An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Oliver GriebelOliver Griebel M.A., b. 1964, was born in München and has studied translation and philosophy. He lives in Stuttgart. He is the author of Der Ganzheitliche Gott (2014)

Ken Wilber vs John Heron

How a very early (1999) and certainly one of the
most important challenges against Ken Wilber's
nondual view of the Divine went wrong

Oliver Griebel

How I hit upon the 1999 Heron/Wilber duel

But can there be peaceful and polite pluralism between nondualism and participatory spirituality?

Lately, my good Facebook friend Tim Saunders, British theologian gentleman and teacher, in a post on his personal Facebook account, asked integral philosopher Steve McIntosh and me to comment on the God view of the transpersonal psychologist John Heron.

What a shame!

I, who am proud of my supposedly wide reading in spiritual philosophy, had never even heard about this person. Therefore, I looked at the link Tim had given me, which was Heron's 2006 book Participatory Spirituality — A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion, and immediately realized that this man was sketching something quite similar to what I myself have tried to do in my 2009 book Der ganzheitliche Gott (that means: The holistic or integral God). It is the idea of a complementary polarity between God and the beings inside of Him. Heron elaborates it in a much more complex resp. complicated way than I, but there are places where I had the impression to read my own text, like:

“The many and the one - ... The distinctness of the many, both manifest and spiritual, is interdependent with the unity of the one. Distinctness is not separateness: distinctness celebrates diversity in free unity; separatedness is a mental state of closure against unity.”

Wow, strange feeling, because for a long time I hadn't been sure If my idea maybe wasn't a bit too exotic and daring. But if you are not the only one, maybe your idea is not so weird after all. And Heron had presented it as early as 1998, in Sacred Science, ten years before my book was published. Fortunately, the approaches are related, but not sooo similar.

John Heron
John Heron

That's good news for me, but there's another exploit of John Heron that might be even more interesting for you. In 1999 he had a most important exchange of blows with Ken Wilber. It could have become a classic about a pan-en-theistic, participation view of God interacting with the REAL beings inside of Him, opposing it to a (for example Wilberian) pantheistic, imagination view of God and the pseudo-beings inside of His IMAGINATION. But then, several things went wrong. First, while Heron's initial article "A way out for Wilberians" from 1997, which set off the shooting, referred a great deal to Wilber's "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality", his 1999 reply to Wilber response to this article, named "Way out further", referred more to the lesser and in a way at that time already out-dated (1980!) Wilber book "The Atman Project", with its ego-eradicating rhetoric. Second, the Heron 1997 article, which Frank Visser dug up in 1999 and put on Integral World for the broad integral public, without even letting know Heron, had originally been written for Heron's own website and “his people”. In the meantime, he had written Sacred Science which had formulated his criticism of Wilber's ideas more clearly (and politely).

The escalation

Heron's critique of nonduality as a (post-)metaphysics in “A way out for Wilberians” was relevant, even pathbreaking, yet, as the good postmodernist he is, Heron overdid it grossly:

“His [Wilber's] account of the spiritual path clearly seeks to be controlling, dominating, hegemonic, devouring (opponents are relished for breakfast), and is implicitly intolerant and dismissive of all religious beliefs and practices which cannot be assimilated into its absolutist framework. Wilber writes with analytic scorn about the poor fools who cannot get his absolute point.”

Later on, Ken Wilber — understandably enough, but much to the detriment of the lacking and sorely needed plurality in integral thinking — stroke back in a like manner, without really being willing or able to see the real point of Heron's critique: "viciously attacks", "Mr. Either/Or", “mean-spirited attacks”, "command freak". Heron closed the controversy with a reply only occasionally offensive: “Now here I have noted that, in responding to his critics, Wilber is prone not only to be something of a bully, but also a bit of a cheat." The rest of the reply was even more interesting than the initial one, but it was too late to discuss reasonably.

The relevance of the controversy for
a spiritually divided integral movement

Today, we witness a spiritual split inside integral thinking.

That's a pity. For the discussion about the view of Spirit or God fitting to integralism is still as necessary now as it was then, in the early days. Recently, for example, Steve McIntosh, in his book The Presence of the Infinite, hit the point saying that nondualism might not be the integral view of God which Wilber and almost all of the spiritual integralists think it is ... but actually the postmodernist one. If he's right, then the real integral view of God or Spirit would have to place strictly and ultimately on a same footing the nondual meditative experience (I-Spirit), the caring creator (Thou-Spirit) and the intelligible natural order (It-Spirit), accepting the polar tension this implies, and letting open how this tension may be loosened by different integral schools. That's what I tried to do in my book. And John Heron, in Sacred Science and Participatory Spirituality exposes some very substantial ideas about it as well. Now this is the history of this failed and missed controversy. Now for what makes it so very thrilling and topical in the year 2016.

Today, we witness a spiritual split inside integral thinking. There is the nondual establishment, with Ken Wilber himself and many others, for example influential (and very likeable) personalities like Jeff Salzmann or Terry Patten, but also probably the majority of the integral public, attached to Buddhist and Hinduist inspired nondual teachings and practices. There is another fraction which is not anti-meditative, but anti-“theological”, inspired by Integral World host Frank Visser and a number of postpostmodernist individualists, who believe in an integralism far more existentially, humanely, esthetically and scientifically, and less spiritually, oriented than is the nondual mainstream. There is the big Spiral Dynamics crowd, which is quite independent from Ken Wilber's orthodoxy, thanks to the foundations laid by Clares Graves and Beck/Cowan, and quite skeptical about any kind of enlightenment or otherwise salvation predestined for mankind, seeing value evolution rather as a “never ending quest”. There is Steve McIntosh, too, with his — unheeded — plea that integralism ought to allow for different kinds of spirituality and God view, not only the nondual variety, but also a more theistic one and a more wordly one, and maybe others, the common denominator being panentheism, the faith in any kind of all-encompassing Divine, Ground of Being, or (non-reductive) Natural Order. And there are, last not least, approaches that won't just leave as it is the plurality of nondual, theistic and naturalistic view of Ultimate Reality, but integrate them, right form the start, into a big picture.

This is what John Heron has tried to achieve with his God view called “participatory spirituality”. He first introduced it in detail in his 1998 book Sacred Science. In his text “Participatory Fruits of Spiritual Inquiry” (2007), published in ReVision, Vol 29 No 3, that gives an excellent introduction to his thinking, on pages 2-3 he states very precisely how he conceives the divine, already delimiting it from nondualism:

“The divine is the presence of the totality of what there is in every respect without let or hindrance: an integral Many-One reality including the manifest and the spiritual in all their modes. Note here that the spiritual is included in, but not identical with, the divine, which is a more comprehensive reality.
To regard spirit as identical with the divine leads to acosmic monism: the reduction of the Many to the One, and of the manifest to the spiritual. It also fosters spiritual practices which flee to god from the works of god, individual inflation rather than relational engagement, and a strong element of misogyny.”

Aspects of the divine which Ken Wilber omits, or which he doesn't
omit but which don't fit with his nondualism

Misogyny — that's a keyword in his criticism against Ken Wilber. At one point of his critique part one, on Integral World, Heron had written:

“I think this is … Manichean stuff: divine life indwelling the human being is desecrated by Wilber … . Above all it means that traditional meditation rises up to divine mind by kicking divine life in the gut and in the womb ...”

Of course, this is offensive, but Wilber didn't even get the point, wittily responding:

“I have no idea what that means, but I'm just sure I didn't do it.”

While that's a great bon mot, it's a pity too, and symptom of his failing to understand one quite simple point of Heron's criticism: that the excessive favouring of “male” SPIRIT means a belittling of the equally divine “female” source of being, but also a more general disregard of all birthing and nurturing, and of course the equal share, rights and respect for women in our culture and life together. Indeed, most of the gurus, saints and wise … persons in the history of religions who promoted the nondual, pantheistic or monistic conviction, central to integral thinking according to Ken Wilber, were men, many of them contempting and otherwise just using women and what they create, ignoring or denying the feminine side of God and the world.

Wilber, while without any doubt building upon the onesidedly nondual thinking of Eastern teachers, rightly refuses to let himself be counted amongst the spiritual sexists they may or may not be. According to him, it's no problem at all to state the primacy of the “male” nondual Emptiness or Witness, and at the same time describe the Divine as the “female” Source or Ground of Being, which for John Heron is a core aspect of the Divine — which he calls immanent life — ground of autonomy.

And here we are at the core not only of Heron's special criticism starting from Heron's own doctrine, but at the core of all criticism against the nondual being the one adequate spirituality and God view for integral thinking: If the Ultimate Reality is supposed to be an “Ultimate Nondual”, as Wilber calls it in “Integral Semiotics”, then there is not really anything else, no real source of being (because beings are nor real), and even more importantly for us, no real human and other sentient, aware persons in the world. Everything (except God himself) ultimately is merely illusion, fleeting “projection” upon the “screen” of the empty divine witness. That's exactly what appalls John Heron so much, what for him is “disvalue and disparagement”. (Let me add that, disvaluing or not, it is arguably absurd. Indeed, is it sensible that an allencompassing consciousness can fool itself, have illusions? Or worse: that the illusions “have themselves”, the enlightenment consisting of the illusion recognizing itself being a illusion and overcoming itself?)

God as “my own situational presence” — Heron's rehabilitation
of the human person (“self”) as being part and parcel of the divine,
not a divine illusion to overcome

Participatory Spirituality - A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion

One can definitely say that in nondualism the illusionary beings have no value or dignity in themselves, they are only given worth by their way out of the beings they seem to be, toward the Emptiness or Witness they really are. For Heron, that's a bit much. Indeed, besides immanent life — ground of autonomy, he states two more core aspects of the Divine: transcendent consciousness — source of hierarchy, and situational presence — arena of co-operation. The latter, presently relevant for us, is in a way the Me-and-You-God, my personal, present life in touch with one another, with the world and its infinite potential and its spirit. Thus, being a human person, far from being an illusion (of God or itself), valuable only through its ultimate identity with the Divine, on the contrary is in itself part and in a way counterpole of the Divine. It's worth citing here in detail how Heron describes the human person in Participatory Spirituality - A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion (2006), p 106:

  1. Is a distinct spiritual presence in, and nonseparable from, the given cosmos, participating through immediate present experience - the very process of being in a world - in the presence of the divine.
  2. Is not to be reduced to, or confused with, an illusory, separate, contracted, and egoic self with which personhood can become temporarily identified.
  3. Emerges from and is grounded in immanent spiritual life; and is informed and illuminated by a transcendent spiritual consciousness.
  4. Has original revelation here and now, through opening to his or her intrinsic saturation with divinity. Such revelation is a human-divine communion, a co-creation of mediated-immediacy.
  5. Has spiritual authority within which, when freed from the distortions of spiritual projection onto external sources, manifests as co- created inner light and inner life.
  6. Has freedom to generate, with immanent spiritual life, an innovative spiritual path.
  7. Manifests the creative process of divine becoming as an autonomous being, embedded in connectedness, and in cooperative, transformative relations with other persons similarly engaged.”

Is a friendly competition between “related” integral God views possible?
Is it possible in our present case?

Whatever one thinks of this view of the human person — it just IS different from what a person possibly can be in Wilberian nondualism. And both spiritually and philosphically, it certainly IS NOT such a bad idea. And if we keep in mind this difference between Wilber and Heron, we can go on discussing it without polemics, suspicions or abusive language, as clearly was Heron's statement in his response to Wilber's response “Way Out Further”:

“Wilber's view of the human being and the human condition is a half-truth, hence baneful and oppressive.”

But can there be peaceful and polite pluralism between nondualism and participatory spirituality? Let's not forget that John Heron claims to refute nondualism:

“It means the end of the idea that the involution of all the levels from the causal is caused by ever more compulsive divine self-forgetting. A whole new, and much more plausible, theology of creation is called for.

Wilber cannot afford to be cavalier about this issue. If a fundamental theory in his system does not meet such a basic criterion of intelligibility as internal coherence, he is putting out conceptual vacuity as spiritual wisdom. In short, since the average spiritual beginner can readily state and grasp what the theory is saying, he or she is doing so with a self that the theory does not recognize. Indeed, this is Wilber's own precept: sound translation before radical transformation. But dogmas are blind to their own inherent contradictions.”

In fact, no matter if nondual believers can see the problem or not, their teachings have a serious problem with the supposedly illusionary self partly and gradually getting in contact with the Divine. Wilber himself tries to fix the problem by calling the self a “mixture” of wrong consciousness about its own pseudo-reality and true consciousness about the Divine. However, I think this doesn't fit at all with the categorical difference between illusory self and real God his theory begins with. Once again, Heron formulates this criticism very clearly.


“At the very outset, in the causal region, says Wilber, the very identity of the emergent ripple of selfhood is its fearful clinging to a separate self-sense. It is intrinsically narcissistic. And things just get worse as involution into more restricted levels proceeds. In the human world, according to Wilber, if you are not busy destroying the separate self by transformative spiritual practice, the very best you can do is to provide it with some beliefs that prevent it from psychological and social breakdown and prepare it for its eventual spiritual destruction. This is a baneful and thoroughly scornful account of human beings and the human condition. For the first time in human history the world is trying to get a notion of real self-esteem going, and Wilber is busy poisoning it at source. [my italics, not Heron's] It is this terrified self that has to be 'grabbed by its throat and literally throttled to death'. No compassion here for a terrified ripple of self-alienated divinity, just ruthless extermination. This, I think, is where it all goes wrong.”

… but also constructively, proposing an alternative view:

“It is to say that a finite self has an intrinsically connected, non-separate and distinct identity, which may temporarily get lost in illusions of separateness, but can never be reduced to a deluded separate-self confusing its finite nature with the infinite and in flight from death. Wilber makes this reduction and says we have to destroy our one and only ever-confused separate-self in order to become enlightened, something which he admits hardly ever happens. I believe enlightenment is not a remote end-state, attained by few, but an ongoing process that can be entered by many right now, by practices which slough off separatist delusions, attend to the presence of, and encourage the further emergence of, our distinct and intrinsically connected spiritual self, with its infinite potential and infinite horizons. And such a self is tacitly connected, I should say, to all sort of levels and holarchies and hierarchies, so I am not talking flatland religion here. The intrinsically connected self is distinct human personhood, not contracted into existence by ripples of divine self-forgetting and their misapplied intuitions, but one of the unique forms of the divine Many emerging right now. It is the inherent openness of each self to the unlimited expanse of all possible reality. And it is always present as the seamless interpenetration of subject and object in immediate experience.”

This is very fundamental and well-founded criticism. So here we are dealing not so much with a similar variant to nondualism in integral spirituality, but actually with a serious adversary. John Heron, while not being a decidedly evolutionary thinker, is not contradicting any of the basic ideas of integralism. So it's not only a pity, it is a shame that God views challenging the nondual orthodoxy, like Heron's, or McIntosh's very friendly challenge, are not even really discussed in the integral scene. So far, I haven't heard much arguments against their claims. This kind of hushing up is of course characteristic for cultural and intellectual hegemonies.

Widget is loading comments...