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On Behalf of ‘the Many’

By Dr. David Brockman


In this freewheeling book, Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord attempt a truly daunting task: to tell the story — one that reaches back fourteen billion years — of what they call “the planet’s emerging unity consciousness,”1 or, in terms of their mentor Wayne Teasdale, the emerging Interspiritual Age. The authors define interspirituality as “the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions,” “a more universal experience of the world’s religions, emphasizing shared experiences of heart and unity consciousness.” Fundamentally, however, interspirituality turns out to be monistic: “the entire religious experience of our species,” they write, “has been a single experience.”

Overall, this strikes me as an insider’s book, aimed largely at readers who are already familiar with the work of Wayne Teasdale, Ken Wilber, Sri Aurobindo, and similar thinkers. I’m not a follower of that corpus. While reading this book I frequently felt as if I had been dropped into an ongoing conversation in a jargon I only half understood. For example, the authors frequently refer to “the Great Wisdom Traditions,” without specifying what traditions they have in mind.

As a Christian comparative theologian working in dialogue with Buddhism and Daoism, I naturally share Johnson and Ord’s dismay about religious claims to absolute truth, and about interreligious competition that can lead to intolerance and violence. Nevertheless, I disagree with the solution they envision. Given space limitations, I will focus on two points: the authors’ religion-spirituality dualism; and their elevation of Oneness over Manyness.

It is significant that the authors refer to an interspiritual age, not an interreligious or interfaith one. While they are following Teasdale’s terminology, the term reflects their dualistic tendency to oppose bad “religion” to good “spirituality.” Granted, they do depict “all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions” as a single, branching tree, and describe them as a collective reservoir of wisdom. Yet they also insist that spirituality and religion are essentially different, and that religion “hijacks spirituality” for its own ends. My impression is that the authors view spirituality as individual and personal (it “arises from the compelling mystical experiences of individuals”), and religion as a communal, institutionalized phenomenon.2

Religion, they argue, is imbued with a “mythic-magic” mindset; a paradigm from humanity’s archaic past involving spiritual beings, rules, and “systems of reward and punishment.” In their view, religion’s main role is control, specializing in easy-to-remember notions that are “perfect for the control of partially matured apes like humankind.” Religion, they contend, is concerned about differences, and about which teachings are right and which are wrong. Worst of all, while spirituality is apparently tolerant and inclusive, religion asserts absolute truth and is “exclusive by its nature.”

The authors’ dualistic account troubles me for two main reasons. First, while one can find plenty of exclusivism in religion (as in all human life generally), it is not exclusive by nature. Many forms of Hinduism, for example, honor multiple religious paths. While some strands of Christianity are marred by intolerance and exclusivism, other strands both prize what is unique about Christian teaching and seek to learn from the experience of religious others — as can be seen in the work of Francis X. Clooney, James Fredericks, Ruben Habito, Catherine Keller, and others.

Second, even if, as Johnson and Ord imply, spirituality is individual and religion is communal (a distinction I do not accept), in elevating the former over the latter the authors are overly optimistic about human individuals. Communities and institutions can certainly be wrong, evil, and unjust. But so can individuals, especially if they believe that their spiritual experience authorizes them to be. Whatever their manifold faults, religious communities and traditions can act as a “reality-check” when individuals think too highly of their own rightness, as the Confessing Church challenged Nazi claims to absolute truth. A concern for right and wrong can be a good thing.

Interestingly, despite their criticism of absolute truth claims, exclusivism, and right-wrong thinking, the authors engage in these very practices themselves, in asserting the superiority of interspirituality over interfaith dialogue (which they call “trans-tradition spirituality”). In interfaith dialogue, they write, “there remains an overriding concern with the differences.” “[T]his religious experience is shallow enough that there’s still mental concern about who’s ultimately ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ When plumbed, this concern is almost always linked to deeply hidden fear about ultimate rewards and punishments.” It would be interesting to learn how the authors can know this (they do not cite a source), and who is doing the “plumbing.”

What makes interfaith dialogue inferior to interspirituality, the authors claim, is that interspirituality understands “that there is a common ‘knowing’ at the core of all religious experience… This happens only in a mystical or contemplative understanding.” Here the authors reveal their own exclusivism (perhaps their own magic-mythic mindset?): “interspirituality recognizes a common experience within all spirituality… For interspirituality, this common experience is the ‘absolute truth’.” Interspirituality, it seems, is the one “right” experience.

And this brings me to my final concern: the authors’ elevation of Oneness. As the quotes above indicate, Johnson and Ord assert a common core experience underlying the mind-boggling diversity of human religious (and “spiritual”) life. That diversity clearly troubles them, for, with some justification, they associate it with strife and intolerance. They argue that humans will advance when they recognize one common experience — that is, recognize the Oneness underlying all the Manyness.

But is Oneness the way forward? For me, much of Christianity’s power lies in its teaching of the divine Trinity: that the Ultimate Reality is both one and three. Equally paradoxical — and powerful — is the affirmation that the one Christ is both divine and human, without confusion and without division. Neither assertion “makes sense,” in traditional Aristotelian “x cannot equal not-x” thinking. But that’s the beauty. There is a koan-like power in these teachings: the affirmation of Oneness and Manyness simultaneously.

Daoism, by the way, suggests something similar in yin-yang thought, which highlights the ultimacy of the ever-flowing interrelationship of opposites. And the Buddhist Heart Sutra may have something similar in mind when it holds that form is emptiness and emptiness is nothing other than form. Trinity, yin-yang, form-emptiness: similar understandings, but arising from marvelously different questions and perspectives.

While those of us in interreligious dialogue learn that we have much in common (our Oneness), dialogue also reminds us of our differences, our diversity (our Manyness). Each religion brings different questions, different experiences, different perspectives to the table — and it is in grappling with those differences that we grow, and that our view of the Ultimate Reality — whatever it is — is enriched, deepened. Interspirituality seeks to tune into the signal (Oneness) by filtering out the noise (Manyness). But what if the “noise” is also the signal?

1 Professor Brockman provided page references for all his quotations, but they came from a manuscript, not the final book, so the numbers are not noted.

2 The authors do allow that spiritual experience is the origin of all the world’s religions.