Integral (Unorthodox) Christianity: “The Bible Is Loaded with Truth and Power”
Integral Christianity is a fairly new thing… at least the name is. (It is not a lot like traditional or even “modern/liberal” Christianity.) The worldview or theology it operates within actually is a relatively new perspective, on any sizable scale. I will admit the Christian form of Integral theory is fairly new to me — maybe a couple years, and I’ve been pretty attentive to the many varying forms of Christian faith for decades now.
The focus of this article will be Integral Christianity’s take on and use of the Bible. I’m writing this on the way to soon finishing the definitive book to date on this understanding and expression of Christianity, Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, by Paul R. Smith. I will then be reviewing the book on the Naturalspirituality blog.
So I thought it would be helpful to first give a mini introduction to Integral theory as it applies to Christian faith and practice; and particularly to how it interfaces with a Bible which means so many different (and often conflicting) things to people. Integral theory is very closely identified with the overall work and many books by Ken Wilber. His work has essentially formed (initially) and guided this way of understanding both personal and societal development, a perspective that is “integrated” or “integral”.
One might call it a meta-theory in the sense of being a system drawing from but also standing “above” or beyond most theories trying to explain human experience in relation to broader reality. Scientists (theoretical physicists particularly) speak in terms of a “theory of everything”. Wilber and his Integral colleagues do so also, with the key difference that they deliberately include and seek to understand the non-material, often very subtle forces and factors in the universe, which people most often speak of by the term “God” or “spiritual reality”. And the focus is more on human experience and consciousness relative to the matter-energy focus of the hard sciences.
So when we take the kind of structure (a quite elaborate one I can’t get into describing here) that Integral Theory provides and lay it over the Bible and the Christian faith, some very perplexing things begin to make better sense. We might also envision that process as viewing the Bible and Christian traditions through the lens of an integral perspective. We all are forced to use whatever lens (or lenses) we’ve gained anyway. The deliberate acquiring of a more expansive Integral view and applying it to the Bible merely enhances the views of biblical stories, insights and truths we all, at some level, have taken in. This is the case for anyone conversant with the Bible, whether or not they are a “believer” or take the Bible as any kind of personal guide. In other words, familiarity with Integral Christianity can benefit anyone, Christian or not. This is particularly true for people of Jewish faith, given their use of well over half of the Christian Bible.
One of the key aspects of Integral theory is its understanding of stages of development seen both in individuals and, often almost as clearly, in groups or institutions. Central to its stage theory, like many stage theories it draws from, is that levels must be attained and then gone through, or fulfilled, in order. You can’t skip a stage. Similarly, that which is of value gained in prior stages is not lost although the limiting points or distortions of the stage drop off.
Let me apply this to just one aspect of the Bible from an Integral Christian perspective. The Bible is loaded with stories of power (miracles, ecstatic states, etc.), both in the Hebrew (“Old Testament”) and Greek sections. What to make of this?
Traditionally, Christians accepted all the miracles at face value. They were seen as God breaking into the normal order of things or even over-riding the laws of nature. Most also believed their valid expression ended with the Apostolic age or completion of the New Testament.
During and after the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of science, liberal Christianity took the miracles as either symbolic or mere stories for persuasion… all or almost all of them, indiscriminately. As good “reason-able” and rational beings, such Christians had (and many still today have) no interest in mystical spiritual experiences. Their lack of openness to or interest in special “peak experiences” or ecstatic (altered) states during prayer, meditation or worship lead to an increasingly “flat” religious life and reading of the Bible. Jesus became mainly a moral teacher and example, despite that the Gospels and Acts are filled with examples of healings, exorcisms, and various ecstatic states and miracles. They are probably not all historical or strictly factual, but is it “reasonable” (or rational) to think none of it happened; that those things weren’t common “in the day” even though they are in many settings yet today?
Well, Integral Christianity and its kin in certain kinds of Progressive Christianity are the first systems to wisely and carefully return to seeing the mystical, “wonder working” side of Jesus and his earliest followers as legitimate and important… something we can emulate and reproduce, just as Jesus said we could. I say “return” to indicate reincorporating in this stage what much of Christianity threw out too readily — the spiritual baby with the supernatural bathwater. The earlier stage, from pre-modernity on through to now for many, that of “traditional” faith, doesn’t seriously question the idea of valid biblical miracles. In it there is no major problem with a disjuncture — part of a two-tiered universe — between supernatural miracles, trances, healing, etc. and the “ordinary world”. Pentecostals and Charismatics at this level of understanding accept (and seek to practice!) these things as continuing to the present, but only expressed through Christians. Having been a traditional-level Charismatic myself, I see it as a healthy balancing and broadening from an overly rationalistic faith, yet a standpoint that benefits greatly from a move onto further stages, one of which is Integral.
In Integral, various spiritual experiences and “states” are not only accepted but eagerly engaged, and concepts and experiences of unity are greater than at lower stages. My purposeful use of “lower” here reflects how Integral respects comments by both Jesus and Paul to the effect that certain truths are not able to be grasped at a given stage of growth and spiritual maturity. Integral recognizes that some things are higher or better than others, unlike the typical Postmodern perspective. There are ways of discerning this.
Almost any experience or “spiritual gift” can be had at any level, but it may not be properly understood or utilized until deeper understanding, at a higher stage, is developed. So Integral Christianity respects and draws from the extensive scholarly work on the Bible that many call “higher criticism”, with its many important findings and insights. Yet it takes seriously and values highly the mystical experiences, the intimacy with God, as well as the radical “otherness” of God portrayed in the Bible and lived out in the person of Jesus.
What exposure do you have to Integral theory or Integral Christianity? Does the concept of progressive stages, which have clear identifying markers, appeal to you and ring true?