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

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Descent of the Avatar

Confusing Personal Theology
with Transcendental Cosmology

David Lane

The entirety of White's essay is predicated on a number of axioms which he takes as given... As such, therefore, it is a personal testimony about his own long held beliefs.

John White has provided us with a delightful reframing of Hindu mythology focusing on evolution and the nine (in the future to be ten) avatars and what they represent for ever increasing levels of consciousness. White's thesis, even if deeply questionable, is exceptionally clear and he states it up front in the very first sentence in his essay, “Human history is a process of ascent to godhead.”

But what makes "Avatars: The Flowering of Humanity" distinctive is how White interweaves involution and evolution together, arguing that “ascent would not be possible unless there first was descent. We cannot spiritually lift ourselves by our own bootstraps.” He further proclaims a God-centric infusion of the cosmos whereby “There is a teleological design at work in us from the start. There is a divine intention at the foundation of the universe.”

Because of this innate structure to the universe it has an inevitable unfolding over time, like a flower that slowly blossoms, which reveals higher and higher forms of consciousness. White contends that “Within that larger context, we humans have also been brought forth as a form of God. But we are not a static form. Like the cosmos, we are evolving. We have a purpose, a direction, a meaning, and that meaning is growth to godhood. Evolution is the natural fruition of God's plan for humanity.”

White then alleges that there have been advanced humans who are (via their inner spiritual attainments) at the cutting edge of evolution, which give clear indications of what is possible for us lesser mortals. In Hinduism these elevated beings are referred to as “Avatars” which in Sanskrit literally means “descent” or “come down,” indicating that they bring forth their own enlightenment to those lacking such. As White illuminates,

“A few members of the human race had attained to the ultimate state of consciousness, enlightenment. Buddha, Lao Tse, Rama, and, shortly after, Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Jesus and others demonstrated self-transcendence to the point where they could say, as Jesus did, that 'I and the Father are one,' meaning their sense of self-identity was totally divested of ego and totally invested in the Divine Domain, the transcendental realm from which all creation arises. Such evolutionarily advanced people were so far beyond the understanding of the masses that they were perceived as incarnations of God. The term most commonly used to describe that condition is avatar, a Sanskrit word meaning literally 'he descends.' An avatar is said to be a deity who voluntarily assumes a physical body to participate in creation. An avatar is the divine in human form—God walking the Earth among men and women.”

White then proceeds to give a Joseph Cambell-like spin to the famed ten avatars in Hinduism by arguing that each incarnation should be understood metaphorically (not literally) as representing different, but nevertheless progressive, stages of consciousness. It is a pregnant observation, worthy of literary analysis, even if we may interpret the same differently. As White elaborates,

“Here is how the history of evolution is presented in the myth of Vishnu's incarnations. Eons ago, the first forms of life emerged on Earth; the fish avatar symbolizes that. That was the Age of Fishes, three billion years ago. Then amphibians gained ascendence and the Age of Reptiles began; Kurma the tortoise represents that stage of Earth's life. The next avatar is a boar—a mammal which figuratively indicates the succession of higher life forms. Then comes Narasimha, who is half man and half lion; Narasimha is suggestive of the stage when humanity began to develop from the apes. Yet although it was hominid, and no longer anthropoid, it was still far from being the genus Homo. It was perhaps Australopithecus, the ape-men of Africa who lived some five million years ago. Vamana the Dwarf is better understood as Vamana the short man or not-yet-completely-man, the early successors to Australopithecus. Parasurama, or the man with the axe, can be thought of as the beginnings of true humanity, when the Neanderthal people's stone and bone technology distinguished them from their non-toolmaking or, at best, extremely crude toolmaking predecessors. The next avatar, Rama, was a hunter who used a bow and arrow. The bow and arrow are inventions of the Cro-Magnon people. Balarama the Plowman is emblematic of the emergence of agricultural society as human evolution surpassed the hunter-gatherer stage. Krishna, whose flute delights all who hear it, is the artist, the deepening esthetic and spiritual dimension of human consciousness. Buddha's significance as the most recent avatar should be obvious: he represents the full expression of the human potential in the individual. Kalki, then, symbolizes the full appearance of that potential throughout the race as a higher form of humanity.”

The entirety of White's essay is predicated on a number of axioms which he takes as given, since he doesn't provide a detailed rationale why God exists, why involution is necessary, and why there is a spiritual dynamic driving evolution to ultimate enlightenment. As such, therefore, it is a personal testimony about his own long held beliefs. It makes for interesting reading, since White possesses a keen gift for lucid writing, but as a persuasive and evidential argument it is lacking.

While White's optimistic view of history may appeal to those weaned on Ken Wilber's cosmology, I don't see how his explanations are sufficient to nudge skeptics towards a more Teilhard de Chardin/Sri Aurobindo purview. To be sure, I understand that this Hegelian type of history may be attractive to those of us who wish the universe was an ultimately benign birthing womb for ever-expanding Sat-Chit-Ananda (truth, consciousness, and bliss), yet wishing such doesn't make it so.

There are too many weak links in White's evolutionary connective schema that come apart when closely inspected. For example, White makes sweeping generalizations that are quite misleading, especially when he can categorically lump together “Buddha, Lao Tse, Rama, Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, and Jesus” together positing that each have “demonstrated self-transcendence to the point where they could say, as Jesus did, that 'I and the Father are one.'”

This is a demonstrably glossy overstatement. First, Buddha didn't postulate a belief in God, much less a “Father” like icon. Second, Socrates never prefigured that famously heretical (at least to the orthodox Jews of the time) line from John 10:30 since he was put on trial for his alleged asebeia concerning the pantheon of Greek gods. Socrates is famous for confessing his ignorance on all such ultimate matters, prefiguring later agnostics when he, according to Plato's Apology, stated, “ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι…. Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know" (see Benjamin Jowett widely used translation). Third, citing Jesus is a mixed bag since we are relying on texts written and compiled decades after his death, since he, like Buddha, didn't write anything down that we can authenticate. Even if we rely solely on the canonical New Testament we find much that is quite disagreeable and gives one pause about how “advanced” such a person may have been, given that Jesus believed in hell, such as in the Gospel of Matthew where he is quoted as saying “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Bertrand Russell, the distinguished mathematician-logician, though finding some of Jesus' teachings commendable, points out a number of things that he finds abominable in Jesus's moral teachings. Argues Russell in Why I am Not a Christian,

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching—an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance, find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane towards the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sort of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him. You will find that in the Gospels Christ said: 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?' That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: 'Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world of come.' That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world. Then Christ says: 'The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth'; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming to divide the sheep and the goats He is going to say to the goats: 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.' He continues: 'And these shall go away into everlasting fire.' Then He says again: 'If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.' He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.”

In my Sociology of Religion courses, where we focus on how little we actually know about the historical Jesus, given the paucity of reliable biographical information concerning him, I point out that several of his actions today would be seen as highly unethical and backwards. A good illustration of this comes from Matthew 8:24-34, where Jesus performs an exorcism that leads to the extermination of a herd of swine:

When He came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way. And they cried out, saying, “[a]What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before [b]the time?” Now there was a herd of many swine feeding at a distance from them. The demons began to entreat Him, saying, “If You are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And He said to them, “Go!” And they came out and went into the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the waters.

Is this really a sign of enlightened thinking? Today, of course, we wouldn't tolerate such actions since we no longer believe in demon possession and would instead advise the two men to consult medical doctors to find out if maybe they were suffering from a neurological disorder. We certainly wouldn't tolerate the unnecessary killing of a herd of animals.

Is it really a hallmark of enlightened thinking to take Jesus' advice concerning plucking one's eyes out in fear of eternal damnation as we read in Matthew 5:29, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for. thee that one of thy members should perish, and. not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

And the list goes on, as Bertrand Russell adds,

Then there is the curious story of the fig-tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig-tree. 'He was hungry; and seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever,” . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: “Master, behold the fig-tree which thou cursedst is withered away”.' This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.

And just as with Jesus and Buddha, we have very little reliable information about the day to day lives of Lao Tse, Zoroaster, and Rama (who may have been a composite or a mythological invention). To claim unequivocally that these individuals have achieved self-transcendence is an incredulous stretch of imagination. Yes, we may glean from the writings relating to these figures that there are (and this should be underlined) parts which are insightful and helpful, but we simply don't know their ultimate state of being and what they were like in person. The mistake here is that we assume to know much more than we actually do, particularly since we are suffering from a dearth of pertinent biographical and psychological knowledge concerning these historical figures. In fact, if we could venture back in time and interact with a Buddha or a Jesus or a Pythagoras we may be in for a rude awakening.

White's modus operandi relies too heavily on authorities in the perennial philosophical tradition, as if mentioning a St. Augustine or a J. Krishnamurti or an Adi Da or a Sri Aurobindo is sufficient to convince us that his version of intelligent design is more efficacious than Darwin's and Wallace's materialist focus on natural selection. White tips his hand and reveals his own metaphysical pathos when he confusingly writes in favor of science while dismissing why and how it actually works when he suggests, “It is time to see Spirit through the light of science. Not by the light of science, of course, because that would be reductionism. But science has given us a powerful understanding of the evolutionary process. With that understanding, the workings of Spirit become ever more illumined. Our understanding of the avatar concept—the descent of the divine—is deepened by humanity's collective effort to ascend into higher realms of reality via science.”

White's modus operandi relies too heavily on authorities in the perennial philosophical tradition, as if mentioning a St. Augustine or a J. Krishnamurti or an Adi Da or a Sri Aurobindo is sufficient to convince us that his version of intelligent design is more efficacious than Darwin's and Wallace's materialist focus on natural selection.

Ironically, the very reason science has been so powerful is precisely because it has not succumbed to unverifiable metaphysics but has rather focused first and foremost on the empirical arena. Contrary to White's assertion, reductionism isn't the bogey man that we need to fear, since if some phenomena cannot be explained by its simpler components then we follow such emergent properties to higher level orders of explanation. But to neglect intertheoretic reductionism is to fall prey to all sorts of pre/trans fallacies, such as we have seen far too often in religious con men, such as Sathya Sai Baba, whose sleight of hand magician tricks are elevated as being siddhas of a transpersonal nature.

What is sorely absent in White's essay is an open-ended inquiry into the nature of reality where we avoid absolute maxims at each and every turn. Here is a list of 10 axioms (there are more, of course) that White has taken as givens, but for which he fails to undergird with compelling evidences and reasons for accepting them. Rather, it reads just like a dogmatic New Age version of the Roman Catholic Baltimore Catechism which I and others were indoctrinated with in third grade at St. Charles Elementary school in North Hollywood, California. We were essentially taught not to ask questions (e.g., How do we know for sure Jesus bodily resurrected? How do we know there is God? Etc.), but to accept such tenets as inviolate and be sure to memorize them by heart lest we fail the class.

I realize that White will object to such a comparison, but quite frankly he is not providing us with a cogent philosophical or scientific argument, but rather a set of his own beliefs which he apparently believes is sufficiently compelling. Well, it isn't. And while I can appreciate White's religious views, just as I can appreciate those of differing religions, it doesn't then mean that they are true or that erstwhile skeptics will be convinced of their efficacy.

Watch White's categorical terminology carefully and then ask the key epistemological question for each: how does he (or anyone) know that these are self-evident truths?

  1. Consciousness is immaterial; it cannot be squeezed from test tubes or neurons.
  2. Just as a plant grows toward the light, so does humanity yearn for God and greater awareness because, like a plant's inherent capacity to perceive and respond to light, there is a teleological design at work in us from the start.
  3. There is a divine intention at the foundation of the universe. It operates through the cosmos and everything in it, including us.
  4. We are concerned with God because God is first of all involved with us.
  5. The universe originated—exists—at all only because it is a form of God. God enfolds the universe; it inheres in God.
  6. A part of God descended from the transcendental domain and became the cosmos in its totality —physical, mental and spiritual.
  7. The involutionary process by which God manifested the cosmos billions of years ago continues even now, this very instant, from moment to moment, sustaining and preserving that which was originally wrought.
  8. God descended into the world by the act of creating it and God remains in the world by the act of sustaining it. That's involution.
  9. You see, deity is not simply incarnate in Man—it is incarnate in all life. So if humanity is the flowering of life, then avatars are the flowering of humanity.
  10. The case is that God is Ultimate Reality and our understanding of the nature of God is a function of our state of consciousness.

Now, I suspect, that those of a spiritual bent (and following Wilber's lead in his three-eye methodology) will argue that White's axioms can indeed be verified provided one uses their proverbial “third” eye (that of spirit/contemplation). But as I pointed out several years ago in "Ken Wilber's Eye: Exploring the Dangers of Theological Reifications",

For instance, you cannot appreciate dreaming unless you too have dreamt. That seems obvious. But that doesn't mean that the dreamer is somehow privileged because of that ability to know the causation or ontological status of that dream. Thus, while I applaud Wilber's insistence that we should explore varying regions of consciousness (via mediation or otherwise), I think it is misleading to then pontificate about the “reality” or “truth-value” of such experiences by trying to equate seeing an apple in the sensorimotor arena with seeing God in contemplation and then lambasting those who argue that there may be a difference between them.
The fundamental problem, I would suggest, is not in the fact that there are many worldspaces (there are), but over how we interpret such experiences. The fundamental problem, I would suggest, is not in the fact that there are many worldspaces (there are), but over how we interpret such experiences. The very reason we have confidence in the relative reality of an apple versus one person's claim of seeing God is that the former can be socially mediated whereas the latter lacks such social verification. It is premature to say the least that such experiences can be properly adjudicated even if we have an idealized Wilber sangat of enlightened beings. David Blaine, the noted street magician, can easily trick onlookers with the most rudimentary of magic and all this even while we are well trained in our five senses. One can only imagine how easy it would be to trick someone into inflating their own meditative experiences into something far grander than it actually is. Furthermore, the term apple is much more specific than the word God which is far too abstract and too generalized a term to be useful in a discussion designed for specificity.

Yes, let's explore the inner reaches of our own consciousness, but let's not jump the gun with all sorts of unnecessary platitudes which circumvent a truly open exploration of what lies ahead. We know so little here on terra firma, even getting lost in our driving directions from El Cajon to Bakersfield, and I find it ridiculous when we act as if we know the very ins and outs of the astral plane and beyond. Why such premature hubris?

As I argued with Wilber (and which I would suggest the same to John White):

The problem with such statements as “I have seen It [God] myself” is that it lacks skepsis and tends by its very language to cut off further discussion or inquiry. Wilber's continued use of such flowery descriptors as “Divine Spirit itself,” “naked and spontaneous, all pervading and all embracing”, “Buddha nature”, etc., suggests that his real goal is to bring us into his theological ballroom, but in order to accomplish this he misleadingly dresses us up with plausible personal and scientific possibilities. In this regard, I wish I could see eye to eye with Wilber since I agree with him on a number of issues, but when he succumbs to prematurely theologizing the inner quest with unnecessary reifications, I end up cross eyed.
Can't we be more honest about the contingencies of nature and the absolute horror of existence that most creatures must face here on planet earth?

Can't we be more honest about the contingencies of nature and the absolute horror of existence that most creatures must face here on planet earth? Are we supposed to believe that “God” directed a 7.5 mile long asteroid sixty plus million years ago to hit off the coast of Yucatan so that dinosaurs and other animals and plants would go extinct, because he “intended” birds to be dino descendants and that this would eventually allow apes to evolve so that we humans may find eventual enlightenment? This smacks of pure anthropocentrism to the extreme, as if the cosmos was jerry rigged to produce humans, even if all other species be damned. But really what is our own existence really like? More than 108 billion humans have lived on earth and for the vast majority it has been a living hell, since here on carnivore land it is eat or be eaten. And in the midst of it all we suffer from all sorts of horrific ailments, most of which cause intolerable pain and then to top it off we die regardless of our efforts. This is God's so-called magnificent plan? If this was the basis of a video game, we would think the creator was a sick sociopath who should be locked up in prison. How is this design “intelligent?” It certainly isn't compassionate in any reasonable assessment.

Just look at our solar system and see how contingent life truly is. As far as we know, no life on the Sun, no life on Mercury, no life on Venus, no life (apparently) on Mars, no life on Jupiter (sorry Stanley Kubrick), no life on Saturn, no life on Uranus, no life on Neptune, no life on Pluto, and no life in the vast spaces between and surrounding these extraordinary bodies. Yet, here on earth, we have life and from that myopic vision we think some Supreme Deity has a special plan just for us because this Overlord wants us to achieve enlightenment? Fairy tales are more believable.

Now before I go overboard, and be accused of being a closet atheist with a severely depressed and existential outlook, I am simply trying to show that there is a flipside to our one-sided view of cosmology and we tend not to be objective about the fate of humanity which could (for all we know) be wiped out in an instant if another, yet to be discovered, asteroid hits us off the coast of Huntington Beach and wipes out all of human life. We simply don't know our own fate and therefore I find it to be the height of conceit and arrogance to argue that we know otherwise. Yes, let's dive deep into our own being, but let's put the premature theologizing aside and cast sail with a bit more humility and a bit more honesty about what lies beyond our limited horizon.

So, to end on a positive note, I welcome John White's admonition that we become pioneers in our pursuit of higher states of consciousness or, to put a Sam Harris spin on it, better states of well-being and flourishing. But in pursuing this we don't need to wrap ourselves with unnecessary theological axioms. While it is true that a flower, such as a rose, is beautiful when it blossoms, we shouldn't forget that it also comes with some nasty and painful thorns. We are a very immature species and given the limits of our cranial capacities, it may be wiser if we lessen our hyperbolic rhetoric about God and her plans and confess and share how little we really do know.

John White reveals much when he writes, “As we've evolved, the idea of God has likewise evolved.” Perhaps the “God” idea itself is in need of a radical transformation and on this score, one could argue that Buddha (or at least the writings attributed to his teachings centuries after his death) was correct not to indulge in such theistic debates. The lesson here reminds me anew of why science is useful and why critical thinking is so helpful. Which is? To always know that we can be wrong and to be open to correction. If we keep that uppermost in our mind, we may avoid some dangerous pitfalls in our human quest to know more.

With kudos to John White for allowing me to think through his ideas and helping me to better articulate my own.

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