God in Three Perspectives: An Integral Approach to Knowing God

In the most recent post in this series on knowing God, I pointed out that the traditional models of understanding the experience of God don’t capture the true diversity that can be found in the Christian tradition — to say nothing of other traditions. In this post, I’d like to introduce Ken Wilber’s integral approach to this question, an approach I think is helpful in moving past the problems of the traditional models, and which we’ll be exploring in greater detail in the coming weeks.

The traditional models for understanding experiencing God are all based on a step-by-step linear progression. The problem, as we’ve seen, is that sometimes very mature persons of faith experience God in ways those models suggest are for the spiritually immature, and vice versa. Moreover, the whole idea of saying there are some experiences that ‘should’ be reserved for some people and not others runs contrary to the entire spirit of the way of Jesus, which rejects such hierarchies of power and prestige.

The traditional models (whether of the seven-, four-, or three- step varieties) are correct in promoting the idea of growth in the life of faith. If we are honestly seeking to live out our faith more and more, then we should hope to see some growth and maturation over the years. (Otherwise, what’s the point? As I’ve said before, if our Gospel doesn’t change us, we need a better Gospel.) But our tradition — and many others along with it — has confused maturity with the prevalence or pervasiveness of peak experiences. And herein lies the problem. Mystical experiences, however they are manifested, are gifts from God, not awards or rewards. You don’t graduate from one way of knowing God into another. Everything is grace.

The integral model of looking at spiritual development proposed by Ken Wilber provides an alternative approach that, I think, corrects the traditional models in two ways. First, it separates out stages of moral and spiritual development from changes in state of consciousness that we associate with mystical experiences. In this way it acknowledges the need for spiritual growth, while not equating spiritual maturity with peak religious experiences. Not only does this more accurately reflect the true diversity of experiences of God, but, as we’ve already seen, it also helps us understand the phenomenon of ‘saints behaving badly‘. God meets us where we are at and knows what we need, regardless of how far we are along the journey. From a Christian perspective, this view is also attractive because it is nothing other than Paul’s teaching: we can speak in tongues, prophesy, have visions, or experience mystical communion with God, but if we don’t have love — or joy, peace, patience, perseverance, kindness, and any of the other fruits of the Spirit — they aren’t worth anything. For, as Jesus said, a tree is known by the quality of its fruit.

If this is true, then what is the point of mystical experiences at all? Aside from the fact that they are beautiful gifts from God, I would agree with Wilber that they have functional value because they expand our hearts and minds. The image that comes to mind is of a balloon; powerful encounters with God expand our minds and hearts, like a balloon blown up to its limit. Even we return to our ‘normal size’ afterwards, we still retain the memory of that expansiveness. The experience of the infinite God creates a cognitive dissonance that pushes us to become bigger and more expansive — more loving, more empathetic, more welcoming — ourselves. Therefore, if we allow such experiences to do their job (and that’s a big ‘if’), they push is further down the road to a more mature, more fruitful, life.

As important as this this, it is the second proposal of Wilber’s model that will provide the lens through which we’ll explore our guiding question of knowing God for the rest of this series. Instead of seeing the different kinds of religious experience as sequential steps in knowing God, this model sees them as representing three distinct perspectives from which we can know and experience God. This is no surprise, since such a multi-perspectival approach is at the core of all integral theory. In this instance, Wilber borrows his terminology from the three narrative perspectives of literature: third person (he/she/it/they), second person (you), and first person (I).

  • The third-person (‘he/she/it’) perspective of God finds God in the intricately woven connections of the Web of Life and the very fabric of the universe. We’ve encountered this perspective in St. Hildegard‘s idea of God’s greening power in the world. It also finds expression in the ancient Christian Logos theology, as well as some contemporary spiritual perspectives from prominent Scientists.
  • Second person (‘you’) is personal and relational. This refers to an experience of God as meeting an Other, One Whom we love and by Whom we are loved, One to whom we submit our lives, and offer our worship, praise and thanksgiving. This has been the dominant perspective among the Abrahamic religious traditions.
  • First person (‘I’) refers to a unitive or nondual experience of God, an experience of such profound unity with God (and indeed the universe) that the very lines between subject and object become blurred and one’s ego, ambitions, and agenda fall away in the presence of the all-pervasive divine life. While this perspective is most strongly associated with the traditions of Eastern religion, it also has a long history within Christianity — even if Christians have always been very careful, as we shall see, to articulate within the relational, second-person language.

The idea is that, rather than calling one way of understanding God more or less mature than another, or pitting these three ways against each other, each perspective offers us important insight into our relationship with God. And so, while we might be more naturally attracted to one perspective or another, we would do well to engage with each one as much as possible.

As this series wraps up, I want to spend some quality time in each of the three perspectives, looking at the theory, but mostly at examples of how each has played out in the history of the Christian tradition, and indeed in the life of Jesus.

For today, though, I’m going to leave you with some reflection questions about these three perspectives:

  • Which perspective comes easily to you?
  • Is there one you feel resistant to? Why might that be?
  • What might each of them have to teach you about God?
  • What might each of them have to teach you about yourself?

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