A Spirituality for the 21st Century: Inevitabilities and Possibilities

In a forthcoming book, The Coming Interspiritual Age,1 we offer a responsible survey of the global factors that might influence and contribute to the possible emergence of world change based on a significant input from the reservoir of collective human wisdom available in the world’s perennial Great Wisdom Traditions. Absent such a contribution, the world appears destined to march toward globalization led by self-serving special interest groups, political and financial institutions, leaving the public at the mercy of uncoordinated planetary resource exploitation and consumerism, coupled with a cacophony of competitions and conflicts over politics, financial wealth, natural resources and the various other currencies of international power.

The Coming Interspiritual Age

Specifically, we inquire into a potentially constructive role for religion and spirituality in the world’s future, while also noting possible negative roles that should be identified and, if possible, circumvented. Is the future role of religion basically an impotent one, represented only as multiple organized religions’ differing creeds and dogmas across the planet’s various conflicting, complex and competing cultures? Or is there an inherent role for spirituality and religion from the innate reservoir of human wisdom that forms the underpinning of our species’ millennial history— albeit obscured by a plethora of social and cultural factors? This is a reasonable and important question to ask.

Foreseeing the possibility of a coming ‘Interspiritual Age’ joins a host of other global human visions that hope for a brighter future for our planet—be it from courageously upbeat and optimistic leaders of the environmental, economic-technological or social justice sectors of our global society. This particular visioning of an emerging Interspiritual Age has arisen from the world’s religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions, anchored in the foresight of a host of historical visionaries across the millennial wisdom traditions who have forecast such a possibility—specifically in the last centuries, pioneers such the West’s Teilhard de Chardin and the East’s Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and from these and other wellsprings what has evolved into the burgeoning and multifaceted ‘evolutionary consciousness movement.’2

The focus of our recent survey has been one part of this evolving consciousness movement, the emerging global ‘interspiritual vision.’ It has arisen internationally, especially in the last two decades from within the contemplative core of the world’s many religious traditions.3 The emergence of the global interspiritual movement is well summarized in the seminal historical work of the late Brother Wayne Teasdale,4 in large part because of his own close association with colleagues and parallel interspiritual pioneers such as the late Fr. Bede Griffiths, Raimundo Panikkar, Thomas Merton (pioneers of East-West contemplative and mystical dialogue) and Fr. Thomas Keating. Fr. Keating pioneered not only the East-West Centering Prayer Movement but also the more than two decades-long Snowmass Interreligious Initiative. The latter (particularly from its ‘Eight Points of Agreement’)5 can be seen as spawning the world’s increasingly dynamic interspiritual movement, especially after the works of Teasdale further popularized the concept. Other major contributors to this development were the so-called ‘post-Vatican II foundationalist theologians,’ which, although often forgotten today after their official admonishment by the Vatican in the 1980s,6 discussed in detail for at least a decade most of the landscape later traversed together by these mystical and contemplative pioneers of the interspiritual movement. This latter discussion has continued for at least the last two decades, becoming a dynamic and indefatigable EastWest dialogue, and now North-South as well.

As we show however, in surveying this history, the spiritual element driven by the contemplative and mystical voices of the world religions cannot itself be understood or stand alone without the larger surrounding context of the other progressive visions now common across a number of other fields of human endeavor and culture. Thus, our survey (in The Coming Interspiritual Age) includes in-depth surveys of the science, sociology, history, consciousness studies and brain-mind developmental threads that are inevitably part of such an international conversation, unfolding as part of the planetary multicultural and globalization process.

A number of conclusions from this survey are self-evident. What is characteristic of them as a whole is the rather obvious conclusion, testifying to the precarious nature of our time, that in terms of a better or worse future for our planet and humanity, it appears it could ‘go either way.’ These factors include:

l) Globalization of planet earth is inevitable; the question is what kind of a globalization will it be and whether it will be devoid of any significant contribution from the Great Wisdom Traditions.

2) Multiculturalism is inevitable; again, the question is what kind of process will unfold and whether it will be a bumpy ride full of competition and conflict (indeed, possibly even outright economic and military warfare) or whether a more reasoned dialogue may emerge, mitigating such negative consequences to some degree.

3) Inevitabilities such as these call into question whether four ‘unifying’ or ‘Archimedean points,’7 historically identified as possibly culturally unifying across the world’s religions, still have any promise for leading the world to something like that predicted by Teilhard’s and Aurobindo’s visions of maturation. Such unifying principles are also envisioned by the perennial Humanist vision of the ‘global ethical manifold,’ Ken Wilber and the integralists’ ‘conveyor belt’ to an ‘Integral Age,’ and the vision of the foundationalist theologians and the interreligious vision of an emerging ‘Interspiritual Age.’8 The four principles include (1) the possibility of a common core to human mystic experience, (2) fundamental teachings held in common by all the world’s religions, (3) the shared ethical implications of the teachings of all the great traditions, and (4) the inevitable mutuality across the religions regarding commitment to social and economic justice.

4) Creeds and dogmas, exclusive by nature at a cultural level, still characterize much of the purely religious side of the world’s traditions. However, significant movements across the world’s spiritual communities—emphasizing the profound mutual recognition among human beings in the realm of ‘the heart’ and the primary understanding of profound similarities across the traditions’ understandings of unifying states of higher consciousness, are also moving profoundly to potentially alter this equation. Spiritual emphasis on the experience of ‘the heart’ and states of unitive higher consciousness appear to nurture universally profound life-altering experiences of interconnectedness, mutuality and ‘Oneness.’ These experiences are reflected in an increasingly expanding worldwide popular literature and media regarding the experience of a global collective or gestalt of ‘We.’

5) Modern science continues to bring forward major discoveries concerning the unified nature of reality—both at the level of new factual discoveries and also changes in science’s methods and philosophies with regard to these. Such discoveries arise from across the physical sciences as well as the biological and cognitive sciences, affecting our understanding of physics, chemistry, cosmology, our anthropological origins and changes in the structures and assumptions of the philosophy of science itself.

6) New self-evident truths appear to be emerging. The merging rational and analytical mind of the Renaissance and early European enlightenment created a gestalt in which individuals began thinking strongly in terms of their worldviews and life options, not just those of the privileged or governing elite, and saw the emergence of self-evident truths with regard to the value and rights of individuals. So also today new self-evident truths seem to be arising. But this time they appear to involve the meaning of collectives and the inevitable roles of individual and institutions within collectives and in responsibility to a collective. An aspect of this is the emergence of a sense of self-evident truths or inalienable rights with regard to access to resources. This appears to be behind all the worldwide ‘springs’—the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the now-emerging Catholic Spring. These appear to be reflections of humankind’s ongoing cognitive development, a development (as we trace in The Coming Interspiritual Age) in which our human brain-mind is moving toward a gestalt that sees profound interconnectedness, indeed even ‘oneness’ – a unity consciousness.

Positive Developments Vie With Newly Invigorated Global Pathologies

Meantime, however, significant pathologies across our planetary cultures also appear to be increasing. These include religious and cultural fundamentalism of all kinds, a general decline in critical thinking skills across the world‘s population (fueled by media oversimplification, outright distortion or misinformation purveyed by ‘pop culture’), and a general ‘dumbing-down’ of the world’s educational, informational and culturally supportive systems. One result is a prevalence of highly individualized and idiosyncratic worldviews, often reflecting oversimplifications, lack of factual knowledge, outright misinformation or naïvete. Such worldviews are frequently governed by ‘buzzword’ media or pop-culture-based views of reality. Thriving on this are political slogans and punditry of all kinds, which have such an effect on world opinion and political direction that it’s nearly stunning to see statistics on degrees of the loss of critical thinking skills across the citizenry of many cultures. Indeed, our review of statistics from worldwide polls shows, alarmingly, that the discoveries and knowledge of modern science and the developed cultural or ethical claims of the world religions actually hold little sway with regard to actual public opinion. Rather, based on the factors reviewed above, a large majority of the world’s 7.1 billion citizens hold worldviews that aren’t factually based, are highly ndividualized and idiosyncratic at best, or constitute not holding any general worldview at all.9

Of particular interest in response to this challenge, a new field of science has arisen: ‘The Cognitive Science of Religion’ (CSR), formally associated in 2006,100 combining the studies of five major academic fields focused on the investigation of religion and spirituality by scientific methods.1 The perspectives of CSR suggest a real danger for the world’s future may be that the human ‘monkey mind’ will become entrained in ways of viewing reality, and functioning within it, that are radically non-fact based and thus lead to public decision-making that actually impedes or seriously challenges a successful future for the species. As an aspect of this viewpoint, CSR also clearly distinguishes the phenomenon of religion from that of spirituality. According to CSR, spirituality refers to humans’ underlying personal subjective experiences of reality (‘contemplative’ and ‘mystical’ experiences, for example). These often lead experiencers to profound, life-altering understandings of the nature of reality and their place in it. Historically, however, CSR sees these naturally occurring experiences, which appear to be part of our deepest human nature, as historically changed (in some senses ‘hijacked’) by the eventualities of organized religious systems. The priority of organized religions is usually not so much the individualized subjective life-changing experience, but the wider sociological phenomenon of organized religions, which naturally have as their currency exclusive beliefs, dogmas and creeds. CSR sees the arising of religion from spirituality as natural, but often with a pathological paradox, because religion actually has a different social purpose: to conform behavior to various social, cultural and political norms (and less-to-nothing to do with spiritual experience).

Statistics reflecting the precarious situation of human worldviews on the planet today include some startling general patterns. For instance, some 70% of the earth’s population has a non-scientific worldview; and while 85% are at least culturally associated with a particular religion, only 35% say they are active in the religion or religions of their culture, while 65% claim they don’t actually believe in any religion at all.12 This suggests that the vast majority of the world’s 7 billion people really have no specific view of reality. Looking regionally within this general worldwide pattern, while less than 35% of people actually practice, or are familiar with, the religious tenants or ethical underpinnings of their surrounding culture, fewer than 20% of those not practicing the religion of their home or surrounding community are conversant with the concepts, worldviews or ethical tenants of another religion or ethical system.13 Overall, significant percentages take their worldview from surrounding pop culture.

As an example, in the United States (a recent study ranked its citzenry 18th worldwide in critical thinking skills14), 56-70% of individuals polled favored worldviews not based on either science or the religion of their surrounding community.15 This included 20-40% professing opinions that are contrary to the views of modern science16 and 60-70% misstating basic scientific or sociological facts or tenants of the religion of their general community,17 despite the fact that 30% of those interviewed had college degrees.18 Extreme cases like the United States, where Christian fundamentalism has a strong political base, offer other perplexing challenges. Its community of educated scientists accepts the tenants of modern science almost completely (93%);19 yet, despite the fact that 99% of Americans have attended school and 30% have college degrees, in political polls only about 13% of Americans accept the idea or implications of biological evolution, while 48% believe that a God created things mostly as they are now sometime in the last 10,000 years—as startling as this may be.20 Additionally, of that 48% who believe that creation is about 10,000 years old, 95% said that belief in science and ‘God’ aren’t compatible.21 Further problematic to such statistics is the fact that sociological studies correlate strongly religious cultures with less economic productivity22 and rich-poor social structures.23 The United States, because of the relative dynamism of young nationhood, is currently an exception to those correlations, though beginning to evidence the trend.24 Such statistical generalities seem startling, but are nonetheless real and belie the general assumption of many that the world’s cumulative religious, ethical and scientific knowledge actually has a primary influence on what world citizens believe.

However, there are nuances to this landscape that are important, particularly as to predicting whether our planetary future may be a good one or rocky one. First of all, for all the negative implications of the studies above, there are differences when questions aren’t asked in language laced with strong religious or political implications. One obtains quite different results when questions are asked at the level of greater generalities—as with hopes, values or questions about basic principles, especially people’s sense of unifying principles concerning life and reality. Into this conversation come the nearly 30-40% of people worldwide who refer to themselves with the category ‘spiritual but not religious.’25 For instance, of the world’s 7.1 billion citizens, fully 6.1 billion profess a belief that a ‘spiritual dimension,’ even a ‘spirit realm,’ is a part of their life experience.26 A surprising 78% of those polled internationally believe there are ‘unifying principles’ concerning reality.27 A number of polls indicate that from 71-80% believe that multicultural understanding is fundamental to a positive world future and that the world should be pursuing a unified vision.28 Some 80% also believe that the religions should be talking to each other with regard to visions of the common good.29

Although Religion Can Be Problematic, Spirituality is ‘Wired’ in Our Nature

Along with the 30-40% of individuals who identify themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ some 50% identify religious fundamentalism as a danger30 and up to 78% describe positive experiences when either personally investigating or interacting with a religion different from their own.31 Some 40% identify regular practices in their lives that have a background in a religion other than that of their direct heritage.32 Reflecting the 78% worldwide who believe reality has unifying principles and 77% that there is a positive purpose to history,33 a wealth of scientific and psychological research also underpins the general understanding that subjective experience (indeed, spiritual experience) is fundamental to the makeup of our species. It also appears there is a clear trend toward the day-to-day spirituality of world citizens becoming more trans-traditional. So, what becomes of this innate tendency and this trend, relative to our future? Obviously, the entire cultural context for spirituality and religion is changing, which means that religion and spirituality will inevitably change. We are apparently at a crossroads.

At a 2012 meeting of the 20-some year old Snowmass Interreligious Initiatives (out of which emerged, by 1986, the ‘Eight Points of Agreement’ further elaborated in Brother Wayne Teasdale’s foundational writing for the worldwide interspiritual movement), Fr. Thomas Keating summarized the world process as follows. The original question of the Snowmass Interreligious Initiative was to ask whether the great traditions have things in common that might anchor their role in positive world transformation. This was the 20th century question. The answer, Keating said, is an overwhelming “Yes.” Now, he said, as we enter this next phase—the 21st century phase—the business of the planet’s religious and spiritual communities is to begin processing and development around these transformational elements of unity. Moreover, it’s clear that these ‘Eight Points of Agreement’ reflect both the four unifying principles (or Archimedean points) identified by previous historical religious and scientific discussion and the ethical generalities of the ‘Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality’34 embraced by both interspirituality and the foundational documents of humanism.35

Immediately relevant to this unfolding are the existential encounters of people around the world from across the religious traditions, both in our evolving multicultural civil society and in countless interreligious settings specifically designed to foster innate heart-learning from such associations. In world civil society, it’s already apparent that the sense of boundaries is rapidly fading. It’s obvious in international cross-border trade and other cultural settings, but particularly across the landscape of the personal lives of world citizens. Boundaries—national, ethic, racial and sexual identity—are all evaporating. Throughout Europe and America, 25% of marriages are now across religions and cultures (a statistic that in highly cosmopolitan locations worldwide can reach 60%), reflecting global statistics that 60% of individuals have also dated someone from another religion or culture.36 Worldwide, 78% of people report a positive experience of someone from another religion or culture encountered in their work environment.37 Another certain reflection of this breaking down of boundaries, and the arising of new assumptions about the meaning of collectives and the responsibility of institutions to collectives, are the many ‘springs’ erupting worldwide—Arab, Occupy and Catholic to name the most obvious. The internet, global entertainment and travel all make the world today a cosmopolitan community. We see powerful ‘circles of empathy’ arising across professional and social media, actively decrying abuse and crimes against humanity whenever these are witnessed. In the last few years, the power of these social networks has profoundly changed political and civil landscapes in many parts of the world.

In the spiritual and religious context, the encounter today is precisely the ‘interspiritual encounter’ described by Brother Wayne Teasdale in his now classic book The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions. It’s becoming organically—and by what Brother Teasdale identified as a ‘new set of historical circumstances’—a currency of ‘people to people spirituality,’ as His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls it. In countless venues around the world, it’s already reflected in the fact of adherents of the world’s varied religious heritages intermixing and, particularly, meeting in settings where they can share not only their deepest subjective experiences but also what these imply universally for how people should live with one another and treat
one another. It’s also occurring within traditions, with new emphasis on the meaning of actually realizing spiritual, moral, and ethical maturity and the meaning of skillful, loving community. In any tradition, such spiritual maturity and the ideals of ‘interspirituality’ are virtually synonymous. These kinds of ‘interspirituality’ have become a reality worldwide.

What empowers this kind of encounter is a grounding in a very realistic and ordinary notion. It recognizes that it’s unlikely the religions of the world will ever sit down and agree on a common set of declarations, ideas or beliefs. So it turns somewhere else— the profound possibility that they will simply be able to sit down with each other in this depth of ‘shared recognition’ in the heart. In the long run, nothing less than an experiential, indeed existential, recognition of this kind will serve the ultimate need of our species as it struggles to meet the anthropological threshold presented by a globalizing and multicultural world made up of such diverse and differing components. Absent such a solution, we likely face a future of competition and conflict in which an array of exclusive religious worldviews will play a major part.

If This Is the Diagnosis, What’s the Prescription?

The kind of encounter recognized above has a number of components that themselves characterize a spirituality for the 21st century—especially if it is to be successful in serving the survival, let alone the thriving, of our species. Its central component must be about the experience available to all people in the existential encounter with ‘now’—that is, the innate experience of what is, in any moment, ‘right here, right now.’ Art, music, dance, myth, narratives held to be sacred—indeed, the experience of human love itself—are universally captured and characterized in this encounter. Such experiences permeate our most ordinary and deepest collective icons—sunsets, walking on a beach or in a forest, looking at the stars, hearing the sound of wind or birds, and touching or embracing. Inarguably, the most satisfying experience recorded across all traditions, and without any religious or spiritual context at all, is what is experienced existentially as ‘now’—without reference to past or collective hurt, division or suffering. Millions of people in the world today have experienced, and deeply value, this encounter in ‘the now.’ Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, with its multimillion sales worldwide and translation into 33 languages, is only one example of the evidence for this.

However, as Brother Teasdale emphasized in his work, the equally crucial challenge for a 21st century spirituality is to address, through a multitude of healing processes—encounter and social remedy—these accumulated hurts, traumas and divisions that have come from our shared millennial and global history. As psychologists readily note, much of the perennially ingrained fear and hatred that permeates so many sectors of our world is a global post-traumatic stress syndrome, whose severity and complexity must be recognized as such.

The world’s religions in the 21st century can serve this process not only by cultivating the individual’s existential and person-to-person encounter, but also by initiating a renaissance in the traditions, calling their adherents back to the depths and riches of our contemplative, mystical core, which is foundational in every human. The mystical—actual, personal and potent experience of higher holistic consciousness and its profound effect of the empowerment of the heart—is essential to turning our collective narrative in a new direction. Further, this must be accompanied by the religions of the 21st century emphasizing not their differences, nor their exclusive claims, but the shared collective views of oneness and profound interconnectedness—with all their ethical implications—that characterize the heart of all the world’s Great Wisdom Traditions. If, from evolutionary history, our human nature is prone to following sloganeering, punditry, or emotionally compelling narratives, we—as Bertrand Russell proclaimed—might as well tell a good story instead of a poor one.

The call for holistic, heart-based religion and spirituality—for a world with rapidly dissolving boundaries—is no easy prescription. Brother Teasdale, addressing the religion of his own personal heritage, noted it would take great courage for any of the world’s religions to accept this universal and holistic task, then work to have it replace the tendencies to exclusivism so ingrained and embedded in our anthropological nature. Barely three centuries ago, humanity emerged from seventy centuries of monolithic social and religious structures, all perennially nurtured by an era wherein societies, peoples and languages were geographically separate and thus innately insular. As the work of anthropologists and developmental historians clearly illustrates, nearly every world upheaval through our millennial history has come on the heels of the breaking down of boundaries. In the past in such circumstances, our species Homo sapiens proved to be the ‘great adapter.’ This is what assured our becoming, among all the intelligent hominid species that have come and gone on the planet (and there have been at least fifteen), what modern science calls ‘the last man standing.’ It’s a big question whether, at this juncture in our history, our adaptive pluck—and luck—might run out. Seventy thousand years ago, there were three intelligent species on the planet: Homo sapiens, neanderthalensis and floresiensis. Luck ran out for the last two.

Our view, in light of current scientific consciousness and brainmind studies, is that the human mind is entering a new gestalt—less dual, and more innately seeing a profoundly interconnected reality. In this context, strikingly upon us as we simultaneously enter a new millennium, arises the challenge of a 21st century spirituality. It must center on the clear implications and challenges of an inevitable globalization and multiculturalism. It must emphasize and mine our shared subjective (yes, mystical) nature. And it must empower and expand our already existing narratives of Oneness, profound interconnectedness and the possibilities of welcoming person-to-person encounter across traditional boundaries.

In this millennium, it’s likely we will enter a challenging period of experimentation. Just as when the modern analytical mind began emerging in the Renaissance and, moving into the early centuries of human intellectual enlightenment, displaced seven millennia of monarchy with new visions of ‘freedom,’ our new millennium may see decades, perhaps centuries, of experimentation. This experimentation will be about what our hard-won understanding of the dignity of the individual now means in light of the urgent need for an awakened and skilled global collective. It’s a profound question as to what part, if any, religion and spirituality will step up to play in this chapter of our evolution.
Many feel that if ‘old time’ exclusive religion doesn’t evolve into a holistic gestalt—capable of skillfully operating in a complex global and multicultural world—it will, as in the cliché ‘part of the problem and not part of the solution,’ be destined for extinction. Like astrology before it (which ruled for centuries in the Middle Ages), it might simply fade away, or it may be part of a world cataclysm of conflict that ends up bringing the planet down. Having said this, humankind’s spiritual nature appears fundamental; hence it’s this part of our makeup that would change, and with it the structures of religion. The coming Interspiritual Age would characterize the arising 21st century spirituality, as we have outlined above: highly personal, highly experiential, holistic and all embracing. It’s likely its narratives would no longer be anthropomorphic—those of casts of celestial characters bringing permanent salvation or damnation. Its narratives would more likely be about how reality is structured and how it works, in both our inner and outer cosmologies. Most of all it would teach a world of the heart, where ‘truth’ is identified with what brings everything and everyone together, and ‘falsehood’ identified with whatever separates or divides.

The world is already full of models that reflect these kinds of visions and values. It isn’t overreaching to forecast that this kind of spirituality and religion must characterize the 21st century. Interspiritualists and interreligionists call it ‘the Interspiritual Age.’ Integralists and developmentalists refer to it as ‘the Integral Age’ or ‘Age of Evolutionary Consciousness.’ Humanists speak of it as ‘the Ethical Manifold.’ We agree with those who think this is the direction we are going—the undeniable trend.


1Hereafter ‘TCIA,’ Namaste Publishing, 2012.
2,3for specific lists see TCIA.
4The Mystic Heart 1999, A Monk in the World 2003, Bede Griffiths 2003.
5Miles-Yepez (ed), The Common Heart 2004.
6Vatican ‘CDF’ statements 1984, 1986.
7scientific term, see Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point 1996.
8Felix Adler Life and Destiny 1903, Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal 1923, Ken Wilber Integral Spirituality 2006.
9reviewed hereafter are poll results on a subject by subject basis.
10Int. Assoc. for the Cognitive Science of Religion.
11sociobiology, sociology of religion, anthropology of religion and transpersonal and evolutionary psychology.
12Gallup 2011.
13NY Times 2010.
14Reuters 2011.
15Roper 1999, 2002.
16Gallup 2011.
17Roper 1999, 2002.
18USAToday 2010.
19,20Gallup 2007.
22Gallup 2007.
23,24NY Times 2010.
25Gallup 2002.
27Pew 2007.
28FT & Harris 2007, Yankelovich & Pew 1998, 1999.
29PRRI/RNS Religion News 2011.
30Gallup, Pew 2005, 2007.
31Interfaith Alliance 2009.
32ABC 2011.
33Yahoo UK, 2009.
34The Mystic Heart.
35see 8.
36Global Social Survey 2006.
37Interfaith Alliance 2009.