Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
The following is an interview from an old issue of WIE. Bruteau is not "postmetaphysical," but she emphasizes the role of evolution in spirituality, drawing on Teilhard de Chardin and Aurobindo, and so can be seen as a contributing voice to an emerging integral spirituality.
Introduction by Elizabeth Debold
It’s one of life’s sweet ironies that I could spend an entire decade at Harvard studying developmental psychology and not learn anything about the future trajectory of human development. No one at Harvard, including me, asked: Where are we going with this whole developmental process? Are there ways of being human that we haven’t seen yet? Those questions just weren’t part of the program. We studied what is and what has been, not what’s on the horizon. Unfortunately, that academic focus can suffocate the future, leading us to think there is nothing new under the sun. But what makes us human is our insatiable quest for meaning, our extraordinary imagination, our need for new frontiers. The real juice is in our potential, not in our past. And only when I came to this magazine as an editor did I begin to realize that what may be most important about all that I had learned was that it could be used to find out where that potential is leading us—to discover what’s next in the evolution of our improbable species.
That’s why I selected our 2002 interview with Dr. Beatrice Bruteau as my “editor’s pick.” This interview reveals a next step for humanity that no developmental psychologist would dream of. Perhaps it has to do with Bruteau’s intellectual grasp of a range of disciplines—she holds advanced degrees in mathematics, philosophy, and religion. Drawing on the deepest mystical teachings and the best of science, her vision places human development within the context of cosmic development. And that vantage point gives us a glimpse far beyond the present into an unimaginable future.
You certainly won’t find such a perspective expressed in graduate psychology classes. Such courses teach that development proceeds through increasing complexification, through a process of differentiation and then higher integration, but they don’t project that process into the future. (In fact, curiously enough, academically accepted models often mark as the endpoint, or highest stage of human development, the stage that happens to have been reached by the psychologist who created the scheme!) Moreover, these models typically look at individual development devoid of any larger context—as though we are somehow innocent of our cultures and outside the process of evolution itself. But by looking from the immense expanse of the unfolding universe, Bruteau shows us what your average academic psychologist misses: that we have gone so far in our process of differentiating as independent individuals that the next forward movement demands an integration. At this point in evolution that integration will no longer just happen spontaneously, as it did when hydrogen and oxygen created water. This new integration has to be freely chosen by human beings. The next order of development, she indicates, needs to be collective—a “creative union” of humans connected in a new order of being.
Bruteau’s perspective is a remarkable example of a synthesis of Western science and Eastern wisdom that is just now truly coming to fruition. Fifty years ago, she was earning a degree in mathematics and happened to stumble upon a book by Ramakrishna. She became entranced by his philosophy. Bruteau moved to New York to earn a doctorate in philosophy at Fordham, a Catholic university, and simultaneously began taking classes at the Ramakrishna Mission. There they told her that “Catholicism was Vedanta in European dress.” Today, Bruteau is a practicing Catholic whose evolutionary theory is a unique synthesis of the two great twentieth-century evolutionary spiritual pioneers West and East: the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Indian sage and revolutionary Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Her own scientific proclivities and mathematical precision join Teilhard’s search for the pattern and plan in all creation. From Teilhard, she adopts the majestic deep-time evolutionary perspective of dynamic universal unfolding that we are inseparable from and becomes conscious through us. Bruteau’s passion for the mystical truths of the East is met by Aurobindo’s unparalleled exploration of the higher potentials of human consciousness. Through Aurobindo, she seems to recognize the importance of individual enlightenment to catalyze a “supramental” transformation—a collective shift to a higher order of unity in humankind.
It is this combination of evolution and enlightenment, of collective process and individual responsibility, that represents an enormously significant development in the understanding of our trajectory. Some evolutionary thinkers, smitten by the unfathomable precision of the entire process, believe that a higher order of creation is just there waiting for us, that all we need to do is be thrilled by the idea of evolution and something miraculous will happen. But, as Bruteau points out, the next Great Step forward can happen only if we transcend ego—by letting go of our identification with the separate self-sense. It is this point that marks the next phase of human development as both a radical spiritual transformation and a profound shift in the evolution of our species.
The potential revealed in Bruteau’s interview strikes me as even more relevant now than when it was published four years ago. As chaos and conflict increasingly strain our resources, systems, and selves, her words urge us to look beyond the usual places that we trust to solve our biggest problems. Our most august institutions of higher learning are too embedded in structures based on individualism and scientific materialism to be the source of something truly new. Can we leave the past behind to create at the unending, always effervescent edge of consciousness itself? Calling our attention to both the thrill of eternal creation and the demand of ultimate responsibility, the view from this cosmic perspective is breathtaking, simultaneously transforming and fulfilling our deepest sense of what it could mean to be human.
Beatrice Bruteau: Somewhere deep down we are all filled with a mystical longing, with a longing for ultimate meaningfulness, and therefore we need to see all of our world in that context.
Bruteau: I tend to go along with the idea of an expanding universe; I don’t have an Omega. I don’t think there’s a final end point; I think it’s a song that goes on singing. We don’t sing the song in order to come to the end of it. The divine Self-expression isn’t trying to complete itself.