JOHN HERON AND ‘FOURTH WAVE’ HUMANISM

by contemplativeinquiry

Western Humanism, in John Heron’s view, comes in waves. The first began in 5th century BC Greece, when the Sophists and Socrates “called philosophy down from heaven to earth” by introducing social, political and moral questions. The second began in the Italian Renaissance, which affirmed the worth and dignity of human achievement over against the Christian pre-occupation with sin. The third began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century and became the rational scientific, secular and atheistic humanism of modern times. For Heron, there has also been a fourth wave, distinct in many respects from the third, which began in the domain of humanistic psychology.

The two primary protagonists of humanistic psychology, which emerged in the USA in 1961, were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. At that time they were clearly aligned to the humanism of the third wave. Maslow was concerned to demonstrate that “spiritual values have naturalistic meaning; that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches; that they do not need supernatural concepts to justify them; that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science.” Rogers had a more experiential and phenomenological approach: “It is to experience that I must return again and again; to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets – neither Freud nor research – neither the revelations of God nor man – can take precedence over my direct experience.”

Over time, both Maslow and Rogers shifted their views. Maslow and other colleagues like Stanislav Grof, became increasingly concerned that they had left out a ‘spiritual’ element within the human psyche and wanted a psychology “that would honour the entire spectrum of human experience, including various non-ordinary states of consciousness”. So they invented a new discipline of ‘transpersonal psychology’ that over time came to be supported by existing, in some ways more traditional, psychological movements with a spiritual dimension – such as the successors of Carl Jung (including the archetypal psychology of James Hillman) and the psychosynthesis tradition initiated by Roberto Assagioli. Carl Rogers was slower to embrace spirituality within psychology and didn’t involve himself in the transpersonal movement. But towards the end of his life he spoke increasingly of presence, inner spirit and self-transcending relationship. “I find that when I am closest to my inner intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me then whatever I do seems full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other. When I can be relaxed and close to the transcendental core of me it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes part of something larger”.

John Heron draws on Rogers for his understanding of a fourth humanist wave. The core precept of fourth wave humanism concerns animation through reaching out and connection: an animism of process rather than ideology. It differs from the doctrinally naturalist view of the third wave by suggesting that our reality exists within a field of what might be called divine potential, or becoming: “the self-determining capacity of humans … presupposes a dynamic context of spiritual animation/inspiration [NB reminiscent of imbhas/awen in Druid tradition] in which persons can actively participate”. In Carl Rogers’ terms, inner spirit reaches out, touches the inner spirit of the other, thereby transcending itself and becoming part of something larger. In Heron’s language, spirit exists within us, between us (named by someone in one in one of his groups as “the band of golden silence”) and beyond us, where an ‘I am’ statement can bring us to a threshold “where personal consciousness is open to consciousness that is anywhere and everywhere”.

Fourth wave humanism, though grounded in human experience, moves on from the exclusivist human centric stance of the third wave. Spiritual animation occurs between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in that place, or between other kinds of beings independently of humans – the “deep resonance” between trees in the forest is one obvious example. Indeed, like the second wave humanism of the Renaissance, fourth wave humanism makes provision for (but does not insist on) an Otherworld within an extended view of nature/spirit/reality – one with denizens who may be available for animating connection. It is understood that different people – indeed beings – are gifted with different bandwidths of perception, which they will then give an account of in different ways in the light of both personal and cultural factors.

Fourth wave humanism has a strong view of personhood, but one with an alert sense of the tension between the individual and universal. “The spiritual animation between people appears to have a basic polarity, a radical and dynamic complementarity: there is the impulse to realize the individual distinctiveness of being and the impulse to realize interactive unity within wider fields of being … it is a subtle balance: too much individualism leads to egocentric narcissism; too much universalism leads to spiritual fascism, authoritarianism and oppression.” Sometimes, as an alternative to fourth wave humanism, Heron uses the term ‘participatory spirituality’ or a ‘participatory paradigm’ as his world view. This is supported by various co-operative endeavours involving a delicate dance of hierarchy, peer co-operation and personal autonomy and by the discipline of spiritual inquiry.

There is much more to be said, and Humanism: the fourth wave, can be found in full on http://www.human-inquiry.com/hum4.htm I spent many years teaching co-counselling, the peer and reciprocal support system at the heart of John Heron’s work, and also (against my career interests) undertook both Masters and Doctoral degrees using co-operative inquiry, his other major working method, as my methodology. So in a sense this kind of understanding is an embodied part of me – inevitably not in quite the way presented by John Heron himself. I don’t now use either co-counselling or co-operative inquiry as working practices. But I do see my current direction as one of synthesising the best of ‘fourth wave humanism’ with the best of modern Druidry: I discern fruitful synergies between them. My view and practice of Contemplative Druidry (both personal and group based) have already incorporated aspects of this approach. This can be taken further.  For me, embodied and lived ideas inform our stand in life and influence its effectiveness. They have consequences in the wider world.

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