Unique Self Institute

Dustin DiPerna on
Unique Self and Unique We

Rejuvenating Religion for an Integral Age: The Emergence of the Unique Self and the Unique We,” by Dustin DiPerna, published in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Integral Theory and Practice.6:1.

About Dustin DiPerna

Dustin DiPerna is a visionary leader, entrepreneur, and recognized expert in world religions. He has committed his life to making timeless spiritual wisdom relevant and accessible for a rapidly changing global society. Through writing, teaching, coaching, and entrepreneurship, Dustin helps individuals and groups to find happier and more fulfilling ways of being in the world. He is author of three books – Streams of Wisdom, Evolution’s Ally, and Earth is Eden – and co-editor of The Coming Waves.


This article examines how an Integral approach can help transform religion into a positive force in human evolution. Religion has the capability to build dynamic communities of social action as well as the capacity to move adherents through both stages of psychological growth and states of spiritual awakening. Because of the limitations of traditional religious expression, many modern and postmodern individuals reject religion altogether. With an unwillingness to surrender a purely rational perspective and a blanket refusal of any version of religion, modern and postmodern individuals lose access to the gifts that religion can offer. An integral lens brings greater clarity to religious analysis in a way that makes religion more digestible to individuals at higher stages of development. I argue that the best way to preserve the gifts of religion is to allow each tradition the opportunity to evolve and express itself through a sequential path of developmental stages. A model of religious analysis is presented that helps to show why an integral perspective is useful. When the full spectrum of human potential is expanded and integral versions of each religion are articulated, several novel features emerge. Ultimately, I suggest that integral interpretations of religion hold implications for both individual and collective awakening (the Unique Self and the Unique We).

Social theorists of the 20th century were adamant that religion would slowly fade into the background as more rational, secular worldviews came to the fore. This particular hypothesis, known as secularization theory, gained axiomatic acceptance and faced very limited challenge during its dominant reign over the past 40 years. Since then, however, as we move a decade into the new millennium, a global resurgence of religion is forcing social theorists to rethink their earlier perspectives.

Although it is true that huge swaths of the world’s population in the post-industrial West abandoned institutionalized forms of religion in favor of more rational and scientific worldviews (particularly in Western Europe), there has simultaneously been an unexpected growth of religious influence worldwide. This rejuvenation of religion has crippled secularization theory to such a degree that many of its original proponents have recanted their views, acknowledging that religion will continue to be a major force of influence well into the future.

From an integral perspective, the return of religion and its restoration as a significant force in global affairs is both good and bad news. To the degree which religion remains a catalyst of pre-rational, dogmatic, and ethnocentric fortification (as demonstrated in the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism and Islamic jihad), the resurrection of religion is not only a hindrance to human growth and our potential for global cooperation, but it may very well pose the single biggest challenge to collective well-being in the coming decades.

On the other hand, if religion is freed from its narrow, literal interpretations and allowed to grow into more rationally oriented world-centric expressions, it has the potential to be one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary allies.

The suggestion that we ought to engage religion in a positive way may come as a surprise to those under the spell of the secular Western paradigm. As descendants of the Enlightenment, many Westerners are still caught within a framework that assumes religion holds little value in the modern world. For this reason, one of my first goals in this article is to remind the reader of several of the gifts found in religious traditions which, thus far, have not been more fully articulated in any other area of modern and postmodern life.

As the article unfolds, I suggest several ways that Integral Theory might help guide the resurgence of religion in a positive direction. In Part 1, I introduce a full model of integral analysis that can be used to begin navigating the complexity of religious interpretation. Such a model will be necessary if religion is to survive as a constructive force in the 21st century. In Part 2, I speculate on and suggest some of the qualities that we might have to look forward to if indeed an integral approach is successful and an integral orientation emerges among religious leaders around the globe.


In total, I outline a fourfold framework that will provide some of the ingredients needed to instigate an integrally informed religious revitalization: 1) I suggest that our world’s religious traditions offer a vast resource of untapped power and potential; 2) I bring light to the fact that many modern, postmodern, and integral individuals have limited access to this power because traditional religious packaging fails to resonate with their more sophisticated worldviews; 3) I follow Ken Wilber’s lead to show how the application of Integral Theory offers several tools for religious analysis that make the power and gifts of religion more accessible to all levels of development; and 4) I speculate about several of the novel features that might emerge when integral versions of each tradition are expressed in their full maturity.

For centuries, the strength and power of religion has been the sole providence of individuals at pre-rational levels of spiritual intelligence. Many of these individuals lack the developmental capacity to respond to the complexity of global problems. If we fail to take action and allow an integral approach to religion to be ignored, the resurgence of religion already underway worldwide will continue to be dominated by fundamentalist adherents trumpeting ethnocentric worldviews of limited problem-solving capacity. Divisive attitudes like these have the potential to lead us down a further path of war and terrorism in the name of religion.

If, on the other hand, we can muster our collective force to take immediate action, guiding religion using the clarity of an integral worldview, we have the potential to release religion as a force in sync with human evolution. When religion is expressed through a full range of developmental stages, a vision unfolds that not only contributes new insight to individual awakening (the Unique Self), but one that also creates a moral imperative for human beings to come together for the sake of the whole in new forms of collective engagement (the Unique We). If integral leaders can successfully facilitate the emergence of the Unique Self and the Unique We, the stage will be set for an entirely new form of humanitarian action in the world that uses religion as its primary vehicle of transformation.


Two Gifts of Religion: Awakening and Collective Action

From its unprecedented capacity to address the ultimate concerns of human life to its unique ability to provide both a moral and ethical context for living, religion’s gifts are numerous. Among the plethora of positive benefits that we might derive from religion, I focus on two gifts in particular. In this light, religion serves as a catalyst for both individual spiritual awakening and collective emancipatory action.8 Even in circumstances where the teachings that define the process of spiritual awakening are less prominent,9religious traditions still remain the single bearers and protectors of mystical teachings. According to the esoteric systems elaborated around the globe, mystical teachings have the capacity to unlock individual consciousness from its prison of dualistic subjectivity. It is only through this type of spiritual release, say the traditions, that one can find freedom from the pain and agony of everyday unhappiness.

In addition to their mystical and contemplative mechanisms for happiness, religion also holds an unprecedented capacity to provide communal strength that sets the foundation for collective engagement.11We need look no further than Mahatma Gandhi’s social action in India or Martin Luther King’s influence on the Civil Rights movement in the United States to see that a shared commitment to a religious tradition provides an adhesive bond that can empower and mobilize huge swaths of the population under a common vision. The potential for contemplative insight and the power to radically stimulate communal action are two gifts of religious traditions worth preserving.

Unfortunately, the inherent gifts of religion are often only available to those individuals willing to embrace traditional levels of religious interpretation. Most encounters with religion, including most of the religious resurgence underway today, is limited to pre-rational modes of awareness, literal interpretations of scripture, and blind faith. All of these features are unacceptable to individuals of higher stages of adult psychological maturity. This means, tragically, that most modern and postmodern thinkers abandon religion altogether, leaving behind their access to the most significant source of nondual teachings and the power to connect with others in a dynamic spiritual community.

Offering Religion’s Gifts to a Wider Audience

If the role of religion in global affairs is inevitable, as many scholars now claim,14 how can we guide religion using an integral lens in a way that its gifts are accessible beyond traditional, pre-rational interpretations? Can we maintain the nondual teachings of the traditions while abandoning ethnocentric worldviews? Can we preserve community without sacrificing developmental legitimacy? Over the years, there have been several attempts to respond to these questions.

One response comes from a group of individuals who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” As their descriptive name implies, these individuals embrace the inward contemplative side of religion but reject its outward expressions like ritual, prayer, and institutionalized religious community. Unfortunately, given the cultural conditioning of the West, choosing individual forms of spirituality over traditional religious communities amplifies the Western tendency to individuate and disassociate. In the West, an insistence on autonomy is taken to such an extreme that we lose touch with any sort of collective religious engagement.
Consequently, many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” reinterpret religious traditions into rational frames within the privacy of their own minds, but find themselves divorced from any meaningful intersubjective space. This means that even if such individuals succeed in mining nondual teachings for their own benefit, their influence in the world is often limited because they have no connection to any sort of communal action and seldom have avenues or common language to coordinate their efforts with other spiritual practitioners.

Over the years, integral thinkers have tried to bring a more nuanced approach to the topic. An integral lens allows us to maintain the many gifts of religion while jettisoning those aspects that are now outdated. In the following section, I attempt to shed further light on how an Integral approach can help to sort through the complexities described thus far and how such a methodology might successfully encourage both nondual realization and profound intersubjective engagement.`