Integral Theory as a proper noun is a set of ideas emerging mainly from the thought of American Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber, who has sought to create a kind of theoretical map of the best of all the world’s great traditions — premodern, modern, and postmodern. This is obviously an ambitious goal, and, as with any grand theory, Wilber has had to paint with some pretty broad strokes to make it work. So it’s no wonder his efforts have had limited impact outside his immediate disciples.
And yet, stripped of some if its more tenuous metaphysical and scientific (at times perhaps pseudo-scientific) claims, I believe an integral framework has much to offer and is well-worth exploring. At its core, I see the promise of an integral approach in the following:
It is an evolutionary and developmental approach that understands that not only do species change, but cultures and people do too. It is therefore inherently growth-oriented.
It appreciates the abundant gifts of premodern, modern, and postmodern cultures, while recognizing that each — both in its internal weaknesses and in its inability to communicate with the others — is insufficient. Just as we as individuals need to be able to integrate our past with our present in order to face our futures healthily, so too do we as cultures need a way of integrating the wisdom of past generations into our present realities if we are to move beyond our current cultural impasse. It is therefore inherently integrating.
It demands that we examine every issue, concept, or thing from as many different perspectives as possible. It is therefore inherently holistic.
It recognizes that every step forward involves an acceptance of greater complexity. It is therefore inherently inclusive.
Because of these characteristics, an integral approach to the big questions of life has significant and helpful explanatory power. The elements of the framework I’m less convinced of, I find I can leave behind without any trouble; but the elements I find helpful, I find incredibly rewarding and helpful.
And so when I speak of being integral, these are the characteristics I have in mind. And regardless of the merits of Integral Theory as a whole, I do believe that whatever it is that emerges out of postmodernism must incorporate these characteristics. If nothing else, Ken Wilber has created an interesting sandbox for us to play in as we try to interpret our selves, our cultures, and our faith, and our past, present, and future.
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