Integral Basics, Part 3: Life for the Whole Person

About twenty years ago or so, I was taken by Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences.” This was a theory that posited that we need to expand how we understand intelligence beyond the ‘book smarts’ represented by traditional IQ testing, to include natural aptitudes in other aspects of life: relationships, movement, self-understanding, navigating systems, and even music. It’s an idea that many people find attractive and even intuitive. Why should ‘smart’ be confined to one small aspect of life when there are so many other things we need to succeed in the world? Unfortunately for Gardner, his theory has proven to be difficult to test and so has remained as little more than an interesting idea as far as science is concerned.

But his intuition remains compelling. And the idea that human development, growth, and aptitude are not just one thing, but have many components makes up the second component of the Integral framework, in the form of what are known as “lines of development.” While there is no authoritative list of all of the lines, some common lines Integral thinkers have borrowed from developmental psychology include: cognitive (how we think), moral, affective (how we feel), interpersonal, need, identity, aesthetic, spiritual, and psychosexual (what we desire). Human development is therefore multifaceted, and since we all have different natural aptitudes, opportunities, and experiences, and therefore grow at different speeds along different lines throughout our lives, there is no set pattern for what human development ‘should’ look like.

A major consequence of this is that an Integral framework rejects oversimplified ideas about intelligence, maturity, or growth. To be a fully successful and mature human being means growing up across all different aspects of personality, thought, and behaviour. This is in line with how we actually experience and talk about human growth. To use myself as an example, I was always precociously ‘smart’ and met cognitive developmental milestones (perspective taking, abstract reasoning, etc.) early and easily. I have also always found it easy to identify and name my emotions and understand what I was feeling. But, in other ways I was very slow to mature. For example, I was not ready to leave home at eighteen, and was lucky that we lived near a University so I had more time to ‘grow up’. I am also prone to be clumsy and was historically pretty disconnected from my body and how it moved in space. Eventually, those weaker areas surrounding personal agency, independence, and bodily awareness were able to catch up to the stronger lines, but it took time and effort to make that happen.

It’s important to note that the lines of development we’re talking about are not random, but are rooted in our basic needs as a species: They represent different aspects of what make us human, how our species evolved to meet the challenges life throws at us. For example, the cognitive line helps us manage ever more complicated data about the world; the moral line helps us manage ethical challenges that arise in relationships; the spiritual line helps us answer questions of what is of ultimate value for us; and the kinesthetic (body) line helps us to move about in and manipulate our environment.

For me, Integral theory’s use of developmental lines expresses the truth that when we are talking about growth or maturity, we need to address the whole person. We can’t focus on the mind so much we lose the heart; nor can we focus on the body so much we lose the mind. No matter which areas may lead our growth and which ones lag behind, in order to grow into the fullness of our human potential, we can leave no pieces of ourselves behind. We see a similar idea in such Biblical commandments as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12.30); the important thing is not the four specific elements Jesus lists here, but that our faith is to involve our entire being. We can also see this in the way Jesus’ healing ministry engaged people’s social and spiritual needs as well as their physical ailments. Our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies all matter to God, and I am convinced the life of faith should engage growth, health, and integration in all of them.

Taken together with the multi-perspectival approach discussed in the previous post, the lines of development give Integral thought a broad and comprehensive, holistic, approach to life, and in the case of this project, faith. Any approach to faith would do well to adopt Integral thought’s mantra, “All Quadrants, All Lines,” which, removed from the technical jargon, we might interpret as “all perspectives and all relationships in all aspects of life.” In terms of scope, this gives our faith an orientation something akin to the Biblical ideal of shalom, a wholeness of being in the world, a harmony of the whole self with itself, with God, with those around us, and with the whole world.

The next post will explore the third component of the Integral framework, which attempts to express what “growth” in all these areas is and looks like.

Questions for Reflection

  1. When you were growing up, in what areas of life did you mature quickly? In what areas did you lag behind your peers?
  2. What are some of the areas of life you feel like could still use further growth?
  3. How do you see these questions intersecting with your faith and spirituality?


Please see the Annotated Bibliography on Integral Thought for sources, works cited, and further reading.

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