An integral approach to spirituality takes that assertion very seriously. Yet it also accepts the idea that religion in some sense contains deep and abiding truths about reality, possibly about Ultimate Reality itself. It is one of the distinctive aspects of the integral approach that it claims to be able to reconcile those two astonishingly contradictory items.
Item #1: Religion causes more human war and misery than any other manmade cause.
Item #2: Religion is about Ultimate Reality.
The only way to reconcile those two items is to recognize that, at the very least, religion contains two very different aspects. One clearly divides humans; the other might be able to unite them. "Peace on earth, good will toward men" obviously rests upon differentiating those two aspects and placing each of them in a larger context. Exactly how to do so is one of the goals of the integral approach. But one thing is certain and historically undeniable: if we cannot do so, religion will continue to be the death of humans until humans have the death of God.
It is common, of course, to say that all religions-or certainly most of them-teach some sort of brotherly/sisterly love, that all major religions have some version of the Golden Rule, and that religions therefore have acted to introduce love and compassion into the world. Once again, however, that flies in the face of historical fact: for every year of peace in humankind's history there have been fourteen years of war, 90% of which have been fought either because of, or under the banner of, God by whatever name. (More on this at Ken Wilber Online.)
Again, it seems as if there are almost two different kinds of religion, one of which brutally divides, and one of which unites (or can unite). How do we tell them apart, and how might we begin to switch allegiance from the former to the latter? If you believe in God and yet don't have an answer to that question, you are inadvertently contributing to the wars of tomorrow, yes? And it won't quite do to say that the world would be peaceful if everybody accepted my personal savior or my path to Spirit. Surely that is the cause, not the cure, of the problem, yes?
In my previous Beliefnet column ("What All Religions Have in Common"), I introduced the idea of an "integral approach" to spirituality. Most Beliefnet columns are self-contained pieces; few of them require any familiarity with earlier or later columns. The integral approach has about a half-dozen major components, however, each of which needs to be understood in order for the approach itself to make sense. This means that my column will be a series of installments, each of which builds upon its predecessors.
Does this sound interesting to you? If so, then let's begin.
In my previous column I didn't spell out, or really indicate what an "integral approach" to spirituality would include. Many readers naturally assumed that this was simply another version of "universalism"-the belief that there are certain truths contained in all the world's religions. But the integral approach emphatically does not make that suggestion. Other readers maintained that I was offering a version of the "perennial philosophy" espoused by Aldous Huxley or Huston Smith. Does the integral approach believe that all religions are saying essentially the same thing from a different perspective? No, almost the opposite.
So how can we describe the integral approach in simple terms? It's clearly going to be a bit of a new idea, so bear with me. We might start by calling it a "content-free cross-culturalism." Gulp. That's simple?
"Content-free" refers to the fact that virtually all previous approaches at unification have attempted to find some sort of unity on the level of actual content (whereas the integral approach does not). For example, most of the world's great religions have some version of the Golden Rule, and most universalists use those types of common elements to find their unity in the world's religions.