Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Dr. Hartelius is involved in promoting transpersonal psychology, a transformative psychology of the whole person in intimate relationship with a diverse, interconnected and evolving world. He has participated in defining the field and developing a Handbook (The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology) that covers much of its topic area. In addition, he has helped to resurrect and develop one of the field's scholarly journals, the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies (www.transpersonalstudies.org). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Participatory Thought Has No Emperor and No Absolute
A Further Response to Abramson
Despite the marginal status of speculations about absolute reality, Abramson seems determined to project this issue onto Ferrer's work.
Abramson has answered the current paper (Hartelius, 2015) with a response entitled, “The Emperor's New Clothes: Ferrer Isn't Wearing AnyParticipatory is Perennial”. This brief further rejoinder to Abramson will consider which pieces of discussion appear to be settled, which remain, and which are somewhat new. It will also review what Ferrer has meant by his use of the term Mystery and how this differs radically from a perennialist ultimate or absolute.
Abramson begins with comments about the images that were employed to illustrate certain points in my response. While I consider these among its least important aspects, it is unfortunate that Abramson seems to have taken these as characterizations of himself; this is not the case. I have compared Wilber's protestations at having his work identified as perennialist with Clinton's denial that he had sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky; I have compared the significance of Murti's absolutist perspectives with that of climate deniers; I characterized as “disingenuous, almost to the point of dishonesty,” Wilber's incredulity when his shift of the status of his Kosmic habits “almost entirely” to the upper left quadrant was noted, given that this statement was quoted directly from Wilber's own most recent major book. On reflection, these comparisons seem fair; yet none of these is a characterization of Abramson. His responses are most appreciated.
It also seems necessary to point out that I have no particular opinion about Abramson's motivations, nor about his level of commitment to Wilber's ideas. However, Abramson seemed to suggest repeatedly, and a bit unreasonably, that our brief review of Wilber's work might lack validity unless we considered very specific sections of Wilber's writing. For example, Abramson (2014) listed as one of our six major “misunderstandings” of Wilber's work the fact that we had omitted specific passages in which Wilber offered definitions of integral post-metaphysics (pp. 10-11), putting this omission forward as part of the evidence that we had “a case to answer” (p. 4). Had the original paper to which Abramson responded (Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013) been focused on integral post-metaphysics, then Abramson's requirement that it start with Wilber's definitions, however obscure, would be more reasonable. However, the title of that paper was, “Transpersonal Philosophy: The Participatory Turn”; accordingly, it focused primarily on participatory thought and the context and local history out of which it arose.
Of the six alleged misunderstandings listed in the titles of Abramson's (2014) numbered sections, the only one that Abramson maintains in his response is the complaint that Wilber's specific definition of integral post-metaphysics was omitted from our paper, a matter that has just been addressed. On the other hand, agreement appears to have been reached on the rather central contention that Wilber's work remains perennialist in nature, even in its latest iterationat least from a conventional perspective. Given that Abramson protested such a characterization in various ways throughout his initial critique, his reversal on this point is quite significant. It seems that dialogue does produce progress.
In addition, Abramson has agreed that perspectival perennialism does imply a single objective ultimate when viewed from a conventional perspective. He also seems to accede that appeal to a nondual ultimate is necessary in order to reconcile an experiential Cartesian divide between subject and object, and that an objective perennialist ultimate is not credible. He has not raised further charges regarding Ferrer's failure to address Wilber's critiques; the account of Ferrer's thorough responses to Wilber's comments seems to have silenced this concern. There is also no further protest regarding the fact that if any of Wilber's Kosmic habits are universal, then they are necessarily objective in characterat least from a conventional perspectiveand subject to Ferrer's critique of the subtle Cartesianism that pervades any perennialist approach. Nor does Abramson rebut the point that it was Wilber himself who assigned his Kosmic habits “almost exclusively” to his upper-left quadrant.
It would seem, then, that the two main issues remaining in contention from Abramson's initial critique are, (a) his concern that ultimate reality cannot be correctly understood from a conventional perspective, and (b) his assertion that Murti's absolutist model should be considered seriously as representing a correct view of ultimate reality. This central concern with ultimate or absolute reality carries over into Abramson's relatively new thesisnamely that Ferrer's positions are also perennialist in nature. It is gratifying that Abramson has developed these remaining points in greater detail, in service of the discussion.
It is possible to note, in brief, that Hartelius and Ferrer both hold that ultimate or absolute reality is a fictive construct that is of little use in contemporary scholarship. Abramson, while noting that “nothing can be said of these ultimates,” continues from there to say quite a bit about the nature of ultimate reality, including setting forth Murti's model, and then proposing his own model of ultimate reality based, interestingly and somewhat inexplicably, on mathematical concepts of infinity. I do not share Abramson's conviction that this subject is of any great importance, and he is correct in noting that I did not address in detail his points regarding Murti; the response sidestepped these views as largely irrelevant to current scholarly debate, for reasons already put forward. Scholars of various spiritual traditions are likely to remain locked in debate about whether or not some particular tradition such as Buddhism conceives of a spiritual ultimate, but this does not make the issue of absolute reality of any greater importance to contemporary religious studies.
Despite the marginal status of speculations about absolute reality, Abramson seems determined to project this issue onto Ferrer's work. What Abramson has demonstrated is that Ferrer has frequently used the term Mystery to refer to the fact that spiritual striving often seeks, apprehends, or imagines something beyond what is known or familiar: an elevation to something higher, a descent to something more original, progress toward something more edifying, or communion with something less obvious. It would be difficult to speak of human spirituality without some such construct. In reference to this issue, Ferrer (2008) has noted that
virtually all the same participatory implications for the study of religion can be practically drawn if we were to conceive, or translate the term, spirit in a naturalistic fashion as an emergent creative potential of life, nature, or reality. Methodologically, the challenge to be met is to account for a process or dynamism underlying the creative elements of religious visionary imagination that cannot be entirely explicated by appealing to biological or cultural-linguistic factors (at least as narrowly understood by proponents of reductionist approaches). Whether such creative source is a transcendent spirit or immanent life will likely be always a contested issue, but one, we believe, that does not damage the general claims of the participatory turn. (Ferrer & Sherman, 2008, p. 72 [n. 155])
Rather than an ultimate beyond all ultimates, Ferrer's Mystery refers generally to all that may lie beyond human knowledge with respect to the great diversity of spiritual encounters and aspirations. It is convenient to address the unknown(s) relating to this multiplicity with a single term, just as one might say that stars, comets, asteroids, planets, moons, black holes, quasars, pulsars, and nebulae may be thought of as residing in the “same” sky even though they are riotously various and spread over inconceivable distances. To do so does not by any stretch of imagination suggest that these cosmic phenomena are all manifestations of the same transcendent Celestial Object. Ferrer has made it clear that Mystery
does not entail any kind of essentialist reification of an ontologically given ground of being, as expressions such as “the sacred,” “the divine,” or “the eternal” often conveyed in classic scholarship in religion … . In contrast, we deliberately use this conceptually vague, open-ended, and ambiguous term to refer to the nondetermined creative energy or source of reality, the cosmos, life, and consciousness. Thus understood, the term Mystery obstructs claims or insinuations of dogmatic certainty and associated religious exclusivisms; more positively, it invites an attitude of intellectual and existential humility and receptivity to the Great Unknown that is the fountain of our being. (Ferrer & Sherman, 2008, p. 64)
Here is Ferrer's comment on what clearly differentiates a participatory approach from perennialist strategies:
From my perspective, what really differentiates perspectival perennialism from my participatory approach is (a) the rejection of the Myth of the Given (note that even when traditionalist scholars speak about an ineffable or transconceptual spiritual Ultimate, they immediatelyand arguably contradictorilyqualify it stating that it is nondual or that Advaita Vedanta offers, through its notion of nirguna Brahman, the best articulation of perennial wisdom, and so forth); (b) the adoption of an enactive paradigm of cognition, according to which the various spiritual ultimates are not perspectives of a single Spiritual Ultimate but enactions; and, most crucially, (c) the overcoming of the dualism of the mystery and its enactions, through which the participatory approach avoids the traditionalist (and neo-Kantian-like) duality between religions' relative absolutes and the Absolute supposedly existing behind them. In other words, participatory enaction affirms the radical identity of the manifold spiritual ultimates and the mystery, even if the former do not exhaust the ontological possibilities of the latter. (J. N. Ferrer, personal communication, June 10, 2015)
The following passage articulates both this rejection of the Myth of the Given, and the embrace of an enactive paradigm of cognition:
The participatory vision should not then be confused with the view that mystics of the various kinds and traditions simply access different dimensions or perspectives of a ready-made single ultimate reality. This view is obviously under the spell of the Myth of the Given and merely admits that this pre-given spiritual referent can be approached from different vantage points. In contrast, the view I am advancing here is that no pre-given ultimate reality exists, and that different spiritual ultimates can be enacted through intentional and creative participation in an indeterminate spiritual power or Mystery. (Ferrer, 2008, p. 142)
A participatory stance holds that Mystery is its enactions, rather than a hidden force behind them (Ferrer, 2011a, 2011b; for a deeper discussion, see Ferrer, forthcoming). Thus, when Abramson accuses Ferrer with conflating “the 'Absolute that is beyond all religious Absolutes' with the multiple Absolutes of the different traditions”, he is missing that, in Ferrer's work, such a move is not a conflation but a deliberate overcoming of an arguably pernicious spiritual dualism (e.g., see Ferrer, 2011a). This dualism is pernicious because it not only binds scholars and practitioners alike to objectivist and hierarchical frameworks, but also paves the way for interreligious exclusivism and spiritual narcissism (i.e., once a supra-ultimate Absolute is posited, practitioners canand doclaim their own religion's Absolute to be the closer or better or more accurate account of the supra-ultimate Absolute). A further advantage of dismantling this dualism is the preservation of the ontological ultimacy of enactions of religious ultimates (e.g., God, emptiness, the Tao) in their respective universes, avoiding the traditionalist and neo-Kantian demotion of those ultimates to penultimate stations (see Ferrer, 2010, forthcoming).
There is a great distance between an interconnected world in which immanent spiritual encounters cannot be entirely discrete, and a perennialist Kosmos in which the source of all spiritual experience must be an identical transcendent spiritual ultimate or absolute. That Abramson conflates these very different positions based on superficial linguistic similarities, and thereby frames Ferrer's work as perennialist, is not credible. It is also not unexpected, since a perennialist approach typically projects its own presuppositionswelcome or notonto the traditions of others, much as the United States Central Intelligence Agency once believed that it saw a communist plot behind every instance of local unrest anywhere on the globe. (Let me make clear that by using this familiar historical analogy to illustrate the dynamics of a perennialist strategy, I am not suggesting that Abramson is either a government agent or a communist.)
To be sure, Ferrer (2002, 2008, 2011a) has consistently held a “more relaxed spiritual universalism” that affirms an underlying undetermined Mystery or creative power as the generative source of all spiritual enactions while simultaneously (a) eschewing dubious equations among spiritual ultimates (e.g., the Tao is God or Buddhist emptiness is structurally equivalent to the Hindu Brahman), (b) avoiding the promotion of any single spiritual ultimate (e.g., nonduality or God) as universally superior, and (c) rejecting universal, paradigmatic, or mandatory sequenceswhether involutionarily or evolutionarily laid downof spiritual stages or states for all human beings regardless of culture, tradition, or spiritual orientation. But as noted previously, unity of context does not imply unitive content (e.g., many different “celestial phenomena” can populate “the same sky”), and it is the latter (unitive content) that characterizes perennialism. Reference to an undetermined Mystery is not the same as postulating a transcendent spiritual absolute: The former is akin to observing that not knowing something is a common human experience; the latter is more like suggesting that every time someone says the equivalent of, “I don't know,” they are referencing a shared universal ignorance. Ultimately, I suggest that a more productive and relevant discussion should not focus on terminology or semantics but on the deeper, practical issues at stake in Wilber's and Ferrer's respective works.
I must object, parenthetically but strenuously, that Abramson (2015) has misquoted and misrepresented me as follows: “'In any ordinary usage of the term, … [Ferrer's] system … is accurately and usefully described as perennialist.' This quote is from Hartelius, 2015” The use of bracketed insertions is only used correctly when it inserts what seems implied by the author in that context; one may argue for a novel application of an author's point, but to use a bracketed insertion to create the appearance that the author himself makes a point that is foreign to his discourse is improper. I have never suggested that Ferrer's work is perennialist in nature, and I vigorously disagree with such a position.
It should be noted that Abramson has also appended a critique of the Wilber-Combs Lattice. This seems marginally relevant to his initial critique of the chapter by Hartelius and Ferrer (2013), but perhaps it is meant to establish Abramson's bona fides as someone not wedded to Wilber's views. In any case, it is better left to Wilber or Combs to address his suggestions on this topic.
The subject of human spirituality is a deeply important one that deserves consideration within psychology as well as religious studies. Transpersonal psychology has struggled with this issue for more than 45 years, and with the introduction of participatory thought may be on the threshold of making some real contribution to wider fields of scholarship. Spirituality is a topic that extends from the center of human experience to its very edges, often in the context of great passion and commitment. Abramson's engagement in this enlivening discourse is accepted with respect and appreciation, even if few of his positions or arguments convince.
Abramson, J. (2014). The misunderstanding and misinterpretation of key aspects of Ken Wilber's work in Hartelius and Ferrer's (2013) assessment. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 16(1), 3-14.
Hartelius, G. (2015). A startling new role for Wilber's integral model: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love perennialism (A response to Abramson). Transpersonal Psychology Review, 17(1).
Hartelius, G., & Ferrer, J. N. (2013). Transpersonal philosophy: The participatory turn. In H. L. Friedman & G. Hartelius (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology (pp. 187-202). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Ferrer, J. N. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Ferrer, J. N. (2008). Spiritual knowing as participatory enaction: An answer to the question of religious pluralism. In J. N. Ferrer & J. H. Sherman (Eds.), The participatory turn: Spirituality, mysticism, religious studies (pp. 135-169). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Ferrer, J. N. (2010). The plurality of religions and the spirit of pluralism: A participatory vision of the future of religion. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 28(1), 139-151.
Ferrer, J. N. (2011a). Participatory spirituality and transpersonal theory: A 10-year retrospective. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 43(1), 1-34.
Ferrer, J. N. (2011b). Participation, metaphysics, and enlightenment: Reflections on Ken Wilber's recent work. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 14(2), 3-24.
Ferrer, J. N. (forthcoming). Participation and spirit: Transpersonal essays in psychology, education, and religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Ferrer, J. N., & Sherman, J. H. (2008). The participatory turn in spirituality, mysticism, and religious studies. In J. N. Ferrer & J. H. Sherman (Eds.), The participatory turn: Spirituality, mysticism, religious studies (pp. 1-78). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.