Matthew Wright and the Evolution of Religion

Is religion dying out or is it evolving? This time of great ferment is throwing out possible futures for the Western soul, some of them, such as the Spiritual But Not Religious movement lead away from religion altogether, while others such as the Interspirituality movement, insist on turning back into the heart of religion where it manifests as mysticism. From there its proponents seek to transmit the treasures, the deep wisdom of the ages, to seekers of today and tomorrow. Matthew Wright is one such person. He represents a new species of religious seeker, probing to explore new forms for ancient mysteries, rooted not only in one tradition but in many. Matthew joins leaders like Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr in exploring new forms of transmission of the Christian wisdom tradition within a wider interspiritual framework.

Matthew Wright is remarkable in any number of ways, not the least of which is his age. His 30 year old presence is rather startling amongst the grey heads of most spiritual leaders in mainline Christianity and certainly within the Episcopal Church where he serves as an ordained minister. Standing on the shoulders of Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, David Steindl Rast and other Christian visionaries who have sought a common centre of shared experience with world religions, Wright leads the way into a new form of religion that may operate from a distinct tradition, yet is permeable to all authentic religious experience. He is not alone in this as many of his contemporaries are moving in similar directions. Mirabai Starr is a good example; she grew up as a secular Jew, fell in love with religion, was formed by Hindu and Sufi spirituality, and now specializes in interpreting the Christian mystics.

Matthew is a gifted teacher and writer, expressing himself in both penetrating poetic language and extremely clear rational thought. His youth adds a freshness of perspective; he is inspirational and dynamic. As well as his parish work, he is a busy speaker/retreat master and columnist for an online journal (Contemplative Journal – Matthew ponders what belonging means now that tribal ghettoism is slowly disappearing. He asks the questions, “How do we live one faith while opening deeply to another? Is it possible to belong to multiple traditions? Can we have roots without boundaries?”

Matthew was raised in a Pentecostal home, moving away from Christianity for a while in his teen years, only to be drawn back by the beauty of the Episcopal tradition where he discovered the Christian mystics whose teaching dovetailed with the Eastern turn his spirituality was taking. During his seminary years, Matthew felt that there was something essential missing in his training. He was learning a lot of theology but could not find a mentor to lead him into the depths of religious experience. This led to a journey into Vedantic and Sufi spirituality where elders were readily available to teach him how to meditate and penetrate to the heart of reality. An encounter with Teilhard de Chardin brought him face to face with a vibrant incarnational Christian mysticism which complimented the nondual transcendence of his Vedantic teachings. Now he is anchored in the Christian tradition as an Episcopal priest but he prays and lives his life in the embrace of all three of his formative religious communities.

Interspirituality has been on the rise over the last several decades as people of faith desire to be open to other spiritualities than their own. It means allowing permeable boundaries between different traditions – not blending them all, but discovering connections that deepen understanding and practice. This movement is different from interfaith or ecumenical dialogue in that it does not seek to unite institutions or doctrines but spiritualities. This connectedness occurs at the level of the contemplative heart of world religions. It is concerned with spiritual practice and experience – the transformation of human consciousness. Wayne Teasdale in his book A Monk in the World(2002) wrote, “Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality, or an overarching synthesis of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions.”

A new species of human seems unlikely, yet eco-theologian Thomas Berry thought it was essential for humans to reinvent themselves at a species level in order to create a truly global Earth community. He insisted that we cannot solve the urgent problems besetting the planet with the same mind that created them. A rise in consciousness is necessary – a global consciousness is needed.  Matthew Wright stands at the crossroads of evolutionary and mystical thought, seeing in them the possibilities of a new synthesis that would enable human consciousness to evolve in the direction of a higher level of unity – uniting through centering. He is influenced by Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin who envisioned humanity being drawn into a process of convergence through evolutionary pressures which would give rise to a complex, unified global consciousness.

Matthew is also influenced by Ewert Cousins who tracks the evolution of religion over the ages. The first Axial Age which produced the great religions of today was an evolutionary leap forward from the tribal and immanent into the individual and the transcendent. The spiritual journey became characterized by an ascent and a personal quest for salvation, fulfilment and enlightenment. There was a dualistic, other-worldly flavour to this that yearned to cast off the physical and material and rise up into pure spirit in an escape to Heaven or Nirvana. Now modern science has plunged humans into a new age – a second Axial Age no longer characterized by tribal consciousness, or a spirit of transcendence, but a dynamic connectedness to the whole. As Wright puts it “Our Second Axial awareness begins from a new starting place: union. We have never been separate: not from one another, not from the Earth that holds us, not from the Infinite we long for.” The longing is no more an expression of escape but it is “the driveshaft of the entire evolutionary process as we move towards our awakening as a single planetary body.” This new consciousness is surfacing in all the major religions and outside of them as well as people seek to find authentic expressions of their new worldview.

Wright believes the world’s religions are still essential as holders of the deep wisdom of the human evolutionary journey, yet the emergence of Second Axial Consciousness demands a new religious form that does not yet exist. Radical change is painful but necessary if religion is to become once again a true home for the seeker in this time when the human family is feeling the limitations and sheer destructiveness of tribal boundaries while discovering its global identity of diversity in oneness. Matthew Wright sees the possibilities of shared religious experience and permeable boundaries between traditions. He believes that the Buddha and the Christ do not belong to groups called Buddhists and Christians but are the “collective spiritual inheritance” of a global humanity. A time of sharing and multiple belonging is now occurring both inside and outside the institutions. It will be a difficult time for religious purists, but Matthew suggests that religious bodies ask themselves these questions: “Can we stop thinking in terms of a membership club? How do we continue our lineages without also passing on limited (and limiting) identities?” He recognizes that the work of forging a new spiritual landscape will be done on three fronts: from inside the religious institutions (where he sees himself), from outside religion altogether, and between these two as many find themselves to be bridge people with a foot in both worlds.

Scientist Brian Swimme wrote that if religions could find their place within the great evolutionary story of emergence, they would not lose anything of their former vigour – in fact they would blossom in unimaginable ways within the context of cosmic oneness. Interspirituality is providing a way forward for religion to move beyond its boundaries and exclusivities and once again provide a spiritual home for the human community as it converges into one family. May it be so.

Matthew Wright, M.Div. is an ordained Episcopal priest, a Sufi dervish of the Mevlevi Order, and an initiate in the Ramakrishna Order of Vedanta. He serves as priest-in-charge at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, NY and lives with his wife, Yanick, alongside the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery.

Submitted by Margaret Walters