A Creative Unfolding
Peter Reason explores participation in spiritual and religious studies. The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman. SUNY Press, 2008, ISBN 9780791476017.
Whenever I have undertaken to write for Resurgence, Satish Kumar has very rightly pointed out that this is a journal for the everyday reader, not for the academic. So I approach a review of The Participatory Turn with some trepidation, since this is an unashamedly academic book, a collection of essays infused with scholarship and references to both very well known and very specialist authorities.
However, I do think it important to draw these ideas to the attention of Resurgence readers. I believe that part of the ‘Resurgence worldview’ is a more or less articulated sense that we humans must regard ourselves as participants in the planetary ecology and to regard the universe as a “community of subjects rather than a collection of objects”, as Thomas Berry put it. A study of participation in religious and spiritual matters will surely be of interest.
The contributing editors locate the idea of participation in the context of the philosophical ‘turns’ of recent times. A ‘modernist’ study of religious phenomena seeks to describe how humans experience the divine, to explore how our subjective experience reflects ‘the eternal’ or ‘the holy’. Through the 20th century, philosophical thinking turned increasingly to the study of language, the ‘linguistic turn’. Attention moved away from interest in the origin and nature of religious and spiritual phenomena to explore how language not only frames and interprets but in many different ways constitutes human experience. While the linguistic turn itself can be criticised, notably by postmodern, feminist and post-colonial thinking, as disembodied, rationalistic and cognicentric, it does also pave the way for a whole range of religious and spiritual understandings and expressions which are more embodied, erotic, gendered, and above all located in a particular place and time.
So the ‘participatory turn’ seeks what the editors call an “enactive” approach to religion and spirituality: we co-create spiritual events, drawing on an entire range of human ways of knowing – rational, imaginative, aesthetic, somatic, erotic, etc. – and thus ‘bring forth’ a ‘creative unfolding’ of a range of rich religious worlds.
“Religious and spiritual phenomena are ‘participatory’ in the sense that they can emerge from the interaction of all human attributes and a non-determined spiritual power or creative dynamism of life.” Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman argue that this idea of participatory enactment does not merely reproduce what has gone before, but “rather embarks on the adventure of openness to the novelty and creativity of nature or spirit”.
Participation is necessarily transformative of self and world. Ferrer quotes the Christian mystic Catherine of Genoa, that “My being is God, not by some simple participation but by a true transformation of my being”. And of course transformation of the self is necessary in order to participate in spiritual knowing. And more widely, in a participatory worldview the disengaged, objective, study of our world must always be secondary to a participative epistemology: all knowing is engaged, experiential and participative.
One of the key points this book makes is that it is not possible to reduce the many faces of religious and spiritual practice to one set of overarching principles: there must be a radical plurality of paths. The various forms of ‘perennial’ account point to a single spiritual ultimate, “things as they really are”, that can be directly known once the many veils of cultural distortions, egoic projections, doctrinal beliefs, and so on are lifted.
No, argues Ferrer, it’s not like that, and any attempt to reduce the many enactments of spiritual experience to one is bound to lead to misunderstanding or worse, the privileging of one particular perspective over others. To be sure, all true spiritual practices “seek gradual transformation from narrow self-centredness toward a fuller participation in the mystery of existence” but they do this in very different ways. As the Dalai Lama argues, the various religious traditions and schools cultivate and achieve different contemplative goals, and different spiritual ultimates are expressed through different participatory enactments: the experience of a Christian personal God is not the same as a Buddhist emptiness of self. It is not that all spiritual rivers flow into the same ocean, rather that “the ocean of emancipation has many shores”.
I have picked out key themes from this book in the hope of encouraging at least some to explore further. In addition to their own writing, Ferrer and Sherman bring together scholars who survey a range of religious and spiritual traditions from the perspective of participation; I particularly appreciated Sean Kelly’s exploration of complexity and religious study through the work of Edgar Morin. Although this is book is not easy going and at times the language could be more straightforward, getting outside our ‘taken for granted’ perspectives is never simple. This book challenges our thinking in many important and fruitful ways.