Kurt Johnson is a rare specimen. He is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in the taxonomy of butterflies and has named hundreds of species. He was also a Christian monk and is currently a leader among an international movement called Interspirituality, as he recounts in his book titled The Coming Interspiritual Age. I had the pleasure of working with Kurt over a period of two days at an event that I organized with two pastors, Wilfredo Baez and Arthur Suggs, in my hometown of Binghamton New York. The event was sponsored by a project that I direct called the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project, which seeks to understand the nature of religion and spirituality in the context of everyday life. Tired but with a feeling of accomplishment, we recorded our interview at the end of the second day.
Our interview explores Kurt’s personal journey and how all of the world’s religious traditions converge on a form of spirituality that is consistent with methodological naturalism.
DSW: Welcome, Kurt Johnson.
KJ: Thank you.
DSW: You are someone who has double credentials. First as an evolutionary biologist. Second as a contemplative, a word that we have been using over the past two days. You’ve been developing these credentials in parallel, from the very beginning it seems. As you were getting your Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, you were also a Christian monk as I understand it. I wonder if you could tell us your personal story and then we can begin to discuss what this represents in terms of a union of evolutionary science and this concept called interspirituality.
KJ: I think it is probably helpful for the introduction to see three tracks, so we don’t get stuck in a dichotomy between an extremely subjective experience, which is what most people would take a contemplative life to be, and a very disciplined and robust scientific life, knowing everything that requires. The third track is understanding what I have done in comparative religion. I went into the monastic life initially after my first Masters degree and before my second Masters degree and PhD.
DSW: What was your first Masters degree?
KJ: It was also in biology, from Iowa, after undergraduate school in Wisconsin and before I got my Doctorate at the City University Graduate Center’s program with the American Museum of Natural History. The reason [I went into the monastic life] was that I was deeply mining experience from the subjective lens and what was then impacting me as a consciousness and a heart and as a person of ethics, ideals, hopes—everything like that. I was a creature of the 1960’s, of course—that was a player. So I was being informed very much by that type of knowing, while simultaneously coming out of an academic background (my father was a division head in geography at the University of Wisconsin) that understood very rigorously what science and academic inquiry were and what objective knowing was about. I think I was an innocent victim of feeling deeply informed by both of those ways of knowing, in a way that I felt very compelled to simultaneously follow both tracks. I had also had minors in the humanities and a lot of opportunities in music, so I had an interesting career in the arts that I could have followed if I didn’t have to arbitrarily choose science…
DSW: Was the arts and spiritual side in your family, or was your family background mostly the science side?
KJ: I think it was mostly the science side, but I grew up in the Lakota country in western Nebraska, south of the native lands of the Lakota, which are now a big part of my shamanic and indigenous connections. So unknowingly there was an aesthetic part to my connection to nature that looked through the dual lens–the lens of the beauty of nature and the lens of the scientific knowing of how it works and all the details of science. I think I was naturally following the call to existentially being there, particularly in the 60’s, in the middle of the Vietnam war, in the middle of everything that was erupting with regard to psychodelic knowing and everything else that was going on then. I was a very high energy, super wired, overly intelligent, overly sensitive combination. I was radically, aggressively following those paths of knowing. So I took the opportunities at immersion in both.
DSW: What was your entry into the monastic tradition?
KJ: To be honest, I had gone through a very difficult time in my existential life. By that I mean in knowing what it means to be here, as a person, what made it satisfactory to live and not commit suicide. To be honest, if you were very conflicted, highly intelligent, highly sensitive person, I think I walked that line very finely.
DSW: So you had suicidal thoughts?
KJ: I went through that entire thing, absolutely. What was the predicament of being here, when you felt so much and saw so much and some of that was so horrendous. When I was in graduate school in my first Masters program I actually had a role model, a professor who had a monastic connection. I’ll be honest that I saw his stability and his way of being…there was something that he knew about reality that I thought—whatever that is, that’s something I’m interested in, because it’s not all over the place. It’s grounded, it’s clear, it’s loving, it’s compassionate, it’s highly knowledgeable–it’s all those things. I got very curious whether the order and sanity of a monastic life really had something to contribute to the path I was following, just as an existential person. I had to do novitiate first and then pursue my doctoral work after I got my minor seminary done.
DSW: So you had to take time out from the academic world.
KJ: I had to take at least two or three years before I was back in a doctorate program. By that time I was wearing a collar [laughs]—maybe pretending to be a Teilhard de Chardin.
DSW: So this was a Christian idiom, right? How did encountering the Christian idiom interact with the scientific worldview?
KJ: I think maybe innocently and naively I was a little bit of a Teilhard [de Chardin] mimic.
DSW: OK, he managed! [Chardin was a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote The Phenomenon of Man. I discuss his work in relation to modern evolutionary theory in my book The Neighborhood Project this radio interview]
KJ: I suppose in a naïve kind of idealistic way I felt caught between those worlds.
DSW: Did you actually read Teilhard de Chardin?
DSW: Ok, so you had him as a guidepost.
KJ: Yes, I had read him. I had never met him, obviously, but I had read him. The other thing about me was that I was not necessarily a religious person. Today when we understand the phrase “spiritual but not religious”, I was really one of those people that…I was at home in the monastic life, but I might not necessarily have been at home in the parochial clergy. One of those is an atmosphere for searching and inquiring, while the other one is being maybe more a servant of a creator, or a dogma, or a form. There is a big difference. I was interested in consciousness.
DSW: So the monastic training was less dogmatic than just becoming a churchgoer?
KJ: Absolutely. The people in the order that I was in were studying everything from Buddhism, to Vedanta [“Hinduism” with its many mystic forms] to occultism.
DSW: But it was a Christian order?
KJ: Yes it was, and it was at the time of [Thomas] Merton, who was making his crossover into Buddhism. There were other people at that time who were starting to make some crossovers. Certainly many in the order I was in–and it was an Episcopalian order, which made it even more liberal than if it had been a Roman Catholic order–they were doing radical inquiry into reality, in a way. What are the experiences we can have? What do they mean? When are they crazy and psychotic and when are they real? I was in a sense religion-neutral. I was doing what monastics do and not, as we used to say, playing church. I didn’t have any interest in playing church. We would tend to distinguish between those who were on a path of inquiry at the deepest parts of what was available in spirituality and just playing church. That would have never interested me.
DSW: Did you get the grounding and stability that you were seeking?
KJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. People who knew me when I went into novitiate, where I was all over the place—overly brilliant, overly sensitive, wired—I came out of there solid as a rock. I’ll be honest—that was because of silence, and the routine, and the stability of that life style. That grounded me very quickly. There was a sanity to it that grounded me.
DSW: Did you take that out of the monastery?
KJ: For sure. People who knew me before and after didn’t really think I was the same person, because I was so stable. A lot of the things that I did when I was in that life, especially when I was overseas, they were very high stress situations in Africa and other places, where we did certain work. I went from being a vulnerable person to being a very stable person. By chance then, the people at the American Museum of Natural History knew of me—I had published a lot even by my Masters degree. I had quite a bibliography. Once they knew that I was nearby and available, and I also had an expertise, they invited me into a research association there. I just had to get permission from my religious order, to come and go.
DSW: Let’s provide some background—your Masters work was in entomology, systematics…
KJ: Yes. My doctorate was in four areas. You had to pick four areas of competency. For me it was evolution, ecology, systematics, and comparative biology. I probably have 300 juried publications in journals, 7 technical monographs, so that environment was very much publish or perish. I was sometimes publishing 30 or 40 articles a year, because I was really grinding it out. But I was also blessed, to be honest, that most of the areas that I specialized–because my lab tool was butterflies–I ended up working in areas of the world where things had no names. I think I worked over the taxonomy of about 2000 species and maybe 200 genera, naming hundreds of new things, especially from poorly known areas of the world.
DSW: So you were an alpha taxonomist, as they put it?
KJ: That’s it. You know the drill. I was an alpha taxonomist, actually right on the cusp of when Cladistics and Vicariance Biogeography was being born. On my doctoral committee my professors were the people who were germinal in all that—Niles Eldredge, Donn Rosen, Gary Nelson, Norman Platnick, Toby Schuh. It was really an honor to study with them.
DSW: We’re getting your academic pedigree down.
KJ: The whole crew at the American Museum of Natural History. I was actually the first doctorate student in their entomology program. I was like the guinea pig. They had invited me there as a research associate. They realized that I had an unfinished doctorate so they said “Do you want to be our first doctoral student?”
DSW: Let’s take a little side trip. Vladimir Nabokov. Let’s spend a few minutes on that because you are quite well known for your book Nabokov’s Blues. What is the Nabokov connection? [Editor’s note: Nabokov was an accomplished butterfly taxonomist in addition to a novelist]
KJ: Right. This is all very innocent but it’s amazing how it came about. I have Nabokov’s Blues and now I have a book coming out in 2015 from Yale University Press called Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Scientific Art, which is really a capstone book on his whole scientific career. Here’s how it came about. It’s so innocent it’s almost funny. In my office at the American Museum of Natural History was Nabokov’s collection, just by chance. In the biodiversity crisis era, when we were looking for hot spots and trying to understand what was the actual diversity of certain lineages, say in South America and the Andes and so on, I was naïve enough to pick Nabokov’s blues [a subfamily of butterflies] as a group that I thought was small enough to be finish-able. In other words, one could cladistically go to the end of that phylogenetic tree, to include everything and it wouldn’t be so damn big to be totally unruly. I think we started with maybe 12 or 13 species in his group and by the time we were done we had over 100. So, what happened was that absolutely innocently picking it as a group that we thought we could do the work—and we did. However, we also ended up discovering, again by chance, that all of the work that he had done.—which has fallen into disrepute– was actually correct, because he had used a phylogenetic method, the modern paradigm, before its time. So, we ended up writing the papers, and then the book, reviving the correctness of his taxonomies. They had been incorrectly abandoned by the so-called “numerical taxonomists” of the 60’s—who relied on simple resemblance, not a phylogenetic method. It was later, in 2011, that DNA analysis (thanks to the Harvard DNA lab) showed his evolutionary and biogeographic predictions were also correct, which is the subject of the new book. [Editor’s note: Johnson recounted his work on Nabokov at length and this part of the interview will be published separately. We then turned to interspirituality].
DSW: Let’s get to the main event of this interview, which is the entire concept of spirituality and how all of its manifestations can be reconciled with scientific understanding. A little background: Why are you here? Why am I interviewing you face to face? Because you came for a two-day event in the little city of Binghamton New York, called “The Coming Interspiritual Age”, the title of your book. That meeting was not at Binghamton University but rather the First Congregational Church. The audience was not professors and students. It was members of the community, although it did include some university representatives. For me this makes it especially poignant and interesting. The concept of the coming interspiritual age and the fact that such a thing could be fully consistent with what I like to call methodological naturalism, is big news. Bigger news than anything involving Nabokov. Let’s get right to that. What is the coming interspiritual age, and how is it possible for something that sounds so religious to be—I want to say 100% compatible with methodological naturalism.
KJ: Let’s see if we can get at it this way. A discussion began after—it had been going a long time but amped up after– Vatican II, about the relationships of all the world’s religions in their narratives and also their experiential track, which in a sense was an evolutionary tree of nested sets of human subjective experience, which had gotten translated into religious narrative about what the contemplative or deeper inquiry experiences in spirituality are. The comparative religion theologians who were talking in that period were also talking with the contemplatives across all the world’s traditions. What do you call them? Saints, gurus—all those people who go really deep into that type of inquiry–what might be called mystical or whatever. As the world went cosmopolitan, the religions started to talk with each other at this experiential level. There was a discovery that the existential experience that everyone had in contemplative inquiry, like myself as a monk, or somebody as a Tibetan lama, or as a Hindu guru, or as a Sufi mystic or whatever it might be– the resulting experience was that everything is profoundly interconnected and that nothing is separate. What happened, then, was a discovery that what all religions had in common would allow a global universal spirituality to arise, which could agree about basic understandings of how humanity had experienced ultimate reality and also what type of moral and ethical behavior would result from those types of realizations. The simplest one would be that if everybody starts to figure out that the ultimate mystical experience is that everything is interconnected and nothing is separate, it has the immediate implication of how parts of that system treat each other. It has an ethical and values-related result, which predicts that there is a possibility for religion not to be part of the ongoing problem in the world–which has been fighting over ideas and theology and eschatologies and end-time scenarios–and actually making those narratives secondary to the depth of moral understanding that comes from inner inquiry. Even if you are a humanist or an atheist or a non-theist, whatever it might be, you come to this understanding that is reflected in the new physics and in quantum theory–everything that has to do with profound interconnectedness. This implies a way that we need to be with each other that has very clear ethical and moral implications.
DSW: So science comes to its own conclusion about everything being interconnected.
KJ: Right. The religions, then, end up where they are able to meet in understanding that the entire tree of experiences has actually been one existential phenomenon from which you draw the same conclusion, which is a behavioral conclusion about the kind of civilization that’s predicated on not only the cosmological notion of how things are interconnected, but the experiential report—because that’s different than a notion—the experiential report that that’s how things are put together.
DSW: Is this what you call second tier consciousness?
KJ: Yes, it is what many writers today call second tier consciousness. In other words, there has been an evolution out of what they call the old first-tier consciousness which has everything in boxes. Islam, Judaism, Christianity—all this at loggerheads. This theology, that theology. This doctrine, that doctrine. This creed, that creed. Again reflecting argument, conflict, war, everything imaginable. Because identity is tied up in a certain box, which then competes and fights with other boxes.
DSW: You just described first-tier consciousness. I want to assert, and have you agree, that it extends into the secular realm as well. All of the national identities and conflicts engendered. That’s also a form of first-tier consciousness. So first tier consciousness is not restricted to religion. It includes religion plus…
KJ: …Ethnic identifies, sexual identities, gender identities, you name it. Anything that puts you in a box and sets you off against other boxes. First-tier consciousness needs to be identified with a box and will defend the box. What happens with the evolution of second-tier consciousness–which involves the heart, this deeper perception of interconnectedness and also involves the pragmatics of a global civilization–is that you suddenly realize: Oh my Gosh, the way that we get to mutuality and caring and understanding is that all forms serve us but we don’t need to be bound by any particular form. You start to see that the boundaries falling away are not negative. They are positive and that you’re actually happier and freer and in more harmony with others when there is no more of this conflict and warring, silo to silo. It simply drops away in the sense of how a person wants to identify themselves and therefore they don’t have anything to protect any more. So that just happens out of the way things are comprehended. Does that make sense?
DSW: That makes sense to me! [laughs] Could I contrast it with the New Atheism? We talked about this yesterday. I think it’s so interesting because there is a whole narrative about science and religion being irreconcilable. Steven Jay Gould referred to it as separate magisteria. Interspirituality is trending in a different direction. I want to have you speak on that topic, if you would.
KJ: Basically, it’s trending in a different direction because of what happens experientially. What allows this to happen is real people stepping up in real time. By that I mean contemplative leaders across the traditions, who because they are contemplative leaders are the writers of the books that are revered, the speakers that are revered, the leaders that are revered–when they start to announce that the boundaries falling away is what brings together a new possibility of this type of unanimity and unity and profound interconnectedness, experientially it brings the message that the need to defend these boundaries is no longer really a primary concern. What’s interesting is that there is an adaptive significance to that type of mutuality serving a global community, as opposed to the conflict war-based model, which has a very different result. If you start looking at it as being attractive to people as an idea—when you have that adaptive positive–that is steering civilization in a very different direction than the other model. It really steps into naturally being a choice. The way that we have put this in the evolutionary context is that interspirituality is the inherent evolutionary response of the religions to globalization and multiculturalism. In other words, the response that religion could have to become part of the solution to a global civilization that’s healthy and works, rather than part of the problem that it has always been based on conflicts about ideas and creeds and dogmas. Religion itself would evolve to this understanding that back-burners theology and ideas, back-burners the mental parsing out process, and makes central the matters of the ethical teachings, the idealistic teachings, and the things that come from love, kindness, compassion, mutuality, and interconnectedness. This is the vector of its understanding. It has inherently evolved in a way that’s positive toward the globalization process rather than remaining a negative force. This is the way we frame it when we challenge people—religion can either step up to that inherent evolutionary path to meet globalization in a positive way, or if it doesn’t, as Ken Wilber said, it will forfeit the claim that it has something to add to international and global phenomenon. Everything that we say about all the bad things that religion has done in the name of god –all of that is true. But there is a unique element in the spirituality of the world’s religions, in the sense of its ethics and ideals and basic teachings, that speaks profoundly to the transformation of will—the positive transformation of behavior. At that level, it can still claim to be part of a conveyer belt process to a global civilization that would be healthy.
DSW: What is the role of counterfactual belief? Why is it that religions of the past have included counterfactual beliefs and how is it possible for religion and spirituality of the future to avoid counterfactual beliefs?
KJ. I think the answer to that is simple in the sense of the way interspirituality looks at this. The original lens of religion is what we call the magic-mythic lens. It was so subjective that it wasn’t interested in the disciplining of subjective experience in the way that objective knowing —the type of thing that science does. Subjective experience that wasn’t meeting any test, in the sense of its usefulness or anything like that. Now there is a distinction between the magic-mythic and rational and the integral. We say that the way forward is a balance of these skills. We look at humanity and we say, we’ve got subjective skills and we’ve got objective skills. The subjective skill area is murky, there’s no doubt about it. You could actually say that the objective area is murky when you look at it methodologically and a lot of other ways. But we need a balanced approach to who we are.
DSW: This is a nod to evolutionary psychology, a topic that This View of Life has paid a great deal of attention to. One thing you said during our sessions today, which I want to make sure is captured in this interview, is that the mythic-magic view is deeply embedded in our species and we’ll never get rid of it. Just go to a movie and you will see it. It’s part of human nature to be storytellers and to operate in magic-mythic mode—to offer that deep, gut level, kind of inspiration. Therefore this is not something that we want to or can eliminate. We need to somehow harness it, but also to partition it in a way that we can also operate in rational scientific mode. Maybe you could expand upon that.
KJ: I think you said it really well. The sense of the magic-mythic, the heroic, what moves you when you look at the art. That sense of who we are is so important to how humanity can advance to solve the world’s problems and go wherever its destiny may be as an amazing creative and skillful species. It’s not something to be discarded, but to be channeled in a way that truly serves the holistic identity of who we really are–that tells the stories that allow us to be more creative, to actually meet the world’s problems in creative ways and to meet them together. So, for instance, the archetype of the warrior gets transformed from the warrior who is knocking off heads to the warrior that wants to understand cancer. That would be the modern archetype of the warrior.
DSW: I think I’d like to end with the fact that we’ve spent the last two days together–were actually brought together–in a venue that took place in a church, the First Congregational Church. As we were reminded by the Pastor, Art Suggs, the First Congregational Church has led the way in progressive movements. It was among the first to ordain a black pastor, a woman pastor, a gay pastor—decades before the rest of society–so that’s the benign side of religion. And the audience for the event that we staged was not professors. It included a few professors and some students, but for the most part it was members of the community, who not only resonated to the message but had their own profound stories to tell. So interspirituality is not something that is known only among an elite and is difficult to translate. That is very optimistic. This is not just some academic exercise but is something that can actually thrive and compete in the Darwinian struggle of ideas. [pause] Do I have the last word?
KJ: You may have the last word. I think you’re absolutely right. The audience that was here this weekend represents the direction that the human heart wants to see at the grassroots level. It wants to move away from what’s chronically led to competition and conflict and war and those negative sides of the evolutionary pathway. It wants to see us get to a type of altruism and mutuality and interconnectedness where there is another way that we do things that is self-evident by who we are now as a more advanced hominid. That we become a hominid that gets past the tribe and the clan and all of these things that are so deeply embedded in us. Interspirituality is trans-ethnic, trans-national, trans-religious. It’s trans- all of those boundaries. If that appeals to the grassroots human heart, that gets a big yes. That even has political implications, relative to how it drives the future of the decisions that societies make. Actually that is how we phrased the last paragraph of The Coming Interspiritual Age— we are still here, still able to make those critical ongoing decisions. David, I want to thank you, and your work, for being such a huge part of that view of a possible optimistic future.
DSW: So you get the last word [laughs]. Thank you, Kurt.
KJ: Thank you!