The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies

Article excerpt

FERRER, JORGE, & SHERMAN, JACOB (Eds.). (2008). The participatory turn: Spirituality, mysticism, religious studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 388 pp. ISBN-10: 0791476014 ISBN-13: 978-0791476017. Hardback, $90.00. Reviewed by Craig Chalquist.

Although a disturbing lifelessness never fails to haunt what scientist-philosopher Lancelot Law Whyte diagnosed as a total obsession with partial ideas, scholars and philosophers have resorted to monolithic explanations of spirituality with dull regularity: It's direct from God. It's linguistic. It's hierarchical, or neurological; culture-bound, or perennial; something your mom or dad told you to conform to.

By refreshing contrast, The Participatory Turn asks: Can we take religious experience, spirituality, and mysticism seriously today without reducing them to either cultural-linguistic by-products or simply asserting their validity as a dogmatic fact? Can we recognize and value many paths to many co-created mansions of the sacred? Can we learn to see the frameworks we apply as furnishing examples of spiritual enactment, of a "participatory turn" toward a true plurality invigorating spiritual life, rather than standing aloof being descriptive or merely explanatory?

For the scholars of this anthology-all of whom engage in a spiritual practice-a participatory turn in religious studies means moving beyond a largely cognitive preoccupation with categorizing, assimilating, mining, or otherwise colonizing spiritual experience into an appreciative, embodied awe of the enactive, communal, and co-constitutive dimensions of spirituality. In this kind of spiritual knowing, the assumed split between a supposedly pre-given Ultimate Reality and the mental apparatus that registers it gives way to an emphasis on "participatory events" in which the human and the divine engage in creative, often playful, and mutually transformative dialog.

Transpersonal psychology has tended to concentrate on charting individual spiritual experience even while transporting it into a universal or "perennial" context. This anthology draws on multiple perspectives to invite the reader into a plurality of spiritual approaches, each a delight in its own way, each preserved with its cultural background intact, and none compared with any others ormelted down into one large ingot. Readers concerned about the continuing appropriation of spiritual models and practices from exoticized cultures-a common manifestation of empire-era entitlement-will appreciate the spaciousness of a paradigm that allows an infinite array of culturally and personally colored approaches freed from the imperial habits of comparison and assimilation.

Among the many facets of exuberant religiosity, the participatory turn also welcomes the gendered, the erotic, the sensual, the local, the nonverbal, and, yes, the linguistic too. Emphasizing the interactive nature of spiritual encounter, the participatory set of approaches avoids overarching summations, empirical reductions, and 19th-Century grand conceptual systems to center instead on spirituality as both constructed and revealed, embedded in culture rather than built by it, and resistant to reckless transplantation into artificially imposed grids of competitive elucidation.

Religions and spiritual paths do share commonalities, one of which is that most seek a gradual transformation "from narrow self-centeredness toward a fuller participation in the mystery of existence" (p. 138). I would add that "selfcenteredness" includes what Erich Fromm identified as group narcissism (our way or the highway) as well as idealization of the lone genius, scientist, or guru who purports to explain existence to us, as though one leaf could inform the rest of the true extent of the forest, let alone of a single tree.

At the same time, paths bent to serve an overriding goal of mapping or explaining the world tend to lose their original curvatures, byways, and departures to mechanical-feeling systems of straight lines and cleared landscapes. …