Feb 132009

As some of my readers know, I’ve been a reader for some time of philosopher Ken Wilber. While the level of detail in Wilber’s system can be annoying, I find it’s always good to check any new ideas against his criteria, because if you don’t – you’ve usually missed something.

One of the key components in Ken Wilber’s philosophy is the notion of quadrants, and what it says is this: Most things can be looked at in four different ways. They can be looked at either from an inner perspective or an outer perspective, and they can be looked at as individuals or as members of a group or system – giving four perspectives. Like this:


The left-hand side is the interior perspective, the right-hand side is the exterior perspective. The upper half is individual, the lower half is collective.

The easiest example of these perspectives is a human being. We can look at a human being and study him from the outside (upper right) and study his brain structure, his biology and its underlying chemistry. This will give us a great deal of insight into him. We can also study his environment and how his organism interacts with the atmosphere, the food supply, the traffic flow, etc. (the lower right). We now have a different set of insights, equally important.

But this leaves out an entire half of the picture. What is it like to be this person from the INSIDE? What are his thoughts and feelings? What meanings does he attach to things? What does he feel? These questions are all in the upper left quadrant. Finally, what is his relationship to other people, seem from within the group? What are the values and beliefs of his family, his community or his social group?

Our tendency as modern people is to focus on only one quadrant (often the upper right) to the exclusion of or devaluing of everything else. All quadrants are important, and none should be reduced or folded into another or important insight is lost.

Ok, after this overly-long introduction, how do we apply these principles to spirituality? Let’s analyze first the case of the fundamentalist. This person may believe that he or she is deriving all of their truth from the Bible or the Koran. But in fact, they are focused almost entirely in the bottom left quadrant – the inner social group. They are relying – not on the Bible, but on the meanings and values attached to the Bible by their group. The idea that another group can attach entirely different meanings to the same Bible is confusing to them.

They are also unwilling to actually examine the Bible externally in the right-hand quadrants. Objective examination of the texts would show evidence of copy errors, redactions and multiple sources. Objectively comparing the text with history and science would show evidence of historical and scientific errors or ignorance. These objective incongruities are all ignored or pushed aside in favor of the values and beliefs of the group.

Certain kinds of skeptics, on the other hand, privilege the other quadrants. They assume that the ONLY value the Bible can possess is objective factual value. That it can be a useful source of poetry, mysticism, meaning and value is ignored. That it can be a basis for community interaction,  and social solidarity – providing a literary and mythic vocabulary is likewise unimportant. Their focus is entirely on the right-hand quadrants, particularly the upper right.

Those of us attempting to live spiritually in a modern world had best be able to live in all the quadrants at once. We must be open to the mystical, the poetic and the metaphorical, and value inner spirituality. We must be aware of the prejudices and preconceptions our group mentality may lead us into. We must be willing to accept the insights of objective insights of history, science and textual scholarship without blindness. But we must also be aware of the potential blindness of those who try to live only in the upper-right quadrant of the individual externals.

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