The Presence of the Infinite: The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness by Steve McIntosh
Reviewed by Martin Lockley
It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best of the worst. It’s here they got the range and the machinery for change. It’s here they got the spiritual thirst. Leonard Cohen (Democracy)
Presence of the Infinite is the third Steve McIntosh I’ve reviewed for the Network. Following Integral Consciousness (Network 97) and Evolution’s Purpose (Network 109), Steve now completes a spiritual trinity of expositions aspiring to formulate a “mature and sophisticated” evolutionary spirituality (his italics). While constantly touching on universal themes, Steve’s first chapter Spirituality in America has a telling subtitle: in search of leadership. With considerable enthusiasm Steve hints, sometimes directly, that his vision of evolutionary spirituality transcends and includes other forms of spirituality. Steve regards all worldviews as modes of spirituality saying that religious (traditional) secular (modern), and progressive (post-modern) options are available in the “spiritual marketplace.” But each he says has its shortcomings such as “off-putting elements of New Age culture.”
Nevertheless, he remains “optimistic… that a new kind of spirituality is looming on the horizon of American history,” and says “how it could gain currency in America’s fragmented culture is the primary focus of…this book.” [Although the marketplace and currency metaphors are perhaps stereotypically American, they are juxtaposed with a persistent goal and vision of infinite perfection which has the potential to inform (evolve) our finite existence and help us “participate in the gradual perfection of the finite cosmos.”] “Admittedly” says Steve “this is heady stuff” based on the premise that evolution is progressive and has a “purpose,” as explored in his last book. This premise goes hand in hand with Steve’s panentheistic world view that the infinite is both transcendent and immanent. Clearly this vision of evolutionary spirituality is trans-rational or trans-conceptual and firmly rejects the notion that “our beautiful cosmic home is just a random accident with no larger meaning.” This brings us to “meaning” which, as Steve explores, revolves around and appreciation of the perennial values of beauty, truth and goodness. If I understand Steve, and I like the metaphor, these values are not merely values to be passively appreciated but ideals to be actively practiced or “metabolised” in order to raise consciousness and advance evolution. By their fruits you shall know them.
Presence of the Infinite is certainly a fruitful exposition with, as noted previously, high ambitions to define a newly emergent “evolutionary spirituality” that transcends progressive spirituality. In doing so Steve promotes himself, along with 13 other named individuals, as one of the contemporary teachers in the field in America, while contending that “authentic evolutionary spirituality… is still very rare.” I need not comment in detail on Chapter 3 on “Spiritual experience from an evolutionary perspective” since most SMN members would likely recognise that such experiences are profoundly transformative for individuals and the communities they may influence through example and teaching. Steve admits that Chapter 4 is “philosophically dense,” [I agree]. Returning to the panentheistic theme of infinite being and finite becoming (his italics), Steve postulates “the inherent perfection of the pre-existing infinite” as the backdrop to our “finite experience of becoming more perfect by our own choices and efforts.” Chapter 5 on “Contemporary Spiritual Currents: progressive and nondual” is a readable and masterfully concise, historical, cultural analysis of progressive spirituality as it has unfolded in western culture, since Emerson and Thoreau, but especially since the consciousness 1960s. Here brief reference to commercial success of best-selling gurus is relevant as cultural anthropology. The chapter ends with interesting comments on the polarity between nondual and theistic modes of spiritual experience, and Hans Küng’s distinction between mystical and prophetic piety made me ruminate on the inherent inward and outward or introvert and extrovert facets of the human psyche.
For much of the rest of the book Steve grapples with the implications of the polarity between the non-dual experience of universal void (non-self) and the experience of a personal, loving creator (dualism of lover and beloved), arguing that these different experiences both arise from direct spiritual experience, not doctrine, but nevertheless generate different theological interpretations of ultimate reality. Put another way, personal spiritual growth (individual soul development) seems pointless if there is no real self, or that self is already perfect once realised. Ostensibly such non-self doctrines deny the agency of free will, the point of self-awareness or any intention or purpose in the evolution of the universe. Related to this theme Steve holds that “while evolutionary spirituality admits the finite is less real than the infinite, it cannot accept …that the finite universe is an illusion.” It is difficult to argue with his view that “ultimate reality possesses the qualities of awareness, intelligence, intentionality, creativity, and love— qualities that are unmistakably personal.”
In chapter 7 Steve takes on Ken Wilber, as he has before, for his claim that “theistic traditions rank lower than nondual ones.” He then uses the Yin Yang of Tao as a potentially integrative philosophy. Such theological ruminations require a sharp Wilberian intellect, and Steve’s legally acute mind is up to the challenge. He draws his exposition to a close with a list of five prerequisites for the emergence of a new evolutionary spirituality. These involve recognition of the aforementioned polarity between world views and the potential to debate, understand and even integrate them thanks to “ science’s stupendous discoveries of …evolution, and the confirming…of …spiritual experience.”
I was most intrigued that in his final speculations on a future synthesis Steve transcends and includes (his favourite mode of transformation) dualism and polarity with a 3-fold or triadic unity model or tri unity: “the three, that are two, that are one”), which is not only inherent in the thesis, antithesis, synthesis dialectic, which Steve has often discussed, but also very anthroposophical and Steinerian. Steve does not mention this tradition, but to cite a simple example there is a 2-fold male-female gender polarity, but it is incomplete until integrated to synthesise, a synergistic new future generation (by recombination no less!). As anthroposophists sometimes say, nature shows the way. The 2-fold combination of I and you creates the trinity “we.” Anything that mediates a twofold ‘system’ becomes threefold.
As I know Steve, let me end by commenting thus: Steve betrays his inherent optimism, enthusiasm and motivation when he writes that “in its essence, the evolutionary impulse is the desire for the transcendent …a kind of perfection hunger” for communion with ultimate spiritual realities. What Leonard Cohen so cogently called “spiritual thirst.” Here Steve captures the essence of the “seeker” the very human aspiration for higher self, or perfection hunger, that I have often thought worthy of a book length treatment. This is not just a personal longing which Steve says has been with him since aged 12, but it is a longing for a spiritual renaissance for all of humanity. A noble aspiration indeed and one that will only come about if seekers like Steve continue to dedicate themselves to cultivating and metabolising the values of beauty, truth, goodness and spiritual growth. From this vantage point we may, like Steve, aspire to visions of infinite perfection.