One of the things I’m wrestling with at the moment is hierarchy in spirituality, and the idea of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’.
I’m writing a book that looks at evolutionary spirituality, and its tendency to elitism and authoritarianism. Many leading figures in the New Age of the 1880s to 1930s preached the coming of an evolved spiritual elite which, they sometimes added, deserved to dominate and control the rest of humanity.
This is obviously pretty noxious, and led to some bad outcomes, from abusive cults, to totalitarian politics like the Nazi party.
Right now, western society is in a historical moment of trying to address the injustices and oppressions in western society, by exposing patriarchy or white supremacy — including in spirituality.
But there is a risk in this reaction as well. It can end up in a constant pulling down of ideological statues and exposure of the sins of the past, an endless deconstruction and decolonisation of mainstream traditions, and a promotion of the marginalized, oppressed and deviant.
Apart from the loss of aspiration towards any sort of universalism, there’s also the loss of the idea of ‘higher’ in spirituality, or any other human endeavour, because hierarchy can be seen as elitist and authoritarian. The only sort of ‘higher’ allowed is higher in diversity.
What is the right balance between a horizontal emphasis on inclusivity, fairness, equality and diversity, and a vertical aspiration to excellence, progress and spiritual development?
Ken Wilber and the map of spirituality
As I grapple with this, I have been reflecting on the life and work of Ken Wilber. I haven’t written about him before, but he’s a figure that looms large in spirituality, especially in its ‘bookish / nerdy / transpersonal psychology’ wing.
Ever since he burst onto the scene aged 23 with his first book, Spectrum of Consciousness, Wilber has been one of the principle map-builders within the world of spirituality — appropriately enough, as he is the descendant of Meriwether Lewis, who first mapped the American North-West.
Wilber is an awesome synthesist and theorist, awesome in the sense of ‘inducing awe and a reluctance to approach’, because…