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Enlightenment Unplugged:

Not just a book review
of Walter Truett Anderson's The Next Enlightenment: Integrating East and West in a New Vision of Human Evolution
by Carter Phipps


One of the things any good hard scientist can't stand is when spiritual people start talking about the soul. Just put yourself in their shoes for a moment. What is it? Where is it? Show me the data. It just smacks of anti-empiricism. Give a little space for a soul and the next thing you know, someone will start trying to save yours. And it's not just the soul, it's all of those esoteric religious words that point to something nonphysical, immaterial, ineffable, transcendent—you know, words like God, emptiness, the Absolute, the Beyond, the timeless, enlightenment . . . Enlightenment? Well, wait a minute, not so fast. Enlightenment, traditionally considered to be the highest goal of the spiritual life, is actually undergoing a change in our contemporary culture, and the guys in lab coats are beginning to take an interest in this mystical ideal. That's right—put away The Power of Now, stop watching your breath, break out of that downward-dog pose, and pay attention. There is a new movement under way in the culture, a new philosophical/spiritual strain that is a powerful and seductive mix of modern science, postmodern philosophy, and Asian mysticism. And it is starting to catch the attention of an intelligentsia curious about matters spiritual but long suspicious of any new paradigm not grounded in a rational, scientific, and empirical view of the world. Celestine Prophecy, move over. This is a new spiritual anti-theology that even intellectuals can love. We could call it “enlightenment unplugged”—unplugged from its religious, spiritual, and moral roots and repackaged for secular, individualistic culture. With a little backup from biology and brain science and some inspiration from evolution, hosts of new theorists are discarding all nonessential baggage—ritual, belief, devotion, morality, even God—and trying to get at the core of the individual enlightenment experience.

So what really is going on here? Are we witnessing the birth of a new era of spiritual development, finally discovering a vision of enlightenment truly fit for life in our twenty-first-century global society? Or are these new purveyors of enlightenment missing the point entirely, merely subjecting the mystery of consciousness to the limited perspective of the microscope, taking God out of the picture, pandering to a materialistic culture that wants spiritual sustenance with no strings attached?

Last summer, when an advance copy of The Next Enlightenment: Integrating East and West in a New Vision of Human Evolution by Walter Truett Anderson showed up on our doorstep, it became clear to us that the concept of enlightenment was indeed breaking into new territory, and that the question that adorns the cover of our magazine was being asked by a broader cross-section of the culture than ever before. In the offices of What Is Enlightenment?, the book turned some heads. Here was a broad, rational, and inclusive new spiritual vision that was leaving tradition far behind. Here was an intriguing enlightenment philosophy that was incorporating insights from psychology, cosmological evolution, and cognitive science—many of which we have long championed in the pages of this magazine. Here was a book that seemed at first glance to reject traditional religion, reject much of contemporary spirituality, but at the same time embrace the mystical dimension of the spiritual life. In a world filled with enlightenment paradigms either stuck in the strictures of ancient traditions or languishing in the I'm-okay-you're-okay, be-here-now world of self-help spirituality, Anderson's book was a step forward, and his work seemed representative of this emerging philosophical movement in the culture. Moreover, it raised a crucial question. Could these new theorists deliver a genuinely workable spiritual vision for our globalizing world? And even more importantly, could they do it without falling too far under the spell of a contemporary intellectual ethos that has little understanding of, or appreciation for, the ways of the spirit?


Even the fact that a book by Walter Truett Anderson should address the question of enlightenment says something quite important. A longtime chronicler of the philosophical trends at the leading edge of culture, Anderson's reputation as a journalist with a unique sensitivity to the ebbs and flows of modern life is well established. With a bio that is both impressively eclectic and simply impressive, he has tracked the emerging edge of human thought in the last decades with books ranging from The Upstart Spring, his look at the saga of the Esalen Institute, to Evolution Isn't What It Used to Be, a wide-ranging journey through the new worlds of evolutionary science, to Reality Isn't What It Used to Be, an introduction to postmodern thinking. He holds PhD's in both political science and social psychology, and has not just observed California's human potential gold rush but participated deeply in it—going so far as to lead his own encounter groups in the late sixties and early seventies.

Anderson begins The Next Enlightenment, his tenth book, by describing a new “enlightenment project,” as he calls it, emerging in our culture, and he walks the reader through the basic elements of this new project. This endeavor, he tells us, is just now coming into focus, and it will need to draw upon a wide array of humanity's scientific and spiritual knowledge, East and West. It will need to build on the achievements of the European thought of the past few centuries and incorporate a number of recent developments in science and psychology that Anderson feels are crucial to understanding where the notion of enlightenment is currently headed. In a book that follows the bouncing ballpoint of his pen through cosmology, history, psychology, biology, existentialism, the human potential movement, religious tradition, and back once again to enlightenment, it's understandable that he wants to set a big context at the outset. Indeed, Anderson's enlightenment project will need, as he puts it, “enough breadth of vision to encompass both the core concepts of the Asian enlightenment traditions and the rational/scientific heritage of the European Enlightenment.” While the Asian enlightenment traditions do get fair mention in Anderson's work, the European Enlightenment is clearly where his deeper loyalties lie. Anderson is truly a child of the scientific age and feels little philosophical obligation to the religious traditions of our past. “I want to explore in these pages,” he writes, “a view of enlightenment that is illuminated by science and rooted in the rational traditions of Western thought.”

Perhaps the most exciting result of this new illumination by science is Anderson's incorporation of the cosmological sweep of our evolutionary heritage into his enlightenment project. In fact, he feels that the terms “enlightenment project” and “evolutionary project” are interchangeable. “Enlightenment,” he writes at the outset of the book, “is an evolutionary project, one that was begun long before evolution itself was understood.” Placing the next enlightenment within an evolutionary context, a context where the focus is primarily on the development of the species rather than of any particular individual, is a point that cannot be overstated. Given the near-crisis state of affairs in today's world, we urgently need a culturewide discussion of human development and human potential that lifts our attention beyond the narcissistic norms of our society—one that has relevance both west of Hindu ashrams and east of the California border. Linking the spiritual questions of enlightenment to the pragmatic questions of our collective evolutionary future provides just such a context, and it is heartening to see Anderson picking up the theme and playing it so prominently.

Still, Anderson's refreshing science-friendly outlook and his emphasis on Western rationalism also have a disconcerting side, particularly as it becomes clear that he is doing much more than just adding a dose of science and rationality to the contemporary spiritual smorgasbord. In fact, if you read between the lines, a subtext begins to emerge in The Next Enlightenment, an underlying theme that goes something like this:

Enlightenment, the evolutionary breakthrough crucial to the development of our species, has been captured and is being held hostage in a prison of dogma and superstition by an evil force called religion. In this narrative, Anderson sees himself as a liberator, and the rational disciplines of science, postmodern philosophy, and psychology are his weapons of freedom. Like Voltaire and Diderot battling the priests of the Catholic Orthodoxy, Anderson is intent on freeing the higher reaches of human development from their association with the dogmas of our religious heritage. There is some truth to this scenario, but like an overenthusiastic soldier, Anderson is so intent upon killing the bad guy that he accidentally harms the hostage in the process of liberation. He releases enlightenment from the outdated religious structures of the past, only to subject it to a new, less obvious tyrant—a postmodern, secular ethos where scientific materialism and rampant individualism reign supreme.

This is the scenario that plays itself out over and over again in The Next Enlightenment. Anderson wants to bring enlightenment down off its religious pedestal and take away its elitist image as a secretive “religious experience,” only “achievable by limited numbers of people within the boundaries of certain ancient disciplines.” For Anderson, religion is clearly a thoroughly unpleasant concept, and he spends a significant amount of time impugning the many failings of the wisdom traditions of humanity. Even the term “religion” itself, he writes, immediately brings to mind “so much hierarchy, so much mythology left over from dead cultures, so many doubtful dogmas, so many cranky old men bearing armloads of Thou Shalt Nots.”

Now, you'll rarely find the editorial voice of this magazine going out of its way to defend the modern relevance of ancient tradition, and in many respects I appreciated Anderson's willingness to put himself out on a limb and state what so few are willing to say directly—that the spiritual traditions are falling far behind the spiritual curve in today's global, pluralistic society. But he overplays his hand. His criticism comes across as overzealous, and even more importantly, it lets him off the hook of the greatest challenge of his enlightenment project: How do we bring enlightenment into a secular age without compromising its transcendent dimension, the sacred dimension that religion, for all its obvious faults, has sought to preserve? How do we demystify enlightenment without desacralizing it? You see, Anderson, along with many of the philosophers, scientists, and academics who are helping to define the contours of this new enlightenment paradigm, is absolutely right that enlightenment must evolve, and evolve quickly, if it is to meet the demands of a twenty-first-century world. But given that reality, how do we update the premodern notion of enlightenment for a society firmly entrenched in the postmodern age and not throw the sacred baby out with the religious bathwater? For all of us Westerners whose spiritual sensibilities were weaned on a rational age, it is no small question. And in the end, the answer may come down to the way in which we understand enlightenment itself.

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