Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).



Ken Wilber's Critical Model of Religion

David Lane

This film is based on a 1984 article that was published in Laughing Man Magazine. Here is a link to that original PDF essay. A complete transcript of the film has been transcribed below.
A genuine quest for the transcendent doesn't abrogate the critical mind, but welcomes it as a necessary pruning device.

Are all religions qualitatively the same? Is there a fundamental difference between groups like Paramahansa Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship and L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology or Kirpal Singh's Ruhani Satsang and Reverend Moon's Unification Church? Yes, there most certainly is, according to Integral thinker Ken Wilber precisely because not all religious movements have the same spiritual goals, teachings and techniques. Simply put, the new religions are social reflections of man's own ontogentic growth. Not everyone has obtained the Piaget's level of formal operational or Maslow's level of self actualization or Sri Aurobindo's Idea Mind.. Rather what we see in human development is a stratification of various levels of structural adaptation. It is Wilber's contention that religious movements likewise image this same type of disparity. The crucial question,therefore, is not whether or not there are differences between religions--old or new--but how does one actually judge the differences.

Ken Wilber has devised a comprehensive, if arguable, hierarchical map with which to adjudicate the relative level at which a particular religious movement is functioning. This schema can be defined in several ways, including 1) the pre-personal, pre-rational, or the subconscious; 2) the personal, rational, or self-conscious; and 3) trans-personal, trans-rational, or superconscious. Each of these stages is composted of further levels. In his book, A Sociable God, Wilber breaks it down into 10 major divisions, ranging from the Archaic to the Causal, etc.

Adjudication follows two avenues: vertical and horizontal, or in Wilber's parlance, transformative and translative. The first is a hierarchical assessment, determining the specific level of consciousness or evolutionary adaptation. The latter is a measurement of the degree of integration, organization, and stability of or within a given level of development. With regard to the analysis of religions these correlatives are termed authenticity and legitimacy. The more authentic a religion is, for example, the further up the hierarchical scale it will be. A more legitimate religion, on the other hand, is one that unifies its follower better to that particular, albeit limited, stage of consciousness.

This approach is called "transcendental sociology" and it follows Noam Chomsky's lead in linguistics, since the social-psychologist want to appraise the deep structure of a religion's focus and connect it to the surface structure process of integrating such an aspiration into the day-to-day lives of its participants.

Thus, religions like Roman Catholicism which take material objects such as bread and wine and believe that only an authorized priest can through a prescribed set of ritual chants transform them into the body and blood of their founder, Jesus Christ, reflects a magical level of consciousness which is decidedly pre-rational, even if Church theologians attempt to ideologically spin it otherwise. In Wilber's model, this reflects a primitive stage of consciousness and would be on the lower rung of the authenticity ladder. However, because so many people believe in this thaumaturgy it acts as a very powerful social bonding mechanism within the community since it can and often does cohere diverse segments at large. As such, it has a high degree of legitimacy because of its powerful integration.

On the other hand, meditation practices such as mindfulness in Buddhism and self-inquiry in Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism because they directly try to access higher forms of consciousness within and beyond the rational mind have a comparatively high degree of authenticity, even if in some more orthodox communities they are viewed as having a lesser degree of legitimacy since they may be regarded as outliers.

Ironically, adjudicating authenticity appears to be a much easier proposition than estimating the legitimacy of any one religion because of wide cultural variances.

Wilber's methodology, accordingly, salvages the relative truth claims of each academic discipline (from biology to psychology), while it at the same time determines in terms of overall sociological theory whether or not a particular engagement is higher than another. For instance, there is a fundamental difference between individuals freely choosing their respective spiritual practices without communal consequences and those members of groups like Jonestown who are quite literally forced to drink the Kool Aid.

Perhaps this hierarchical approach can be best summarized by the pithy insights of Edward Harrison, as outlined in his remarkable book, Masks of the Universe, where he argues that the penalty for greater knowledge is greater doubt. Thus any religion that seeks for something transcendent must by its very pursuit be open to and accept being potentially wrong in its projective arcs. This is why science has made such tremendous progress over the past few centuries and fundamentalist religions have more or less remained stagnant. A genuine quest for the transcendent doesn't abrogate the critical mind, but welcomes it as a necessary pruning device to distinguish the merely pre-rational from the trans-rational. In sum, a religion that demands unyielding belief and allegiance belongs to humankind's mythic past since it is unwilling to evolve and change with new information.

Transcendental sociology points to a systematic process whereby one is not deceived by that most dangerous of temptations, the pre/trans fallacy. This is where one mistakenly confuses an advertisement for the real product, or a map for the territory, or a symbol for reality.

This is humorously and quite brilliantly captured by the famous Zen Koan where the Master points at the moon to show its luminosity to his new disciple, only to have his disciple look exclusively at his finger.

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