Integral Christianity: Insights from Ken Wilber’s “Theory of Everything”
By Richard J. Vincent
Colorado Springs: Bimillennial Press, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
Richard J. Vincent is a Wisconsin-based pastor who blogs at www.theocentric.com. His ebook, Integral Christianity draws from Ken Wilber’s integral theory to explore how that theory can be applied within a Christian framework. When an editor from theooze.com asked me to review this book, I jumped at the chance; after all, I’ve been teaching an introductory class on Ken Wilber for a couple of years now and consider his thought essential for understanding how to situate Christian mysticism in the postmodern context. I’m sorry to say that Vincent’s brief treatment is pretty much just a failed experiment.
The bulk of this 80-page ebook is given over to a rather uninspiring précis of Wilber’s compendium A Brief History of Everything, with only the briefest hints of reflection on how Wilber’s thought ought to be woven into the life of the church. In fairness to Vincent, Wilber’s theory is so inclusive and all-encompassing that any attempt to reduce it to what is really just a long article is almost predestined to fail. Furthermore, considering that A Brief History of Everything is itself a summation of Wilber’s 800-page magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, what you get in Integral Christianity is basically a summary of a summary. As such, it feels rushed and lacks any sense of persuasion or perspective. Vincent fails to communicate the lyrical beauty of Wilber’s thought; thus a reader who is unfamiliar with Wilber will come away with nothing more than the most superficial understanding of integral theory and is not likely to find a single compelling reason to go back to the source and read Wilber in his own words. Meanwhile, readers who are intimate with Wilber’s ideas are not likely to slog through this rather tortured overview, particularly when so little is said about how the integral worldview fits in with Christianity.
What frustrates me the most about this book is that it completely ignores the way in which Wilber himself sees integral theory at work within a Christian context: the great tradition of contemplative spirituality, including its contemporary expression, centering prayer. Wilber himself repeatedly encourages Christians who are interested in developing an integral model for our faith to study the work of Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the centering prayer movement and currently its most prominent spokesperson. When reading Keating, one is handed a golden thread which can be traced back from Keating, to Thomas Merton, to the entire sweep of the Trappist and Cistercian and Benedictine traditions, leading ultimately to the primal mystical wisdom of John Cassian, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, all the way back to the apostles and Christ himself. It is a grand and glorious tradition, it is alive and healthy today, and it is both fully Christian and fully compatible with Wilber’s vision. Indeed, the single most important non-Christian influence on this contemplative/mystical tradition is the ancient Greek non-dualist philosopher Plotinus, whom Wilber clearly admires and quotes often in his works. That contemplative Christianity has “integrated” Plotinus and his Neoplatonic followers into Christian spirituality is itself a beautiful precursor to Wilber’s integral thought, but this essential fact is utterly missing from Vincent’s work.
Not only is Plotinus and Neoplatonism missing in action from Integral Christianity, but Vincent doesn’t even bother to mention centering prayer. What is this all about? The final chapter of the book, “Dogma for the Open-Minded,” unpacks the ideas of Lesslie Newbigin to, in Vincent’s words, “prove that reason and revelation are not hostile enemies.” This chapter, focussing on Newbigin rather than Wilber, seems so out of place that it appears as if the author, having exhausted what little he had to say about Wilber, desperately turned to more familiar territority in a final, unsuccessful, bid to salvage the book. Maybe I missed something, but I fail to see how Newbigin’s admirable theory necessarily belongs in an introductory book on Ken Wilber. From a Christian perspective, it’s worth nothing that Thomas Aquinas had knocked out this particular problem (reason vs. revelation) back in the thirteenth century. It seems to me that Vincent attempts to use Wilber’s four quadrant model to deconstruct the barriers between science and theology, which of course is something Wilber himself takes on in books like The Marriage of Sense and Soul or his recent Integral Spirituality. Indeed, Christianity has never had a problem with reason; I would suggest that what is holding the church back in our day is not the need to integrate reason with revelation but rather a pressing need to understand how revelation ultimately transcends mere reason, but without confusing trans-rational revelation with pre-rational superstition (which, as Wilber points out, is a common problem within postmodernity).
In other words, integral Christianity is not so much about making Christianity more reasonable, but making it more trans-rational. Which brings us squarely back to the contemplative tradition, which is the gaping hole missing in Vincent’s book. As a Christian contemplative, the fact that atheists like Richard Dawkins are squawking about how religion is irrational doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that the church is filled with folks like Mother Angelica or Ray Yungen who attack contemplative spirituality because of their erroneous claim that it is a form of “eastern” mysticism. They are the real enemies of integral Christianity. But this subtlety appears to have escaped Vincent’s notice as well.
Integral Christianity might be worth the money you pay for a download if it provided a coherent argument for why Christians ought to take Ken Wilber seriously (or why Wilberites should be more engaged with the Christian community). Sadly, it doesn’t even address the question. For now, those of us who are interested in finding the juncture where Ken Wilber’s philosophy can fruitfully encounter the Gospel will have to console ourselves by reading more Wilber (and Keating). The most I can say about Integral Christianity is that it dares to address an important topic. I just wish the author had done his homework so that he might have given it a more deserving treatment.