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Wilber and Watershed: Criteria for Religious Legitimacy and Authenticity
By Arthur Paul Patterson

MOST OF MY adult life I have asked, "How can I know this is true?" concerning whom or what I put my trust in. It's a broad, maybe naive, question, applicable to any discipline from science to history, up through hard-to-fathom philosophical doubts and down to our need for assurance in our friendships and ethics. Ken Wilber's integral philosophy spans every conceivable discipline but the way he applies his own unique "testing" method to spirituality is particularly important to me.

I am a part of a group, formerly a part of a mainline denomination that has evolved into what some scholars call a "New Religious Movement". Leaving behind "orthodoxy" has its own particular hurdles to spiritual authenticity and legitimacy. Since our group, called Watershed, seeks to provide a broad-based education in personal formation, it is essential that we ask why we should be considered spiritually credible to those participating in our courses and tutorials.

Many years ago, I asked my question from a stance that assumed truth was absolute and verifiable. I believed, at that time, that Christian Scriptures revealed the Creator's intention for spirituality in direct, unambiguous terms. Several courses in comparative religion, dialogue with sincere believers and nonbelievers in other faiths, and a growing suspicion about the limits of language to impart truth has changed all that for me. The question "How can I know this is true?" shifted from arguing about who was right to the important question concerning how to determine a good spiritual fit for individuals. Jettisoning the absolute truth question, while allowing me to adopt a much-needed humility, did not answer my need for spiritual evaluation. "Which traditions, practices, and contexts meet my particular needs?" and "Are there any principles upon which to guide others toward their own authentic spirituality?" became my new questions.

Spiritual Choices Observing my own and others' spiritual choice making has led me to the view that the truth question needs to be addressed in many different cadences and tones. What is legitimate and authentic for one person is bogus to another. Exploring the dynamics of why this is so has been a challenge. I have been surprised by the reality that what is harmful for one person engenders health in another. On the other hand, there are certain situations where spirituality seems to shrivel and corrode more easily than others. What makes for a good fit between an individual and the spiritual context they place themselves in? Are there any situations that are dangerous spiritually for all people? Religion can equally harm or heal.

Chapter eight of Ken Wilber's book Eye to Eye: The Quest for a New Paradigm provides helpful criteria to evaluate an individual's fit within a spiritual group or practice and a general guide for determining toxic spiritual situations. Rather than applying this paradigm to the extreme groups that are clearly either harmful or helpful, I want to test my own experience in light of Wilber's suggestions.

"'How can I know this is true?' shifted from arguing about who was right to the important question concerning how to determine a good spiritual fit for individuals."Using a "developmental structuralist" approach, Wilber asks the seeker to correlate their stage of development with the claims for legitimacy that the group makes. Legitimacy claims relate to the way that the group justifies how well it meets the felt needs of its participants. It is thoroughly legitimate to be part of a group that touches on your pressing concerns. The concerns you have will be related to whatever stage of development you are in at this particular time. Wilber speaks of the ability of the group to translate its spirituality in a meaningful manner to its adherents. There are many schemes that attempt to chalk out what these stage appropriate concerns will be. Wilber's scheme attempts to be integrative of both the psychological and perennial traditions.

All schemes can degenerate to labeling but with the proper approach to typology - a type that more or less applies - we can determine if the group we are part of relates to us. Simplified, Wilber understands groups as addressing concerns in pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational ways. Legitimacy, that is, the way spirituality translates in these modes of consciousness, is distinctly different in each stage.

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