Toward an Integral Hermeneutic: Holistic

[This is Part 3 of a series looking at what an integral approach to interpreting Scriptures might look like:


‘Holistic’ is a word that can mean different things to different people. To some it simply means ‘whole’, but for others it might conjure up images of alternative medicine or questionable therapies. There’s also no question that the word’s current reputation has definitely suffered from having been a trendy buzzword about twenty-five years ago — I assume words like ‘mindful’ and ‘intentional’ will suffer similar fates in the coming years, if they haven’t already. But I think it’s still a useful word. What I mean by holistic in this discussion is, essentially, ‘multi-perspectival,’ looking at a problem from as many different angles as possible so as to better see the whole.

One of the elements of Integral Theory as laid out by Ken Wilber that I find most helpful is its insistence that in order to understand any event, we have to look at it from different perspectives, which fall along two axes. The first axis made up of interior (how the event is experienced) and exterior (how that experience is manifested), and the second is made up of singular (the individual experience) and plural (how the event impacts and is impacted by the community). This leaves us with four quadrants: 1. The individual experience (psychology, spirituality, etc.), 2. The collective experience (culture, religion, etc.), 3. The individual manifestation (biology, action), and 4. The collective manifestation (social and religious systems and structures, etc.).


In this sense, a holistic or multi-perspectival approach means looking at an object from many sides. But there is another way of looking at it, equally important when we consider interpreting the Scriptures, which is about our ability to take other people’s perspectives. This ability is an important developmental milestone: Toddlerhood is marked by the emergence of the first person, as we differentiate ourselves from our parents. (Hence the favorite toddler words “No!” and “Mine!”) As we grow, we come to understand that other people can’t see what we can see, and later still we develop the ability to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; this is the emergence of the second person perspective. With maturity, we can develop a more abstract and objective, third-person perspective, which attempts to distinguish our understanding of a situation from our direct experience of it. We might call these three perspectives intrasubjective (my own experience), intersubjective (how we relate to one another), and objective. While postmodern thought would rightly remind us that our attempts at relating in second and third persons are always partial and limited, they are nonetheless critical steps in our development. The more able we are to understand the perspectives of others, the better we are able to relate to them, solve problems, and resolve disputes and conflicts in a mutually beneficial way.


I think both of these sense of perspective-taking can help us read our Scriptures well. The four quadrants remind us that the Scriptures — and our experience of them — can’t be limited to just one aspect and, in fact, they live and move and have their being along an array of perspectives. And the three persons remind us that interpreting our Scriptures is always an encounter with someone or something distinct from us. In a sense, they lay out three levels at which we can approach the text: first person is our devotional experience of the text, second person is Bible study, and third person is the broader realm of biblical scholarship. Each has their place and their role. By plotting our learnings or ideas about a text within the four quadrants, for each of the three persons, we can see more easily what we might be missing.


In the following paragraphs, I try to flesh all this out. (I say ‘try’, because I am just beginning to work through the implications of these ideas myself; this is intended to be a beginning, not a final word.)  If you’re not interested in reading it all, please come back at the end of the post, where I will develop a short-hand method that I hope will be a good .

Example: 1 Kings 19

Turning back to our sample text, 1 Kings 19, the story of Elijah’s encounter with God on the mountain (for a summary, see the previous post), we can see how how this multi-perspectival approach might work. Briefly:

1st Person: My experience of the text

1st Quadrant: When I read this story today, I had a mixed feeling about it. On the one hand the whole situation seems very foreign, and in many ways abhorrent. But at the same time, I can relate to Elijah, his sense of disappointment and his shattered expectations about life and God.

2nd Quadrant: Here, I see the influences of my postmodern Canadian culture, which  doesn’t see other religions as a ‘threat.’ I also see the influence of my evangelical young adulthood that perhaps overemphasized the idea of the “still, small voice” of God. I also feel like the Church as I’ve experienced it has been conflicted in how it understands and preaches about what we can expect from God. This definitely comes up as a tension when I read the text.

3rd Quadrant: In terms of my physiological response, I feel calm when I read the text. In terms of behaviours, as I wrote in the previous post, my feeling in this reading of the text is to focus on the everyday and mundane as my service to God.

4th Quadrant: This would impact the world around me by getting on with business, so to speak, and doing what needs to be done without getting bogged down by the big picture. It would be ecological in that I would be focusing on my own niche and vocation, on the small things that matter.

2nd Person: Encountering the text as an other

1st Quadrant: Here we ask ourselves what experience the text is conveying. In the case of Elijah on the Mountain, we might say it’s intending to encourage the faithful while also chastening their expectations and possibly trying to move them beyond the ‘power gods’ mentality.

2nd Quadrant: The cultural assumptions here really stand out: While the text itself might be hinting at more, the basic understanding of the story is that religion is a battle between power-gods, and YHWH is the correct god to back in this fight. The strong supernatural elements of the text understand that God is an active presence in the world and is not above or beyond intervening in the lives of individual people.

3rd Quadrant: Here we would look at the grammar and diction, how the text is expressed. I would note that the text makes consistent use of God’s name, YHWH, which helps to connect it with the larger ‘Deuteronomistic History’ (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). I’d also note the poetic parallelism and repetition in the text, such as; “But the LORD was not in the …”, the repeated question “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and the repeated answer, “I have been very zealous…”

4th Quadrant: Here we explore how the text relates to the broader world. For example, the story could be read as a way of redirecting Elijah away from direct conflict with Jezebel, thereby preserving the alternative Yahwistic power system within Israel alongside the dominant polytheistic royal power structures.

3rd Person: Taking a step back

Now we step back and ask what we can learn about the text apart from our encounter with it. This step looks to make connections between the text and the bigger picture, things like canon, parallels between stories, historical context, etc.

1st Quadrant: What can we learn about how people in the Ancient Near Eastern world understood their experiences of prophecy and theophany? Are there any clues in other texts, in the Bible and outside, about how Elijah understood his prophetic identity?

2nd Quadrant: This quadrant is similar to the 2nd quadrant for the 2nd person, but would approach it from outside the text. For example, it might note that the archaeological evidence (in the form of temples, idols, etc.) suggests that Yahwistic monotheism was a minor movement in Palestine until after the Exile.

3rd Quadrant: Here I would explore some of the intertextual questions: What is the function of this story in the broader Elijah cycle and Deuteronomistic History? I would point out the strong parallels being drawn in the story between Elijah and Moses, both of whom experience theophanies and a renewed sense of vocation in or around caves on the Holy Mountain in Sinai. This parallel only heightens the importance of the “still small voice” in our text, since the absence of God from the cataclysmic phenomena is one of the primary differences between the two stories.

4th Quadrant: This looks at the historical context: If Elijah is being cast as a second Moses, what historical events might have triggered that? Twentieth-century scholarship, for example, focused on the historical crisis in Israel of Jehu’s Rebellion as a potential trigger for this (re)casting of Elijah.

Toward a shorthand for a multi-perspectival hermeneutic

This is all obviously unwieldy, and may seem a bit repetitive. While there is benefit in fleshing it out fully as I have done (albeit in brief) here, I think there is a way to make a holistic, multi-perspectival approach to Scripture less burdensome. Each of the perspectives is uniquely positioned to ask questions relating to specific quadrants. First person is uniquely able to ask first-quadrant questions: what is my experience of the text? Second person is uniquely able to ask second-quadrant questions: what are the cultural elements, shared or not, influencing the text/or and my reading of it? Where do we meet? Where do we differ? (See my earlier post on Eisegesis and Exegesis for an example of how this might work.) And, third person is uniquely able to ask questions about grammar, literature, and history. And so, I think it’s possible to get much of the benefit of a holistic approach to Scripture by conflating the exercise into a single set of quadrants:


Concluding Thoughts

Regardless of how we might actually go about the business of interpreting Scripture holistically, or multi-perspectivally, I think the basic principle is important. Such an approach can draw attention to our blind-spots and open our eyes to sources of wisdom and understanding we might otherwise miss.

The next post in the series will focus on how we might integrate the insights from these different perspectives together.

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