Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

Ken Wilber describes a significant malaise of our time as “boomeritis.” What he means by this is the tendency among highly educated and self-actualized persons (as typified by the baby boomer generation) to embrace values that include pluralism, egalitarianism, subjective/personal understandings of truth, and a general “live and let live” ethos, but that often appears marred by egocentrism, narcissism, and self-absorption. In other words, a laudable value system that promotes freedom of conscience can also devolve into a fragmented world where everyone does his or her own thing and, as a result, community flounders. I’m reminded of a friend of mine — a highly educated, successful businesswoman, who is devoted to her own spiritual practice — who always speaks of truth in possessive terms: she has “her truth,” I have “my truth,” and so on. In her cosmology, everyone is entitled to his or her “own” truth. What is not possible is any kind of grand narrative or truth claims that take us outside of ourselves and force us to play on a level field with everyone else.

I was reading one of Wilber’s books this morning in which he describes this problem, and thought about one of the reasons I was drawn back to Christianity from Paganism (a pluralistic, egalitarian spirituality if there ever were one). It had to do with the culture of self-sacrifice, humility, and asceticism that is at the heart of Christian spiritual practice. These values are often rejected by non-Christians as dysfunctional and/or patriarchal. But I think the Christian emphasis on self-denial can also function as a corrective to the pervasive narcissism of our time.

The danger in Christianity comes when believers settle for narrow or limited models of Christian experience. For example, one widespread model of Christianity in our culture emphasizes pre-scientific ways of understanding the cosmos or pre-modern ways of relating to authority (in other words, fundamentalism: think Jerry Falwell). Another model emphasizes scholarly approaches to the Bible and often has a strong bias toward social action — but against the culture of self-sacrifice that has historically exemplified Christian spirituality (the liberalism of Rudolf Bultmann or Bishop Spong epitomize this variety of the faith). Alas, relatively few people in the pews really seem to be engaging with a full and rich experience of Christianity: combining a deep devotion to the traditional spirituality of the religion with the challenges of bringing Christianity into dialogue with the knowledge of science or the wisdom of other faiths. Those who do embody, as far as I have seen, some of the most beautiful expressions of the faith. In other words, Christians who seek to be wise as serpents (by embracing science and multi-culturalism in addition to their own faith identity), but also innocent as doves (by taking seriously Christianity’s call to self-denial, thus dodging our cultural tendency to narcissism and individualistic self-absorption) often seem to be the most truly Christ-like in their values and relationships.

Fundamentalist Christianity is anchored in obeisance to unquestioned authority and a tribal way of thinking about the world at large. Liberal Christianity rejects the above and instead tries to “de-mythologize” scripture and express the faith in a rational, and even anti-metaphysical way, emphasizing social justice over spiritual transformation. Then there is postmodern or emergence Christianity, which acknowledges that the Christian narrative is only one among many narratives, and often celebrates Christianity as a subversive, counter-cultural project. The problem with each of these expressions of the faith is that they are often hostile to the others. Perhaps when Christ issued the call to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16), he prophetically envisioned a time when some Christians would be authoritarian/tribal, others rationalist/materialist, and still others multi-cultural/pluralist. We are wise when we engage with all three of these expressions of the faith; and we are innocent when we refuse to allow any one of them to ignite our own narcissistic tendencies, by which we would trade devotion to the wild, untameable God for a smaller faith that is geared toward personal comfort and self-satisfaction.

What does it mean to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? It means to pray our way into a truly Integral Christianity. I don’t think it’s been born yet. We’re still in the labor pains.

Concerning Sheep, Goats, and the Unconditional Love of God
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Our Words, Our Breath, Our Bodies, Our Spirit


  1. I agree. I believe that this is the only way that Christianity will continue to be relevant and meaningful. We have to open our eyes and hear both what science and other religions have to say but also avoid the pitfall of becoming a wishy washy no-substance religion.

  2. thegreeningspirit says:

    Wonderful post. Thoughtful. Intelligent. I have just returned this morning from a beautiful Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist Community, at which, as a guest, I am co-leading a once- a- month series with Rev. Betty K called “A Spiritual Deepening:Living a Soul-filled Life”. Certainly a liberal community…but even there, some are asking the same questions you put out there in this post…finding a balance of wisdom, tradition, humility, inclusive-ness, service and also a good theological basis…the questions, thank goodness, and these ponderings are deep and being asked and dialogued…thank you for this post, Carl…once again

  3. The very religion is based on the sacrifice of “someone else” for “your sins”. How does it get any more selfish than that?

  4. That theology, technically called “substitutionary atonement,” is hardly universally accepted among Christians. In fact, the different “flavors” of Christianity that I described (fundamentalist, liberal, postmodern, integral) each has its own theology of the meaning and purpose of Christ’s passion. Substitutionary atonement is pretty much a fundamentalist theology; the other dimensions of Christianity understand the cross in different ways.

  5. Infinite Warrior says:

    My own understanding conflicted early on with the religion’s central tenets, which would have to change drastically for me to have a voice in the struggle you describe at all. I was raised in it, however, and so I continue to speak.

    There is Christianity and then there is Christ-consciousness which is a very different thing from Christianity. Christ-consciousness is the same as Buddha-consciousness and every other flavor of (W)Holistic or Integral Consciousness. My understanding is that the goal of adherents to each of the religious traditions is to grow into the same level of Consciousness as each respective traditions’ supposed founders and that requires self-sacrifice (dissolution of ego). When the ego is out of the way, the mind is unlikely to want to become stuck in any one of the various “molds” or “mind wells” the religions represent, though flowing in and out of them is possible. (I gather from your musings here at Anamchara that is more or less where you are, sir.)

    That various facets of Consciousness are clashing — not only within themselves, but with each other — is unfortunate, but not unexpected according to the predictions of the central figures around which each of them orbit. They knew how easily fluidity of Consciousness is abandoned for earthly “laws” which leads to calcification of belief and stagnation of spiritual growth. The collective minds of each of the religions (and this includes so-called “secular” or political religions) are eternally preoccupied with the conflation, equation and fusion of Spirit with “the world” and all its attendant idolatries, which — as easily as nation states, money, blocks of stone and a plethora of other “things” — can be rigid ideologies.

    Jesus’s instruction to his disciples was to be “in the world, but not of it” (and to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves in the process), but Christianity was from its official founding, is now and appears content to remain of the world, but not in it. As belief “structures” of any kind are wont to be, theology is rigid, cold and unyielding, imo. (Theosophy not as much, but I digress.)

    Christianity has its own ego, you see, and has not yet learned that the same sacrifice of Self is required of it as of the individual Christian. The religion’s illusory Ego-boundaries, which I’ve termed the Exclusivity Quotient, is frankly in the way of its own transcendence.

    I sincerely doubt Christianity will sacrifice its Ego until it internalizes the spiritual struggle and stops projecting it onto Others. For there to be justice one must first transform one’s self into Justice; for there to be peace, one must first transform one’s self into Peace; for there to be love, one must first transform one’s self into Love; etc. Jesus demanded it of his disciples and, I believe, set out to transform Judaism in the same way. One can be certain, then, he would demand it of Christianity.

    I enjoyed the quote by Peter Rollins shared on your Facebook page. “It is not a question of whether Christianity can exist without religion, but whether Christianity, at its core, is a protest against religion.” Oh, yes. The Spirit will always rebel. It wants to be free of The Matrix.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful entry. I’ve only just come across your blog, but I intend to dig deeper.

    I am not a Christian, but I live in an area of our country steeped in Christian “fundamentalism” and literalism. Despite my frequent frustration with my neighbors’ spiritual views, I have always been aware of the more “enlightened” views of some Christians. It was a pleasure to find some here.

    Upon further reading, I suspect I will also find (and have found already, to be honest) some things I would like to, intellectually, disagree with, but something in your “voice” makes me refrain.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  7. To Infinite Warrior: I would suggest that it is wise to bear in mind that fighting against religion can be just as much of an ego-project as slavish obedience to it.

    To Joseph: welcome! Certainly, disagreement is kosher here — after all, I reserve the right to change my mind, which is a way of saying that sometimes I disagree with my (earlier) self. All I ask of my readers/dialogue partners is a spirit of respect and of assuming basic good intentions (and I’ll try to provide the same respect in return).

  8. Infinite Warrior says:

    “I would suggest that it is wise to bear in mind that fighting against religion can be just as much of an ego-project as slavish obedience to it.”

    A protest is not necessarily a “fight”. It can be as much a “shining through”. Were Christianity to lose its Ego, the spiritual tradition itself wouldn’t cease to exist. Rather, the beauty of its Heart of Hearts would shine through and into the world without obstruction. There’s a very subtle difference there.

    At the moment, people outside the tradition have to strain to see the beauty still stirring in Christianity’s heart. That they don’t put forth the effort to do so is a tragedy in itself, but that’s another subject entirely.

  9. I live in a traditionally Baptist (leaning toward fundamentalist), isolated, mountain community in the Appalachian mountains. The zeitgeist is here distinctly authoritarian/tribal, to the point of making it almost implossible to get a job if you’re an NFAH – Not From Around Here. But it’s also the the mose graceful, humble and gentle community I’ve ever lived in. Church is THE central core of activities, and there are 100’s to choose from. 100s of Protestant churches, anyway…LOL. We have plently of long term residents from other parts who are rationalist/materialist, and they get along nicely. The universally excluded group are those who lean towards being multi-cultural/pluralist. The tribe is too strong. Still, several churches are seeking out the m-c/p types, and it’s working for them. I see the Carl’s integrated Christian as sort of a secular Amish social worker with a lifelong subscription to Discover Magazine, and I know s/he’d be welome here.

  10. Infinite Warrior says:

    “What is not possible is any kind of grand narrative or truth claims that take us outside of ourselves and force us to play on a level field with everyone else.”

    I thought to mention a couple of articles, but momentarily lost the links. One is Harmony of Religions.

    “Truth is one, but it comes filtered through the limited human mind. That mind lives in a particular culture, has its own experience of the world and lives at a particular point in history. The infinite Reality is thus processed through the limitations of space, time, causation, and is further processed through the confines of human understanding and language. Manifestations of truth—scriptures, sages, and prophets—will necessarily vary from age to age and from culture to culture. Light, when put through a prism, appears in various colors when observed from different angles. But the light always remains the same pure light. The same is true with spiritual truth.”

    The other is from a speech given by Swami Vivekananda at The Parliament of Religions in September of 1893 titled Why We Disagree in which Vivekananda illustrates the cause of variance among us with a charming and quite engaging little narrative.

    They may be of interest in regard to the inherent Oneness of Truth.

  11. You’re preaching to the choir, my friend. The sentence of mine which you quoted does not represent my personal views, but rather the pervasive individualism/relativism that I see in today’s market/consumer spirituality. What I see is a lot of lip service paid to the idea that “truth is one” but in practice a real resistance to any claim that such an objective truth might make on individuals’ lives and freedom.

  12. Infinite Warrior says:

    You’re preaching to the choir, my friend. The sentence of mine which you quoted does not represent my personal views

    Yes, I know. That must be why I so enjoy reading your work. It is quite an enigma “in the world”, though. It never hurts to make a note for posterity. :)

  13. Infinite Warrior says:

    I should add that these are not objective truths. They are subjective, universal truths that we’ve yet to realize we all share in common, the reason being Vivekananda’s wells, methinks.

  14. Okay, you’re making my head spin. How can a truth be “universal” but not “objective,” and how do you understand the distinction between “objective” and “subjective”? Just curious…

  15. Infinite Warrior says:

    how do you understand the distinction between “objective” and “subjective”

    There isn’t one. Aristotle dreamed it up. Push one far enough and it becomes the other. Even what we call “objective” and “subjective” represent a whole. There are no dualities we do not create.

    If the kingdom of heaven is within and among us (and Jesus said it was), then so is everything else. Truth, love, justice, etc. all arise from within. Within all our traditions (religious and “secular”), then, lies a single Truth. Where we’re lacking is in the perception that when we relate these eternal, “subjective/objective” truths to one another, they constitute Universal Truth.

  16. I’m curious if you are familiar with Integral Theory and the four quadrant model of the kosmos. Within it, objectivity and subjectivity are understood as interrelated and interdependent, but hardly indistinguishable.

  17. Infinite Warrior says:

    I am.

  18. steve battista says:

    I don’t understand what exactly is your “Christianity.” I am a “fallen” catholic, sometime militant atheist (who thinks agnosticism is a huge cop out.) I am a seeker but I don’t consider myself to have a “faith.” And find the whole concept of “faith” troubling and at times completely ludicrous and ridiculous. I’ve been checking out the polemics of the “wiseasserpents.com” website and am intrigued by the fact that the maker or makers of this website are obviously rather intelligent and well read in alternative viewpoints of reality and/or faith and are at the sametime seemingly king james bible literalists. what is it called when you can have two opposing beliefs working at the same time? I would love to hear other ideas about these wiseasserpents.com people.

    • You think agnosticism is a cop out? Well, there’s your problem. I was always taught that admitting you aren’t sure about something isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather of humility and wisdom. Meanwhile, I suggest you become familiar with the tradition of apophatic mysticism: read Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing and John of the Cross, for starters. As for the website you’ve mentioned, I haven’t perused it, but based on a quick glance it looks paranoid and oppositional/dualistic in its thinking. In other words, it says nothing new but what it does say is not particularly in the service of love or wisdom. I’d stay away from it.

  19. steve battista says:

    thanks for the response. i think my agnosticism attitude may be due to a personal problem with a person I know who claims to be an agnostic. my concern with that particular website is how seemingly intelligent people can be so convinced to believe in any one philosophical/theological system so strongly. my guess is their intelligence is working against them. in other words some people’s sophistry is so good is they end up believing in a lie.

    another problem with being an “agnostic” is defining yourself as being unable to know. humility can be very egotistical in nature. and as I was saying, it seems people can be “too” wise.

    another thing about the “wiseasserpents.com” people- the guy actually gave me references to sources and re-readings of stuff that pointed me in the opposite end of what his sophistry was intended to achieve. in other words it seems like this guy (the voice in the video is male) ends up unknowingly being the serpent in the “garden of eden ” he was warning me not to trust.

    again, thank you for your quick reply. I haven’t been getting much sleep lately and have been in intellectual/spiritual free fall. I think a reason a lot of very intelligent people end up believing in a literal “risen from the dead” christ or certain types of what I call deist-buddhism or literal grey aliens spiriting them away every night is because they end up the in thefree fall position where you have to take true responsibility for yourself and you need to stop that sensation of losing control, of falling, and thus end up putting on an imaginary parchute given to you by the risen christ or the grey alien.

  20. steve battista says:

    another problem I have with “the believers” is that though they may not believe in the same things,they all seem to have one thing in common- really poor senses of humor. i mean when these guys try to make a joke, i want to cry, run, or insult them for their bad joke.

    there was this priest I was taught by who did comical renditions of the Noah story. I was 6 or 7 at the time. After class I told him that it was nice that he tried to make me laugh but that all I could think about was all the people that lived on the other side of the world who god didn’t speak to or didn’t get to hear noah’s warning or about it and just drowned. he told me that all the other people were evil and left it at that.

  21. steve battista says:

    i think his answer to me made me laugh.

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