Tuesday, 19 June 2018

What Is Religion?
 An Integral Approach, Part 1
  "The future of religion is extinction."  anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace

After over 50 years of religious non-extinction, Wallace’s forecast is beginning to look like the end-times predictions of the Apocalypse.  Wallace was undoubtedly thinking of religion in terms of what he was familiar with, namely the supernaturalistic belief systems found in nearly all traditional cultures.  Today, a more sophisticated definition of ‘religion’ would probably warn him away from any such forecast. 
What has been extinguished is the domination of cultures by pre-modern faith systems associated with the familiar names Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Modern science and philosophy have given rise to a strong secular movement in all the world’s advanced societies, along with a backlash against it in the form of ‘culture wars,’ while violent sectarian wars continue to repeat history.  Clearly religion is not going down for the count anytime soon—actually, I would argue, not ever, for religion properly understood is the human response to our ultimate concerns, and those are inseparable from human life itself.
Religious Studies in the West
Religious studies is a young academic discipline, first added to the curricula of European universities in the late 19th century.  As the academic study of world religions progressed into the late 20th century, it became increasingly clear that the original names western scholars had used for distinguishing religions from one another - Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, etc., were no longer adequate for understanding the rich complexity of religious expressions in the various cultures of the world.  Hinduism, for example, is no longer thought to be a single religion but rather a family of religious types that differ from one another in certain important ways; e.g. polytheism and monotheism faith systems, among others, co-exist in the sprawling Hindu religious landscape.  The same is true of Christianity, Buddhism, and all the other major traditions.  Clearly a different way of thinking about religious phenomena was called for.  This series is an inquiry into whether there is a ‘best way’ to think about the world’s religions or whether we must settle for a variety of approaches that cannot be reconciled with one another.
In the first two centuries of religious studies, we can distinguish traditional, modern, and postmodern approaches to investigations of religious systems.  Traditionalists reflect a bias in favor of their own religious perspective, and so they look for features of their own religion - Christianity, for example - that might be present in other traditions.  (The term 'religion' itself is a Western creation referring originally (c. 1200 CE) to the binding of Christian monks to God through a set of solemn vows.)  ‘Religion = Christianity’ is the traditional attitude.  Similar sectarian biases are found in the other major traditions.  Modernist scholars take an objective point of view with the aim of making the study of religion scientific.  While vastly increasing our knowledge of the world’s religions, the scientific approach too often tends to reduce religion to psychological, historical, cultural, or even physical factors (neuroscience).  ‘Religion is a psychological illusion’ is one such view.  Less visible but gaining in influence over the last few decades is a postmodern reaction to the narrowness and intolerance of traditionalist and modernist interpretations of the world's religions.  A postmodern perspective is grounded in an empathic and sensitive response to the lives of others despite their profound differences from one's own.  As Professor Frederick Streng writes:
In a quite different kind of response to religious pluralism, a person recognizes that other human beings are as moral, devout, intelligent and religiously sensitive as oneself.  Despite different religious views, other people are equally able to find happiness and peace and to perceive profound meaning in life.  ….. Why not participate in the joys and freedom witnessed to by a different religious option?
Religion and Postmodernism
Postmodern scholars of religion, dissatisfied with traditional and modernist definitions, have searched for a more inclusive,  value-neutral approach.  In his course Cultural Literacy for Religion, Prof. Mark Berkson considers three different types of definitions used today by scholars of religion.  First, a substantive definition identifies a single feature as the essence of religion and uses that to distinguish religious phenomena from non-religious.  One such substantive definition is:  religion is belief in supernatural beings and ritual practices aimed at connecting people with those beings.  Another type of definition is functional.  This approach sees religions as social systems providing answers and meanings to communities of people who are bound together by a common set of beliefs and practices.
All such definitions seem too narrow to postmodernist scholars.  Berkson prefers what he calls a "family resemblance" type of definition in which a list or cluster of characteristics commonly associated with religion are used to compare the various traditions.  Prof. Ninian Smart's widely cited "Seven Dimensions of Religion" is an example of this type:
The Seven Dimensions of Religion
Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public)
Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human's place in it.
Experiential and emotional: private, individual experiences of dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss
Social and Institutional: belief system and attitudes shared and practiced by a group; rules for identifying community membership and participation
Ethical and legal: rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from a supernatural realm)
Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form
Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.
The Smart/Berkson approach looks promising.  Rather than defining religion in terms of a single, narrow common feature or function, we are invited to consult a checklist of characteristics that the best known traditions exhibit and say that any phenomenon that has those characteristics is a religion.  The checklist approach includes substantive and functional aspects, and its flexibility prevents it from being either too narrow or too broad.  However, there is a problem if the claim is made that all seven dimensions are necessary conditions for some activity to be called religious.   Zen Buddhism, for example, has no system of “religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.”  A solitary yogin meditating in a cave may have no use for ritual, doctrine, organization, or symbolic objects.  Confucianism does not offer much in the way of narrative or myth.  And yet these are all commonly recognized as religions.

It appears that some important religions will have some but not all of the characteristics in the list.  How many are required?  Which of the seven are the most important?  What if the list is inaccurate? - another system posits twelve defining characteristics.  The ‘family resemblance’ approach has a lot of appeal but is ultimately unsatisfying.  It lacks the simplicity and elegance we would like to have for a proper theory of religion.  My philosophical instinct is to look for a higher level definition that will unify the various lists by subsuming them under a single, concise conception of the fundamental nature of religious life.

Sometimes in cases like this it helps to reformulate the question.  Taking a hint from functionalism, let us ask, What is religion for?  Religion is not something that happens to people; it is something they do.  It's a purposeful activity.  Is there a common purpose that religious people share, while the specific forms of their pursuit of that purpose may be many and varied?  Many years ago I stumbled upon an answer to this question that has served me well ever since.  It was proposed by a widely admired professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, Dr. Frederick J. Streng.  In his book Understanding Religious Life, Streng offered the following definition:
“Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation.”
This definition emerged from an attempt to understand religion primarily 'from within,' from the standpoint of the individual believer, disciple, or devotee, rather than from the third-person perspective of social science.  This was the approach taken by a group of scholars, led by Dr. Streng, who came to some prominence in the late 1970's and 80's with a series of books under the general title, The Religious Life of Man.  The theoretical explication and application of their definition I will refer to as Ultimate Transformation Theory (UTT).
The UTT scholars discovered three universal characteristics among people living what they consider to be religious lives: 
1. Religion is a way of life organized around a person’s ultimate concerns.
2. All religions challenge individuals to transform their lives toward a resolution of those concerns.
3. Every religion offers specific means for achieving an ultimate transformation.
These elements are captured in their definition "Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation."  Now definitions in philosophy, science, and all other fields are meant to do work for us, not merely to languish passively between the covers of dictionaries. Let's see how “Religion is a means toward ultimate transformationhas been put to work to help consolidate our understanding of the bewildering variety of religious expressions in the world.  That will put us in a position to inquire as to whether the project requires updating in light of new facts and insights.
My central thesis is that, following UT theory, whatever surface differences may be discerned among the world’s religious traditions, the single deep, essential, common element in each is a program giving  individuals the means of transforming their lives toward resolving their ultimate concerns.  In the absence of this core feature, no way of life can be called religious.  Given that assumption, along with the claim that a postmodern perspective is the fairest, least biased approach available, our task now is to see how our definition might provide the best available orientation for investigating the phenomenon of religious life.

Ways of Being Religious
In their researches, the UTT scholars discovered eight significant "Ways of Being Religious": four traditional-transcendental and four contemporary-secular.  In their book of collected writings, Ways of Being Religious, the eight types are displayed in a chart (Figure 1 below) showing  how each one interprets four basic elements of any religious process: 1) the Problem; 2) the Answer; 3) the Means as Appropriated Individually, and 4) the Means as Appropriated Socially.  The underlying premise of the system is that religion is a response to one or more perceived fundamental problems confronting humans, such as ignorance or fear of death.  An individual's response to the problem would include an idea of what the answer might be, that is, the nature of the personal transformation that would solve the problem, and the means or methods to be undertaken in order to achieve an ultimate transformation. 
As I have noted, this approach to understanding religion is quite different from the rejectionist and reductionist tendencies found in traditional and modern systems. UT theorists take a postmodern perspective called religious pluralism, in which the many varieties of religious life are regarded as "equally active in the world," with none enjoying a privileged position as superior in some way to any other.  This view is reflected in the horizontal arrangement of the eight "ways of being religious" on the charts in Figures 1, 2, and 3 below.  They appear there as options open for anyone's appropriation or appreciation, depending on their underlying worldview or perhaps on their personality. 
UT theory offers a refreshing break from the sectarian and reductionistic definitions of the past.  It appeals to progressive thinkers who are sensitive to the challenges posed by our postmodern, multicultural, globally connected world.  They are disturbed by the culture wars (and sometimes real wars) fought among religions and between religious believers and secularists.  These philosophers - postmodern pluralists - are opposed to the absolutism and exclusivity of traditional faiths, but also to the equally absolutist tendencies of modernists who dismiss all religions in favour of a science-based materialism.  Pluralists embrace a relativistic epistemology in which all so-called ‘truth’ is seen as historical, contextual, and contingent.  Privileging any point of view above others is frowned upon.  Perspectives are innumerable.  Let a thousand worldviews flourish.  Mutual understanding,  tolerance, and cooperation are what we need in these dangerous times, not culture wars.  
By delivering the simplicity and elegance of a proper theoretical definition, the UTT definition avoids the messiness of the checklist approach.  Possessing a good working definition, however, is only a beginning.  The task of corralling the vast array of religious expressions that flourish in today’s world is by no means easy.  The UT scholars have pointed us in a new and promising direction, but, not surprisingly for pioneers, they produced less than perfect results in the full elaboration of their theory.  Despite its postmodern appeal, the UT theory of religious types has some important weaknesses. The two most significant are first, a failure to distinguish between states and structures of religious consciousness and, second, to miss the developmental spectrum of stages implicit in their list of “Eight Ways of Being Religious.”
To the first of these, it is not clear that the first religious type charted in Figure 2 is really a way of living a religious life.  Notice the striking difference between "Personal Experience of the Holy" and the other seven types.  Each of those seven can easily be understood as a genuine way of life, that is, a program of religious activities that can be enacted over and over - every day even - throughout a person's life.* By contrast, "Personal Experience of the Holy" refers to dramatic, unpredictable, short-lived, unrepeatable, and rare eruptions of spiritual energy or emotion that cannot be harnessed into an ongoing spiritual practice in the same way as daily prayer or meditation. 
Such experiences are states of consciousness, not stable structures or repeatable practices. It is true, as UT theory stresses, that an experience of the Divine mysterium tremendum often results in a dramatic change in a person’s life going forward: from sensuous indulgence to moderation; from selfishness to generous service, etc., but the  means employed in daily living after the transforming experience are independent of the experience itself which, after a time, becomes a distant memory.  The new life of the ’born again’ person becomes a way of being religious that is distinct from having a vision of Krishna or receiving a revelation from Allah, even though the new way of life obviously originated with the Divine Encounter.  For example, the vision experienced by St. Paul led him to become “apostle to the gentiles” and the founder of the Christian Church.  Those activities are properly classified in the UTT scheme as “Creation of Community Through Myth and Ritual.” After his revelation experience, Mohammed founded Islam which promotes “Daily Living That Expresses Cosmic Law.” 
If these examples are typical, then it appears the lives that are changed by one or more “Personal Experiences of the Holy” usually morph into the “Community Through Myth and Ritual” type or the “Daily Conformity with Cosmic Law,” or perhaps even “Spiritual Freedom Through Discipline,” whichever is the default social expression of religiosity in the given culture.  Those three and the rest of the types identified in UTT, (with the possible exception of “Creation of the Full Life Through Sensuous Experiences,”)* can be called structures (or stages, as we will see), because, unlike state experiences, they are relatively permanent or stable, often over a lifetime.  For example, a person born into a religious community of the myth and ritual type, e.g. Roman Catholicism, might remain in that faith for his or her entire life.
The second problem is that religious pluralism suffers from the absence of any recognition of religious or spiritual development in humans.  Religious development?  The notion is not as strange as it may first appear.  We are all familiar with the observable development of children through stages - from infancy to early childhood to adolescence to adulthood, but not until recently have researchers thought to expand inquiry into development across cultural boundaries.
* Sensuous experiences are also states of consciousness, not structures, but they are repeatable, so I have treated the eighth type in the UTT scheme below as a stage/ structure (see “Creating the Full Life Through Sensuous Experiences,” Stage 1 in Figure 4 below.)  

Figure 1 (detailed more legibly in Figures 2 and 3)
In the last hundred years or so, the application of social-scientific methods to the study of human development have greatly expanded our understanding of how and in what ways humans grow and mature over a lifetime.  Studies of biological and cognitive development, for example, have been with us for a long time, but in the last 50 years many more "multiple intelligences" or lines of consciousness development have been discovered and thoroughly researched: aesthetic, emotional, moral, interpersonal, and many others.  In his book Integral Psychology, philosopher Ken Wilber researched and correlated over 100 developmental models. 

What does ‘development’ mean in our context?  In Part 2 of this series, I will explore this question and then discuss how religious development theory requires us to make an important shift in our understanding of religion in general.

Figure 2

Figure 3

[Figures 2 and 3 are adapted from the chart (Figure 1 above) in F. Streng, et al,,                                Ways of Being Religious: a New Approach to Religion (1985).]

Figure 4
What Is Religion?
 An Integral Approach, Part 2
Religion as a Universal Developmental Process
Most people are aware that humans develop through various stages from infancy to early childhood to adolescence, to adulthood.  We commonly refer to this process as “growing up,” which suggests a hierarchy of stages or levels from lower to higher, through which individuals normally become more physically mature, more knowledgeable, more competent, more sociable, more responsible, and so on, as they move over time from lower to higher stages of development.  The chart below illustrates a simple 4-stage process of growth in humans:
(Different schemes with more or fewer stages are possible.)
Developmental psychologists and philosophers have discovered the pattern that governs the transition from one stage to the next.  They call it “transcend- and-include,” which means that in a person’s transformation from a lower stage to a higher, certain characteristics that are no longer functional fall away to be replaced (transcended) by more functional ones. However, the earlier stage is not entirely extinguished or sloughed off - fundamental elements of each stage are incorporated or included in the next higher stage, while new characteristics appear that replace or transcend those elements.  For example, language ability appears early in a child’s life in the form of baby talk.  As the child becomes socialized, she drops the infantile language that is no longer adequate and learns more grammatical ways of speaking.  But the basic capacity for language that she acquired in early childhood is retained and carried forward all the way to adulthood with the potential for the individual at higher stages to learn and employ deeper features of language, such as grammar, rhetoric, and linguistics, which cannot be mastered by children.  Thus, the lower stages of language development are transcended but also partially included in the progression to higher stages.
The same pattern is discernible in religious development.  For example, in the transition from magical to mythic consciousness (Figure 1), a child no longer believes she causes the clouds to follow her on her walks or make the world disappear by hiding her head under a pillow.  She has learned to differentiate herself from nature and from other people.  No longer able to believe in her own omnipotent powers, she is open accepting the story of divine intervention in the world taught by her mythic culture, e.g. orthodox Judaism or Christianity.  Now she has learned that God controls things, not her puny self as previously imagined.  So the magic has receded from the child’s worldview,* but her self-consciousness (growing now) and the need for a Governing Power in her life is retained in the new mythic perspective of her faith community.

Returning to the bigger picture of religious development, let us look more closely at  the religious or spiritual intelligence line.  The premise of research into this phenomenon shares the view of UTT (Ultimate Transformation Theory, described in Part 1 of this essay) that from the earliest appearance of self-consciousness, humans have ultimate concerns about their survival, health, safety, social belonging, self-esteem, and the inevitability of death.  However, it seems clear that an individual’s ultimate concerns change during the process of normal growing up, which means their religious or spiritual development will proceed from infancy to adulthood in stages or levels of increasing depth and sophistication.  A three-year-old child’s ultimate concerns and means of resolving them are different from those of a Muslim high school student and those again are different from those of a 30-year-old practitioner of Zen Buddhism.  The UT model does not include an account of those differences, probably because the importance of development in religiosity was not well understood in the 1970’s and 80’s.  The task of exploring that issue has been taken up in recent decades by scholars specializing in cross-cultural investigation of religious/spiritual development.

*Receded but not entirely vanished from the believer’s life.  Magical thinking remains as an unconscious perspective that is still available to the imagination.   That is why a rational adult can still enjoy movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

Stages of Religious Development

Despite differences among researchers, there is widespread agreement on six to eight major stages or levels of religious development in individuals and culture from the earliest appearance of self-consciousness to the highest transpersonal levels of enlightenment.  Figure 1 below displays one such model, adapted from the work of James Fowler who investigated ‘Stages of Faith’ (religion, spirituality) as a distinct line of development in humans.  Fowler’s stages correlate closely with the developmental models of other researchers such as Jean Gebser, Clare Graves, and others, all of which have been correlated by Ken Wilber and mapped in a comprehensive system called Integral Theory.  Figure 2  shows how Fowler’s stages correlate with the color spectrum used by Integral Theory to represent the levels/stages of any developmental model.
Obviously Fowler’s vertical classification of religions differs from the horizontal one used by the UT theorists.  Are the two systems compatible?  Yes.  First of all, the UT definition of ‘religion’ as a means toward an ultimate transformation works for both approaches (or any other, as I have argued).  Secondly, as you can see in      Figure 2, the eight ‘Ways of Being Religious’ in UT theory can be mapped alongside Fowler’s integral spectrum, revealing possible developmental relationships among UTT's "Non-traditional Ways of Being Religious."  My arrangement - vertical and hierarchical from lower to higher - is open to challenge, of course, but some sort of vertical representation is required if the UT scheme is to meet the challenge of 21st century developmentalism.  Postmodernists tend to hate hierarchies, but it is difficult to see how the massive evidence for development theories can be ignored. 
Can the same stages of development be identified in the major traditional religions?  The evidence that they can is strong, first, because the spiritual stages in Fowler's spectrum are simply the distinct line versions of the basic stages of consciousness that are common to all humans (Figure 1).  Every human is born at archaic, grows into magic, then mythic, and so forth.  In his book Evolution’s Ally, Dustin Diperna marshals evidence to show that all the major traditions contain at least 5 levels of religious development.  For example, there are magic versions of Christianity, mythic versions, rational versions, and so on. The same holds true for Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.  Figure 3  displays Diperna’s integral spectrum for Christianity along with prominent contemporary exemplars. 
Figure 1

Figure 2

Spectrum of Development
in Christianity 

             Figure 3

                 (from D. Diperna, Evolution's Ally)

The topic of this essay is of more than academic interest.  Because religion is about people’s ultimate concerns, it has, at least in modern times, occupied considerable space in public discourse.  As indicated earlier, people all over the world line up on one side or another to do battle in what are now called “culture wars.”  Like real wars, wars of words among religious antagonists are destructive, but unlike real wars they are endless.  Unless, that is, some way can be found to honor all sides in some kind of a peace treaty.  Recent efforts to achieve this - the Christian ecumenical movement and the Dalai Lama’s religious “secularism,” for example - have not been notably successful.  Nor have the well-intentioned postmodern approaches that flatten the religious landscape, ignoring crucial differences among faith systems in favour of a buffet of equal “options.” 
Such efforts will continue to be unsuccessful if ‘religion’ remains poorly defined from the outset.  In his book A Sociable God, Ken Wilber carefully distinguishes nine different  meanings in common use today.  He rightly asserts that all are legitimate but takes scholars to task for not carefully specifying what meaning they have in mind in a given context.  Confusion is too often the result.  I have taken Wilber a step further, arguing in this essay that, when talking about religion in general, it would be ideal to use a  definition that captures the universal essence of all religious expressions and that just such a definition is available.

Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation takes religion seriously in its own terms and locates the center of its expression where it fundamentally resides: in the mind and heart of the individual living a religious life.  There can be little doubt that everyone has ultimate concerns. Life imposes them on us and virtually forces us to deal with them, to seek some way or ways to alleviate the uncertainty and anxieties that attend our awareness of them.  With a definition that captures ultimate concern as our universal point of departure, we are positioned to distinguish the various types of religious commitment, not on the basis of their behavioral, cultural, or institutional expression - important to be sure, but secondary to the concerns of the individual - but focused laser-like on each person’s conception of an ultimate transformation and how it might be achieved. 
The UTT definition provides us with a powerful tool for separating the essential elements of a religion from its culturally determined surface features.  Ancient Stoicism, for example, names Zeus as the creator of the world, but, unlike The Lord in Judaism, Zeus does not demand worship as a condition of salvation.  Stoics aim at an ultimate transformation in this life through the cultivation of reason and virtue.  Thus our definition enables us to see beneath the surface similarity of theistic belief to the deeper difference of the means of transformation offered in the two religious traditions.  Integral Theory deepens our understanding by revealing the vertical, developmental relationship between the two.  Whereas orthodox Judaism is ethnocentrically rooted in mythological faith and ritual practice, stoicism is grounded in worldcentric principles of reality and morals discoverable by reason.

Finally, incorporating the UTT definition into Integral Theory provides the basis for a much-needed postmodern understanding of all religious phenomena as legitimate in their own right as enactments of various stages of development through which all humans must pass.  UT scholars have illustrated with their “Eight Ways of Being Religious” that broad critiques of religious belief systems are superficial, missing the deep interest of believers in personal transformation. As I have argued, their system needs updating with a distinction between states and stages of consciousness and recognition of a hierarchy of religious stages in human evolution.  Those features are fully developed in contemporary Integral Theory, which provides us with the most comprehensive framework available today for understanding the religions of the world.

In a nutshell, then, I have argued that religion is best thought of as a deep feature of the evolution of consciousness in which an individual at each of several stages of 'growing up' perceives life to be profoundly unsatisfactory in some ways and seeks a transformation of those ultimate concerns by means appropriate to one's stage of development.  From instinctual to magical to mythic to rational and higher, the unfolding of our lives reveals ever greater challenges and suggests a path toward meeting them.  "Put more vividly, the claim [of religion] is that one is threatened by illusion but that he can move toward truth; by death but that he can move toward life; by chaos, but that he can move toward meaning; by self-destruction but that he can move toward an abundant life."  (F. Streng, Ways of Being Religious)
  For more on Integral Theory, see Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything (2000) and The Religion  of Tomorrow (2017).  For a detailed integral study of the world's religious traditions, see Dustin Diperna, Evolution’s Ally (2016).  Ways of Being Religious, by Frederick Streng, et al. is unfortunately out of print.