A Critique of Ken Wilber's A SOCIABLE GOD

Author: Douglas Groothuis
Publisher: The NEURAL SURFER
Publication date:  February 1997

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.

Ken Wilber, A Sociable God: A Brief Introduction to a Transcendental Sociology, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983, 176 pp., $12.95, ISBN 0-07-070185-7.

Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, Denver Seminary. Email: DGROOTH133@aol.com. Web page: www.gospelcom.net/ivpress/groothuis Originally published in The Christian Scholars Review, Volume XV, Number 3 (1986), 300-302. Reprinted with permission of editor.

Sociology has long had the reputation for “debunking” religious belief by reducing it to sociologically quantifiable and explicable behavior patterns. Some theistic sociologists, particularly Peter Berger (see his Rumor of Angels), have tried to debunk the debunkers by explicating the methodological limitations of sociology that restrain it from vetoing the transcendent. Berger even sees what he calls “signals of transcendence” in human behavior.

Ken Wilber, a prolific independent scholar, also finds these signals of transcendence. He labors to construct a sociological theory that incorporates various stages of religious awareness. Far from the “methodological atheism” of much of modern sociology, Wilber’s methodology could be called “methodological pantheism.” As such it is a sophisticated effort to integrate an Eastern mystical world-view with modern social science.

Billed by many New Age thinkers as the Einstein of consciousness theory, Ken Wilber now applies the transpersonal themes systematically developed in his earlier books to the field of sociology, thus giving us “an introduction to a transcendental sociology.” Just as psychology must transcend the suffocating constraints of a Freudian or behaviorist materialism that dismisses religious experience as illusory or inconsequential, so must sociology be reformed to include the transpersonal (mystical/religious) dimensions.

Wilber takes up the challenge with a seemingly encyclopedic arsenal of ideas coupled with systematic rigor that ostensibly puts the transpersonal or New Age perspective on the sociological map. Incorporating the ideas of developmental psychology, anthropology, sociology, and Eastern religion, Wilber forges an elaborately constructed (if somewhat obscurely stated) theory of societal development that parallels the hierarchy of consciousness. (One wishes, though, that his documentation included specific page references to the works cited.)

To put his complex ideas simply, Wilber wants to surpass traditional Western sociology in two ways. First, he attempts to include and classify the transpersonal dimension of knowing and being in relation to its social manifestation. Just as there are levels of consciousness so too there are levels of social evolution. While recognizing the worth of one-dimensional sociological theories such as functionalism (i.e., religion’s only purpose is social cohesion), Wilber wants to include such insights by fitting them into the larger transpersonal perspective. Second, not content merely to describe the developmental structure and evolution of society he seeks to develop a normative (prescriptive) sociology which is equipped to evaluate and judge the authenticity of religious expression in society. He distinguishes between what is socially “legitimate” (accepted by the masses) and spiritually “authentic” (genuinely spiritual).

Not surprisingly, orthodox Christianity, (which he calls “exoteric”) is not at the top of the transpersonal ladder. Instead, it sits beneath monistic mysticism. Wilber says that “saintly communion with spirit is transcended by sagely identity with spirit” (p. 33). In social and personal development we must move beyond the “Father without” to the “God within” (p. 83). Wilber does endorse “gnostic Christianity” and views rist's’ statement, “I and the Father are one,” as equivalent to the Hindu pantheistic affirmation, “Thou art That” (p. 32). Optimum spirituality involves “absorption in and as the Uncreate Godhead” as demonstrated by “Buddha/ Krishna/ Christ” (p. 44).

Wilber also finds other religious, mystical, and occult ideas wanting and points out that a transpersonal approach is not an unqualified endorsement of all spirituality. He differentiates the pre-rational, rational, and transrational. Pre-rational, primitive mysticism is hierarchically lower than the transrational level which transcends rationality without eclipsing it.

But here we must bring Wilber'’s grand system under closer scrutiny. First, Wilber believes that the transpersonal dimensions are not mystically elusive or illogical but are instead subject to evaluation through “gnostic verification.” This involves plunging into the respective mystical discipline, experiencing what it offers, and finally “communally verifying” the experience with others similarly involved. Wilber says in an example: study Zen, experience satori, and corroborate the experience with Zen-masters. Participation, he thinks, is essential to verification. He seems to want to include subjective involvement with objective evaluation.

But just how scientific is this? Who or what could scientifically adjudicate a dispute between a group of Christian monks and Zen monks? Both communally “verify” their experience. Yet they disagree. As Carl Jung wrote in his essay on “the psychology of Eastern meditation”: “The Christian during contemplation would never say ‘I am Christ,’ but will confess with Paul ‘Not I but Christ liveth in me’ (Gal 2:20). Our sutra, however, says: “Thou wilt know that thou art the Buddha.’” On What basis, then, does Wilber determine that monism is “higher” than Christian theism? A merely descriptive psychological or sociological study alone cannot produce that value judgment. Despite Wilber’s expertise in the social sciences, his attempt at verification is defective.

Wilber easily assimilates “gnostic Christianity” (which he takes to be the true, but suppressed, Christianity) into his system because of its similarity to eastern pantheism. Yet he avoids arguments that question its authenticity as a Christian phenomenon.

Wilber's demotion of orthodoxy in favor of monism is likewise inadequate. Wanting to retain rationality as an essential tool, he speaks of the transrational that includes the rational but goes beyond it. Yet it is difficult to understand the meaning of “beyond rationality” if there is no transcendent, personal, rational God to ground rationality. Wilber believes in no such God. The term “reason,” then, becomes too nebulous to use at all. Unlike Wilber, the Christian affirms “that in the beginning was the Word (Logos)” and that the Logos of God orders all of reality. Indeed, what is left of logic for Wilber if all is ultimately one (monism)? The subject-object distinction essential for logical thought or any kind of consciousness vanishes, as many pantheists less concerned with rationality (and less influenced by the Western rational tradition) than Wilber will admit. Although Wilber speaks of various levels of consciousness (including the rational), for him, the ultimate state of consciousness and final reality is the unity of all things.

Similarly, it is difficult to see why an impersonal Godhead is superior to a personal God. Wilber seems to take this as self-evident. Why is the idea of “Cosmic Parent” inferior? The concept of an ultimately personal God that transcends our creaturely limitations without dropping below the horizon of personality is both biblical and logically cogent. “Does he who planted the ear not hear: Does he who formed the eye not see?” (Psa 94:9). The alternative seems problematic, as Hans Küng pointed out in On Being a Christian: “Are we to say that a God without mind and understanding, freedom and love, is still God? Would such a God be able to explain mind and understanding, freedom and love, in the world and in man? Would the God who gives meaning to person not himself be personal?” Despite the book’s title, Wilber’s “God” is not “sociable” but rather a-social because it (not He) is im-personal. Any notion of a dialogical relationship with God Wilber sees as a lower level of consciousness. C. S. Lewis’ argument for a personal God as stated in Miracles is a good place to begin to take Wilber to task.

Along with other New Age scholars such as William Irwin Thompson and Theodore Roszak, Ken Wilber is trying to put New Age/pantheistic ideas on the intellectual cutting edge. Such intellectual infiltration and integration is essential if the New Age is to entice the Western mind. Yet for all its architectural ingenuity, Wilber’s system is erected on a foundation eaten through by ethical, philosophical, and theological problems, as many critics of pantheistic monism have pointed out. Nevertheless, qualified Christians should take Wilber’s cue and develop a Christian sociology that accurately and critically integrates legitimate sociological insights with the revelation of Scripture. “Methodological atheism” and “methodological pantheism” need not be the only choices.

For more on New Age viewpoints, see Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1986); Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1988); Deceived by the Light (Harvest House, 1995); Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Harvest House, 1996)