A Review of Integral Christianity by Paul Smith

I’d like to be able to thank Rev. Smith for taking a stab at describing “Integral Christianity.” We do after all need to reach for meaning beyond the orthodox – liberal – neo-Orthodox debate which has mired the church in endless, pointless controversy, controversy which has eviscerated our congregations at the very time our society most needs communities that foster growth and transformation.

The trouble is, he falls so far short of an “integral” expression of Christianity that he obscures the generosity of our faith. Maybe I wouldn’t be so pointed if he hadn’t put “Integral Christianity” in the title. But he did, and now some poor, unsuspecting souls will think that his book offers an integral expression of Christianity when, except perhaps in some small way, it does not.

What’s an integral level of development and who cares? Let me do this quickly. First, you have tribal cultures with a magic worldview, who begat nation-states and they have a mythic-traditional worldview, they begat a culture with a modernist worldview, who in turn begatted a post-modern worldview. Each of them have one thing in common – they all think they are right and the others are wrong. Integral thinks everyone, including themselves, is partly right. They see genuine value in each level of development. Wow is that oversimplified.

Paul has wandered into “integral’s” shadow. All of us wander in there from time to time so I don’t mean for this to sound like a character assassination. We read, or maybe imbibe is a better word, Ken Wilber’s work on integral theory and then we confuse our cognitive apprehension of the theory itself with our own supposed rise to an integral level of development.

I figure it is safer to assume that I’m two levels down from where I think I am. And even if I do think there are certain areas of my life and understanding, certain lines of development, where I have “risen to integral,” I’ve got to assume the other areas, the other lines of development are dragging me down.

Put another way, the shadow of integral is arrogance, (though I mean that in the best possible way). And it shows up big time in Rev. Smith’s approach to the Scriptures, (other places too, but I thought I’d focus on this one first). The Bible is an ancient document written by authors flying at several, “lower” levels of development. I mean let’s face it, the book is a little strange – it has magic blood rituals, sexual violence, strange customs and laws, the modern mind has legitimate reason to question its relevance, and so we Christians got some splain’n to do if we want to use the Bible in any productive way.

So here’s how Paul begins his effort to explain how the Bible can be read within an integral frame. “In an integral understanding, the Bible is a fascinating account of the evolutionary progress of the spiritual path.” Really? It is an historical artifact? That’s integral? He notes that some very modern people, (not him, he’s integral don’t you know), “toss the Bible out as uninteresting and irrelevant.” An historical artifact is my idea of irrelevant.

Now at about this moment some of you may be thinking, “Oh, here it comes, a traditionalist defense from someone who can’t bear to jettison his mythic framework. Poor, pathetic soul; let’s hope one day he wakes up.” Hang in with me for a bit; I might surprise you.

Where to begin? Paul’s basic problem is splain’n away the violence of the Old Testament. It bugs him. (page 81). Understand, I have some sympathy for that.

He begins to spin his tale by telling us that the early contributors to the text of the Bible were operating out of a warrior level of consciousness. Well, OK, I can agree with that. The next level of consciousness emerges when Moses comes on the scene with his hierarchical model of leadership and his God given laws – never mind that there is some serious question among scholars about whether Moses ever existed. But OK, I think it is fair to say that a traditional worldview emerged as part and parcel of the formation of the Bible. In fact most scholars would agree that the thing was first put together around the time Israel formed as a nation-state – surely a traditional move.

The trouble Rev. Smith explains, is that elements of the warrior God, with his warring ways and magic powers, remained in the text.

Then the nation-state of Israel met hard times. Invaded from the East, pressured from the South, a government rife with corruption, the Hebrew prophets “heard the call of the Spirit for the people to evolve toward a higher spiritual path. They cried out against oppression and urged compassion.” Nice, but still they were left with their mythic framework; they were still burdened with the vestiges of their warrior God. And so the situation remained until, Smith would have us understand, our hero – Integral Jesus – comes on the scene.

Integral Jesus, far superior to anyone else, tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, thus dealing the death blow to our old nemesis, the warrior God.

Of course he still has some splain’n to do because some of the New Testament seems still to carry the vestiges of a Warrior God. Well, that’s only a problem for traditional interpreters who, not having the benefit of an integral understanding of the situation, give equal weight to all the passages of the New Testament. “A statement by Jesus in the gospels is given the same weight as a statement by Paul in one of his letters.”

OK, now I’m exasperated. Has he read any of the literature on the several quests for the “historical Jesus?” Yes, he has. He talks about it at the beginning of the book. Good heavens man, we don’t have any idea what Jesus said or didn’t say. (Unless you want to transcend, but reject modern scholarship’s insight into the text.) The “words of Jesus” are placed in the Gospels by people who were interpreting the meaning of his life, death and resurrection, (whatever that was or wasn’t – but that’s another essay). That is what the Apostle Paul was doing. Why shouldn’t they get equal weight?

But Paul, (the author, not the Apostle), does know that such editing of the voice of Jesus takes place. For you see, there are moments in the New Testament when Jesus sounds like a warrior God. This is a real problem if your hero is Integral Jesus. What is to be done? Answer: such passages are obviously “warrior level revisions of Jesus and his teaching,” (p. 92).

So here is how Paul Smith describes a modernist view of the Bible: “The Bible is often viewed suspiciously as a relic from the past. It may be basically discarded or radically reinterpreted. Thomas Jefferson simply cut out the ‘irrational’ parts of the Bible to produce a truly ‘holey’ Bible.” Smith has given us a modernist view of Scripture, NOT an integral view.

But that’s not my real problem. My real problem is that, intended or not, the book becomes an apologetic for the superiority of the Christian scriptures. We after all, have Integral Jesus, and the rest of you are out of luck. And he bases this apologetic on his own editing, divined from his lofty integral perch. Second, it makes Paul Smith the final arbiter of truth. Integral shadow: arrogance.

About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

  • Richard Powell

    Wow, the tone of this review really rankled me. Paul Smith comes across as warm, thoughtful, and not at all arrogant in the interviews I have heard with him. He has a good grasp of integral theory, and presents information and ideas at a lay-person’s level, while still being able to converse with academics and intellectuals. No small achievement. He makes very clear that he is not saying the Integral Jesus is be all and end all of enlightenment, but only the “path” he personally has spent time following, hence the one he is most familiar with. I am only at Chapter 2 in his book, but so far am finding it interesting and helpful. It may have flaws, and Paul may not have everything right, but what alternative work do you recommend instead?


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