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“Integral Christianity”: Review of a Groundbreaking Book, Part 2

May 30, 2013

“What on earth (or heaven) is Integral Christianity?” you may be wondering.  Well, not if you have read Part 1 of this review.

But the term is relatively new and very little known to the “wider world”.  That is, the world outside the many thousands who participate actively in Ken Wilber’s various events and groups, read his books, etc.  There will now be, thanks to the release of Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve last year, many more who will know something of Wilber’s Integral theory and of how it can aid specifically Christian faith as well as other systems of faith.   

[The image below is a nautilus, similar to the one pictured on the cover of “Integral Spirituality.”  Smith, the author, references Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “The Chambered Nautilus” and repeatedly plays off its line calling us to “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul.”] 

A sectioned nautilus shell. These shells may h...

A sectioned nautilus shell. These shells may have provided inspiration for voluted Ionic capitals. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this 2nd part of a review of the book I will summarize some of the core content.  But I won’t be able to do it justice, so I might as well say it up front: Get the book to read for yourself!

The reason that recommendation is not qualified in any way is that this book by long-time pastor, Paul R. Smith, is loaded with important and useful  information for virtually anyone.  On one level it serves as a readable, helpful and practical summary of Integral theory’s way of explaining what it means to be human and to grow as a person in all facets of life.  In that sense, Integral Christianity can benefit even an atheist.  It can definitely solve some problems for traditional theists (which most Christians are). It can help any religious skeptic or unbeliever better understand their own development and experiences they might consider “weird” or “strange circumstance” — which Smith and many others consider “spiritual.”

On another level, Christians will find that Smith gives plenty of “meat” about understanding the Bible and controversial issues of Christian faith and spiritual practices.  These, too, are useful for unbelievers to eavesdrop on, as it were.  One of the beauties of a worldview and reasoning at the “integral” stage (the main focus within the several stages Smith describes and illustrates per the Wilber model) is that it truly appreciates the contributions of each stage.  Yet it does not put them all on equal footing and create the kind of pseudo “respect” or the illogical “everyone’s truth is equally valid” idea that postmodern thinking does.  (One term for integral as a stage could be post-postmodern.)

There is much more to a description of Christianity self-labeled as Integral than just stage categories, and the author covers these additional aspects in appropriate detail for a readable book: states, standpoints, shadow, and steps.  Expanded just slightly here, these refer to 1) states of being or consciousness which include non-ordinary or “Spirit zone” experiences, 2) standpoints from which to view ourselves, the world and God, 3) shadow work on our “complexes,” self-sabotaging or other tendencies picked up in early life, from our genes or who-knows-where, and 4) the steps or regular spiritual practices that aid our growth, balance and enjoyment of life.

There are a few points from this list that I’m excited to highlight.  They stand out to me from an in-depth exposure to a wide range of church communities and to the breadth and depth of human needs and problems shared by religious and non-religious people seen in my former role as a counselor/psychotherapist: Smith echoes the Wilberian point that states of consciousness or profound and even life-altering experiences (as NDE’s often are, for example) can happen at any stage and do not necessarily mean that one is operating at one of the higher stages of integral or beyond.

Things like “peak experiences” (of Maslow coinage) will be interpreted differently at the different stages, and thus impact us differently….  Our mental grids for making sense of our lives, God and the world may be stretched by such experiences, but it takes new exposure to ideas and doing our “homework” of reading, listening, thinking, etc. to continue up the growth ladder.  Cognitive development (learning more, thinking clearer, etc.) is necessary to reach the higher levels, but does not guarantee that we will — consider the brilliant person who remains a sociopath with no compassion.  Conversely, children can be compassionate, devoted lovers of God, etc., but not yet at higher integrated stages due to lack of complex thinking ability as well as of life-experience.

A second highlight is this: One can be adept at reaching higher (or positively “altered”) states of consciousness via meditation or other steps (spiritual practices or group worship) but get nowhere at understanding and controlling their shadow side.

Shadow work is usually not eagerly engaged, at least not without inner pain or frustration to drive us there. It generally requires the help of another person, ideally a well-trained one, although merely a good listening friend can often serve well for some aspects of it.  The point is that we need a 3rd-person perspective and support.  The danger of many Christian thought-systems and institutions in this regard is that they tend to over-spiritualize life and reduce complex shadow work to simplistic concepts of repentance, confession, prayer, etc.  Basically, God, through the Church, the Bible, etc., will solve all psychological problems for the sincere believer — you shouldn’t need a therapist.  In many traditions, not even a “spiritual director.”  The more fundamentalist ones go so far as to dismiss virtually everything they think comes from modern psychology and its therapeutic approaches.

A third highlight: when it comes to steps or regular practices (traditionally called “spiritual disciplines”), many of us avoid them for a variety of inadequate reasons.  

We just don’t like disciplines — doing something when we may not feel like it — unless they clearly make life more convenient or until we get the “feel good” results, whether that is weight loss, a raise at work, etc.  The results of spiritual practices sometimes aren’t as obvious as we’d like.  If they take time to build up, we just don’t have the patience.  But Smith wisely points out that steps don’t have to be great leaps… some of them can be effectively implemented a minute or two at a time.  They can and should be  chosen or adapted to fit our personality’s style, our schedule, etc.

Smith also points out that Jesus regularly used prayer, getting alone and other practices to gain perspective or to enter the exalted states through which his powers often came.  Many Christians, liberal and conservative alike, forget that he did these things and that he serves as an effective model for us in them, as well as having left us moral and theological wisdom.

What Christians also forget and non-Christians unwisely discount as even real is that Jesus’ direct followers and early leaders like Paul did indeed carry on, like Jesus, the common Jewish “charismatic” gifts of healing, inspired prophetic speech, and such, including private “prayer language” (in at least Paul’s case).

They viewed transformative things in trances (altered states at least partially under their control).  Smith points out that these things are neither entirely unique to Christian spirituality nor is there any indication in the Bible that they were to cease.  (Many Christians, often in fear of such phenomena, have tried to make a biblical case for their ending but the fastest growing branch of the faith, charismatics and Pentecostals, isn’t buying it one second, and for good reason…. These “gifts” have always been around and, in many perspectives including the Integral one, their presence is more normal than is their absence.)

So here is what I consider ground-breaking about this wonderful book that I can’t say too much good about: It explains the many diverse aspects of the human and community-life experience chronicled in the Bible, and applies them to our current world but without holding onto the baggage of earlier theological details or societal arrangements no longer necessary nor fitting.  It does this in a more thorough and inspiring way than any other single book or approach (such as Progressive Christianity, akin to Integral) that I know of.  It is a well-researched and written book that should serve as both guide and inspiration for all Christians interested in growth and a beneath-the-surface understanding of the Bible, from lay person to leader to scholar.  And the “spiritual but not religious” and others interested in religion and spirituality would be wise to read it as well.  

If you’ve read the book, what stood out to you? What did you learn or benefit from? Are you someone familiar with Integral theory but not yet with Integral Christianity?

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