The Role of Transpersonal Psychology in a Postsecular Society Mike King, Centre for Postsecular Studies, London Metropolitan University

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A Spiritual Typology

The postsecular has learned a profound lesson from the secular: to trust the person in the street. Democratic advance has been painfully slow to extend its franchise, arguments always being put forward that such-and-such a sector of society cannot be trusted with the vote: at various times those distrusted included everyone except the aristocracy; the working man; women; those under 21, and so on. Each time that the franchise was extended, society failed to disintegrate, as predicted, but instead it became more open, creative, and just. The lesson is that authoritarian and top-down structures fail their communities, whereas bottom-up grass-roots communities work. It is in this spirit that a spiritual typology is put forward: a way of thinking about the spiritual life that is based on the variety of spiritual impulse and orientation that spontaneously emerge within individuals and groups, rather than those imposed by tradition. What is put forward here is a ‘baggy schemata,’ involving simple distinctions that do a specific ‘work’ for us in contemplating the variety of spiritual expression.

The schemata, drawn from a survey of the world’s spiritual heritage, is based on four sets of simple distinctions regarding the spiritual impulse:

  1. shamanic / polytheist / monotheist / transcendent

  2. social / occult / transcendent

  3. bhakti / jnani

  4. via positiva / via negativa.

The shamanic is a spiritual impulse that underpins the ur-religion of humankind, a set of practices and inner states that seem to have emerged in all cultures across the globe at the dawn of human life. The essence of the shamanic is to perceive the elements of nature as imbued with spirit. The shaman, as a person with a specialised role in early society, intercedes with the spirits on behalf of the social group. Shamanistic practices are associated with hunter-gatherer and nomadic lifestyles. With the development of agrarian societies, and in particular with the growth of cities, the shamanic vision gives way to a polytheistic impulse, more suited to a life removed from purely natural surroundings. The localised and specific spirits of places, trees, plants and animals become abstracted as more general principles or deities, such as those of fertility, war, or good fortune. In turn the polytheist vision may give way to a monotheist religion, where all the attributes of the various deities are subsumed into a single ‘God.’ In turn this vision gives way to the transcendent, where ‘God’ is firstly seen in a new light of ‘apophasis’ or attributelessness, and finally vanishes in the pure transcendence of a mystic like Plotinus or the Buddha.

While we can detect historical evidence for some of the transitions (shamanic to polytheistic to monotheistic to transcendent) in some cultures, it is hard to find the sequence intact within a single culture over its history. Rather we find cultures like the Hindu which preserve and value each of these phases on an equal basis, or we find a clear example of a single transition, such as from polytheism to monotheism in the Judaic tradition. The diagram below shows how the four phases can be arranged in such a way as to give them equal weight, while still recognising that development can take place.

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