Awake, Aware & Alive will be featuring short dialogues with some of the leaders of the World Spirituality movement. Our first dialogue is with Marc Gafni, Director of the Center for World Spirituality.
Joe: Let’s limit our dialogue today to about 10 minutes so it won’t overwhelm readers of my blog. I sent you a few questions earlier to get us started. With that in mind, let’s begin by talking about your vision of World Spirituality and go from there.
Marc: Fantastic. It’s great to be with you on the phone, as always. You sent me three different questions: What is World Spirituality? Is World Spiritualilty a new religion? And what’s the difference between World Spirituality and the interfaith movement? Those are awesome questions and I understand why you limited it to 10 minutes; we could easily talk for eight hours on just these three questions.
World Spirituality is not a new religion. A new world religion is exactly what we don’t need.
Particularly in the World Spirituality framework where Unique Self is a key lodestone, we have a realization, not only a belief, but a realization, that every human being has a Unique Self. And that every religion has a Unique Self. Every great system of knowing, pre-modern, modern, and post-modern, is a unique epistemological expression of Knowing.
We use a number of images to describe this. One is a symphony in which each instrument is playing its own music, recognizing that the essence is not the instrument but the music, but the uniqueness of the instrument is irreducible and each reveals a different dimension of the music. In that sense, the great systems of knowing in the world are music. Each great system of knowing is approaching the knowing asking different questions, using different methodologies, enacting different inquiries, and those different instruments produce different faces, dimensions, notes in the music.
Joe: Are you suggesting, Marc, that each of the world religions is like a musical instrument or a band, and somehow World Spirituality steps into play like an orchestra conductor might?
Marc: Exactly. That’s right. … Each system of knowing is a unique instrument in the symphony of gnosis. The job of World Spirituality is to act precisely as the conductor and help these different instruments find their right tone, find their right relationship to the other instruments, and ensure that each instrument is listening to the others, so that what emerges is not noise but music. That’s what World Spirituality is. Not heaps, but wholes. Not noise, but music. It’s a grand symphony with enormous texture and depth in which the integrity of every instrument is honored and yet a larger whole emerges from it.
Joe: That’s fine, Marc, but you know there are people who don’t want that. They would say that if every religion is like an instrument, then each individual is his or her own symphony conductor and they don’t want some holistic framework or universalizing narrative to enter the scene which can become another competing instrument. They want every individual to be her or his own orchestra conductor, not to look to some outside authority. How would you respond to that?
Marc: That is green [post-modern] thinking, classical green thinking. Green thinking says there is no canon, no authority, and so everyone does it in their own way and they’re all equal. That’s not true. It’s impossible for even the wisest person to swallow whole all the great systems of knowing, and be able to independently navigate them, find the right weight of each one, etc We need an operating system. An elegant operating system to allow us to get what we need from each, establish right relationship, etc.
Now that doesn’t mean that the operating system is the one eternal authoritative voice. It’s an evolving operating system. You could have open source code. People could participate, share their insights, and more deeply evolving what World Spirituality is. But at its core, it’s a “framework/symphony” in which the job of World Spirituality is to create an ability for people to see the patterns that connect the dots. An individual is practically and epistemologically usually unable to do. It’s an evolving system.
One last point. To take issue with one word you said: you referred to the world religions. As you know, when we talk about great systems of knowing, we aren’t just talking about world religions. They are almost exclusively pre-modern, with exceptions for Mormonism and a couple of small exceptions. We are talking about a framework which includes modern: for example, science and psychology, which come out of modernity; and post-modernity, which is this deep understanding that context is essential, the crucial recognition of development and finally the great insight that everything arises and develops within an evolutionary context.
We want to take all the great systems of knowing, give them all an appropriate place at the table, and then show the patterns that connect. What are the deeper structural understandings that will allow us to live in a context of meaning? That’s what World Spirituality is. It’s to create a shared framework of meaning in which an individual can realize the full gorgeousness of their Unique Self, in which every great system of knowing can be honored, reverentially received … and evolved.
Joe: I think you’ve begun to answer my question about interfaith. At least one way that World Spirituality differs from the interfaith movement is that interfaith leaves out of the picture science and post-modernity. They’re interested in inter-religious dialogue. What are some of the other distinctions?
Marc: That’s an important distinction. That’s distinction one. First off, interfaith has made an important contribution. We bow to it. It’s critical and necessary.
There are two versions of interfaith: version one — what I call “soft interfaith” — says, “Hey we’ve been killing each other. We need to respect each other. That’s not helpful. We need to respect that we’re all doing our best, we have good intentions, we are all engaged in spirit in some sense, so let’s respect each other and love each other if possible. And so we need dialogue.” Clearly important.
A second, what I would call a “hard interfaith” says that the depth structures are identical, even though the rituals and other surface structures may be different. The same core practices and core understandings are shared. Another name that has been given for what I’m calling hard interfaith is perennial philosophy.
Perennial philosophy is a version of hard interfaith. World spirituality transcends and includes. It negates the problematic elements of each one of these, to borrow Hegel’s phrase, including both soft interfaith and hard interfaith. In that, clearly we need to respect each other.
Clearly there are shared depth sstructures. But the next step is to recognize that actually there are evolving depth structures. The cosmos is evolving and everything is evolving at the same time. Everyone is tetra-evolving. All four quadrants of reality. Everything Spirit is evolving. We don’t want to reify what we know today and freeze it. We wan to recognize that in a thousand years from now these depth structures will have evolved.
World Spirituality is perennial philosophy in an evolutionary context.
Joe: We’re out of time. I think that’s going to have to be the end of part 1 of our conversation. Let’s continue next with a discussion of where we are at today in the development of World Spirituality as a distinct movement.
Photo Credit: haglundc (Flickr)