Six Varieties of Christians and Their Churches: From Tribal to Integral

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Christians and their communities of faith exist in rich diversity today. Why are there so many different kinds of Christians and churches? There are historical aspects, political factors, matter of taste, and personality types. However, from an integral perspective of evolutionary stages we can see a quite remarkable tendency for churches to fall into one of perhaps six different altitudes of understanding. I and others often call these six stages tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral. In the next few posts I want to outline how understanding stages of faith and church can help us understand one another and act in more loving ways toward each other in the midst of all of our differences.

The Tribal Church

The tribal era of human evolution began about 50,000 years ago. Fear-based fantasy was a major part of life in these early tribes as the world was filled with demons, spirits, and ghosts who needed to be bargained with and defended against. Today’s superstitions and magical thinking are remnants of this stage. The very word superstition comes from supersisto, meaning “to stand in terror of the deity.”

Tribal consciousness is also found today in isolated tribes of the world, in every child magical worldview that sees the world through the lens of imagination unrestrained by reason, in vampire and exorcism movies, and astrology column advice. Tribal spirituality is filled with fearful fantasies and focused on the closely knit group with its magical, paranoidbeliefs and a charismatic leader. An estimated 5 percent of the world’s population lives this way.

Biblically, the tribal stages found at the beginning of the Old Testament included the Israelite and Canaanite cultures. In Western industrialized societies today there are only a few kinds of ultraconservative churches whose dominant center is tribal. There are more churches that have some elements of this stage in their mixture.

These tribal stage churches are today commonly referred to as “cults.” Well-known extreme examples in the recent past are the People’s Temple led by Jim Jones with its mass suicide of 913 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, and the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh near Waco. Current examples are polygamist FLDS church led by Warren Jeffs and the few remaining small churches that practice snake handling.

Every stage has limitations to be transcended and strengths to be included in the next stages. The limitations of this level of religion include slavish devotion to a leader, living in the isolation of believing that the only truly spiritual group is your own, mistaking superstition for spirituality, and the worry that an angry God will punish you. The strength of this stage is the value of belonging to a group with strong ties to one another. Whatever stage a church or individual is at, it is important to function as a tribe in some ways. A small church is like a tribe itself. A larger church will have tribes that may be called Sunday School Classes, small groups, or mission groups. When Jesus wanted to change the world, the first thing he did was to gather a few others around him to form into a new spiritual family, saying that its mission took precedence over one’s birth family. The house churches of the book of Acts served as tribal groups where genuine connections and care could be experienced.

The Warrior Church

The warrior stage began to develop around 10,000 years ago when tribes grew in wealth and power, and conflicts erupted between neighboring tribes. The warrior stage is about aggression, impulsive behavior, and violence. The world is like a jungle where the tough win and the weak lose. Beliefs at this stage are less magical and more literal. There is an absolute authority outside of the individual such as a parent, teacher, boss, minister, or a God who makes the rules that people follow without question.

Today we find warrior consciousness in the terrible two’s, high school bullying, street gangs, comic book heroes, sword and sorcery stories, and prison life. We see it in countries such as Afghanistan, athletic teams, aggressive unethical corporations, and the rise of terrorism around the world. Perhaps 20% of the world lives at the warrior altitude.

Warrior churches can be seen historically in the holy wars, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Today the warrior level church is commonly referred to as a fundamentalist church. While the word may have a pejorative meaning, these churches use it proudly in the sense of holding to five “fundamentals” of a belief system that arose in the early 19th century. They are (1) The Bible contains the literal words of God without error, (2) the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, (3) the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, (4) the bodily resurrection of Jesus,(5) the authenticity of Jesus’ miracles or, sometimes, the pre-millennial second coming. Fundamentalism also refers to a certain mindset that warns others who do not agree with them of the danger of their wrong beliefs.

They believe God lives up in heaven but comes down to earth as an avenging warrior mixed with elements of justice and compassion. Jesus is the mighty agent of the wrath of God, making war on sin and death, and accepting his death on the cross is the only way to appease an angry God for one’s sins. Hell is the place of eternal punishment for those who did not believe in the right doctrines or act in the right way. Many evangelical Christians at the next stage, the traditional one, hold these same beliefs, but they tend to not be as angry at those who do not share their beliefs as the fundamentalists are.

Perhaps the most well-known warrior church today is the Westboro Baptist Church with its “God Hates Fags” posters picketing funerals. My church has been picketed a number of times by this group. They fax us ahead of time, warning of a protest outside our building the coming Sunday morning, and we warn the faint of heart or the easily angered of our congregation to enter the church by the back entrance. Other than that, we simply ignore them. Our fervent support of all sexual orientations as gifts from God stands as our own affirmation of gays and we have done our own picketing of groups that abuse gays. Inadvertently, this fundamentalist group has in some ways advanced the cause of human rights by revealing the dark heart of gay oppression to the nation.

The limitations of the warrior church include its narrow worldview and its fear-based, fighting mentality leading to always being at war with someone or something. Karen Armstrong says, “Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in profound fear.” This then manifests in various forms of discrimination and oppression.

The strength of this worldview is fervor—the ability to be passionate about what matters to you. Other strengths are the value of belonging and taking fervent action to advance the mission of the group.

From an integral perspective any culture, group, church, or individual has a right to be at any level and deserves our understanding and respect. Integral is the first stage that is not angry with all the other stages but rather understands them and sees their place in the evolutionary path. The tribal and warrior stages only become problematic when they use hatred, manipulation, or force to impose their beliefs on others. The warrior stage can be challenging to respect because of its militancy and oppression of others. Integral people do whatever is necessary to ardently protect others from abuse while taking care to not to abuse the abusers. The task for those moving into the integral stage is learning to not get angry about people who are angry. It is how to avoid having a warrior consciousness about warrior consciousness, to be passionate without persecuting.

Any part of us that personally remains in the fear, fantasies, and magicalthinking of the tribal stage or the angry militancy of the warrior worldview also deserves our understanding, respect, and nurture. It is not necessary to be judgmental about these parts of us, even those that we may eventually decide to change. Every stage is valuable in itself. Age twelve is not better than age five—it is just a different place in life. We value age five because it is important in itself and necessary to reach age twelve. The same is true with each evolving level of growth in consciousness. Sometimes we find ourselves becoming angry about the stage we are in. That can be a signal that it is time in our life to make a change. The anger can give us the energyto move on to the next level. However, whatever our religious tradition or spiritual path, we eventually need to get over our anger and honor every stage we have passed through. We can then reconcile ourselves to the truth that each of the past stations in our life and in the history of humankind has been the launching pad for our moving to the next stage and where we are now.

Traditional Churches

Christians and their communities of faith exist in rich diversity today. Why are there so many different kinds of Christians and churches? There are historical aspects, political factors, matter of taste, and personality types. However, from an integral perspective of evolutionary stages we can see a quite remarkable tendency for churches to fall into one of perhaps six different altitudes of understanding. I and others often call these six stages tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral. In the next few posts I want to outline how understanding stages of faith and church can help us understand one another and act in more loving ways toward each other in the midst of all of our differences.

An Integral View of the Traditional Church

In my last post I looked at the tribal and warrior churches as they exist today. Now we come to the traditional church—the one you may have grown up in and left a long time ago.  After all, even Ken Wilber grew up a Southern Baptist!

The traditional worldview emerged about 5,000 years ago as people longed for law and order in the chaotic world of the warrior. External rules and guilt produced a more controlled society. This conformist station in life dominated society until time of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

In the traditional altitude, the individual’s ultimate concern begins to move away from egocentric self-gratification and toward the meaning found in role and identity. Now, instead of “might makes right,” it is my group that makes it right. The individual is willing to control current impulses for later fulfillment that recognizes the good of structure and order.

Historically, this station in life found its peak in the Middle Ages and continued in Puritan America. An estimated 40-55% of the world’s population is at the altitude of traditional consciousness. This means that the great majority, 65-80%, of people in the world are at the pre-modern stages of traditional, warrior or tribal. The traditional stage is still the primary mode of awareness of an even greater majority of the religions of the world today, including Christianity.

Using the six categories of tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral developmental stages, of the 146 million church members in the United , around 97% belong to a traditional church.1 This includes Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, the largest two groups, along with evangelical and charismatic churches.  Churches in the next stage, modern, would probably include many if not most United Church of Christ churches, along with some Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Methodist churches. Unity churches represent the primary church group at the postmodern level. While most other institutions of our society have moved onto at least the modern stage, the church today remains almost entirely at the traditional level of consciousness.

The dignity of the traditional church is stability, loyalty, and faithfulness which are rich and meaningful values at all stages. I am grateful for my Southern Baptist background that taught me to read the Bible, to love Jesus, and to be passionate about my faith. It also provided me with a sincere, loyal, caring community of folks who literally saved my life. My home life was filled with terror, and I found safety at church with the youth group where compassionate adults, who may have had their own problems at home, but at church they cared for and nurtured us devotedly.

The healthy and enduring elements of the traditional stage include honoring traditions, the stability of the law and order mindset, respect for authority, and loyalty. People at this level do what is expected of them to help the world function in established ways. They have a strong sense of faith and religious foundation that anchors them through the storms of life.

The traditional level of church deserves our respect and gratitude. Most of us on the Christian path today got there via this stage. Those who live at the tribal, warrior can usually only respond to a higher stage of the Christian path when it is presented from a traditional level church. Gang members are not going to respond to my church, but they might to the local Pentecostal one! We also need traditional churches to provide a sacred space for those firmly rooted in the traditional consciousness. Good examples of religious leaders at this level are Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II. I am grateful for the traditional level church.

Yet, as a teen-ager I was the one asking my Sunday School teachers embarrassing questions about why God killed so many people in the Old Testament and was going to send so many others to hell in the New. I didn’t get much better answers in seminary but eventually found them on my own. I passed through the modern stage with Bishop Spong and learned to value the findings of historical research. I had to deal with my anger at the Nicene and Apostles Creeds and other traditional understandings of Christianity. I passed through the postmodern stage with Marcus Borg as I found support for a transforming relationship with Jesus. A dozen years ago when I began exploring Wilber’s articulation of an integral viewpoint I began to see the Jesus path I had been following in another new level of awareness.

I saw that Jesus recognized different stages of spiritual development. He said, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you….”2 That’s the current stage being invited to move on up to the next level. He said, “I have more to say but you cannot understand it now.”3 That’s all those levels of consciousness waiting to emerge in the future.

I saw that Jesus and the early church were at home with authentic altered states of consciousness, interpreted at their level of understanding. Wilber calls them subtle, causal, and nondual. For my Christian audience I call “subtle” a “connecting” state, connecting us with spiritual realities only perceived in the subtle state and seen in Jesus prayer life, the Transfiguration, and the trance praying and charismatic worship in the biblical book of Acts.4

I call the causal state a “being” state. This is perhaps “emptiness” if you’re a Buddhist, “fullness” if you’re a Christian but basically the same realm or what Meister Eckhart calls “isness.”

I call the “nondual” dimension “owning our divinity.” Jesus said “God and I are one.”5 He modeled, taught, and prayed that we would realize our oneness with God, also. Feels like nonduality to me.

I found a new picture of God in Wilber’s three  faces of God that expanded the traditional Trinity (entirely a 2nd person dimension as experienced by the early church and codified in 325 C.E. at Nicaea). I saw that Jesus was at home with the three faces of God as he talked about God (3rd person), to God (2nd person), and as God (1st person). He modeled all three perspectives for us to embrace and own for ourselves, too, as eternal divine beings on a human journey just like he was.

I learned that my anger at a previous stages helped me move out of them, and then getting over my anger at a previous stage helped me grow up and value the partial truth in every stage.

Of course this could only happen if I added to the traditional values of stability, loyalty, and faithfulness, the integral value of continual evolutionary change that includes the best of the past and transcends the worst present.

Therefore, if the dignity of the traditional church is its stability, loyalty, and faithfulness, this is also its greatest disaster! The traditional church is comforting and nurturing, but only if you are traditional. As the one unicorn said to the other unicorn in Noah’s Ark, “What do you mean you’re gay?”

Of course, we all need a degree of stability, loyalty, and faithfulness to be civilized and accommodate ourselves in various social situations. But to overly value fitting in negates Jesus strong words about not fitting it so we can get on with our own evolution.

We can see this at work in how Jesus treated the family of his day. No society ever valued the “traditional” family more than the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. It was incredibly strong and stable. It was structured according to the religious code of the Old Testament. It was how you survived physically, economically, and spiritually. However, every time Jesus talked about the Jewish family, he attacked it!

He said parents and children would rise up against each other because of him.6 When his birth family showed up looking for him, he pointed out to the crowd that his real family members were those who did God’s will.7 He told the man, who was being a good traditional son when he dutifully wanted stay with his family until his father died, “Let the dead bury the dead. You come and follow me.”8

He taught, “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut – make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law – cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.”9

Why did Jesus attack the family of his day so passionately? He did so because he knew that the strong family ties of his Jewish religion would keep family members clinging to their traditional religious ideas and practices rather than drinking the new wine of the Spirit. He knew that the strongly patriarchal family would resist treating women as equals to men and church history testifies to that very thing. Jesus subverted all systems that kept people from hearing what the Spirit was saying in new ways. That is why he attacked the family, social, political, and religious systems of his day.

This remains true today, whether it is one’s birth family, church family, ethnic family, religious tradition, social circle, close friends, business corporation, or political party. Jesus warns us not to cling to our group in any way that will keep us from evolving spirituality. Anything that competes with the call of the Spirit to new wineskins is a disaster, no matter how virtuous it may seem.

So while valuing the traditional church, I also see the sexism, homophobia, superstition, limiting myths, crazy theology, and outright spiritual abuse. That means I have had a life-long lover’s quarrel with the church. And I am grateful to now be a part of the emerging, growing group of those who follow the Jesus path and the Buddha path and the atheist path and all the other richly diverse paths who are moving on to integral and beyond – the Spirit’s call to evolve now and forever!

Modern Churches

As in my previous two posts, I want to continue to outline, in broad, general strokes, how understanding stages10 of faith and church can help us understand one another and act in more loving ways in the midst of all of our differences.

An Integral view of Modern Church

The pastor was at the door greeting people as they left the church service. One woman said, as she left, “Pastor, you really made me think today. Don’t ever do that again!”

That’s a fine summary of the clash between the traditional stage and the modern stage, which began 500 years ago, in the West, during the periods known as the Renaissance and the Reformation, and flowered two hundred years ago in the Enlightenment. It developed as traditional answers stopped making sense and dogmatic systems and unthinking religion were called into account. Individuals began to question and examine all of their existing beliefs. It was a time of conflict, disappointment and anger as some found that their beliefs did not stand up under scrutiny. This is the world of the inquiring self. This stage is individualistic, rational, and achievement-oriented.

For individuals in industrialized countries, the rational worldview begins to emerge in late high school.  These teen-agers begin to realize they have a right to have their own opinions regardless of what the Bible, religion, or their group says.
The unhealthy aspects of the modern station in life are materialism, greed, reduction of values and meaning in life, and discounting the inner subjective realm of the spiritual path by believing that the only way to know anything is exploration using the tools of the physical sciences. This ignores the realm of the mystical which is explored only by the inner tools of prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

The incredibly valuable elements include the rise of democracy, banishing slavery, scientific breakthroughs, dramatically increasing life span, emerging middle classes around the world, market capitalism, liberal self-interest, healthy competition, and opening up new avenues of spiritual exploration. As spirituality was separated from its magical and literal elements, deeper stage and state explorations of the mystical realms of spirit could eventually open up in postmodernism and more fully in integralism and beyond. An estimated 20% of the world population is at the modern station of life. Thank God for the modern stage!

The modern church in our country today is represented by mainstream Protestant liberalism. These churches are usually found within mainline denominations such as Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, and the United Church of Christ. Other churches in those dominations may be at a more traditional level. The Unitarian Universalist Church is solidly in the modern stage. However, they no longer identify themselves as a Christian church but as a “liberal religious tradition.”

Retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong represents classic modern level Christian thinking as he has hastened the journey from traditional to modern for multitudes of Christians. He lists twelve topics he calls the Christians of the world to debate. 11 Let’s look at each of these from an integral perspective, while remembering that others may have integral viewpoints that differ from mine. Spong presents a mainly negative view which is consistent with his primary aim of dislodging the deeply embedded traditional/mythic/prerational viewpoint of traditional Christianity. I want to include as much as possible of his thinking and then transcend it by seeing how a Wilberian integral framework might provide a wider, deeper, and more positive place from which a follower of Jesus might operate. Spong’s twelve statements are in italics.

1. “Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.”

I, too, find that supernatural theism which posits a big Divine Super Being out there is no longer helpful. A much more elegant understanding of God in this standpoint is panentheism. This is something of what the Apostle Paul was referring to in writing of the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” 12

The panentheistic God is in everything and everything is in God.  God is neither separate from creation nor limited to creation.

The integral viewpoint gives us a revolutionary new way to speak of God in the “Big Three,” the three basic perspectives from which everything can be viewed.  (see my earlier posts on The Three Faces of God) As applied to the Divine, this translates into:

  • the 3rd- person objective “IT” face which I call the Infinite Face of God,
  • the 2nd-prson intersubjective “WE” face which I call the Intimate Face of God, and
  • the 1st-person subjective “I” face which I call the Inner Face of God, our own identification with God as our True Self.

Panentheism is how I understand this 3rd-person Infinite Face of God, an impersonal “IT” which is found in the natural world all around us, in us, us in IT, and beyond as the Ground of All Being.

2. “Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.”

Yes, that is true if we move from supernatural theism to panentheism, for then there is no incarnation of a theistic deity. But there still remains something quite momentous as integral’s Big Three comes to our aid again. Mystics of all religions down through the centuries have experienced a Great Other, which is then interpreted through whatever lens they are looking. This is the impersonal “IT,” the Infinite Face of God coming close to us in a most personal way to form a “WE,” as we relate to the Intimate Face of God in deepest communion. Jesus is, for Christians, one of the manifestations of this Intimate Face of God.

3. “The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.”

The much debated creation story in Genesis is one of many ancient attempts to explain the mess we appear to be in. However, rather than a story about a “Fall,” I see it as a evolutionary story of an “Emergence.” Humans, made in God’s image, but not awakened to it, must emerge to know the world of good and evil and thus become, as both the serpent predicts and God affirms, truly awake to their divine identity.13 And God says, “See they have become one of us.”14

4. “The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.”

Yes, the virgin birth is best understood metaphorically. One way to emphasize Jesus’ divine identity was to frame his birth as others framed the birth of their divine emperors in the mythology of virgin birth. Unfortunately, this also emphasized his utter uniqueness and excludes us from sharing in his divine nature.15

5. “The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.”

Yes, these stories portray spiritual, not historical, lessons the writers wanted to convey. I hedge somewhat here, in that we have yet to explore all there is to know about the relationship between the physical and nonphysical worlds and how they affect one another.

6. “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.”

While agreeing with this, I would say it more inclusively. At the warrior stage of development the interpretation of Jesus death as the final sacrifice for the sins of the world was one meaningful and appropriate way to understand it in the 1st century world of Judaism where the Temple sacrifices were a vital part of religious life. For many at the traditional stage, Jesus dying for our sins on the cross is comforting, liberating, and healing. It is only at the modern stage where that interpretation begins to look “barbarian,” carrying the less than Christ-like baggage of a wrathful God who demands a sacrifice. Jesus modeled and taught that God is only love, and not a mixture of love and vengefulness. The insistence on reason at the modern level of development reveals that God can’t be both loving and vengeful. A postmodern understanding would see the cross as an incredible model for speaking up for the oppressed of the world, no matter what the cost. An integral perspective might add that the cross symbolizes the drama of our own inner death to our egoic false self so that we may uncover the Eternal Divine Self that is our deepest identity.

7. “Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.”

Beautifully said. I understand the resurrection to be real but neither literal nor metaphorical. Modern historical analysis is quite certain that the early Christians believed Jesus rose from the dead. What that analysis cannot determine is how that belief might be true or not true. It seems to me that a video camera would not have recorded anything out of the ordinary. However, I think that the disciples did actually see and experience something in a non-physical (subtle) realm which they interpreted to be Jesus – just as I and many today and down through the ages have experienced.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.”

Yes, and, therefore, conveys a meaning of transition to a “higher” non-physical realm.

9. “There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.”

Yes, there are no details in the Bible of a moral code for every culture at every stage of development. However, there is the overarching  Gospel theme of love, God’s and ours, in Jesus’ life and teaching which we manifest in deeper ways appropriate for each time and culture the more we evolve in our own spiritual path.

10. “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”

My simple response would be “yes” because I am a panentheist, not a theist. However, I might then appear to be settling for the modern stage’s deep uncomfortableness with the Intimate Face of God. To the modern mind, prayer is often reduced to thinking nice thoughts. As we contemplate the “IT” of the Infinite Face of God, personal conversations do not seem appropriate except as expressions of wonder and amazement. But with the “WE” of the Intimate Face of God, I and Thou conversations are a profound part of that intimacy.

The modern stage is usually in big-time reaction to the mystical, ancient, and evangelical idea of a personal relationship with God/Goddess. That’s unfortunate for two reasons. First, Jesus modeled that kind of personal intimacy with the awesome God of Abraham and Jacob, calling that God by the same name he called his father Joseph, which was “abba” or papa.16 Secondly, leaving out the dynamic of 2nd-person intersubjective relationship reduces integral’s Big Three to a Big Two. This represses our ability to know God/Goddess, leaving only objective and subjective dimensions. This is an impoverished way to understand and experience God, whatever one’s spiritual tradition.

In 2nd person we relate to the Face of God as the Great Other, Him or Her with whom we talk and connect..17 This is the One whom we worship and adore—ego-humbling Divinity to whom we surrender. This Beautiful Other elicits emotions of gratitude, blessedness, love, surrender, and devotion. Whatever your spiritual path, do not hesitate to give yourself to whatever manifestation of the Divine One who comes close enough to you to embrace you, kiss you, and wrap you up with compassion.

As Christians, we can lay aside the excess theological baggage that Jesus is uniquely the world’s only savior, and freely relate to him as one expression of the Intimate Face of God. We are liberated to let Jesus be our Leader, Guide, and Healer – our dearest Beloved.

Without a place to personally surrender our ego to our Divine Friend who is much farther along in the path of spiritual evolution, our ego can hide out. Ego easily hides out in the 3rd person of the Infinite Face of God, for the Ground of Being appears to make no demands. Ego’s favorite place to arrogantly conceal itself is in the cover of 1st-person subjective or Inner Face of God which is our True Self.  Ego loves to be seen as the authentic, real Self, stealing our true identity. The ego-driven think they are God. The Jesus-infused know they are God!

11. “The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.”

Yes, indeed.

12. “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”

Amen to that, brother Spong!

Postmodern Churches

Christians and their communities of faith exist in rich diversity today. Why are there so many different kinds of Christians and churches? There are historical aspects, political factors, matter of taste, and personality types. However, from an integral perspective of evolutionary stages we can see a quite remarkable tendency for churches to fall into one of perhaps six different altitudes of understanding. I and others often call these six stages tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral. In this series I want to outline how understanding stages of faith and church can help us understand one another and act in more loving ways toward each other in the midst of all of our differences.

The Postmodern Church

The postmodern stage of human evolution began roughly 150 years ago and became most noticeable in this country during the 1960’s. Postmodernism is a general, much debated term that is applied to many fields such as literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism. It is a reaction to the modern idea that objective science can explain reality. Postmodernism understands that reality is not just something objective but that our minds also play a part in constructing what we think of as reality. It is skeptical of any universal claims or ultimate principles that claim to be true for everything. It makes the rather universal truth claim that there are no universal truth claims!

Coming into being with the Enlightenment, modern consciousness focused on questioning the foundations of past knowledge. Postmodern viewpoints question whether we can really know much of anything at all. The modernist bumper sticker advises, “Question Authority.” The postmodern bumper sticker says, “Question Reality.”

Modernism says there is absolute truth. Postmodernism says we construct our own truth. Modernism says that what is important are observable facts and logic. Postmodernism says that what is important are feelings and experience. Modernism limits itself to scientific exploration while postmodernism encourages spiritual exploration. Modernism says there are absolute values while postmodernism says that it’s all relative.

Traditional consciousness allows for us to “Love your neighbor, hate your enemy, especially if your enemy is attacking you, or even just different from you.” The modern level tells us to “Love your neighbor, tolerate your enemy.” Postmodernism goes further to “Love your neighbor and love your enemy.” In Jesus’ terms, this is progress.

Postmodernism is the world of the sensitive self, the pluralistic worldview, and the belief that there are many ways of looking at reality. It has given birth to the green earth movement, feminism, civil rights, and gay rights. Those at this altitude can see things from many perspectives and embrace a more inclusive compassion that thinks, feels, and acts globally. It moves beyond the mere tolerance of the modern level to embracing and honoring other religious traditions.

Postmodernists often actively seek out other spiritual paths for their own enrichment. One begins to see commonalities among the religions of the world, not just differences. All ways are seen as equally valid. Because of this, there is a tendency to despise any kind of hierarchy that says anything is better than something else. Religious hierarchies are seen as especially oppressive. In the name of equality, all hierarchies tend to be rejected, including natural hierarchies.

Natural hierarchy is seeing that there is a natural development such as from atoms to molecules, cells to plants, and animals to humans. A natural hierarchy would be one that sees the traditional stage as better able to love others than the warrior stage. However, postmodernism often rejects the premise of integralism that there really are identifiable stages of development, considering it elitism.

Postmodern philosophy says that absolute truth cannot be discovered at all, neither through reason nor tradition. There is no objective meaning, only subjective meaning, the meaning one brings to anything. History is seen as merely various fictional interpretations. The postmodern worldview was cleverly summed up in an editorial cartoon that showed a boy sitting on Santa's lap. Santa is saying to him, "And have you been a good boy this year?" The boy replies, "It depends on what good means." In back of him a girl is thinking, "Sixty-five percent of my peers say I'm good." Another girl in the Santa line says, "That's a private matter between me and my family." The last boy says, "It's time to move on to the real issue: what I want."

Postmoderns say such things as, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” “Nobody tells me what to do,” “Your truth is as good as my truth,” “I have no limits,” and the foundation of them all – “We create our own reality.” Sometimes there is a deep agony over the way things seem. Postmoderns see so much diversity that they can’t see any unity. Postmoderns value community, consensus, and diversity. The rights of minorities are upheld so that a majority does not crush the minority.

Looking through the postmodern lens, one sees that there is more to life than thinking clearly and being rational. It again embraces the mystical and numinous which was lost in the modern rational stage. Networks and connections are often developed between others who share a similar interest in spirituality. Talks, workshops, and seminars on various aspects of human potential and spirituality are popular. Meditation, prayer, and the inner life are explored with new fascination.

However, in its rush to embrace mystery, it does not always distinguish mystical from magical. The mystical is an authentic connection to what is real, the magical is a fantasy. This new appreciation of the mystical sometimes moves into the fantastical. Enchantment returns, including nonsense and nobility.

Postmodern religious thought was originally a reaction against mainstream Protestant liberalism. The idea of a religion that just “thinks” finally gave way to opening the door to dimensions that were deeper and higher than reason alone. Reason was not discarded, but it no longer reigned as the only way to “know.” Rationalism alone does not work anymore in the postmodern church. Spiritual experiences are valued.

While the modern level is filled with scientific exploration, the postmodern one is filled with spiritual exploration. Science says that seeing is believing. Postmodernism comes along and says that believing is seeing. There is a move from facts and logic to feelings and personal experience. This move is not always navigated well and some postmodern religion, under the previous rubric of “New Age,” includes elements of prerational magic along with postrational mysticism. There is a move from only the God of the Bible to considering the spirituality of other religious paths.

Postmodern churches are represented by Unity, Christian Science, New Thought churches, and the most progressive of the churches in the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations. The Center for Spiritual Living group is postmodern but does not identify as Christian even though Ernest Holmes based his teachings on Jesus.

I do so love and honor Unity for opening the doorway to a postmodern Christianity.  Unity seems now to be debating within the movement whether to move to a postmodern position of leaving any specific Christian identity or to maintain their identity as followers of Jesus. Integral Christianity could provide a way for Unity to maintain its Christian identity in an ever evolving way while moving past traditional Christian understanding and practice.

Marcus Borg is the premier theologian of the postmodern church. I like his thinking very much. He understands Jesus as Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator.18 He sees Jesus as the decisive revelation of God for Christians, but certainly not the only way to God.

The strengths of postmodern Christianity and church are inclusion of the marginalized, diversity, personal growth, advocacy of justice issues, eco friendliness, and embracing altered states of consciousness.

From my perspective, postmodern Christianity, like all stages, also has weakness. The postmodern church can be narcissistic and into the “prosperity gospel,” which is spirituality in service of the ego. For all their inclusiveness and acceptance, postmodern Christians are also often still angry at the tribal, warrior, and traditional church.

Another weakness of the postmodern church is resistance to any kind of hierarchy. This leads to extreme relativism and a refusal to make value judgments. Postmodern religion is not the modern view that doesn’t believe anything. Rather, postmodernism believes in everything. Their religion can be 300 miles wide and 3 inches deep.

Jesus never criticized any other religion except his own. It is stunning in our world of religious one-upmanship that Jesus never criticized other religions. He was a good postmodern in that respect. On the other hand, he was devastating pointed in his criticism of his own religion. That was not very postmodern at all. He made clear distinctions between what he considered the best in his religion and the worst.

The most repressive factor in postmodern Christianity, church, and spirituality is the loss of the 2nd-person perspective on God (see my book Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve or my previous posts here on The Three Faces of God.). This dialogical dimension of I-Thou which is what I call “communion with the Intimate Face of God” is not only missing but often felt to be “unevolved.”  It has been said, only half-jokingly, that you can tell if a Christian is postmodern because they get embarrassed if caught praying.

Ken Wilber says, “In today’s “new paradigm” spiritual movements, we usually see . . . a complete loss of Spirit in 2nd-person. [italics his] What we find instead are extensive descriptions of Spirit in its 3rd-person mode, such as Gaia, the Web of Life, systems theory, akashic fields, chaos theory, and so on. This is coupled, to the extent there is a practice, with Spirit in 1st-person modes: meditation, contemplation, Big Mind, Big Self, Big Me. But no conceptions of a Great Thou, to whom surrender and devotion is the only response.”

“This amounts to nothing less than the repression of Spirit in 2nd-person. Remember, all 3 faces of Spirit are simply faces of your deepest formless Self, or the 3 faces of Primordial Self/Spirit as it first manifests. The 4 quadrants, or simply the Big 3 (I, We/Thou, It), are the 3 fundamental dimensions of your Primordial Unmanifest Self’s being-in-the-world. In short, failing to acknowledge your own Spirit in 2nd-person is a repression of a dimension of your very being-in-the-world.”19

There are at least three other factors that seem to have led to this loss. The first is that the idea of having a personal relationship with God or Jesus sounds just like those Baptists and others who carry around the religious baggage postmoderns left long ago. These limiting beliefs include believing that only Jesus is divine and the only way to God, eternal hell, Jesus dying for our sins, and other traditional evangelical beliefs.

It is interesting as I speak at conferences around the country and read emails from those who have read Integral Christianity, that many are hungry for a very real and transforming personal relationship with Jesus but without all these beliefs from previous stages.

A second reason for the loss of any devotional relationship with Spirit in personal form is the postmodern resistance to hierarchy, even natural ones. The idea of love, honor, and adoration for anyone further evolved than we are such as Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, or any devotional approach to a Beloved with a name and a face seems to be taboo.

A third reason for the loss of any personal relationship with Jesus or Spirit is the assumption that any truly evolved spirituality will be beyond the institutional church and all of its old fashioned rituals. Because so many have been hurt by the institutional church, it is understandable that they feel they must distance themselves from it. And that is exactly what many need to do in order to get healing from the religious abuse they have received from the church of their youth. Others have simply outgrown their traditional Christianity.

However, the emerging integral stage of development now holds the possibility of a truly integral Christianity and an integral church life that centers on Jesus as a model for us of what it means to be fully human and fully divine. One can remain on the Christian path and yet follow a more evolved model. I know it can be difficult to find such a church or group, and I get many emails asking me for a church in Australia, or England, or Pittsburg that at least sounds integral. I’m not much help with that, so I usually recommend going to a church (like Unity) that may be as close as you can get given where you live. Enjoy the church, while translating any of their beliefs and practices that don’t fit with where you are into another dimension for yourself. Most of us have to do that anyway whatever church we attend. You can also add the personal, devotional, 2nd-person relationship with God for yourself if they leave it out.

Or be bold – find a few partners and start an integral Christian group/church together! That leads us to next month’s post – Integral Church, one of the loves of my life!

Integral Churches

I believe the next step in following the continuing voice of Jesus in and for the Christian church is an integral one. By whatever name or names, it integrates the many divided, left out, and yet to emerge parts of the spiritual life that Jesus modeled and taught and continues to do so in the ever-evolving Christian path today.

His clarion call to continue to evolve was issued in many ways. His life and teaching demonstrated the next step and beyond in his own religion and serves as an enlightening prototype for spiritual development in all religious traditions. He labored, pushed, cajoled, cracked the whip, and died to call us to the future where he beckons in resurrection life. It is put most succinctly in the simple words of John 16:12, “I have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now.” Then Jesus indicated that he would continue to teach us more in the future by his continuing presence when we are ready.

More and more of us seem to be ready. I offer here and in my book, Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, some snapshots of what integral church might look like. After that book was published and I began writing about integral Christianity on the online Integral Life network of 30,000 people around the world, I expected to hear from many Christians and churches who were exploring the integral path. I have heard from many Christian folks including pastors and priests, but so far, few churches seem to have intentionally taken up this path. I don’t want to sound elitist, as if they all must notify me personally, but I did expect there would be some connections. I have been asked many times if I could direct someone to their local integral church and I can only invite them to explore their local Unity, United Church of Christ, or other progressive postmodern group as a beginning. Or start just such a church where they live! I heard from one courageous soul willing to move across the country to join my church. We have had others do that in the past years, sometimes with great success and other times great disappointment.

Of course, like Wilber’s articulation of integral theory, it all hasn’t yet “caught on” in the way many of us long for. A major part of that is simply because academia is not ready to integrate mystical spirituality into its design and, amazingly, neither is the church! For a church that began 2000 years ago in a blaze of mystical experiences, you’d think that would not be the case. De-evolution is at work, too!

In this post and next, I want to offer some snapshots of what integral (and beyond) church might look like. Since I am only in touch with one church struggling to be integral, my own, I don’t have Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or mainline versions of this. All I have is my own, coming from an evolving, former Southern Baptist (of all places – and what a great launching pad, praise God!) and charismatic background. So pardon the limitations.

I have found five aspects of integral philosophy particularly meaningful in my journey. I have labeled them the five S’s of a Spiritual Positioning System. They are: (1) Stages of understanding, (2) states of experience, (3) standpoints, or the “big three” perspectives applied to God, (4) shadow work or emotional healing, and (5) steps – those practices that take us, one step at a time, farther along our spiritual journey. This post will take up stages of understanding.

Stages of Understanding

The integral church integrates the best of all the previous stages and transcends the rest. The integral church has given up being angry at those in other stages and, instead, works for the health of every stage, welcoming all into its fold even as, and because, it maintains a dominant integral center. Here are some snapshots of common viewpoints in eight areas of Christian beliefs of churches in tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral (not yet common, so just my sense) stages of development. (See my previous posts on the churches that now exist in each of these first five stages.)

The Bible

In tribal and warrior churches, the Bible is the sacred Word of God given to us without error of any kind and whose correct interpretation is limited to that group. In traditional churches, the Bible is generally considered to be inspired by God to guide us in all spiritual matters. The modern church often considers the Bible a mixture of legend, wisdom, myth, and history. The postmodern church sees it as one of many sacred books from which we can learn.

The integral church may include some of these previous stage understandings, but adds an evolutionary viewpoint. The Bible is what came to be the dominant version of an account of the spiritual evolution of the Jewish religion and early Christianity. The Holy Bible is about Holy Evolution, Spirit’s call over the centuries and now to evolve! It is foundational for the Christian tradition today and, because it represents various stages of spiritual development, it must be interpreted as Jesus interpreted his Scriptures – he embraced, rejected, and ignored parts of them. We should, too.


Tribal and warrior churches see God as the separate and supernatural Creator who blesses and curses and he wills, revealed as Father, Son and Spirit. Traditional churches usually see God as a supernatural Being, totally separate from creation, both loving and vengeful, and revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit. Modern church tends to understand God as something like First Cause and Principle who does not interact with creation in any personal way. Postmodern churches see God as revealed in many ways in many religions and spiritual traditions.

In my version of integral church God is decisively defined in the Christian tradition by Jesus, but God is not confined to Jesus. Other traditions may also reveal God. The traditional Trinity is included and expanded by integrating the 13rd–person God-beyond-us, 2nd-person God-with-us, and 1st-person God-as-us. Jesus spoke about, to, and as God so that we may, also.


In tribal and warrior stage, Jesus is a magical, and/or warrior-like divine being become human who must be appeased to save us. In traditional approach, Jesus is commonly seen as the one and only Son of God who came to save us from God’s wrath by dying on the cross. The modern level has Jesus as a monumental figure in history, a wise teacher who was crucified. In postmodern he becomes one of many enlightened masters who came to show us the way to awaken spiritually.

At integral, he may be understood as our model for what it means to be fully human and fully divine. Jesus wants to reveal our serious case of mistaken identity as we think we are only human. He is present with us now to walk with us as we learn to identify as divine spiritual beings on a human journey.


At tribal and warrior altitudes, prayer is relating to a Divine Being somewhere “up there” who intervenes in this world in supernatural ways. Traditionally prayer is seen as the heart of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. Prayer at the modern level is problematical. At postmodern it is having and sending positive and loving thoughts.

At integral prayer, in addition to some of the previous, is entering deeper states of consciousness wherein we reflect on God beyond us, interact with God beside us, and identify with God as us.

Sin and salvation

Tribal and warrior sin is disobeying God’s laws. We are saved from eternal hell, the penalty of that disobedience, by repentance and faith in Jesus. Traditionally, sin is disobeying God, and we are saved from eternal punishment by trusting in Jesus. More recently according to surveys, about half of traditional Christians believe that other truly spiritual paths may also offer salvation. In modern church sin is anything that harms us or others, and salvation is acting in just and loving ways towards others. At postmodern, sin is alienation, and salvation is being reconnected to God, others, and creation in liberating ways.

At integral, in addition to some of the previous beliefs, sin is a case of mistaken identity – manifesting the wrong identity, our False Self, in unloving attitudes and actions by not being true to our Highest Self, our divine identity. Healing and wholeness emerge as we embrace our True Divine Self and manifest it in the world.

Heaven and hell

Tribal and warrior see hell as a place of eternal fire and damnation for those who are not Christians. Heaven is where we go after we die if we are Christians. Traditionally, hell is eternal separation from God and heaven is eternal life with God. Modern thinking tends to view hell and heaven as speculative ideas about the afterlife which often appear to be used to manipulate others into a particular set of beliefs or practices. Postmodern hell and heaven are life conditions of unhappiness and happiness, respectively, caused by our own attitudes and responses.

Integral hell is acting in unloving and oppressive ways towards others, resulting in a deteriorating “garbage dump” existence,20 regardless of outward appearances. Integral heaven is ever-expanding truth, beauty, and goodness wherever they are found.

Kingdom of Heaven

At tribal and warrior, the Kingdom of Heaven is the place Christians go upon death. Traditionally, this major topic of Jesus’ is the rule of God here and after death. At modern, it is healing, justice, and liberation in the here and now. At postmodern, it is living in the reality that we are all spiritual beings on a human journey.

In addition to some of these, integral, I understand it in Jim Marion’s fine terminology, as the great nondual vision of Jesus that there is no separation between us and God or between us and one another.

The mystical

Tribal and warrior here find a mixture of magic, fantasy, superstition, and genuine mystical experience. Traditionally, the mystical is mostly limited to people and events in the Bible and some of the saints down through the centuries. One is not expected to have mystical experiences readily available to them today. Modernity sees mysticism as hallucinations. Postmodern church revalues the mystical as the exploration of the non-physical universe through psychic, esoteric, or spiritual avenues, often without discerning the prerational magic from postrational mystical.

Integral embraces the mystical as the direct experience of God’s presence in its many forms and expressions.


1 Hartford Institute for Religion Research

2 Matthew 5.

3 John 16:12.

4 Acts 10:10,  22:17.

5 John 10:30.

6 Matt. 10:21-22.

7 Mark 3:31-35.

8 Luke 9:59-60.

9 Matt 10: 35 – 37, The Message.

10 Tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral and beyond.

11 John Spong, A Call for A New Reformation, 26 June 2008,

12 Acts 17:28.

13 Genesis 3:5.

14 Genesis 3:22.

15 2 Peter 1:4.

16 This is not a claim that Jesus’ use of abba was unique in his day, only that it was his practice.

17 See Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber, pp.151-161 for a fuller exploration of Spirit in 2nd-person.

18 The Heart of Christianity, Marcus J. Borg, p. 89-91.

19 Integral Spirituality, Ken Wilber, p. 160.

20 Gehenna, Jesus’ word for what is translated as “hell” was literally a garbage dump just outside of Jerusalem with a horrible history of violence. It was filled with maggots and smoldering fires. It is a beautiful park today!

Paul Smith

About Paul Smith

Paul Smith is the author of Integral Christianity: The Spirit's Call to Evolve. He is a teacher and has recently retired after serving 49 years as minister at Broadway Church in Kansas City, Missouri. While in high school he founded a series of spiritually transforming youth camps and college retreats that were attended by thousands of young people annually over a period of ten years. After his undergraduate degree from Washington University and Master’s degree in theology and biblical studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he came to Broadway Baptist Church in midtown Kansas City, Missouri in 1963.

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