Growing with Intention: An Integral Perspective on Spiritual Growth

One of the biggest ways my approach to Christianity has changed over the years has been the shift away from theology that focuses primarily on doctrines and ideas towards one that focuses on change and growth in persons and communities. It’s not that I no longer uphold those doctrines — far from it. Rather, it’s that I want badly for them to be true and to make the change in the world that we claim that they do. So whenever I read theology that casts a big, bold vision of humanity — of what it means to be ‘in Christ,’ of what happens to us in the liturgy and sacraments, or in mystical experiences, and so on — I can’t help but ask questions like, “But how?” and “Is that really how it works?” As much as we might wish the Holy Spirit would simply transform us, whether at the moment of baptism or in some other experience, that desire doesn’t mesh with two thousand years of on-the-ground Christian experience. Instead, that history tells us that real spiritual transformation is a slow and painful process, if it happens at all.

This is a sobering truth. But, any discomfort I may feel about this is lessened by the fact that the writers of the New Testament shared my frustrations and concern. In fact, most of the big theological ideas in the Epistles are presented in the context of the Apostles complaining that things aren’t working the way they ‘should.’ My favorite of these complaints comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

We have much to say about all this that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. (Hebrews 5.12-14)

To this we might add the infamous diatribe in Galatians 3 (“You Galatian fools! Who has bewitched you!), or, well, the entire Corinthian correspondence. In light of these apostolic frustrations, I feel better about my longing for Christians (myself first and foremost) to be better at following Jesus, and feel justified in seeking ways to facilitate the changes our faith expects of us.

How Paul came to understand this problem is that we are caught in between two worlds, or two ways of being: Christ has inaugurated the new way of living, which we call the Kingdom of God, but we are are still living within, surrounded by, and pulled into, the old world, which is marked by “sin,” all of the ways we fail to show up for ourselves, for God, for others, and for the rest of Creation. Our job, then, is to live as much as we can into the new ways of God’s Kingdom and to mitigate the influence of the old ways on our lives and communities.

But how?

One of the reasons I have found Integral thought so compelling is that it tackles this question head on. It too proposes that spiritual transformation, or growth, is both possible and desirable. And, in exploring how this growth happens naturally, it has proposed some practical ways we can intentionally work with these processes to facilitate our growth and maturation. In this new series of posts, I’d like to look at a few of these through a Christian lens to see how we might help and not hinder this process in us, that we might live into our calling to “come to … maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13).

Because Integral thought understands growth primarily in terms of expanded awareness, all of these practices are in their own ways types of state training. They include:

  • Mysticism and Meditation
  • Transcendent Beauty and Excellence
  • Positive-Positive Polarities
  • Value Metabolism in Scripture study
  • Shadow Work
  • Dream Work
  • Transforming the World (aka, ‘Bearing Good fruit’)
  • Integrated movement

None of these are ‘promises’, and none, from a Christian perspective, can replace the normal life of prayer, worship, service, and community. Rather, they are ways we can be intentional about those traditional aspects of Christian life so they can do their jobs more fully.

With this in mind, next week I’ll begin by thinking about mysticism and meditation.

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