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Bruce Alderman Bruce Alderman, M.A., is adjunct faculty in the College of Psychology at John F. Kennedy University (JFKU). He received his master's degree in Integral Psychology, with an emphasis on Transpersonal Counseling Psychology, from JFKU in 2005. He currently teaches Paradigms of Consciousness; Fundamentals of Transpersonal Psychology; World Spirituality; Living Systems Theory; Integral Life Practice; Individual Development; and Integral Meditation and Psychospiritual Development. Prior to working at JFKU, he taught and studied abroad in Asia for several years, including teaching courses on creative writing and inquiry at the Rajghat Besant School, a Krishnamurti school in Varanasi, India. He has published essays in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice and Consciousness journal, as well as in several forthcoming anthologies on Integral philosophy and spirituality. Recently, he contributed to and co-edited the January 2019 special issue of Integral Review journal on Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality. Faculty Profile. Email:

Eight Zones of Religion
and Spirituality

Bruce Alderman

Integral Spirituality

Shortly after the publication of Ken Wilber's Integral Spirituality [2006], I created an online discussion forum, “Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality,” with the intent of exploring, digesting, and evaluating this latest turn in Wilber's thought (especially as presented in this text and the Kosmos trilogy excerpts). One of the early criticisms of Wilber's book that several of us raised was that it neglected to apply its new “Eight Zones” innovation to itself: that it did not outline an “integral methodological pluralist” model of religion and spirituality. The following document was my original response to that criticism, which I created as a community resource for the IPS forum.

It does not contain any original writing. I had intended at some point to write an essay that fleshed out the contents of each zone in my own words, but I never got around to that. (Now that Frank has asked me for this, I realize I probably should!) But in the meantime, what follows is simply a collation of passages from other sources—primarily from the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, but also a few other texts, which I've noted below. The entries provide several examples of methodologies appropriate to each zone, but obviously this isn't an exhaustive representation of relevant approaches or thinkers; more can be added, and I hope as a community we can do that (as well as identify any approaches that may fall through the gaps of the Eight Zones map).


Eight Zones of Religion and Spirituality
Eight zones. (Source: Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality, 2006, p. 39)

Zone #1 Spiritual phenomenological practice and experience
(meditation, contemplation, prayer, mystical experience)
Zone #2 Structuralism
(e.g., Fowler's Stages of Faith; Spiral Dynamics), Psychology of Religion
Zone #3 Hermeneutics
(e.g., textual exegesis, intersubjectivity), language as sacred, dialogue (contemplative, interfaith), communion
Zone #4 Anthropology of Religion
(Emile Durkheim, Wolfhart Pannenberg, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Clifford Geertz, etc.)
Zone #5 Cognitive Science & Autopoiesis
(influence of modern theories on theology; use of cognitive scientific tools to study mystical experience: Hood Mysticism Scale; Ego Grasping Orientation Inventory; Narcissistic Personality Inventory, etc.)
Zone #6 Empiricism, Neurophysiology
(the "God Spot," neuroscience of mystical states)
Zone #7 Social Autopoiesis of Religion
(e.g., religion studied as a complex system of communication of faith or belief, using theories of Luhmann & Habermas)
Zone #8 Systems Theory
(General, Evolutionary, Chaos Theory, etc.)—applied to or compared with traditional spiritual traditions and beliefs: Buddhism and Process thought; Aurobindo; Teilhard de Chardin; the New Story, etc.

Table 1. Eight Zones of Religion and Spirituality

Zone 1: Phenomenology (Prayer and Meditation/Mysticism)

Zone 1: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the inside view of a holon in the Upper-Left quadrant.

Phenomenology and Consciousness

Phenomenology is an area of philosophy with important implications for consciousness. Phenomenology seeks to ground everything in the actual experience of human beings; in other words, it takes a "first person" experiential perspective, rather than "third person" scientific perspective. Important exponents include Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger considered implications of embodiment, including finitude and temporality, noting that humans are historical beings, bounded in time, space, and ability. Many of these themes also appear in the anti-cognitivist movement. Another such theme, with origins in Heidegger and especially Merleau-Ponty, but developed by Hubert Dreyfus, is the phenomenological critique of representation, which draws on human experience with routine activities to argue that representations are not necessary for embodied action. The work of Merleau-Ponty predates Gibson and Brooks, but is non-empirical, while Dreyfus makes compelling use of work by Walter Freeman connecting brain dynamics with chaos theory.

…There have been proposals to merge phenomenology and science (such as the neurophenomenology of Francisco Varela), and even proposals to reformulate science based on phenomenology. More such proposals can be expected, in part because experience provides phenomena that demand explanation, including the following aspects of consciousness: it is ineffable, open, fluid, non-local, temporally thick, and involves qualia and a sense of self. Can it be mere coincidence that similar properties are often attributed to God? Reports from experienced meditators suggest additional phenomena, such as certain states of consciousness in which there are no thoughts. Moreover, the emphasis on time in phenomenology resonates well with many issues and results in neuroscience.

Prayer and Meditation

Prayer is the practice of communion with God and traditionally involves components such as confession, thanksgiving, and intercession (praying for the needs of others). Meditation is a form of spiritual practice based on focused attention that is restrained in its use of words or images. Whereas prayer is conceptualized in terms of a relationship with God, meditation does not necessarily make theistic assumptions. Prayer and meditation raise several issues for the science-religion discussion, including the effects of intercessory prayer for those prayed for and the more general benefits of prayer and meditation for those who practice them. There are both outcome questions about the extent of the benefits, and process questions about how benefits are mediated.

...Meditation has been widely studied scientifically, especially transcendental meditation. There is clear evidence that transcendental meditation produces a distinctive arousal pattern of relaxed alertness, and there is evidence also of its therapeutic value, not only on subjective measures such as anxiety, but on more objective measures such as use of drugs and alcohol. However, none of that may have much to do with religion; it may be that transcendental meditation is little more than a technique for deep relaxation.

The cognitive aspects of meditation are more interesting from a theological point of view. A pointer to the distinctive mode of cognition induced by meditation comes from the classic laboratory studies of Arthur Deikman during the 1960s in which college students gazed at a blue vase while refraining from thinking discursively about the vase in any way. The unusual sensations of vividness experienced were interpreted as arising from a suspension of the normal "automatization" of perception.

Though some meditation moves beyond words and images, much of it still uses them, albeit in an unusual way. Words and images are characteristically used sparingly, but each is allowed to resonate with maximum depth of meaning.

Layers of meaning may be uncovered that are felt to be "ineffable." That sense of ineffability may arise from making use of a meaning system of the cognitive architecture that is distinct from, and to an unusual extent decoupled from, propositions that lend themselves to articulation.


Permeating each of the world's major religious traditions, mysticism may be described as the level of deep, experiential encounter with the divine, or ultimate, however that may be understood, that links religious and spiritual pursuits across cultures and across the centuries. Mysticism differs from more defined forms of religious experience, inasmuch as it frequently transports the individual beyond the confines of the religious tradition itself to a realm often described as lacking in any sense of differentiation, whether it be between aspirant and God, or between self and non-self.

The task of defining mysticism bears reevaluation, however. As Frits Staal has written, "If mysticism is to be studied seriously, it should not merely be studied indirectly and from without, but also directly and from within.

Mysticism can at least in part be regarded as something affecting the human mind, and it is therefore quite unreasonable to expect that it could be fruitfully explored by confining oneself to literature about or contributed by mystics, or to the behavior and physiological characteristics of mystics and their bodies." (p. 123). That being said, according to a loose, phenomenological typology, one may consider mysticism to be that genre of subjectivity and behavior manifesting in an "altered," or nonconventional mode, framed in a religious or spiritual narrative, and experienced by those who are referred to, at least in English, as "mystics."

Mystical Experience

Defined in contradistinction to so-called ordinary or mundane experience, mystical experience conjures images of ecstatic rapture, overwhelming emotion, or profound quietude. An apparently universal aspect of human experience cross-culturally and interreligiously, subjective experiences of a mystical persuasion likely reflect universal but nonetheless unusual predispositions and propensities of the human mind. Continuing advances in cognitive science in general, and in the neurosciences in particular, promise to illuminate aspects of mystical experience previously hidden behind the mask of the phenomenological. At the same time, a historically more refined form of comparative phenomenology promises to coordinate the enormous variety of descriptions of mystical experiences. Research from both the sciences and the humanities will contribute to the development of a comprehensive, compelling interpretation of these experiences.

Zone 2: Structuralism / Psychology of Religion

Zone 2: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the outside view of a holon in the Upper-Left quadrant.

Fowler's Stages of Faith

A range of naturalistic theories of religious experiences ties them to patterns of emotional attachment and to neural structures as in Eugene d'Aquili's life-long program, synthesized in The Mystical Mind (1999). Disciplines like prayer and meditation have documentable physical effects, and a whole literature exists on the psychological benefits of spirituality. A tradition of research in the psychology of spiritual development, of which James Fowler's Stages of Faith (1981) is the best known, also connects the interdependent self of mature ego-development to the breakdown of self/other boundaries sought by spiritual and ethical traditions. At higher levels of development, spirit is really not about the individual, nor is it otherworldly, but still strongly opposes a materialistic ethic.

Summary of Fowler's stages (from Weaving the New Creation):

  • Primal Faith: "Earliest faith is what enables us to undergo these separations [from parents] without undue anxiety or fear of loss of self. Primal faith forms before there is language. It forms the basic rituals of care and interchange and mutuality. And, although it does not determine the course of our later faith, it lays the foundation on which later faith will build or that will have to be rebuilt in later faith" (p. 103).
  • Intuitive-Projective Faith: "The next stage of faith emerges in early childhood with the acquisition of language. Here imagination, stimulated by stories, gestures, and symbols and not yet controlled by logical thinking, combines with perception and feelings to create long-lasting faith images . . .Representations of God take conscious form in this period and draw, for good or ill, on children's experiences of their parents or other adults to whom they are emotional attached in the first years of life . . .when conversion experiences occur at later stages in ones' life, the images formed in this stage have to be reworked in some important ways." (p. 103)
  • Mythic-Literal Faith (coincides with Piaget's "concrete operational thinking"): Here concrete operational thinking--the developing ability to think logically--emerges to help us order the world with categories of causality, space, time and number. We can now sort out the real from the make-believe, the actual from fantasy. We can enter into the perspectives of others, and we become capable of capturing life and meanings in narrative and stories. (p. 105)
  • Synthetic-Conventional Faith (coincides with Piaget's "formal operational thinking"): "The next stage characteristically begins to take form in early adolescence. The emergence of formal operational thinking [the ability to think abstractly] opens the way for reliance upon abstract ideas and concepts for making sense of one's world. The person can now reflect upon past experience and search them for meaning and pattern. At the same time, concerns about one's personal future--one's identity, one's work, career, or vocation--and one's personal relationships become important" (p. 107).
  • Individuative-Reflective Faith: "In this next stage two important movements have to occur. One the one hand, to move into the Individuative-Reflective stage, we have to question, examine, and reclaim the values and beliefs that we have formed to that point in our lives. They must become explicit commitments rather than tacit commitments. 'Tacit" her means unconsidered, unexamined, uncritically approved. "Explicit' means consciously chosen and critically supported commitments . . .In the other move that this stage requires one has to claim what I call an 'executive ego.' In the previous stage . . .one could say that a person's identity is largely shaped by her or his roles and relationships . . .In moving to the Individuative-Reflective stage, one has to face and answer such questions as, Who am I when I'm not defined by being my parents' son or daughter? Who am I when I'm not defined by being so-and-so's spouse? Who am I when I'm not defined by the work I do? Who is the 'I' that has those roles and relations but is not fully expressed by any one of them?" (p. 109)
  • Conjunctive Faith: "At midlife we frequently see the emergence of the stage we call Conjunctive Faith. This stage involves the embrace and integration of opposites and polarities in one's life. It means realizing in one's late thirties, forties, or beyond that one is both young and old, and that youth and age are held together in the same life . . .It means coming to terms with the fact that we are both constructive people and, inadvertently destructive people. Paul captured this in Romans 7 when he said, "For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . .Who will rescue me from this body of death?'" (19, 24 NRSV; p. 111)
  • Universalizing Faith: "Beyond paradox and polarities, persons in the Universalizing Faith stage are grounded in a oneness with the power of being or God. Their visions and commitments seem to free them for a passionate yet detached spending of the self in love. Such persons are devoted to overcoming division, oppression, and violence, and live in effective anticipatory response to an inbreaking commonwealth of love and justice, the reality of an inbreaking kingdom of God." (P. 113).

Psychology of Religion

From the perspective of science and religion, there exist three kinds of psychology of religion. "Secular" empirical psychology (e.g., Hood)—the most widely practiced—excludes the question of the transcendent and researches religious experiences and behavior in terms of meaningful psychological concepts such as cognition, emotion, motivation, attribution, social interaction, and development. The two other kinds are more mission-oriented. "Theistic" religious psychology (e.g., Koteskey; cf. Reich) includes the transcendent and aims to understand God's creation and make people more God-like by improving their mental functioning, their moral judgment, their empathy and so forth. "Atheistic" psychology of religion (e.g. Kurtz; Vetter) aims primarily to demonstrate the illusion of a perceived transcendent [reality] and the regressive and oppressive effects of being religious.

Zone 3: Hermeneutics

Zone 3: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the inside view of a holon in the Lower-Left quadrant.

Hermeneutics first arises in the disciplines of interpreting sacred texts, historical events, and legal codes, but philosophers increasingly see its application to theories of understanding in the broadest sense. The book, poem, event, or law to be interpreted is referred to generically as the "text." The interpretation of texts is seen as a metaphor for all kinds of non-textual interpretative problems, for instance in social and psychological theories and increasingly also in the biophysical sciences.

…Religions have long dealt with the problem of interpretation. When confronted with an archaic or foreign language in a sacred text, simple translation itself becomes an interpretative task. Sacred texts and traditions are full of other interpretative problems. Even if readers begin with the presupposition that the text is divinely revealed and, in some sense perfect, as for instance with the status of the Koran for most Muslims, they must still confront their own finitude as the readers of such revealed texts. Ambiguity and conflict within the Koran necessarily give rise to a body of interpretation and case law that places this foundational religious text within a tradition of jurisprudence. Talmudic interpretations of Torah in Judaism are another explicit example of a hermeneutical process at work in religion.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and others in the early and medieval Christian movement argued that the Bible was often allegorical and not to be understood as literal. The parables of Jesus are explicitly metaphorical and thus also in need of interpretation. With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), and others tended to reject allegorical interpretation as mere manipulation of the text for the political purposes of the Catholic hierarchy. A literal and uni-vocal hermeneutics was advanced in which the Bible was open to the self-interpretation of every competent reader, even as it was widely translated in vernacular languages for the first time. Curiously, the Christian reform movement, which advanced this literal and univocal Biblical hermeneutics, quickly splintered into competing Protestant denominations. Radical Protestants argued that Biblical interpretation must be guided by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit in which the text was written, or it could never be properly understood. As the New Testament itself warns us, even the devil quotes scripture.

…Contemporary hermeneutic theory tends toward philosophical and ethical pragmatism. The truth of a theory or interpretation is understood not through some direct correspondence to reality but through the practical consequences of its applications. In this sense, postmodernism can be seen as having deep affinities with some religious and scientific philosophies. The reluctance of physicists to draw metaphysical implications from quantum mechanics can be seen as a kind of pragmatism. Plato (428–347 B.C.E.) offers the notion of a Noble Lie necessary for well-being of the Polis and the individual. Jesus' warning to judge the false prophets on the consequences of their ministry, to be wary of rotten "fruit" in "sheep's clothing," can also be seen as a pragmatist apologetic. Buddhism includes the notion of Upaya, effective teachings that are not necessarily true but that work nonetheless. Even if foundational theories of knowledge are unattainable, one might still find in lived experience some practical guidance.

Religion, which has long been attacked and deconstructed as mythic delusion, can now claim some pragmatic parity with the scientific worldview that attacked it within this pragmatist hermeneutic. History, anthropology, psychology, sociology, gender studies, and literary theory have long been conversation partners in serious religious thought and inquiry, but they are now new dialogue partners for the biophysical sciences.

Once perceived as hostile to a committed life of faith, modernist critical theory has turned into a postmodernist helpmate for religion in nurturing deep and intellectually vibrant religious belief. The fact that there are invisible social and psychological processes that corrupt and distort one's understanding of the divine (or nature) and that unconscious processes can be exposed and demystified through critical interpretative theory is an occasion to reaffirm human finitude and humbleness before the divine and the larger nature that contains human "be(ing) longingness." After all, in most faith traditions such humility is prescribed. The Judaic prohibition against idolatry, the via negativa of medieval Christianity, the Neti Neti of Hinduism, the Sunyata of Buddhism, and the Islamic sense of divine transcendence are all rich affirmations of human epistemological finitude before the Ultimate.

Paul Ricoeur (1913–) carefully considers this new linguistic analysis and argues that far from being merely arbitrary, human language builds upon a deep symbolic structure of the universe itself. It is not just that human language reflects a semiotic/semantic structure internally; the universe itself is constituted through semiotic/semantic processes. Ricoeur advocates metaphoric realism. Words achieve their denotative function only through connotative associations in established usage. Because the function of language is first established in connotation, the result is a theory of metaphors as linguistically primordial. Ricoeur avoids descending into relativistic nonsense by grounding human language in a semiotic and semantically rich universe.

Many religions consider language to be somehow primordial to the material constitution of the universe. In Hinduism, the Upanishads talk of a primal word, Om, which functions as the creative source of all nature. The Greeks, including Plato, drew upon Heraclitus' notion of Logos, viewing the embodied word as that fire that animated and ruled the world. In Jewish Midrash, the grammatical ambiguity of the first line of Genesis, leads to philosophical speculation about a pre-existent Torah, which God uses to speak reality into being. In Medieval Judaism, this rabbinic tradition gave rise to the wild speculations and philosophical subtleties of the Kabbalists. In the Gospel of John, Christians celebrate this Word or Logos in a radical incarnationalist vision of a cosmic Christ by whom and through whom all things are made and from whom everything that was created received life.

So, too, throughout the sciences theoretical and research projects point beyond mere materialism and reductionism to a new kind of ontological entity called "information." Contemporary scientists take matter-energy and space-time as metaphysical foundations, but increasingly need to include some concept of "information" in their metaphysics, even though information is somehow immaterial, ephemeral, and context dependent.

The relativistic tendencies of postmodern hermeneutics and culture at large now present a great challenge at a time in human history that also requires intellectual rigor and committed moral action in the face of theoretical and existential uncertainty. The hermeneutical dynamic may be unavoidable, but it need not be a self-confirming or paralyzing circle of prejudice. While unavoidable, the cultural biases of the interpreter are not necessarily bad, for a tradition is paradoxically the sustaining foundation upon which deconstructive hermeneutics builds new meanings. All deconstructions are parasitic on some functional metanarrative. Nor does interpretation always necessarily confirm the prejudgments of interpretation. The text presents a limited matrix of possible and plausible interpretations. The trick will be not to deny one's hermeneutical finitude through some fundamentalist dogmatism or callous rhetorical will-to-power, but to honor the hermeneutical process and open the solipsistic circle into an evolving spiral. New and different voices in one's social and biophysical ponderings can help provide powerful insights, even as the text or phenomenon have the capacity sometimes to direct one to new insights in spite of oneself.

Human reason, like the universe, is polyglot. But interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and intra-phenomenological translation projects are possible and necessary. With a combination of interpretative insights of science and religion, like the blind men describing the elephant in the Jainist-Buddhist myth, a "fusion of horizons" and a fuller understanding of science, society, self, and the sacred might be gained. A rigorous and open-ended conversation of tolerance and humility is an ethical and epistemological prescription for both science and religion as we confront the extraordinary challenges of our time and the stunning complexities of the universe and ourselves.

Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida

Probably the most profound way in which Gadamer and Derrida have shaped hermeneutics is in how we think about texts. Both thinkers saw texts as constituted not by dead letters but by living words. Gadamer went so far as to claim that a text does not fully exist except in the moment in which it is read and understood. Further, the very reading and understanding of texts has an impact upon the texts themselves. Thus, rather than being static, texts are constantly in motion, since our interpretation of them affects their very being.

As living entities, texts have a history, and that history becomes so intimately connected to the texts themselves that there can be no clear distinction between text and interpretation history. Rather than their being merely an expression of an author's thought, texts are mutually constituted by author and reader. That balance is one found in both Gadamer and Derrida, despite the fact that Derrida has often been (wrongly) read as saying that readers have the sole control of texts.

So, what do these two figures mean for a pastor preparing a sermon on a biblical text? They call for rethinking the very essence of interpretation. Explicating a text requires a willingness to play with it, a willingness to hear what it has to say with open ears. While we all come to texts with our prejudices, engaging a text in a genuine dialogue means that those prejudices are put into question.

In reading a text like the Bible, one is well aware of its special authority and its peculiar way of questioning us. Yet, if we are to be truly faithful interpreters, we need just as much to question it. It is within this mutual questioning, this to-and-fro movement, that understanding takes place. Although Derrida is somewhat less sanguine about the ability of texts to communicate truth, Gadamer closes his magnum opus Truth and Method by saying that the "discipline of questioning and inquiring" indeed "guarantees truth." We merely need to be willing to enter into dialogue and able to listen.

[Excerpted from Gadamer, Derrida and How We Read, by Bruce Ellis Benson]

Zone 4: Anthropology of Religion

Zone 4: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the outside view of a holon in the Lower-Left quadrant.

No known society is without religion. Anthropologists study this species-wide phenomenon as a human trait or institution, an element of culture, seeking a deep understanding of all, not just the "world," religions and their local significance. From this breadth, anthropologists of religion ask: What is religion? Are there any common elements? How did it originate? Intentionally nontheological, the anthropology of religion is less concerned with, for example, whether ancestor spirits of the New Guinea Maring people really interact with the living people than with how that perception influences culture. Despite the intention of objectivity, a strong thread of philosophical naturalism permeates the field from E. B. Tylor, James Fraser, and Emile Durkheim to Raymond Firth and Stewart Guthrie. Important exceptions include Edward Evans-Pritchard, Victor Turner, and Roy Rappaport.

Anthropology is not clearly a science, as indicated by the importance of divergent perspectives or schools of thought (social evolutionism, functionalism, historical particularism, cultural materialism, structuralism). It is thus difficult for a scholar of religion to discover the anthropological understanding of a topic. For example, a biblical scholar who painstakingly applies the structuralist insights of Claude Levi-Strauss to a particular text may be surprised and disheartened when her work is ignored by anthropologists sympathetic to Christianity, simply because they are not sympathetic to structuralism.

Anthropology may have more to contribute through its rich body of ethnographic, linguistic, archaeological, and paleoanthropological literature, and through more widely accepted conceptual categories such as culture, holism, and cultural relativism. In some cases the anthropology-religion connection can be put to practical use. Kenneth Pike, Thomas Headland, and others with SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), for example, are using anthropology to help ensure that translations of the Bible make sense in the local cultural context.

Perhaps most promising is the use of anthropological insights to address issues that grow from theology itself or from the science-religion dialogue. Such issues include sin, human destiny, consciousness, the environment, technology and religion, cognitive evolution, mind-body questions, and the fundamental nature of humanity. The opportunity for the science-religion dialogue to be conducted using questions drawn from theology rather than for theology to follow along and comment on science is potentially of great value.

A striving to understand what it is to be human is a central theme of both anthropology and theology, and systematic theologies often include a major section on the subject. The nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge gave the title Anthropology to the second volume of his three-volume Systematic Theology (1872), and he devoted some 730 pages to this subject and to salvation. Primary topics included the origins and nature of human beings, the soul, unity of the human race, original state, covenant of works, the fall, sin, and free agency. More than a century later the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology (1991) covers some of the same topics, though in different ways, in no small part because Pannenberg has given serious attention to the findings of academic anthropology, a field that did not exist when Hodge wrote Systematic Theology.

Pannenberg is a good model of serious theological engagement with anthropology without allowing the theological agenda to be overwhelmed. This is not an easy balance, for as F. LeRon Shults points out, theology has not come to grips with the changing view of humanity and human origins carefully constructed by anthropology (and evolutionary biology). It is possible for these topics to be explored philosophically, biblically, and in light of the history of theology, but without much contact with the growing anthropological understanding of what it is to be human. Shults, who is a leading expert on Pannenberg's thought, has himself made a major contribution to rethinking the fundamental theological doctrines of human nature, sin, and the image of God in light of anthropology.

Theologian J. Wentzel van Huyssteen is researching Paleolithic cognition to help understand the origins and nature of the human capacity for religion, a topic also being addressed by an interdisciplinary group of scholars organized by biologist William Hurlbut and anthropologist William Durhamat at Stanford University in California. Taking a somewhat different approach, theologian Philip Hefner is engaged in extensive exploration of the theological relevance of sociobiology and biocultural evolution. Hefner suggests that humans should be viewed as "created co-creators." And from a yet different perspective, population geneticist David Wilcox has written a series of articles exploring paleoanthropological findings from a traditionally evangelical, but not creationist, perspective.

Anthropologist Ward Goodenough, perhaps best known for his research on the people of Truk, has written a series of articles for Zygon on such subjects as the human capacity for belief. And the biological anthropologist and polymath Solomon Katz has contributed to the understanding of a great range of issues including religion and food, human purpose, and what it means to have a science of humanity. He has also developed and is now working out a model connecting religious change to subsistence change, arguing in particular that a change in religion was an enabler for the Neolithic adoption of agriculture.

Religion as a Cultural System

For further reference, see also “Religion as a Cultural System,” by Clifford Geertz. According to Geertz, a religion is:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Zone 5: Cognitive Science / Autopoiesis

Zone 5: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the inside view of a holon in the Upper-Right quadrant.

The modern concept of autopoiesis emerged within biological discourse, was picked up in sociology, and is increasingly present in debates within the philosophy of science. With ontological as well as epistemological implications, it touches religious understandings of God's action in the world and images of the original as well as ongoing creation. It promises to bridge natural and cultural processes.

…While Varela wants to restrict the concept of autopoiesis to cell systems, immune systems, and nerve systems, Maturana has extended it to human societies and epistemological issues, thereby providing support for radical constructivism. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) introduced the concept into the social sciences in order to characterize the self-referential operative closure of social systems and psychic systems. Social systems consist of communication, and psychic systems of thoughts. Neither can reach into their environment, but are open to it because of their self-referential closure.

The concept of autopoiesis has been criticized by some Christian theologians because it challenges not only the idea of a teleology immanent to nature but also the notion of total passivity and dependency in creation theology. It seems to replace the very idea of a creatio ex nihilo.

However, the concept was constructively used by Niels H. Gregersen in order to overcome the breach between God's activity and the self-productivity of God's own creatures. By distinguishing self-constitution in the sense of a theological ultimate beginning (creation de novo) from constituted autopoiesis as ongoing self-creative creativity based on self-constitution, Gregersen describes God as being creative by supporting and stimulating autopoietic processes. Autopoiesis can illuminate the theological notion of God's continuous creation, of providence in nature, and particularly of God's blessing. Within this context of creation the notion of autopoiesis resonates with God's self-giving nature and with the Christian notion of God's internal trinitarian self-realization.

… Approaching mysticism from the interpretive lens of cognitive science, visions and locutions offer themselves as interesting candidates for investigation. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, for example, frames Hildegard of Bingen in terms of medical literature on migraine. He writes, "The religious literature of all ages is replete with descriptions of 'visions,' in which sublime and ineffable feelings have been accompanied by the experience of radiant luminosity." He continues, "It is impossible to ascertain, in the vast majority of cases, whether the experience represents a hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication, or an epileptic or migrainous manifestation" (p. 112). Somewhat similarly, mental health professionals also have investigated patterns of commonality between the reported mystical experiences of religious practitioners and psychotic inpatients, concluding, "Contemplatives and psychotics taken together could be separated from Normals, but not from each other, with the Hood Mysticism Scale. The Normals and Contemplatives taken together could be separated from the Pyschotics, but not from each other, with the EGO Scale (Knoblauch's Ego Grasping Orientation Inventory) and the NPI (Raskin and Hall's Narcissistic Personality Inventory)" (Stifler, p. 366).

Hindu and particularly Buddhist mysticism assumes "the perfectibility of man," as Herbert Guenther puts it (p. 42). This fact opens the way for some incredible claims concerning human capacities, such as the claims that enlightened humans may attain ja 'lus, or "rainbow body," at the time of death, such that their bodies dissolve into rainbow light and all manner of spectacular visions appear to the disciples left behind (Lhalungpa, pp. 82–97). Obviously, traditions postulating no ceiling on human accomplishments open the way for psychological grandiosity to manifest in the character structures of certain practitioners. Invoking a contemporary, psychiatric frame of interpretation, one can recognize a pathological "mechanism of defense" in the "primitive fantasy" of omnipotence (Kernberg, pp. 2–21) and the signs of "narcissistic personality disorder" in fantasies of unlimited success (Beck, p. 234). Along somewhat similar lines, Schumaker argues that we should "understand religion and psychopathology (and, indirectly, hypnosis) as systems of artificial order that are dependent upon an active dissociation process" (p. 34). The fine line between insightful interpretation of one system of thought and practice in terms of the reality framework of another, and critical, almost condescending judgment, on the other hand, however, highlights the difficulties one encounters when employing one specific cultural lens to interpret behaviors arising in different segments of the same culture, or in different cultures altogether.

The status, experience, and understanding of consciousness, awareness, the mind, and the self, occupy tomes of mystical rumination. Indian philosophical systems of thought, and later Tibetan Buddhist writers, excel in this arena. For example, Prabhakara Mimamsaka philosophers occupy themselves with the question of whether or not the self is "self-luminous," concluding, "the self is not consciousness, and while consciousness (samvit) is self-luminous, the self is not" (Mahadevan, p. 11). Interestingly, this emphasis on consciousness and awareness makes mysticism a possible ally to contemporary brain science in the West. Mystical accounts from all of the world's major religious traditions, such as the rnam thar ("sacred biography") genre expressive of Tibetan Buddhist mysticism, frequently rely upon autobiography and sacred biography (hagiography) as narrative forms, further pointing to the centrality of the "self" and its transformations in the mystical journey. To oversimplify the situation, regular and frequently dramatic personal transformations wrought by the mystical path threaten to destabilize the self, a potentially dangerous, psychological situation mitigated by the creation of a "narrated self" (Wortham, p. 140), which can function as the hero or heroine in tales of miraculous accomplishment, thereby compensating for possible psychological fragmentation by means of a chronological narrative unfolding in which the mystic's own identity remains constant over the course of his or her lifespan.

Zone 6: Empiricism / Neurophysiology

Zone 6: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the outside view of a holon in the Upper-Right quadrant.

The term empiricism describes a philosophical position emphasizing that all concepts and knowledge are derived from and justified by experience. Empiricists disagree on the nature of experience, including whether it is individual or social and whether sense experience is to be emphasized. Empiricism often is associated with other positions, including nominalism, naturalism, materialism, atheism, secularism, humanism, behaviorism, and emotivism.

Empiricism usually contrasts with views that truths can be derived from tradition, Scripture, revelation, intuition, or reason. Empiricists often have a special attitude toward mathematics, acknowledging its role in understanding the world yet denying that it gives direct truths about the world apart from experience. In the last third of the twentieth century, Anglo-American discussion has tended to contrast empiricism with holism or coherentism.

…To turn to a cross-cultural analysis, it should be observed that in developing their various technologies all cultures seem to have pursued empirical methods, sometimes in combination with nonempirical approaches. However, only the Western philosophical tradition seems to have developed the exclusiveness of empiricism as a theoretical option. In South Asia the Carvakas, Nyaya-Vaisesikas, and early Buddhists might be classified as empiricists. In China, Korea, and Japan the principle of "the investigation of things" occasionally took an empiricist direction, although not with the exclusiveness of European empiricism. "The investigation of things" usually included an investigation of the worth of things. One might speak of the empiricism of Mozi, Xunzi, Wang Fuzhi, Yan Yuan, Dai Zhen, and others of the "Investigations Based on Evidence" movement, and of the Korean Yi Yulgok.

Empiricism in the science-religion dialogue

As for science-religion issues, the topic of empiricism relates to virtually every question. For example, ideas on God, the soul, heaven, or reincarnation will be greatly influenced by a person's stance toward empiricism. That stance will also affect a person's ideas on the questions of the worth of tradition, revelation, scripture, or reason in religion and ethics. Related questions are whether the divine or the sacred as a quality of natural processes can be appreciated or responded to, as some "religious naturalists" hold, and whether such awareness is a complement to or an extension of a more strict empirical method. Another approach is to ask whether religious ideas can be vetoed by empirical procedures, whether they must be strictly based on or may be more loosely informed by them, or whether science and religion are such distinct orientations that neither can interfere with the other. Writers such as Douglas Clyde Macintosh and Henry Nelson Wieman have attempted to treat theology as an empirical study. The success of this depends on how one conceives God and also empirical method.

Neuroscientific study of religious experience and moral agency

Most persons identify as most uniquely spiritual their experiences of religious ecstasy and awe—those moments when one feels most transcendent or overwhelmed by the feeling of divine presence. However, the fact that such religious experiences can accompany epileptic seizures (or drug intoxication) has been recognized since ancient times. This observation caused many ancient cultures to associate epilepsy with possession by gods or demons.

There is a significant literature in modern neurology that suggests that in some cases of temporal lobe epileptic seizures, religious experiences result from the abnormal neural activity in the temporal lobes and limbic system. Consistent with the clinical data from temporal lobe epilepsy, investigators have shown that electromagnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes increases the likelihood of experiencing a "sense of presence," leading some investigators to speculate that abnormal temporal lobe activity is the neural basis of all religious experiences.

Other investigators studying the activity of the brain during religious experiences have suggested the importance of other brain areas. Andrew Newburg and Eugene d'Aquili have argued that the sense of diminishment of self and an awareness of oneness with god or the universe that is experienced by some during transcendental meditation or some forms of prayer is associated with diminished activity in the parietal lobes, rather than increased activity in the temporal lobes. These investigators interpret these results as indicating a neural correlate of an absence of the sense of self and the achievement of a sense of "absolute unitary consciousness."

These studies of brain activity during religious experiences at least make it clear that religious experiences (whether feelings of ecstasy, awe, or oneness) have correlates in brain functional states. What is as yet unclear is whether these functional brain states are unique to religious experiences or also occur in similar situations that the person would not report as religious. Is the religious attribution to the experience being studied a matter of the context in which the state occurs, or rather a matter of the particular brain state? Nevertheless, over the last two decades of the twentieth century, there has been increasing interest in the neuroscientific study of religious experiences, such that a new field has taken shape that is being called neurotheology.

There has also been considerable neuroscientific study of the processes involved in moral decision-making and moral behavior. A long history of cases from clinical neurology has pointed to the important role of the medial frontal cortex in inter-personally responsible action and moral behavior. Important work by Antonio Damasio has strongly suggested that deficits in these areas involve absence of the unconscious elicitation of negative and positive emotions in relationship to contemplated behaviors, and that the medial frontal cortex is important in triggering emotional reactions to contemplated actions. In a similar vein, fMRI studies of persons attempting to solve moral dilemmas have suggested that areas of the brain involved in emotion are activated to the degree that the particular moral dilemma would demand direct action toward another person.

Hybrid Disciplines:


The term neurotheology refers to the attempt to integrate neuroscience and theology. Depending on whether its subject matter is defined in terms of religiosity or human personhood, neurotheology may be divided in two main lines of research.

The first line of research was dominant during the 1970s and 1980s when Eugene d'Aquili, Charles Laughlin, and others attempted to relate neuropsychology to religious phenomena, for example, by looking for the neuropsychological determinants of ritual behavior. Researchers also studied the psychological characteristics linked to dominance of the left or right hemisphere of the brain in relation to various patterns of belief and images of the divine. John Ashbrook suggested the term neurotheology for this type of inquiry.

Since the 1980s, the search for specifiable brain structures and brain functioning in correlation to religious or mystical experiences has come to the foreground. Along this line, Michael Persinger as well as Vilayanur Ramachandran have claimed a direct relation between religious experience and temporal lobe activity. Persinger interprets this relationship atheistically, but others point out that it validates neither an atheistic nor a theistic conclusion.

D'Aquili and Andrew Newberg have gone considerably beyond the temporal lobe hypothesis by developing a model for religious experiences that involves the entire brain. This model is based in part on non-invasive neuroimaging of the working brain during ritual behavior and meditation. It is especially this kind of work that is commonly labelled neurotheology. Its aim is to explore the question of how religion and God are perceived and experienced by the human brain and mind. This research has revealed that during meditation and worship, the level of activity in those parts of the brain that distinguish between the self and the outside world is diminished. D'Aquili and Newberg regard their research not only as neuroscience but also as a contribution to theology because they feel that it will bring all the elements of religion under one rational explanatory scheme, namely that of neuroscience.

The second line of research concerns a portrayal of human personhood, which is both neuroscientifically and theologically accurate. The neuroscientific discourse on the human person, increasingly vocal since "the decade of the brain" (1990–2000), seems to be at variance with theological discourse on that subject. In the latter, mind and soul, free will, consciousness, responsibility, and the human being's contact with God are thought to be fundamental characteristics of the human person. In neuroscience, all of these are either seriously doubted or reduced to their underlying material relationships.

This second type of neurotheology aims at improving the compatibility of theology and neuroscience with regard to the concepts of human personhood. Here, conceptual analyses, such as the analysis of free will, and concepts from the philosophy of mind, such as supervenience, play an important role. The work of the international research group co-sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, represents this type of inquiry. Beyond compatibility, this "neurotheology of the person" also aims at the mutual enrichment of theology and neuroscience. Whereas the latter may help theology incorporate materiality in its conceptions of human personhood, theology may stimulate neuroscience to be mindful of the more holistic or synthetic characteristics of being human.

Neurocognitive approaches to religious and spiritual experiences

It appears that there are a variety of spiritual experiences that may seem to be different, but actually have a similar neurocognitive origin, and therefore, lie along a continuum. This continuum might be thought of from a unitary experiential perspective. On one end of the spectrum are experiences such as those attained through participating in a church liturgy or watching a sunset. These experiences carry with them a mild sense of being connected with something greater than the self. On the other end of the spectrum are the types of experiences usually described as mystical or transcendent. This unitary element of spiritual experience should not be thought of as limiting the specific aspects and experiences associated with them. It simply appears to be the case that unitary feelings are a crucial part of spiritual experiences. Most scholars have focused on the more intense experiences because of ease of study and analysis—the most intense experiences provide the most robust responses, which can be qualitatively and perhaps even quantitatively measured. For example, in "Language and Mystical Awareness" (1978), Frederick Streng described the most intense types of spiritual experiences as relating to a variety of phenomena, including occult experience, trance, a vague sense of unaccountable uneasiness, sudden extraordinary visions and words of divine beings, or aesthetic sensitivity. In The Religious Experience of Mankind (1969), Ninian Smart distinguished mysticism from an experience of "dynamic external presence." Smart argued that certain sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism differ markedly from prophetic religions, such as Judaism and Islam, and from religions related to the prophetic-like Christianity, in that the religious experience most characteristic of the former is "mystical," whereas that most characteristic of the latter is "numinous."

Similar to Smart's distinction between mystical and numinous experiences is the distinction Walter T. Stace makes in Mysticism and Philosophy (1960) between what he calls "extrovertive" and "introvertive" mystical experiences. According to Stace, extrovertive mystical experiences are characterized by: (1) a "Unifying Vision" that all things are one; (2) a concrete apprehension of the "One" as an inner subjectivity, or life, in all things; (3) a sense of objectivity or reality; (4) a sense of blessedness and peace; (5) a feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine; (6) paradoxicality; and (7) that which is alleged by mystics to be ineffable. Introvertive mystical experiences are characterized by: (1) "Unitary Consciousness," or the "One," the "Void," or pure consciousness; (2) a sense of nonspatiality or nontemporality; (3) a sense of objectivity or reality; (4) a sense of blessedness and peace; (5) a feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine; (6) paradoxicality; and (7) that which is alleged by mystics to be ineffable. Stace then concludes that characteristics 3 through 7 are identical in the two lists and are therefore universal common characteristics of mystical experiences in all cultures, ages, religions, and civilizations of the world. Characteristics 1 and 2 ground the distinction between extrovertive and introvertive mystical experiences in his typology. There is a clear similarity between Stace's extrovertive mystical experience and Smart's numinous experience, and between Stace's introvertive mystical experiences and Smart's mystical experience.

A neurocognitive analysis of mysticism and other spiritual experiences might clarify some of the issues regarding mystical and spiritual experiences by allowing for a better typology of such experiences based on the underlying brain structures and their related cognitive functions. In terms of the effects of ceremonial ritual, rhythmicity in the environment (visual, auditory, or tactile) drives either the sympathetic nervous system, which is the basis of the fight or flight response and general levels of arousal, or the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the basis for relaxing the body and rejuvenating energy stores. Together, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems comprise the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many body functions, including heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and digestion. During spiritual experiences, there tends to be an intense activation of one of these systems, giving rise to either a profound sense of alertness and awareness (sympathetic) or oceanic blissfulness (parasympathetic). It has also been shown that both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic mechanism might be involved in spiritual experiences since such experiences contain both arousal and quiescent-like cognitive elements.

For the most part, this neurophysiological activity occurs as the result of the rhythmic driving of ceremonial ritual. This rhythmic driving may also begin to affect neural information flows throughout the brain. The brain's posterior superior parietal lobe (PSPL) may be particularly relevant in this regard because the inhibition of sensory information may prevent this area from performing its usual function of helping to establish a sense of self and distinguishing discrete objects in the environment. The result of this inhibition of sensory input could result in a sense of wholeness becoming progressively more dominant over the sense of the multiplicity of baseline reality. The inhibition of sensory input could also result in a progressive loss of the sense of self. Ceremonial ritual may be described as generating these spiritual experiences from the "bottom-up," since it is through rhythmic sounds and behaviors that rituals eventually drive the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and, ultimately, the higher order processing centers in the brain. In addition, the particular system initially activated depends upon the type of ritual. Rituals themselves might therefore be divided into the "slow" and the "fast." Slow rituals involve, for example, peaceful music and soft chanting to generate a sense of quiescence via the parasympathetic system. Fast rituals might include, for example, frenzied dancing to generate a sense of heightened arousal via the sympathetic system.

Individual practices like prayer or meditation may also access a similar neuronal mechanism, but from the "top-down." In such a practice, a person begins by focusing the mind as dictated by the particular practice, thereby affecting higher-level processing areas of the brain and ultimately the autonomic nervous system. For example, a meditation practice in which the person focuses on a visualized object of spiritual significance might begin with activation of the brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is normally active during attention-focusing tasks. The continuous fixation on the image by the areas of the brain responsible for high order visual processing begins to stimulate the limbic system, which is primarily involved in emotional processing and memory. Several scholars have implicated this area as critical for religious experience because of its ability to label experiences as profound or real and also because certain pathological conditions, such as seizures in the limbic areas, have been particularly associated with extreme religious experiences. The limbic system is connected to a structure called the hypothalamus, making it possible to communicate the activity occurring in the brain to the rest of the body. The hypothalamus is a key regulator of the autonomic nervous system, and therefore such activity in the brain ultimately activates the arousal (sympathetic) and quiescent (parasympathetic) arms of the autonomic nervous system. Part of the result of meditation and other spiritually oriented practices is also to block sensory input into the PSPL, resulting in a loss of the sense of self and a loss of awareness of discrete objects. Thus, a comparison of ceremonial ritual and individual practices like meditation suggests that the end result can be the same for both. It is, of course, difficult to attain the same degree of spiritual experience through ritual as through meditation, because the former requires the maintenance of the rhythmic activity necessary for the continued driving of neurocognitive systems. However, ceremonial ritual still can result in powerful unitary experiences.

The cognitive state in which there is a unity of all things, including the self, the world, and objects in the world, is described in the mystical literature of all the world's great religions. When a person is in that state all sense of discrete being is lost and the difference between self and other is obliterated. There is no sense of the passage of time, and all that remains is a timeless undifferentiated consciousness. When such a state is suffused with positive affect there is a tendency to describe the experience, after the fact, as personal. Such experiences may be described as a perfect union with God, as in the unio mystica of the Christian tradition, or else the perfect manifestation of God in the Hindu tradition. When such experiences are accompanied by neutral affect they tend to be described, after the fact, as impersonal. These states are described in concepts such as the "abyss" of Jacob Boehme, the "void" or "nirvana" of Buddhism, or the "absolute" of a number of philosophical and mystical traditions. There is no question that whether the experience is interpreted personally as God or impersonally as the "absolute" it nevertheless possesses a quality of transcendent wholeness without any temporal or spatial division.

Techniques for studying spiritual experiences

Clearly, one of the most important aspects of a study of spiritual experiences is to find careful, rigorous methods for empirically testing hypotheses. One such example of empirical evidence for the neurocognitive basis of the spiritual experiences described above comes from a number of studies that have measured neurophysiological activity during states in which there is activation of the holistic operator. Meditative states comprise perhaps the most fertile testing ground because of the predictable, reproducible, and well-described nature of such experiences. Studies of meditation have evolved over the years to utilize the most advanced technologies for studying neurophysiology.

Originally, studies analyzed the relationship between meditative states and electrical changes in the brain as measured by electroencephalography (EEG). Proficient meditation practitioners have been shown to demonstrate significant changes in the electrical activity in the brain, particularly in the frontal lobes. Furthermore, the EEG patterns of meditative practice indicate that it represents a unique state of consciousness different from normal waking and sleep. Unfortunately, EEG is limited in its ability to distinguish particular regions of the brain that may have increased or decreased activity.

For this reason, more recent studies of meditation have used brain imaging techniques, such as single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Since about 1990, neuroimaging techniques have been used to explore cerebral function during various behavioral, motor, and cognitive tasks. These studies have helped to determine which parts of the brain are responsible for a variety of neurocognitive processes. These imaging techniques have also allowed for the uncovering of complex neural networks and cognitive modules that have become a basis for cognitive neuroscience research. Activation studies using these functional neuroimaging techniques have helped researchers determine the areas in the brain that are involved in the production and understanding of language, visual processing, and pain reception and sensation. In a typical activation study, the subject is asked to perform such tasks as reading and problem-solving while being scanned, and the activation state during the task is then compared to some control state (usually resting). Since most spiritual practices and their concomitant experience might be considered from the perspective of an activation paradigm, functional brain imaging techniques may be extremely useful in detecting neurophysiological changes associated with those states. Researchers can also use PET and SPECT to explore a wide variety of neurotransmitter systems within the brain. Neurotransmitter analogues have been developed for almost every neurotransmitter system, including the dopamine, benzodiazepine, opiate, and cholinergic receptor systems.

There are limitations in each technique for the study of meditation. It is important to ensure that the technique is sensitive enough to measure the changes. Also, each of these techniques may interfere with the normal environment in which spiritual practices take place. Early data of meditative practices has generally shown increases in brain activity in the region comprising the PFC, consistent with focusing attention during meditation. Studies have also observed decreases of activity in the area of the PSPL, possibly consistent with inhibition of sensory input into this area. However, more studies, with improved methods will be necessary to elucidate the neurocognitive aspects of meditation and spiritual experiences. That the underlying neurophysiology of extreme meditative states can be considered at all allows for the conceptualization of many other spiritual experiences that lie along the spiritual continuum.

In all, these studies can provide a starting point to develop a more detailed neurocognitive model of religious and spiritual experience. This kind of analysis can also be utilized as the hypothesis for future investigations of such experiences.

The work of the international research group co-sponsored by the Vatican

Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, represents this type of inquiry. Beyond compatibility, this "neurotheology of the person" also aims at the mutual enrichment of theology and neuroscience. Whereas the latter may help theology incorporate materiality in its conceptions of human personhood, theology may stimulate neuroscience to be mindful of the more holistic or synthetic characteristics of being human.

Zone 7: Social Autopoiesis of Religion

Zone 7: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the inside view of a holon in the Lower-Right quadrant.

The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) introduced the concept into the social sciences in order to characterize the self-referential operative closure of social systems and psychic systems. Social systems consist of communication, and psychic systems of thoughts.


"Religion is, in the frame of social theoretical interpretation, a cultural complex that is constituted by communication of faith, a system that differs from its social, political or everyday life environment through its special operation: communication of what people (members) believe. In order to secure it as a system of trust, the content of faith is structured in scriptures, rules, and rituals or even organized within a system of knowledge and science, such as theology. The object of believing is what the semantic and symbolic structures are [able] to signify: “God became the Word and the Word was with God.” The source of regeneration for the organizational configuration (church, ecclesiastical community) is the contingent complex of religion that is supposed not to be necessary but also not impossible (Luhmann). The factor of what is then necessary (becomes necessary and will get structured, because it is not impossible) is the cultural change of the social and symbolic environment [on which religion depends]."


"Religion, understood as a complex of communication (translating the undefined world into a definable and agreeable reality—Luckmann, Flusser, Bauer) needs a medium/media in order to make the idea visible (Kierkegaard: language as the media of the idea) and through that it is challenged to continuous changing of communication (understanding dialogical positions and integrating them in its own representation). The cultural legitimacy and social acceptance of religions are [dependent upon] their communicative competences.

Communication, always related to building or maintaining communities, is a complex of observation (Schmidt) and action (Habermas) that not only connects people, but also segregates them from each other and structures borders in order to design (control) social belongingness, to set distinction and segregation between social bodies, thus keeping the idea of community (or society) identifiable and controllable. Communication is - as it is the source of identity - as well the source of difference and distinction in constructing reality (Deleuze, Bauer, Lyotard). As a source of observation communication is done within interdependent relations to other basic social institutions (systems) such as economy, politics, or education and social media."

[Excerpted from a paper by Thomas Bauer to be presented at the Cavaletti Seminar, “Theology and Communication,” at University Finis Terrae in Santiago de Chile, Sept. 2010]

Zone 8: Systems Theory, Chaos Theory

Zone 8: The perspectives, injunctions, and phenomena associated with the outside view of a holon in the Lower-Right quadrant.

Systems science emerged as a response to the need for finding ways of understanding and dealing with complexity. The expanding orientation of systems thinking enables a quest for connections and meaning that can expand the boundaries of what traditionally has been considered science. Systems thinking has been compared to Buddhism, and evolutionary systems thinking can be appreciated as the integration of the sciences with the works of mystical and transpersonal thinkers such as Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) in the East and Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) in the West. This convergence of science, philosophy, and religion is manifested in the systemic inquiry on conscious evolution and its underlying ethic.

This entry reviews the core ideas within systems science, and in particular the development of General Systems Theory (GST) as a cornerstone of the systems movement. General Evolution Theory (GET) is introduced as the natural unfolding of GST in the study of complex dynamic systems. The emergent view of evolution has implications for the understanding and guidance of human systems and can become the basis for the integration of critical insights for science, philosophy, and religion to surface a new global ethic. Having become conscious of the evolutionary processes of which human beings are a part, and with a sense of awe and responsibility, the challenge is to learn to "dance to the rhythms of evolution" for the purposeful creation of a sustainable and evolutionary future.

The emergence of systems science

In the 1920s,a handful of scientists from different fields became aware of the potential to develop a general theory of organized complexity. The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972) formulated the fullest expression of the emerging systems field in his General System Theory (GST). According to Fritjof Capra, Bertalanffy's work "established systems thinking as a major scientific movement (p. 46)" that responded to the limitations of modern analytical science and enabled a broader conception of science.

Analytical (as opposed to holistic) reductionism prevailed as the most central principle of scientific inquiry during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Reductionism involves analysis of the isolated elements of the phenomena under study and seeks objectivity, repeatability of results, and refutation of hypotheses in order "to provide explanations for the new unknown, in terms of the known" (Checkland, p. 64). However, "the emergence of new phenomena at higher levels of complexity is itself a major problem for the method of science, and one which reductionist thinking has not been able to solve" (p. 65).

Systems science emerged from interdisciplinary studies and is characterized by a diversity of perspectives, foci, and approaches. Systems science is not a discipline, per se, but a meta-discipline or field whose subject matter—organized complexity—can be applied within virtually any particular discipline. Systems science has become the broader scientific area that embodies all the thinking and practices derived from, and related to, advances in systems theory, methodology, and philosophy. The main professional association dedicated to the study and the advancement of this area is the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). When established in 1954 by von Bertalanffy, Ralph Gerard, Anatol Rapoport, James G. Miller, and Kenneth Boulding, it was originally called the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory.

General systems theory

A system is a set of interconnected components that form a whole and show properties that are properties of the whole rather than of the individual components. This definition is valid for a cell, an organism, a society, or a galaxy. Therefore, as Joanna Macy expressed it, a system is less a thing than a pattern. Systems thinking uses the concept of system to apprehend the world. It "is a framework of thought that helps us to deal with complex things in a holistic way" (Flood and Carson, p. 4). When formalized in explicit, conventional and definite form, it can be termed systems theory.

Systems theory provides a knowledge base that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries; it seeks isomorphism between and among concepts, principles, laws, and models in various realms of experience; it provides a framework for the transfer and integration of insights relevant to particular domains of research; and it promotes the unity of science through improving communication among disciplines. Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST) is "a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general" (Bertalanffy, p. 32). GST "aims to provide a framework or structure of systems on which to hang the flesh and blood of particular disciplines and particular subject matters in an orderly and coherent corpus of knowledge" (Boulding, p. 248).

General systems theorists acknowledge that specialized knowledge is as important as a general and integrative framework. Specific systems theories have emerged and include cybernetics, autopoietic systems theory, dynamical systems theory, chaos theory, organizational systems theory, and living systems theory, among others. Considered together, these specific systems theories comprise the systems sciences, many of which have become known as the so called new sciences or sciences of complexity.

General evolution theory

Following the systems tradition, General Evolution Theory (GET) looks for isomorphisms in the patterns of irreversible change over time at different systems levels. GET postulates that the evolutionary trend in the universe constitutes a "cosmic process" specified by a fundamental universal flow toward ever increasing complexity.

Evolution manifests itself through particular events and sequences of events that are not limited to the domain of biological phenomena but extend to include all aspects of change in open dynamic systems with a throughput of information and energy. In other words, evolution relates to the formation of stars from atoms, of Homo sapiens from the anthropoid apes, as much as to the formation of complex societies from rudimentary social systems. The process involves periods of dynamic stability (homeostasis), and when this stability can no longer be maintained, the system enters a period of turbulence—or bifurcation—when it self-organizes into a higher level of organization, structural complexity, dynamism and autonomy—or else, it devolves. In this way, complex open systems become more dynamic, more in control of themselves and of their environment, moving further and further away from the inert state of equilibrium.

The understanding of dynamic complexity, emergence, and self-organization manifested in general evolutionary processes has important implications for human activity systems. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers reflect on the social threats and possibilities implied by an understanding of nonlinearity by recognizing that in "our universe the security of stable, permanent rules are gone forever. We are living in a dangerous and uncertain world that inspires no blind confidence. Our hope arises from the knowledge that even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As a result, individual activity is not doomed to insignificance" (Prigogine and Stengers, p. 313).

Human science and conscious evolution

Human science makes reference to an inclusive approach to the study of human phenomena that uses multiple systems of inquiry, including descriptive studies and prospective interventions. According to Marcia Salner, discussion about human science "was once conducted on the grounds of philosophy, professional researchers who must face up to practical problems of social survival are pragmatically moving toward what will work to provide answers where no reliable guides exist. . . . How we understand our world, how we learn about it, how we teach the young about their place in it, have consequences for our survival in it" (p. 8). Only a science that is both humanistic and systemic can deal effectively with complex human challenges and create evolutionary opportunities for human development in partnership with Earth.

Human science involves both systems (within the systems field) and systemic (outside the systems field) approaches. On the one hand, it involves the application of systems theories and methodologies in order to understand, ameliorate, and transform social systems. On the other hand, human science also incorporates systemic and holistic approaches, beyond the systems field, that challenge traditional assumptions about knowledge and science. For instance, critical theory seeks to combine philosophy and science, idealism and realism, and concepts and experiences to confront social injustice. Feminism seeks the emancipation of women for the betterment of humanity as a whole through the promotion of issues such as sexual equality, development, and peace. Scholars interested in qualitative research are articulating a comprehensive epistemology for a participatory paradigm that involves different ways of knowing. What is common to all these alternative approaches is their holistic character and their commitment to bridge theory and practice for understanding and transforming social realities.

Following the trend in systems science of looking for theoretical and methodological complementarity, there are approaches that seek to integrate the knowledge base of systems thinking, general evolutionary processes, and human science. Evolution, both as a scientific theory and as a universal myth, is a powerful story for the transformation of consciousness and society. The implications of this knowledge base provide rich opportunities for manifold inferences for social action and research. First, humans do not need to be the victims of change—change can happen through humans, not to humans. Second, the future is not probabilistic, but rather, possibilistic: Humans can influence the direction of change through their intentions and actions. Third, for the first time in human history, human beings can experience joy "while working for the most ambitious goal available to the human imagination: To blend our individual voice in the cosmic harmony, to join our unique consciousness with the emerging consciousness of the universe, to fold our momentary center of psychic energy into the current that tends toward increasing complexity and order" (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 293). Indeed, science and spirituality are coming together in the ultimate exploration of the meaning and purpose of human existence: Conscious evolution—the evolutionary phase in which a developing being becomes conscious of itself, aware of the processes of which it is a participant, and begins voluntarily to co-create with evolution.

A new global ethic

"If our society is not working well," Lester Milbrath reflects, "we get the message that we need to rethink our value structure" (Milbrath, p. 67). Scientists and religious leaders agree: A new global ethic is required if human misery and irreversible damage to the planet is to be avoided.

Regardless of postmodernist or relativist positions, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi reflects on how similar are the world's major moral systems. He believes that "we have to find an appropriate moral code to guide our choices. It should be a code that takes into account the wisdom of tradition, yet is inspired by the future rather than the past; it should specify right as being the unfolding of the maximum individual potential joined with the achievement of the greatest social and environmental harmony" (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 162). From a systemic and evolutionary perspective, a multilevel ethic would promote:

  1. Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) the individual—it must promote personal freedom;
  2. Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) society—it must promote social justice;
  3. Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) the planet—it must promote ecological harmony.

To focus exclusively on one level corresponds to what Carolyn Merchant has called egocentric, homocentric, or ecocentric ethics, respectively. The challenge is to strive for the ideal of a multi-level ethical approach that promotes what is good for the whole of individual humans, societies, ecosystems, and future generations at the same time, in order to promote sustainability in an evolutionary sense. In other words, as Evrin Laszlo proposes, to live simply and meaningfully allowing other people and other species to live with dignity as well, so that a favorable dynamic equilibrium in the evolution of the biosphere can be reached and sustained.

An important aspect of this new emerging ethic is its process orientation. Rather than considering morality as a set of static norms and rules, it should be embraced as an ongoing inquiring process, a conversation as suggested by West C. Churchman, in which human values are neither relative nor absolute. In the past, philosophy and moral inquiry have been restricted to a privileged minority of mainly white men. An ethical society requires that every member of society become a lifelong learner engaged in the ongoing ethical conversation that purposefully informs the actions and decisions that shape the present and the future.

Science is evolving. The convergence between systems views and mystical views allow a more comprehensive and meaningful articulation of the human-as-part-and-process-of-cosmos story. This "New Story," as theologian Thomas Berry calls it, can guide people in the adventure of ethically evolving human systems.


Unless otherwise noted, the entries above were excerpted from the no-longer-available online version of the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Most of the essays from which they were drawn are available now on (

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