If, as Shakespeare had it, brevity is the soul of wit, then William Irwin Thompson has certainly celebrated that principle. His latest, Beyond Religion, published by Lindisfarne Books, is a book of only 85 pages on a subject one would assume would require many more. Indeed, the book is more suggestive than thorough, but, because Thompson is a gifted writer who has for many years mastered the material he addresses, the result is inspiring and more than that, useful.
Thompson grew up in Los Angeles, went to Pomona College and received his PhD from Cornell. He was Professor of Humanities at MIT and held several other appointments including a stint at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In 1973 he left teaching and founded the Lindisfarne Association, a group of scholars, artists, poets and researchers devoted to the study of universal consciousness and noetic spirituality. He is the author of fifteen books and many articles.
The subtitle of Beyond Religion is “From Shamanism to Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality.” That sweep of human cultural evolution is framed for Thompson by Jean Gebser’s monumental study The Ever-Present Origin, first published in 1949 and still in print. Gebser’s schema holds that human culture has moved through five distinct but overlapping eras: Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental and Integral. Each era has seventeen distinct structures, ranging from space and time relationships to location of the soul to forms of bond or tie. Not surprising the structure of consciousness evolves from sleep in the Archaic to wakeful and transparent in the Mental and Integral.
As for religion, which Thompson sees we are now beyond, it evolved within each Gebserian era, shape-shifting from the original Earth Mother worship to meet the needs of a slowly civilizing world. But now, Thompson argues, we are witnessing the disintegration of religions in and between most cultures, and the evidence is the rise of Fundamentalism within each, turning the message of love and salvation into hatred and destruction. Meanwhile, the rise of an individual and communal spiritual polity has arisen to replace institutional structures.
Another source of this infusion of spirit for Thompson is the life and works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Mirra Alfassa, whose relationship to Sri Aurobindo formed a deep spiritual connection giving life and purpose to the Auroville ashram. Thompson points out that the world of spiritual work in Auroville did not completely erase the trappings of religion under the Mother’s leadership, noting that such confusion between the religious and spiritual remains a global challenge for seekers of spirit.
In his conclusion, Thompson describes what he calls the emergence of a symbiotic consciousness in this time and what Gebser termed this Integral period. For this reader, the most important conclusion Thompson makes is the symbiotic potential of orders of intelligence and consciousness making themselves known to us now. He concludes, “This symbiotic consciousness need not simply be restricted to human and elemental or animal realms; it could also be extended to involve celestial intelligences.”
A certain elevated watchfulness is in order. What he sees taking place is evidence of a more watchful and mindful attention to these spiritual emanations, both descending and arising from sources deep in the heart of nature. And following Albert Einstein’s admonition to never lose the sense of awe before the wonders of the universe, we can prepare ourselves for the unity and oneness that attention to the spiritual provides.
William Irwin Thompson. (2013). Beyond Religion: The Cultural Evolution of the Sense of the Sacred. New York: Lindisfarne Books.
- Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University
- Doctoral Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute
- Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson