LTRP Note: In view of the fact that Rob Bell’s Nooma films and his book, Velvet Elvis, are still popular within evangelical circles, this article by Bob DeWaay, on Bell’s “Mindblowing”* model New Ager Ken Wilber, should be taken seriously.
by Bob DeWaay
author of The Emergent Church
In rejecting a “downward spiral” (that history is heading toward God’s judgment), emergent/postmodern theology holds to an upward spiral theory called spiral dynamics and a helical theory of time:
First, it [a helical structure] has a spiral form. The motion of time, the motion of life, is not linear, but spiral. Mate a line with a circle, connect linear to nonlinear, connect analytic to associative powers of the brain, connect past to future—and you end up with a spiral. In spiral dynamics, each level of the past remains curled up inside us (like nested Russian dolls) as we move up to next-level challenges. A spiraling faith is one of timelessness within time, one in which the past is embedded in the future.1
These ideas are primarily Wilber’s expressions drawn together from people such as Arthur Koesler and his concept of “holons”, Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, and the much earlier thinking of Hegel himself. This material quickly can become very dense and confusing, but the basic idea behind it is the idea of evolution (and not just biological evolution,2 but a holistic evolution that includes all things). It is supported by a pantheistic worldview (Wilber being a Buddhist).3 If God is part of the process of history, and if all of reality is interconnected, then the process can be expected to be spiraling upward to something better. This worldview is characteristic of neo-paganism in its many expressions.
It is difficult to describe these ideas without leading the reader into confusion, and any such result is unintentional. This philosophy is based on a paradigm involving life, categories, and terminology that may not correspond to anything in the real world. For example, consider the term “holons.” In A is for Abductive, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer discuss it: “Holarchy: The ordering (arche) of holons (whole/parts). The word holon was invented by Arthur Koestler to describe increasing levels of wholeness in the universe. Every whole is a part and every part is a whole. Everything is a holon.”4 This confusing paradigm is one of the key concepts Wilber uses; his philosophy has been adapted by the Emergent Church, and his work is footnoted in their entry.
But scientists did not discover “holons”; Koestler proposed them in his book The Ghost in the Machine as a way of proposing and explaining that man’s brain became confounded in the evolutionary process, and thus caused the evils in society. I am not saying that Wilber’s or the Emergent’s use of the concept is identical to Koestler’s. Koestler thought the best way to fix man’s brain, wired wrongly by evolution, was through drugs. Instead of drugs, the emergent panentheism sees the immanence of God in the process as reason for hope. Wilber’s Buddhist pantheistic “hope” is based on some concept of God, but it is not the God of the Bible. Theirs is a more pagan view.
My intent is to provide a basic overview of Wilber’s ideas by citing both his writings and an interview he granted. His ideas are esoteric, so do not be shocked if they do not make sense to you. But since Wilber is a key source of the concept of the “emergence” underlying the philosophy of the Emergent Church, it is necessary to explain his ideas. We will find his neo-pagan ideas to be shockingly antithetical to Christian theology. Here is an example where he describes “emergence” and evolution according to his idea, the “Great Nest of Being”:
But, according to the traditions, this entire process of evolution or “un-folding” could never occur without a prior process of involution or “in-folding.” Not only can the higher not be explained in terms of the lower, and not only does the higher not actually emerge “out of” the lower, but the reverse of both of those is true, according to the traditions. That is, the lower dimensions or levels are actually sediments or deposits of the higher dimensions, and they find their meaning because of the higher dimensions of which they are a stepped-down or diluted version. This sedimentation process is called “involution” or “emanation.” 5
According to the traditions, before evolution or the unfolding of Spirit can occur, involution or the infolding of Spirit must occur: the higher successively steps down into the lower. Thus, the higher levels appear to emerge “out of” the lower levels during evolution—for example, life appears to emerge out of matter—because, and only because, they were first deposited there by involution. You cannot get the higher out of the lower unless the higher were already there, in potential—sleeping, as it were—waiting to emerge. The “miracle of emergence” is simply Spirit’s creative play in the fields of its own manifestation.6
The “traditions” he refers to are various versions of the “Great Chain of Being.” He includes a chart that shows his conception of how this works in various religions. But take note, as a Buddhist and a pantheist, Wilber’s “infolding of Spirit” is a description of Spirit being lost in the material. Here is Wilber’s description in his own words: “These levels in the Great Nest are all forms of Spirit, but the forms become less and less conscious, less and less aware of their Source and Suchness, less and less alive to their ever-present Ground, even though they are all nevertheless nothing but Spirit-at-play.”7 So all things are “Spirit at play” but have lost awareness of this. Evolution is Spirit manifesting itself in emerging levels of complexity and awareness. The reason evolution makes sense in this scheme is that either God is in the creation (panentheism) or that creation is a manifestation of God (pantheism). In Christian theology, God created the world out of nothing and then rested (Genesis 1). The creation is separate from God.
But if creation is Spirit-at-play as Wilber says, there is reason to think that things can evolve into more complex and better realities. Here is his explanation of the involution process that is subsequently reversed to be evolution:
Spirit “loses” itself, “forgets” itself, takes on a magical façade of manyness (maya) in order to have a grand game of hide-and-seek with itself. Spirit first throws itself outward to create soul, which is a stepped-down and diluted reflection of Spirit; soul then steps down into mind, a paler reflection yet of Spirit’s radiant glory; mind then steps down into life, and life steps down into matter, which is the densest, lowest, least conscious form of Spirit. We might represent this as: Spirit-as-spirit steps down into Spirit-as-soul, which steps down into Spirit-as-mind, which steps down into Spirit-as-body, which steps down into Spirit-as-matter.
These levels in the Great Nest are all forms of Spirit, but the forms become less and less conscious, less and less aware of their Source and Suchness, less and less alive to their ever-present Ground, even though they are all nevertheless nothing but Spirit-at-play.8
So whatever sort of “deity” Spirit is in this scheme of things, either he or “it” as the case may be, it has lost consciousness of its own existence and must regain consciousness. This is where we come in. We are supposed to help the emergence of Kosmic 9 consciousness through meditation. In essence, we help God find himself. I find it interesting that Wilber cites Hegel approvingly: “But the traditionalists were more straightforward about it: ‘God does not remain petrified and dead; the very stones cry out and raise themselves to Spirit,’ as Hegel put it.”10
Wilber says “traditionalists” because though he admires their experiences and ideas, he wants to synthesize them into a better version of the Great Chain of Being that will incorporate more ideas: “It is not so much that the scheme itself is wrong, as that the modern and postmodern world has added several profound insights that need to be added or incorporated if we want a more integral or comprehensive view. This is what is meant by ‘from the Great Chain to postmodernism in three easy steps.’”11 Then Wilber proceeds to point out the shortcomings of pre-modern meta-physics, modern meta-physics, and propose an integration of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern understandings using a quadrant theory he proposes.12
What Wilber proposes is that all evolving exterior things have a corresponding interior aspect which also is evolving. So rather than being “meta-physical” (concerned with things that transcend physics, and therefore would be considered beyond or above physics such as questions of causality, the ultimate nature of being and so forth) he considers them “intra-physical.” In this scheme, every form of reality, including atoms, has a corresponding interior, spiritual reality (as understood by panentheism or pantheism). This is reflected in Wilber’s quadrants. Furthermore, the exterior and interior realities that evolve into higher levels of complexity have a correspondence to social realities, both of individuals and society. Thus the quadrants are “I, we, it, its.” These are for “interior individual, exterior individual, interior collective and exterior collective.” All are evolving in complexity in both interior and exterior aspects, but evolution incorporates everything that went before and does not leave anything behind.
I realize this is complex, but it is necessary to understand because it is the source of much of Emergent leadership’s thinking—such as McLaren’s and Rob Bell’s. I can only demonstrate it by first helping you to understand Wilber. In his pantheistic thinking, all of reality, including the atomic level, is spiritual and has consciousness. Here is his explanation: “But each of those material forms of increasing complexity has, as an interior correlate, a level of increasing consciousness. Thus (following Whitehead): atoms, whose exterior forms are physical entities such as neutrons, protons, and electrons, have an interior of prehension or proto-feelings (proto-awareness). . .”13 Of course, this makes sense to Wilber because of his Buddhist worldview. Fritjof Capra, whose book The Tao of Physics uses quantum physics to support a monistic, Eastern meta-physic, is mentioned by Wilber, who criticizes him for “reducing all realities to one quadrant.” But the idea that everything is spiritual in some sense is also Capra’s idea.
Wilber claims that evolution includes the external and internal, or the matter and consciousness:
Increasing complexity of form (in the UR) is correlated with increasing interior consciousness (in the UL). This was Teilhard de Chardin’s “law of complexity and consciousness”—namely, the more of the former, the more of the latter. As we might put it more precisely, the greater the degree of exterior complexity of material form, the greater the degree of interior consciousness that can be enacted within that form (i.e., correlation of UR and UL).14
The UR and UL designations refer to his quadrant scheme, upper right and upper left. If one keys “evolving consciousness” into Google.com, the Web sites that appear include a veritable who’s who of New Age thinkers, including Wilber.15 Other terms and ideas associated with Wilber exist, but his quadrant map of reality is at the heart of them.
Other terms include spiral dynamics, holarchy, integral dynamics, and integral theory of consciousness.
Wilber has been interviewed frequently, and though he offers his comprehensive philosophy in his books, he claims they are not intended to help with the “advancement of consciousness.” When asked what knowing his philosophy could do for the advancement of consciousness16 he replied,
Not very much, frankly. Each of us still has to find a genuine contemplative practice—maybe yoga, maybe Zen, maybe Shambhala Training, maybe contemplative prayer, or any number or authentic transformative practices. That is what advances consciousness, not my linguistic chitchat and book junk.17
Meditation advances consciousness, he says, even in the absence of understanding his integral theory. No wonder various versions of meditation are popular in Emergent Churches.
Understanding this theory is not for the faint of heart. A further exchange in the interview: “Your own world view is complicated enough. Meditators might just say, ‘Why do I need to have a globalhistorical view at all? Leave me alone to just meditate.’ What would you say to them?” Wilber’s answer: “Just meditate.”18 The interview reveals Wilber’s highest regard for Buddhist mediation, whose goal is to reach emptiness.
At one point, the interview turned to what Wilber termed, “mystical Christianity”. The question posed was why a thousand years of it had not delivered “transcendence.” His response:
Imagine if, the very day Buddha attained his enlightenment, he was taken out and hanged precisely because of his realization. And if any of his followers claimed to have the same realization, they were also hanged. Speaking for myself, I would find this something of a disincentive to practice. But that’s exactly what happened with Jesus of Nazareth. “Why do you stone me?” he asks at one point. “Is it for good deeds?” And the crowd responds, “No, it is because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God.” The individual Atman is not allowed to realize that it is one with Brahman. “I and my Father are One”-among other complicated factors-that realization got this gentleman crucified. The reasons for this are involved, but the fact remains: as soon as any spiritual practitioner began to get too close to the realization that Atman and Brahman are one-that one’s own mind is intrinsically one with primordial Spirit-then frighteningly severe repercussions usually followed.19
Wilber interprets Christ to be an early Buddha type who was crucified for holding Buddhist ideas.
Needless to say, Ken Wilber’s ideas are antithetical to the teachings of the Bible. Why would Christian theologians and teachers look to them for guidance? The answer is that they are interested in “emergence”, and Wilber is a brilliant philosopher whose combination of physical and spiritual evolution points to a better future through meditation. (from chapter 9 of DeWaay’s book, The Emergent Church)
* In the back of Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell tells readers to spend three months studying one of Ken Wilber’s books for a “mindblowing” experience. For more refutation by Bob DeWaay on Rob Bell and the Emerging Church, watch Exposing the Quantum Lie.
3. Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer, A is for Abductive – The Language of the
Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). 143.
4. Ken Wilber actually criticizes biological evolution.
5. Ken Wilber is a pantheist but the Emergent writers who use his material are panentheistic. The difference is that panentheism still maintains a distinction between the creator and creation, believing the creation is infused with God; but that God still has His own identity. Pantheism is
6. Sweet, Abductive, 145.
7. Cited from http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptG/part1.cfm This is an excerpt from a draft of a book Wilber is writing called Kosmic Karma.
10. Wilber purposely spells “cosmic” as “kosmic” to distinguish his ideas from the idea of the
cosmos which is usually not referenced in a pantheistic way but can mean “creation.”
13. The best way to understand this is to go to his Web site http://wilber.shambhala.com/ and
look at the charts and representations there. But all of it is based on his Buddhist worldview, the
lens through which he integrates everything else.
14. Wilber Kosmic Karma excerpt.
16. This site: http://www.wie.org/directory/evolution-consciousness.asp which is “What is
Enlightenment, Redefining Spirituality for an Evolving World,” is filled with links and articles
including material by Ken Wilber.
17. “The Kosmos According to Ken Wilber – A Dialogue with Robin Korman” in Shambhala
Sun September 1996: http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_
content&task=view&id=2059 (accessed April 2, 2008).