21 Mar A Science of Spirit
Institutional religion is a mess these days. Respectable mainstream churches no longer fire the imagination or inspire people to deepen their encounter with the Holy. Fundamentalist churches promise the moon and the stars, but, in reality, lock people into silos of closely guarded communities which are suspicious of science, culture, ideas, and people who are not also in their fearful circle. Many see religion in general and institutional expressions of it in particular as an unfortunate, primitive habit of our ancestors which has run its course. There comes a time when our children need to retire their security blanket. One day, Linus grows up. Many see religion in this way.
I must confess that I had a security blanket, to which I clung until it unraveled into a mess of strings and fibers. As a teenager, I had an experience of God, for which I still have no adequate understanding forty-five years later. Was religious experience a “transition object” which my brittle psyche needed to make the passage from adolescence toward adulthood? God knows, that my relationship with religion and church, like every other relationship I have ever had, has been a mixed bag. I am still struggling toward maturity and authenticity, and it is dawning on me that I may never get there. Yet, there is something in me that knows that what I experienced as a teenager and continue to experience, in all of my vulnerable humanity, is more than a projection of my psyche.
In recent years, my vision for ministry in church has moved from an institutional emphasis to a contemplative emphasis. Currents of Christian contemplative practice and study, and wisdom from other sources are springing up throughout the cultural landscape. I am growing in my capacity to listen more to an inner authority and less to external judgments.
A few weeks ago, I was drawn to order a copy of Jean Gebser’s, The Ever-Present Origin. I had heard of him in the writings of integral philosopher, Ken Wilber, and a social media post led me to make the purchase. Gebser’s concern is with the archeology of human consciousness and its potential for ongoing mutation toward greater intensity and integration, not with religion per se. But he is clear that the next mutation will be spiritual. Just as previous eras of human consciousness exhausted themselves and mutated into new structures with greater dimensionality, Gebser describes how our current era is failing and structures of the new are emerging.
All of our existing institutions are expressions of the mental-rational structure which is giving way to what Gebser calls aperspectival or integral. Without a depth of awareness which enables us to see all of the structures of our consciousness, we will understand the end of current institutions, as the end. The era of religion is over, some conclude. God is dead. In truth, new institutional forms will arise as expressions of the new mutation of human consciousness. This will be true for religion, as well as for all other human institutions and endeavors.
Gebser sees the new structure of consciousness as able to access previous, present and future structures consciously and appropriately as each moment requires. All previous structures operate within us, but most of the time without our awareness. Without awareness, we end up being used by the structures, frequently in harmful ways. In the next leap of consciousness, time will not be experienced primarily as a quantity which we measure and unwittingly serve. “Time is money,” we confess. “We never have enough time,” we complain. Time will be experienced as a quality of intensified awareness and presence.
What are these mutations in consciousness which have irrupted into the human experience? To take a tour of this story with Gebser is truly an awe-inducing exercise. I found myself wondering about my mysterious and nonrational religious experiences in adolescence and throughout my life. Gebser’s descriptions helped me to see and appreciate the scope and the grandeur of the story in which we all share. The great mystics, I believe, are attempting to talk about the same reality, using different language and methodology. My biggest takeaway from reading Gebser is a deeper clarity about my own role in this great human drama and its cosmic dimensions. The intensity of these peak religious experiences, perhaps, are openings into the consciousness structures of the next chapter in the human story—one of much greater freedom, wholeness, and intensity of awareness and presence.
As strange as it might seem, given the role of the church in the past as a conserver of worldviews and power structures, I think that religious institutions like the church can play a significant role in helping people pay attention to their own inner lives and modes of awareness, and to attune us to the larger movements of these subtle, but foundational realms of the human experience. The church may no longer be the Big Guy in town, but it may be especially equipped to support people in the inner work which our next leap of consciousness requires. Isn’t this sense of serving a larger mystery in an environment of compassion and hope a true vocation for institutions like the church?