Wilber’s ideas are complex and he introduces many terms that may be foreign. I will present his work as clearly and succinctly as possible. Wilber uses a developmental model of nested structural hierarchies. In this hierarchy, Wilber outlines seven stages of human development in three categories: The three subconscious or prepersonal stages are “Archaic”, “Magic” and “Mythic”. The selfconscious or personal stage he calls the “Rational” stage. The three superconscious or transpersonal stages are “Psychic”, “Subtle” and “Causal”. In this development hierarchy, each succeeding stage contains more love, compassion, care, justice, consciousness, rights and so on. The higher one is in this hierarchy the more likely you will see reduced oppression, prejudice and various “isms”. “The higher one is, the more care and less oppression one is inclined to possess” (8). In this way, we can judge different religious and spiritual engagements. He says,
To the extent that spiritual engagements involve care and consideration for others – and a capacity to take into account perspectives other than one’s own egoic perspective – then to that extent as well, some spiritual engagements are better, truer, deeper, more authentic than others (12).
The term “transpersonal” is a relatively new term, and has been championed mostly in the field of psychology (transpersonal psychology). Wilber defines transpersonal as a “sustained and experimental inquiry into spiritual, or transcendental (transpersonal), or ‘perennial philosophical’ concerns” (58). He says, “it attempts to develop legitimate and reproducible means for differentiating between authentic spiritual experience and merely psychotic, hallucinatory, paranoid, delusional or other abnormal or pathological states” (58). Using this context, Wilber presents a transpersonal sociology; a nonreductionistic sociology of religion.
In order to understand Wilber’s contribution, it is important to point out how he fills the gaps in others theories of religion. Wilber says, a common mistake many make in the field of religion is what he calls the “pre/post fallacy” (pre-rational, and post-rational). “Where development process from pre-X to X to post-X, the pre states and post states, because they are both non-X states, tend to be confused and equated, simply because the appear, at first glance, to be so similar” (14). We either reduce transrational or superconscious states to prerational, infantile fusion (Freud) or we elevate infantile, prerational states to transcendental, transpersonal glory (Romantics).
For the Romantics, the prerational consciousness was deeply spiritual. With the rise of egoic rationality, this early nondissociated state was brutally repressed. In its place, modernity arose and was characterized by fragmentation and alienation. Modernism’s spirituality, if any, was thus shallow. This view depicts millions of people as “having an inferior consciousness and lacking any deep spirituality” (24). Romantics want to remember the positive contributions of previous stages but in doing so they inject characteristics into the magical nondissociated structure that were not really present; elevating them into a transrational perspective. Wilber calls this tendency the “Mistaken Fall”. Those who favor the magical, nondissociated fusion stages tend to see every succeeding stage as a “catastrophic fall from an original paradise.” Likewise, those who see the modern world of science, such as the holy trinity of atheists, as the pinnacle of human development, see the rise of transrational as a regression back to magical superstition. He summarizes it thusly: it is ”tendency to see spirit as being present in one epoch and not in others, instead of seeing spirit present as the entire evolutionary unfolding” (33).
Generally speaking, religious scholars perceive a series of falls of humanity as we transition into the modern and postmodern worlds. Likewise, secular scholars see a progression of enlightenment, an overcoming of superstition with the rise of modernity, science and liberalism (34). Who is right? Wilber says, they are both right and they are also both wrong. Religion, or spirit, has simply moved from magic to mythic to rational on its way to postrational stages. It is ironic that the rise of modernity, secularism and liberalism actually represent an increase in spirit and religious unfolding. Spirit resides now not in myths but in reason and science itself. He says, “there is more spirit in reason’s denial of mythic god than there is in myth’s affirmation of that god…the rational denial of god contained more spirit than the mythic affirmation of god, for the simple reason that it contained more developmental depth” and thus, more spirit or religiosity (35-6). Rationalization is necessary, appropriate, phase-specific and evolutionary. Therefore, it is entirely religious, in the sense that it is an increasingly advanced consciousness. We will return to this later when we discuss the different usages and definitions of religion.
This is a very interesting concept and dynamic. The separation of church and state for example is traditionally perceived in an inherently limiting way. Church usually means the magic or mythic stages of religion, and state means rationality and secularism. Our education systems likewise are liberal-rational in nature. The more educated a person becomes, the less magic and mythic religion they embrace (35). These dynamics depend on a reductionist definition of what religion is and how it is typically related to secularism and rationality.
However, even if our society is largely based on rationality and secular ideals, there will still be large pockets of culture that remain at prerational stages of unfolding. Wilber says there will always be these pockets. “Even if the center of gravity of the world’s population were rational or higher, pockets of prerational culture would continue to exist and must be handled with specific legal, political, and occasionally military means” (35). The constant struggle between religious apologists (whether prerational or postrational) and rational, secular and scientifically minded groups and individuals, is best represented in terms of competition between different stages of human consciousness and evolution. We will return to this idea later.
A person can have a transpersonal/transrational experience no matter what stage of development they are in. This differentiates stages and states. States are transitory and can change at any moment, or through religious/spiritual technologies such as drumming, chanting or the use of psychedelic drugs. However, these states can only be interpreted through the lens of whatever developmental stage on which an individual exists. This not only applies to individuals, but to groups as well. Any given culture/religion has something like a center of gravity or an average mode of consciousness, around which conventional, everyday realities are organized. Foucault would call this the “dominant mode of discourse.” So although any state of consciousness is available to all stages, it is always experienced and interpreted through the cultural lens of whatever stage of development is the current center of gravity. The higher one is on the developmental scale however, the more likely one is able to experience the states of the higher stages.
Wilber wants to stress that all, or even most, of the states that claim to be transpersonal or postrational are actually not. As such, he says that a highly critical and skeptical attitude must be valued. It is unfortunate he says, that skepticism is often confused with a lack of faith. In this sense, the holy trinity (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) could not agree more. Religious endeavors cannot be pardoned from criticism.
Transcend and Include
Many of Wilber’s critics are put off by the hierarchical nature of his developmental model. Some claim it connotes an elitist and superior attitude of those in the “higher” stages. The question arises: If a group/culture/religion/nation/individual is in a higher stage of consciousness than another, can that be used as a superiority complex or a justification for oppression and violence? Wilber’s model however is more complex than this. Development through the stages of consciousness constitute a “transcend and include” dynamic. As one progresses to a higher stage, you transcend the previous stages limitations but include its accomplishments. Wilber describes this development as envelopment. It is a “nested hierarchy”, where each higher structure of consciousness is “potentially capable of legitimately criticizing the partiality, but not the phase-specific appropriateness, of it lower predecessors” (69).
As a higher stage begins to emerge it has to pass through the lower for the simple reason that the lower is already there, it already exists. Both stages are initially fused. They are undifferentiated from each other. The growth of the higher stage is, in part, a process of differentiation from that lower level, or vertical transcendence (86). A distorted, or pathological lower stage can thus subsequently determine the health of the following stage of development. The pathologies can be reproduced in a different form. This is not a causal relationship however. The higher stage can often redress the imbalance, offering corrections. Thus, pathologies of lower stages can predispose, but not cause, similar patterns in a higher stage. Likewise, a higher stage can often repress and/or oppress the lower stages.
Wilber’s central question is: Is there a way of determining how to make “sane, compassionate and caring judgments based on degrees of depth, love and inclusion” (38)? The criteria used for this can be called holistic embrace and is inextricably intertwined with identity formation. For example, when my identity expands from me to my family, from my family to my tribe, community, nation, from my nation to all of humanity, and from humanity to all sentient beings without exception, my corresponding capacity for empathy and sympathy increases with each expansion. More and more souls have come into my identity thus increasing my own depth. They are embraced. There are no outsiders, no fragmentation (36-7). In this way we can adjudicate the authenticity of various cultural and religious engagements. A person or group who has extended sympathy and caring for those beyond him/herself has not impoverished his self, but enriched it. This, in Wilber’s view is the pinnacle of individuality, the height of religious engagement and the purpose of the evolution of human consciousness (37).
For a critical sociology of religion, we must be capable of structurally analyzing various religious engagements, and assign them a spot in the hierarchy where we can constantly judge their degree of depth and authenticity. In this way, this or that religious engagement is higher than this or that other religious engagement. A great advantage of this “integral” theory is that it lets “shamans, saints and sages living fifty thousand years ago, or ten thousand years ago, or two thousand years ago, be fully enlightened by the criterion of being one with the entire manifest universe as it existed at that time” (51). One can be authentic in a phase specific manner that is completely in tune with its center of gravity. However, no development or evolution is without its possible pathologies. Cultural evolution is no exception. Our history is full of brutality, repression and oppression. Wilber warns, “whenever the wisdom of a previous stage is forgotten, a pathology results” (31).
If we think of the various levels of structural organization as floors in a tall building,
each floor is itself a deep structure or stage, while the various components on each floor, the furniture so to speak, are surface structures. Movement from one floor to another, between deep structures, is called transformation. Movement of surface structures on each floor, rearranging furniture, is called translation (90). Surface structures are historically conditioned and come with their own wisdom and/or pathology. They are not caused by, but are molded in some degree, by past surface structures. They hold their particular belief systems, ideologies, languages and customs. Deep structures, on the other hand, are relatively a-historical, collective and cross-cultural.
Each stage of development has its respective needs (similar to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Human beings have physical needs, emotional needs, mental-egoic needs, spiritual needs etc. Wilber speaks of the needs specific to each stage as food or “mana”. Adapting to and learning to digest, the food or mana of a particular stage characterizes the translation aspect of the growth and development process. The current structure must provide this food, or it will perish (84). There is both good mana, and bad mana. The higher the stage one is on, the more likely you will have access to higher, or better, food-truth (this does not deny, however, the validity of phase-specific lower truths). Translation has one major function – “to integrate, stabilize and equilibrate its given level” (92). When a stage can no longer provide this function through providing the necessary food/mana, it yearns for transcendence, to go beyond its level. This is the one major function of transformation. This dialectic and tension between translation and transformation “constitutes much of the dynamic of development” (92). Wilber calls this “(r)evolutionary structuralization.”
Legitimacy describes how well a spiritual movement or religion facilitates translation (“how well a spirituality provides meaning, integration and value at a particular level”). Authenticity quantifies how well a spiritual movement facilitates transformation (“how well a spirituality promotes transformation to higher levels altogether”). Legitimacy can be referred to as a horizontal scale of development. Authenticity, on the other hand, would be the vertical dimension of growth. There are different degrees of authenticity. Likewise, there are ways to adjudicate those degrees of depth. Wilber describes it thusly, there is both self and other. This separation causes a fear a trembling of the self. It is faced with the existential fact of death and represses it. This is the ultimate repression. This existential situation leads to the creation of immortality symbols or projects. These projects somehow promise to transcend death, and in the process create a “codified system of death denial” (95). Immortality projects are a part of surface structures, of translation to a given stage. They determine that stages legitimacy for meeting its needs. The higher one goes on the developmental scale, the less and less compensatory these projects become. Thus, in order to transform to the next level of structural organization, an individual must accept the death that is present at its current level of adaptation. The self must cease to identify with that level. Wilber says,
Only when the self is strong enough to die to that level can it transcend that level. The self can begin to identify with the new level and begin its own translative process. As the self adapts it begins to face a new ‘other’ and thus will suffer new death-seizures and therefore create new defense measures and new immortality projects (96).
Each transformation is a process of death and rebirth; death to the old level, the old self, and rebirth to the newly emergent level, the new self as identified with new surface structures. Gauging authenticity of an individual, group, or movement becomes a process of judging the facilitation, effectiveness and level of encouragement in this process. How can one go beyond fear, beyond the existential reality of death repression? Wilber answers by saying that you can go beyond this fear and trembling by transcending the dynamic of self and other altogether, by transcending subject and object. Only through shedding the self and widening our spectrum of identification can we grow.
Definitions/Usages of the Term “Religion”
There are at least a dozen different meanings of the word religion that point to a dozen different functions. When we speak of religion, especially in academia, we need to be careful in our usage as different understandings and connotations abound. Religions oppress, and they liberate, at any given moment which function of religion are we referring to? Wilber discusses nine different definitions. Each definition/usage is legitimate, but we must specify our meaning. It is all to common to slip back and forth between meanings and usages to serve current purposes but that can ultimately lead to faulty conclusions. The usages are organized thus: rd-1, rd-2 and so on.
Rd-1: Religion as nonrational engagement.
This usage can have both positive and negative connotations. Religion, in this treatment, deals with nonrational but valid aspects of human life such as faith and grace. It might be an important and even vital aspect of being human (homoreligious as Armstrong would say) but it is not considered real cognition. This can include both the prerational and postrational stages and functions of religion. In this usage, science and rationality are not religious, nor can they be.
Rd-2: Religion as extremely meaningful or integrative engagement.
Religion in this light is a “functional activity”. It is active in its search for meaning and integration. This usage is thus a mechanism of translation. How does religion reflect a given developmental stages search for food or mana? In this way, secularism is a valid religion. Purely rational enterprises are religious in nature in that they, like all levels, are “in search of their phase-specific mana, and this mana-search-on whatever level, high or low, sacred or secular-is understood as religion” (99). Rd-1 and rd-2 can even be contradictory depending on the usage, but both are acceptable if we understand the different functions of religion properly.
Rd-3: Religion as an immortality project.
Using the term defined earlier, religion is seen as a “wishful, defensive, compensatory belief, created in order to assuage insecurity/anxiety” (99). Religion serves an existential need. In this way, it is also serving the needs of translation in each stage. As in rd-2, rationality is also a valid religious endeavor. Science and reason do for the “rational ego exactly what myth does for the childish ego and magic does for the infantile ego” (100). In each case, religion helps to veil the existential anxieties of death. It gives an individual or group something to hold onto, to cling to in the face of impending death of the self.
Rd-4: Religion as evolutionary growth.
In this view, all evolution, history and human development is a process of “increasing realization”. Religion becomes the term for the transformation process itself. The drive for transcendence is religion. It is not a function of translation, of adapting to a given level, or mana searching, but of dying to that level altogether in pursuit of higher structures.
Rd-5: Religion as fixation/regression.
This is the standard primitivization theory. Religion is not nonrational, it is prerational; it is magic and myth. It is usually always derogatory. We will discuss primivitization theory later.
Rd-6: Exoteric religion.
This is usually constituted of the preparatory aspects of religion that allow for higher, inward and/or advanced practices. Belief systems can fall into this category. They can invoke and/or support faith.
Rd-7: Esoteric religion.
This is comprised of the advanced practices mentioned above in rd-6. These practices culminate or at least have a goal or facilitating mystical or peak experiences, which we will discuss momentarily.
Rd-8: Legitimate religion.
This would be a religion that primarily functions in translation processes by providing good mana. It must provide meaning and immortality symbols. This is similar to rd-2. However, rd-2 refers to mana in general, whereas rd-8 refers to good mana religion only. It is legitimate in its capacity to provide good mana. Rd-2 can provide bad mana. Providing bad mana can be characterized as a crisis in legitimacy, when a religion fails in its integrative and defensive functions. Wilber’s example is that of the Catholic church and human reproduction. Their official, and traditional stance is long outdated and has lost legitimacy in the context of the rational secular religion that has emerged.
Rd-9: Authentic religion.
This religion validates transformation processes. A crisis in authenticity occurs when an existing stage or paradigm is challenged by an emerging, higher stage of development. Wilber says, “authentic religion is any practice leading to a genuine emergence of, and eventual adaptation to, those transpersonal realms” (102).
With all of these usages/definitions of religion, there are two different degrees of validity. There is the horizontal scale and the vertical scale. There is both legitimacy and authenticity. Legitimacy is the degree “of translative smoothness and integrity, measured against the potential capacity of the given level itself” (103). Authenticity is the “degree of transformative power, measured by the degree of hierarchical structuralization delivered by the transformation” (103). Each of these definitions has its appropriate place. But we must specify which we mean at any given time, otherwise statements such as “All religions are true,” and “the religious impulse is universal,” or “all religions are one at some deep level,” are misleading, meaningless and false.
Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation
For Wilber, the differences between belief, faith, experience and adaptation are extremely important. Religious belief is considered the lowest form of religious engagement. Codified belief systems, he says, often “operate with no authentic religious connection whatsoever” (105). They mostly serve as an oasis of immortality symbols. It is usually an “ideological nexus” that stipulates the means, or qualifications, for immortality. Questioning impulses are often not allowed to stay in these systems long. As a result, they are often projected onto others and attacked as something outside the self, outside the system. Wilber states,
The true believer is forever on the make, looking for converts and battling disbelievers, for, on the one hand, the mere existence of a disbeliever is one token less in the immortality account, and, on the other, if the true believer can persuade others to embrace his ideology, it helps to quiet his own disbelieving impulses (106).
However, belief can serve as an expression and codification of a higher degree of religious involvement as in rd-6. In this way, they can be authentic belief systems, but only when “linked to actual higher (authentic) religiousness” (106).
A person of faith will usually have a set of beliefs, but their involvement is not predominantly generated by these beliefs. A person of faith usually cannot actually say why they are “right” or has faith. Beliefs have become secondary to something else. Faith confers a measure of peace and inner stability as doubt is now accepted. It plays an integral part in faith. However, there are usually only two ways to deal with doubt. One is to revert to mere belief, to clothe it in “more rigid and external forms” such as immortality symbols, and the other is to act on the yearning for greater closeness with the divine and to advance to experience.
Religious experiences, or “peak”/mystical experiences, provide a temporary insight into one of the transpersonal stages. They go beyond simple faith into an actual encounter, albeit brief. Faith is conducive to these experiences. Beliefs seem to inhibit them. When they occur, they may effect a conversion experience, where one adopts a belief system in which to make sense of their experience. In transpersonal psychology this is called either a “spiritual emergence”, or a “spiritual emergency” depending on whether the ego has the capacity to integrate whatever may come up in the experience. Wilber says, “If an authentic peak experience occurs to a mythic-religious true believer, it often has the awkward effect of energizing his or her mythic immortality symbols. The result is a ‘born again’ believer” (108). This can be said to occur to a great number of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, posited that the fundamental religiousness came not from belief, or from faith, but from experience. The world religions, he claimed, began as experiences that were then codified into belief systems that faith was then based around. That paradigm, according to Wilber, blinds us to the fact that it is possible to actually adapt to these higher realms in a permanent and stable fashion. They are not fleeting experiences. Authentic religion is then a process of “concrete developmental transformation and structural adaptation” (111).
One way to understand this developmental model is through the lens of perspectivism, a capacity to “take the role of others, to cognitively project oneself into a mental perspective and viewpoint other than one’s own” (113). Each stage is increasingly capable and thus has more empathy, compassion and care for others. This is not a new idea. Increasing perspectivism, which can also be viewed as “decreasing egocentrism, is a primary indicator of development.” A person can distance themselves from societies norms in this fashion can choose what to accept and what to reject. Whatever decision is made, it is not blind obedience or conformity. A community thinking the same way, sharing the same symbols and worshiping the same god, for example, characterizes the mythic mentality. The rationality paradigm, on the other hand, says to do different things together, to share different symbols and exchange perspectives. In this way, those in the rational stage of development have a greater capacity for both legitimate and authentic religious engagement, in that they have a more sophisticated perspectivism (115). Wilber’s point here is to challenge scholars who have continuously posited rationalism, secularism, modernism and liberalism as an anti-religious trend. For Wilber, they are not just religious but authentically religious in that they represent higher levels of structural adaptation. It’s overall scheme, according to Wilber, may be to strip “infantile and childish associations, parental fixations, wish fulfillments, dependency yearnings, and symbiotic gratifications” (115). In this way, spirit can be approached as spirit itself, rather than as a cosmic parent. Rationalization then is not just a step in the right direction, but is a prerequisite of transrational stages of development.
This applies well to primitivization theory, which states that religion is prompted by fixations or regression back to infantile magic or childish myth. This theory, championed by Freud, is characterized by Oedipal object-relation and is susceptible to paternal externalizations and projections as well as patriarchal introjections. The problem here is obvious, if fails to address all, if not most of the essentials components of religion and religious experience (62). It is an extremely reductionistic view of religion. Wilber says, “If we treat religion as a structure among other structures and not something shared by them all, then increasing historical development clearly shows an eventually decreasing religiosity” (73). If we follow this way of thinking, the rational-scientific stage is the pinnacle of development and thus of religion. Religion would have no choice but to fall into the realm of the primitivizationists and traditional psychoanalysts, being nothing more than fixation and regression as the holy trinity posits.
There are really only two ways we can navigate this debacle. First: evolution and development is in fact devolution. There actually existed a historical Garden of Eden from which we have fallen and continue to fall from. The rise of modernity, secularism and liberalism are seen as evidence of this fall. Many fundamentalists have this view. If this is true, then the earlier stages of development were actually higher. Second: there are stages of structuralization that are higher and better than the rational-scientific stage. Human and religious evolution and development is still taking place (74), moving into the transpersonal stages.