Chapter 3 of God(s) and Consciousness:
An ancient Sufi story tells of two men looking at the sky one clear evening. One remarks on how beautiful the two moons are. The other says, “Two moons? My friend, there is only one moon. You must be seeing double.”
The first replies, “Nonsense. If I were seeing double there’d be four moons.”
Consciousness is the way we process information and assign meaning to it. We take for granted that what we see is real. Yet all we perceive or remember passes through the lenses of our consciousness. These lenses can easily make us see double or distort in other ways.
This is the third sermon in a series about God. In the next talk we’ll simply and directly answer the question, “Does God exist?” However, before we can do this we have to know which consciousness is asking the question – which lens we use to view the topic.
So in this talk I’d like to explore consciousness and how it changes as we mature individually and evolve as a species. Before we look at these stages, there are five things to know about consciousness in general.
Consciousness affects everything we experience. Since it’s how we process information and assign meaning, it affects how we see ourselves, our relationships and the world. It affects our values, how we treat our families, organize society, think of the oppressed, decide to go to war, view the national budget, relate to the environment and every other aspect of life, including how we see or don’t see God.
Though consciousness affects everything, paradoxically we’re mostly unaware of it. Like the man seeing double, we pay little attention to our lenses of consciousness. I wear glasses. It’s amazing how fuzzy and blurry the world can become before it occurs to me that my glasses might be dirty. We’re usually unaware of our consciousness.
Consciousness matures in stages. We have to master one stage before we can grow into the next because each stage has the building blocks for the next. Each stage transcends the previous by going beyond its limits. And it includes the previous by incorporating it into a higher synthesis.
For example, we have to crawl before we can walk and walk before we can run.
We have to read letters before we can read words, read words before we can read sentences and read sentences before we can read a book. The skills unfold in natural stages.
Even though the stages of consciousness unfold naturally from each other, the world and the meanings we assign to it look radically different through different consciousnesses.
The world we know crawling around the house is different from the world we discover running through streets and fields. The world we know as runners includes the world of crawling. But it’s so different that it’s impossible to adequately describe it to someone who can only crawl.
The depth, texture, nuances and meaning of a book is unimaginable when we can only read single words.
We live in multiple stages. Our consciousness can be advanced in one area and young in another. We can be an advanced reader and unable to walk. We can be an athletic runner and illiterate. We can be an intellectual genius and a social nincompoop. We can be a political savant and an ethical idiot.
Let’s turn from consciousness in general to specific stages. In talking about God or Spirit in earlier sermons, I differentiated three stages: separateness, connection, and merging. They unfold in this order. We have to know self and spirit as separate before we know how they connect. We have to know connection before we can know merging.
This sequence may not be intuitively obvious because these are big leaps. Therefore, rather than just three stages, let’s differentiate six. We could easily differentiate eight, nine or twelve. But six may be enough to see the developmental spectrum clearly.
As we do this, we’ll take a quick look at six views of Jesus. Christians around the world think about Jesus through the lenses of their consciousness. So let’s note these various portraits of Jesus as they relate to maturity of consciousness.
We’ll start with tribal consciousness. It has no sense of self as we understand it today. Traditional tribal people draw identity from the group and its customs and traditions: “We hunt in the valley and not in the mountains because that is the way of the ancestors.” Even the tribal chief is strictly bound by tradition. Tribal gods are powerful and arbitrary.
Tribal thinking is magical by scientific standards – it understands there are causes and effects but does not understand the mechanisms.
We all grow through this stage of thinking as children. I remember when my brother told me, “Step on a crack and you break your mother’s back.” I worried whether “cracks” included the straight lines in the sidewalk or just the jagged breaks. I also searched for four leaf clovers and avoided walking under ladders.
Adults capable of rational thought may still hold magical beliefs about God, economics or other aspects of life.
Examples of tribal thinking include street gangs, athletic team bonding, good luck charms, family feuds and heavy reliance on rites and rituals. Another example is Jesus the magician who turned water into wine, walked across the waves, fed thousands from seven loaves of bread and raised Lazarus from the dead.
The problem with tribal consciousness is its inflexibility. So about 10,000 years ago a new, self-centric consciousness emerged. Maybe there was a famine. Someone left the traditional hunting grounds and killed an animal in the sacred mountains. He was frightened that the ancestral gods would punish him. Yet, he became strong and well nourished while others remained weak and dying.
Rather than being totally bound by tradition, he followed personal instincts and intelligence. And he thrived. His self-sense began to differentiate from the tribal whole. It was exciting and empowering. If the tribe didn’t expel him, it may have made him a shaman.
Self-centric thinking is called “mythic” because it has a grandiose sense of power. It can be creative and adventurous. Examples include the terrible twos, adventurous youth, wild rock stars, villains in James Bond movies, frontier mentality, Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, Attila the Hun, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and in his followers’ hero worship of him.
Another example is Jesus the hero-savior who, through heroic sacrifice, saves us from eternal torment if we just have faith in him.
About 20% of the world and about 5% of its leaders see through a mythic, self-centric lens.
The problem with self-centrism is the harm it visits on those around it. So about 5,000 years ago, group-centrism emerged.
Following a mythic hero or avoiding a mythic villain left both supporters and victims in a bad way. Self-centric heroes keep most of the bounty, leaving everyone else empty-handed. So rather than just kill them and take their place, some people began to think about others in their group. To fairly distribute food, clothing, justice and care for the weak, they began to live by group rules rather than one leader’s whim.
Group-centric consciousness emphasizes laws passed down from higher authority. Those who value these laws and customs are “us.” Those who don’t are “them.” This consciousness connects with some people, but not all people. It emphasizes meaning, direction, purpose, order, authority and moralistic teaching.
Its thinking is literal and concrete. It’s more logical than impulsive egotism. Yet it isn’t fully rational. It’s typical of pre-adolescent children.
Examples in adults include ethnocentrism, love-it-or-leave it patriotism, fundamentalism of all stripes, Paul Ryan’s budget, economic policies that confuse the good of the whole with the good of the wealthy few, the Tea Party, Lake Woebegone, codes of chivalry, Confucian China, “traditional values” and politicians who believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an enemy to defeat rather than a fellow citizen to work with.
Another example is Jesus the lawgiver and embodiment of eternal truth. Some of his laws were “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love your neighbor.” Applying these laws to everyone is wonderful. But ethnocentrism applies them to the faithful while condemning or at best ignoring everyone else.
This consciousness includes 30% of world leaders, 40% of the population, 70% of organized religion and over 95% of terrorist groups.
To be sure, there are lone, egocentric terrorists. But they have trouble organizing others because they aren’t group-centered. Ethnocentric people do more serious damage worldwide. Those not adhering to their values are seen as threats deserving to be blown up. And they have the organizational ability to pull it off.
This group-centric lens is a natural stage of consciousness we all grow through. But when people get stuck in this pre-adolescence, it’s bad news. It perpetrates violence. It tries to destroy social programs, environmental protection, public education and anything else that supports everyone rather than just their group.
Many people who have higher pluralistic or integral thinking still have ethnocentric values and beliefs. They use their higher functioning in service of concrete, literal and pre-rational goals. This is bad news.
About five hundred years ago, a new world-centric consciousness emerged. It’s called “world-centric” because it takes into account those outside its group.
World-centric people are capable of full rationality. They can view their and other’s beliefs objectively. That is the heart of rationality – genuine objective observation.
World-centrism emphasizes creativity, personal expression, innovation, breaking tradition, entrepreneurial spirit, prosperity now, mobility, nimbleness and understanding systems. It’s individualism as understood in the modern world.
A fully rational, world-centric person is unlikely to blow somebody up. He may hire someone to do dirty tricks for him but is less likely to hire an assassin.
Examples of World-centrism include the Western Enlightenment, emerging middle class, scientific revolution, industrial revolution, Wall Street, the advertising industry, the Cold War and chambers of commerce when they often pursue their goals without adequately taking into account the larger good.
Another example of world-centrism is Jesus the tradition breaker. He threw moneychangers out of the temple. When asked about the law requiring stoning of an adulteress, he famously said, “He who has never sinned can cast the first stone.” When asked to condemn a woman who broke the Sabbath to care for her son, he refused. He appealed to something deeper and higher than literal interpretations of the old laws.
This lens of consciousness accounts for 30% of the world’s population, about 15% of leaders and the majority of Americans.
Rationality, the Western Enlightenment, science and world-centric thinking have done great things for humanity. But they have a dark side. Think of the damage some large corporations wreck and you’ll have a feel for the dark side of world-centrism: materialism, eco-destruction, unequal wealth distribution, tyranny of the most ambitious, corporate personhood, and so forth. World-centrism is aware of other people, values and beliefs but puts its own interests above the larger good. Group-centric people have little understanding of those outside their group. World-centric people understand others enough to manipulate them for personal advantage.
So about 50 years ago a new pluralist consciousness emerged and transcended these weaknesses. It not only understood others, but valued them. It put the welfare of others on an equal footing with self-care – and sometimes made it more important.
Pluralism values multiculturalism, group harmony, inner peace, equity, caring for the oppressed, good communication and including everyone.
Examples include ACLU, Doctors without Borders, Jimmy Carter’s human rights efforts, animal rights, Jacques Cousteau, Deep Ecology, the original Ben & Jerry’s, John Lennon, sensitivity training, feminism and the Civil Rights movement.
It also includes Unitarian Universalism. We have people who are group-centric, rational and integral. However pluralism is our center of gravity: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the goodness of everyone, openness, curiosity, love and respect for the interdependent web.
Another example is Jesus the Humanitarian. He looked out for the poor and the oppressed. His parable of the Good Samaritan illustrated how people we don’t like can be good. He encouraged loving our enemies.
Pluralistic Christians say, “Jesus taught us to love our neighbors and care for others. So did Buddha, Gandhi and other great teachers. They’re all valuable, but I call myself ‘Christian’ because Jesus resonates with me. He’s my guy. He’s not better than others, just what works best in my heart.”
Pluralism accounts for about 10% of the world population and 15% of those in power.
We Unitarian Universalist might like to think that we’re the top of the heap – the most evolved. But not so. Pluralistic and Unitarian Universalist consciousness has a dark side. Trying to include everyone can break down into tokenism. Desire to help the oppressed can breed competition to see who is most oppressed. Compassion can give without asking for anything in return and become paternalistic or patronizing. Fair representation can give equal weight to the informed and the uninformed alike. Discomfort with judging can lead to lack of discernment. Seeing goodness in everyone can lead to not holding people accountable. Emphasis on feelings can lead to the tyranny of the most disgruntled – those with the strongest feelings sway the group.
So in the last few decades, higher more sophisticated stages of consciousness have emerged. They’ve been called “integral,” “vision logic,” “trans-rational,” “holistic” and “overmind.” Examples include the work of Ken Wilber, Stephen Hawking and chaos theory.
Another example is Jesus as cosmic consciousness. This images sees Jesus as a self-realized being who showed us a path to our emerging divinity. Such a Christian feels this Christ consciousness inside him or herself and sees it in others. Jesus was an inspiring expression – nothing more and nothing less.
Researchers studying the development of intelligence, morals, worldviews, self-identity, values and more note that the shift to Integral is huge. It‘s so large that many call the stages from tribalism to pluralism “first tier” and integral the beginning of “second tier” consciousness.
To understand this shift it helps to remember that consciousness is the way we process information and assign meaning.
For example, the word “Jesus” has information but no inherent meaning – it’s just sound waves or marks on a page. But the mind assigns meaning. We’ve noted six different meanings: powerful magician, hero-savior, law bringer, tradition breaker, humanitarian and Christ consciousness.
The word “God” has a greater variety of meanings, all assigned by the mind. The word “Obamacare” has no inherent meaning. Even the laws and policies have no inherent meaning. So different people assign it different meanings: “caring,” “socialism,” “rectifying a social inequity,” “government sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong,” and more.
Each stage of consciousness is a characteristic way we process information and assign meaning to it.
People in first tier consciousness cannot understand people in stages other than their own. Pluralistic progressives think group-centric conservatives are throwbacks to the Dark Ages. Self-centric Tea Partiers think liberals have drifted into outer space. Democrats and Republicans may deem the others have lost their marbles: “I don’t understand how they think!”
In the first tier, people tend to think those in their own stage are reasonable, those in earlier stages are idiots and those in higher stages aren’t living in the real world. If you’ve ever asked, “How could they think that way!” you’re probably referring to someone in a different stage of consciousness than yours.
Integral consciousness is the first stage complex enough to see another stage and genuinely “get it.” It’s called “integral” because it can comprehend and value all the lower stages at once. It can talk with someone at a different level without being condescending and without losing its own higher perspective.
For example, let’s say we’re promoting an environmental policy with a factory owner. We recognize that he’s ethnocentric – he cares about his family, his job, his industry and has little patience with others. If we’re integral thinkers, we won’t talk to him about how much better we’ll all feel if we care about everyone – a pluralist, Unitarian Universalist value. We talk about ethnocentric values and how this policy will help his group. And we do this genuinely and sincerely because we know he’s not stupid – just looking through a different consciousness. We aren’t being manipulative because the reasons we give him are sincere and complete within his frame of consciousness.
Understanding all these stages of consciousness is complex. Nevertheless, in today’s world we face many complex problems all at once. Most have roots in these stages of consciousness. If there were no adults stuck in group-centric consciousness or below we wouldn’t have ethnocentrism, homophobia, the war in Iraq, the financial meltdown of 2008, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, large-scale terrorism or Paul Ryan’s draconic budget. If there were no adults stuck in world-centric consciousness or below we wouldn’t have global warming, political gridlock or predatory corporations.
Consciousness is how we process information, assign meaning and create narratives. It determines the problems we see or don’t see, the problems we create or solve and what we tell each other about them.
Pluralistic consciousness – the heart of Unitarian Universalism – is complex enough to see the problems in the world and feel bad about them. It can address them one at a time. But it isn’t complex enough to see the patterns of consciousness, information processing and meaning assignment underlying them. First tier stages have difficulty seeing outside their own perspectives.
Most people with advanced college degrees have used integral consciousness at least intellectually. Almost all Unitarian Universalists are intellectually capable of integral thinking. However we don’t necessarily have integral values, beliefs, social organization, politics, self-identity, worldview and so forth. But we have the capacity.
How do we bootstrap ourselves into integral consciousness?
This is a large topic for another time. So I’ll just hint at two areas to consider:
1. We can help each other by talking deeply with one another about values, beliefs, worldview, self-identity and so forth. We can use our intellectual integral capacities in conversations to help us mature in other areas.
2. We can help ourselves through serious spiritual practice. These help break down consciousness structures over time and allow them to gradually integrate at higher stages.
Finally, there are different textures to happiness and well being in each stage. Integral happiness is lighter and more selfless than earlier stages. It is less dependent on people or things being a specific way. This makes it more stable and resilient.
May we all know higher forms of happiness, for ourselves and for the world.
1. Ken Wilber uses the phrase “transcend and include.”
2. This table has been drawn and adapted from the work of Ken Wilber, op. cit. and Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics , (Blackwell Publishing, 2006)
3. Ken Wilber, op. cit. and Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, op. cit.
4. Ken Wilber op. cit. and Beck and Cowen, op. cit.
5. Beck and Cowen, op. cit. and Ken Wilber, One Two Three of God, op. cit.
6. Beck and Cowen, op. cit., and Ken Wilber, op. cit.
7. Beck and Cowen, op. cit., and Ken Wilber, op. cit.
8. Among those involved in organized religions, Unitarian Universalists are, on average, among the highest educated. To get those degrees, they’ve had to use integral thinking. Those who don’t have advanced degrees are probably capable of integral thinking as well or they won’t be comfortable in our religious communities.
Copyright 2012, Doug Kraft