Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Anthony Galli (email@example.com) has a degree in psychology, with experience in mental health and education. He currently works for a non-profit corporation. His personal website can be accessed at: http://tonygalli.tripod.com
The Christ Conspiracy
Right now in America there is a crisis brewing. With so many crises already to choose from, it is hard to imagine what this might be. Is there a new terrorist threat? A big storm brewing? An immanent stock market crash? A crime wave? No, it is a work of fiction.
The DaVinci Code, a book written by cryptographic author Dan Brown, is based on the idea that the Catholic Church has been involved in a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the life of Jesus, which profoundly affects how one views his message and the Christian narrative. It has now been made into a film and has sparked the same amount of controversy that Mel Gibson's “Passion of the Christ” did a few years ago, and “The Last Temptation of Christ” did almost two decades ago.
What is interesting is the way people are debating over this movie. While it is good that there is a public debate, rather than just an academic one, the problem is that people on both sides are confusing issues. Recently I heard a fiery Pentecostal preacher warn that his congregation that The DaVinci Code is “demonically inspired.” As he put it, even the actors in the film admit that it is fiction. He then went on to reify the concept of fiction as a lie. Apparently, he does not understand that fiction involves suspension of disbelief. In watching a film, or reading a fictional book, it is generally assumed that the story is created from the author's imagination for the purpose of entertainment. It is not supposed to be taken as factual, even if based on real events. An actual example of a deliberate fabrication would be James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, which was presented as a factual memoir. That educated members of American society cannot tell the difference between pretending and deceiving says something about our lack of literary acumen.
On the other side of the isle, there are those who denounce Christianity with a similar mindset. Some now think Christianity is nothing but a spoiled cauldron of intentional misrepresentation out to destroy everything that was good and pure in the Pagan world. The history presented in this story – that there is a secret Jesus bloodline extended into Europe, that Leonardo DaVinci was part of this order – is unlikely. The real history of Christianity is probably more mundane, though no less interesting. It is the story of a religion that developed in a climate of adversity and grew into the complex phenomenon that it is today; the most diverse religion, in the world in terms of sects and denominations.
The Christian Experience in the Post-Modern World
Many of us who grew up Christian at some point in our lives came to question many of its central premises, often taken as literal truth, and found something amiss. Looking at its history more objectively, we became disgusted by what we saw. The final nails in the coffin were Christian spokespeople who distorted, demeaned, and dismissed the teachings of other religions. Even worse, some say that others are under the influence of the devil, a supernatural being of absolute evil (and consequently, those people themselves are held to be evil). It follows that there is nothing good about their philosophies, rituals, or practices. Anyone with half a brain would reasonably question such assertions.
But there is a way out this muddled theological thicket. Anthropology shows us that there are a wide variety of belief systems and certain norms are actually relative, undermining the view that our own culture is the standard to measure others, as well as the false notion that we stand on a neutral viewing ground (defining others as ethnic, as though you are not ethnic, or situated in contexts). We are social animals, and ethnocentrism is a normal part of the socialization process, although it is a perspective that can be somewhat outgrown if it is recognized.
Philosophy, which is also the study of the history of ideas, further allows us to put things in perspective. History shows us patterns - what people did, why they did it, and how that plays itself out today. Supposedly, history comes from “His story,” as in, the story of humanity. Kings wanted a concrete record of their greatness, and the greatness of their people, for future generations to ponder. One story that has influenced millions upon millions is that of the “king of kings” Jesus Christ.
With the development of science came more objective tools for evaluating exaggerated or supernatural claims in the literature. How relevant is Christianity in today's world? I will not provide conclusive answers, as it is something we should continue to explore. I do know this – Christianity is not the end all, be all of religions. Christianity is not the greatest thing it is hyped up to be, nor is it the worst thing to ever happen to humanity. Christians can take pride in some of its achievements, and anti-Christian foes can rest assured that it will dominate forever. This essay looks at Harris's recent analysis of Christianity and provides a different perspective.
The Extent of the Lie
“By taking God out of nature and out of man and placing Him in a remote heaven, Christianity created the dualism that allowed science to concentrate exclusively on nature and ignore God. If God was separate from His creation then he could be kept separate and out of mind.”
Was Christianity the first religion to take God out of nature, out of man, and place “Him” in a remote heaven? Or was it part of a growing trend?
“A progressive religion is one that encourages some form of personal development. Ideally it should provide a path of development right up to nondual realization. It can however, be considered partially progressive if it stimulates development along part of the spectrum.”
Do all spiritual paradigms agree that this nondual is the end of the path? Or perhaps only the legitimate ones do, but then we are back to the problem as to how to decide which religion is legitimate. Is there an objective way of demonstrating that a spiritual path is authentic or not? This is not an unimportant question if we hold the nondual as the ultimate sine qua non of all authentic religions. How much of nondualism is a Vedanta interpretation, versus Kabbala, Sufism, Neo-Platonism, or Zen? Is it really a universal approach to take one particular model and use it as the yardstick to measure others? This is something I feel is too often brushed aside in Wilberian thought.
“Based on a lie it [Christianity] cannot help but be regressive and struggle to discover authenticity.”
Many historical inaccuracies have been taken as fact within Christianity. But that does not mean the majority of Christians have been deliberating lying, as opposed to just holding beliefs in earnest, however silly.
If Christianity arose from pre-Christian sources in the Oikumene, as his essay maintains, then is not Christianity an outgrowth of the same matrix that produced western civilization as we know it? If Christianity is a lie, then it is a western lie; it did not pop out of a vacuum.
“Christianity is a collection of symbols, signifiers and memes, that's all. These memes are drawn to the appropriate level, but are not the level itself. What I am suggesting is that we replace the regressive and redundant memes, the junk DNA, with progressive and more accurate memes. There are many Christians who are simply being fed junk food, junk memes – and it's bad for their spiritual diet.”
I do not know how much Chris Cowan would agree with this version of meme theory. As I understand it, vMemes are value codes and emerge from pre-given capacities. They are not created by particular myths, nor are they replaced by other memes in the developmental process. As a meme is engaged, activated memes remain alongside it, and memes that have not been activated lie dormant. There are also complex transitional patterns. The health of the spiral depends on the openness of the system, whether memes are allowed to express themselves appropriately. If not, a meme can cause a malfunction in the system, not because the meme is junk, but because it is inappropriate in context.
“He [the Buddha] also left a set of injunctions that have proved effective, resulting in a 2,500 year history of generation after generation of enlightened masters.”
How do we know nirvana is not just a fantasy? How can we be certain there is real transcendence, rather than a delusion caused by the expectation of enlightenment? Is there really a valid and reliable way of determining enlightenment without accepting certain metaphysical givens?
“I do not know of a war fought in the name of Buddhism, but there have been many wars fought in the name of God or Allah.”
Me neither. However, some Buddhists have been involved in wars for other reasons. Buddhism does have a much more peaceful record than does Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, or Hinduism. Buddhist texts make the ethics of ahimsa (non-harm) crystal clear, and because of this religious fanaticism has not had a chance to contaminate this faith. But religion is not the only generator of violence. In a sense, one could say that desperate environmental conditions activate memes involved in basic survival mechanisms. I think it is more reasonable to focus on creating healthy conditions for people than to try to eliminate religions. Of course, one may view a healthy environment as one free of the religions one does not like, but personal religious preference is not necessarily synonymous with what is in the best interest of others.
“If anything modern neuroscience is actually supporting some of Buddhism's claims about meditation and some physicists have been attracted to Eastern metaphysics because it makes claims broadly compatible with recent discoveries in physics (the Big Bang is compatible with some Buddhist and Hindu theories of cosmogenesis).”
The conflation of modern science with eastern metaphysics is a minority view. Most of those in the “hard” sciences dismiss these claims. I do not necessarily agree with the ultra-physicalist paradigm, but I do think the link between Buddhism/Hinduism/Taoism and the current science is overblown. Buddhism is a religion; it is not modern science in either its goals or its outlook. True, some scientists have an eastern outlook. Many scientists are also Christian, and there are even Muslim scientists (though mostly in the applied sciences) who see no contradiction between their faith and science.
Some Christian fundamentalists believe the big bang proves the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Maybe, but it certainly does not prove any of the specific supernatural claims of the Bible, unless you completely redefine some terms. We do not really know about the conditions of the universe prior to the proposed big bang. Maybe the big bang was the true beginning of beginnings, or perhaps the last big bang was one beginning in an infinite series of creation/destruction cycles in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.
I agree with Wilber that the important connection to eastern thought, and mysticism in general, is not with any specific finding in physics, which can turn on a dime anyways, but is something much simpler. A human being, from the limited perspective of the individual, does not perceive the whole, but a relative picture of an infinitely vast, multi-dimensional universe. Physics shows us how this is so, and mysticism shows us how we can see more of reality.
“A significant number of Christians feel so threatened by science that they are engaged in a serious regressive political battle to defeat the claims of some scientific disciplines. Again, this is the fault of Christianity because an absurd and anti-reality literalism has always been a part of the doctrine.”
This is a problem for many true believers. Yet this does not take away from the fact that science still developed in Christian countries. Christianity had quite a bit to do with this, as did Islam, and the Judaic worldview that influenced both of them.
“Why was the Bible written not in Aramaic, the language Joshua spoke (and which has died out), but in Greek? Why did the church adopt Latin? Because the Judeo-Christian tradition has little substance to it”.
Maybe it is because Latin was the language of Roman emperors and Greek was the lingua franca for both Jews and Gentiles.
“Fundamentalist Christians still denounce meditation as demonic and persuade their congregants to follow absurd and dangerous beliefs.”
I know Christians who actually believe that, which I think is sad because meditation, on the whole, is beneficial, though not without its side-effects. Indeed, meditation was part of Christianity for most of its history.
What Harris should admit, though, is that some of his own beliefs, particularly the theories of Jung, are also beyond the pale of genuine science. Jung is now an anomaly in academic psychology and is mostly relegated to the margins of a few specialized institutes. How would he respond to Jung's critics? Certainly not with appeals to science. Metaphysical beliefs, viewed by those who do not share those beliefs, can also be dismissed as absurd.
“Again, the Israelis claim there was massive illegal Arab immigration during the period of the British mandate, meaning that many of the people who claim to be Palestinian are in fact first or second generation immigrants (from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt – Yasser Arafat was actually born in Egypt) and have no more claim than many Jews. However some Palestinians claim that the Arab population explosion was due to natural birth rates. Again, who is right?”
Good question. Ultimately, I think whoever we can conclusively say was born on this land has the right to live there. At this point it does no good to kick anyone out, though land transfers within the Israel will have to happen if a Palestinian state is created, assuming Israeli settlers will vacate occupied portions of the West Bank. The right of return is a tricky issue, particularly those who were not born there. For example, Yassir Arafat had lived in Jerusalem, but records show that his family was in Egypt when he was born, and he may well have been born there himself.
“Christian anti-Semitism dates back to the early church as the literalist Paulinists who blamed the Jews for killing Christ. Muslim anti-Semitism dates back to the Medinite period where Mohammed declared the Jewish tribes had betrayed him. So, Jews are either Christ killers or traitors – and in both circumstances, never to be trusted.”
There are many sources of anti-Semitism. Some think it goes all the way back to the Greek retelling of Egyptian prejudices. The accusation of deicide has its origins in Paul, but gained more ground after Christians started losing the Crusades as Jews were a convenient proxy target. In addition, there were rumors that Jews poisoned wells to make Christians sick during the bubonic plague. The burning times, the satanic scare, all the ridiculous accusations coincided with Jewish persecution. Minorities, particularly if they are perceived as outsides, usually make convenient scapegoats.
During the early development of Islam, there was a Jewish tribe in Medina who did betray the Muslim community, but not for religious reasons. There were also thousands of Jews who did not betray them and fought alongside Muhammad against the Quraysh.
“All three of the Abrahamic faiths are based on lies and they are fighting over who's lie should dominate.”
Harris is forthcoming in what he thinks is wrong with Islam (pretty much everything). But what mythological “lie” is it founded upon comparable to Christianity? Perhaps he just disagrees with its metaphysical worldview.
As for the Jews, if you take Israel out of the equation, they really have little power to dominate either Christians or Muslims (unless you hold the conspiratorial belief that their financial success is part of some plot for world-domination through the banks and media). Relative to Christians and Muslims, Jews are very small in number.
“Israel already allows freedom of religion and Christians have not been stopped from visiting sites important to them.”
That has not improved the daily living conditions of Christian Palestinians all that much.
“It seems to me that the majority of Arab/Muslim violence has simply been to deny Jews a country.”
It is about denying the right of Jews to be the occupying power of this country. Did Muslims deny the plan to give them Madagascar? Given biblical prophecy, the fact that some Jews were already living there, and their historical connection to the land of Israel, it is understandable that they wanted Palestine after they suffered pogrom after pogrom. Does that bolster their legal right to rule this land now? I suppose to prove that you would have to dig up land deeds dating back prior to the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. All we have are the unprovable claims between Jews and Arabs over who is the true seed of Abraham.
“Paradoxically it is the admirable belief in religious freedom that is responsible. Americans have tolerated and even embraced absurd religious beliefs that no-one else would. It is not just that these sects are allowed to exist and openly seek converts, it is also that they are seemingly exempted from critical examination. Religious freedom means more than the right to practice, it has also become the right to be free of criticism. America is unique in the number of truly bizarre cults that develop and thrive on its soil. It is not just confined to Christian sects. A number of hybrid sects have flourished as well, New Age, UFO, unorthodox Hindu and Jewish sects, etc. Unfortunately, the US is also the home of a number of pathological sects, some of which ended in violence – Jim Jones, David Koresh.”
This is the Christopher Hitchens argument. If America had a national church under the control of the government, then Christianity would have withered in relevance and influence, in tandem with the secularization of the government. That may be true in Great Britain, but I doubt that would have worked here. The idea of separating church and state originated not with Jefferson, but the Anabaptists. It was a sensible way of protecting religious minorities, well, at the time, minority Protestant sects. Without that, we might very well have an overt theocracy today without even a pretense of freedom of worship, or freedom from worship. The religious conflicts in Europe would have likely been repeated here.
Of course, there are serious problems with the US legal system. In theory, if a person violates state law, the law prevails regardless of religious belief (we cannot prosecute belief, only actions). In practice, however, juries can be easily swayed by religious tolerance arguments. There are many cases of this happening. Such is the price we pay for having these rights. I think it is important to make sure an innocent person is not falsely accused and punished for a crime they did not commit. However, I think it is equally bad that there are loopholes that allow one to get away with murder, sometimes literally. We have a legal system where marijuana users get 30 year sentences, but corporate thieves and corrupt politicians get a slap on the wrist. Our prisons are clogged up with drug addicts who should instead be in rehabilitation, while serial killers get out on parole. It's a mess.
I do not for one minute deny that there are problems with Christianity, or Islam for that matter. But I do not advocate finding insidious ways of eliminating them. Religions are not permanent; nothing is in this temporal world. All will grow, or be outgrown.
It is natural that when we outgrow the myths of our own culture, we then look to others to try to find out who got it right. If we see nothing but flaws here, there must be a flip-side, right?
There is danger when we go down that road. If we start classifying societies with these pre-given, hierarchical molds, it can lead to, how shall I put it, mean yellow meme thinking. Is it really a stretch to confuse level within people with levels of people? Would it not be easy to slip into quasi-racial theories in the name of meme classification, especially if we use the DNA metaphor? One thinks of the Theosophical notion of “root races” and subraces. This idea was adopted by purity cults such as the Thule society in Germany. Given the poor conditions of Germans after World War I and the breakdown of the German Empire, it was only a matter of time before the right ingredients mixed to produce Nazism. Take intense nationalism, racist theories, pre-Christian mysticism, the myth of the Aryan world-conqueror, with its image of the “blond beast” and the Teutonic knights, conspiracy theories, malice towards the Jews, stir, and viola!
The situation today is no less grim, perhaps even more dangerous. Nations still feel threatened by outsiders. Ethnic conflicts have only increased since World War II. Too many are still in thrall of the myth of the perfect society. Absurd conspiracy theories flourish more than ever. Imperialism and counter-imperialism games abound.
Thinking integrally means identifying, on some level, with all human beings and not just your favorite group. By the way, Cowan now thinks the research shows that the gap between first and second tier is not as big as Graves initially thought, so the big concern with jumping beyond the green meme is unjustified. Cowan also disagrees with how second and third tier have been lined up with Wilber's Vedantic stages of psychic, subtle, casual, and non-dual. Spiral Dynamics is an open-ended theory. It is not a teleological theory, nor does not assume spiritual evolution.
Before this community forms its own structured, formal religious institution (Integralism?) it will have to come to terms with these issues.
Still, on the whole I think this essay, like many of his essays, has much to recommend it. Harris addresses important research on the origins of Christianity, which only scratches the surface. There are many good books on the market place about the problems of translation and censorship of the texts which became the Bible, the latest of which is Bart D. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.
I surmise that there were many precursors that influenced the development of Christianity. Not much is known about the Greco-Roman religion of Mithras. There may have been a connection to Indo-Persian culture, even the Vedic pantheon. After the breakdown of the Hellenic Polis, cults such as the Elysian mysteries flourished, and it was only a matter of time before some unifying force rose out of the ashes. In addition was the cross-fertilization of Semitic religions. It was not only the Greeks that put stock in divine saviors. The virgin birth, miracles, ascension into heaven; none of that was original. There was the myth of Tammuzi, for example. The teachings of Jesus were not even original, but found a parallel in the teachings of other Rabbis. It was the language of Jesus, the sense of urgency, and the emphasis on mercy that unlocked Judaism's ethos of universal compassion.
I do not know if Christianity has really improved the world, but on balance I do not think it made it worse either. There are liberal sects of Christianity that I have immense respect for, and the Catholic Church has been steadily improving (but as one who grew up Catholic, I think it has a long way to go). And I do not know much about the effects of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I am not sure what harm it has done to the world.
As Christianity continues to play a role in the lives in millions of men and woman across the globe, we can only hope that what remains of this ever flexible religion is its focus on the transformative power of love – from the personal eros, the fraternal philia, to the spiritual agape.
To quote Andrew Harvey:
Many Christians are frightened by the new historical criticism that over the last sixty years has revolutionized our vision of the historical Christ. Its forensic, sometimes fiercely skeptical, methods have challenged many of the most cherished myths and legends of the Christian faith, such as the Virgin Birth, the Last Supper, and the historical accuracy of the Gospels. This is not a disaster, however: it can be seen as a liberation – a liberation from manipulation and hysteria and religious superstition, a liberation, if you like, of the Gospel of Jesus from the Jesus of the Gospels, and so a freeing-up of a wholly new vision of Jesus himself, and our relationship to him. The Jesus that emerges from the “myth-cleansing process” of the best of the modern explorers of this field is not in any way a “diminished” figure with his majesty and mystery stripped from him: he is, in many crucial ways, a far more challenging, unnerving, and revolutionary guide and teacher than anything pious legend has made of him…
In other words, the essential Christ – the mystical, practical Christ, the one who dared not only to see and know the divine and its love in full truth but also to act in every arena to see that that truth became real in its full subversive splendor – will come again to be the inspiration of those who take the Christ-path. Christ's challenge to everyone – to enter into living communion with the Father-Mother, to pour out every skill and energy in a passion of adherence to the truths of that love and that fire in reality – will only grow in power as the courage, intelligence, and unstinting enactment of the sacred laws of unity and compassion of the historical Christ become ever-clearer.