Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Beyond Spiritual Narcissism
by Jorge N. Ferrer
I believe that a potentially significant contribution of my work to the healing of the world (tikkun olam) is its treatment of the pandemic spiritual narcissism -- or elevation of one's favored tradition or spiritual choice as superior -- that still prevails in our approach to religious diversity. Too often, religious traditions and practitioners look down upon one another, each believing that their truth is more complete or final, and that their path is the only or most effective one to achieve full salvation or enlightenment. In addition to impoverishing human relations, this competitive attitude plays an important role in many interreligious conflicts, quarrels, and even holy wars. Although it would be ingenuous to believe that these conflicts are mostly driven by religious sentiments (social, economic, political, and ethnic issues are often central), the rhetoric of religious exclusivism or superiority is widely used across the globe to fuel fundamentalist tendencies and justify interreligious violence. After all, it is much easier to kill your neighbor when you believe that God is on your side.
As an antidote to this global malady, I have proposed that different religious worlds and spiritual ultimates are co-created through human participation in a dynamic and undetermined mystery, spiritual power, and/or generative force of life or the cosmos. This participatory account immediately frees religions from the assumption of a single, predetermined ultimate reality that binds them to exclusivist dogmatisms. To see the various religious worlds not as competing to match a pre-given spiritual referent but as creative transformations of an undetermined spiritual power effectively short-circuits their competitive predicament.
Though the participatory approach does not privilege any particular tradition or spirituality over others on doctrinal grounds (i.e., saying that theism, monism, or nondualism is superior), it grounds critical discernment on the practical values of selflessness, embodiment, and integration. Specifically, I have suggested two basic guidelines: the egocentrism test, which assesses the extent to which spiritual traditions, teachings, and practices free practitioners from gross and subtle forms of narcissism and self-centeredness; and the dissociation test, which evaluates the extent to which spiritual traditions, teachings, and practices foster the integrated blossoming of all dimensions of the person. In this regard, I have proposed an "integral bodhisattva vow" in which the conscious mind renounces full liberation until the body, the heart, and the instinctive world can be free as well.
If we accept this approach, it will then no longer be a contested issue whether people endorse a theistic, nondual, or naturalistic account of the mystery, or whether their chosen path of spiritual cultivation is meditation, social engagement, conscious parenting, entheogenic shamanism, or communion with nature. (Of course, each path can be complemented with practices that cultivate other human potentials.) The new spiritual bottom line, in contrast, will be the degree to which each path fosters both an overcoming of self-centeredness and a fully embodied integration that make us not only more sensitive to the needs of others, nature, and the world, but also more effective cultural and planetary transformative agents in whatever contexts and measure life or spirit calls us to be.
Jorge N. Ferrer, Ph.D. is chair of the department of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, and co-editor of The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies (State University of New York Press, 2008).
Source Citation: Ferrer, Jorge N. 2011. Beyond Spiritual Narcissism. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.