The Presence of the Infinite: The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

The Presence of the Infinite: The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

Wheaton: Quest Books, 20 15. xi + 285 pp., paper, $18.95.

Just when I thought I had a grasp on the meaning of the word postmodernity, I came across The Presence of the Infinite. This book not only put a whole new perspective on that word, it described in great detail the cutting edge of the next cultural movement that some expect will surpass postmodernity in scope and sophistication: post-postmodernity. And just when a significant part of our population might be about to come to terms with what McIntosh calls progressive spirituality, he challenges us to move toward the next, more comprehensive level — evolutionary spirituality.

The Presence of the Infinite is a highly intellectualized exploration of a new kind of unifying spiritual agreement that the author feels is on the horizon in America. If only evolutionary spirituality could gain traction in our fragmented culture, McIntosh claims, it would improve the overall quality of our collective spiritual experience, resulting in a greater sense of social solidarity and cooperation and supplying spiritual leadership for our civilization.

McIntosh contrasts evolutionary spirituality — still in its infancy — with the three main forms of spirituality that came before it: traditional religious spirituality, which “comprises America’s organized and historically established religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”; secular spirituality, which includes atheism, secular humanism, and scientism; and progressive spirituality, encompassing movements such as Theosophy, New Thought, and other forms of New Age spirituality.

In McIntosh’s view, progressive spirituality, which serves as the antithesis of traditional religion and of secular modernity, is sort of on the right track but has failed to gain traction in mainstream society. One reason, he believes, is that progressive spirituality tends to discredit the valid contributions and achievements made by both secular modernity and the religious traditionalism that came before it.

Evolutionary spirituality, by contrast, will acknowledge “the spiritual quality of evolution’s ceaseless process of becoming.” It will offer a new synthesis based on an enlarged understanding of ultimate reality. Unlike progressive spirituality, it will respect the contributions and truths of all the earlier forms of spirituality, and will offer an improved and expanded set of values that allow us to experience greater beauty, truth, and goodness in our lives.

Furthermore, evolutionary spirituality acknowledges the differences between a nondual sense of the ultimate and a theistic one without feeling a need to resolve the gap between these two polarities. Rather they are given a chance to test and verify each other — synthesizing their strengths without erasing their differences.

Central to McIntosh’s premise is the stunning understanding that the pursuit and attainment of direct personal spiritual experience is the key driver for spiritual growth, and the primary means of evolving consciousness. Fostering this direct experience — as opposed to having spiritual truth dispensed by outer authorities of clergy and scripture, as in religious traditionalism, or dismissing it entirely, as in secular modernity — is the key factor that will bring evolutionary spirituality into fruition. McIntosh feels it is incumbent upon those who already enjoy such experiences to share their gifts — whether through the creation of liberating forms of art and music or through the writing of influential books — and to live up to their potential to bear spiritual fruit in their own lives.

I can readily buy McIntosh’s premise that enabling people to move toward direct experience of spirit (or connection or transcendence), by whatever name, will lead to individual transformation and to transformation of the overall culture as well. But despite great effort, I stumble on the way McIntosh derives proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. He bases it on the sense that some kind of creative will or intelligence must have created the Big Bang in the first place and that this creative will or intelligence is continually still creating through the evolutionary process as humans continue to imagine and strive toward a better existence. He bases it also on the common human experience of connection, which, as he points out, most religions call the love of God. For me, this leans a bit too far into the theistic camp and detracts somewhat from my appreciation of the title: The Presence of the Infinite.

Overall, I am glad I read this book. Though I write on a related topic myself, I feel I have gained an enhanced appreciation of the type of faith that can evolve outside the walls of traditional religion — a perspective toward which increasing numbers are now being called, and of which it behooves us all to seek greater understanding.

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books).