We are truly in a unique position in history. Just think about it: at any given moment most us have access to essentially the entirety of human knowledge, often right in our front pocket. This kind of access to the wisdom of the whole world has historically been simply unthinkable.
This state of affairs clearly has implications for faith communities. It can no longer be expected that ‘our’ stories (no matter which specific ‘our’ we’re talking about) will be the shared stories of the culture around us, nor can it be expected that those stories will form the basis of the values of our society. What we are seeing is not just diversity of cultures — knowledge and wisdom and people from around the world coming together to live side by side — but also a diversity within cultures, with people who share the same history, traditions and stories operating nonetheless from very different worldviews, what we call the premodern (or traditional), modern, and postmodern. Each of these worldviews has considerable strengths, yet each also has considerable weaknesses. And it’s this diversity that is at the root of much of the tension — from political polarization to the so-called ‘culture wars’ — within contemporary Western society.
This kind of intracultural diversity is difficult to navigate for a society because it upends the assumption of similarity within the group, and this causes a significant amount of dissonance; it’s as though we’re all in a giant choir but the notes everyone is singing don’t sound right together. And as a rule, humans try to avoid dissonance. There are many ways we can try to get rid of it culturally. Those working from the dominant cultural frequency might use force, either turning up their own volume to try to silence other voices, as in propaganda campaigns and leadership cults, or pushing those at a different frequency out of the group, as in ostracism or shunning. While this is effective in maintaining group cohesion, it stifles creativity and growth, and far too willingly rejects dissenting individual or minority voices, often with bloody consequences. Another way of avoiding dissonance — one we’re finding more and more in our context in the West today — is to self-select the people with whom we surround ourselves, so that we can avoid hearing the pitches that are the most dissonant with our own. This creates subcultures of like-minded people; while this can be creative and invigorating at its best, it also tends to create, sometimes accidentally but sometimes intentionally, more-or-less impermeable silos, so that the different subcultures end up having entirely different conversations, making it harder to have important conversations as a whole society.
Integral theory suggests a third alternative to dealing with dissonance: to create, as much as possible, a kind of harmony among the different pitches, using the beautiful, good, and true elements of each to draw attention to and fill out the weaknesses of the others. We have already seen one way this might be done. I ended the most recent post in the series by suggesting that each of the three personal perspectives is uniquely positioned to ask questions relating to one of the quadrants:
This truth actually gets us quite far along the road, since, if we accept the premise that to truly understand an event we need to do so from all four quadrants, we are, in effect, already saying we need to incorporate the kinds of questions and truths explored by the premodern, modern, and postmodern memes. What I mean by this is that while all of the worldviews have something to say in each quadrant, premodern or traditional cultures excelled at first-quadrant questions: all of our meditative and mystical traditions, which are the quintessential first-quadrant phenomena, are premodern in origin. Similarly, the modern period, with its focus on what can be observed and studied and the development of science, excelled at the questions of the third and fourth quadrants. And, the postmodern period, by questioning modernity’s so-called objectivity and focusing on the important ways our culture and situation shape our experiences of the world, excels at second-quadrant questions. By engaging with all quadrants, then, we are at least one step along the way of integrating these three dominant cultural memes.
One final point to consider here is that while, as a shorthand, the terms premodern or traditional, modern, and postmodern are helpful to describe the breadth of diversity in worldview in our contemporary Western context, it turns out that ‘premodern’ is too broad to do justice to the range of human cultural experience prior to modernity. What we call the premodern is itself actually composed of several different stages of development. To speak in very broad terms, first there is what we might call Magic, a staged organized around kinship groups, hunter-gatherer economies, and an animistic or totemic understanding of religion. Second, there is Mythic-literal, with a larger tribal or local social organization and a religion marked by vivid mythologies of the struggle between gods and cultic practices designed to gain their favour. It also seems historically connected to the development of agriculture. And third, there is what we now recognize as the traditional worldview present in our own culture; it is also known as the mythic-conventional stage, because it turns the myths of the previous stage into sweeping stories that form the basis of a conventional, universal morality. Its origin can be seen in the Axial Age religions, when a new kind of faith emphasizing ethical behaviour over ritual spread with remarkable speed across Eurasia.
(Note: If you are concerned about potential similarities between this developmental understanding of culture and the paternalistic and destructive racial theories that have caused unspeakable damage to human cultures over the past few centuries, I will attempt to address this important issue in the next post.)
I mention these different stages of premodern culture because we can actually see them in the development of Hebrew religion within our Bibles: We begin with the story of the nomadic herdsman Abraham and the promises God makes specifically to him and his kin; in this story, God is worshiped in personal acts of devotion at altars and shrines built at places with specific familial importance, and authority is handed down from one generation to the next by a performative act of paternal blessing. These are all traits of the Magic stage. Later, at Sinai, a tribal people is created under the Law given to Moses, a people who are to worship one god alone among the region’s many gods and to worship that god with specific cultic practices — and so, we see the emergence of the Mythical-literal stage. And then, finally comes the Mythical-conventional stage with the Prophets; Isaiah lays down the gauntlet in the first chapter of his prophecy:
Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. … Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow. (1.13, 16)
This shift laid the foundation for everything that follows in the Old and New Testaments, and really all of Western religious development until the emergence of Modernity. Even a radical shift such as the coming of Jesus can be interpreted as purifying and reinterpreting the mythical-conventional stage.
And so, if we are going to interpret the Scriptures from an integrating perspective, we need to have in mind all of the different cultural stages of development at play:
Because our sacred texts are universally premodern texts, any given passage will have emerged from one of the three premodern stages. At times they might even push the reader to move from one stage to another, as in the Isaiah passage above. So the first task in an integrating hermeneutic is to identify the stage from which the passage operates. Then, since an integrating perspective seeks to include and find a harmony among all of the worldview states, how does the passage speak to what the other stages, both previous and subsequent, bring to the table? Where is the visceral energy in the passage? Where is the narrative power? What is the ethical vision? What can historical and textual study tell us about the passage? And, whose story is it: Who is being centered? Who is being marginalized? What cultural assumptions and agendas does the text assume?
Example: 1 Kings 19
The story of Elijah is one of the quintessential exemplars of the mythical-literal stage in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Elijah and his god YHWH are in open war with Jezebel and the priests of the god Ba’al. In the preceding chapter, Elijah has won a resounding victory over the priests of Ba’al; but, while Elijah may have demonstrated that YHWH is more powerful than Ba’al, Jezebel still has the political power and so he is forced to flee into the hills. This battle between YHWH and Ba’al is the context of the passage we’re looking at.
Turning to the other stages and the questions they bring to the table:
- Where is the energy or emotion? There is the visceral sense of fear throughout the passage. Even the promised theophany is introduced with a series of terrifying events. The presence of God as the calm after the storm seems even more meaningful because of this.
- Where is the narrative power? For me, the story has always been an effective lesson that God isn’t all about the big showy signs of power. Whether the take-away is the ‘still small voice’, or God’s instructions for Elijah to focus on mundane tasks of serving God rather than the bigger cosmic battle, it reminds me to look for God in the subtle things rather than in what is flashy.
- What is the ethical vision? While this story doesn’t push the reader past the mythical-literal stage and into the mythical-conventional stage, it does leave the reader with some cognitive dissonance about the mythical-literal war between gods. Even in winning the battle with the priests of Ba’al, Elijah ends up lost, alone, and fleeing for his life. If it’s really all about a cosmic battle between gods, why does YHWH’s victory not seem to count for anything? The revelation Elijah ultimately receives doesn’t encourage him back onto the cosmic battlefield, but to focus on the task at hand. Even here, God tells him that it will all lead to bloodshed. So for me, the ethical vision is a call to question the motivation for warfare, revenge, or bloodshed. It rarely ends well for anyone.
- As for the questions of modern scholarship, we covered these quite a bit in the previous post. Highlights for me include: the archaeological evidence that exclusive Yahwism was a minority religion in Israel and the textual parallels that seem to set up Elijah as another Moses.
- Finally, the postmodern questions about assumptions and privilege: The story is very clearly coming from the Yahwistic perspective of the Deuteronomistic history, which understood the trauma of the Exile as a function of the failure of Israel’s elite classes to be faithful to the God who had freed their people from slavery in Egypt and given them the land of Canaan as their possession. In a sense this scriptural perspective flips the script of the archaeological evidence, which posits Yahwism as a relatively new religion struggling for legitimacy over and against the established religious practices of the area. The power dynamic at play is very interesting.
To put it together, what looking at the passage from this integrating lens brings out for me is that the story involves God chastening his prophet, reorienting him away from all-out warfare against other gods: the anxiety produced by the power struggle between the gods is transcended by the quiet and peace of simply serving God.
In the next post, we will look at the last of the elements of an integral hermeneutic: an inclusiveness of complexity.