Why Does Integral Philosophy Sound Like New Age?

I can’t make heads nor tails of this.

A lot of my friends like integral philosophy. I remember years ago when evangelicals readers were scandalized because Rob Bell had a couple endnotes citing Ken Wilber in one of his books. I’ve been encouraged to read Wilber by others, like Brian McLaren and Shane Hipps. I’m not saying Brian and Shane are fanboys, I’m just saying they’ve told me I might like it.

Some, however, are fanboys. Every once in a while, I’ll run into someone for whom integral philosophy in general, and Wilber specifically, is the key that unlocks the door. It’s the answer to all of life’s questions. Honestly, it reminds me of the Preterists I know, who basically claim, “If you could only see what I see, everything would make sense!”

Others, however, scoff at integral philosophy and think that Wilber is a hack. Just a brief look at the section on his reception by other philosophers at Wikipedia shows that he’s taken some hits in that community. Same goes for the broader field of integral theory.

I’ve largely ignored/avoided integral theory as a result of its lack of acceptance in academic circles. Not so with Tripp and Bo at Homebrewed Christianity. They recently posted a guest post on the topic, meant to make sense of it. Here’s a money paragraph:

According to integral philosophy, however, the evolution of consciousness is largely dependent on the evolution of human culture. When humans evolve their culture through new agreements or new forms of organization, this results in a corresponding growth in human consciousness. Through the “network effect” of cultural transmission, when one person has a conceptual breakthrough or new realization, this advance can be shared with others. And as new discoveries or new skills are adopted within a larger cultural context, such advances become refined and reinforced. Consciousness and culture—the individual and the group—thus co-evolve together.

I still don’t really get it, but I can see why it is appealing to Rob Bell and others. I’m probably too traditionally trained in philosophy to appreciate it, if it really does have something to offer.

But I bet that some of you disagree with me. So I put it to you: Do you know Integral Theory? If so, what’s to like?

  • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob Rob Davis

    Something that bothered me back when I read McLaren’s New Kind Of Christianity was his language of “evolving.” I’ve seen a lot of similar language recently, much of it rooted in integral ideas and spiral dynamics. A sort of spiritual hierarchy – where some people are “immature” and others are “mature.” Rather than accepting people wherever they are, it tends to prop up one way of being or thinking as “better than” others. I don’t know why, but I’m really bothered by this language.

    • http://http://winter60.blogspot.com/ Lausten North

      Because it is just another way for the people explaining the system to say they are smarter than you. It’s Gnoticism 4.0.

  • Phil Miller

    I picked up Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything a few years ago when there was all the hoopla surrounding Bell’s citation of it in Velvet Elvis, and, honestly, I could not read the book without being put to sleep. And this is coming from someone who reads pretty boring theology books regularly in his spare time. I’m an engineer by training, so I think when things are so entirely “right brain” I tend to lose interest. It just seemed like so much mumbo-jumbo to me. I gave up. It was kind of the same experience I had when I tried to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Sometimes books nearing a thousand pages just come off as verbal masturbation.

  • Brian

    I sense that preconceived and incorrect definitions of evolution are unwittingly being used as filters for McLaren and Wilber. From a biological standpoint, evolution speaks of increased complexity, having nothing to do with moralistic conceptions of immature or mature. Everything in a state of evolution is where it should be for this particular moment and conditions. I am more complex than jellyfish, but cannot survive in the jellyfishes environment and vice versa. A second way of approaching evolution is a spiral concept found in classical Okinawan karate. All start at a basic, beginner level and gradually spiral upward, learning (evolving) new techniques, built on the previous skills. However, since the growth is viewed as a spiral, the practitioner always returns to earlier techniques and concepts, albeit with more understanding and complexity. Neither person is considered “better.”

    • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob Rob Davis

      This makes a lot of sense to me.

  • http://gravatar.com/jessejamesturri Jesse Turri

    “I’m probably too traditionally trained in philosophy to appreciate it…”

    A #HumbleBrag if I ever heard one. HA!

  • http://gravatar.com/jessejamesturri Jesse Turri

    Well said Brian.

  • Mich

    This sounds like we “evolve” in a vacum. How do we spiral “upward” if we are the victims of abuse, neglect, poverty, etc while we are young and in the key stages of brain development?

  • Jeff Straka

    While one might not find wide acceptance of integral/spiral dynamic philosophy in scientific communities (it is, after all, a philosophy), the underpinnings of it – evolutionary biology and neurology – are very much supported by them. The diagram you posted IS very complex and confusing. I much prefer this adaption: http://mymurphys.com/transcend/images/spiraldynamics.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/toddnh Todd Noren-Hentz

    I think the key is to not hold onto it too rigidly as metaphysical fact. But in a pragmatic way, I think it can be really helpful in understanding your own development and a general “ballpark” of the sorts of frames of reference others are operating with.

    I heard a presenter the other day suggest that the notion of “transcend and include” is important to understand in the “hierarchy” of integral/spiral dynamics. As individuals and cultures grow in their development, they are not in a new, better category, but still operate with the tools of the previous phases of their lives – only now they have new tools and lenses through which to view the world.

    I’d recommend the book, Systems Sensitive Leadership by Michael C. Armour and Don Browning for a good intro on how you can use the insights shared by integral philosophy/spiral dynamics/work of Clare Graves in church work. Here’s a link to the book: http://www.lifethemespress.com/books/ssl/ssl.htm

    I’ve not investigated it much, but there is apparently a large body of research behind the work of Clare W. Graves that is respected in scientific communities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dkmiller62 David Miller

    Tony, I’m with you. When the post first appeared at Homebrewed Christianity, I left a comment gently challenging Integral Philosophy as philosophy. I got no pushback.

    I have read some Wilber, and I have found some measure of value in it. He does use some philosophy, but what he produces, in my opinion, is not itself philosophy. I did discover Jean Gebser because of Wilber, and for that I’m glad. Gebser actually was a philosopher, a phenomenologist in particular, and his work on integral phenomenology informs my hermeneutical work on Jean-Luc Marion. Gebser made no metaphysical connection in his notion of an integral reduction in phenomenology. He was talking about how we constitute a lifeworld, nothing else.

    I was so worried about how Wilber et al have used Gebser that I talked to one of my dissertation committee members about it, asking whether his association with New Age stuff via Wilber tainted him in any way. I was assured that Gebser himself was fair philosophical game regardless of how others might use him.

    I don’t think contemporary Integral Theory is philosophy.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awakeningwhatsnext/ Barbara Alexander

    Tony see my blogs on the Spirituality Channel. My focus is Integral Theory. There is a great deal to like!

  • http://gravatar.com/thobie1 toddh

    I came across that same paragraph at Homebrewed and immediately quit reading the post. Call it new age, I don’t know, but something strikes me as BS.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianityforthesbnr/ Sam Alexander

    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.

    • John Monroe

      Thanks for these comments, Sam. I, too, as a pastor of a traditional mainline church find integral theory a very useful tool for addressing our ever changing and divisive context. Spiritual but not religious people in my community resonate with this model in a church where they can re-engage with a tradition which seemed out of touch with their growth. They feel like they can come back to a church without sacrificing their personal evolution which is no longer fed by the church of their youth.
      Integrating these with more traditional members is not easy. Yes, some think that they are being judged as second class or under-evolved. I don’t sell the levels of consciousness too hard.
      For me, the deeper opportunity lies in inviting people into an exploration of the inner quadrants of an integral map. We’ve used a process of transformational inquiry as developed by Harvard developmentalists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, and adapted by Tom Thresher for use in the church. Currently, we are using the Enneagram in the narrative tradition to encourage innner awareness, compassion and contemplative practice. Leslie Hershberger led a workshop with us in March which created deep response in both traditional members and non-traditional people in our community. When people start exploring and sharing on an inner and personal level, powerful change begins to happen.
      Without exposure to Wilber’s writings, I’m not sure I would be as hopeful about ministry as I am. As more people in church settings begin to experiment with this model and interact with each other, I think the possibilities which an integral map offers will become more apparent.

  • Zach Lind

    You have to read Wilber with a grain of salt. It’s a shame folks dismiss him because of sounding “new age-y”. Reading Wilber has been the single breakthrough that has allowed me to remain active in Christian life.

  • chuck

    I think it would easier to take Wilbur seriously if he were capable of saying something that requires only a sentence in less that 50 pages.

  • Zach Lind

    All the Wilber haters should read his book Grace and Grit.

  • Nathanael

    I’ll admit to being a fan. There are parts of integral theory that I’m not sure about, but as a meta-theory, a “theory of everything”, it makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve seen. And it has helped me grow spiritually, by pointing out areas to pay attention to, such as wrestling with the implications of science for Christian faith, integrating my “shadow” (repressed aspects of the psyche), and devoting myself more deeply to contemplative practice (for me, centering prayer).

    Tony, you can’t “get” integral theory from an infograph or secondhand explanations or criticisms. You simply have to read Wilber for yourself to see what it’s all about. And why would you want to do that? Because Wilber is offering an answer to what comes after post-modernism, he is attempting to show us what we are emerging into.

    I highly recommend Wilber’s book Integral Spirituality. Or, for a good introduction to integral theory, see this: http://integrallife.com/integral-post/integral-operating-system.

  • Nathanael

    I’ll admit to being a fan. There are parts of integral theory I’m not sure about, but as a “meta-theory”, a “theory of everything”, it makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve seen. And it has given this “recovering evangelical” a kind of road map for spiritual growth. Because of my engagement with integral theory and its corollary Integral Life Practice, I am now seriously wresting with the implications of science for Christian faith, seeking to integrate the shadow elements of my psyche (the repressed unconscious), and devoting myself more deeply to contemplative practice (for me, centering prayer).

    Tony, you can’t “get” integral theory from an infograph or secondhand explanations or criticisms. You really have to read Wilber for yourself to see what the hubbub is all about. And why would you want to do that? Because he is offering an answer to what comes after post-modernism, he is attempting to show us what we are emerging into. You may disagree, but I think his ideas are at least worth considering.

    I highly recommend Wilber’s book Integral Spirituality. Also, here’s a good introduction to integral theory: http://integrallife.com/integral-post/integral-operating-system

  • Nathanael

    Oops…sorry for the double comment. I got an error message after submitting the first one and thought it hadn’t gone through…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianityforthesbnr/ Sam Alexander

    For those who would like a short course in the basics of Integral Philosophy, my wife Barbara is offering a webinar “An Introduction to Integral Vision” http://barbaraalexander.net/navigating-mid-life-transitions-awakening-your-next/ She is certified by Core Integral, has taught this webinar before, and is a great teacher. (Though I’d be willing to own a certain bias.)

  • Pingback: On the Credibility of Integral Philosophy: a Response to Tony Jones’ Blog

  • http://www.scribd.com/johnboy_philothea johnboy

    I commented at HBrewed. Ken Wilber’s epistemology suffers from an arational gnosticism. Tripp’s guest is more nuanced, but his critique of nominalism and scientism sounds like a defense of a naive rather than critical realism. While modern semiotic science does resurrect formal causations, those are not inconsistent with neodarwinian concepts and aporoaches. Without digging deeper, I cannot say that Tripp’s guest was suggesting a robust “Telos” or minimalist telos, the latter not inconsistent with a nonreductive physicalism. If he is saying that “Purpose” remains plausible vis a vis primal reality, that’s cool. If, however, he imagines he is offering a probabilistic argument for same, that’s not scientifically credible. Integral Theory would more appropriately be called the Integral Heuristic, which introduces some helpful conceptual placeholders and asks some interesting questions. Those who invest in it explanatory adequacy are proving too much. The whole point behind the emergentist stance is explanatory inadequacy. It makes little sense to chase Dawkins, Dennett et al out of the metaphysical temple only to let Ken Wilber et al in to hawk their hyper-speculative wares?

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  • Roger Wolsey

    IMO, integral is essentially an attempt at a grand unified field theory of philosophy and religion. It’s a useful tool. I am concerned about people attempting to make Intregral it’s own religion. Another religion is the last thing the world needs. Also, IMO, what’s being called “Integral Christianity” is essentially the same as progressive Christianity — or at least is similar to certain forms of it. – author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”


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