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A Startling Vision for the 21st Century Church

Now, more than ever, the West needs a mature Christianity. One that contributes moral and spiritual guidance to a world facing a multitude of
crises: from terrorism to financial collapse, from poverty to global warming; from oil depletion to incessant war. Why? Because we are by nature spiritual and no solution can suffice without including the spiritual. However, a spirituality, a religion, enmeshed in literalisms and dogma cannot serve this role. The church can only speak to these crises by offering increasingly expansive perspectives on our lives and the issues of the day. And the religious traditions are best suited to inspire these expanding perspectives because they grew up with humanity and only these traditions have the legitimacy to point beyond themselves.

I invite you to imagine church leaders standing side by side with leading scientists, artists, multinational executives and government leaders proffering enlightened perspectives on the issues of the day. Imagine our most visible religious spokespersons not condemning the modern world from atop their backward-pointing magical-mythical pulpits, but pointing forward as respected advisors in matters of the utmost importance.
Imagine congregations across the country actively challenging Christianity to “grow-up” into its modern and postmodern possibilities and beyond. Imagine a catechism leading the way into increasingly expansive ways of knowing and leading in the world. Now wouldn’t that be a startling vision for the 21st century church?

Growing up with Humanity
When the bulk of humanity saw the world as magical, our religion was magical. Spirits lived in the trees and forests; animals embodied the earth’s different powers and often were thought of as gods themselves; folks believed that sticking needles in a doll really did hurt the intended victim. When humanity outgrew its magical orientation, religion gave birth to the great myths. In Judaism and Christianity, the great stories of Creation, the Exodus, the flood, Jesus’ birth, and his walking on water, provided a mythological context that matched the mythological understandings of the majority of people. During the age of empire, Christianity built great temples and exalted royalty to express the emerging power of collective organization and the rule of law. The great religious traditions, and Christianity in particular, down through the ages provided stories, beliefs, practices and explanations that soothed, reassured and generally met the needs of the population as new levels of awareness and understanding emerged.

The Enlightenment changed this. Modern rationality rejected the magical and mythological stories that were the foundation of the church’s authority. Science, art and morality broke away from the church and developed along their own modern and postmodern trajectories leaving Christianity in its childhood. But in denying the importance of our spiritual nature, modernity left no cultural resources to resist the alienation of scientism and consumerism. Ironically (and increasingly obviously), neither science nor the marketplace can solve the problems they have created. Now, seemingly, only the church has the legitimacy to point beyond itself and invite faith into the modern and postmodern world which are starving for its sustenance.

Progressive Christianity and Beyond
Wonderful things are happening in the progressive Christian movement, and we delight in the renewed vitality inspired by this vision. Yet we feel the need to point beyond even the progressive Christian movement to what we call the Integral Church. Not only does it welcome those who doubt the trappings of the traditional church and gladly receive the wisdom of other faiths, it then integrates both modern doubt and postmodern pluralism with the mythic foundations of our faith. The Integral Church holds all of this simultaneously in a great celebratory dance.

So imagine, if you will, a church that gives people permission to be exactly where they are on their spiritual journey and simultaneously offers multiple invitations into possibilities just beyond (and sometimes way beyond) their current comfort level. Imagine if this were done with attention to a suitable spectrum of interior capacities, with “Christian stories” appropriate to different stages of the journey, and with a variety of venues for engaging the social, economic and political structures surrounding us. In other words, imagine a church actively inviting the congregation to move through modern awareness into postmodernity and beyond without abandoning its traditional roots. This is the project of the Suquamish Church (United Church of Christ).

Stories for the Journey
In this church we offer a spectrum of Christian stories to nurture people on their journeys. For those who want to challenge their conventional beliefs we offer them doubt, and welcome their well reasoned agnosticism and even atheism. Science, evolution, the historical humanity of Jesus, and the social construction of the Bible are all welcomed here.

Postmodern pluralism is welcomed through “Many Stories….One Community”
wherein we engage, and are changed by, Buddhist, Baha’i, Jewish, and Native American perspectives. This may involve reading the scripture through New Age eyes, exploring different faiths through the Native American medicine wheel, or hearing African American spirituals sung by a Buddhist monk. Our integral story resonates with the Universe Story as developed by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. Swimme makes the audacious claim that the radical relativism of postmodern deconstruction can be contextualized by the universe as a meta-story. We agree.

Integral Theory
These different stories are organized by integral theory. Integral theory has a long and illustrious history but has been most clearly developed and articulated by Ken Wilber. Though not popular among theologians, I am empowered by a congregation thirsty for the clarity and purpose it provides.
A guiding premise of Integral theory is that individuals inhabit qualitatively different orders of consciousness on their spiritual journey and that the introspective, cultural, behavioral and social dimensions of human existence require different modes of thought, different “Christian stories” and different ways of being in and serving the larger community. Let me elaborate.

Levels of Development
The most contentious dimension of Integral Theory is that individuals inhabit qualitatively different orders of consciousness on their spiritual journey. Resistance to this notion is well founded as “being conscious” has too often been used as a cudgel to demean others. It is one of the dangers that comes with an otherwise revelatory way of understanding. Fortunately this dimension of Integral Theory is well grounded in rigorous psychological investigation, beginning with Piaget, and is not nearly as linear and rigid as it appears on the surface. The basic idea is straight forward: we each have a “center of gravity” where our sense of self, our identity, resides most of the time. If I have a rational-scientific orientation in the world it simply means that about 50% of the time I see and understand the world through rational lenses.

The rest of the time I may variously see through less expansive lenses (like when I am cut off in traffic) or more inclusive lenses (in meditation, listening to music or an inspirational speaker). An order of consciousness is more like a wave than a line, like a normal distribution bulging at my most comfortable way of seeing but including perspectives more or less expansive than my preferred orientation.

Another aspect of Integral Theory adds marvelous complexity to this developmental picture: multiple intelligences. All of us are better at some things than others. Some are gifted intellectually, others have outstanding ability for compassion, others have physical capacities that are stunning, still others exhibit a righteousness that humbles us.

There are perhaps two dozen identifiable, relatively autonomous, intelligences in all of us. Each of these has its own path of development and each of us will be more developed in some intelligences and less in others. Hence, we find individuals with highly developed intellects and low moral development (the classic evil genius); folks with immense compassion and little intellectual or physical capacity (downs syndrome at the extreme); people with great interpersonal skills and little ethical awareness (the stereotypical used car saleman); individuals with amazing physical prowess and egocentric identities (the “bad boy” sport star). The combinations are as infinite as humanity itself.

The point is that by saying that folks “inhabit qualitatively different orders of consciousness on their spiritual journey” we are making a statement that has general relevance but can never specify or define an individual. Nevertheless, using a developmental continuum of consciousness offers an essential part of an overall map to guide a church that seeks to meet the needs of individuals in the 21st century.

Questions for Completeness
The second part of my statement “that the introspective, cultural, behavioral and social dimensions of human existence require different modes of thought, different ‘Christian stories’ and different ways of being in and serving the larger community” derives from a taxonomy that permits important questions of completeness to be asked. This taxonomy points to four components of every event that are so fundamental that they are built into the very fabric of our language.

The first dimension concerns the experience of being me. Very simply, what does it feel like to be me? What it is like inside this body? This mind? Who am I? What is my purpose? This is the first person, “I” dimension. It is explored by the fields of psychology, spirituality, and mysticism

The second dimension is we. When you and I interact how do we find mutual understanding? What meanings do we make together? What is the experience of being a “we”? This is the vast arena of culture where, in our collective interaction, we create meaning. These are the cultural stories we tell ourselves to explain the world, give us purpose, and explore an uncertain universe. The disciplines of cultural anthropology, hermeneutics, and theology explore this aspect of our humanness.

These first two dimensions refer to our subjective experience of being myself and being with others. The third dimension shifts to a third person perspective and asks: if I look at an individual entity from the outside what do I see? If an objective person watched my behavior how would they describe it? This is the empirical realm studied by behavioral psychology in the human arena (or chemistry, biology, and physics in the material world).
The fourth aspect of our human existence is really an extension of the third. It asks, how do all the individual “its” fit together? Fields of study like sociology, economics, political science and systems theory ask what happens when all the individual actors come together. What does it look like from the outside?

The value of this taxonomy does not depend upon the details of its components but finds its relevance in an Integral Church by the questions it demands. If we are to support people on their individual spiritual journeys we must ask what is needed for their personal awakening (the “I” dimension)? What stories will support them if and when they choose to move beyond their current comfort zones (the cultural, “we” aspect)?
What kinds of behavior can be expected along the path (what does the individual do)? And what kinds of opportunities for service to the community are appropriate at each stop along the way (the social dimension)?
This is a huge task. Its full expression is well beyond the capacity of this small church. Nonetheless, we are beginning, and this is our experience so far.

An Evolving Integral Church
Suquamish Church seems an unlikely candidate to become an Integral Church. Located across Puget Sound from Seattle, surrounded by the Suquamish Indian Reservation in a middle to lower income community, one would not expect this rather plain looking church to house such a dynamic and adventurous congregation. But this church has the benefit of being one of the few progressive churches in an otherwise conservative area. As such it is a magnet in the region for those seeking a different way to be faithful. The congregation has a large representation of teaching and healing professionals, predominantly baby boomers from their late 40’s to early 60’s and mostly female. More than 40% hold masters degrees or higher. I, as pastor, was called to the church because of my eclectic background (college professor, artist, minister) and unorthodox relationship to Christianity. Increasingly, this community sees itself as “scouts” exploring ways in which the church can serve the spiritual needs of both modern and postmodern “seekers” from its roots in the Christian tradition. We refer to our church culture as one of “permission and possibilities.”

Two dimensions of this culture stand out. The first combines trust, playfulness and the invitation to fail. If you want to move out of your comfort zone there is no more powerful setting than a non-judgmental, loving community in which to explore spiritual stuff at your edge. In fact, this may be the most important role for the church in American society as no other institution can offer a setting with neither time constraints (it always “God’s time”), nor expectations of achievement.

This plays out is in a pervasive playfulness. This playfulness spans from our “spontaneous ushering” during worship to a remarkably lighthearted, but profoundly penetrating, challenge of our beliefs in regular classes.
The second dimension of our culture of “permission and possibilities” is Story. If we are to invite folks to stretch beyond their current way of knowing we must assure them of a landing place; a landing place that feels Christian even if doesn’t look Christian. As mentioned above, we celebrate and explore the Christian story in its traditional, modern, postmodern and integral forms. The opportunities for personal exploration occur primarily in two venues.

The first we call Transformational Prayer. This program combines the constructive-developmental work of Robert Kegan (How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work) with the inquiry of Byron Katie (Loving What Is) and direct path Zen (“Who am I?”). Over the course of 6 to 8 weeks a group of not more than 10 individuals works through Kegan’s internal languages from complaint to competing commitments to the Big Assumptions that hold us and through which we view the world and act upon it.

Not only do we devise safe tests of those assumptions we inquire directly into them using Byron Katie’s four questions: is it true? Can you know for certain it is true? How do you react when you hold it as true? How would you be if you could not have that Assumption or thought? Then turn it around. Finally, we inquire directly into the very nature of our being by asking who or what am I? While this practice may not sound Christian it nonetheless offers a pathway into the nothingness (Our Father) that is everything (the Christ), or however you want to say it.

The second opportunity for personal exploration we call TAGS (Talking About God Stuff). It’s quite simple: We watch a video, stop it whenever an interesting point arises, and see where the conversation leads.
Watching a video means no one has to read anything, so everyone comes prepared. We watch everything from cosmologist Brian Swimme, to mythologist Joseph Campbell, to Zen teachers Adyashanti and Genpo Roshi, to theologians Marcus Borg and John Spong, to spiritual gurus Eckhart Tolle and Gangaji.

Two different groups have met continuously for nearly four years. Our conversations span faith stories, good and evil, the nature of time, free will and much more, all in an atmosphere of play and caring.

The energy for personal exploration, supported by a spectrum of Christian stories, is expressed in a variety of social activities. While we do not emphasize social engagement as a church body, we do stress that we are helping to build the interior and cultural resources that enable folks to pursue their particular social concerns. There are traditional charitable and caring activities (Thanksgiving food baskets, emergency funds for the poor, outreach to the elderly and infirm) as well as modern and postmodern lectures and workshops around such issues as global warming, spiritual values in American politics, and gay and lesbian issues.

It All Comes Together in Worship
The nascent Integral character of this church is celebrated most clearly in our regular Sunday morning worship. The roots of our Christian heritage are renewed in the consistent and fairly traditional “order of worship”, by the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, by a regular time for prayers, and by at least one traditional hymn. These roots create a “safe space” for moving beyond tradition. This may include a direct challenge to Biblical authority, interpreting scripture through Zen eyes, 60’s rock songs for hymns, a Wicca priestess for Beltane, a contemplative walk into emptiness, meditation on the Aramaic words of Jesus, joint services with other faiths, the outright questioning of all belief, or the burning of pledge cards, all set in an atmosphere of sacred playfulness.

The Essential Ingredients
What makes all this work? We sometimes refer to it as the “reverence of
irreverence”: a combination of humor, a loving playfulness and an expansive meta-story. The point is, this is not serious business! This is play. We don’t have to accomplish anything. We don’t have to be rescued. We don’t have to evolve. There is no time frame. We can mess up as much as we want. There is no place to go, no one to save, no sins to be forgiven, no wrongs to be righted (the Kingdom of Heaven is already here!).

The overriding story of this community is that we are loved, no conditions. In second person language, God is out there loving us (gave his only son, etc.); in first person language, the great I AM dances us, each and every one; or in the third person, we are integral to the bio-spiritual universe in its evolution. It doesn’t matter how you say it. You don’t even have to believe it. Just try it out. The profound freedom of a community living a story of unconditional love allows us to laugh at ourselves, play with our lives and care deeply about one another. It is the heart of the Integral Church.

Our adventure now is to become more intentional as an Integral Church.
None of what I described above was directly designed to be integral, but emerged around a leadership that has held an integral vision consistently, but lightly. We have now embarked on a program to adapt Wilber’s vision in Integral Spirituality into both a usable map and a viable curriculum for our church. As mentioned, we see ourselves as scouts, charting a path of relevance for Christian faith in the 21st century. If we avoid taking ourselves too seriously we may have much to offer.

Tom Thresher is pastor of Suquamish United Church of Christ in Suquamish

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