Sunday, November 23, 2008

Eating Some Fruit

An Exercise

When you feel so moved, grab a piece of your favorite fruit and eat it. Try to eat it as mindfully as possible – pay attention only to what is happening in that moment. Pay attention to taste and texture and the raw experience of the eating.

Now write about it. Put into words what that experience was like. Try to capture the fullness of it. Translate that experience into words.

When I have done this myself I have noted a number of things.

1. The experience is far more complex than I am able to capture in writing. My words automatically reduce the complexity of reality. The description of a thing doesn’t come close to accurately describing a thing in its fullness. As such language/reason is always removed from reality.

2. If I pay attention, I find that I am writing not about an experience, but about a memory of an experience. My memory may be more or less complete, but there has been some subtle shift from the direct experience to a mental image of the experience and it is clear to me that the mental image is very similar to a “dream” of that experience – it is a reshaping of what was.

3. I notice that I was not my eating. This may seem obvious, but it is an important insight. “I” did not eat the fruit, but rather “I” watched the fruit being eaten. At some level, I was merely a witness to the eating of the fruit which simply happened as I watched.

If you try this, let me know what happens for you.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Compassion and Growth

I have been returning to issues of church growth over the last few weeks. There is much to be said about it - and the gods know that there there has been a monumental amount of ink used to discuss it. Many of these books are worthy and deeply thoughtful and many are premised on notions similar to what follows, but there is a core to church growth that, it seems, too often gets lost in the the techniques and the strategies and the programs and the intake process and all the rest of the machinery that supports a growing congregation.

To begin with the exception, it is important to recognize that every once in a great while someone comes into our communities that really shouldn't be there. They present a danger to the safety and well-being of others or they are so deeply mired in their own psychological dysfunction that the community cannot be of help to them without tearing at its own fabric.

That said, these cases are rare. For the most part, the people walking through our doors - whether members or friends or strangers - are "normal". Yet such normalcy masks something far, far deeper. There is profound beauty and grace that exists in each and every person in our midst. And every visitor to our community contains every bit as much of that same grace and beauty. Each person contains complexities beyond wonderment and profound possibilities for connection and contribution within our communities. This goes far beyond our first principle - it is a declaration not only of the inherent worth and dignity of each human being, but of the almost infinite wonder of actuality and potentiality embodied in each person in our midst.

Every person we encounter in our churches has a story filled with remarkable joy and heartbreaking pathos. Every person bears gifts and ideas. Every person has something to offer us. Every person has aching longings and dreams to be fulfilled. Every person is poetry incarnate. Every person wants to contribute and every person wants to exist in a place where they are seen and heard and, most of all, embraced in love.

Every person who walks through the door is far more precious and valuable than any jewel. To the extent there is divinity in this world, that divinity is reflected in the lives of those we rub shoulders with every day in our churches.

Yet our life together seems so profoundly ordinary. We have committee meetings, we squabble over this or that, we fret about the success of our stewardship campaigns or what someone in the congregation did or said.

It is easily to loose sight of the very big picture. It is easy to loose sight of the poetry and grace and compassion and spaciousness that allow our communities to grow and prosper. And the remedy is so simple. It is to simply listen. To listen with heart. To listen with compassion.

People long to be heard and when they feel heard, they connect and when they connect they contribute of themselves.

We spend so much time on the surface of issues and not enough time simply listening. If that listening starts within our communities and we become centers where people are heard and supported and encouraged to grow and change, our communities will grow. In a culture of profound alienation, what people most want is connection. They want to be seen and heard and understood. They want someone to understand what they bring to the community - both in their neediness but also, and more importantly, in their fullness. They want someone who recognizes their gifts and values them. They want people who will listen to their ideas and most importantly feel that the person behind the ideas was seen and heard and honored.

If our communities become centers of deep compassion, and profoundly compassionate listening, we will not be able to build churches fast enough.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Why I Don’t Hate Evangelicals: Part I

We in the UU church have a low tolerance for evangelical Christians. In our intolerance, we tend to lump all orthodox Christians[1] into one category and then dismiss them as deluded and morally inferior. This means that evangelical Presbyterians are painted with the same brush as tent revivalists. We fail to make important distinctions and to see nuances that exist not only among individual Christians but also in broad groups of “evangelicals”. There is a word for ascribing negative characteristics to broad swaths of people – prejudice. We suffer from this type of prejudice and it gets expressed in the same way prejudice expresses itself in any other group – demonizing, fear mongering, “us versus them” thinking and so on. As always, the antidote to prejudice is understanding.

In the interests of full disclosure, I hold a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary (the intellectual center of the Evangelical left) and before “loosing my faith” in 1984 considered myself to be an Evangelical Christian. Much of what follows reflects my insider’s understanding of this from a relatively sophisticated level – I was at the heart of the intellectual engine of neo-evangelicalism and therefore keenly attuned to the nuances and differences within the conservative wing of Christian church in America. My current information is admittedly a bit out of date, but hopefully not so much so as to undermine the usefulness of this post and the next.

This blog entry will come in two parts. The first will trace the history of the evangelical movement in the United States and try to tease out a number of key components and lineages that help us to place the overall conservative religious movement in a broader context of religious history. The second will attempt to assess the evangelical movement from a perspective of human development by looking at social and cognitive lines of development and their interplay with belief systems.

So let’s start with a little history….


The strands of Evangelicalism in America has parallel but different roots. However, all of these strands trace their deepest roots to the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s. During that time, the Anglican Church in England was deeply entrenched and wedded to upper class interests. This was true both in England and the Colonies. The religion was largely civil and had become depersonalized in many respects. It was a sterile, intellectual faith that was articulated by a church which, by its very mandate, was an extension of the state. Against this backdrop arose the Methodist movement initiated by John Wesley. This movement emphasized personal experience of the divine, personal piety[2] and social justice. There was a strong emphasis in this movement on the notion of free will and the commitment (conversion) to the saving work of Christ. Soon another stream arose from the Calvinist tradition, represented by George Whitfield in England. Both of these movements swept through the urban lower classes. The Methodist movement in particular emphasized a keen interest in social change through the betterment of society. The Calvinist tradition (with its post-millennial [3] point of view) also believed in progress of humanity towards an eventual kingdom of God on earth in which justice and mercy would be available to all. These groups were far from separatist. They were deeply engaged in social reform and held deep convictions about the importance of social justice.

In the United States a Calvinist preacher, Jonathan Edwards, was preaching a message of personal conversion in Northampton Massachusetts which began to spread throughout the urban areas of the north. The movement swept the colonies in the 1730s and 40s through the work of both Wesley and Whitfield. among others. Much of this Great Awakening occurred in northern urban settings though Wesley rode into the south and found success there. These plantings of Methodists in the south lead to the second Great Awakening in the early 1800s primarily in the Appalachian region and tidewater states. This time the religious movement largely took the form the tent revival meetings and focused on personal conversion and personal piety (particularly abstinence – alcoholism on the frontier was epidemic).

The Third Great Awakening began in the 1850s and had a strong social gospel component. This was a largely urban movement spawned by opposition to slavery and then to the exploitation of labor and the excesses of the gilded age. It was largely populist in its message and post-millennial in it understanding (i.e. that Christ would return when peace and justice had been established throughout the earth). While many rural areas were touched by this movement, it was largely urban in its focus. The Universalist movement was an outgrowth of this time of religious ferment. (Note: See Jeff's comment for a well taken correction to this last sentence.)


Fundamentalism takes its name from a twelve volume series of essays entitled “The Fundamentals” published between 1910 and 1915. These essays reflected a number of specific tenets and advanced one important new belief. The main impetus of these essays was to affirm the validity of Christian scriptures in the face of Biblical criticism that had emerged in Germany and was beginning to be felt in England. These schools of criticism questioned the accounts of Biblical miracles based largely on reason and the scientific world view that had emerged in the Enlightenment. The Fundamentals were written as a defense against this “encroachment” of modernism. As such, these writings defended the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Infused into this concoction was a heavy dose of something that had been only peripheral in Christan dogma until that time. The Fundamentalists espoused pre-millennialism or the belief that Jesus would be returning to earth to set up an earthly kingdom sooner rather than later. This pre-millennialism held to a view that the world was on a dark path of increasing sin and degradation and would only be saved by the advent of Christ. This view was distinctly contrary to the entire history of Christianity in America (and indeed the most generally accepted doctrine of both Catholic an Protestant churches). Until this time, the dominant view had been post-millennial – the view that the world would, with the efforts of good Christian people – improve until it was worthy of Christ’s reign.

The post-millennial view had lead to deep commitments to social progress and reform. This pre-millennial view led, perhaps inevitably, to a very heavy dose of separatism. The leaders of the fundamentalism movement launched a two prong offensive against modernity. They attempted to fight it in the marketplace of ideas and they attempted to protect their flocks from its “dangers” by instituting a profound separation from secular society. The Scopes trial is perhaps the most famous initiative of the first effort. The social prohibitions (no dancing, no drinking, etc.) and imperatives to flee worldly pleasures was the most obvious manifestation of the second.
Early Fundamentalism was primarily a phenomenon of the south and of rural areas. The importance of this rootedness of Fundamentalism in rural, non-urban populations in Tidewater and Southern states cannot be overstated. Even today, the political divide in the United States is not between blue states and red states, but between rural America and urban America.

The Advent of Billy Graham

In 1949, Billy Graham held revivalist tent meetings in Los Angeles and struck a chord. The movement he started has been called by some the Fourth Great Awakening. Graham was, at the time, a fundamentalist. He had grown up in a Tidewater state but lived in an urban area. His family had been liberal Christians, but he himself was converted by an evangelist named Mordecai Ham from Kentucky. Ham could trace his spiritual lineage from Fundamentalism back to the Second Great Awakening. Graham, who had been raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, was able to take the message of fundamentalism and shape it to be heard by a new audience. While Graham himself was intellectually a pre-modern fundamentalist by religious confession, he was in every other important way a modernist. He understood corporate structures, was motivated by success and achievement (albeit for “God”) and was thoroughly comfortable with using the structures of the modern world for his ends. Unlike his fundamentalist forebears, he was not socially marginalized or inept. He proceeded to strip fundamentalism of its separatism, but retained the anti-intellectual and pietistic aspects. He poured pre-modern mythic religion into modern wineskins. As was true of the Second Great Awaking, Graham’s message was highly quietist – it spoke of personal salvation without a specific social agenda (except for vague patriotism and culturally inspired anti-communism). He borrowed much from the successful revivalist techniques but combined those with remarkable marketing and preaching skills. This combination managed to reach the growing hoards of post-war suburbia.

Thus a profound new force in American religious history came to the fore – the Evangelical – doctrinally conservative, highly pietistic, non-separatist and, most importantly, politically quietist. This largely suburban movement from the 1950s to the early 1970s was markedly apolitical. It stressed personal piety and conversion. While undoubtedly conservative on the whole, it did not espouse an overt political agenda. At the core of this movement was a belief that “saving” people by initiating personal conversion was the only thing that ultimately mattered. This required that individuals be “in this world, but not of it” and there was therefore a sense that one participated in society in order to save individuals.

And so in the 1960s, all major orthodox lineages in the United States could trace their roots to the First Great Awakening, but from there they fractured into four main streams:

  • Politically active and socially assimilated liberal movements of
    mainline churches found in urban and suburban areas, (having been influenced by the
    Third Great Awakening and fundamentally modernist in their perspectives),
  • Politically marginalized, socially separatist, highly pietistic fundamentalist churches found mostly in rural areas and in the deep south, (influenced by the Second Great Awakening and galvanized by the Fundamentalist Movement and deeply pre-modern in their perspectives),
  • Politically quietist, socially assimilated and personally pietistic suburban churches, (who were pre-modern in their beliefs but modern in most other ways), and
  • Politically liberal but socially oppressed and personally pietistic urban black churches (shaped mostly by oppression, but in part by the social gospel of the Third Great Awakening and the religious revivalism of the Second Great Awakening.)

The 1960s.

In the 1960s, post-modernism crashed into modernism and exploded in a way few cultural shifts have done in recent history. The importance of pluralism was reflected in the civil rights and feminist movements. The failures of capitalistic imperialism were reflected in opposition to the Vietnam War and the rise of the ecological movement. The culture wars were fully engaged. Those cultural creatives who embraced postmodernism moved to a progressive social agenda that admitted large scale change. Those who remained modernists were shell-shocked and huddled in suburbia (though suburbia ended up having its share of postmodernists as well). Those in rural America thought the modernists and postmodernists alike were at best crazy and at worst of the devil.

The Rise of the Christian Right

The Moral Majority came to the fore in 1978 with the rise of Jerry Falwell. Falwell had started Thomas Road Baptist church in the 1950s and had grown that church over the succeeding decades. As part of his work, he did a radio broadcast entitled “Old Time Gospel Hour". At first, this radio show was distinctly fundamentalist. It preached a separatist message and focused on personal conversion and piety. It was distinctly pre-millennial in its eschatology – emphasizing that the secular world would continue to deteriorate into sin until the eventual return of Christ.

However, Falwell was moving away from a purely fundamentalist perspective. (In the end, he renounced the term Fundamentalist and took on the label Evangelical). He was increasingly disquieted by the marginalization of fundamentalism and the separatism that spawned it. Seeing the tremendous evangelical inroads made into suburban American and also seeing a complete absence of political agenda, he realized that there was a tremendous vacuum in the movement Graham had inspired. (While himself politically conservative, Graham had assiduously avoided politicizing his movement – it was about saving individual souls be they white, black, Asian, American, Soviet, Republican or Democrat.)

From his fundamentalist roots in its original opposition to modernity and now post-modernity, Falwell saw the opportunity to capitalize on the religious faith of suburbia and fill the vacuum that had been created. He went on to interject a fundamentalist soco-political agenda that was, at its heart, aggressively anti-post modernist. It struck deeply at the relativistic moral value structures of post-modernity and pushed hard on the demographic that Billy Graham had created. However it scrupulously avoided offending modern sensibilities. ( This is reflected in Falwell's moving from "Old Time Gospel Hour" - a Fundamentalist title - to the "Moral Majority" - a distinctly modernist name.) This emergent created a new force in the religious landscape.

Suburban Christians, who had a pre-modern religious belief, were personally pietistic and socially assimilated with a modern political ideology but strongly opposed to post-modern pluralism were vulnerable to this move. This group was primed for political action – and the agenda of the Fundamentalist stream became one of all out assault on the post-modernist advances of the 1960s with a few of the old fundamentalist attacks on modernity thrown in for good measure. This rise of essential fundamentalism stripped of separatism and with a revived political mission provided the basis for the Christian Right. This movement has fed largely on the fact that suburbia sits pulled between the poles of urban and rural America and, because it holds the balance of political power between the two different world views held by those segments, it has had a profound impact on the partisan political balance of power. Falwell's understanding of this strategic importance made it his prime battleground against post-modernism.

It is this disproportionate influence coupled with the virulent anti-post-modernist agenda that concerns most UUs. If all of the suburban Christians simply believed in a mythic god and went quietly to their Bible studies on Wednesday night, we might write books on the virtues of atheism and the idiocy of faith, but we would not hate them so. However their fight against the post-modern political agenda is what raises our hackles and causes us deep concern. We are, to our bones, post-modernists and this assault threatens our most cherished beliefs.

It is interesting to note that the movement stands outside of the mainstream of the evangelical heritage in the United States. The Evangelicals of the First and Third Awakenings were profoundly progressive. These movements were rooted in urban movements that shaped the rise the liberalism in this country. What happened in the recent Culture War was a highjacking of this tradition by a southern revivalist movement with its roots in Fundamentalism which played on the shock and fears generated by a post-modern worldview and the inability of many in suburban America to assimilate that perspective. The modernists in America, those living in the suburbs, retreated in the face of the onslaught of post-modernism and sought something to “conserve” their sense of the world. For some, they regressed to take on pre-modern religious beliefs. Their fear and existential dread was exploited and turned into a virulent and aggressive anti-post-modern movement. This highjack of the Evangelical movement resulted in a huge confusion of the distinctions between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists as they had emerged historically. Indeed the leaders who coopted the Evangelical movement intentionally conflated those movements in very unfortunate ways. As a result, the landscape today is confusing. In the "Evangelical" movement we now have:

  • Rural fundamentalists (those who have pre-modern beliefs, separate from the world and are not active politically)
  • Rural evangelicals (those who have pre-modern beliefs, don’t separate from the world and are not politically engaged but are personally pietistic)
  • Suburban fundamentalists (those who have pre-modern beliefs, seek not to live a lifestyle of modernity and are not active politically)
  • Suburban Evangelicals (those who have pre-modern beliefs, live a modern lifestyle, tolerate post-modernity and are not active politically – think orthodox Presbyterians)
  • Suburban Evangelical-Fundamentalists (those who have pre-modern beliefs, live a modern lifestyle, are actively opposed to post-modernity and are active politically – think anti-gay, anti-abortion, prayer in school charismatic and bible church types)
  • Urban Evangelicals (pre-modern belief systems, personally pietistic, working on progressive political agendas – think black churches and groups like Sojourners)

What leaps out from this is that conservative political activism doesn’t seem inexorably tied to pre-modern belief systems. This strongly argues against the notion that it is the Christian belief structure that is motivating the conservative political activism. It is my contention that the Christian Right is more a function of sociological trends related to post-modern incursions on the social and belief structures of modernity than it is about religious ideology. Our "fight" is with one group of evangelicals - those who are Evangelical/Fundmentalists - and our fight is not about religious belief systems but the clash of post-modernism with the popular culture.

This shifts the “battleground of ideas” from one of religious perspectives to one of sociological development. It is my hope that, as UUs, as we come to understand the nuances of these various groups and the sociological forces in play, we will come to find more skillful means in addressing the real issues involved. Demonizing “evangelical Christians” paints the world with a very broad brush and causes us to miss the underlying dynamics of the forces at work. This makes us singularly ineffective. Indeed the spate of books that have come out in recent years decrying religious belief structures as the problem miss the point almost entirely. The problem is not one of intellectual belief but of the development of human consciousness as expressed in sociological development. The belief structures are a symptom or manifestation of this underlying issue of cultural development - not its cause. To think we can argue our way to sociological development by harranging people about their premodern belief systems makes about as much sense as harranging an 8th grader to do differential calculus. They simply aren't ready developmentally to hear it and will not hear it until they are. There are more skillful ways to address this although they don't allow for the same sense of self-righteousness. (This will be the subject of the second post.)

Interestingly, there is a growing movement of Suburban Progressive Evangelicals. This group has a pre-modern belief system, but a progressive social agenda involving stances that are anti-war, pro-environment, pro-human rights, pro-feminism, but also pro-life. This group is being led by people who understand the great traditions of American progressive religious thought pioneered in the First and Third Great Awakenings. They are attempting to build bridges with modern society and not engage in the destructive culture wars of the past forty years. they are actually our natural allies in changing cultural values - provided we can graciously allow them to continue to hold to a premodern belief structure. This group is proving remarkably flexible in allying itself with postmodern feminists and envirnonmentals to achieve joint political aims. We risk marginalizing this emergent group if cannot develop the tolerance to give them the space to intellectually hold the beliefs they hold.


[1] I am differentiating orthodox from liberal and heterodox. An orthodox Christian, roughly speaking, would be one who would subscribe to the literal truth of the Nicene Creed (a benchmark of orthodoxy for both the Catholic and Protestant churches). Those who don’t believe the literal truth of this creedal statement would either be liberal (seeing the creedal statement as metaphor, archetype or meaning making myth) or heterodox (not believing one or two specific creedal statements to be true but ascribing literal truth to the remaining statements.
[2] By pietistic I mean committing to a lifestyle of personal integrity in line with scriptural injunctions and engaging in a strong devotional practice.
[3] The post millennial and pre-millenial views are extremely important to this discussion. Post-mileniallists believe that the church’s mandate is to create a just and equitable society (the Kingdom of God) on earth that will be fit for Christ to reign over. Pre-millenialists believe that Christ must come back to set straight a world lost in increasing sin and depravity. The post-millenial view has been the historic orthodox doctrine of the Catholic and virtually all mainline Protestant churches. Contrary to many assumptions, the pre-millenial view was not a force in Christian theology until the early 20th Century.

© 2008. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Oprah and Eckart Tole

Oprah understands something that we in the UU church have not yet recognized. She sees not only that millions of us are seeking spiritual truth, but that authentic spiritual experience is much deeper than the mantras of liberal religion can accommodate. Her discovery of Ekhart Tolle, and her drawing millions of people to a webcast discussion of his book is news to which we as UUs should be paying close attention.

Ekhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth, reflects the profound insight of a remarkable spiritual teacher. His own personal experience comes into deep context in the teachings of esoteric religion in any number of traditions. Many people confuse his work with the New Age. However, there are profound differences. Tolle’s work is unmistakably transpersonal. The New Age tends to devolve into the pre-rational. Tolle’s work calls us to transcend egoic structures whereas the New Age invites us to wallow in narcissistic impulses. The transrational Tolle speaks of is not irrational – it is consistent with reason, but recognizes that reason is a blunt instrument in truly understanding reality in its immediacy. Reason parses reality beautifully, but it cannot put it back together again. Reason objectifies reality to allow us to understand how it works, but in that objectification it deadens reality, separates us from our own true nature and becomes the cause of our fundamental alienation. Post-modernism is the end result of that rational enterprise – millions upon millions of data points with no wisdom; understanding everyone’s perspective, but endless nihilism. Pre-rationalism or romanticism (the old Romantics are the new New Agers) collapses into moment by moment waves of emotion and impulse. It is a reversion, not an advancement, in human consciousness.1

Tolle, and the teachers before him, point to a way out.

What is profound about Tolle’s work is his ability to allow us to glimpse that place of the transrational – not denying reason but moving beyond it to where we see the whole again, but from a place that is not pushed around solely by emotions and impulses. It transcends reason without descending to pre-rational states of consciousness. This is the place sages from Buddha, to Jesus, to Plotinus, to Nagarjuna, to Sankara, to Ramana Marharshi and hosts of other have gone and have pointed to. Eckart’s work is not new – it is the perennial philosophy re-framed for a modern audience. It is the awareness of our Ground of Being – of Awareness itself – choiceless, unmoved, ever present, always and ever existing, our own true Self.

What was interesting for me in watching Tolle and Oprah was the radical difference in their structures of consciousness. Oprah’s language and approach represented the multiplistic pluralism of liberal free-thinking religion. For us UUs we would have seen nothing new in her articulations and even though she identifies as a Christian, it is as a free thinking Christian that we would find wholly unobjectionable. Her belief structures were evident in the way she discussed Christianity and world religions. We should cheer that such a powerful figure is introducing open-mindedness to those Christians who are unsettled about their faith and seeking their own next stage of development. She can speak to them in ways that we cannot whether we be humanist or post-modern pluralist.

Tolle speaks from a different place. He made categorical statements (just as Oprah did) but did so from a set of transpersonal experiences that Oprah, by her own admission, is only beginning to glimpse. Indeed, the reason Oprah has been so taken with Tolle’s work is precisely because he taps not into a belief structure but into an experience of wholeness that liberal religion simply cannot deliver. We are watching Oprah move from one stage of consciousness to the next before our eyes and it is fascinating to see someone who has one foot in each world. The structures of consciousness that produce the doctrines of liberal religion (all paths lead to the same place, Jesus and Buddha were teaching the same truths, yada yada yada), is at least two developmental steps short of deeper realization of the dissolution of the self in the discovery of the Self. Indeed, if you listen closely to Tolle, he doesn’t say that these religions’ leaders “taught” the same thing – their content varies dramatically – but rather that they experienced something similar (sahaj, samadhi, the kingdom of God) and that they attempted to transmit these experiences to those around them. There are “jewels” of insight in the sacred writings that point to the ultimately ineffable experience. They communicated in the cultural language of their times and so the teachings are different, the exoteric religion is distinguishable, but the underlying mystical experiences, the esoteric religion, are profoundly similar.

What is interesting about most people who follow Tolle’s teaching is that they feel good for a time, but they get caught back up in their lives and the feeling state they experienced passes. Tolle inspires momentary experiences of living in the now. The systematic dismantling of the egoic structures that Eckart talks about is often painful and difficult work. In his case, he came to his awakened state only after years of despair and near suicide. His experience, as is the case with some, immediately rested in semi-permanent state. For most, these states begin as incidents or episodes but must be nurtured through spiritual exercises in community. Rarely does one progress on the spiritual path without a proven practice rooted in a wisdom tradition. And rarely does one progress on the spiritual path alone.

As a UU, I find liberal religion (as an ideology) is radically differentiated from the fundamental experience of enlightenment that Tolle experienced and teaches about. It is this deeper, more authentic teaching that we miss in our churches. And by authentic, I mean time-tested and profoundly proven approaches to spiritual experience. (I will write more about this in the next few posts.)

This fascination with Tolle will pass - it is a fad just like all of the other fads before it. Last year it was "The Secret", this year it is "A New Earth" and next year the pluralistic consciousness, which has difficulty putting down roots in any one place for long, will move on. However, for some, for a few, this will stick because it is rooted in a profoundly human experience. It is rooted humanity's experience of Consciousness itself. Those in our UU tradition who have practices in Zen or Kasmir Shaivism or Dzogchen or Advaita Vedanta, or contemplative prayer, or sufi whirling or any one of a host of other spiritual traditions and practices, get this stuff. If we are there to support those for whom this brings a shift...if we continue to work with this process with people who are seeking this depth, and if those of us who are living the lives of ordinary mystics are there to help, then good things will happen. The trick will be to use upaya (skillful means) to help people find deep spiritual paths that suit their sensibilities and stages of development. As more and more UUs get well and truly turned on to this work – and see it pass from the shallow grid of new age pluralism to the sacred work of grounded traditions– it will be useful for us to stand by and try to catch the attention of those who want to move from having occasional state experiences of transcendence or glimpses of meaning to living lives that rest more or less permanently in the Ever Present. If we are able to do that, we can change the world.


1. In one of my first posts I suggested that the UU church should be paying attention to those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. I mentioned that there are those who are rational but spiritual. This post is designed to clarify and explicate some of these distinctions as well as place what I see as this most interesting cultural event of the media phenome and the transperonal pandit sitting down to talk about the fundamental nature of reality, human consciousness, and lasting transformation.

© 2008. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Oprah gets it....

why don't we? More to come.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Reflections on the District Annual General Meeting

I just returned from our annual district meeting. I was privileged to speak at a workshop entitled “Bullfrogs in Wheelbarrows: Planning Along the Chaordic Path.” The workshop addressed a number of the issues discussed in a series of entries in this blog last summer regarding church growth and development, with an added overlay of the Spiral Dynamics model. What surprised and delighted me was how many in the audience were clearly ready for something like this. They seemed a bit tired of one-dimensional models of church leadership and are truly interested in understanding church life as a system. I had expected a chillier reception because I was speaking some hard “truths” to people I had assumed were not systemic thinkers. I don’t know if the maps I was able to present are the best around – but they aren’t too bad and they seemed to make some sense. Many seemed to be happy just to hear someone speaking candidly about difficulties in church life and putting them into a broader context. Too often the “solutions” that are offered are mere techniques and do not address the complexity of the church as a living organism.

At the same time I had the opportunity to hear and get to know some other people. While the UU movement as a whole is still mired in fundamentally dead-end notions of political liberalism and a self-congratulatory notion of political righteousness, there are signs of progress. I do believe deeply in liberation theology, but that liberation must be rooted in personal spiritual transformation if it is to be authentic. Gandhi and MLK both understood this, as have others from our past. Political action without piety devolves into anger and bitterness and violence. If we are not working on our own liberation – and working at it assiduously – how can we have the moral or personal integrity to be prophetic voices in the world? ‘

A few weeks ago I had reason to ponder anew Gandhi’s notion of himsa (violence) - that simply by being alive, we contribute to the violence of the world. We are all complicit. That can paralyze us or it can motivate us to develop greater awareness and intentionality. Ahimsa (nonviolence) is an impossible ideal and Gandhi goes so far as to say that in a war there is no appreciable difference between the soldier who kills and the medic who binds up the wounds (he drove an ambulance for a brief time in the Boer War and his reflections are clearly based on that experience). What Gandhi seems to be saying is similar to one of the central messages of the Bhagavad Gita where Krisha tells Arjuna that he must remember the divine and do his duty, which in that case involved initiating a battle in which many of his kinsmen would die. We cannot truly make the world a better place unless we ourselves are seeking liberation form the egoic self that is the source of so much suffering. In the end it is about awareness of our actions (which will decrease our net contribution to himsa if we are paying attention) and taking responsibility for our complicity in the whole. Failure to recognize this complicity inevitably results in self-righteousness and arrogance which ultimately is a pretty sure path to outward and explicit violence towards others. If the ambulance driver thinks he is morally superior to the soldier, all is lost and the spiral of violence deepens.1

Back to AGM – I was also struck, and positively so, by an increased focus on spiritual practice. There were workshops on it, there was discussion about it. The workshop I attended was basic but quite good. Sparking and feeding interest in this is wonderful. All of this seems positive. So much of what we need to do in this church is transcend the notion of materialism. We, as UUs, are still fundamentally post-Enlightenment, post-modern materialists – we cannot bring ourselves to believe that our soul or even our mind reflects a dimension other than mere physicality. Until we admit to the authentic reality of Spirit, it seems we are likely to continue to wander in the wilderness. I am seeing a few UUs (mostly ministers) beginning to get this. For more on this notion, click here.

These discussions about UU spirituality remain in the realm of what Ken Wilber would call “translative practices” or spiritual practices that focus on adjustments to ordinary life and which don’t fundamentally challenge current structures of consciousness. (And that is true of the course on building a spiritual practice that I am co-leading in our church as well.) In contrast to the notion of translative practice, Wilber claims, and I think he is right, that all of the great wisdom traditions demand a form of "transformative practice" and by that Wilber means that egoic structures are systematically and wholly dismantled in the face of development towards divine consciousness. (Wilber affrirms the validity and importance of both of these types of practice - but suggests that we should not confuse the two.) While all sorts of goals of spiritual practice exist (reducing stress, connecting with the body, becoming more mindful, etc.), the whole point in virtually every tradition when you follow it out to where it is heading is the mystic experience of the destruction of egoic self-contraction in the presence of the Ultimate (the destruction of self in realizing Self). We have a very, very long ways to go – and our complacency at our level of structural development of consciousness continues to be our own worst enemy.

The only sour note for me was Dr. Rebecca Parker’s keynote address. I found it sadly disappointing and even troubling. She is undoubtedly a wonderful person and may have a deep and rich spiritual life, but it didn’t come through. Her talk was a rousing cry for caring for the world, but it was without depth or any genuine compassion – it was laced with latent anger and vitriol with a heavy handed overlay of the rhetoric of oppression, which in this day and age simply sounds shrill and unskilled The realities she points to are painfully real and beyond worthy of our compassion and zealous activism. The shame of it is that the ways she addressed it are alienating and singularly ineffective for this time. For me, it seemed the same message from the progressive left that I have heard since listening to Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis but wrapped in a veneer of postmodern religiosity. How often do we have to replay the rhetoric of the 1960s New Left. Flatland yet again. C’est domage.

More concerning to me was the dehumanization of the evangelical Christians and other “oppressors”. They were the enemy in Dr. Parker's talk. It smacked of cheap pandering - bash the Christians and bash the Republicans and you bring a group of UUs to their feet in applause. The problem with this type of self-righteousness is that eventually degrades into bitterness, nihilism and performative self-contradiction. Dr. Parker's speech left me wondering if she wouldn't just rather wipe the evangelical Christians from the face of the planet, or at least their leaders. I could take no joy in these "us v. them" characterizations of first tier thinking and the standing ovation for a talk with the level of animosity reflected towards those groups truly saddened me. It is liberal fundamentalism at its worst. Until we have the wisdom of Pogo (“We have met the enemy and he is us.”) we have no hope of bringing any real transformation either on a personal level or to our culture. In fairness, Dr. Parker may believe that as well, but it just did not come through in her talk.

The self-congratulatory new progressive rhetoric is so strong in our churches but the actions are so anemic and inconsistent (we play at engaging in a costless form of social justice often designed it seems to salve our liberal guilt) and it seems to me to stem from the fact that we have no stomach for genuine liberation. That type of liberation demands that we die to our self (our egoic sense of who we are) and that we find God (our true Self existing before we were born). Once that happens, life cannot be a tepid thing and if we then decide to engage, we engage wholeheartedly and because of calling that is rooted in the timeless now and the Ground of all Being. We show up, we don't flit through.

Perhaps I am being too hard on good folks who are doing the best they can, but, doggoneit, I am tired of pretense and lack of any real "there there" and I think my fellow UUs are feeling the same. We need better stuff from the president of our seminary which is turning out people to work with us in our congregations. We UUs are as trapped in our culture as any and the thing we long for is genuine liberation - we seek the meaning of our lives and much of that meaning can be found in service to others, but not without spiritual depth. Reductionist materialism (as a rock bottom philosophy of life) ain't going to get us there - it won't even get us out the door. A political agenda based on reductionist materialism is a dead end - why liberate the huddled masses if all they are is just a slab of meat with neuropetides? Until we recognize either that evolution is taking us collectively towards divinity and that glowing embers of that divinity are in us (a la Whitehead, Chardin, and the German Idealisists) or we believe that involution has brought divinity deep into our our material existence and into our humanness (a la Plotinus, Eckhardt, Sankara and Nagarjuna), or both (a la Aurobindo), we might as well go back to watching TV.

1. This is not to deny concepts of moral development - there are higher and lower stages of moral development. It is only to disparage the notion that morality can be used as another form of oppressive heirarchy. The moral high ground does not permit you to dehumanize those who are developing to your level.
© 2008. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

In Over Our Heads: Robert Kegan and Spiritual Development

Dr. Robert Kegan, the Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a developmental psychologist interested in stages the development of adult structures of consciousness. He has identified six distinct stages. Three of these are important to any discussion of higher spiritual development. The stages of development reflect the ways in which people interpret their experience and construct the meaning of the experiences.

We pick up with the cognitive development of pre-teens. Typically just before adolescence, children have mastered what Piaget referred to as concrete operational thinking. They are able to identify specific instances of wide ranges of things (what Kegan refers to as the ability to recognize “durable categories”). They understand their roles and they tend to recognize enduring needs and have developed impulse control. This is all reflective of second order consciousness.

As people move into third order consciousness, they become able to think abstractly and recognize and intelligently interact with cross-categorical ideas. They are able to create maps of their ideas of how life should be lived and begin to conform their behavior to these maps. A large part of this process involves the socialization to adult structures necessary to get along in our culture. We become who our society expects us to be by interacting within the structures of that society. People begin to understand interpersonal realities, can identify their own inner states and recognize inter-subjective states of other people and groups. These skills allow people to function in the modern society and are essential to holding a job, parenting, partnering and simply getting along in life. According to Kegan, the vast majority of adults in American society function at this level of consciousness.

There are however, two orders that transcend and include these lower structures. The Fourth Order of Consciousness involves the ability to think in high level abstractions about the abstractions one has created in the Third Order. In our post-modern world, there is not one monolithic society – we are exposed to a wide range of possibilities and competing demands for time, money, loyalty, focus and so on. If these rise to a sufficiently complex level and we are paying attention, we make the leap to Fourth Order Consciousness. We are no longer pushed around by cultural forces but become “self-authoring”. Very few people reach this stage before the age of 40. When they do, they are no longer subject to the scripts of abstraction that they developed earlier in life but are able to chose between multiple abstractions and chose to operate out of meta-ethical frameworks. They are no longer bound by maps of behavior but have become autonomous individuals who are consciously picking and choosing the cognitive structures that they chose to operate within. They are rarely ideologically dogmatic and find they can adopt great plasticity in the ways they function and move within the world and various social groups. They are marching to their own drummer based on their own cognitive map of the world.

The Fifth Order of Consciousness starts getting very interesting from the point of view of spiritual development. According to Kegan, only a small fraction of people ever make this jump. This stage is referred to as the “self-transforming self”. It is brought on by the inherent limitations of self-authoring by coming face to face with the inconsistencies of created by the systems developed at the Fourth Order. The person recognizes that all of the ways of constructing meaning or making sense of experience are, in the end, wholly partial and incomplete. They leave things out. Their system, while very holistic and encompassing, is incapable of making any fundamental sense of their lives. The hallmark of this phase would be things like the "existential crisis" or the "dark night of the soul". This profound doubt - and sometimes downright ontological and epistemological despair - forces the self to move into dialectical transcendence of ideologies to the point where there is no longer an ego to support or defend. Reality becomes perceived as truly transpersonal and the notion of individuality looses any sense of ultimate meaning. The egoic self clearly still exists, but it exists solely as an object of observation. When this happens, life is seen holistically and what maps are useful are maps that tie disparate realities together and show the relationships between things that, on their surface appear contradictory.

Kegan has used Alan Watts’ comment that his baby was fully enlightened because he was one with his experience as a foil for discussing this stage. He says Watts got it absolutely wrong. According to Kegan, a baby is, developmentally, pure subject – the baby no distinct sense of distinct self as object of observation or experience. In all other stages, a portion of the self (from the lower order of consciousness) is seen as an object by the subject of the next stage. (Thus the Fourth Order clearly sees and understands the structures at work in the 3rd order but is oblivious to those structures of its present order – i.e. they are purely subjective). At the Fifth Order (and above), the individual becomes pure object – unlike the baby, there is no “subject”. This fundamental recognition of the contingency of self – its fundamentally illusory nature – is awfully close to the mystic realizations found in many world religions. It is not that self no longer exists but rather than self is pure object of a transcendent witness. This type of experience is deeply reminiscent of experiences spoken of by Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi, Nagarjuna, Meister Eckhart, and hundreds of other saints and sages from times past.

To my way of thinking, Kegan’s work points to the a human developmental model that both supports and gives structure to spiritual development. It provides a teleological understanding of the development of human psychology and grounds mystical experience in psychological development. That grounding is important in a number of ways, particularly people seek to live spiritual lives in a post modern world.

For those who are interested, two of Robert Kegan’s works are In Over Our Heads and The Evolving Self.

© 2007. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.