Participation and the Mystery

Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion

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Jorge N. Ferrer
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University New York Press
    , May
     286 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Participation and Mystery is a fine book, serving as a compelling addition to Jorge Ferrer’s distinctive approach to transpersonal psychology. For those who are unfamiliar with the field, this volume might well serve as an initiation to further reading. For those conversant with transpersonalism, there is a rich and wide-ranging engagement here with relevant fields of research, and Ferrer advances and elucidates his previous work in a number of new and valuable ways.

Given the diversity of themes treated in Participation and Mystery, a perfunctory synopsis must suffice here. In this collection of essays, Ferrer takes stock of the evolution and impact of the so-called “participatory turn” (chapter 1); argues against reductively naturalistic and constructivist interpretations of transpersonal phenomena (chapter 2); presents an account of the role and importance of embodiment in spiritual practices (chapter. 3); differentiates his model of integral growth from those of Michael Murphy, George Leonard, and Ken Wilber (chapter 4); offers a series of inquiries into integral education (chapter 5), teaching mysticism (chapter 6), and embodied spiritual inquiry (chapter 7); reinterprets the perennialism of Stanislav Grof and Wilber through his own participatory perspective (chapters 8 and 9); and defends his distinctive theory of religious pluralism (chapter 10 and postscript).

Ferrer’s participatory model of religious pluralism is deeply intriguing. Its significance, I would suggest, derives from its theoretical combination of immanence and the metaphysical. Both of these terms are, admittedly, genealogically loaded (and Ferrer himself uses them in a way differently than I do in what follows). But let “immanence” here refer to the proposition that there is no way for us to access what reality is apart from how we access it, and let “the metaphysical” refer to that which apparently operates beyond the boundaries of spacetime (in terms of macroscopic locality and linear causality).

Immanence has come to denote three main things in contemporary thought: plurality, contingency, and relationality. Human existence is described within this threefold categorization due to the historical temporality and contextual embodiment of our experience. In this sense, we are finite and lack a transcendental viewpoint of what reality is apart from how we experience it. We therefore find ourselves within a plurality of contingent, relational (or contextual) viewpoints.

For much of post-Kantianism, that we are finite means that we are cut off from reality. However, a certain overcoming of Kant—of which Ferrer himself is representative of (chapter 2)—has been inaugurated by those who treat finitude not as a barrier to reality but as our enabling means to reality. In this sense, if we do not have access to what reality is outside of how we access it, then the plurality of contingent, relational viewpoints is not symptomatic of our inability to reach reality, but rather constitutes the fullest realization of reality-in-itself.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that the primary hierophany for Ferrer is that the difference between the One and the Many is never overcome. This difference, the openness of reality itself, is the glory of the spiritual life, the abiding mystery in which we participate (17). In a kind of Platonic reversal, then, the Many here does not lack the One, but is the site of endless creativity. In other words, the “undetermined mystery” of reality (242; emphasis original) is precisely its open-ended determinability, that is, the infinite number of performances that are possible to enact within it.

Here human creativity and participatory input are no longer seen as derivative, but instead as the very meaning of life (or that the meaning of life is its openness to creating new meaning). For from within a participatory perspective, there is no pre-given reality, but only an unlimited number of worlds that can be enacted through human co-creation with the undetermined mystery in which we find ourselves.

Insofar as immanence is paired with the metaphysical, this opens up the possibility that metaphysical phenomena are themselves pluralistic, contingent, and relational in nature, including gods, angels, subtle realms, and more. As Ferrer suggests, there is a plurality of “ultimate” realities and ends (e.g., God, Brahman, Śūnyatā)—none of which are pre-given as the ultimate reality or end of existence, and each of which are enacted through human participation. Such a proposition is, of course, formulated in explicit defiance to perennialist interpretations of transpersonal phenomena (such as those of Grof or Wilber, etc.) and it constitutes Ferrer’s unique contribution to transpersonal studies.

I am sympathetic to Ferrer’s work. However, if Ferrer’s theory is not to fall into paradox or inconsistency, then he needs better to explain how it is that he says what he does and does what he says. For if he is to be consistently pluralistic about his own theory of religious pluralism, then Ferrer has to demonstrate how it is that his own theory is not the one, true, complete description of reality. Or, put differently, Ferrer needs better to explain how it is that his theory does not constitute a form of transcendental ontology, but is instead itself a participatory performance enacted in immanent relation to the undetermined mystery of reality. Otherwise, his theory risks devolving into a representational rather than performative, and meta-exclusivistic form of thinking.

Ferrer himself points to performativity as the proper horizon by which to interpret his approach to participatory pluralism (243), thus revealing that he is aware of this matter. But I invite Ferrer to address more deeply how performative consistency operates at the heart of his theory.

In closing, my hunch is that this intersection of immanence and the metaphysical constitutes a genuine alternative to our contemporary religious moment, opening up the possibility of what we may call a “hyper-modern” spiritual practice in which performance and reality are, finally, as one. And while the participatory approach may not yet be “epochal” (see chapter 1), I believe Ferrer’s work orients us towards that which might lie beyond the present order of things. Performativity may well be the key to understanding and designing the future of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Matthew Allison is an independent scholar who resides in Pittsburgh, PA.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jorge N. Ferrer is professor of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality and the coeditor, with Jacob H. Sherman, of The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies, both also published by SUNY Press.


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