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As I discussed last week, Ken Wilber’s recent work argues that spirituality must be taken to a new and higher level, one associated with the “orange” and “green” worldviews of modernity and postmodernity. What does such a higher spirituality entail? Wilber points to examples of liberal Christianity like Hans Küng and John Shelby Spong. This is well and good; I’ve drawn a lot from liberal Christianity and I think it offers crucial methodological lessons for the study of Asian traditions. But his enthusiasm for them goes much too far. He claims that “any premodern spirituality that does not come to terms with both modernity and postmodernity has no chance of survival in tomorrow’s world”. (IS p225)

I would have little problem with this claim if by “come to terms” Wilber meant only that they must acknowledge and react to the existence of post/modernity – as fundamentalism does, by mostly reacting against it. But in his explanations it becomes clear he means significantly more: they must embrace and adopt it. In this claim Wilber echoes the title of one of Spong’s works, a work he names approvingly: Why Christianity Must Change Or Die. The implication of both Wilber and Spong on the topic is that only a post/modernist liberal or postliberal Christianity will be able to survive the coming decades and centuries, as post/modern ideas become more widespread through the world.

But is this claim right? It’s a version of the secularization thesis, a sociological thesis so popular in the 1950s through the 1970s that its truth was almost assumed. People saw societies abandon their “religious” traditions and abandon them faster than a single generation – as Québec did in its startling Quiet Revolution, or Spain after Franco. This, it was assumed, was the fate of all societies as they came to develop economically and technologically: their youth would throw off the shackles of myth and superstition and greet the moderns as liberators.

Anyone who has observed the history of the past few decades, however, will have seen that that’s almost the opposite of what actually happened. From Iran to India to the United States, “religion” made a huge comeback, and it was not the liberal modernizing religion of Spong and Küng, but the supposedly backward, superstitious, conservative traditions of Jerry Falwell and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Wilber, of course, is one of those who has observed this history. He has been able to watch it for considerably longer than I have; I was blissfully unaware of Zia ul-Haq‘s fundamentalist takeover of Pakistan because I was in diapers. This is the history that Wilber explains as the result of modernity’s discarding of spirituality, the one that can be fixed with a turn to modernizing liberal (“orange and higher”) Christianity or Islam.

Does this explanation hold? Are people turning to fundamentalist Christianity because they haven’t been exposed enough to liberal Christianity? If this explanation was the best, one would expect to see liberal Christianity growing and thriving as an alternative to fundamentalism. But it isn’t.

The Glenmary Research Center’s Religious Congregations and Membership study – comprehensive enough that the US Census directs researchers there for detailed data on “religion” – shows some eye-opening statistics for the period 1990-2010. The large liberal denominations that have embraced a Christianity like Spong’s have shown a drastic drop in the number of adherents (including “all full members, their children, and others who regularly attend services.”) Spong’s Episcopalian church is down 20%; the still more liberal United Church of Christ, 35%. Meanwhile the Southern Baptists, who enshrined fundamentalism, grew 5%; the Catholic Church, 10%; the Mormons, a whopping 74%. And that’s just the United States. Philip Jenkins reads the global demographic data and notes that Christians in the southern hemisphere are rapidly coming to outnumber those in the north, if they do not already – not just because of population growth but because of conversion. And the churches growing so rapidly there are filled with strict sexual taboos, faith healing, exorcism – a Christianity significantly less liberal than American fundamentalism.

Recent history has made a mockery of Spong’s title. For the actual sociological evidence shows the title’s opposite: the Christianity that has changed is the one that has been dying – at least, the Christianity that has changed in the way that Wilber and Spong would have wanted it to. The Christianity that thrives is the conservative one, laden as it is with magic, taboo, “superstition”.

That this is the case should not come as a dramatic surprise. This conservative “amber” or “red” Christianity (using Wilber’s colour codes) offers people in a secular age an alternative that liberal “orange” Christianity does not. For orange Christianity is often quite hard to tell from atheism. Wilber’s descriptions of it are often phrased primarily in the negative: it does not privilege its account of truth over others’, it does not believe literally in myths. But many forms of atheism do not do these things either. What exactly does liberal/orange Christianity have that atheism doesn’t? And why should anybody bother with it at all, when they can simply be atheists?

One answer is the ties of social community that a church provides: a place to meet new people when one moves residence, a place to give one’s children the kind of ethically rich education that is difficult in secular public schools. The most prominent liberal tradition that has indeed been growing is Unitarian Universalism: 11%, better than the Southern Baptists. But Unitarians are often described as “atheists with children”; most Unitarian churches are community centres more than spiritual ones. With the exception of a few more traditionalist churches in New England, a Unitarian church is as modern a place as the biomedical engineering department at Cal Tech; atheism is typically more welcome than prayer. Is this going to be enough to satisfy people’s spiritual longings, to turn back the disaster of modernity? Do people turn to fundamentalism just because they haven’t been exposed to Unitarian community centres?

I don’t expect that Wilber would answer that question yes. As far as I can tell, the spirituality that he preserves has to do primarily with meditative and mystical experiences. But those are a feature which, as the article I’m writing argues, was not central to most premodern traditions – even for their élite practitioners, let alone the majority. The idea that mystical experience is at the core of the traditions is an invention of the 19th century, as many religion scholars like Wayne Proudfoot, Robert Sharf and Wilhelm Halbfass have noted. It seems very unlikely to me that fundamentalism would cease if its practitioners had access to mystical experiences that they could interpret within a liberal framework.

Rather, I think, fundamentalism and other forms of conservative tradition thrive because of a discontent with modernity itself. Modernity is a gain in many ways, but it is also a loss, and a loss that cannot be fixed merely with the mystical experience whose prominence is itself a modern phenomenon. Many of the things that most turn us moderns off about premodern tradition – its rigid restrictions on sexuality, its supernaturalism, its literal readings of sacred texts – are themselves the appeal for conservatives. The promise of an afterlife allows the hope of a transcendent future better than the suffering we experience in this lifetime. Rigid behavioural rules allow a comforting and often necessary structure – certainly to those in trouble whose lives are falling apart, but even to successful intellectuals like Paul Griffiths who celebrate the joy of submitting to a tradition.

I think Christian conservatives or fundamentalists are wrong about most issues. But I also think they’ve got a point, one that cannot be easily argued away. They do not merely represent an earlier stage of human development, but a considered reaction to modernity and the real problems it involves, and one we would do well to take seriously. I intend to take the point up further next week.