The future of (participatory) religion? Part 2: interspiritual wisdom vs spirituality without religion

We present the second set of two 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+ .

In this interview/conversation with Bahman A.K. Shirazi four possible scenarios for the future of religion are discussed, along with Ferrer’s own fifth scenario related to the participatory vision:

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

3. The Interspiritual Wisdom hypothesis

BS: In the third scenario you talked about the affirmation of interspiritual wisdom emerging from spiritual teachings, principles, and values endorsed by all religious groups and traditions. You have mentioned a number of people whose philosophy falls under this category such as Hans Küng’s proposal for a global ethics, or the work of Christian author Wayne Teasdale who proposed a universal mysticism grounded in the practice of “interspirituality”. Additional examples you have given are Beverly Lanzetta’s proposal for an “intercontemplative” global spirituality that affirms the interdependence of spiritual principles giving birth to new spiritual paths, and Robert Forman’s “trans-traditional spirituality” that feeds on the teachings of all religious traditions but is not restricted by the confines of any particular credo. This may sound somewhat like the previous scenario, so I was wondering if you could elaborate on the difference? Is this true more at one end of the spectrum or limited to certain individuals? Is it starting to happen more and more?

JF: As you mentioned, this proposal has been articulated by a number of scholarpractitioners such as Brother Wayne Teasdale and Beverly Lanzetta, who were very engaged in the interfaith dialogue. In a way it is connected to the second scenario; their proponents hope or believe that the interfaith dialogue will lead to agreement upon a certain number of spiritual teachings or understandings such as the ethical principles of Hans Küng’s Global Ethics. But this proposal goes farther than just ethics to include core spiritual teachings or doctrines.

I am fascinated by this proposal and would like to see it unfold. I can see how this might be more feasible with ethics than core spiritual doctrines, which I’m rather skeptical about, given the huge doctrinal differences among traditions.

BS: Küng got his license to teach revoked by the Vatican!

JF: Still, I could envision that a minimum of core shared principles might emerge in the future.

BS: It seems like a pragmatic possibility; as these religious worlds come together, there will be some obvious issues and people can agree upon some shared realities regardless of the deeper end of these philosophies and develop a foundation on that pragmatic level.

JF: I am a spiritual pragmatist and I’m interested in what works for people. In terms of the validity of doctrines, I also take a more pragmatic approach inspired by the Buddhist teaching of “skillful means” (upaya). I posit that spiritual teachings are valid insofar as they work; that is, insofar as they help people become less self-centered, create wholesome communities, lead to better relations with the environment, and so forth. This is connected to my non-objectivist participatory approach to spiritual truth.

BS: Do you see a possibility that while on the exoteric side world religions will stay as diverse as they are today, on the esoteric level there will be more mutual understandings in such a way that will influence the exoteric level—the emphasis being on the latter, since I have seen many individuals on the contemplative side fairly easily get along. But do you think that it will affect a larger population and the effect would disseminate through the mainstream traditions themselves?

JF: I have no doubt that the more mystical or contemplative strands of religions cultivate their traditions’ living fire, and that those practitioners tend to become beautiful human beings. But this is different from the perennial assertion that there is greater agreement in spiritual doctrine and truth at the esoteric or mystical dimension of the traditions.

The whole esoteric/exoteric distinction is problematic in many ways. I think that the Schuon-Smith hypothesis is erroneous and it does not stand against historical, textual and phenomenological evidence. Even within a single tradition, disagreements among contemplative practitioners abound. Take Buddhism for example: Zen and Tibetan Buddhist monks strongly disagree about the ultimate nature of reality; are they not considered Buddhist esoteric or mystical practitioners?

Although I question the hypothesis, contemplative practitioners do seem to get along better among themselves than believers who engage in religion on conceptual and doctrinal levels, which tends to lean more easily to fanaticism (and this is not to say that mystics cannot be religiously zealous!).

BS: I recall from Haridas Chaudhuri’s book: Modern Man’s Religion, that he made a distinction between the ‘universalist individual’ within a religious tradition—since all of the major religions have a universal outlook and a person within that tradition could reach or embody the universal teachings, higher ethics and values etc.—and a ‘universal religion’.

JF: My dream or fantasy is that those practitioners get along, appreciate each other, and are engaged in spiritual cross-fertilization, but we know that many are actually trying to convert the other; you know that this happens even within the mystical branches. So, can we embrace all this incredible spiritual diversity as something positive? Can we contemplate that different traditions may have found different soteriological solutions for the human dilemma, and that they may be advancing the evolutionary creativity of Being in different directions?

If we accept this view, there may be overlapping qualities among traditions, but we don’t need to come to identical agreements, truths, or principles. These kinds of (failed) attempts have plagued the religious history of humankind. In my view, the objectivist perspective about spiritual truth underlying these attempts is not very generous regarding the creativity of spiritual unfolding.

BS: There seems to be strong tendencies to stick to the form of things—the way things are presented on the outer level—and the problem you are talking about is that perhaps we can get along on a more essential level, but there is still a tendency to understand that essence in the familiar forms and not recognize it in the outer forms of other traditions.

JF: That’s true and my sense is that at the essential level there are important differences too. For example, when Theravada Buddhists talk about sunyata (emptiness) and Mahayana Buddhists talk about the dharmakaya, or Christians talk about God-the-Father, they are talking about radically different things.

4. The Spirituality Without Religion hypothesis

BS: The last scenario before we get into the participatory paradigm is spirituality without religion. You include in this scenario a number of contemporary developments—from secular to postmodern, and from naturalistic to New Age spiritualities—that aim for the cultivation of a spiritual life free from traditional religious dogmas and/or transcendent or supernatural beliefs. You consider postmodern spiritualities, which remain agnostic about supernatural or transcendent sources of religion, and the New Age movement that tends to uncritically accept them, as the two most prominent trends that value the primacy of individual choice and experience, criticize the “received” religious doctrines and authoritarian institutions, and call for a democratization of spirit and a direct path to the divine. Lastly in this scenario, you included modern religious quests, secular surrogates for religion, and postsecular spiritualities that use mottos such as “spiritual but not religious”, “religion without religion,” and “believing without belonging.” Many people nowadays talk about being spiritual, but not religious. What is your own view on the difference between spirituality and religiosity?

JF: My sense is that this distinction has practical value for people who have been brought up in religious contexts that were rather oppressive. In those cases, the distinction can allow such individuals to embrace spiritual values free from dogmatic specters. Historically, there is a distinction between the terms spirituality and religion. For example, in the history of Christianity the term spirituality came to be used to refer to the more personal, affective, and experiential dimensions of religion— vs. its more communal, cognitive, liturgical, and doctrinal aspects.

But when it comes to judge whether particular groups or individuals are religious or spiritual, the distinction doesn’t make much sense. Practitioners from the world traditions are usually considered to be religious, whereas many operating outside traditions identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. But, to what extent are Christian monks (who in my experience can be non-dogmatic about Christian doctrine) less spiritual than New Age practitioners (who can hold their spiritual beliefs rather dogmatically)? Are those New Age people religious or spiritual? It seems like the dividing line here is between being doctrinal or dogmatic (religious) and practicing a more open-ended path (spiritual), and I think this can be helpful. But at the same time I don’t think that we can use this distinction for mapping or categorizing. Why would one want to categorize someone as religious, and not spiritual, if she belongs to an organized religion? That doesn’t make sense! But again, the distinction can have practical value for individuals who have been oppressed by an organized religion and want to take up a spiritual path.

BS: So, I wonder if the distinction between exoteric and esoteric would be more meaningful in terms of ‘religion vs. spirituality’, where religious refers to the exoteric level, and spirituality to the esoteric?

JF: My sense is that the distinction you are referring to does have some validity, but I hesitate to use the terms spirituality and religiosity as a way to distinguish mystical from non-mystical practitioners. You see, the overwhelming majority of mystics of the past considered themselves to be very religious; so who are we to say that they are “spiritual but not religious” according to our modern categories? The distinction is important but I wouldn’t use those terms to make it.

BS: Are there experiential illuminations that mark the exoteric/esoteric distinction?

JF: There are actual experiential illuminations, as well as degrees of apprehension of spiritual truths in all religions; but again I would not use these terms as distinguishing categories.”

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