the next distinction: between via positiva and via negativa. These terms are borrowed from the devotional monotheistic context of Christian theology, which uses them for the cataphatic and apophatic respectively. Cataphatic means an approach to God through his divine attributes, while apophatic means an approach through denying to him of any attribute whatsoever. (Using our first set of distinctions we can say that the apophatic represents the reaching from monotheism towards the transcendent.) Here we are using via positiva and via negativa in a more general way, one that is relevant to the non-theistic traditions as well as the theistic. Put in a rather transpersonal way we can define the via positiva as a route to the transcendent via the progressive identification with more and more of the manifest universe, while the via negativa is a route to the transcendent via the progressive disidentification with the manifest world, including especially the ego.
Once again we can draw on the Buddha as a great exemplar, this time of the via negativa. In fact one of the characteristics of the presecular world is that the via negativa, as defined here, dominates both the monotheistic and the transcendent traditions. It is only in very early texts such as the Upanishads that we discern a joyful via positiva, and much later, in poets such as Traherne, Blake and Whitman.
The spiritual typologies or distinctions just described do not form a single overarching or self-consistent system, rather they are applied where they may be useful, and discarded as required. The value that they may have derives from the kind of work that they can do in approaching the spiritual life from a range of perspectives, in particular in the context of the impulses and orientations of the individual. I have found that in a workshop situation for example, a group can be asked to consider how each one of the distinctions applies to them. The resulting personal spiritual profile is often of great value to the individual, particularly as it allows for a complex and sometimes contradictory set of spiritual impulses to be revealed. It also allows for individuals to attempt to locate themselves in groups or traditions in an elective manner, based on a deeper understanding of their spiritual needs. The distinctions are not put forward as ‘true’ in any absolute kind of way, just as a set of tools. We shall use these tools in the discussion in the following sections, particularly in the examination of the origins of the secular worldview.
The postsecular, as we shall see, is irrevocably pluralist, which means that all the spiritual orientations described here and all their combinations are valued. However one can speculate that the jnani outlook will dominate over the bhakti, because of the rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment and Modernism. At the same time the via positiva has inevitably greater appeal in a world that has turned its back on renunciation. We now look at the origins of the secular world, an analysis that relies on the spiritual typology outlined above.
4. Origins of the Secular Worldview
We are going to suggest that the secular worldview arises out of a crisis in the European mind or spirit, coming to a head in the 17th century. This crisis has produced what is essentially the unbalanced culture of Western modernity / postmodernity, unbalanced yet nevertheless the most successful and powerful culture produced on this Earth. Its power is apparent, to create wealth on an unprecedented scale, and also to destroy humanity’s environment; it imbalance lies in its rejection of the spiritual.
There are a number of historical landmarks in the production of the European crisis, though in the end the key factors boil down to two: intolerant monotheism, and the rise of science. We can list the landmarks as follows:
· [~500 BCE] Socrates / Plato and Cyrus / Judaism
· [1st century CE] Life of Christ / mission of St Paul
· [3rd – 5th centuries] Constantine adopts Christianity / Augustine
· [11th to 18th centuries] Three Inquisitions: medieval, Spanish, and Roman
· [14th century] Aquinas and the Argument from Design
· [late 15th century] Ficino and Mirandola: a Still-Born Spiritual Pluralism
·  Newton’s Principia and Optiks
· [mid-18th century] La Mettrie and Holbach
· [late 19th century] Darwin, Marx and Freud
Around the time of 500 BCE two key factors in shaping the Western mind can be identified: the divergence between philosophy and religion in Greece, and the final stage in establishing Judaic monotheism. The first took place in the misreading of Socrates’s life and work as belonging to ‘philosophy’ due to Plato, while the second took place in the act of the Emperor Cyrus in releasing the captive Jews in Babylon to return to their homeland and religion. Many scholars of Socrates have wondered why he did not form the root of the Western religion, and we can add, using our spiritual typologies, that had this indeed taken place it would have been a jnani religion related in its instincts to Buddhism. Instead, Socrates, and many other great Western spiritual geniuses of the jnani orientation have been consistently misread as proposing philosophical systems of thought. (The tension between the philosophical form of the Greeks and the theological form of the Jews is a central dynamic in the Western mind, played out as we saw in the exchange between Derrida and Levinas.)
In the Judaic return from exile, the 800-year battle for the monotheism of the invisible Judaic God over polytheism and shamanism reached its triumph. This was partly achieved by a new law forbidding intermarriage with non-Jewish women, who were blamed for the continual insertion of other gods into the religion (Solomon’s wives being an example). The Old Testament, if we are to take it as even a partially accurate historical record, tells us that the Jewish God instigated a relentlessly bloodthirsty extirpation of rival gods and their polytheistic and shamanic practices. These practices were to be vilified with the term ‘idolatry,’ one of the most loaded and poisonous words to enter Western consciousness.
Whether Christ would recognise himself in the religion that bears his name is doubtful because its early development was so completely dominated by St Paul, a man who never met him. What is important to understand about St Paul in this context is that he created the impetus for an essentially devotional religion. This emphasis was amplified over the centuries so that religious outlook of the jnani orientation became marginalised, and even suspect. At the same time Christianity took some essential features of Judaism forward, including the proscription on idolatry, and its fiercely monotheistic stance.
Christianity would have remained a minority cult, alongside many others, if it had not been for the Emperor Constantine. By adopting it as the state religion of empire, Christianity went almost overnight from a persecuted sect to occupying a seat at the table of power. In doing so it internalised its previous trauma as part of its own new modus operandi, and began to root out heresy as vigorously as it had been previously persecuted. At the same time it developed its own unique spiritual genius, and no one shaped it more during this early period than Saint Augustine. Despite his lively intellect, and considerable skills as philosopher and writer, Augustine’s overwhelming legacy is to reinforce the essentially devotional bhakti orientation of the new religion.
‘Heresy’ derives from a Greek word meaning to choose, and this is precisely what the emerging Christianity sought to stamp out. The religion was designed in a ‘top-down’ fashion, firstly through the Councils instigated by a rather baffled Constantine (particularly over the thorny issue of the Trinity), and later through the offices of the Roman Catholic Church. By the time that the three major Inquisitions had been instituted (medieval in 1231, Spanish in 1478, and Roman in 1542), Europe had been transformed from a world of spiritual pluralism, including expression of every conceivable combination of the spiritual impulses we outlined earlier, into a spiritual monoculture. Here lay its strength, not just in community building, and the creation of a pan-European identity, but also in the flowering of its devotional spiritual genius in the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’ Here also lay its great weakness: the suppression of other spiritual impulses, in particular the shamanic and the jnani. We can also say that a monotheism that suppresses polytheism encourages an anthropomorphic interpretation of God.
The Scholastic period in Europe, culminating in the works of Thomas Aquinas, represents the first attempt of science to emerge from the inward-looking and anti-empirical stance of the early medieval period. We can also see the great compendia produced by these thinkers as an expression of the jnani impulse. These writings were partly inspired by Aristotle, and showed the awakening interest in the natural world, and were partly religious acts from the intellectuals of that period, writings that satisfied both a jnani impulse towards reason and enquiry, but also a devotional imperative. This is a useful way to look at a phenomenon emerging at this time, of the ‘proofs’ of the existence of God. These are best understood as a jnani phenomenon, in that the bhakti requires no ‘proofs’ of God, indeed finds them generally absurd. How can a ‘proof’ ever substitute for or capture the fundamental spiritual fact of the love for God? A range of ‘proofs’ emerged, with their roots in Aristotle, and one of which, the ‘Argument from Design’ later proving to be a crucial Achilles heel in religion as it faced the secular world. At the time, Aquinas was anyway regarded with suspicion by the Church, a natural response we might say from an intensely bhakti religion. The Argument from Design itself was a response to the greater interest in the natural world, and said quite simply that if such an exquisitely complex and ordered world exists, then there must be an exquisite Creator.
In the late 15th century Renaissance we see another and bolder eruption deriving from the repressed and disallowed sectors of the spiritual spectrum, this time with its roots in Plato (Socrates). The work of Marsilio Ficino, in translating Plato and the Egyptian Hermes, inspired the young Pico della Mirandola to propose an extraordinary conference to debate spiritual ideas drawn from all the sources he could lay his hands on. Quite naturally the Church rejected this attempt at spiritual pluralism, and Mirandola had to flee his native Italy. Nevertheless for a short time Ficino’s Florentine Academy re-awakened the jnani and occult spiritual instincts in Europe, and held out a promise for a new openness, sadly not realised until the secular age. This period also introduced a new pejorative term into the Church’s repressive lexicon: syncretism. ‘Syncretism’ to a Christian still means the unwelcome introduction of spiritual impulses alien to its devotional base, and joined condemnatory words like, pagan, heathen, idolater, and of course the word that encompasses all the rest: heretic.
The tensions within the religious framework of the European mind, growing for centuries, came to an explosive head in the 17th century. A spiritual monoculture can only be sustained through brutal repression of the complementary spiritual impulses, and this was achieved through the various forms of Inquisition. Monotheism, in all three of its Abrahamic forms, has shown itself to be both a unifying cultural force, and at the same time brutally intolerant of other forms of spiritual expression. It is only the Western Christian Church however that acquired a complete centralised control over creed and dogma, this not being the case in the Eastern Church (Greek Orthodox), or in Judaism or Islam. Hence we find the worst excesses of monotheistic intolerance in the heart of Europe, leading to a pressure-cooker of a cultural context. As the Church ran a censorship of publication quite as draconian as in Stalinist Russia, intellectuals had no means of fulfilling the urge to enquiry and debate they craved.
The memory of Mirandola’s ignominious rejection, and the even more vivid image of religious dissident Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake in 1600 – at the very dawn of the 17th century – shaped both the caution of its thinkers and delineated their frustration. Holland, continental Europe’s most liberal country, was home to Descartes and Spinoza, yet neither could speak their ideas openly. Spinoza never published his great Ethics in his lifetime, and Leibniz, who visited Spinoza and learned much from him, had to keep it a secret, so dangerous was Spinoza’s reputation as an atheist. Hobbes, something of a materialist, was forbidden to publish in England, and his work triggered the formation of a parliamentary committee to prevent the publication of atheist works. At the same time the 17th century threw up an extraordinary range of new religious movements and thinkers, including George Fox’s Quaker movement, and the writings of Pascal, to mention just two outstanding examples.
It is into this intensity that science in its modern form finally burst into existence, through the astonishing achievements of Isaac Newton. He built on the work of illustrious predecessors, including Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, and relied also on the meticulous astronomical observations provided by the new Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. Despite its long time coming we can in fact give the birth of modern science the date of 1676, and its location to the Royal Society. The occasion was the demonstration by Newton’s bitter rival Robert Hooke of Newton’s principles of optics. The real significance of the event can only be understood by analogy: it is as if the Pope were to confirm the religious innovations of Osama bin Laden! For the first time in European history a field of dispute emerged that could be settled by demonstration, beyond personal rivalry. The power of empirical mathematically-modelled science was demonstrated to the gentlemen of the Royal Society, convincing in its own right, but even more because the source of the demonstration was in a man who had every emotional commitment to seeing Newton proved wrong.
It would be absurd to claim that news of this demonstration swept Europe overnight and brought about radical cultural change. Nevertheless, and much more gradually of course, the feeling emerged that there was a new form of discourse – open to reason, empirical demonstration and mathematical proof – that was beyond the scope of the religious censors to pronounce upon. A new faith in reason emerged, we might say a new hope, and we can find expression of it for example in Leibniz’s conviction that even political dispute could be settled on a mathematical basis. In so far as the new science pronounced upon the behaviour of physical matter, religion was not too discomfited, beyond at least its forced accommodation to the heliocentric theory. However amongst those who took a broader view of what science could achieve, there developed a new form of religion: deism, also known as natural religion. This extrapolated from the early though highly constrained triumphs of Newton to the assumption that science had within its power to explain the entire natural world. By recourse to the Argument from Design, the Deists left room for both science and God: the Creator simply moved back to the time of Creation, having set the world in motion complete with the exquisitely framed laws of Nature, laws that humanity was now privileged to uncover.
This move turned out to be the undoing of religion in the West. William Blake warned against it, but his was a lone voice. Although the Church, now split between Protestant and Catholic, made no concession to Deism, neither did it mount the only defence that, with hindsight, could have saved it. That defence would have been to return to its devotional roots, though without our more nuanced distinctions of the spiritual, that of jnani and bhakti, it had not the language to do so. God then ‘died’ in two stages: firstly in the transition from theism to deism, and then in the transition from deism to atheism.
The first atheist texts were not to appear until the 18th century however. La Mettrie’s Man a Machine appeared in 1748 and Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature not until 1770. Both of these extrapolated from Newton’s Principia to the biological world of the human body, suggesting that there was nothing privileged about humanity, and that mechanical deterministic explanations would suffice for all of human experience. This simply left no room for God at any level of understanding. Both thinkers were precocious reductionists, attacking Descartes for proposing two types of ‘stuff’ – material stuff and thinking stuff. Only one was required, they argued: physical matter, which is the view adhered to by all scientific materialists to this day. Holbach also attacked Descartes for his ‘proofs’ of the existence of God (which have led others to suggest that Descartes is not in fact the first of the modern philosophers but the last of the Scholastics). The Argument from Design had not received its death-blow however: that was to come from Darwin.
If Christianity has understood its own genius, that it lay with the devotional, bhakti form of spiritual impulse, and had permitted even a limited form of spiritual pluralism, it would not have been vulnerable to the attack on it from science. ‘Science’ of course cannot attack anything, but science was used by thinkers increasing hostile to the repressions of the Church, and emboldened by social progress – in particular the French Revolution – to discredit religion. Having relegated God to the position of great Designer, the Argument from Design became central to the defence of religion. As soon as a stunned 19th century Western world absorbed the implications of Darwinism, God lost his last alibi. There was no ‘design’ in the first place, only chance mutation.
Other forces now crowded in to cement in place the emerging secular atheistic worldview, notably the thinking of Marx and Freud. Marx’s entirely negative analysis of religion in the political and economic spheres led, in the post WW1 communist revolutions, to half the world being forced into atheism almost overnight. Freud in turn provided a new atheistic and mechanistic language of interiority to replace the spiritual language of the past. The modern era was born.
Yet, did the birth of science necessarily mean the death of religion? We are suggesting that the emergence of the secular mind was the result of the particular crisis in the European soul that came to a head in the 17th century. A crisis or a hysteresis is an delayed over-reaction to events, resulting from accumulated pressures. The fifteen centuries-worth of persecution of heresy had simply taken their toll on the European mind. Collectively it may have conceded that this was a price worth paying for social cohesion, but in the end the price was too high, and religion as the foundation stone of community had become discredited. More than that, we can detect a rage now welling up from the collective unconscious, a rage that is still at work and clearly driving the vituperative atheists of today, those like Gore Vidal, Richard Dawkins, Frances Crick, and Richard Atkins. We are suggesting in particular that the historical suppression of the jnani instinct has meant an overemphasis on the logical and scientific in the modern world, as a kind of overreaction. At the same time the popular image of an anthropomorphic God, arising because there was no permitted polytheism, allowed its caricature to be easily dismissed. This is the modern context within which the transpersonal is attempting to set out a renewed discourse of the spiritual.
5. The Transpersonal in a Postsecular Society
We are now in a position to reflect on aspects of a potentially postsecular society, having established some evidence for its emergence out of the secular worldview; having looked at the origins of the secular mind itself; and having set out a spiritual typology based on the notion of the spiritual impulse. We are particularly interested in how transpersonal psychology / transpersonal theory represent a site par excellence for postsecular ideas and attitudes. It carries this role because its foundations, in modern psychology, are in a profoundly secular set of assumptions, but has made the archetypally postsecular journey from secularism to spiritual inclusivity.
We might say that this journey is exemplified in two of transpersonal psychology’s founding thinkers: Stanislav Grof and Abraham Maslow. Both started from atheistic foundations, but in the course of their professional commitment to contemporary scientific psychology, came to accept the spiritual as an essential component of the inner life. One cannot discuss the transpersonal without mentioning the enormous contribution made by Ken Wilber. His Spectrum of Consciousness, produced around the age of 25, began an extraordinary series of writings, which, taken as a whole might tempt some to call it the ‘Fourth Organum’ – i.e. a work as far reaching in its synthesis as Aristotle’s Organum, Bacon’s Novum Organum, and Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum. It may then come as no surprise to find that Wilber has considerable respect for Aristotle, or that one of Wilber’s recent titles is called A Theory of Everything. Although Wilber’s core interests are summed up in his term ‘integral,’ and represent perhaps a wider remit than the transpersonal, we can offer up to him a third term: postsecular. His colossal oeuvre can be seen as a major landmark in the postsecular, possibly one of the few principal single forces that will have contributed to the transition from the secular to the postsecular.
It is impossible, and perhaps quite unnecessary, to sum up Wilber’s ideas in a few short paragraphs. Instead we can speculate on the impact of his approach, mindset, and methodology, and its implications for a postsecular society. It lies of course in his own favourite term: ‘integral’. This stands in complete opposition to the spiritual heritage of the monotheistic past, one which, as we saw, pronounces the word ‘syncretist’ with a shudder. It is frankly impossible to find another contemporary thinker who has so determinedly read across the spectrum of Western secular thought, then added to it the entire religious heritage of both West and East, in order to build an overarching philosophy. In contrast, Continental philosophers, apart from desultory attention paid by Schopenhauer and Heidegger, have studiously ignored the East. The deafening silence from the postmodern philosophers on Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, for example, cannot stand in stronger contrast to Wilber’s approach.
Whatever history makes of Wilber’s grand systems, in particular his four quadrant model, the fact is that he has set an extraordinary precedent. To even begin to understand Wilber, let alone enter into healthy academic debate with his ideas, one is obliged to read widely, and in particular within the religious traditions of both East and West. Just that exposure alone will create a generation of thinkers whose outlook will be inevitably postsecular.
By characterising the transpersonal as a quintessentially postsecular site of thought and practice, we are locating it at the heart of our perceived transition from the secular to the postsecular. We can also understand it as acting as a bridge between arenas previously kept apart, between:
· the secular and the spiritual
· East and West
· presecular and postsecular.
If we look at these three bridging functions in turn, we can attempt to imagine some of the workings of a postsecular society. The transpersonal clearly leads in bridging the secular and the spiritual, though this is performed in a very specific way at this point in history. Because the spiritual has no immediate legitimacy in either the University sector or in mainstream health care, the transpersonal inserts it in the few ways that seem open to it at this point. These include the route taken by Maslow, in terms of self-actualising, which can find application and a sympathetic ear even in the world of business management. In Universities, the transpersonal can align itself with consciousness studies, which in turn carries an implicit legitimisation via brain science. Finally and most obviously, the transpersonal rests on its basis in psychology, a term with uniquely secular overtones. One could say that the spiritual must at present demonstrate its worth by underpinning personal growth and hence business success; it must concede its origins (along with all other human experience) in brain function; and it must serve psychological functions, possibly in terms of evolutionary psychology. Effectively the spiritual is on probation. This evaluation is not a criticism of the transpersonal, it is simply an analysis of the broader cultural context in which it is making bridges.
The transpersonal bridges East and West in ways that are unique and vital. It is one of the few routes for the University and health care sectors to engage with the thinking of the East, given as we have pointed out the shameful neglect from Western philosophers. At the same time there are risks, in particular the possibility of the inappropriate psychologising of ancient systems of thought.
Thirdly, the question arises of how the postsecular world integrates its presecular past, and how in particular does the transpersonal bridge these domains. At present the presecular religions occupy a well-defined, though highly compromised place in secular society. They exist partly through tradition, but are tolerated only on the basis that freedom of speech and association are more important to the secular mind than its desire to be rid of feudal anachronism. To put it another way: presecular religion flies below the cultural radar of the West, occupying a quaint intellectual ghetto. It can be examined from sociological, anthropological, psychological or cultural theory perspectives, but is ultimately an affront to secular values. Hence we find that the transpersonal, in engaging with the spiritual tends to seek out spiritual modalities from the East, or those that have been long suppressed in the West such as Neoplatonism or shamanism, rather than from mainstream religion. It remains therefore an open question as to how the presecular religions will relate to the postsecular, and how the transpersonal can assist in bridging these worldviews. One can observe that the postsecular is as much a threat to the presecular as to the secular.
Another way to focus on the transpersonal and the postsecular is to consider the therapeutic intervention. One of the great strengths of transpersonal psychology, as opposed to transpersonal theory, is that it is grounded in a practice. Transpersonal therapy and counselling is where all the theories, spiritual maps and grand syntheses mean nothing if they don’t ultimately relate to the situation of the client. And here the whole field of transpersonal psychology is posing a fundamental question for the therapist and client: are they dealing with a spiritual crisis or a psychological crisis? This simple question will perhaps be the best litmus yet for detecting the transition to a postsecular society. If mainstream psychological health care begins to take this question seriously, then we are well on the way. Grof has suggested that “mainstream psychiatrists continue to view all holotropic states of consciousness as pathological,” and even that many of the drugs prescribed may actually suppress these states.
6. Some Issues in the Transpersonal from a Postsecular perspective
We now look at some selected issues in the transpersonal from a postsecular viewpoint. Jorge Ferrer’s recent Revisioning Transpersonal Theory provides a useful focus for this discussion (Ferrer 2002). He suggests firstly that transpersonal theory has three pillars: experientialism, inner empiricism, and Perennialism, and secondly that these are in themselves flawed approaches. His objection to experientialism – an emphasis on personal spiritual experience – is that it leads to spiritual narcissism, and that anyway it is a relatively recent preoccupation in the spiritual life. A postsecular stance on this might be to agree that the preoccupation with experience arises with the secular worldview, but that we should mitigate this preoccupation rather than reject it, because of the secular respect for the individual. His objection to inner empiricism – that it mistakenly adopts methods from science – is also valid, because of the creeping scientism implicit in it. But a postsecular stance might be again to regard the secular scientific outlook as a genuine advance over the presecular, and what is required again is to mitigate it. Wilber (1998) himself gives the key to this: epistemological pluralism, with its natural consequence of empirical pluralism. Even within the hard sciences of physics, chemistry and biology, the precise form of empirical research is very different, and radically so when we look at the social sciences. If the postsecular is to mean anything, it is to resist calls to return unquestioningly to the presecular; hence it is less likely to abandon inner empiricism than to propose new empiricisms appropriate to spiritual enquiry. After all the Buddha did just that two and a half thousand years ago.
Ferrer’s nervousness that the transpersonal has aligned itself to Perennialism is again quite understandable. We have already discussed why the transpersonal has not aligned itself to mainstream presecular religion, and in the absence of wider cross-cultural debate on the spiritual, has found in the Perennial Philosophy a single label that is broadly acceptable. There is of course no ruling body of Perennialism to state what its range comprises, but Ferrer is right that it may not have the spiritual breadth or pluralism that he, and the postsecular, would be seeking. We will examine this in terms of just two spiritual polarities: shamanism vs. the transcendent, and bhakti vs. jnani.
If one wanted to point to lacunae in Perennialism, then one of its largest gaps must be the shamanic. No doubt this is partly a historical accident, owing to the thoroughness with which the Judaic and Christian world rejected and vilified the shamanic and polytheistic forerunners of monotheism. It also is due to the inherent difference, we might say incommensurability, of the shamanic and the transcendent, as suggested earlier. Perennialism is at heart a doctrine of transcendence, a perception of the non-dual or unitive state as lying at the core of all world religions. While Ferrer simply leaves spiritual pluralism open as ‘many shores’ in contrast to the ‘one shore’ of Perennialism, we are effectively suggesting that the shamanic (and occult / esoteric) be considered as a quite different spiritual orientation to the transcendent. This is not to say that there are two shores either, simply to say that the shamanic is part of the manifest and manifold, whereas the transcendent is about the unmanifest. (This will only really mean something to those who, unlike Gandhi, have had a direct encounter with the imperishable.)
In practice however, it is clear that the transpersonal has engaged as much with the shamanic as with the transcendent, Stanislav Grof and Chris Bache being clear examples of those whose preoccupations lie more with the shamanic, or we could say neo-shamanic. Maslow and Wilber on the other hand are more instinctively turned to the transcendent. This is not to pigeonhole these thinkers and practitioners, but to detect different emphases. To really explore the tension and distinction between the shamanic / esoteric and the transcendent we need to look at more polarised examples. Surprisingly, the Buddha is not that useful in this context, because of his occult gifts, particularly in the ability to recall past lives, and also because Buddhism as a tratidion became so overlaid with esoteric spiritual impulses. A better group of pure transcendent teachers lies in the recent Advaita and neo-Advaita: the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, Punjaji (Papaji) and Andrew Cohen, and the lineage of Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramesh Balsekar and Wayne Liquorman. A group of well-documented esotericists might include Emmanuel Swedenborg, Papus (19th century Martinist and writer on reincarnation), Rudolf Steiner and Paramahansa Yogananda. When we look at the life and writings of the teachers in these two groups we can ask the question: what are the contours of the transpersonal in each case? And the answer is very clearly that for the transcendent teachers it lies in the recognition that the self is an illusion, while for the esoteric teachers it lies in an engagement with self and others as disembodied. There is simply no common ground between them, and there are clear statements of this from either side: for example Maharshi’s rejection of the siddhis, and Steiner’s clear exposition as to why he is not a mystic (Steiner 1986, chapter 11).
Finally, we look at an issue that is crucial to the development of the secular mind, and which will play out in quite unforeseeable ways in a postsecular society. Will the devotional regain a legitimacy in a postsecular culture? The great genius of Christianity, its bhakti devotional intensity, also led to its marginalisation in the secular world. Malcolm Walley (2002) has raised this issue as a question of ‘putting the heart back into psychology,’ using as an example practices drawn from Tibetan Buddhism. We have noted earlier that Buddhism, as a principally jnani religion, is as uncomfortable with the devotional, as Christianity, as a principally bhakti religion, has been with the non-devotional (or Neoplatonism in its Western form). The Tibetans of course modified the incoming jnani religion of Buddhism in radical ways, but this mainly inserted shamanic practices. The devotional stream actually arises from Hindu puja practices. Exploring these complex and mostly buried issues in the religious heritage of East and West explains why Walley, in a transpersonal context, has to draw on sources somewhat removed from the devotional. In fact the devotional as a discourse has virtually no currency in the West: it is associated with a discredited feudal religion, and, of course, rarely gives rise to the analytical and intellectual genius that dominates Western thought today. It simply has no credible advocates, and perhaps has played itself out in the medieval period. Its great geniuses, Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Catherine of Sienna, Catherine of Genoa, Richard Rolle, and many more, also shared an intensely via negativa worldview. If the bhakti is to find expression in the third millennium it is more likely to take a form that is via positiva.
It is highly speculative at this point to claim the emergence of a future postsecular society. However we can see evidence of its emergence in a variety of fields, and rather vividly in the transpersonal. All these fields reframe the spiritual in terms of their own discourse, and the transpersonal is no exception. The advantage is that the spiritual life gains a whole range of new paradigms; at the same time we need to keep links with the spiritual treasures of the past. The transpersonal provides this bridge, and at the same time provides a model for a quintessentially postsecular journey: from a materialist secular atheism to a pluralistic invigorated spirituality.
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