The participatory turn as the most significant philosophical turn since Kant

The title above is inspired by a review of the book edited by Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, The Participatory Turn.

The first excerpt is from a review by Chris Clarke in Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network, 101 (2009); The second excerpt is from George Adams iand appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Religion.

The third is perhaps the most important from a contemporary ‘peer to peer’ point of view, and answers the key question: what is the link between spiritual democracy and political democracy. (Source: Gleig, Ann and Boeving, Nicholas G. Spiritual Democracy-Beyond Consciousness and Culture [Review of the book The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies] Tikkun 23(4): 64)

1. Chris Clarke:

“This participatory baton carried by Tarnas was then taken up in 2002 by Jorge Ferrer (Revisioning Transpersonal Theory) from the standpoint of the study of religion. Now in The Participatory Turn he is joined by 10 other authors to present a powerfully convincing picture of what may be the most significant philosophical turn since Kant.

Ferrer’s work stands amongst modern reactions to the scandal of religious diversity. How can it be that the major religions claim access to absolute truth, and yet appear to teach contradictory accounts of what this truth is? Indeed, how is it that respected teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton can be deeply versed in interfaith studies and still advocate their own distinct path? The standard answer in the past has been that the religions are many paths ascending the same mountain; that as each path progresses towards increasingly general concepts, so these concepts converge into a single apprehension of reality. Ferrer, however, has summarised with great care and academic rigour the shift towards the position that this is not the case. Rather, the paths remain essentially different. He quotes the Dalai Lama’s view that even within Buddhism the ultimate goals of different spiritual schools are essentially different. Unity does exist, but it is achieved only after the path has ended and all concepts and linguistic expressions have been deconstructed and one is left not with “reality” as it has been classically understood in the West, but mystery. Rather than “many paths up one mountain”, Ferrer advocates the metaphor of “many rivers leading to one ocean”, an ocean that represents not “things as they really are” but rather “the overcoming of narrow self-centredness and thus a liberation from corresponding limiting perspectives”.

From this viewpoint religious diversity is not a scandal that invalidates religion, but it becomes the essential clue to the world. Following this clue, Ferrer proposes that diversity is a necessity, because existence is not pre-given, but is always a creation in which we participate, in diverse ways. More precisely, Ferrer and his co-editor Jacob Sherman argue for “an enactive understanding of the sacred, seeking to approach religions phenomena, experiences and insights as cocreated events.” In other words, they “suggest that religious and spiritual phenomena are ‘participatory’ in the sense that they can emerge from the interaction of all human attributes and a nondetermined spiritual power or creative dynamism of life.”

Presented baldly, as I have just done, without the context that the editors carefully develop, this formulation is hard to grasp; so I will enlarge on some of their concepts. “Enactive” is a term drawn from the influential work of the biologist Francisco Varela on the evolutionary of organisms. The word describes the way in which an organism, when sufficiently complex, can manifest a genuine agency, initiating a particular response to a particular selection of external stimuli. The organism thereby breaks open the chains of cause and effect with a novel causation, and at the same time asserts its own particular sensitivity to the selected stimuli, thus creating a primitive form of “meaning” within the relationship between the organism and its environment. In the human case, the word “enactive” emphasises the active nature of what is being done, in contrast to the passive sense usually carried by “experience”. Varela’s emphasis on action is also echoed in Ferrer and Sherman’s phrase “all human attributes” in the quotation above: we are not just speaking here about a mental experience, but it could be any combination of attributes such as intuitive, emotional, bodily and so on.

The use of the words “cocreated” and “nondetermined spiritual power” are an attempt to express the idea that this action extends outside oneself, but without presuming in advance anything about what exists outside oneself. The action is not a purely internal imagination, but neither is it an interaction with any external entity to which one could ascribe in advance any existence or any nature. The act of participation itself defines and specifies what it is that is other than the self. “Participation” introduces a category that goes beyond the older philosophical concepts of thing-in-itself and reality. It describes an action of the whole person that transcends the duality between self and other.

It becomes clear as the book unfolds that, though the editor’s definition of the participatory turn is phrased in terms of “religious experience”, its implications extend to a domain much wider than that which is traditionally implied by these words. This particular sense of participation engages with science and complexity theory through the idea of enaction. The stress on multiple human attributes reflects a celebration of multiplicity that links with feminist spirituality as well as body-based and indigenous spirituality. The approach not only challenges previous philosophical concepts but reconstructs them. And it reunites the internal (contemplative) and external (active) spiritual paths. Clearly many books would be required to do justice to all this, yet this volume does an excellent job of at least touching on all these, and exploring quite a few in detail. I can mention only part of this below.

Jacob Sherman, the co-editor has a chapter in his own right surveying the history of the multifaceted term “participation” from Plato to the present day, which helps a lot in fleshing out the idea. Aquinas plays a pivotal role in this history by exploring the dynamic act-of-being (esse) as distinct from “being” as “what something is” (essentia), a distinction that he obtained from Avicenna and Al-Farabi. According to Aquinas, everything has being (esse) through participation in absolute being, which is of course identified by him with God. Sherman stresses that this participation is dynamic, and not a merely a logical matter: as Aquinas puts it, “the act of being is the most intimate reality in any being, and that which is most profound in all things.” Since being comes from participation, and participation is a movement out from oneself, “to be created is to be fundamentally ecstatic”. Participation flows through the chain of being (as Dionysius had described earlier) so that “beings are dyadically constituted as an inseparable polarity of substantial existence in themselves and for others.” Participation thus builds a universe that is fundamentally relational.

At this point in the history, however, participation is unidirectional, with “being” descending from God as the sole creator. Meister Eckhart takes this one step further in recognising that human artistic activity is in itself creative, and that by participating in God the human and God “work one work”. On this conception we give being as well as receiving being in a two-way participation. Sherman then traces this line of thought to Schelling and thence to modernity. (This theme of humanity participating with God in the evolution of creation is fascinatingly taken up in detail by Les Lancaster in a chapter on Kabala.)

Although the image of the ocean with many rivers emphasises plurality, it is definitely not the case the “anything goes”. Ferrer insists that there are genuine ethical distinctions to be made in terms of “a variety of markers and practical fruits.” There is a whole area here of relating ethics to the concept of participation which is only sketched at this stage, principally through the chapter by Beverly Lanzetta on feminine theosis (deification) in the writings and life of St Teresa of Avila, and by Donald Rothberg in a chapter on relating inner and outer transformation in Buddhism. Ethics also arise implicitly from the notion of participation in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s teaching, paraphrased here by William Chittick in the saying: “the divine face turned towards each thing is identical with the thing’s face turned towards God” (reminding us of Eckhart’s “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me”). This suggests that in a participatory, relational cosmos the only alternatives may be either to love others as ourselves or to hate others as ourselves.”

2. George Adams:

“Ferrer presents the participatory vision as a corrective to the errors of the diametrically opposed perspectives of reductionist constructivism and non-reductionist naïve perennialism. Ferrer accepts the post-modern epistemological position of the constructivists (typified by Steven Katz), which claims that there are no unmediated spiritual experiences, and that all such experiences are laden with the cultural baggage brought to the experience by the experiencer. However, Ferrer – contra Katz – argues (quite logically) that accepting the presence of cultural influences as determinants of the content of religious experiences does not necessarily lead to reductionisms which bracket or deny either the reality of the experienced spiritual reality or its creative impact on spiritual knowing.

Ferrer agrees with the perennialists that a spiritual reality does exist and that humans directly experience this reality (thus embracing an epistemological stance of “mediated immediacy”). However, unlike the perennialists, Ferrer rejects the notion that there is a fundamental, universal experience underlying all claims to religious experience. Perennialists tend to claim that all religious experience is the same, but its expression varies according to cultural influences. Ferrer argues (against the constructivists) that religious experience beyond cultural-linguistic construction really does occur, but (against the perennialists) it is not the same experience clothed in culturally influenced language and concepts. Rather, religious experience is infinitely varied…and it is here where the role of participation is introduced.

Ferrer argues that every religious experience is an event in which a culturally conditioned human being interacts, or participates, with an infinitively? varied and mysterious spiritual reality, and this interactive “participatory event” by necessity leads to multiple ways of experiencing the sacred. For Ferrer, spiritual experience always involves an element of reciprocity, in which the human experiencer with his/her culturally-conditioned biases and pre-conceived modes of interpretation encounters a similarly complicated and multi-valent sacred reality, where the resultant interactive “participation” between the two, in which neither party is a static entity, produces an endless array of spiritual experiences. Hence, Ferrer’s participatory vision is based on a radically pluralistic model. If one understands religious experience as a participatory event, it follows that there will be a plurality of accounts of this experience: in a sense, for Ferrer, all religious experiences are different, yet all are still valid. This is nicely characterized by Ferrer when he replaces the often cited perennialist analogy of religious experience as “many rivers leading to the same ocean” by his own analogy of religious experience as contact with “an ocean with many shores.” (138)

Two other significant aspects of Ferrer’s participatory vision bear mention with reference to its impact on the scholarly study of religion. First, Ferrer calls for a rejection of the decidedly culturally-biased Western notion that objective rationality is the only valid means of knowledge. Rejecting the notion of the epistemic superiority of objective rationality, Ferrer instead recommends a “multidimensional cognition” which includes all modes of human knowing, including those that derive from not only the rational mind but also those that derive from the heart, spirit, and body. Secondly, and following from the previous point, Ferrer argues that scholars of religious experience also need to become practitioners of religious experience in order to understand the phenomenon about which they claim to be experts. Ferrer poses the painfully logical question: How can one claim to understand a type of experience which one has never had? How can one understand an internal experience while standing on the outside, safely distanced from the experience? As Ferrer puts it, “One needs to be open to being personally transformed in order to access and fully understand many spiritual knowledge claims.” (138) Both of the above positions presented by Ferrer have enormous, and to some, threatening implications for the status quo in the scholarly study of religion, and are deserving of further exploration.”

3. Ann Gleich and Nicholas Boeving: From Ontological/Spiritual Democracy to Political Democracy

Excellent in-depth review at, May/June 2009.

“Implicit in the participatory turn is an extension of democracy from the political to the ontological realm. Here we extend the thought of social theorist Anthony Giddens, who has traced the growth of democracy from the political sphere to the world of family, relationships, and sexuality. The latter have been radicalized through what Giddens calls a “democracy of the emotions.” This denotes how the traditional concept of marriage as an economic contract constituted by an inherent gender inequality has been replaced by the “pure relationship,” which is characterized by equality, intimacy, and communication. Pointing out that all of these qualities are inherently democratic, Giddens illuminates the striking parallels between the pure relationship and public democracy.

There are similarly striking parallels between political/emotional democracy and a participatory sensibility. As noted, the participatory turn is fundamentally a rethinking of the relationship between the human and the metaphysical. In this approach, a top-down authoritarian model of divinity is replaced by a more intimate and equal partnership and democratic redistribution of creative power. Also, just as the rejection of prescribed and oppressive gender roles is central to a democracy of the emotions, so the feminist stress on sacred immanence, wholeness, and relationality is central to the participatory turn. Ontological hierarchy—whether in the theistic guise of God as Lord and Father or an elitist perennialism—has too often reflected, generated, and justified social and political systems of domination. While the radically democratic dimensions of the participatory turn have been celebrated by John Heron and Jeffrey J. Kripal, a further exploration of its democratic influences and implications will support the full manifestation of its liberative promise.

Hence, just as Giddens calls for a further democratizing of political democracy, we call for a deepening of the ontological democracy implied within a participatory ontology. Included in this call is the question of who is admitted to, as well as left out from, the ostensibly round ontological table to which Ferrer and Sherman invite us. Those of us lucky enough to share our lives with animal companions don’t need to read the latest groundbreaking research “proving” the authenticity of their inner emotional lives to know that they have them. They, like us, are conscious beings with an awareness of others. And consciousness, inasmuch as it participates in the mystery our editors invoke, is the crux upon which this model rests. So, to put it rather bluntly: what happens when they die? The problem of atheism is equally ignored. After all, what does the spiritual path (ultimate) look like when spirit itself is denied? It’s not that Ferrer and Sherman’s model can’t account for animals or atheists; it potentially could, but they simply don’t go there. One hopes that in the future such quandaries will be afforded greater attention, as these are the kinds of theoretical knots that, once unraveled and reworked, only strengthen a model and lend it greater appeal and explanatory power.

Thinking about the participatory turn as a type of ontological democracy also sheds light on other ethical dimensions. Far from weakening family duties and obligations, Giddens insists a democracy of the emotions fosters and demands more responsibility. The same applies to participatory ethics: the move from a monarchical to a democratic ontology also necessitates a re-envisioning of ourselves from children under the Lord/Father to individuated adults in relationship with the mystery. Many will undoubtedly decry this as Promethean and hubristic. As Ferrer recognizes, to claim that human creativity influences the nature and workings of the mystery may sound arrogant or inflated. Yet with power comes responsibility. And foremost among our responsibilities, Ferrer declares, is to evaluate the different co-constructed religious worlds: “because such [worlds] are not simply given but involve us as agents and cocreators, we are not off the ethical hook where religion is concerned but instead inevitably make cosmo-political and moral choices in all our religious actions.”


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