The future of (participatory) religion? Part 1: Global Religion hypothesis vs. the Mutual Transformations of Religion

We present the two first hypotheses presented by Jorge Ferrer in this interesting conversation:

* Article/Interview: : Rethinking the Future of World Religion: A Conversation with Jorge N. Ferrer. Integral Review. July 2012, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 22+ .

Fron the Introduction by Bahman A.K. Shirazi:

“When it comes to religious consciousness, the turn of the 21st century presents an unprecedented and challenging time in human history. On the one hand, the long-standing chasm between premodern theocentric religious traditions, and the modern anthropocentric, scientistic, and materialistic worldviews is widening. On the other hand, unlike what some may have anticipated, not only religion and spirituality are not on the decline, they are as strong as they have ever been.

Hundreds of new religions, cults, sects, and spiritual communities have emerged in recent decades. These new religious movements, along with globalization of religion, multiple-religion explorations, ecumenical services, religious syncretism, and secular spiritual orientations are among the many trends that shape today’s religious landscape. Despite the widespread materialism in a technology-dominated world, we live in times of rich spiritual diversity, experimentation, and innovation. Our postmodern world seems to be evolving at an increasingly accelerated rate. While some are very comfortable moving along at such a fast pace, others, unable to cope with this rapid change, have either resorted back to religious fundamentalism, or have become profoundly confused and disenchanted.

Jorge Ferrer is one of few thinkers who have tried to map out the current landscape: He reflects on whether humanity will ultimately converge into one single religion, or will it continue to diversify into numerous forms of spiritual expression? Or perhaps, a middle path capable of reconciling the human longing for spiritual unity, on the one hand, and the developmental and evolutionary gravitation toward spiritual individuation and differentiation, on the other hand, is more likely?

In this interview he discusses four possible scenarios for the future of religion:

global religion;
mutual transformation of religions;
interspiritual wisdom; and
spirituality without religion

— as well as discussing his own participatory vision.”

Excerpted from the conversation on the first two hypotheses:

The Global Religion hypothesis

“BS: In the first scenario you talked about the emergence of a global religion or a single world faith for humankind — the possibility of a global religion where either one religion will come to dominate others, or a synthesis of many or most traditions will emerge realizing the dream of a global spirituality; and you said that this scenario is not likely. Is this just a hypothetical possibility or is there more to this beyond a desire on the part of some religion for it to prevail over others?

JF: I think that most religious traditions explicitly or implicitly aspire to have their creed prevail over the rest, because they genuinely believe that it is the best; that is, it represents the highest truth and is good for everybody. In some cases, this attitude (which I have called “spiritual narcissism”) manifests as problematic fanaticism, in others simply as a candid belief. Spiritual narcissism is pandemic and not necessarily associated with a narcissistic personality.

For example, the Dalai Lama is very likely among the least personally narcissistic, but he firmly believes that his particular school of Tibetan Buddhism holds a higher truth than any other Buddhist school or religion. He supports a diversity of religions on psychological grounds (i.e., on the basis that people have different psychological dispositions), but he still believes that it is a temporary situation, and that, after the necessary reincarnations people will come to realize the superior truth maintained by his school.

BS: Also for example, in Islam there is a belief that it is the last religion and the last word!

JF: Exactly. I believe this situation invites us to wake up to the possibility that there might be another way to hold the plurality of religions beyond believing that one must own the highest truth. I don’t believe that any of the existing religions will become global, in part because there is tremendous spiritual diversification, even within each religion. For example, which particular kind of Buddhism would prevail, as they are fighting internally over doctrinal issues? And the same is true with other religions.

In my view, the evolutionary move towards differentiation is positive and a sign of spiritual creativity. If spiritual diversification is a good thing, then the whole dream of a global religion becomes both illusory and misleading. If there is anything that might become global, it may take the form of a number of interreligious principles that all goodhearted people might agree upon.”

The Mutual Transformations of Religion hypothesis

BS: You refer to the second scenario as the mutual transformation of religions, where religious traditions conserve their identity but are deeply and perpetually transformed through a variety of interreligious exchanges. The distinctive feature here is that religious cross-pollination will lead to spiritual creative unions in which diversity is not erased, but rather intensified. You maintain that this vision is consistent with not only the adoption of practices from other traditions by members of different faith communities, but also with the deepening or re-envisioning of one’s own tradition in light of other religious perspective. You have given examples of this type of religious syncretism: 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. You maintain that currently this religious cross-fertilization is visibly taking place in interfaith dialogue, the New Age movement, and a number of eclectic and integrative spiritual groups. You have also included in this category the growing phenomenon of “multiple religious participation,” in which an individual partakes in the practices and belief systems of more than one tradition, which can potentially result in the renewal of existing religious traditions through cross-cultural encounters. So, this seems to be the next natural reaction to, or movement from, the first scenario. You mentioned that interreligious dialogues are a part of this trend. Many people say that the interreligious dialogues that they have seen are more about stating your case, honoring or acknowledging the other, but sticking to your own truth and boundaries. I was wondering if you were inspired by certain kinds of interreligious dialogues that go further than that and the parties are really mutually interested in one another?

JF: I have read a lot about interreligious dialogue and attended a number of interreligious encounters, including the Parliament of the World Religions and others organized by Religions for Peace at the United Nations.

There are a variety of attitudes within the interfaith movement. What you described is a kind of tolerant dialogue in which people have an interest in each other but there are clear limits regarding how deeply transformative the dialogue can be. In some circles interreligious dialogue moved beyond that. In many cases, for example, Christians not only gain a deep understanding of say Buddhism, but also state that such understanding helped them to recognize aspects of Christianity that they would have otherwise overlooked. In addition, there are increasing numbers of interfaith experiments that move beyond verbal dialogue to include exchange of spiritual practices.

Interestingly, perhaps because of their self-critical postcolonial awareness, Christians seem to be the ones more open to these kinds of deeply transformative exchanges. What I see in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue is that many Christian theologians are ready to transform Christian doctrine through engagement of Buddhist teachings, but this is not always the case in the other direction. In any event, this is the direction I would like to see the dialogue move forward—toward mutual transformations not just at the level of doctrine, but also of spiritual practice. The reason for that is that I believe that different traditions have stressed, cultivated, and developed different human potentials.

BS: Exactly, each tradition seems to have mastered a certain aspect of reality or a part of the larger whole.

JF: And this cross-pollination can allow different traditions to remain in their identities and simultaneously be enriched by contact with other religions. One phenomenon that fascinates me is cross-fertilization at the visionary level. There are the levels of doctrine and practice, but what about the visionary, ontological, or metaphysical levels? In some contemporary ayahuasca ceremonies, for example, people access visionary worlds that combine indigenous and Christian motifs. I think we are going to see more of that in years to come. What people bring with them to these dialogs is key, and many involved in interreligious dialogues are practicing more than one tradition.

BS: Do you think practicing more than one religion is just a temporary phase? Or is it really possible to continue with multiple traditions?

JF: I think it’s perfectly possible. It is well documented in individual biographical cases, but also in the case of entire societies, such as contemporary Japan. Many Japanese people practice a combination of Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism side by side.

They tend to compartmentalize it; for example, Shintoism for nature, Buddhism for the self, and Confucianism for politics. On an individual level, Raimon Panikkar’s case comes quickly to mind. He was both a Christian priest and Hindu sanyasin, and his influential approach to interreligious dialogue emerged from his own intra-religious dialogue.

BS: This has also been true in the past, for example, in Southeast Asia the animistic and indigenous traditions are just part of the Buddhist religion today. Buddhism has not washed over them and somehow has incorporated the older traditions into its religious practice, so it’s possible that this will continue.

JF: The phenomenon of “multiple religious participation” is increasing and has been well documented sociologically. For example, Judaism and Buddhism seem to somehow easily go together; many Buddhist teachers in the United States were Jewish by birth and there are many Jewish people who practice Buddhism.

BS: One individual explained the reason for this being that in Judaic theology there is not enough explicit acknowledgement of human suffering; and that Judaism tends to be a life-celebratory and God-glorifying tradition. So there is little acknowledgment of personal suffering in Judaism—and thus attraction to Buddhism.

JF: I do believe that many people have the psychospiritual capability to hold different beliefs and practices in their lives. What we don’t know is whether the phenomenon we are seeing now will eventually lead to syncretic religions or more to situations like the one in Japan.

2 Comments The future of (participatory) religion? Part 1: Global Religion hypothesis vs. the Mutual Transformations of Religion

  1. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    Here’s an interesting piece by Christopher Alexander about the relationship between matter and spirit/soul/the self:

    “After a lecture of mine, I once heard an architecture student say, “I still don’t see why all this has been discussed. Isn’t it enough to understand the nature of living structure thoroughly, and try and make life in our buildings? Why do you insist so strongly on the fact that we also need to change our picture of the universe? I have a picture of the universe which is quite flexible enough to contain the idea of living structure”.

    I did not find myself in agreement with this comment. In my mind, what is most important about the picture painted in these four books is that indeed, our present picture of the universe can not contain the idea of living structure, because it contains no natural way of including the idea of value in the idea of space. What I have constructed, on the other hand, has the idea of value in an a natural way – first in the relevant intensity of different elementary centers as part of the definition of wholeness, and then with more and more depth, as centers are built from living centers, to give structure of real, deep, significant value by essential the same idea. In this picture, value resides in the structure and is part of the structure. Value is written in the same language as the rest of the structure of space-time, and the life of the centers arises from the fabric and structure of space itself.

    In this conception, value is not something merely grafted onto space, as a passenger might be who carries no weight and does no work. It is part of the same nearly mechanical picture of space that we have come to believe in, and respect, and trust. Yet, at the same time, in a most subtle way, it is also not-mechanical. After all, what we observe is life emerging from space, as we might say “out of the very foam of space”.

    It is a structure, we can (tentatively) calculate with it, and it fits our structural understanding of space and matter. Yet it creates a bridge to life, feeling, and to our own experience of what it is to be a person: the self, which all of us contain, and are connected to.

    That is the structural meaning of what I have described.

    George Wald, in the paper quoted earlier, where he says that all matter is ultimately mindstuff, balks at making any particular connection between space and matter. He writes, in one place, “Consciousness is altogether impervious to scientific approach”(42). And later, “Though consciousness is the essential condition for all science, science cannot deal with it”(43). Thus, in spite of Wald’s fervent belief in the existence of consciousnesses (or mind, or self), he insists that it is impenetrable, not connected to structure of space and time as we observe them as a structure.

    Yet what I claim is precisely that it is connected to structure. I claim that the field of centers, or some version of it, is a recursive structure in space, which does precisely serve the function of being the bridge between matter and consciousnesses, between matter and mind; and that it is, indeed, when these extraordinary living structures arise in space, that mind awakens, that space and matter open a window to the mind, and that the great self behind all things actually comes within our experience and our reach.

    I believe that one day it will be possible to demonstrate an experimental connection, where it will be shown exactly how the field of centers does open a door between space and self, and how, ultimately then, self and matter are permanently intertwined through the construction of the mechanism.

    A traditional scientific view, held by many during the 20th century, has been that mechanical pictures of matter, can be consistent with any spiritual view of God or consciousness because the two (matter and consciousnesses) inhabit non-communicating intellectual domains. Such a dichotomy may have been a source of comfort to positivists. But, scientifically speaking, it allows us to get no mileage from the co-presence of the two.

    Indeed, I believe continued insistence on the compatibility of the two (“because they do interact”) is almost tantamount to denying any real and useful interaction, and thus inhibits intellectual progress. Polkinghorn, for example, said at one time that everything is OK as it is, and that it is easy enough to reconcile a materialist conception of matter with a spiritual conception of life(44). All this really said was that we have no understanding of the connection, and that – from an intellectual point of view – there is no interaction. But in view of the mechanist predisposition which is common in our time, and the fact that all practical understanding is mechanical in nature, this means, too, that we have no picture in which self and matter can be coupled: therefore no real way of believing that they are coupled.

    Even though Polkinghorne and the student who was speaking to me may believe the present world-picture is adequate to contain both, I believe it is not so. This broad-minded, intellectually catholic opinion is mistaken. The two views, in their present form, cannot coexist successfully. Even today, we continue understanding the degree to which we are prisoners of the present mechanistic cosmology; we have a strong tendency to underestimate the effect that this interior mechanistic view can have on us.

    Consider for example, three elementary facts: (1) in our immediate world, at normal temperature and pressure, nearly everything is made of atoms; (2) atoms are little whirling mechanisms which are spinning constantly; (3) people are largely made of atoms too.

    Nearly every schoolchild learns these facts in school. We all learnt them. They are, by now, virtually a part of us. Probably we learned them when we were eight or nine years old. As a result, in the western world at least, there are few people alive who do not believe (“know”) that they are mechanisms made up of millions of tiny whirling mechanisms.

    In case this seems like an exaggeration, or that people do not really believe these things literally as as being the whole picture, consider the first paragraph of a recently published book, THE ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS, by the eminent molecular biologist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA: “The astonishing hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…”(45)

    At first one might find it surprising that such an eminent scientist should put forward such a crass-seeming reductionist view without flinching. But it simply underlines my point that all of us are susceptible to this oversimplification, so long as we have nothing to replace it with. It is a mark of Crick’s honesty and intellectual rigor that he faces the real meaning of the present cosmological scheme and does not try to duck it with pious phrases. Without having access to another structure, so that the structure of matter itself leads to a different view, it seems to me that anyone honest much reach the same conclusions Crick has reached.

    But if you believe Crick’s mechanized reduction is accurate, how can you take seriously the kinds of ideas which I have described about the life of buildings, and walls, and rooms, and streets? The answer is, you cannot. You cannot, because if you believe the three elementary-school facts, then mentally, you are still living in a universe in which nothing matters, and in which you do not matter. And then the life of the environment is not real either.

    Ideas about the personal or spiritual nature or reality, no matter how desirable they seem, cannot affect you deeply, even if you think they do, until they can be embodied in some new picture which leaves the facts of physics intact, and also paves the way to a more spiritual understanding of the world by an extended structure which brings in these larger matters clearly and explicitly.

    The whole point of the consept which I have described – of wholeness seen as calculable, recursive, bootstrap field of centers with the consequence that follow from this view – is that within the framework this concept creates, things really are different, and the differences are visible as new aspects of the structure of space and matter. This newly seen structure not only says that things are different. It shows, through the properties of the structure, exactly how things are different.

    Within the new view of structure of matter-space provided by the field of centers, we can reconcile the fact of being a mechanism of whirling mechanisms, because we know that each atom is itself a field of centers, and that in the emergence of these fields, the self comes into view. We…you…I…are thus instances of the field of centers or – if we like to see it more deeply – instances of the self-stuff of the universe, making its way, cumbersomely, from the trap of matter to the light of day.

    Armed with this view, we can unite our personal intuition of religious awe with our sensible scientific understanding of the world. It becomes all one, it all makes sense together. Life and religion fall into place and fit together with physics as necessary consequences of the structure of the world – that is, of the way that matter-space is made.

    And in this view, the work of building takes on entirely new meaning. It changes in a fundamental way, because we understand what we are doing differently, and realize that our work as builders – through the forms described in this book – place us in an entirely new relation to the universe.

    In this universe, the human self, yours and mine, are indistinguishable, in their substance, from the space and matter where the play of forms occurs. When we make something, its selfness, its possible soul, is part and parcel of our own self.

    There is, then, something very like a religious obligation to allow this self to reveal itself. It is our task, as architects, as artists, as builders, to make this stuff, this matter of the universe, reveal itself most fully. This metaphysical obligation will stem directly from our renewed understanding of the substance of the universe. It does not arise merely from our desire to be comfortable, from our desire to avoid alienation. It arises as a supreme spiritual obligation, which is our obligation to the matter/spirit we ourselves are made of.

    This feeling, though modern in its form, is, in its essence, similar to the medieval mason’s desire to make each stone as a gift to God.

    But it arises, now, not as a religious or superstitious belief, but as a result of a new understanding of the structure of the universe.” – Christopher Alexander, The Luminous Ground, page 332-334

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