JOURNAL ISSUE 9
THE IMMANENT HEAVEN: SPIRITUAL (POST)METAPHYSICS AND ETHICS IN A POSTMODERN ERA
Working towards spontaneous right action and a society of abundance, peace and fulfillment
Drs. Suzette van IJssel
PhD-student: Spirituality and Humanist counseling
University for Humanistics
“spiritualiteit en humanistisch geestelijke begeleiding”
In this paper the interrelations between peace, ethics and spirituality are approached from a metaphysical point of view. In contemporary spiritual discourses, peace and ethics are closely intertwined with particular metaphysical concepts of identity and reality. They are usually perceived in respect to “being” and “awareness”’, instead of moral imperatives. However, popular spiritual terms concerning identity and reality pose a problem when brought into academic and philosophical discourse. Under the influence of postmodern criticism the whole idea of metaphysics has become highly problematic, not to say suspect. This also holds true for notions that imply a universal status and claim to precede language, history or social construction—such as the terms Real Self and Ultimate Reality. In this paper I propose an alternative way of looking at these terms.
In accordance with postmodern tradition, all theory can be regarded as a pair of glasses through which one looks at certain phenomenon. Different pairs of glasses, i.e., different theories, offer different perspectives on the same experiences or events. In this paper, two perspectives, a postmodern perspective and a spiritual-metaphysical perspective, come up for discussion with respect to the phenomenon of spirituality. Postmodernism provides the observer with interesting insights when the gaze is turned to spirituality and spiritual experiences. This perspective provides a particularly sharp focus on the egalitarian diversity in different cultural practices and traditions, thereby deconstructing “old religion’s” sole claim of “the truth”. At the same time, a postmodern outlook also produces “blind spots”. For instance, it obscures the sight of possible ontological universal elements in different spiritual traditions, practices and experiences; it also excludes the option of a “given” or perceived reality/identity instead of a constructed one. This has led to the conclusion that a Real Self or Ultimate Reality doesn’t exist. But such a perception doesn’t take into full account the phenomenological side of spirituality and does only half-justice to the experiences and practices involved. A spiritual metaphysical perspective provides an alternative that makes it possible to see both the postmodern diversity and the spiritual universality. In new spirituality the paradox has a central place because of its paradoxical ontological ground structure. As such, a “new spiritual” pair of glasses presents a double focus, or vari-focus/multi-focus/bi-focus as opticians nowadays call this. This specific angle, as it were, deconstructs what in time has become the postmodern dogma: the nothing-but-diversity-truth and the conviction that reality or self can’t be anything else but constructed, immanent, and relative. The spiritual “double focus” glasses offer a view that is not only more inclusive than the postmodernism one, but also puts questions concerning peace and ethics in a different perspective. And it shows the culture-critical nature of new spirituality, often disregarded because of a supposed a-political orientation towards life. Following the argument of this paper, new spirituality is revealed as a potentially revolutionary force in our shared struggle for a globally just and peaceful co-existence.
A postmodern pair of glasses
Postmodern criticism has deconstructed the foundation and structures that western thought used to rely on. From a postmodern point of view, all essentialist – Grand Narrative - conceptions of the human being, nature, or reality are illusive. This means that we have no given identity, there is no real self lingering at the core of our being, and truth does not exist. Contemporary scholars in the field of humanities speak of the death of the Subject, History, and Metaphysics (Benhabib, 1995,p. 17). The death of the latter—also known as the death of God, Truth or Reality—indicates “the end of the quest for the Real” that has dominated Western philosophy since Plato. Ratio is the main tool that instigated this enterprise and was sanctified on the way. Man, or the subject, not a transcendental Being, but a “social, historical or linguistic artifact” (p. 18).
A significant contribution to the postmodern discourse comes from the field of feminist theory and its emphasis on the way that essentialist and universal notions, and the hierarchical, dichotomous way of thinking of which these notions are both cause and result, have exercised power at the cost of diversity. Once powerful and absolute values have been exposed by feminist scholars as one-sided, white, western, and male. Postmodern theory makes it possible for scholars in the fields of, for instance, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, and ethnicity studies to articulate the formerly obliterated differences of gender, sexual preference, and race.
But postmodern criticism not only led to the inclusion of previously repressed groups—it also created a void that is of concern to scientists, feminists and moral or political theorists. Some even speak of a crisis in contemporary thought (Braidotti, 1991, p. 9). Benhabib distinguishes strong and weak versions of postmodernism. The strong version basically results in a fundamentally relativistic stance that ultimately undermines the foundation of critical theory and political and social action altogether. Since postmodernists argue that all views of reality, including science, are but one mythical system or narrative among many others—there are no real standards of objectivity. Subsequently, there are no common denominators or shared perspectives on reality, humankind, and ethics. It raises the question of whether there can still be a political or social plan without generalizations or natural alliances based on race, class or gender. The idea that the subject is merely another position in language, nothing but a continuous construction of forces outside our conscious willpower, “can endanger or even deny concepts of intentionality, accountability, self-reflexivity, and autonomy” (Benhabib, 1995, p. 20). Especially within feminist theory—but also humanist oriented theory—there is a lot of resistance to the strong version of postmodernism. The very projects of female emancipation—or for instance the humanist “Bildungsideal”—are barely thinkable without regulative principles of agency, autonomy, and selfhood.
However, postmodernism doesn’t imply that decisions concerning epistemological and ethical issues are not valuable or that they are useless. Weaker, and consequently less relativistic, readings of postmodern critique leave room for political, moral, and feminist theorists to think about morality and politics in a way that is not based on metaphysical or essentialist assumptions of reality or human nature. This has resulted in theories of ethical and political agency based on “practices of responsibility” (Urban Walker, 1998), “politics of affinity” (Haraway, 1987), or “politics of affectivity” (Braidotti, 2004). Such theories usually combine the postmodern radical immanence of the subject with an enlarged sense of interconnection between self and other, be it human, technical or “earthly” others (Braidotti, 2004, p. 5).
Postmodernism and spirituality
As an alternative to the abovementioned postmodern theories, I would like to propose a “politics of spirituality”. Under the heading of the term spirituality, all kinds of philosophies and practices oriented in and towards connectedness and a peaceful and loving co-existence flourish in our western democratic capitalist societies. Views from every possible culture on earth and every possible era are being offered and consulted with respect to questions concerning life, death, truth and, ethics. The current spiritual landscape shows a proliferation of ideas, practices and intuitions. This landscape is made up of a combination of western interpretations of eastern forms of philosophy and spiritual practice, a renewed interest in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mysticism and esotericism, neo-pagan or other native, pre-Christian, and nature-oriented forms of spirituality, and expressions of secular western esoteric ideas and practices. In actual practice it leads to situations in which, for instance, one can find the Christian St. Francis of Assisi being considered part of the same source of inspiration as the Hindu Baghavad Gita, or the practice of Zazen being mixed with Teresia of Avila’s contemplations on the unconditional-love-nature of the Divine, possibly combined with a visit to a native American sweat-lodge or an Aboriginal Didgeridoo concert. It is often suggested that this post-modern eclecticism has created a new kind of religiosity or spirituality. Sometimes spirituality is combined with adjectives, as with “self-spirituality” (Heelas, 1996), because of the strong orientation towards an inner self, “New Age spirituality”, because of a belief in the coming of a new civilization, and “alternative spirituality” (Sutcliffe and Bowman, 2000), because the label New Age turns out to be too diffuse. (The discussion of the sociological, theological or historical (in)accuracy of these terms in regard with this new religiosity falls outside the range of this paper.) To avoid confusion I will from now on use the term new spirituality to distinguish the ideas and practices I refer to from conventional religion on one side, and other tradition-and-culture-bound forms of spirituality on the other.
In accordance with more postmodern ways of thinking about ethics, a spiritual approach of ethics is also founded on an enlarged sense of—not necessarily human—interconnection between self and other. However, in contrast, this new spirituality does not solely assert the immanence and non-universality of the subject. On the contrary, it falls back on the linguistic usage of historical traditions, utilizing “unitary” terms like Self, Reality, Truth, God, of course, and other classical notions with capital letters. Whereas postmodern debates about ethics are usually restricted to the academic population, the practices I’m referring to can be found mostly outside academic theory1. In the academic landscape, new spirituality is most often, and often only, embraced as a personal, and not necessarily religious, way of making meaning in and of the world. This representation leaves untouched fundamental opposing views concerning the more metaphysical background of spirituality. As such, spirituality is hardly being reflected or represented in contemporary philosophical theories, probably for many different reasons. In this paper I will address two of these reasons. The first one lies in the use of the abovementioned historically burdened terms in spiritual language, which causes critical thinkers to label new spirituality as regressive and naive (Smith, 1982,p. 233). Another possible reason concerns a certain perception of spirituality as a-political because of its supposed preoccupation with the inner, individual life. Beneath, I will address these two perceptions of new spirituality— but first I will explore what is meant by new spirituality.
“For it may well be that the meeting of spiritual paths – the assimilation not only of one’s own spiritual heritage but of that of the human community as a whole – is the distinctive spiritual journey of our time”. These words by Ewert Cousins (1992), general director of the 25 volume Encyclopaedic History of the Religious Quest that came about through the participation of scholars from all over the world, supports a growing sensitivity, both in and outside the academic world, to the idea of a trans-cultural and trans-denominational perspective on spirituality. The whole encyclopaedia is built on the assumption that there are common elements in all kinds of spiritual and religious traditions, especially when it comes to the individual experience. It also reflects a post-modern and somewhat relativistic way in which different cultural and spiritual sources simultaneously function as sources of truth and inspiration. Sociological and historical arguments that provide some insight into why the spiritual journey of our time holds those core values and ideas at heart are not difficult to find. Ongoing processes of secularization, de-traditionalization and individualization in our western societies are usually represented as the main causes leading to a multitude of forms of spirituality that are less and less related to an institutionalised religion or rooted in some religious or philosophical doctrine.
Alongside its often confusing variety, this new spirituality also shows some characteristics, more like philosophical or ontological premises, which are being widely supported. Both literary studies and interviews with participants of, for instance, the New Age movement show time and time again that the diversity essentially points to one and the same spiritual reality. New Age spirituality is not concerned with historical traditions themselves, but with the like-minded, deep, and universal truths they announce, from which there are many roads to the one truth 2 (Aupers, 2004,p.22-23). Such a point of view can also be found in many other, usually non-western, currently popular, and more or less tradition-bound forms of religion or spirituality, like theosophy, Sufism, most of Hinduism, or particular groups like the
Bahaí. Roughly put, one can say that new spirituality distinguishes itself from old religion because it centers on experience and mysticism instead of religious dogma, and it emphasizes the commonality of the spiritual experiences throughout a diversity of cultures and times. Self-realization, enlightenment, Christ-consciousness, Buddha-awareness: these are all expressions that refer to comparable reality experiences, usually called mystical or spiritual experiences.
In general, mystical experiences seem to indicate that there are states of consciousness in which one experiences an encompassing connection, a sense of unity, with all of life, be it a chromosome, a branch of a rhododendron, a stone on the road or a human being. In these experiences, separations between a person and nature, a person and the universe, or between persons cease to exist in different gradations. Instead, there is sometimes an all-embracing vision and feeling of unity and connectedness. One seems to realize a deepened union with fellow-human beings and all of life. This state of consciousness can occur spontaneously, but can also consciously be induced in order to transform “daily/separate awareness”. Although not all people have such experiences, let alone on a daily basis, the experiences themselves are always embedded in feelings of deep internal coherence and lucidity and are therefore understood to be closer to truth and reality, closer to the way things really are.
A spiritual bifocal perspective
From a spiritual perspective, the states of consciousness in which one experiences the unity or non-duality of life’s diversity are expressions of an alternative reality or self. This “other” reality or self is always there, but is usually hidden from our ordinary awareness. One of the first articulations of a spiritual metaphysics based on these experiences, and thus a more universal reading of spirituality in the west, comes from Aldous Huxley in the mid-forties of the last century. He called it perennial philosophy 3, a new-age, avant-la-lettre approach to religion, including and connecting philosophies from all over the earth—from Plato to the Baghavad Gita, from Meister Eckhart to Lao Tse (Smith, 1982, p.47). This eternal philosophy was also described as “a mosaic of mysticism”, stressing its mystical and experience-oriented nature. It was defined as “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being” (Huxley, 1946, p. vii). Since Huxley formulated this definition the exact metaphysical content of the perennial philosophy has been much debated4. However, this discussion falls outside the scope of this paper. The aspect of the spiritual-metaphysical point of view that is emphasized in this paper is the perspective that reality and identity are transcendent and immanent at the same time. A spiritual metaphysical outlook shows a double, or moreover, paradoxical, i.e., the opposition itself is relative and is illusive at some point, nature of reality and human identity. This paradoxical ontology (VanIJssel, 2003) indicates that man, or the subject, is a social, historical, or linguistic artifact as far as one part of his ontology is concerned, but nevertheless is also a transcendental Being. From a spiritual-metaphysical viewpoint the transcendent and absolute aspects of reality and identity automatically relativize our “everyday” immanent experience of self. Depending upon the cultural origin, this transcendent core of our Being is represented in traditional spirituality as our Soul, (real or higher) Self, Atman, Monad, Buddha-nature, or Christ-principle. In new spirituality, human identity is represented both as Being and Becoming. Being refers to the changeless and oneness though dynamic side of our nature, whereas Becoming refers to the relative aspects of our nature, that which is constantly changing, developing, and being transcended. This paradoxical shift in our identity-awareness—though not always consciously thought through in new spiritual practices—is illustrated in a very popular and much used quote in new spiritual groups: We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience5.
On one hand we have the postmodern influence in academic and philosophical thought undermining and discrediting every attempt to formulate universal truth or metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of reality or self. On the other hand we have a growing influence of new spiritual thought based on ontological and metaphysical ideas and subsequently using the terms that come with the territory. This raises the question of whether these two points of view can lead to something other than an impasse—an impasse in which “postmodernists” often quickly dismiss any universal claim being made in new spirituality and thus keep it outside academic theory, or spiritual minded people shake their wary heads at the over-rationalized nature of the academic realm that, in spite of the postmodern deconstruction of ratio, still leaves very little room for other epistemological tools, such as contemplation, intuition or the heart—at least not in the context of a possible hierarchy of knowledge and truth, something a spiritual metaphysics does imply.
In my opinion, the current impasse is regrettable because it obstructs the way to a critical dialogue between philosophical, political, and moral theory and new spiritual thought. Some thinkers, such as Ken Wilber in transpersonal psychology or Roy Bhaskar in political science, both all-around educated in α, β and γ disciplines, have each in their own way tried to build bridges between the current academic climate and a spiritual-metaphysical point of view. However, they are often not taken seriously, and find their work the subject of much of the abovementioned critique, or more often are ignored by the academic communities, and thus pushed towards the very margins of the debate, like many others engaged in similar projects. The reason for this raises an interesting question. It probably comes down to the fact that their assumption (and experience) of the existence of higher states of consciousness (as, for instance, expressed in mystical experiences) is not experienced and thus not recognized by the majority of the academics. And neither are the different kinds of knowledge and perspectives these states of consciousness offer. Besides, from the viewpoint of postmodernism, the academic silence and rejection are understandable reactions because there is an underlying and deeply radical implication in this position. As Huston Smith bluntly put it, this spiritual point of view implies the possibility—moreover a certainty waiting to happen—to go a step further in the intellectual enterprise than western philosophy, and on a larger scale western science, set out to. It might very well turn out to be that the postmodern period “like all the intellectual epochs that preceded it, is a transition to a still different perspective”: a spiritual perspective (Smith, 1982, p. 16).
So does this make the spiritual-metaphysical perspective a positivistic and modernist approach to life, reality, and humankind? It definitely has all the necessary ingredients. Or is there another way of understanding this position? I think there is and I suggest we fundamentally re-think words common to the spiritual vocabulary, by including postmodern criticism, which, as I will point out, has always been very much part of any spiritual heritage. Staying true to the metaphor of the glasses I have been using so far, a spiritual perspective on questions concerning truth, knowledge, identity, and ethics reveals two blind spots of postmodern philosophy. Like any other perspective, postmodern philosophy also can be seen as context-bound. Many critics have pointed out the contradiction inherent in postmodern philosophy; if postmodernists claim there are no warranted claims to truth, then their views cannot be said to be true either. In no way does the postmodern discourse presuppose that truth ceases to be a fundamental and overriding value. And although postmodernism is a proper reaction against the rigidities of a structuralized, modernist frame of thought, it is also an almost exclusive western phenomenon; it is an answer to the errors of a certain western mindset. So with its “nothing-but-diversity-truth”, postmodernist criticism remains within the boundaries of its own dichotomous frame of mind, which is paradoxically contrary to postmodern criticism of dichotomous rationality itself. Since ratio failed to deliver us the eternal truth, the conclusion has been drawn that truth doesn’t exist. A closer look at spirituality shows that this is not necessarily the only, or right, conclusion to be drawn. The fact that, for instance, the Ultimate Reality is or cannot be experienced through our ratio doesn’t say that it doesn’t exist or cannot be known. General belief in new spirituality supposes it does exist and can be known, and, even through the eyes of a hardcore postmodernist, these views should count as much as any other.
Postmodernism: an integral part of a spiritual post-metaphysical perspective
The story of the end of Metaphysics and the criticism of Cartesian rationality usually starts with Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God. God and all other universal notions lost their transcendent nature through time, and became but a mere reflection of the relative consciousness of the white western male. Structured, confined and exclusive notions have been passed off as transcendent. Postmodernism has adequately unveiled the complex and repressing webs of power and the meaning these resulted in. But in essence it doesn’t say anything about transcendence or the possibility of transcendence itself. What postmodernists have dismantled is a misrepresentation of the notions of transcendence/the absolute/the ultimate. If something supposedly ultimate can be deconstructed, it was never ultimate to begin with. That which is ultimate is beyond all form, including language and mental concepts. When we move this theme to the domain of religions, it seems very just that the immanent exclusive God of organized religion (the white bearded father, et. al) is declared dead in favor of the God of mystics who, through all times and cultures, has never seemed to have lost his/her elusive transcendent identity. The narrative heritage of all religions and spiritual traditions include warnings against this “bringing down” of the absolute. Take for instance one of the main instructions in the Abrahamic religions: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. A more spiritual reading implies that one should not make any images—physical or mental—of the divine/ absolute, for every image imposes a restriction, every representation a limitation of the transcendental nature of the divine. Muslims are particularly faithful to this principle in their emphasis on the indivisible nature of God and the abstract manner in which the divine is represented in the Koran. The same principle is at work when one of India’s most celebrated Saints, Ramakrishna, realizes the highest form of enlightenment by destroying his devoted focus on the goddess Kali. It is the reason behind the Buddhist adage, “if you meet the Buddha, kill him.” For there should be no images, expectations, or any other limited phenomenon between our awareness and the transcendent reality. It is not only global mystical currents in religion that give proof of this—it is also very apparent in contemporary new spirituality. Take for instance the Conversations with God trilogy by Donald Walsch, books that contain many general New Age spiritual views and thoughts. "God, as she emerges from these triple conversations, shows a remarkable awareness of the slipperiness of linguistics signs. And while Walsch's God “can sound almost crassly yank at times to a non-US reader, the mercurial shifts in tone and style can also be seen as part of a strategy which purposefully and constantly destabilizes any particular discourse style in the best traditions of postmodern playfulness, as God knows reverence readily atrophies into excessive rigidity. In much the same way, God is referred to by masculine, feminine and neuter pronouns and possessive adjectives, sometimes within the same sentence, creating a syntactical dissonance which aims to bring to our critical attention the patriarchal assumptions traditionally embodied in theological discourse” (Style, 2002, p. 3).
In denying transcendence as a possible reality beyond or preceding language, history and social structure, it seems to me that the postmodern mind is lost between the realms of the immanent and transcendent and finds itself incapable of thinking both. One might say that spirituality or a spiritual metaphysics, when it includes this dynamic between transcendence and immanence, can be seen as a way of thinking that lies “beyond the postmodern mind”. Not because it, in a modernist mind, denies the deaths declared by postmodernists, but because it breaks ground for their resurrection—to see them anew in a different light from which death is just another form of life. As such, the spiritual metaphysics might perhaps better be called post-metaphysical. It implies a “postmodern” tolerance of pluralism, so that all relevant views and sources are taken into account, and then proceeds with trying to find the hidden patterns that connect these views.
Spirituality, ethics and socio-political transformation
Until now I have discussed both postmodern and spiritual perceptions of metaphysics. I have created a perspective that shows postmodern evaluations of spirituality in a very different light than usual within academic theory. From a spiritual perspective the death of notions like God, Self and Reality caused by postmodern criticism can also be seen as a transition to a deeper understanding of their ‘“nature”, i.e., the experiences they refer to. This understanding has always been part of the esoteric and mystical movements in religion and now surfaces as one of the main characteristics of new spirituality. This perspective might help us to understand and appreciate the fact that terms like Self, Reality and God still, on a large and expanding scale in our western secular societies, function as guiding principles in the orientation to existence.
In the last segment of this paper I will explore the implications of a spiritual metaphysics in everyday life. Popular belief in political and moral theory oriented to analyzing and changing socio-economical and political structures disparages the political potential of spirituality because of its strong concern with the inner and individual life and its social and politically degenerate beliefs. According to Hartwig , the British New Left has traditionally regarded New Age thought as “at bottom a vulgar, and socially and politically regressive, ideology” (2001). New Age is considered to be heavily marketed, “a user-pays religion for the middle classes, whose practitioners are often in effect fast-buck charlatans who offer a veritable supermarket of spiritual wares to the (often) distressed and gullible for an (often) hefty fee, even as they denounce “materialism”. As such, it is “profoundly individualist, idealist and voluntary in its approach to understanding and changing the world, downplaying structure and narcissistically deifying the self of consumer capitalism” (Hartwig, 2001, p.148)6. This causes some to speak of the current spiritual landscape in the west as “pop-spirituality”, referring to spirituality as a popular trend or life-style. And from a more psychological perspective, New Age is often considered to be regressive because of, for instance, the deification within some New Age spirituality of pre-personal and pre-rational phases of psychological development (Wilber, 2001).
Far from closing my eyes for the commercial, pre-personal and indiscriminative elements in New Age or other spirituality, and even further from condoning this, these practices do not determine all of "new spirituality". I also see a different story and a different dynamic at work—a dynamic that can in fact turn out to be very progressive and promising and deserves our close attention. If one is able to adjust one’s eyes to the “spiritual-bifocal” perspective, the deep culture-critical nature of new spirituality becomes more and more clear. In the last part of this paper I will argue that new spiritual thought contains transforming possibilities that potentially can lead to a radical change in the way we have organized this world and the way the world organizes us. To advocate this point, I will use some of the work of philosopher Roy Bhaskar, whose Marxist left background leads him to articulate traditionally verbalized spiritual-metaphysical ideas in language familiar to critical theory.
Equipped with an all-around western education in both hard and social sciences from which he founded his own “brand” of philosophy—critical realism—Bhaskar went through quite an amazing series of spiritual experiences which brought about a whole new turn in his philosophical perspective of reality and led to the articulation of a new philosophical position which he called Meta-Reality. Meta-Reality “pinpoints the reality of non-dual states and phases of being, showing how they underpin and sustain the totality of all forms of human, and indeed all, life. Understanding Meta-Reality is to realize the limitations of the world of duality” or, as he calls it, the pluriverse, “structured and differentiated, in process and changing” (Bhaskar, 2002b, p. vii). Human beings, like everything else in the pluriverse, are emergent forms of God, the absolute, and the divine. The divine comes to self-realization in and through the relative world of humans and other beings, i.e., the whole expanding pluriverse is (becoming) the embodiment of God. This God-like, non-dual nature of man—the essential Self—is dynamic and expanding, not fixed, essentially free and naturally loving, creative and intelligent. However, human beings have forgotten that they are essentially God, a process Bhaskar calls disenchantment or alienation. This alienation is ultimately underpinned by error. Man’s essential nature has been overcome and occluded by the illusion occurring when ontology is defined in terms of human knowledge and human means of knowing, and by the effects of past mistakes resulting from the exercise of free will. This has resulted in the demi-real, a distinct zone of relative being that can be compared with the abovementioned fake realm between the transcendent and immanent. In the demi-real we all now live our lives, perceiving ourselves as free agents while in fact we are slaves. In our world it is duality and its characteristic forms of reasoning and behavior, instrumentalist, mediated, conditional, heteronymous, forced, attached, and analytical (in the worst sense of dividing and breaking up), which rules (Bhaskar, 2002a, p. 11).
To regain their natural creativity, enlightenment, and freedom, humans have to shed the illusions they are trapped in and act in accordance with their essential self, a process Bhaskar refers to as the dialectics of de-alienation or Self-realization, through which we necessarily “re-enchant the world”. It is dialectic because we are working towards a goal which at the same time is already here, within us. Human emancipation—our becoming free—depends upon expanding the zone of non-duality in our lives; this comes down to becoming aware of all the elements that currently constitute our captivity and throwing off all those elements which are inconsistent with our free, creative, loving natures. “In this process we come to realize that the very world of misery and destitution we have created itself contains and is sustained by the seeds of the society of abundance, peace and fulfillment, in which we are all free to express and fulfill our essential natures”. Bhaskar calls this re-enchanted world the “immanentization of heaven on earth” (Hartwig, 2001,p. 140).
Thus, roughly put from Bhaskar’s point of view, a spiritual point of view, our ignorance of who we really are, our true or essential Self as an infinite and free Source of power, love, joy, creativity, and light connected with all that exists, is an important limitation of and destructive factor in the way we perceive ourselves and others. This ignorance keeps people bonded in fear, powerlessness, and despair and in a state of separation. It discourages people to believe in the infinite potential that lies in every individual and in human kind as a whole. This is a principle that is articulated in yet another very popular “new-spiritual” quote: our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. The quote has become known worldwide as a sentence from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech, but what most people don’t know is that Mandela’s quote is actually written by Marianne Williamson, one of New Spirituality’s main spokespersons in the US. Williamson draws heavily from “a course in miracles”, often referred to as the “New-Age bible”.
In the philosophy of Meta-Reality the rediscovery of ourselves as transcendent Beings is the first step in the reversal of this situation. This is because our essential self is oriented to being and sharing, not having—in opposition to western consumerism—and is disposed to engage in “spontaneous right action”. As such, peace turns out to be a (dialectically) universal fulfillment. The idea of “right” or “ethical” action as a result of spiritual development can also be found in average New-Age literature, such as the “Conversations with God”. According to Walsch’s God, the imperatives and “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments are not to be taken as orders on how to get to heaven, with the veiled threat of damnation for disobedience lurking behind, so much as mere descriptions of what a spiritually mature person will do as a mark of their spiritual maturity. (Style, 2002, p. 5).
By promoting a shift in awareness of ourselves and our connectedness with other people and forms of life, new spirituality produces its very own “new generic values”. The ethical implications within spirituality advocate a need for philosophical academic discourse to be critically linked up with new spiritual movements in our western society. I suggest not to disregard the, yes, sometimes consumerist, individualist, narcissist, anti-science/rationality or anti-emancipatory, interest in new spirituality as a naive idealist or pre-modernist quest to be pursued by gullible people. I know that Bhaskar’s work sounds like a new Grand Narrative, but at the same time it is an attempt to theorize ancient spiritual, both western and eastern, philosophies in such a way that they fit these post-modern times. And as such this narrative, that leaves ample room for the transcendent, unspeakable essence of Self and Reality, does much more resonate with the contemporary massive interest in spirituality and the phenomenological value thereof, than postmodern philosophy does. The phenomenon of spiritual experiences needs an ontological perspective in order to be able to think about these experiences closest to the way through which they are understood and valued. Postmodernism doesn’t provide any such a perspective. On the contrary, a postmodern perspective disregards vital aspects of the phenomenological value of spiritual experiences.
So instead of throwing the spiritual pair of glasses away as rose-tinted spectacles, let us take a closer look at the many practices and views in new spirituality, and develop a critical dialogue that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff. In my opinion, a spiritual-metaphysical perspective that distinguishes between the realm of transcendence and immanence provides us with tools that help us avoid and deconstruct the tendency within spiritual and other practices to create their own demi-real by making immanent notions absolute. At the same time, a spiritual metaphysics leaves intact the radical potential of spirituality that is relativized and enfeebled if spirituality is perceived only through a postmodern pair of glasses.
By trusting and committing to a reality in which the world of separation we usually perceive is ultimately sustained by and exists only in virtue of the free, loving, creative, and intelligent energy and activity of non-dual states of our being, we stand the best chance of liberating our innate potential to radically transform the world we now live in. That is at the very least what a spiritual-metaphysical perspective suggests. We stand the best chance because our innate connection to one another transcends the conflicts of interest that are produced by our dualistic perception of others and ourselves. Our presumed intrinsic connectedness transcends attitudes of competition and inequality and sustains calls for equal justice, the principle of sharing, and activities of global cooperation. Moreover, the new spiritual perspective offers a vision, a rough blueprint of an aspired future that generates hope and belief, which will be individually and collectively empowering. The expectation of a time in which our current ways of thinking, living, relating and expressing our inner selves will be fundamentally altered, and in which there will be a total transformation of every aspect of our lives: political, economic, religious, social, scientific, educational and personal, is very much alive in spirituality. Above all, this expectation stems from a spiritual way of experiencing and perceiving the world as an order in which not every possible experience is equal to the other. In spirituality the realm of oppositions is transcended by hierarchically putting the power of life above death, love above hate, possibility above impossibility, and that which we share above that which divides us.
There are some good examples in which spirituality based on a spiritual metaphysics is being strongly politicized; for instance, through the use of wisdom traditions from all over the world (Lerner, 2002; McLaughlin and Davidson, 1994), or against the background of fairly complex esoteric thought and cosmology (Creme, 2002). Such work shows that a psychological pre-occupation with the individual self that seems to dominate a lot of new spiritual practices can turn out to be spiritually empowering and grow towards a more self-less oriented external, i.e., political and social, commitment. According to Bhaskar, our becoming aware of “who we really are” instigates this process of transformation and affirms the dawning realization that “enlightenment” is here and now, in every moment, in every breath. “The kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it,” says the Gospel of Thomas. When a significant number of people—a critical mass—start seeing this, Bhaskar’s Meta-Reality might become a reality all people will experience. Then “the vision opens up of a balanced world and other society in which the free development and flourishing of each unique human being is understood to be the condition, as it is also the consequence, of the free development and the flourishing of all”: An immanent heaven on earth.
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1 With this I don’t mean that—due to postmodernism—spirituality is not being represented in higher education; on the contrary, by challenging and undermining the positivistic, empirical truth, new ways of thinking like spirituality “have re-emerged as an issue of importance and acceptance on college campuses, in college classrooms, and on academic research agendas. Faculty and staff now have more freedom to explore the role of such values as faith, hope, and love in the structure and persistence of communities, in the construction of knowledge, in the understanding of truth, and in developmental processes and meaning-making of students” (Love, 2000).
2 New Age spirituality is usually considered to have deep roots in our western culture, in particular the western esoteric tradition, but is also influenced by eastern philosophy, western science and psychology (Hanegraaff, 1996). From the perspective of western esotericism, spirituality is historically aligned with religion but should not be confused with it. Rather, spirituality can be characterized as trans-religious. Religions are compared to a ladder, an instrument with which one can achieve a certain goal, the rooftop. But once one has reached the rooftop the ladder is no longer needed, it has become irrelevant. The view from the rooftop shows different ladders, different religions all leading to the same goal. The spiritual view of religions is that they all stem from the same spiritual source; they are expressions of the same. The spirituality I am speaking of in this paper is based on a commonality of mystical experiences of all religions worldwide. Of course this does not imply that more specific aspects of religions such as attitudes, practices, beliefs, deities, etc. should be regarded as the same or interchangeable.
3 According to Huxley, it was Leibnitz who coined the phrase philosophia perennis. The metaphysics it refers to is, however, immemorial and universal.
4 See, for instance, Ken Wilber. Integral Psychology : Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Shambhala: 2000
5 This quote is usually attributed to the 20th century French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
6 Between 1985 and 1989 the number of so-called “new age” bookstores in the United States doubled. In the period of 1993-1997 the supply of New Age books on the British market grew 75% in four years time (Heelas, 1996, p. 114; 2002, p. 364). Popularization and commercialization of New Age philosophy since the nineties grew especially through radio, television and the Internet. According to Aupers (2004), internationally speaking, Oprah Winfrey’s talk show has played a big part in the spreading of these spiritual views. Between 1985 and 1989 the number of so-called “new age” bookstores in the United States doubled. In the period of 1993-1997 the supply of New Age books on the British market grew 75% in four years time (Heelas, 1996, p. 114; 2002, p. 364). Popularization and commercialization of New Age philosophy since the nineties grew especially through radio, television and the Internet. According to Aupers (2004), internationally speaking, Oprah Winfrey’s talk show has played a big part in the spreading of these spiritual views.
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