A Response to Dustin DiPerna’s “Integral Religious Studies in a Developmental Context”

By: Gerard Bruitzman

I want to raise some issues that occurred to me after reading Dustin DiPerna’s JITP article, "Integral Religious Studies in a Developmental Context" (IRSDC) [free download]. In IRSDC, Diperna uses an orienting framework in which he identifies four historical stages in the development of the field of religious studies (see Table 1). He associates the premodern period with a fusion of the value spheres of arts, sciences, and morals; the modern period with differentiation of the value spheres; the postmodern period with contextualization of the value spheres; and the post-postmodern period with participatory integration of the value spheres. This framework is problematic for many reasons. I refer to some of them below. 

One issue that troubles me is that the use of the historical sequence premodern, modern, postmodern, post-postmodern can prompt banal assumptions that premodern people are less civilized or less developed than modern, postmodern, and postmodern people. Anyone who studies Tibetan culture notices amongst premodern Tibetans outstanding individuals with extraordinary accomplishments in awareness training. If there could be an Olympic games for enlightenment athletes, who would win a gold medal in disciplines related to awareness training, heart awakening, or divine charity to others: a premodern Tibetan master, a modern scientist, a postmodern multiculturalist, or a post-postmodern integralist? 

Education in premodern cultures is concerned with waking up and freeing the innate heart-knowledge (gnosis) present in each person. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” This corresponds to the Platonic doctrine of “recollection” (anamnesis), which is the “remembrance of God” (memoria Dei) numerous monks and nuns have practiced intensively inside and outside of monastic communities for millennia. Countless examples are there to be seen. 

Here are two of them. After a lifetime engaged in learning to live well, Confucius was able to say: “At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart, for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right” (as cited in Walsh, 1999, p. 123). And Dante in his Divine Comedy demonstrated that he was able to differentiate and contextualize his spiritual journey through hell and purgatory toward participatory integration with paradise where “my will and my desire were turned by love, the love that moves the sun and other stars” (p. 347).

DiPerna’s framework has no place for the accomplishments of premodern masters of divinity. There is no room for Confucius’ hard-won practical wisdom or Dante’s highly nuanced heart-centered poetics in his inadequate category of premodern fusion. 

I claim that DiPerna’s framework fails to give individuals and communities with various degrees of accomplishment in various arts and sciences in premodernity and other ages their appropriate due.

Recovering Premodernity's Treasures

In the 1970s, Ken Wilber started his body of work with a series of journal articles describing the spectrum of consciousness and the psychologia perennis, and then published his first book The Spectrum of Consciousness. A key idea in this early work was the Great Chain of Being, which he had found in the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions and in the work of contemporary perennial philosophers such as Huston Smith, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

What I want to do here is to introduce some tenets of the perennial philosophy, and then ask some questions that may prompt deeper inquiries into the relevance and usefulness of Diperna’s framework in the eyes of the reader. I will provide brief answers to some but not all questions. I hope the reader will engage the question or raise their own questions for themselves. In doing so, I expect more shortcomings in DiPerna’s framework may be exposed. I will refer to two recent perennialist texts: William Stoddart’s Remembering in a World of Forgetting and Huston Smith’s “A Universal Grammar of Worldviews” from his superb autobiography Tales of Wonder

In “A Universal Grammar of Worldviews,” Smith discusses 14 elements of the perennial worldview. I have selected some items from Smith’s text that I will use as points of interest for my questions. 

  1. "Reality is Infinite” (Smith, 2009, p. 236). The levels of divinity and humanity; the levels of reality; the five Divine Presences shown in Table 2; the five degrees of Beyond-Being, Being, Spirit/Intellect (in Greek: Pneuma/Nous), soul (contents of soul: reason, imagination, sentiment, will and memory), and body emerge from infinity (Stoddart, 2008, 49). One of many possible questions is: which levels of reality are present in IRSDC? My answer is: IRSDC presents an impoverished account of reality with the three Divine Presences of Beyond-Being, Being, and Spirit/Intellect (innate heart-knowledge) mostly ignored.
  2. “The Infinite includes the finite” (Smith, 2009, p. 236). Two of many possible questions are: does the perennial philosophy of the five Divine Presences include premodernity, modernity, postmodernity, and post-postmodernity? Does IRSDC include the premodern philosophy of the five Divine Presences? My answers are: yes and no, respectively.
  3. “The contents of finitude are hierarchically ordered” in a Great Chain of Being, “ranging from the meagerest kind of existence through every possible grade up to the boundless Infinite” (Smith, 2009, p. 237). One possible question is: why is this perennial ontology marginalized in IRSDC? 
  4. “Causation is from the top down, from the Infinite through the descending degrees of reality” (Smith, 2009, p. 237). One possible question is: does IRSDC recognize the constant interplay of the three gunas, sattva (the upward or luminous tendency), rajas (horizontal, expansive or igneous tendency), and tamas (the downward, opaque or heavy tendency) in each historical age? 
  5. “The One becomes the many. The parts of the many are virtues, for they retain in lesser degrees the signature of the Infinite—of the perfection of the One at the top” (Smith, 2009, p. 237). One possible question is: which virtues, using for example Islam’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God, or Roger Walsh’s seven spiritual practices in Essential Spirituality, are celebrated in IRSDC? My answer is: many moral, aesthetic, and intellectual virtues are not present. 
  6. “Reversing the drift of downward causation, as we look upward from our position on the causal chain we find these ninety-nine virtues ascend the causal ladder, and as they ascend, their distinctions fade and they begin to merge” (Smith, 2009, p. 238). The many become the One. One possible question is: is there a transcendent unity of all virtues in IRSDC?
  7. “In Hegel’s dictum, despite the fact that the world is in the worst conceivable turmoil, in the eye of the cyclone all is well. This brings us face-to-face with the problem of evil. Human beings are capable of both great nobility and horrendous evil” (Smith, 2009, p. 239). One possible question is: what is evil in the view of IRSDC?
  8. “The Great Chain of Being, with its links that increase in worth as they ascend, needs to be qualified by the Hermetic Principle: ‘As above, so below.’” Everything that is outside us is also inside us—“the Kingdom of God is within you” (Smith, 2009, p. 239). One possible question is: does IRSDC recognize the Hermetic Principle? My answer is: no; it ignores integrating microcosmic, mesocosmic, and macrocosmic patterns.
  9. “Because there is no commensurability between the finite and the Infinite, truth must be revealed to us” (Smith, 2009, p. 240). One possible question is: does IRSDC acknowledge the role of revelation and intellectual intuition (intellect) in religion? My answer is: no; it is reason-based.
  10. “…interpretations (of sacred texts) progress through four stages of ascending importance: the literal, the ethical, the allegorical, and the anagogic” (Smith, 2009, p. 241). One possible question is: does IRSDC acknowledge the role of the science of multi-layered exegesis in religion? My answer is: no; according to the IRSDC worldview, in the historical sequence premodern, modern, postmodern, post-postmodern, each later historical period is more enlightened than its predecessors (from fusion to differentiation to contextualization to participatory integration). This historical sequence is problematic. First, it considers premodern sciences like textual exegesis yet to be objectified, prone to lack of differentiation, subject to fusion, unenlightened constructions. Second, it is not very illuminating when it has a marginalizing effect on Plato, Dante, Nagarjuna, and other saints and sages of various wisdom traditions, and on contemporary perennial philosophers such as Huston Smith and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Third, it ignores the presence of the Eternal Now.
  11. “Fundamentalism has generated so much confusion … with its obsession with the literal” (Smith, 2009, p. 241). One possible question is: does IRSDC acknowledge the different levels of interpretation of divine revelation in premodernity? My answer is: no, the dignities of premodernity are not acknowledged in IRSDC, as it shows little understanding of the traditional, richly nuanced sciences of symbolism that pervade premodern affairs. 
  12. “All religions carefully spell out the distinction between reason and intuition. In the West, intellect (intellectus, gnosis, sapientia) is not reason (ratio); in Sanskrit, buddhi is not manes” (Smith, 2009, p. 243). One possible question is: does IRSDC acknowledge the distinction between reason and intuition? My answer is: no; not only is intellectual intuition (Pneuma/Nous) unacknowledged, but it also fails to appreciate the degrees of reason, degrees of nobility of sentiment, degrees of will to integrate the many into the One, degrees of imagination to integrate the True, Good, and Beautiful operating in premodernity, and the prodigious capacities of oral memory that sustained civilizations for millennia before humanity invented and fixated on the written word.
  13. “Walnuts have shells that house kernels, and religions likewise have outsides and insides. The outer, exoteric forms house the interior, esoteric cores” (Smith, 2009, pp. 243-244). One possible question is: does IRSDC acknowledge the distinction between exoteric forms and esoteric cores? My answer is: no, apparently surfaces are allowed to shine without much need to dive into mysterious depths.
  14. “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery” (Smith, 2009, p. 245). One possible question is: does IRSDC acknowledge the divine mystery our lives tend to live to some degree? My answer is: no.

I wonder if this recovery operation is working. How does the reader see the accomplishments of people in premodernity? In what ways were they more or less developed than post-postmoderns?

Further Consideration of DiPerna's Text

Now I move on to consider just one paragraph in IRSDC to highlight some significant errors. Alas, other paragraphs are not without their own problems. DiPerna writes:

In the West, centuries of dominance and obedience gave full reign of power and authority to the Catholic Church. For most of the first millennium and for several centuries into the second millennium, knowledge in general and theological knowledge in particular was trapped in the interpretative framework and filter of the Church. The inerrancy of the Bible dictated cultural and social possibility, leaving little room for freedom of thought outside of its narrow lens. In short, the Church was simultaneously researcher, authority, and disseminator of wisdom. As a result of this early fusion of value spheres, the study of religion was not divorced from the rest of knowledge. Religion itself had not yet been made an object of conscious reflection; religious studies, as we know it today, simply did not exist. (p. 3)

According to the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church locates authority in its Apostolic Tradition, which includes the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the Divine Liturgy, and the Church’s Magisterium. This Apostolic Tradition is perpetual and emancipatory. It has the capacity to transform souls from self-centeredness into sainthood, sagehood, and divinity. Historical cases of transformation are documented in for example Michael Murphy’s impressive The Future of the Body. Current living cases include two longtime friends of Ken Wilber, Father Thomas Keating and Brother David Steindl-Rast. In contrast, many modern fundamentalist churches, not the Catholic Church, locate authority in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, which has been a significant 20th-century phenomenon in various contractive religious reactions to contractive modern ideologies.

I emphasize three more shortcomings by highlighting the significance of symbolism, virtues, and awareness in premodernity.

Evidently, for those with adequate awareness to see, the language of symbolism with its multiple levels of significance, communicated through sacred music, architecture, liturgy, and various other art forms, allowed and continues to allow for multi-perspectival and multi-layered readings of sacred texts that have nourished the souls of millions of people for millennia. See the works of Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, William Stoddart, and many other authors at World Wisdom for a celebratory understanding of premodern arts and sciences.

Also, evidently for those with adequate awareness to see, various levels of capability in diverse aesthetic, moral, and intellectual virtues from the lower, more contracted, hellish to the higher, more inclusive, heavenly levels of finitude functioned in premodernity. All sorts of stories show that the human spirit had the capacity to soar from lower into higher levels and contract from higher to lower levels of virtue in ancient times, as it can in our times.

Terri O’Fallon (2010) at Pacific Integral in her recent work describes six levels of awareness:

  1. First-person perspective involves awareness of the quality, one’s concrete self
  2. Second-person perspective involves awareness of the quality, concrete operations
  3. Third-person perspective involves awareness of the quality, abstract and formal operational thinking
  4. Fourth-person perspective involves awareness of the quality, contexts
  5. Fifth-person perspective involves awareness of the quality, constructs
  6. Sixth-person perspective involves awareness of the unity of opposites

I believe all of these capabilities from first-person to sixth-person perspectives are present in numerous sages and saints in premodern times. Such persons may have been rare—nevertheless they existed. Have a look at the life and work of, for example, Plotinus or Meister Eckhart. The general population in premodernity, however, like today, battled to survive.

Olympic Games for Enlightenment Athletes

Just for fun, imagine who you would give a gold medal to in each of many different enlightenment disciplines. In Table 3, I have allocated three gold medals: Chartres for being the outstanding example of cathedral building; Dogen for his wise action in Japanese medieval life; and Rumi for his 13th-century love poetry that inspires souls everlastingly. Who would you give a gold medal to in the Benedictine tradition for their purity of heart? Is he or she from premodern, modern, or postmodern times? 

If you are interested, allocate gold medals for the other disciplines that are listed. And, then allocate gold medals for the various enlightenment skills of other enlightenment lineages, such as the yogas of Advaita Vedantins, the dreaming attainments of Aboriginal Elders, the seven rites of Oglala Sioux Chiefs, the yogas of Tibetan Lamas, the sciences of the Royal Society, the therapies of the American Psychological Association, the green activism of Greenpeace, the integral life practices of Integral Institute, and so on. Now, look at your medal list. How many gold medal winners came from premodern, modern, or postmodern times, respectively?


I have raised some issues with the use of the historical sequence premodern, modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern in DiPerna’s framework. One of my major concerns is this historical sequence does not reveal the significant accomplishments of countless individuals and communities who have become, to use Roger Walsh’s term, “gnostic intermediaries” in living their lives in each historical age. In my response to DiPerna’s IRSDC I have pointed to some of the ways Diperna has not recognized the achievements of gnostic intermediaries in premodernity.

For serious students of Integral Theory and practice interested in allocating the profound gifts of premodernity their appropriate measure of attention, I recommend serious engagement with the work of two outstanding contemporary perennialists. Seyyed Hossein Nasr is one of the world’s greatest living philosophers honored by his peers at the 1980 Gifford Lectures and in the Library of Living Philosophers (Vol. XXVIII). He is in my view the foremost distinguished exemplar of the perennial philosophy. He offers a profound and rich discussion of his life’s work in his In Search of the Sacred: A Conversation with Seyyed Hossein Nasr on His Life and Thought. Wolfgang Smith is a first-rate practitioner of theoretical physics, mathematics, and traditional metaphysics. He offers many masterful studies of modern science in light of the perennial philosophy in his The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology: Contemporary Science in the Light of Tradition; The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key, Science and Myth: What We Are Never Told; and his superb article, “Response to Stephen Hawking’s Physics-as-Philosophy” in Sophia: The Journal of Traditional Studies.   

I hope the reader can now see at least some of the shortcomings in DiPerna’s representation of premodernity. Much more could be said about the IRSDC article in particular and Integral Religious Studies in general. What’s presented above will suffice for now.

Gerard Bruitzman
August 2012
Frankston, Australia

For a rejoinder from Dustin DiPerna, click here.


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