Integral Basics, Part 1: The Search for What Comes Next

Life is not for the faint of heart. This is true for every single human who has ever lived. But it’s perhaps most true for those of us who engage with the spiritual life. As cliché as the metaphor of the “spiritual journey” may be, it remains true: Life is a long and winding road, through valleys and mountains, lush forests, and barren deserts, in good weather and bad. We have no idea what is around the bend, and if we dare to look behind us, we’ll see just how treacherous our path has been.

My own journey has had many of these twists and turns. I was raised in a second-generation clergy family in an old line Protestant denomination, found faith in charismatic evangelicalism, flirted with fundamentalism before finding more helpful and creative ground in the emerging church movement of the early 2000s, had a mad — beautiful and life-changing but ultimately unsustainable — love affair with Eastern Orthodoxy, and crash landed into spiritual desolation and nothingness. In time, I recovered my mind in Buddhism, recovered my sense of self in RuPaul’s drag wisdom, and recovered God in the Jewish story, before realizing just how much I had been shaped and was still shaped by the life and teachings of Jesus. And so I found myself back in the old line church in which I was raised. Over the past two decades, I have experienced times of incredible intimacy with God, spiritual highs and times of healing; but I have also experienced emptiness, desolation, and alienation from God so complete it felt more like the vacuum of space than the dryness of the desert.

As I emerged from all this drama, older, hopefully wiser, but also battle-scarred and more than a little cynical, I found myself needing a different kind of faith. I needed a faith that was big enough to hold all of those experiences — the beauty and the ugliness, the rain forest and the desert, the abyss and the vacuum, the everything and the nothing. I needed a faith that was big enough to hold all of me, all of the longing and searching and loving and joy and pain of my Christian, gay, approaching-middle-aged heart, and all of the imagination, questioning, and wonder of my twenty-first century, Western, mind.

I am by no means alone in this kind of harrowing experience. And Christianity itself has also had a rough-and-tumble history. It has been the religion of both outlaws and lawmakers, of monks and emperors, of conquered and conqueror. It has been persecuted and has persecuted others. It has inspired incredible acts of charity and sacrifice, and it has inspired horrific acts of torture and violence. Even just looking at the past five hundred years, Christianity has had to weather the storms of modernity — the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrialization, and Imperialism — and postmodernism alike. In all this, Christianity has been far from a passive player. It helped to shape Renaissance and Enlightenment thought, even as it resisted them, and its theology was used to promote and justify modern enterprises of Industrialization and European Colonialism, both of which enriched the West at the expense of the planet and its peoples. And so, to my personal motivations for needing to find a bigger faith were added these social, economic, and political motivations. Can we learn from the past to ensure Christianity can speak to the present and future without being swallowed up by them? Can Christianity rise to the truly global challenges of the twenty-first century? Can it address climate change? Can it seek to repair some of the damage of colonialism and Empire?

In many ways the Church is still just beginning to wrestle with the impact of all this history. This constantly shifting ground has left Christianity largely chasing its tail: Some Christians in every age have been so eager to change in order to fit the cultural and intellectual fads of the moment that they’ve lost their identity; others have just dug in their heels and refused to change at all, leaving Christianity ‘quaint,’ marginal, and unable to speak coherently to the moment. The problem in figuring out how to move forward from this unsatisfactory situation is that, in their own ways, both approaches are right, and both approaches are profoundly problematic.  What is the answer? Is there a way for a decidedly premodern tradition to remain true to itself while adapting to the often uncomfortable truths of modernity (e.g., the natural sciences) and postmodernism (e.g., critical theory)?

And so, what I needed was to find a way forward that was big enough to encompass all of my own experiences, but also the highs and lows, successes and failures, and future potential of the Christian tradition. While some of the pieces began to come together early on, it wasn’t until I encountered the Integral framework, popularized by Ken Wilber, but since expanded on by such people as Terry Patten, Diane Musho Hamilton, and Steve McIntosh, that I saw a path to a faith that could bring together — integrate — the riches of my tradition and the reality that so much of its potential has yet to be borne out in history, and the experiences of my past and my best hopes for the future. In the six years since I first encountered Integral thought, I have only come to a greater appreciation of it insights and possibilities as I’ve thought through its implications for and intersections with the Christian tradition. In this project, I hope to share some of these insights, as I see them, with you. The point is not to ‘change’ the tradition or the content of Christian faith, but to shift our posture and perspective to allow that faith to speak to us anew — to be Good News for us (for all of us) today.

I suspect this will be a lengthy project. The first stage, which I’ll be undertaking over the next few weeks, will be to introduce the major elements of Wilber’s Integral framework (quadrants, lines of development, stages and states of consciousness, and types) and meditate on how they align with — and challenge — the Christian tradition. These posts will provide a framework and foundation for future phases, which will explore what Christian faith built upon these presuppositions might look like.

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