Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution

by Ken Wilber
Shambhala Publications/Random House, New York, 1994; hardcover, 816 pages.

A long time ago, human beings lived in perfect harmony with nature and each other. We were not alienated. We did not abuse the planet. No one dominated anyone. We lay down with lion and lamb and every thing was bliss. Then something happened. Call it original sin. In any case, the honeymoon was over. The primal split, the ancient rift, the great gulf between ourselves and the cosmos opened and we were unceremoniously kicked out of the garden. Since then everything has been a mess.

In one version or another, this is a standard new age criticism of the modem epoch. It is also a feminist indictment of patriarchal oppression, an environmentalist assessment of the root of our ecological crisis, or any combination of the above. Ken Wilber's massive new work is an unrelenting attack on this simplistic fairy tale and an incisive analysis of its influence on contemporary social, cultural, and spiritual thought. Wilber has thought long and hard about the state of spirituality, and has concluded that many of its cherished icons and deeply held beliefs are not quite what they seem. His reasons are spelled out in exhaustive detail in the book's densely packed pages, a good 250 of which make up notes to the text.

Wilber is at pains to make clear why he finds the stereotypic anti-modern, anti-masculine, anti-progress critiques unsatisfying, bending over backwards to qualify his reservations with strings of parenthetical remarks. Yet if there is one definite statement to make about this exciting, frustrating, and challenging work, it is this: he will not make many friends with it, a sure sign he is onto something significant.

Wilber's basic theme is that our late twentieth -century intellectual and spiritual milieu is dominated by what he calls a "Descender” worldview, essentially a vision of life that denies the transcendent dimension and that sees the whole of reality in the physical world of the senses. Here we find strange bedfellows. Postmodernists, deconstructionists, reductionists, scientists, feminists, masculinists, "eco-fascists," devotees of the "new physics," and systems theorists all carve out different portions of what Wilber calls the "flat-land cosmology" of the Descender universe. An opposite, though less prevalent. camp is made up of the "Ascenders:” adherents of world- rejection. These include Gnostics, Cathars, Manichaeans, some Platonists, pessimists, like Schopenhauer, Theravadin Buddhists, archetypal psychologists, and an assortment of various "higher self" aficionados.

Both groups are guilty of a tragic partiality. in Wilber 's view, Descenders err by sinking into the physical cosmos in hopes of reaching a false totality: Ascenders by rejecting the physical plane in pursuit of "other worlds:” Both, Wilber argues, are halves of a fractured worldview that bridges the gulf between world-affirmation and world-rejection. He finds a uniting worldview for this split in Plotinus and Friedrich Schelling in the West, in Sri Aurobindo and Nagarjuna in the East. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality traces the sources and analyzes the effects of this debilitating bifurcation across the vast canvas of human history. Understandably, Wilber pays particular attention to the postmodern era, a time when the two opposing camps have at least a chance of coming together-or, equally likely, of recoiling even further apart in a schizoid polarization of the human spirit.

Wilber 's scope is ambitious, nothing less than from the Big Bang to the present era, and he is equally at home with new age gurus or postmodern pundits. The backbone of the work is the idea of "the holon,” a coinage made by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 classic The Ghost in the Machine. Wilber adopts Koestler's concept of "whole/parts" as the basic structural components of reality. Drawing from the work of philosophers Jurgen Habermas, Jean Gebser, and Michel Foucault, as well as the psychologist Jean Piaget, he embarks on a less-than-straightforward narrative of the evolution of the cosmos, life, mind, and civilization. That evolution, according to Wilber, has suffered from the Ascender /Descender split for a good 2,300 years. Wilber concentrates on unraveling the psychological and ontological knots these opposite outlooks have tied in our understanding of ourselves and the universe. In an era of postmodern free-for-alls and deconstructive double-think. Wilber has his work cut out for him. So do his readers.

What Wilber finds lacking in today's worldview is the notion of hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being that for centuries was the accepted vision of "the way things were." Nowadays, hierarchy is a bad word, smacking, for the politically and cosmologically correct, of dominance, oppression, and male superiority. Yet, as Wilber makes amply clear, the various critics of hierarchy confuse its abuse with its genuine character. Their "heterarchic" alternatives share a common flaw: by emphasizing the equal significance of all perspectives, they wind up affirming that anyone perspective is as good as any other, a stance that lands them in a mire of relativism. Confusing "pathological dominator hierarchies," which should be opposed, with authentic levels of Being, the various opponents of the Great Chain-whether deconstructionists, radical feminists, animal rights activists, or cultural relativists---end up with a flatland cosmology that, Wilber contends, confuses broader, though more superficial, "span" with deeper "depth."

The various "holistic" cosmologies and systems theory approaches 10 the environment gel short shrift from Wilber. Although they have indeed "shown that everything is connected to everything else," what they fail to include in their" interlocking systems" is the transpersonal dimension, the realm of value. This cannot be accounted for in holistic cosmologies that base their gauge of significance on size rather than depth. Most of these theorists are of the "bigger is better" school, Wilber argues. They ignore the obvious architectonics of the cosmos: galaxies are unimaginably large entities, enjoying an immense span, yet they are relatively simple. The human brain is a rather small object, cosmically speaking, yet it is infinitely more complex than a galaxy. And as far as we know, it houses perhaps the deepest thing in existence, the mind.

Holistic thinkers err in claiming that because it is more fundamental, the biosphere-the realm of organic life- is more significant than the noosphere- the realm of mind. For Wilber the precise opposite is true. If "the ultimate character pervading the universe is a drive toward the endless production of new syntheses," he tells us, then the holists have their priorities wrong . The noosphere isn't in the biosphere; the biosphere is in the noosphere-embraced, transcended, yet retained. Yet "because evolution is not bigger and better, but smaller and better (greater depth, less span) these theorists ... end up unknowingly recommending regression as our salvation."

Some theorists do not recommend regression unknowingly. Another of Wilber's bêtes noires are the various Romantic schools that have cropped up in the last decade or so. These include the men's movement, eco-feminism, various shamanistic "ways," the "archaic revival," and others. Each school adheres to some version of the "Great Crime," a rundown of which began this review. Each vies with the others in attempting to push back the clock to humanity's supposed pure and pristine participation with nature. Eco-feminists see it in the horticultural age: eco-masculinists, with hunters and gatherers.

The Great Crime of our separation from Mother Earth has led to alienation and oppression, these theorists claim, so, according to Wilber, they hop into their "Way Back Machines" or onto "The Regress Express," in order to return to Day One. Wilber appreciates the value of their sentiments, but says "it is one thing to remember and embrace and honor our roots; quite another to hack off our leaves and branches and celebrate that as a solution to leaf rot."

Seeing as much danger in Romantic regression as in rationalist reduction, Wilber doesn't hesitate to point out some of the questionable aspects of such grand men of alternative thought as C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell. In Jung's archetypes he finds not the numinous symbols today's Jungians do, but a collection of fairly typical, earthbound experiences. Wilber agrees that it is important to embrace these subliminal, prepersonal spheres, but denies that they have anything to do with higher, spiritual planes. (He makes a similar criticism of Stanislav Grof's "Basic Perinatal Matrices") Campbell's work in mythology, Wilber argues, suffers from a hermeneutical confusion. In rejuvenating myth as an alternative to modern rationality, Campbell fails to realize that his appreciation of ancient myths is very different from that of the people for whom myths were a matter of course. Campbell, Wilber tells us, had the benefit of reasoning about the myths, the very quality he is eager to deflate. Jung and Campbell are not the only recipients of Wilber's extensive critique; I mention them only to give an idea of the not-so-cozy corners one is led to in reading (his book.

Although unquestionably a tour de force, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality isn't without its weaknesses. Wilber 's style is breathlessly abstract , and the ubiquitous qualifications break up the narrative flow. And when he leaves his occasionally impenetrable academese, he often descends into chummy argot ("French kissing the Shadow") or ascends into lofty, though nebulous, rhetoric. Having agreed with and appreciated his razor-job on some of our more muddle-headed ideologies, I was less than convinced by his own conclusions.

Having shown up the flaws of Ascenders and Descenders alike, Wilber rolls out his own version of "how things are." Yet more often than not, this is announced in a voice of such singing, almost childlike yearning that, while I had no trouble detecting the emotion, I can't say I came away clear on the ideas. I believe they are there; Wilber is no mean thinker, but perhaps his very urgency blocks straightforward expression. (And having Hegel, Habermas, and Da Free John as spiritual mentors does not ensure a limpid style.) One also wonders about schematizing consciousness. In a closing note, Wilber remarks that when Jean Gebser said that Jesus and Meister Eckhart embodied the "integral structure" (Gebser's term for the newly emerging next phase of human evolution), he was "far short of the mark," and then goes on to state that " beyond" the integral are "the psychic, the subtle, the causal, and the ultimate." This may very well be true, but it did remind me of P. D. Ouspensky's reply to the lady who asked him if the Buddha was the "seventh level of consciousness." "I don't know," Ouspensky replied. "And I don't care."

Without criticizing legitimate hierarchies, the concrete reality of human experience is lost in these abstract pecking orders. Likewise, Wilber's Ascender/Descender motif, though a handy and wieldy tool, is so broad as to include everybody not partial to his take on things. And is everyone either an Ascender or Descender? I can think of at least half a dozen individuals who might find a spot in both camps.

Nevertheless, these quibbles aside, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is an important book. It is bracing to see a writer associated with "fringe" fields of thought taking on the whole spectrum of late twentieth century culture. If this is Wilber's attempt at a crossover book, it's a good shot. After slapping the wrists of some of the most popular alternative thinkers, Wilber is sure to offend a great many readers, yet this kind of criticism is a tonic. Whether we agree with his assessment or not-and as this is the first of a projected mammoth trilogy we must keep an open mind-this book challenges us to rethink our beliefs in the company of the great books.


Summer 1995