Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution
Ken Wilber
Shambhala: Boston & London, 1995.
831 pp., $40.00 (cloth).

Ken Wilber has written a big book. Although different from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, this book is also designed to help us sober up. Wilber wants us to sober up from the reductionistic, shortsighted, antisacred, antispiritual, greedy, materialistic way of thinking that has ruled Western culture for the last two or three thousand years. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is the first of three volumes.

A summary can hardly do justice to the richness of Wilber’s thinking, which, organized by twenty tenets and twelve guiding principles (all unified on a grid, a wonderfully outrageous intellectual mandala, that appears inside the front and back covers of the book), ranges across the full spectrum of Eastern and Western thought. There are long discussions of the Ascenders (religious thinkers and spirit chasers who want to deny this world) and the Descenders (reductionistic scientists and materialists of all sorts who want to flatten and abuse it) and their constant conflicts in Western thought. He discusses, in great depth and detail, the need for the integration of these two splinters of the soul. He wants the return, like many modern thinkers, of an integration of the “I” (responsibility and freedom), the “We” (community), and the “It” (ethics, beauty, and truth). There is a way in which Wilber gets carried away with his idealizations that seems both delightful—a kind of Mae West too­much-of-a-good-thing thinking—and somewhat sloppy. And while I found certain aspects of his righteousness tiring at times, it was hard not to applaud his challenge to writers and thinkers who don’t know the history of their own ideas.

Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber

For all its great, ambitious comprehensiveness, however, Wilber’s approach is still something akin to the old Sufi story about the hundred blind men and the elephant.   In that story, each man defines the elephant only in terms of the part he is touching. Of course, in that old story the elephant is defined only by men. After sweeping aside all ecofeminists and goddess worshipers (whom he deems misinformed “flatlanders” and romantic “partialists”), Wilber assures us that a complete discussion of women’s thinking will be offered in volume II. There is a bit of a Coyote trickster figure present here in Wilber’s approach He seems genuine when he calls for the development of a more gender-inclusive and flexible way of thinking. But while Wilber includes St. Theresa’s work, and a brief, important discussion of Harriet Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the beginning of feminist thinking at Seneca Falls, male thinkers dominate the book.

In fact, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality seems written entirely from a male way of thinking, which almost defeats Wilber’s own purposes. When Wilber addresses his critics (“partialists” of all sorts), there is that sweep-them-aside, take-no­prisoners, wily male center to his thinking, unpleasantly reminiscent of the usual way men have had over the centuries of telling women what and how to think.

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