2016-06-30
I began my previous Beliefnet column with the line, "Throughout history, religion has been the single greatest source of human-caused wars, suffering, and misery. In the name of God, more suffering has been inflicted than by any other manmade cause." I was, of course, using the word "religion" in its sociological meaning, as any belief invested with "ultimate concern," in which case not only Islam, Christianity, and Shintoism are religions, but Marxism, Nazism, and Eco-terrorism are all versions of religions or religiously held beliefs. Seen as such, the opening sentence is obviously true.

This points up a crucial aspect of an integral approach to spirituality, namely, there are several different meanings of the words "religion" and "spirituality," all of which are important. The whole point about an integral or comprehensive approach is that it must find a way to believably include all of those important meanings in a coherent whole.

In my second Beliefnet column, I introduced the idea of perspectives, such as first-person, second-person, and third-person perspectives, and pointed out that those perspectives give rise to such items as the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (or art, science, and morals). As we continue to introduce the ingredients of an integral approach to religion and spirituality, those perspectives are an important part, as we will continue to see. Another important ingredient is levels, which in this case means "levels of religious belief, faith, or spirituality."

Levels of religion? Levels of spirituality? Levels of belief? Yes, indeed, and this topic, which is highly controversial, nonetheless has perhaps the most explanatory power of all of the ingredients in an integral view. It refers specifically to the fact that human beings undergo psychological development. At each level or stage of development, they will see the world in a different way. Hence, each level of development has, as it were, a different religious belief or worldview. This does not make God or Spirit the result of human development; it does, however, make the ways in which humans conceive of God or Spirit the result of development. And this is where it gets really interesting.

Start with levels of psychological development. Scholars in the field of development are agreed that human beings universally undergo various types of development. Language, for example, emerges in a series of stages, a sequence that we might stylistically summarize as letters, then words, then sentences, then paragraphs. There are no known cases of sentences emerging before words, or words emerging before letters (or phonemes). In fact, it is impossible, since the whole point about sequential stages is that they emerge in an order that incorporates previous stages. Exactly like atoms to molecules to cells to organisms, each true stage in a developmental sequence transcends and includes its predecessors. You cannot skip stages, just like you cannot go from atoms to cells and skip molecules. Nor can you reverse stages (no cells before molecules). Their general features are universal.

Although scholars are agreed that human development occurs and that many of its general features are universal-such as words before sentences, neural net before brainstem, symbols before concepts, images before rules (there are literally hundreds of these types of uncontested universals, which we called "content-free universals")-there is nonetheless a great deal of argument about the exact details. That development occurs is uncontested, but the various models of development are still hotly debated. What is so amazing, however, is that, despite the differences in the models at the level of fine detail, in broad terms they show a remarkable similarity. In fact, in Integral Psychology, I summarized over 100 different psychospiritual models of development, and what is so striking is their general similarity.

Thus, when it comes to levels of development-which is the aspect of an integral approach that we are introducing in this particular column-then if we stay with the general outlines and contours of development, we do just fine. But if we leave out developmental levels, we leave out an important and uncontested component of the human psyche, and thus our approach would not, and could not, be integral.

What, then, are some of the more important levels of development? Of the 100 models that I mentioned, I will here use one of the most influential, and one that is still quite valid as a simple summary or overview, that of the pioneering genius, Jean Gebser. Gebser found that human beings tend to go through at least five major levels of development, which he called archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral.

Those words mean pretty much what you think they mean. Let's accept for the moment that, in a very general sense, those stages might be true. If so, then there is an archaic spirituality, a magic spirituality, a mythic spirituality, a mental spirituality, and an integral spirituality (with possibly higher stages still to come)..

Put bluntly, there is an archaic God, a magic God, a mythic God, a mental God, and an integral God. Which God do you believe in?

An archaic God sees divinity in any strong instinctual force. A magic God locates divine power in the human ego and its magical capacity to change the animistic world with rituals and spells. A mythic God is located not on this earth but in a heavenly paradise not of this world, entrance to which is gained by living according to the covenants and rules given by this God to his peoples. A mental God is a rational God, a demythologized Ground of Being that underlies all forms of existence. And an integral God is one that embraces all of the above.

Which of those Gods is the most important? According to an integral view, all of them, because each "higher" stage actually builds upon and includes the lower, so the lower stages are more fundamental and the higher stages are more significant, but leave out any one of them and you're in trouble. You are, that is, less than integral, less than comprehensive, less than inclusive in your understanding of God.

So which level of God do you believe in? Whatever it is, the central point is that, if human beings do indeed undergo psychological development, then their understanding of God or Goddess or Spirit will likewise undergo development. Tracing that development-while honoring each and every stage as an equally crucial component of that development-is an important part of any integral approach to religion and spirituality.

Along with perspectives, levels are therefore an important ingredient in the integral approach. In our next column, we will start putting some of these items together into a bigger picture. In the meantime, if you would like to see one version of an integral approach to spirituality, let me suggest "The Simple Feeling of Being," by yours truly, for an introduction to this theme. And see you next time!