Toward an Integral Hermeneutic: Complexity

So far in this series on developing an integral hermeneutic, I’ve talked about the need to read our Scriptures through a growth-oriented lens, with a holistic, multi-perspectival approach, and by integrating the wisdom of past and present ages. But you may have noticed that we seem to be circling around a similar set of ideas, assumptions and questions. What do we mean by growth? What does perspective-taking involve? How are the different stages, the different cultural memes, connected to one another? Is there a tie that binds these things together? In this post I will argue that these ideas all move towards increased complexity,  that our worldview, faith, and readings of Scripture need to be able to account for and adapt to more, to an increasingly complicated world.


The idea of ‘more’ is built into the concept of growth. From a developmental perspective, the more we grow and mature, the more complexity we are able to understand and account for, as our brains develop from an extreme reliance on the limbic system in early childhood to greater development of the cortex, which inhibits the fight/flight responses and allows for reflective thought and emotional regulation. From a spiritual perspective, the same is true: as we mature and grow spiritually, our instincts towards self-preservation and contraction in the face of new situations or experiences are inhibited by our ‘spiritual organ’ (we might call it the heart or nous), which causes us to bear good fruit: instead of retreating into ourselves, we expand into greater love, instead of instinctively hitting back, we promote peace, instead of reacting impatiently, we become more patient, and so on. Growth therefore allows us simultaneously to better handle complexity and produce more fruit in the face of it.


One of the hallmarks of such human cognitive growth is the development of theory of mind, the understanding that someone else may experience something differently than we are. This development is linked to the second of the traits we have explored, perspective-taking. Perspective-taking is about seeing more.

Looking at an issue from many angles (i.e., the four quadrants) allows us to account for greater complexity by making sure we’re asking more questions and, as integral theorists call it, making more things an object of our awareness. For example, in drawing attention to questions about cultural specificity and assumptions of the lower left-hand quadrant, postmodernity didn’t create those biases, but made them an object our our awareness. Writing about his own journey to understanding this, the great post-war German theologian Jürgen Moltmann noted: “It also became clear to me between 1975 and 1980 that I personally could not authentically frame a [liberation or feminist theology] for I am not living in the Third World, am not oppressed and am not a woman. I know and accept the limits of my own existence and my own context” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, vii). This is a great example of the self-awareness involved in the postmodern turn, making one’s subjective context an object of one’s awareness. This is but one example, and an integral approach recognizes that we must also make postmodernism’s own neuroses and pathologies an object of awareness so as to transcend them.

Similarly, being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes when looking at an issue (i.e., the personal perspectives), allows us to expand our circle of empathy, from a primary concern about our own survival, to that of our family, and successively to our larger kingroup, to our tribe, to our nation, to all humanity, and finally to all life. To put it a slightly different way, it allows us to expand who ‘counts’ as part of our ‘we/us’.  In the Christian tradition, this is most famously expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25ff). When told to “love your neighbour as yourself,” someone asks Jesus “Who is my neighbour?” Essentially he’s asking Jesus what the limits are to whom he needs to love. Jesus responds by telling a story in which the hero is one of their people’s traditional enemies, people they looked down on as half-bloods and heretics. Likewise, when Jesus is told that his family has come to see him, he responds by saying “Whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.” Again, the question is who is part of the in-group, and Jesus pushes out the boundary: It isn’t blood ties or nationality or theological correctness that matter, but behaviour. (I would argue that Jesus’ own example actually encourages us to push those boundaries even further, since he openly welcomed and enjoyed the company of people despised as “sinners,” such as tax collectors who were agents of Israel’s foreign oppressors and prostitutes.)

Cultural Stages

Finally, the driver behind the cultural evolution discussed in the most recent post is the need to adapt to greater complexity: the postmodern framework is able to take in more ideas, voices, and data than a modern framework, which was in turn able to take more into account than premodern frameworks, and so on.

Yet, while each of these cultural frameworks was an improvement on what came before, they have tended nonetheless to throw a lot of baby out with the bathwater, rejecting the preceding framework’s positive outcomes along with its pathologies. For example, while rightly rejecting premodernity’s traditionalism and superstition, modernity also rejected the mythical-conventional stage’s good, true and beautiful focus on community and spiritual growth; or while rightly rejecting modernity’s homogenizing tendencies, postmodernity largely seems to have lost the ability to build coalitions and make practical, timely decisions. This is understandable in a way; it’s not unlike how teenagers reject important parts of their parents’ identities in order to discover their own. But, as anyone who has gone through any kind of therapy or search for psychological wholeness knows, we reject aspects of our past at our peril. Each stage of life and each part of our humanity offers its unique contributions and healthy development is a natural unfolding of the past into the future. An Integral approach suggests the same is true for cultural development, and aims to stop the cycle of transcend-and-reject by replacing it with transcend and include. We don’t ask which is right and which is wrong, but what can each worldview positively contribute? And thus, an Integral framework allows for still greater complexity by reclaiming what has been left behind in previous development.

Cultural Stages as a developmental hieararchy or holarchy

I think this is an important contribution for a few reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents the theory from slipping into a harmful dominator hierarchy, wherein ‘more advanced’ societies are ‘better’ than ‘less advanced’ ones. Instead of a dominator hierarchy, it simply offers a developmental structure, what some have called a holarchy, where each successive stage builds on and includes what came before.

This developmental holarchy has nothing to do with intelligence, genius, or spiritual enlightenment — in fact, one of its strengths is its ability to demonstrate how human genius, creativity, and enlightenment have been consistently expressed throughout our species’ history and in cultures at all stages around the world.

Another contribution of this perspective is that, by encouraging us to find the strengths of other points of view, it allows the hope of transcending the silos and polarization of our present moment. One great example of this hope is the Institute for Cultural Evolution, an American integralist think-tank seeking “to widen perspectives and integrate politically opposed viewpoints” in order to “expand our thinking beyond left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative.” In a broader perspective, we simply can’t write off those in our culture who disagree with us. The stakes are too high. Politically, we need to be able to build coalitions to address the complicated problems of our world, from domestic and international terrorism to the disruptions caused by globalism and climate change. Religiously, they are our brothers and sisters and we reject part of ourselves if we reject them. But to do this, we need to be able to speak in ways that are meaningful. For all of its many weaknesses and pitfalls, one of the great successes of the 2016 Trump campaign was that it was able to harness deep emotions (the magenta ‘magic’ stage) through recourse to ideas of power (the red ‘power’ stage) and honour (the amber ‘traditional’ stage) by telling a compelling story (the ‘myth’ part of the mythical-literal and mythical-conventional stages) about America’s supposed fall from greatness. To a significant portion of the American public this resonated far more than the statistics and policies (the orange modern stage) and inclusive message (the green postmodern stage) of the Clinton campaign. If there’s a way forward, we have to be able to similarly harness the visceral and narrative power of the earlier stages. At the end of the day, you can’t beat a compelling story with facts; you can only beat it with a more compelling story.

Example: 1 Kings 19

Returning specifically to hermeneutics, what do our three principles about complexity offer?

  1. Making more an object of awareness: In a way, the whole story can be read as Elijah coming to terms with the complexity of the world in a new way. His black-and-white war between gods hasn’t worked out well for him. Even in victory, he is defeated and feels alone. The data doesn’t fit his worldview. He is disillusioned and confused. The theophany in a way opens his eyes to a different approach, not denying the basic premise of his worldview, but opening up a more subtle approach. God doesn’t need to act in signs and wonders, but can also act in the quiet, behind the scenes.
  2. Expanding the circle of empathy: There has been a lot of blood shed in Elijah’s battle against Jezebel. And God predicts even more will follow. The passage does little to expand Elijah’s circle of empathy, but I think it does give us pause. Are the battles we’re fighting worthwhile? Is there another way that does less damage to ourselves, our allies, and others? I’m reminded of Psalm 46, in which God steps into a war and calls all to stop and be silent before him: “Be still and know that I am God.” This Psalm is also filled with references to God being on our side; yet from within the Christian tradition, we know that that “our” must be inclusive, not exclusive: The God-is-with-us (and not you) has been fulfilled by God-is-with-(all of)-us. And this certainly does expand our circle of empathy.
  3. Transcend and include: In the last post, I touched on some of the ways the text interacts with the different stages of development. Now the question is how can we incorporate the best contributions of all the stages. For me, this exercise has highlighted the fact that this story represents a hinge in Elijah’s life. It’s a pregnant pause causing a shift in his understanding of God, of the battle he’s fighting, the role he is to play in it, and the methods he is to use in waging it.

Like Elijah, we must grapple with a world that is more complicated than we’d like it to be and with data that doesn’t fit with our expectations. We need to be able to step back and see how else God might be at work, and how else God might be calling us to be and act in the world so that we might bear better fruit for the benefit of more people.

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