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
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.
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.