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.