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Six Classes of Religious Expression

February 21, 2006

By Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks):

(copyright 2006 all rights reserved)

While linear cultural evolution theory may be dead (thankfully) still these and other models of social theory can help us to understand individual spiritual evolution, through which I shall propose goes through six stages of spiritual expression.  Using social theory within the spiritual domain is going to require some unpack of the social theory of Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, Marx, Robert H. Lowe, Julian Steward's works on multi-linear evolution, Edinger's Archetype and Ego, Habermas' progressive cultural stages, Deepak Chopra's "Way of the Wizard", Fowler's stages of faith, Ken Wilber's "Integral Psychology," Sean M. Saiter's, "Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking." I will attempt here to build a single model through six stages of spiritual expression and retain, wherever possible 'plain speech' so that the model can be easily understood.

Understanding the six classes of religious expression can help one understand at what stage of religious development one happens to be at, because understanding what stage of religious development one is at will help one to negotiate the remaining stages. The following stages of religious development are intended to describe the religious experience beyond the cultural context. In this endeavor I have found some Anthropological theory of value. The model I find particularly useful here states the variability within any single ethnic community is greater than its differences from any other ethnic community. I have extended this model beyond physical, cultural and genetic Anthropology to the religions of the world. Thus the variability within any religion, such as Christianity, is greater than its differences between any other religion, such as Buddhism, and vice versa. If I could resort to a few examples I hope you, the reader, will see how this theoretical model of the unity of religions within six classes works.

The Six Classes of Religion

1) Ambivalence (Fowler's stage 3)

The first and most dominant stage of religious expression is ambivalence. It typically manifests in the form of mainstream religious expression. The ambivalent stage emphasizes conformity and avoids passion, faith and exuberance, This form of religious expression typically manifests as going to temple once a week, and on the ritual cycle, just like everyone else in one's culture. This form in this culture is typified by mainstream Protestant Christianity, or Reform Judaism, but every culture has its mainstream religious form.

2) Faith based Religions (Fowler's stage 1)

If we were to look at religions that emphasize faith and devotion, and generally reject the contemplative practices, then we would see the Born-Again Protestant Christian movement and compare it to Vaishnava Hinduism and Pureland Buddhism. While each of these three religions are superficially different, because they look to wholly different progenitors, nonetheless they are actually quite similar because they are monolithic in nature, in which they look to a single messianic figure, they emphasize faith, devotion, ethics and often ritualized behavior, and reject contemplative practice. We could call this group the Bhakti, Dionysian or Messianic schools of religion. The devotional forms of religion tend to be the next most dominant form in almost every culture because they appeal to the masses. This form of religion appeals to the masses because these religions take very simplified forms, such as just having faith in the progenitor and often times habitual repetition of some prayer/mantra.

3) Mystery Religions (Fowler's stage 2)

The Mystery Religions are those that emphasize the fantastic and are often heavily ritual oriented. They tend to emphasize devotion and ritualized behavior. In the west the various occult schools, such as the Theosophical Society, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, etc. The mystery religions in Asia are represented by the various Tantra schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism.

4) Dionysian or Hedonist Religions (Fowler's stage 5)

The next phase in religious development is hedonism. These followers often reject piety, ethics and scholarship while emphasizing "crazy wisdom," spontaneity, ritualized and apostolic behavior and they often avoid any kind of discipline because they believe it leads to repression. This school of religious expression is very often a backlash from the rigidly ethical devotional and/or mystery schools.

Instead of mystifying the religion beyond reach the members of this school tend to look to an experiential religious form, such as singing and dance, fire worship, snake handling and even consuming mind altering drugs to produce a simulated religious experience. The groups and religions that fall into this class are Apostolic Christianity, Pagans, the Donme Kabbalists, Shivite Hindus, and the followers of Rajnish, Choygum Trungpa, Da Free John, etc. While the hedonist schools are typically small compared to the above three schools, they are nonetheless the next most common form of religious expression.

5) Stoic or Rationalist Religions (Fowler's stage 4)

The next class of religious expression is the stoic or intellectual schools of religion where religious devotion, piety, ethics, ritualized behavior, mystery and gnosis are generally deemphasized and intellectual and philosophical forms of expression and practice are emphasized. In Christianity these schools tend not to be contemplative and are represented by the Jesuit Catholics and mainstream Protestantism. In Hinduism, this model would be represented by those schools that follow Gnana yoga or Advaitan (non-dual) philosophy, which is generally interpreted as the path of wisdom. In Buddhism the stoic schools are Theravadan and Zen Buddhism.

The stoic schools tend to be the next most dominant form of religion and are often in direct competition with the devotional forms of religion. This form of religion tends to appeal to the intellectual elite who are often highly educated. People often come to the stoic school after they realize the emptiness of the naïve schools that emphasize the mysterious and fantastic side of religion.

6) Ecstatic and Charismatic Contemplative Religions (Fowler's stage 6)

Last and least is the tiny community of ecstatic and charismatic contemplatives who lead a contemplative life that bears the fruit of gnosis. These individuals often emphasize faith, devotion, ethics, spontaneity, and discipline while avoiding oppressive and dogmatic attitudes and teachings, but tend toward intellectual and philosophical study to enhance their understanding of the path of gnosis. But, what characterizes the ecstatic and charismatic contemplative the most is the actual attainment of gnosis (jhana/samadhi).

The schools that are represented by ecstatic and charismatic contemplative model typically follow closely the teachings of a particular mystic such as: Sidharta Gotama; Christian contemplatives, such as Saints Anthony, Vitus, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; Sufi mystics al-Hallaj, Rumi and Kabir; Kabbalists Isaac Luria and the Baal Shem Tov of Turin; and Hindu mystics, such as Sankara, Sri Ramakrishna. This form of religion typically appeals to those who have stumbled upon gnosis, very probably due to previous lifetime accomplishments.

It is important to keep in mind while examining this model that anyone could be at any stage of spiritual expression but find it unfulfilling and progress to another stage. This is in fact how we are propelled forward from stage to stage. Also, especially in previous centuries, people had fewer choices in religion and thus often found they had to remain within the social organization or religion that they were born into, but only moved on intellectually and spiritually.

From reading the discourses of the Buddha, it seems asceticism and hedonism were the primary forms of religious expression in his day, because, if you recall, Siddhartha Gotama attempted to build a unifying model of religious expression, which was based upon three classes of religion: those that are ascetic and self-abusive; those that are hedonistic; and those that are contemplative. He defined his model based upon a contemplative "middle path" between hedonism and asceticism.

Culture today appears to have organized itself rather differently than the culture and period of the Buddha. Today we tend to organize our religions around ambivalence, devotion, mystery, hedonism and rationalism. The problem with these five models is none of them really serve the needs of the ecstatic and charismatic contemplative.

A western ecstatic and charismatic contemplative tradition could be formed out of a loose union of individuals around a nonsectarian form of Buddhism such as Insight Meditation Society, which is certainly attempting to do that. Their efforts, however, clearly and vigorously excluded the tiny community of ecstatic and charismatic contemplatives (jhana). Too often writers and institutions; such as western psychology and the western religions, as well as the three vehicles of Buddhism; simply do not understand nor honor or respect the stage-6 ecstatic and charismatic contemplative.

The ecstatic and charismatic contemplative is not at all a part of any branch of religion today, thus the need for the ecstatic and charismatic contemplatives to form their own contemplative community. Thus the need to forge alliances between other small ecstatic and charismatic contemplative communities such as: Sant Mat, some Sufi groups, some Kabbalists and some contemplative Christian institutions, such as the Carmelites. It is possible that the GWV could very easily become a kind of Buddhist version of Sant Mat, Sufism or Charismatic Christianity because we actually have more in common with these movements than we do with the various vehicles of Buddhism.

Go find a peaceful and quite place at the trunk of a tree, an empty shack, or rock shelter, sit down, lie down, stand and walk, ever mindful of the breath, the physical body, the senses, self reflexive conducting the personal inventory, ever sensitive of the arising of the signs of absorption.

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks):

the Great Western Vehicle


James W. Fowler's work on stages of faith development can be found in his books: "Stages of Faith" & "Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian".

Fowler, James W., 1940, "Stages of faith : the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning," San Francisco, CA : Harper & Row, c1981. ISBN 0060628405

Fowler, James W., 1940, "Becoming adult, becoming Christian : adult development and Christian faith," San Francisco : Harper & Row, c1984. ISBN 0060628413

Fowler, James W., 1940, "Weaving the new creation : stages of faith and the public church," San Francisco: Harper, c1991. ISBN 0060628456

Fowler, James W., 1940, "Faithful change : the personal and public challenges of postmodern life," Nashville, Tenn. : Abingdon Press, c1996. ISBN 0687017300

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