What Is Integral Christianity?

My blog header indicates that this is “a blog about Integral Christianity,” but I haven’t explained yet what I mean by that.

First I should clarify what I mean by “Christianity.” For many people, Christianity centers around belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; any religious tradition that does not do this is something other than “Christian.” It seems to me, though, that the death and resurrection of Jesus were not central to the message of Jesus himself, so I don’t see why it should be central for us.

I prefer to think of Christianity as encompassing every tradition that is understood by its adherents to be committed to the Christian message, however understood. This last phrase—“however understood”—is important, because it’s not obvious precisely what “the Christian message” is. It’s not a given, even if most Christians imagine that it is. Part of being a Christian means seeking to understand “the Christian message” and striving to live by it.

Our understanding of “the Christian message” is necessarily an interpretation, and every interpretation is undertaken from some perspective or another. An Integral approach to Christianity will try to understand the Christian message from as many perspectives as possible.

There is no shortage of perspectives within the church. This fact is deplored by many, who believe that only one perspective—their own, naturally—should be tolerated. Others pay lip service to the idea of pluralism, but are often quite dismissive, ironically, of those who don’t share their enthusiasm for diversity.

Rather than bemoaning or celebrating the diversity of perspectives, I think it is more important to understand it. Why do Christians so often disagree with one another?

One reason, I’m convinced, is that there are many stages of development along a number of different lines: cognitive, spiritual, moral, etc. Something like this has been acknowledged within the Christian tradition from very early on. Paul was already distinguishing between the “spiritual” and “mature” on the one hand, and the “unspiritual” on the other, in his correspondence with the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 2.6-15), and the concept of the “three ages”—“beginner,” “proficient,” and “perfect”—was developed by patristic thinkers like Origen and Augustine.1

More modern and scientific models, like the seven-stage theory of James W. Fowler, shed a lot of light, I think, on why there are such divisions in the church. Everyone recognises that there are developmental differences between children and adults, but it is not sufficiently recognised that there are significant developmental differences between adults as well. An Integral approach to Christianity has to recognise this.

Not all differences in perspective can be attributed to developmental stages, of course. In a religious context we also have to take into account different states of consciousness, particularly those that we would associate with religious experiences. The relationship between stages and states, which has most successfully been explained by the philosopher Ken Wilber,2 is something that also needs to be understood.

Certainly there is more to it than this, but hopefully this gives some idea of where I’m planning on going with this blog.

Notes

1. The Greek word translated “perfect,” teleios, is the same word translated “mature” in the passage from 1 Corinthians mentioned above. It does not mean “flawless” as the word “perfect” has come to mean in modern English. The Latin perfectus has a similar semantic range.

2. See especially Wilber, Integral Spirituality, 88-93. This is a subject I’m going to return to very soon.

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10 Responses to What Is Integral Christianity?

  1. PP, I love the observation (backed by scriptural references) that there’s such diversity of perspectives (and, often, disagreement) among Christians because there are multiple fronts on which we develop, and those multiple fronts assure a wide range of perspectives–as does the range of development along each front.

    I had never seen the point put that way, and this strikes me as intuitively true. It also helps us avoid a mono-linear approach to development which assumes that one “place” along the continuum of development is the “right” place. People can, for instance, be very highly developed cognitively, but hardly developed at all in some other respect.

    I look forward to reading more as you develop these ideas–something I hear you promising to do at the end of the posting.

  2. Bill, thanks for your comment.

    One criticism that is often made against developmental stage theories is that they are too simplistic, but it has to be understood that each stage is a very general structure within which a great deal of diversity can be found. There will be massive differences between a precocious 7 year-old reaching Fowler’s Stage 3 and an educated but spiritually stunted 70 year-old occupying the same stage. But there will also be important structural similarities, and that’s all that’s being claimed. No single developmental model can tell the whole story, which is why an integral approach is so important.

    Shortly after I posted this I downloaded Paul R. Smith’s book Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve for my Kindle. Although a lot of what it says is familiar to me, I’m finding it quite thought-provoking, so I’ll probably be focusing on this kind of thing for a while.

  3. Henry says:

    Hey PP – just stopping by to say hello and to look at your new blog. I am glad that you’ve defined your terms in this post – bravo.

    Pax.

  4. Hi Henry, long time no see. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Andrew Hall says:

    I think one way of understanding Christianity that resonates strongly with me is a personal journey where accepting Christ as a personal savior opens me to transformation. What I do with that is up to me. I look upon it as empowering. I don’t see it as some kind of magical wand that guarantees me anything in this life or the next. I still struggle and suffer, and try to balance my needs with those of others. And there are many things I still don’t understand.

  6. Hugh Odneal says:

    You state that the death and resurrection of Jesus were not central to the message of Jesus. I don’t understand where this comes from. This was prophesied and He repeatedly told the disciples that this would happen and was necessary. Without Christ’s death and resurrection there is no Christianity.

    • Andrewinottawa says:

      I see Christiantity as a personal journey. Scripture on one level is just a text. The only truth it contains is what you or I can extract from it. I am 60 years old and can remember the crisis in Christian faith brought about in the 1960s by the debate over the historical Jesus. To me this is a colossal dead end.
      I think the only focus that makes sense to me personally is a focus on personal transformation, contact with the sublime, and action to bring compassion to other sentient beings.
      I see Christianity as needing to shed this twisted emphasis on belief which is perverting the uneasy frontier between science and religion. Christianity is better off as a type of yoga, if you can imagine opening your heart and feeling gratitude for the suffering that we endure.
      To me, Christianity is about surrender, on every level of my psyche that I am aware of, surrender to the Mercy of the Creator. I do not see any promise in being some kind of intact theology that promises something after I die. That to me is simplistic nonsense.

      • Andrew, thank you for you comment.

        You have made some interesting points. I have a couple of blog posts in the works that deal with some of the themes you’ve touched on here.

        With regard to the debate over the historical Jesus, I don’t think I would agree that “this is a colossal dead end.” Historical Jesus research (and historical criticism in general) makes it a lot easier for people to climb out of the conventional stage of faith, which is enough to give it tremendous value. (It does more than just that, though, which I’ll talk about in an upcoming post about Walter Wink’s terrific book The Bible in Human Transformation, a book that begins with the sentence, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.”) It’s only a dead end if you stop there. Unfortunately a lot of people do stop there, which is maybe what you were referring to (and what Wink’s book polemicizes against).

        I’m also slightly uneasy with the equation of Christianity with “a personal journey.” It certainly is that, in part, but there is a social or communal dimension as well that is an integral part of the gospel, and I think it’s important not to ignore that.

    • Hugh, thank you for your comment. You are correct that I stated that “the death and resurrection of Jesus were not central to the message of Jesus.” To me it is clear that what WAS central to the message of Jesus was the “reign” or “kingdom of God.” This is not an idiosyncratic position — you won’t find very many New Testament scholars who disagree with this.

      But what does the kingdom of God have to do with Jesus’s death and/or resurrection? I don’t think it has anything to do with it. Jesus clearly saw his message as something that could be accepted while he was still alive.

      Additionally, it appears very likely that Jesus’s “prophecies” of his death and resurrection in the gospels owe more to the early Church than they do to the historical Jesus himself. Anyone can write a story with a character in the past “prophesying” that something will happen in the slightly-less-past — i.e., something the author of the story already believes happened — but such stories can hardly be pointed to as evidence that the person did in fact so prophesy.

      If you’re going to maintain that the gospels are fully reliable historical records, and that every event described therein actually happened as described, then we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

  7. Andrewinottawa says:

    Thanks for the reply.
    I have a few more thoughts. About the value of scripture, there is nothing obviously guaranteed. Scripture has been misused and abused in the past to justify slavery, conquest, theft, etc.

    So scripture, like everything else that humans create, has great promise when it works as advertised. How is that supposed to be? Well, I think when it encourages hope and the imagination, when it promotes optimism while not denying the ambiguous uncertainty that life presents to us, that is when scripture works best. For me, that is a personal process for each of us.

    I am not ignoring the value of community, not at all. I just dislike a community where an orthodoxy is enforced by an hierarchy. I prefer the approach I think the early Quakers had of according authority to an Inner Light that each soul contains. If your Inner Light feels called or inspired by a particular piece of scripture, then great, but that doesn’t mean it will speak to everyone else in the same way.

    Otherwise, I feel that insisting on the authority of the Bible is creating an idol and demanding we worship it.

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