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A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World
by Ken Wilber
Reviewed by Byron Belitsos on April 29, 2010
Ken Wilber’s newest book is another landmark effort in the genre he has practically created: integral philosophic discourse, offered in the face of today’s egregious fragmentation of knowledge. In this latest work, Wilber the methodologist looms larger than usual, as he teases out the distinctions needed to better understand religion in relation to consciousness, culture, and science. The result is a mighty challenge to religious leaders, teeming with original insights that could (or at least should) define the future of world religion.
To accomplish this demanding task, Wilber’s “integral approach” takes on more granularity, expanding beyond the widely embraced four-quadrant model he introduced in 1995. Those quadrants represent four perspectives on any given experience or thing: the “inside looking out” viewpoint of (1) an individual self or (2) a collection of selves, or the “outside looking in” viewpoint on (3) discrete things or (4) whole systems. To address an integral spirituality, Wilber increases the count to eight zones, each with a unique methodology of inquiry.
The book’s ambitious quest is to uncover a “startling new role” for religion that delivers real-world results. In Wilber’s call for an “integralizing” of the world’s religions, they would become educational and inspirational conveyor belts of evolutionary progress that can carry the world’s people through all identifiable stages, or “stations,” of consciousness development. This means that Islam, Hinduism, Christianity—all the wisdom traditions—become the vanguard of a planetwide integral reformation. Religions of the future will advocate higher stages of consciousness (already mapped by each tradition’s pioneering mystics), while holding space for the entire spiral of human development, from primitives up to the integral Übermensch (superman). Indeed, as Wilber convincingly argues, it is only the institution of religion—the guardian of the world’s sacred myths—that can legitimately manage the crucial transition of the majority of the world’s people as they graduate to the “worldcentric” level of consciousness. Further, the highest personal attainment in an “integralized” religion would be the ability to become intimate or conversant with all existing stages of cultural evolution (for example, primitive, modern, postmodern), as well as competent with all states of consciousness and perspectives on truth, while fully integrating its shadow. As for collective enlightenment, Wilber believes a collective “science of peace” is now possible—but only if planetary civilization honors all perspectives, traditions, and levels of consciousness through a religious leadership that has learned to include and transcend the preeminent facts, knowledge, and insights from all religions.
Before we ask how on God’s green earth we can get to this promised land, let us ask why. Why does Wilber, once a theorist of transpersonal psychology, now find himself advocating an integral overhaul of everyone’s life (via his new system, Integral Life Practice), while tossing in the grandiose goal of integralizing all religious traditions? Many will dismiss this as a gratuitously heady and impractical exercise. Indeed, Wilber insists on the unlikely prospect that religious leaders worldwide, and even students of noetic consciousness, will have to eschew the “myth of the given”—the idea that any metaphysical belief is or ever can be utterly universal and objective or absolutely free from cultural conditioning. Still, seen in its best light, Wilber’s conception is a profound civilization-building project that offers real hope in times of potential cataclysm. Perhaps the reason Wilber makes these sometimes surprising moves in his theorizing can be found in the very pattern that underlies evolution itself: Ever-increasing complexity demands ever-increasing integration. And Wilber delivers both like none other.