Skholiast recently referred in his blog to a recent review he wrote of Ken Wilber‘s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. To review this book is in a sense to review Wilber’s work as a whole, for it remains (by Wilber’s own account) the most comprehensive exposition of Wilber’s ideas – although Wilber has written considerably more since this book, some of it in response to critics. Skholiast rightfully applauds one of Wilber’s most important ideas, the pre-trans fallacy – the point that moving beyond something in conventional experience (such as rationality and the ego) is very different from not properly entering it in the first place.
Skholiast makes two criticisms of Wilber, which are closely related to each other, and which reflect his interest in 20th-century “continental” thinkers, especially Emmanuel Lévinas. The second criticism is probably the more fundamental: Wilber, according to Skholiast, is too much of an “ātmanist,” too beholden to nondualist philosophies (of which Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta is the prime example). He doesn’t leave room for the priority of Lévinas’s philosophy, namely encounter with the other.
But while the immediate ancestors of Skholiast’s view may be in the likes of Lévinas, he is right to claim an older pedigree for it. For Vedāntic monism indeed makes an uncomfortable fit with Western monotheisms, in which to say “I am God” is a heresy.
Skholiast reminds me a little here of the Indian debate over Sufi mystical experiences. While Sufism is a controversial phenomenon in the Arab “heartland” of Islam, in South Asia Sufism basically is Islam. That Sufi mystical practices such as dhikr chanting are valid spiritual pathways – this is not widely disputed in South Asia. Rather, as I understand it, the dispute between conservative and tolerant Islam happens there within Sufism. South Asian Muslims have typically all agreed with the Spanish mystic Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabī that dhikr or similar practices can get you an experience of cosmic oneness, where the boundaries between yourself and the rest of the world all break down. The debate is over what this oneness means.
Ibn ‘Arabī preached an idea which later comes to be called wahdat al-wujūd, the unity of existence. For him God is the only being that is truly real; everything else is an illusion. (The similarity to Śaṅkara should be obvious here.) The experience of unity in dhikr allows one to perceive that true oneness in existence.
Another Indian Sufi, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, criticized ibn ‘Arabī. Instead of wahdat al-wujūd, he described Sufi experiences as merely wahdat ash-shuhūd – a unity of experience. One does indeed perceive that everything is one, but that is only a first step: one must go beyond that oneness because everything is not one. To identify creator with creation is a heresy. Rather, the experience gives you a sense of the true greatness of the one who created everything: “Not ‘All is Him’ but ‘All is from Him.'”
These are meaty debates and I don’t have space to try and figure out my own position on them here. Where I do take a stand is on a methodological issue in Skholiast’s first, related, point. Mostly because of the second criticism, Skholiast argues that Wilber doesn’t do “emic justice” to the Abrahamic traditions. Wilber, according to Skholiast, claims that the majority of Christian saints have got it wrong about Jesus – presumably those who are not “ātmanists.” Skholiast says that this claim “would be astounding if he made it about chess masters’ opinions of the Ruy Lopez, or music critics’ estimations of Beethoven’s late quartets, or even of Zen masters’ account of the Tathagata.” I have some serious methodological problems with this approach, if I understand Skholiast’s criticism correctly. I’m all for humility in the face of great thinkers who have gone before us, realizing they might have depth we haven’t yet seen in them. But the great spiritual masters disagree with one another on matters of fundamental import. If the grace of Jesus of Nazareth is the only way to human salvation, then following the Noble Eightfold Path simply will not get one there. Each side may well be (and probably is) partially right, but at least one side must be partially wrong.
Here I think Skholiast’s analogy to chess masters and music critics is quite misleading. As non-experts we are reluctant to say chess masters are wrong about chess because they have a specialized expertise we do not have; this is one of the reasons it is so difficult to speak accurately about natural science. But it is surely a gross misunderstanding of Christian saints’ claims about Jesus to take them as a matter of specialized expertise. On their own understanding, Jesus is not a specialty, a limited field of human knowledge; He is universal, a truth who saves us all. Jesus doesn’t just happen to be there “for Christians,” he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. If we get Jesus wrong, we get the truth in general wrong. But once one makes that sort of universal, nonspecialist claim (and I think it’s a legitimate claim to make), one necessarily opens oneself up to nonspecialist criticism: if the truth in general isn’t what you say it is, then maybe Jesus isn’t what you say he is either. I’m not at all sure I agree with Wilber’s ultimate position, but I do think that methodologically he is on firm ground.