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Dustin DiPernaDustin DiPerna is founder of Bright Alliance ( and Co-Founder of Synergy Forum ( He is an entrepreneur, thought leader, group facilitator, and meditation instructor. For the past decade he has been a student of Integral Theory and has practiced in the spiritual lineages of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Dustin received a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University and a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Religion from Harvard University. His released his first two books, The Coming Waves and Streams of Wisdom, earlier this year. He lives in California with his wife, Amanda, and daughter, Jaya.



The Christian Ladder

The Infinite Ladder: An Introduction to
Integral Religious Studies, Chapter 8

Dustin DiPerna

This section examines the evidence that supports the need for the birth of a truly integral version of religious studies. Having clearly delineated each altitude over the past few chapters, we now provide examples of each level of religious orientation from within four of our world's traditions.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, if we are to engage in integral religious dialogue, we must be precise when indicating our subject of discussion. Remember, the world appears drastically different depending on one's perspective (I, WE, and IT), one's altitude (red, amber, orange, green, turquoise) and the culture in which one is embedded. In each of the following chapters we portray an objective perspective (IT sphere) of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and how each might look at the diverse stages of religious orientation.

Snapshot of Christianity

There are over two billion Christians; making it the most populous religion on our planet.[1]

In the West, it was Christ who was one of the first to have a spiritual experience of causal union. If we recall from Chapter 5 [Spiritual Experience], a peak experience of causal union discloses that the ground and source of all of existence is none other than one's own Self. “I and the Father are One” Christ explained. It was this recognition that gave Christ his unrivaled reputation in a community first exposed to such ideas. Beyond the single personal God encountered in subtle communion by Moses, Christ discovered the ground of all being; a formless union of the soul and Godhead.[3]

Despite the profound breakthrough that Christ's causal realization brought to the West, repeated experience of a similar state by others soon dwindled. As Christian follows reflected on the life and teachings of Jesus, less did they make him the example, and more did they make him the exception. Slowly, Christ's causal peak experience was placed on a pedestal. After time, it was only Christ who was allowed to claim identification with the divine. In the East, causal union or union with the divine, would remain available to all aspirants. In the West, Godhead was reserved, at all costs, only for Christ.

Magic Christianity

Recalling from our last chapter [Initial Implications], religious traditions with founders are born into the world according to the unique psychograph of the founder. Assuming Christ was well advanced for his time, Christianity probably entered the scene through either a mythic or rational religious orientation. However, in order to maintain legitimacy with the common adherent, it was translated down to magic altitudes so that it could be properly received by the masses.

Even today, we witness the same type of translation. If we were to generalize, mainstream Christians tend to hold a mythic orientation towards their faith. Most at this mythic level believe in miracles, in divine resurrection, and in a virgin birth (all items that are reevaluated at the rational stage). However, to meet the psychological needs of some individuals, Christianity must be translated down one further step. Below we explore one example of Christianity as it is expressed from a magic orientation.

Red altitude has several distinct features; some of which include a focus on power, literal interpretation of specific verses, superstitions, and ritual etc. We see all of these described in the example below.

George Hensley and the Snake Handlers

Type: extreme Stage: magic

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

Serpent handling is “a religious practice observed by a small group within the Pentecostal movement that evolved around the turn of the twentieth century.”[4] We place George Hensley and the average snake handler into our category of moderate magic Christianity. Certain religious orientations, especially those who interpret the faith and scripture literally, tend to latch on to particular verses to help promote and reinforce their beliefs. Leaders and founders of sects often choose scriptures that give meaning and courage. The snake handler movement is no exception:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

It is to the above passage that magic oriented snake handlers link their practices.

The tale of the movement's inception is often told as follows: In 1908, a man by the name of George Hensley, while contemplating the meaning of the Mark verse quoted above, decided to climb a mountain in Appalachia to pray. Deep in prayer Hensley had a profound religious experience of subtle communion. All of a sudden and without warning he “felt the power of God on him”. Upon looking down at the ground he saw a rattlesnake. Filled with both excitement and curiosity “he took it up and was not bitten.” [4] A function, as he had learned in the scripture, only possible for those true believers, engulfed in the Holy Spirit. This event, as the story goes, marked the beginning of the Holiness movement centered around snake handling.

In addition to ritualized snake handling at services, these “believers” also engage, as the scriptures encourage, in the practice of drinking poison. It is not uncommon for “deadly things” such as battery acid and strychnine to be consumed as a ritual expression of their faith. Despite the fact that most Pentecostals rejected both snake handling and drinking poison, the movement managed to spread to communities reaching as far south as Florida and as far north as Ohio.[5]

Most notably, the actions such as handling snakes, drinking poison, and speaking in tongues come either to encourage or as an expression of being engulfed in the Holy Spirit. Using our Wilber-Combs Matrix we know that these are all authentic expressions of gross and subtle communion as they are interpreted using a magic lens. So the deep structures are indeed of gross and subtle variation but their surface structures are influenced by both the culture and the psychographs of those having the experience. Dennis Covington, a journalist, engaged in the rituals and practices first hand in order to more profoundly understand the belief system. He describes his first experience handling a rattlesnake:

It was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared…The air was silent and still and filled with [a] strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into white.[6]

So how do all of these pieces of information help us to locate a typical snake handler on our scale of religious orientation? Let's take a closer look.

In this first explication, we examine each line of development one at a time.


We would place the snake handlers bordering on the edge between Fowler's intuitive-projective and Mythic-Literal level of Faith development. Despite numerous deaths within the movement, individuals hold strongly to the belief that the scriptures quoted above should be taken literally. If they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. No amount of sickness, suffering, or death can convince magic adherents that perhaps the scriptures should not be taken literally. In addition, some of these individuals show signs that they still rest near intuitive-projective forms of faith development. Some individuals blur the line between fantasy and reality. In their own desire for strength and power they project these qualities onto the snakes and seek salvation from an external Holy Spirit.


We would place an average snake handler at the very beginning stages of concrete operational thinking. Although individuals have the ability to think logically for most practical purposes, they lack the insight to reflect on their beliefs, and inquire into deeper meaning. No attempts are made to examine their faith as one whole coherent system. It is emotional impulse and not philosophical reason that enters the snake handler's immediate awareness.


In the chart above, we suggest that an average snake handler is around the self-protective phase of ego development. Blame and responsibility are placed somewhere outside of themselves. We see snake handlers giving credit to the Holy Spirit and blaming evil spirits or even Satan for their woes. This redistribution of credit and blame is one key indicator of self-protective ego development. The self-sense here is in limbo. It has dis-identified with the physical environment enough to be protective of it's own existence but it has not yet grown to completely identify with and as the group (conformist).


We place the average snake handler between Graves' power gods and kin spirits. When reading first-hand accounts, we repeatedly see an emphasis on power.[6] Handling the snakes provides courage and strength in a world in which many of the individuals feel powerless. There is even some degree of discrimination that occurs between those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit and those who have not.

Others show characteristics of the pervious value meme called kin-spirits. Some handlers use ritual and superstition to overcome life's obstacles. Covington notes, “for every outward sign, there is a spiritual equivalent. When somebody falls to his knees, a specific problem presents itself, and the others know exactly what to do, whether it's oil for healing, or a prayer cloth thrown over the shoulders, or a devil that needs to be cast out. The best, of course, the simplest and cleanest, is when someone gets the Holy Ghost for the first time.”[6] The emphasis on superstition to dissolve and influence problems is a classic expression of kin spirit values.


We place snake handlers at pre-conventional moral development. Perspectives are limited and do not always take into consideration the ethical implications for one's family or the congregation itself if a snake were to escape and bite a member of the community. With pre-conventional morals, some of these individuals continuously break the law (i.e. some practice snake handling in public where it has been forbidden); not because they have taken all perspectives and reasoned beyond it (post-conventional), but because they simply don't want to follow the established rule. Despite laws and regulations forbidding snake handling and other dangerous practices, the rituals continue to take place. There is, in a sense, a lack of respect for the laws that results in continual punishment and even death.


Unlike the mythic orientation who believe that membership in a belief system can itself be enough for salvation, snake handlers believe that faith and salvation is an individual affair. True salvation comes from the sacred gift of being engulfed by the Holy Spirit (a.k.a. Holy Spirit baptized). Often this is accompanied by Glossolalia, speaking in tongues. Faith and salvation are strictly personal, ego-centric endeavors. 'I handle the snake. I don't get bit. I have Faith. You handle the snake, you get bit, you do not have faith' As a result those without faith possess an uncertain future. Despite the same belief system those individuals who have proven their faith are saved while those who have not, hang in limbo.

With this analysis we see all five indicators pointing to a red altitude. It is important to note that not every snake handler would fall exactly into the categories as described above. Religious systems themselves fall into the sphere we call ITS. Systems are external in nature, waiting to be filled up with the interiors of adherents. Religious systems can be filled with any and every level of religious orientation. However, in this particular situation, first hand quotes from religious “insiders” do indeed show us that at least some adherents of snake handling rest at magic levels.

Mythic Christianity

Mythic Christianity rises to a slightly higher level of interpretation. Emerging in this stage is a perspective that examines the Bible as a whole. The bible is seen as a collection of historical facts that are indeed divine revelation. At this stage, the character of Jesus is blown up to mega-proportions. He is a super-figure in history. As Joseph Campbell would say, Jesus symbolizes the hero of the Christian legend.

Below we explore two types of mythic Christianity. First, we look at the mythic extremism expressed by Jerry Falwell. Then we examine the mythic moderate expression that the majority of Christians maintain today.

Jerry Falwell and Mythic Extremist

Type: extreme Stage: mythic

We begin with an example of the mythic Christian leader and spokesman, Jerry Falwell. We classify Jerry Falwell in our category of mythic extremist. Often adherents to this category are called fundamentalists.

Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby have spearheaded research under what they call the Fundamentalism Project. In their research they uncover several telling characteristics regarding fundamentalist groups from around the globe. “Marty and Appleby describe a variety of 'family resemblances' of religious fundamentalism that appear in widely divergent cultures. They include, in particular, a reliance on religion as a source for identity; boundary setting that determines who belongs and who does not; dramatic eschatologies; and the dramatization and mythologization of enemies.” [7] We see many of these characteristics expressed by mythic level orientations in all four of our religious traditions explored throughout next several chapters.

More specifically, with regard to Falwell, we ask 'what is a Christian fundamentalist?' We turn to the book The Evangelicals for answers:

In 1910, a consensus emerged around the 'five fundamentals' of faith...These beliefs which were not to be compromised in any way were 'the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, his vicarious atonement, his bodily resurrection, the historicity of Christ's biblically recorded miracles. [8]

Christian fundamentalism is a defining characteristic of mythic extremism. Uniquely enough, Falwell's life has been documented rather well. So well, in fact, that through biographies we can actually witness a transformation as his center of gravity shifts from a red altitude of power values to its current and more traditional amber level. In his earlier days, Falwell was a troublemaker. “Before he converted, Jerry was a 'prankster' and a neighborhood 'gang leader'.”[9] When using our integral psychograph one can imagine the altitude at which Falwell must have resided during his gang leading days; egocentric, with power values and perhaps even a self-protective ego. The mythic system of Christianity that he was introduced to helped him to transform from red to amber altitude, resulting in what the author above calls a conversion. Analogous conversion stories abound describing similar transformations taking place as those who normally rest at a red altitude in several lines of development mature to amber levels.

Mythic Moderate Christianity

Type: Moderate Stage: Mythic

Although the majority of adult Americans who regularly attend church and consider themselves Christians may not fall into the category of extreme mythic orientation, many nonetheless may still hold mythic levels of orientation of less intensity.

The moderate mythic Christian, would have faith development now teetering between mythical-literal and synthetic-conventional; with members of this level of orientation expressing a range of both. Falwell clearly expresses a belief system that leans toward the literal side. A moderate mythic Christian may lean more toward the miracles of Jesus or with a deep commitment to the epic stories of the bible (synthetic conventional). This is the altitude of many evangelical Christians and is the level of awareness expressed at most mega churches.

At amber altitude a strong focus is placed on “the traditional biblical concepts of the person and character of Christ, the special divine creation of humanity, [and] providence.”[8] . According to some at this stage, “the bible is entirely true in the ordinary sense of accurately depicting historical events. The rule of inerrancy extends, not explicitly and by no means irrevocably (as it does to the bible), to preachers and other “men of God” [9] .

Christians at this level may have cognitive development that ranges the entire spectrum, precisely because cognitive understanding is the trailblazer for all other lines. Remember, cognitive line is “necessary but not sufficient” for development in other lines. As a result, some individuals maintain very high cognitive intelligence but still hold on to mythic interpretation of faith (like our example of Jane, who remains stunted because she has no idea higher levels are available).

With all likelihood an individual at this level expresses conformist ego development. mythic level Christianly places a huge emphasis on role-identity. To be a member of the church, a responsible citizen, and part of the truly blessed one must conform to a particular set of rules and ideals that meet the satisfaction of the Christian community.

At mythic orientation one releases the emphasis on power that we saw in the magic stage. This level sees a shift in values that now focuses on the truth-force. There is an absolute right and wrong. Things are either black or white. 'You are either with us or against us' is a favorite catch phrase of this level.

Jerry Falwell is just one example of how an individual at this level expresses conventional morals by placing authority on the Bible. Others, like mythic oriented Catholics, might express conventional morals by giving ethical authority to the Pope or other religious leaders. In either case, moral decisions are left up to some sort of external authority.

At amber altitude, ethno-centric modes of awareness begin to take hold of individuals. Mythic Christians observe the “absolute uniqueness of Christianity as the one faith by which all must be saved” [8]. Falwell's comment 'Mohammad is a terrorist' while in an interview on 60 Minutes is just one example of how an individual at this level of development lacks the ability to take the truths of other traditions and cultures into consideration.

Rational Christianity

Rational Christianity tends to take one of four turns. Although we describe these turns in a Christian context, these four turns are present in almost every tradition.

  1. The first of our four rational paths occurs when an individual decides to maintain his/her Christian beliefs but recontexualizes them to fit their rational world view. This is often titled the de-mythologyizing of Christianity.
  2. A second route Christians take as they exit mythic orientation, is to hold their beliefs in limbo as an agnostic; allowing all other value spheres to flourish but determining that there is no way to know whether the biblical God of exists.
  3. The third path some individuals take is to throw out spirituality and altogether. In common vernacular, we call this person an atheist. Often the atheist allows the scientific sphere to cannibalize the other value spheres. To these individuals, Christianity is understood as mythic, infantile, a crutch, owning no avenue through which reconciliation with rationality is possible (i.e. Freud, Dawkins).
  4. A final option for those exiting mythic orientation has emerged more recently in our history. As information regarding other cultures and belief systems becomes available, individuals taking this fourth path are desperate to keep spirituality alive but find no plausible salvation in Christianity. As a result, these individuals begin to examine other traditions as a source for answers. Occasionally, these individuals turn toward religions of the East. In Buddhism, many Westerners find a logical and rational philosophy for living. To make the transition even smoother Buddhism was imported to the West at a rational orange altitude, stripped of the myths and superstitions that Westerners were ready to abandon in their own Christian religion. (These same individuals are often shocked when they realize that the same types of myths and superstitions abound in the magic and mythical versions of Buddhism practiced in their native culture.)

As described in our book's introduction, with the birth of the Western Enlightenment the values spheres of art, morals, and science escaped their imprisonment from the reign of the church. Spirituality, on the other hand, was frozen at the mythic level because it was not properly differentiated from the Church itself. All of this is certainly true, however, it was not absolute. Some individuals made valiant attempts at the first turn of rational Christianity listed above. In rare cases of de-mythologizing, some individuals developed modern versions of faith in line with scientific thought and reason.

The Demythologyizing of Christianity

Religious scholar Robert Krapohl describes the relationship between this rebellious form of Christianity and Modernity: “In a theological context…modernism generally meant: (1) the contentious, intended adaptation of religious ideas to modern culture, (2) the idea that God is immanent in human cultural development and revealed through it, and (3) the belief that human society is moving toward realization of the Kingdom of God. To accommodate the prevailing empirical epistemology, modernists conceived hermeneutical techniques for interpreting biblical texts that shifted from the literalist to the allegorical, mythical, and symbolic.” [8] Individuals at the orange altitude no longer take the bible literally, nor do they see it as absolute truth. Instead they search for the underlying principals contained in the myths of the bible. They ask themselves “What are the moral implications of the story?”

The forefathers of the United States subscribed to an orange level of religious orientation. One early and noble attempt at de-mythologizing Christianity came from Thomas Jefferson in what is known as the “Jefferson Bible”. In the Jefferson Bible, or what was properly titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson made every attempt to strip the bible of those concepts no longer legit in the modern world. By removing the supernatural and any other commentary he thought may have been incorrectly added by the Four Evangelicals, he attempted to uncover the true teachings and philosophy of Jesus.

These very same currents that attempt to de-mythologize and translate mythic beliefs hold profound value for us today in our modern democratic world. To quote Senator Barak Obama: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”[10] Below we provide one clear example of prominent religious leader today attempting to do just such a modern translation.

Bishop John Shelby Spong

Type: moderate Stage: rational

In a world with the majority of Christians maintaining a mythic level of religious orientation or lower, it is often difficult to avoid controversy when expounding rational beliefs. Those residing at a mythic level of orientation are often the first to declare any ideas threatening to their worldview as heresy. The case of Bishop John Shelby Spong is no different. Although Spong himself may reside at a pluralistic altitude, his writing is directed at an amber-orange audience. In other words, Spong focuses on those ready to exit a mythic level of orientation and enter into the world of rational Christianity.

Commenting on the five fundamentals as outlined in our section on mythic Christianity, Spong states:

Today I find each of these fundamentals, as traditionally understood, to be not just naive, but eminently rejectable. Nor would any of them be supported in our generation by reputable Christian scholars.

Scripture is filled with cultural attitudes that we have long ago abandoned and with behavior that today regarded as immoral. Concepts such as virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and the second coming are today more often regarded as symbols to be understood theologically than as events that occurred in literal history. The substitutionary view of atonement has become grotesque, both in its understanding of a God who requires the shed blood of human sacrifice as a prerequisite for salvation and in its definition of humanity as fallen and depraved.

If these things still constitute the faith of Christian people, then Christianity has become for me and countless others hopelessly unbelievable. Surely the essence of Christianity is not found in any or all of these propositions.[11]

Without a doubt Spong has moved beyond the confines of a mythic orientation. He, with both passion and bravery, hopes to lead 'countless others' through what he describes as a 'New Reformation'. Needless to say, all of this is difficult to swallow for Christian adherents and Christian leaders who blindly cling to a mythic level of orientation. Some dissenters have even declared Spong work to be un-Christian. In response to such critique, Spong reassures his audience: “I define myself first and foremost as a Christian believer…My problem has never been my faith. It has always been the literal way that human beings have chosen to articulate that faith.” In the preceding quote, Spong attempts to separate himself from the mythic-literal versions of Christianity that dominate the world. In essence, Spong not only declares himself a Christian but a rational Christian.

On his website Spong is quoted as follows: “Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity…” Quite extraordinarily, almost every point below that Spong proposes is a direct challenge to the classic mythic level of religious orientation.

The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:

  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.
  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.
  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.
  4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  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.
  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.”[12]

Spong's bravery to challenge mythic level of orientation is a direct attempt to rescue Western religion and spirituality from its pre-modern fusion. It is only through attempts like his that there is hope for an evolving Christian religion fit for every age.

Faith development of the atheist, the agnostic, and subscribers to Spong's New Reformation must necessarily rest somewhere at or beyond individuative-reflective faith. Individuals have come to recognize that they must critically evaluate their belief in the “Christian Fundamentals”. At an orange altitude, nothing should be taken as blind faith. All beliefs must be examined using the careful scrutiny of the intellect. Hence, Fowler uses the term reflective.

In order to reach individuative-reflective levels of faith, cognitive development must reach to or beyond formal operational cognition. Individuals must learn to make their own ideologies objects in their awareness. Some of the great contributions to our world by the theorist, scientists, and inventors all of whom we can assume had cognitive development far beyond formal-operational thinking have none the less been agnostics and atheists.

Rational Christians can run the whole spectrum of ego development. In most cases ego development rests beyond the conformist stage due to the fact that very few groups of people alive today are aware of rational versions of Christianity. In the future, as more and more people embrace rational levels of faith (or as the center of gravity of our culture continues to evolve), it is likely that individuals may remain at a conformist level of ego development while subscribing to a rational religious orientation, simply because in the future there will be a rational group to conform with.

Often, Christianity at an orange altitude requires values expressing Graves' strive-drive. No longer is the individual caught up in truth-force values of right and wrong. In order to surpass mythic orientation the individual must have an intrinsic “drive” to discover truth for oneself; even if pursuing the truth means moving beyond conformity, black and white distinctions, or a rebellion against structure.

Because the rational stage of orientation is composed of a self-reflective faith, a mature ego, and values beyond truth force, moral development is likely to rest at post-conventional levels. One can now think for oneself; no longer is the compass of right and wrong connected with only the bible or the clergy.

The worldview of the rational Christian has for the first time reached a world-centric understanding. People are seen as human beings first and foremost, regardless of race, color, class, creed, or sexual orientation. In our example above, Spong is clear that no external description of a person should be grounds for discrimination or rejection. All are beings of equal stature; all deserve the same basic human rights and dignities.

In following passage Spong, who normally writes and speaks to an audience of amber-orange altitude, hints that even deeper, higher altitudes exist beyond the rational Christianity:

God cannot be bound by the limits of our religious systems…That realization will enable us to walk into an ecumenical future that will be so dramatically different as to be breathtaking. We will be enabled to see the Ground of Being in Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, as well as Jesus…The God who is the Ground of Being cannot be bound, not even by our religious claims…Once that is understood, then it becomes apparent that none of us should denigrate the doorways through which others journey in their quest to enter the holy God.[11]

On that note, we are ready to venture to our next stage of religious orientation.

Pluralistic Christianity

The pluralistic altitude of religious orientation, within the Christian context, is represented by many scholars but few in mainstream society. Pluralism is an altitude that requires significantly mature levels of development. In other words, because it is one of the highest altitudes available today its' prerequisites are fierce. We find that this is a basic rule with development: the higher the altitude, the fewer proponents. This equation is a direct result of the fact that everyone is born into the lower altitude of the developmental spectrum and only a select few continue to higher altitudes. Wilber describes this same phenomenon is the concise statement, 'more depth, less span'.

In our description of pluralistic Christianity we provide a framework proposed by theologian Paul Knitter. This intellectual attempt has done its very best to find a cohesive marriage between the best of post-modernity and the Christian faith.

Paul Knitter and A Correlational, Globally Responsible Model

Type: moderate Stage: pluralistic

Before explaining his model, Knitter begins by outlining his own path spiritual path and how it has unfolded in three distinct stages: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Delightfully, we can trace his path directly to his own level of psychological development as it unfolded to include more comprehensive and compassionate levels of interacting with the world.

Exclusivism (mythic)

Knitter explains that his “dialogical odyssey began pretty much as a monologue…Other religious persons interested me not so much because I wanted to converse with them, but because I wanted to convert them.” This compulsion to convert manifests because he believed, “We had the word and Spirit; they had sin and heathenism…” [12] It is clear here that Knitter was once deeply rooted in ethnocentric beliefs. At this stage, we would place Knitter deep within a mythic level of orientation. Upon more and more encounters with other religions Knitter found teachings and practices of “beauty and mystery”. He continues, “There was much I couldn't fit into my Christian categories; there was much that I liked…I had an uneasy but distinct sense that the old exclusivist model of Christianity as light and other religions as darkness didn't fit the facts”. [12] Knitter's belief system begins to show signs that he is ready to exit mythic levels and enter into more tolerant, rational expressions of his faith.

Inclusivism (rational)

Next, Knitter matures to what he calls his inclusivist stage. Knitter associates the inclusivist model with the likes of Vatican II and Karl Rahner. This shift in Knitter's thinking allowed him to begin touching on a more reflective way of thinking. Although we would not place him entirely at an Orange altitude, due to his relentless ethno-centricism, we certainly can see rational Christianity beginning to emerge.

He emphasizes Rahner and the inclusivist position through the idea of “anonymous Christians”. More specifically this refers to the theory that “non-Christians are 'saved' by the grace and presence of Christ working anonymously within their religions.” It is not the fact that religions themselves are doing anything unique or worthwhile, rather it is the fact that Christ is working through their religions. Knitter continues to give a personal account of this stage in his spiritual development, “I myself was not able to imagine that such wisdom and grace in other traditions could be anything else but 'reflections' of the fullness of truth and grace incarnated in Jesus the Christ.”[12] At this point, Knitter can show tolerance but fails to acknowledge each faith as a legitimate expression of the Ultimate Reality.

Pluralism (pluralistic)

Finally, Knitter describes his evolution to his current stage he calls pluralism:

“There were particular experiences and insights that shook and then rearranged my theological perspectives: When I realized that perhaps the Hindu claim of non-dualism between Brahman and Atman was not just an analog, but perhaps a more coherent expression of what Rahner was trying to articulate with his notion of the supernatural existential; or when I realized that the Buddhist experience of Annata (no-self), as much as I had understood and felt it, enabled me to better understand and, I think live, Paul's claim 'It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me' (Gal 2:20).”[12]

All of which we consider very profound and accurate insights. Knitter continues as he describes his experience of religious pluralism:

It is not at all abandoning the Christian witness contained in scripture and tradition, but rather understanding it more deeply and thus preserving it… one sublates…the given Christocentric approach to other believers with one that is theocentric. Though we Christians claim Jesus the Christ as our necessary and happy starting point and focus for understanding ourselves and other peoples, we must also remind ourselves that the Divine Mystery which we know in Jesus and which we call Theos or God, is ever greater than the reality and message of Jesus…all religions could be, perhaps need to be…related to each other as all of them continue their efforts to discover or be faithful to inexhaustible Mystery or Truth…I had, indeed, moved off the bridge, from inclusivsm to some form of pluralism.” [12]

This move from a rational to pluralistic forms of religious expression is a rare and cherished step on the ladder of religious orientation.

Once at a pluralistic altitude Knitter began to create models that helped to explain the world from his point of view. He describes his viewpoint using a global perspective. Not only should we encourage dialogue among religions but also a “common commitment to human and ecological well-being.” According to Knitter's pluralistic altitude, global responsibility goes beyond social justice to include eco-human justice as well; “Such a project in order truly to attend to the needs of all the globe, must be an effort by the entire globe and all its nations and religions.” Gone are the barriers that he thought existed from earlier vantage points in his development.

Knowing quite well that there will be challenges from within the Christain community, Knitter turns to the tradition itself for support. Out of his list of incentives to support a more pluralistic orientation, perhaps the most persuasive is the incentive provided in the First Commandment:

If God's love is unbounded, ours ought to be. We are called upon to love each other as God loves us. This is, for Christians, the first commandment –which means that this commandment takes priority over all other commandments in all aspects of life. It also means that, in situations where one has to choose, loving one's neighbor takes a prior place to proclaiming true doctrine or to formally worshipping God. No matter how important, even essential, orthodoxy and liturgy are, they cannot be made more important than loving our neighbor. We know the biblical images and refrains: first work things out with your alienated brother and sister, then go to church (Mt 5:23-24). Don't let the Sabbath observance, with its professions on faith and sacrifices, get in the way of doing good to your neighbor; better 'break' the Sabbath (offend God!) than fail in loving your neighbor (Mt 12:12).[12]

Faith development in Knitter and all others at the pluralistic stage of religious orientation has reached Fowler's conjunctive stage. Those here have gained the ability to hold what appear to be opposing ideas. As Knitter points out: “Here again we are teased by the psychologically tantalizing paradox of religious experience: the more deeply we experience and are committed to a particular expression of the Divine, the more we sense and are opened to the universality of the Divine.”[12]

Cognitive development has reached early vision logic. Knitter seems to be able to not only reflect on his own beliefs but he can also take in the perspectives of all others. His understanding that the divine mystery is ever greater than the confines of the message of Jesus is a deep way of adding up all perspectives and privileging none.

Susanne Cook-Greuter and Jane Loevinger would probably agree that Knitter's ego development has reached to or beyond autonomous levels. Knitter holds broad 'social ideals' like his proposal that religious dialogue should include as its premise global responsibility. In addition, Knitter has made peace with his own ability to hold 'internal conflict'. He sees no distress between being a Christian while simultaneously embracing other faiths.

At this green altitude, human bond and dialogue become center of what one values. Knitter's model focuses on proper communication between religious traditions. It is at this level that we not only have tolerance for others but that we now value deep human connections with the religious “other”. The pluralistic level values the bond that comes from authentically seeing the religious “other” without imposing ones own preference or perspective.

In our example above, Knitter has moved beyond world-centric views to what can only be called Kosmo-centric views. Kosmo-centric implies a level in which perspective taking has shifted beyond humans to include all sentient beings. Knitter notes, “More recently I have come to understand even feel, the suffering not only of humans but of all sentient beings, including mother earth.”[12] Kosmo-centric worldviews can be an indicators of stages of religious orientation green and higher.

Extreme versions of the pluralistic level might take cultural sensitivity to its max. Some at this level might abandon the idea of a universal truth all together. Emphasizing, as do some deconstructionist, that everything is left up to context and interpretation so much that there is no such thing as universal meaning.

Integral Christianity

An integral Christianity would transcend and include all of the important ideas brought forth at pluralistic levels, while simultaneously jettisoning all the unneeded aspects. An integral altitude would make every attempt to maintain a clear and comprehensive perspective, including key pieces of information from all realms of human knowledge.

More precisely, for this and every tradition, an integral religious scholar would locate each of our examples discussed above along both a horizontal spectrum of types as well as a vertical spectrum of stages. A graph like the following helps provide a visual representation of where each piece of evidence might fall.

Our integral approach is clarified when we examine not the similarities but the differences between Knitter's approach at the pluralistic level and the approach one might take from an integral altitude. First, we must analyze the areas in which we believe Knitter's system is partial. Knitter fails to recognize that human development is a central feature of religious studies. Although Knitter proposes a three stage sequence for his own development, and at a point even mentions Fowler's stage model,13 he does not make the stage outline explicit or try to demonstrate that the sequence might be a universal human truth within all religions.

Secondly, Knitter's mental framework forces him to commit the classic error of green altitude: he confuses dominating hierarchies with pathological hierarchies. Knitter's confusion between dominating hierarchies and natural hierarchies forces him to throw all hierarchies out the window. He explains:

For a correlational dialogue to take place, the dialogical encounter will have to be carried out in egalitarian, not a hierarchical, community. Though all religious participants will speak their mind and make truth claims to each other, none of them will do so from a theological position that claims that theirs is the religion meant to dominate or absorb or stand in judgment over all others. A correlational dialogue cannot begin with one religion claiming to hold all the cards or to be superior in all respects over the others or to have the final norm that will exclude or absorb all other norms.[12]

Knitter's claim is true but partial.

What is true? We believe that Knitter is correct in that one religion should not attempt to demonstrate its superiority over all the others. This could indeed lead down a slippery slope to the dominating arrogance of exclusivicm or inclusivism.

What is partial? We disagree that hierarchies be thrown out all together. Instead of claming that one religion is superior to another we claim that perspectives and worldviews can indeed be more mature than others depending on their degree of compassion, embrace, and psychological maturity. With the understanding of psychological developmental levels, we can see that dialogue can still occur with the presence and acceptance of natural hierarchies (as discussed in the previous chapter [Initial Implications]). One at an integral level can clearly differentiate healthy from unhealthy hierarchies and has no reservations about using hierarchies when necessary. An integral religious scholar can make accurate observations that stages can and do unfold in a natural hierarchy of increasing compassion and embrace within individuals.

In addition to confusing the two types of hierarchies, an integral awareness would point out that Knitters model focuses almost entirely on the WE and IT spheres of culture and society. We first introduced in chapter 2 [Transcending Pluralism] that a truly integral model would include the I, WE, and IT spheres of knowledge. Other than his own psychological analysis, he leaves out the “I” sphere entirely when applying his model to the world at large. Not only does he not include universal stages of human development, but he also fails to include any sort of understanding of the array of spiritual experiences available to all humans.

Knitter makes a valiant attempt at a new religious model. Unfortunately, he leaves out several features that an integral model would certainly want to include. Integral Christianity is currently being pursued at length through the Integral Spiritual Center. Prominent Christian teachers like Father Thomas Keating and Brother David Steindl-Rast are leading the way.


[1] www.adherents .com

[2] Smith, H., The World's Religions : Our Great Wisdom Traditions, [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

[3] Wilber, K., Up From Eden. A transpersonal view of human evolution. Theosophical Publishing House. Wheaton, Illinois – Chennai (madras), India. Quest books, 1996.

[4] Schwartz, S.W., Faith, Serpents, and Fire : Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

[5] Sims, P., Can Somebody Shout Amen! : Inside the Tents and Tabernacles of American Revivalists, Vol. Religion in the South Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996..

[6] Covington, D., Salvation on Sand Mountain : Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1995.

[7] Bartholomeusz, T.J., and Silva De, C.R., Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

[8] Krapohl, R.H., & Ch.H. Lippy. The Evangelicals : A Historical, Thematic, and Biographical Guide, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999..

[9] Harding, S.Friend. The Book of Jerry Falwell : Fundamentalist Language and Politics, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[10] Obama, Barack. Speech: Sojourners/Call to Renewal-sponsored Pentecost conference in June 2006.

[11] Spong, J.S., 'A Call for a New Reformation'. Accessed electronically:

[12] Knitter, P.F. Jesus and the Other Names : Christian Mission and Global Responsibility, Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1996. .

[13] Knitter, 1996. Pg. 106 “If there is any truth to James Fowler's stages of faith, I think it is found in the recognition that the more one matures in faith, so much the more will one happily, if somewhat fearfully, embrace the mystery, the expansiveness, the pluriformity of truth.”

© Dustin DiPerna 2007

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