A Response to Tony Jones’ Question: What’s Good About Integral Theory?

 

Thanks for asking. A full answer would take a book – one I’ve made several false starts at writing. So let me point to three ideas that came to mind as I read your post.
First is Ken Wilber worship, and its flip side, Ken Wilber hatred. I figure anyone who generates that kind of response deserves a second look. So to those who would right him off having heard one or two things taken out of context, I would suggest that he’s made a constructive challenge to the status quo and in so doing has become a bit of a lightening rod – admittedly a position he might have enjoyed a bit too much in his younger years. He is way, way too smart and well read to be written off, period.
Let’s take the quote from Homebrewed Christianity. It indicates that integral theory claims the  evolution of consciousness is “largely dependent” on the evolution of culture. I’m sure Ken would say, “true but partial.” Integral theory claims that everything evolves, and that all facets of creation co-evolve. That is to say, it is true that cultural evolution has an impact on the development of individual consciousness, but the reverse is equally true. Further, our biological circumstances have an influence along with our economic and technological development just to name a few. The internal and the external of the individual and the collective in their many varied forms, evolve together.
Yes, I know mapping human development has the unfortunate side effect of creating hierarchy. That was my sticking point for a time, but I can’t help it, that’s the way things work, or if you prefer, that’s how God does it. Two year olds become twenty year olds, agrarian economics leads to agricultural economics, leads to industrial economics. The trouble comes when Ego kicks in and we want to identify ourselves as higher, or better, or more valuable. This is I think, at the heart of reactions against integral theory. But in truth integral theory when taken seriously leads us away from such self-inflating projects and towards a humble respect for the creative power driving all of creation forward.
This leads me to what I like about integral theory. It provides me with a framework that I can use to hold constructive theological conversations. Over the years I’ve found that Evangelical Christians, holding a traditional/mythic understanding of God, take law and growth towards a set of standards, very seriously. Their willingness to sacrifice for the other is a value now sorely lacking in our industrialized economy. But I’ve also been disturbed to note that they, (and once upon a time me), think they are right and everyone else is wrong.
The modernist has helped us to have a more realistic view of how the universe works, and with that the opportunity to develop ourselves technologically, economically, physically and so forth. The trouble is that the modernist thinks he is right and everyone else is wrong.
Ahh, then the post-modernist comes to our aid and says, “Right, wrong? These words have no meaning outside a given context.” And with that realization we have the potential to listen to one another to greater effect and achieve greater union. The trouble is that the post-modernist thinks he is right about that and everyone else is wrong. Worse, he has left us in such confusion that when one asks, “Which truth among the competing perspectives shall win?” the answer comes, “The one with the biggest gun.” A healthy traditional/mythic point of view is looking pretty good right now, isn’t it?
To all of this Ken Wilber says, “Nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time. Everyone is partly right.” It’s in recognizing our various strengths and weaknesses that we can challenge one another to develop and grow.
This is particularly important to me as a preacher who’s trying to find a way to preach Gospel in a culture that has lost faith in an external God that acts upon humanity in His own time and in His own inscrutable ways. For me it is no longer a question of whether my theology is right or wrong. I want to know, if I’m being faithful to the message of Scripture while providing a theological framework that supports spiritual growth and development in this society, right here where I am. The language used to construct that theological framework will be different depending on worldview – that is, depending on our economic circumstances, technological circumstances, biological limitations, internal development and cultural development as well. It has always been thus; otherwise we could have just stopped with the words of Moses. There would have been no need for the Apostle Paul to reinterpret them in light of a Greco-Roman worldview.
Integral theory is essentially a map of human evolution that seeks to point the way forward. It’s not there to tell us who is the most evolved, it is there to point the way towards greater growth. I don’t bow down to him, but I’m grateful to Ken Wilber for that. I’m grateful to those who are now critiquing and building on his work, (Marc Gafni for instance), because much of our society has entered a vast spiritual wasteland. Our spiritual line of development has atrophied as our technological development gives us the power to alter the ecological balance of the earth and annihilate humanity. That imbalance is not sustainable.
With integral theory as a map, I can engage the Scriptures in such a way that they can speak in my context. What does that mean? I guess that’s for another post. Perhaps now you have inspired me to write.

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.


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