Review of “Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve” Part 1
Seldom do we encounter a book which genuinely breaks new ground on personal, universal and perennial topics such as spirituality – Christian or otherwise. Integral Christianity is one of those books. As the title states, the focus is spirituality in its Christian forms, for anyone seriously following Jesus and as expressed in various Christian churches.
However, author Rev. Paul Smith, himself a pastor of nearly 50 years (in the same church!), makes clear that the same basic understandings and growth dynamics apply to other spiritual traditions and practices. His outline of these, and what has guided much of his own growth for the last decade, is the Integral theory of Ken Wilber, sometimes called the greatest living philosopher-mystic. Wilber’s expansive system for grasping and guiding growth is a careful “integral” balance of numerous factors which I will summarize here as mainly “head and heart” or “mind and spirit”.
The book is very well written – clearly outlined and illustrated as long-time pastors can be counted on to do. It can be read fast if you wish… it draws you along, but is best digested a bit at a time. It’s a book I know I will return to a number of times to re-read sections, review the practical guidelines I can apply or share with others, etc.
One feature adds particular power and credibility to Smith’s clear descriptions of increasingly advanced stages of spiritual (and “life”) development for individuals and churches: his own story of his evolution, and some glimpses inside his church as well, with a clear vision of what truly dynamic, balanced and growing churches can be… a wonderful, and I believe realistic vision.
To get a bit personal myself, I will say that this is a book I’ve been waiting and looking for, so-to-speak, now for a few years. With a decades-long involvement in church and other spiritual ministry, along with the study and practice of psychology, I had pretty much dropped out of specifically Christian churches (while attending some in the New Thought churches Smith speaks of briefly in a helpful church overview section). That goes back over 10 years now. But a couple years ago my hope for the kind of thing I now am seeing developed in a growing “Integral Christianity” (well beyond just Rev. Smith and his church, as he notes himself) drew me back. “Back” to something I had little knowledge or experience of, despite my extensive studies — what I and others have often referred to, before the appearance of Integral Christianity, as “Progressive Christianity”. It is a close cousin of Integral, with clear differences from earlier or current rationalistic “liberalism”.
Also in the last few years, I’ve begun to interact with Ken Wilber’s work, and in particular depth with his Integral Spirituality. I discovered a year or more ago that some serious (and open/progressive) Christians had begun discussing and “practicing” integral theory in relation to Christian views and practices. But I wasn’t aware of such a focus in book form. Smith’s book may not be, strictly speaking, the very first, but it seems to be getting recognition at least as the first which is thorough and systematic in it’s application of Integral theory to Christian faith.
Lest this all sound too technical or “in-house” in relation to the “integral movement” (if it can be loosely called that), let me add that Integral Christianity is, aside from all that, a first-class book on Christian theology and community life (mostly via local churches) . But Smith is unapologetic in giving strong credit to Wilber and to studies with those involved with Integral theory for much of his own recent growth and excitement about new vistas for being a faithful and inspiring (as well as inspired) “body of Christ” in the world. I have no doubt Wilber is smiling approvingly about the book. Although mainly a follower of Buddhist practices and views himself, he has written of the positive potential of all major religions and their importance to societal and global maturation. He has welcomed and supported the Integral Christianity branch of his wider organization.
To wrap up Part 1 before getting more specific on the content of Integral Christianity in Part 2, I’ll return to my own excitement: The book confirms many things for me and creates additional “categories” and language to both understand and explain how Jesus has shown us exalted states of being and higher stages of spiritual development; greater intimacy with God right along with knowledge of oneself.
Smith helps make clear how Jesus did this, though even his immediate followers and those they taught often failed to grasp things fully or were diverted from some of what he did and taught. It happened despite his encouragement that they could do even “greater things” than what they’d seen him do. Perhaps the very early setbacks have taken us nearly 2000 years to recover from and now “include and transcend” (a key concept of transitioning from one stage to another). Meanwhile, Smith would be quick to agree that the Spirit has worked in parallel through other traditions as well, even as some of them struggle to bring along especially their younger members.