“Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation.” (from Part 4 of “What Is Religion? An Integral Approach” posted earlier)
The simple answer is yes. Ken Wilber’s book Integral Spirituality could have been titled Integral Religion (if it had been, its appeal to readers, I suspect, would have been reduced significantly). I can imagine many feeling upset at my answer, because, as I pointed out earlier, even followers of Integral Philosophy have a deeply grooved tendency to think of religion as living solely at the levels below orange-rational, all of them based on magic and mythic worldviews which ‘we’ consider childish and inappropriate for an adult.
However, if we can shake off the bias against premodern religions and recall that all religions or faith systems or spiritual orientations are directly focused on our ultimate concerns, that each challenges us to transform our lives in response to those concerns and offers means for achieving an ultimate transformation, the implication is plain to see: the Integral system can be a religion, a comprehensive means toward an ultimate transformation.
In detail, here is my argument. First, that Integral addresses our ultimate concerns is obvious. Secondly, as I pointed out earlier, Wilber himself considers the AQAL system as a whole to be a means toward transformation. Third, following Herbert Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Figure 6), the system acknowledges six levels of basic needs or values, each of which can be seen as ultimate by an individual at whatever level they happen to be at a given time in their lives.
Recall the three criteria for characterizing a life as religious. If we replace Maslow’s term ‘need’ with ‘concern,’ the spiritual line of development comes into view as a hierarchy of ultimate concerns. Thus, there is an archaic ultimate concern—physiological needs; a magic ultimate—safety; a mythic ultimate—belonging; a rational ultimate—esteem; an integral ultimate—self-actualization; and a super-integral ultimate—self-transcendence. The current version of the Integral spectrum is more granular than Maslow’s, positing several additional stages at 2nd and 3rd tier, but the main point is that, whatever system of values you choose to map will exhibit an ultimate concern at every stage in the spiritual line. This satisfies the first criterion of religion.
The second criterion—a challenge to transform the self—is also central to the Integral message. In The Integral Vision, Wilber issues the challenge as a call to “wake up:”
The awakened Sage is not merely a rare oddity, living alone in a cave in India or perched on a mountain top in Tibet. The awakened Sage—or simply awakened Human—is actually the nature of our very own consciousness, even here and now, in the deepest forms and highest waves. Realizing that is the goal of Integral Life Practice.
Integral Life Practice is the third criterion of religion: the means of transformation to the highest possible spiritual level in an individual’s life. “To cultivate body, mind, and spirit in self, culture, and nature” is the epigrammatic summation of the 2008 handbook of the Integral movement, Integral Life Practice: A 21st Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening, one of the most comprehensive guides to human growth ever written.
We see then that the three defining characteristics of religion are present in Integral Spirituality, a system we can now, without embarrassment, also refer to as Integral Religion. However, we must not take this to mean that persons who embrace an integral worldview are thereby spiritually transformed to an integral or super-integral level. Remember, the worldview and spiritual lines of development are largely independent of each other. It is possible, therefore, for a person to accept AQAL as a philosophy, i.e. the best available model of reality, without buying into the spiritual ideas. However, the tendency, the internal pressure on the self, is surely for spiritual development to catch up with the worldview.
As I wrote earlier, definitions are neither true nor false. Instead, we should think of them as more or less useful. I make no final or absolute claim for the definition of ‘religion’ I am recommending. Streng Theory calls it “a working definition,” recognizing that it is open to amendment or replacement by a better formulation. In this essay, I have argued that the ST definition is the most useful one available today for understanding the many forms of religious life. Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation, when incorporated into Integral Theory, embraces the best of premodern, modern, and postmodern approaches while rejecting the narrowness, reductionism, and vagueness that have afflicted earlier attempts.
When included in the Integral Model, the ST definition provides, I believe, the maximum possible unity of conception, which is always the aim of Integral. We may still talk about the great spiritual traditions using their traditional names, and there may still exist contexts that call for the distinctions contained in Wilber’s and others’ definitions of religion and spirituality. There will, of course, also still be a place for objective studies of religion in philosophy and psychology, anthropology and sociology, and even neuroscience. But while exploring those ideas and domains, it is important to remind ourselves from time to time that the phenomenon we are examining is fundamentally about a real person’s living of a certain kind of life motivated by an impulse we all share, an impulse to direct our lives toward an ultimate transformation of our deepest selves.