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I have not yet had a chance to hear a response from Dustin DiPerna on my post replying to his. However, his friend Mark Schmanko emailed me a response which I found utterly fascinating – one which takes up the arguments of my article as well. (I am posting these remarks with Mark’s permission.)

I had argued, following current work in religious studies like that of Robert Sharf and Wilhelm Halbfass, that replicable mystical experience is more of a modern construction than we make it out to be, certainly not something at the core of premodern traditions. The conclusion in my article argued that, if my claims were true, a Wilberian could take two legitimate options: either rethink Wilber’s model heavily so as to incorporate the non-mystical elements of traditions, or “bite the bullet” and admit that it is accepting only the mystical elements and not other elements that would be closer to the tradition’s cores.

The latter strategy would continue in the increasingly modernist direction that Wilber’s thought has taken in recent years. Whereas the first stage of Wilber’s thought (“Wilber-1”) had been Romantic and anti-modernist, the middle stages of his thought had tried to harmonize mysticism and modernism, through a developmental scale where a human’s full development replicated social development from prehistory to modernity – and then went up past modernity to mystical levels of achievement. In the most recent stage (“Wilber-5”), spiritual development becomes only one line of human development, separate from all the others (and relegated, as far as I can tell, to one half of one of the four quadrants of human consciousness). So the “bullet biting” would keep up this direction – continue to take a more modern direction that makes room for mystical experience, but admitting that the essentials of many premodern traditions have been jettisoned.

Mark Schmanko’s reply takes up something like this approach, but with an ingenious additional move. Schmanko takes full account of the critiques of Sharf and Halbfass, and incorporates them into a revised Wilberian worldview:

The way I am approaching the topic of state-stages and structure-stages is to posit states of consciousness as primarily a modern construction and powerful kind of experience that we need to objectify self-consciously in light of transparent considerations of our own ontological status and ways of being religious and human. One way of framing this approach is with the category of mysticism, which serves as a hermeneutic and experiential register that, as it were, allows us to objectify reflexively a range of (profound) mystical-type experiences, many of which expand our sense of identity or self-understanding…

As I understand it, Mark fully agrees that the category of mystical experience and the idea of its primacy are modern – and then urges us to embrace them as modern concepts, as part of the very progress that is modernity. I think this revision is much more logically viable, given the historical evidence, than Wilber’s work to date; it would make for a worthy Wilber-6 stage.

It does come with its own problems, however. Most notably, a great part of the rhetorical appeal of Wilber’s work was the ability to include everything: the claim that, in some respect, “Everybody is right.” Once we accept mystical experience as central to our modern traditions but not necessarily to the premodern traditions themselves, we no longer can claim that we have incorporated all the traditions into our synthesis – just those parts, often small parts, which can now be described as mystical experience.

The thing is, there still remains significant reason to learn from more of the traditions than just mystical experience. Especially, while much has been gained with modernity, much has also been lost. Wilber, in Integral Spirituality and elsewhere, seems to think that mystical experience was the only important thing lost. But that just isn’t the case. Wilber misses the truth in modern Romanticism and its nostalgia for what is lost from modernity. It is that Romantic movement and its heirs, I think, that basically create the idea of mystical experience in the first place – but that is not all that they create, nor is it at their core.

I’ve explored this point already with reference to the ideas of the Romantic Alasdair MacIntyre, who, I think more than anyone, sees the truths that Wilber misses. MacIntyre’s ideas are interesting in that they are post/modern, and self-consciously so in at least some respects: he says the truth about ethics must be found within a tradition, whereas the premodern traditions he looks back to would always have said it must be found within this tradition (Christianity, Buddhism, etc.). In that respect I think what MacIntyre does with ethics is comparable to what Schmanko talks about doing with mystical experience. The thing is that, as far as I can tell, Wilber has absolutely zero awareness of the things premodern traditions bring to the table in ethics (unlike in the realm of mystical experience). The same could be said about Wilber’s favourite dirty word, “metaphysics”.

I want to thank Mark for giving me a chance to explore these points in more detail, which I didn’t have a chance to do in my article. I noted in the article that, based on my historical critique, a Wilberian could take two ways forward: one a modernist “bullet biting” of the sort that I think Mark does and does well, and the other a more thorough revision that disposes of much of Wilber’s recent “models” in favour of a more dialectical approach. In the article I noted I preferred the second of these approaches. Here, I’ve got more of a chance to explain why.