The Emerging Interspiritual Age
Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord
There is a profound historical process currently unfolding– the rapid manifestation of a globally emergent “universal spirituality” inherently connected to the compelling moral and ethical values underpinning the world’s Great Wisdom Traditions. The difference now is that the shared deep moral and ethical values themselves are now being emphasized, gradually eclipsing particular religious creeds and dogmas which (in the more superficial dimension of ideas or beliefs) previously characterized a more fractured and parochial landscape among the world’s religions.
It is important that people understand what has happened. A major background event to this (known by some but not by all) was the thirty-some year process, through the Snowmass Inter-religious Initiative (involving delegates from across all the world’s traditions), creating the “Nine Points of Agreement” among the world’s religions [1, pp. xvii-xviii; 2, pp. 212-216; adapted and updated, 3, p 341]. Further, from these then emerged, a distinct values and ethical component regarding the new universal spirituality articulated as the “Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality” [2, pp.109-157]. Globally now, most interfaith discussions are based, knowingly or unknowingly, on these elements or principles.
The nine-points put forward by the Snowmass Initiative include these shared principles:
- The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahma, Allah, (the) Absolute, God, Great Spirit.
- Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
- Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization.
- Faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
- The potential for human wholeness—or in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, transformation, blessedness, nirvana—is present in every human.
- Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
- As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it remains subject to ignorance, illusion, weakness, and suffering.
- Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment isn’t the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness (unity) with Ultimate Reality.
- Prayer is communion with Ultimate Reality, whether it’s regarded as personal, impersonal (transpersonal), or beyond both.
These are the more mental, intellectual, or “left-brain” elements of the consensus that has been arising across the world’s religions for the last three decades.
On the other hand, the “Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality” reflect the traits of personal character, or spiritual maturity, that would reflect the values inherent in the Nine Points of Agreement. The Nine Elements not only represent the aspirations of authentic spirituality but also describe its goals and fruits. Each circumscribes a realm of spiritual and ethical inquiry and responsibility and each contains multiple aspects that are critical to global interfaith harmony education:
- Actualizing full moral and ethical capacity
- Living in harmony with the cosmos and all living beings
- Cultivating a life of deep nonviolence
- Living in humility and gratitude
- Embracing a regular spiritual practice
- Cultivating mature self-knowledge
- Living a life of simplicity
- Being of selfless service and compassionate action
- Empowering the prophetic voice for justice, compassion, and world transformation.
In sum, these principles—springing from whatever language is used (Brahma, Allah, (the) Absolute, God, Great Spirit etc.)– emphasize the great ethical and wisdom teachings of the religions, with their stress on the grandeur of humanity—a grandeur that is not only the heart of authentic religion but of the arts, including literature, poetry, music, art, dance, and all the other manifestations that mark Homo sapiens as an unparalleled species.
It is not by accident that these unifying ethical principles represent one of the aspect of inherent religious unity that was realized by fruitful discussion across the world religions after the pivotal 2nd Vatican Council (“Vatican II” 1962-65). Global discussions following Vatican II (often called “the Foundationalist Discussions”) [3, p. 244-247] defined three potential unifying, or “Archimedean”, principles possible among all the world’s religions. These include:
- Their common mystical core—experiential “unity consciousness”
- Universal ethical teachings and behavior aspirations
- Mutual commitment to the self-evident truths of economic and social justice.
In the West, participants in these post Vatican II conversations included such historical luminaries as Thomas Merton, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Harvey Cox, John Cobb, Langdon Gilkey, Juan Luis Segundo, Karl Rahner, Jeremy Bernstein, Raimon Panikkar, and Hans Küng.
Ultimately, the potential of each of these principles in manifesting actual unity remains a question. This question vexed the early explorers of this conversation. Generally, the more conventional theologians among the Foundationalists, those more bound by conventional creed or belief, concluded that unity points might actually not be possible. However, the mystics and liberation theologians among them– Thomas Merton and Raimon Pannikar, together with the liberation thinker Harvey Cox– took the experiential position that the shared existential/ mystical core of all the worlds traditions was synomyous with actual commitment to building a world based on the shared values of all the traditions. Shared values and ethics of love, kindness, selfless service and equanimity are central to the teachings all the Great Traditions. Further, they have been principal to the historical reform and revival movements that have characterized all the traditions as well.
When forgotten by the traditions themselves, or made subservient by political or financial pathology, these same values sprang up in independent movements. Humanism is perhaps the best example—the legacy of Ethical Culture and other humanist movements, which declared that this shared ethos was in fact the core of religious experience itself: deed over creed. And, these values have become the hallmark of the currently emerging global Interspiritual Movement.
From Einstein to Schweitzer, King to Mandella, the number of social heroes who have embraced and emanated from such movements is huge indeed. Indeed, this sense of shared ethos spawned all the great movements across the globes in the turbulent times of social and political change that typified what is generally call the Integrative Age unfolding since the 1970s. The unifying principle generally acknowledged as the fourth Archimedean point of the world’s religions—the shared commitment to social and economic justice—is rooted in this emerging Integrative Era as well. It is this Integrative Era, now moving toward a new Holistic Era that is powerfully underpinning what has grown from the global Interfaith Movement to the rapidly maturing Interspiritual Movement.
Brother Wayne Teasdale (who named the “Interspiritual” movement as the direction that religion must go to accommodate the needs of authentic globalization and multiculturalism) said, in his now classic book The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions:
“This revolution will be the task of the Interspiritual Age. The necessary shifts in consciousness require a new approach to spirituality that transcends past religious cultures of fragmentation and isolation. We need to understand, to really grasp at an elemental level that the definitive revolution is the spiritual awakening of humankind.” [1, p. 4f]
He emphasized throughout The Mystic Heart, the critical balance of advancing individual spiritual maturity simultaneous with collective social evolution if we were to enter a successful global age. Not every individual might be able to personally access experiential unity consciousness so, even more so, the challenge to the religions must be to educate about their shared values and lofty ethical goals, not simply to emphasize their differences in terms of theologies, creeds, or apocalyptic scenarios.
Working from the values and ethics of the Nine Points of Agreement and the Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality, Brother Teasdale listed fundamental shifts in global awareness that would be necessary for successful globalization and multiculturalism in an Interspiritual Age. These are treated in detail in our recent book The Coming Interspiritual Age.
 Miles-Yepez, Netanel [Ed.]. 2006. The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue. Brooklyn NY: Lantern Books.
 Teasdale, Wayne. 1999. The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions. Novato CA: New World Library.
 Johnson, Kurt and David Robert Ord. 2013. The Coming Interspiritual Age. Vancouver CN: Namaste Publishing.