Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve
by Paul R. Smith.
St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 2011.
Cloth, 408 pp., index, bibliography.
Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
What would Christianity look like if every Christian interpreted the Bible through the lens provided by the actions and teachings of Jesus? The answer is: very different from how it looks today! And our guide in making some very rich discoveries along this line is the Reverend Paul R. Smith, who for almost fifty years has been leading Kansas City’s Broadway Church from a traditional Southern Baptist congregation toward a model of integral Christianity. Integral thinking includes whatever is good from previous stages of thinking or diverse religious traditions, at the same time transcending those patterns that no longer serve humankind well.
Take violence, for instance. Some Christians are embarrassed by Old Testament stories of God’s violent actions against human beings (as in the Flood), or counseling the destruction of every man, woman, and child among Israel’s enemies. But certain Christians use those biblical passages to support America’s many wars, including the current ones. Smith’s approach is to stick to Jesus’s teaching to love our enemies and to be as merciful and as compassionate as the One God who sends the sun and rain to bless both the righteous and the unrighteous. Smith regards any violent advice in the New Testament as a reversion to an earlier stage of human development. But “According to the new developmental stage introduced by Jesus, God is only compassion, not a strange blend of mercy and revenge. Many followers of Jesus have yet to come to believe that God practices what Jesus preached” (p. 84).
The reference to developmental stages is a reminder that Smith is the first scholar to systematically apply to biblical interpretation the developmental framework of the great American philosopher, mystic, and theologian, Ken Wilber. Smith also builds upon the excellent books of Christian mysticism written by Jim Marion, with whom I had the privilege to work at the Kirkridge Conference Center. I heartily recommend any and all of Ken Wilber’s books as well as Jim Marion’s two books, Putting on the Mind of Christ (2000) and The Death of the Mythic God (2004).
But for me, the most exciting aspect of Paul Smith’s Integral Christianity is not reading about the various stages, states, and standpoints within religion (enlightening though that is). For me, the excitement stems from the liberating insights that occur when we learn to read the Bible “in a Jesus-friendly way” (p. 73). Repeatedly, theological positions I had adopted with fear and trembling are calmly shown by Paul Smith to be simply aspects of what Jesus actually said and did. Perhaps I would have trembled less if I had not had such a strictly fundamentalist belief system drummed into my head all the way through childhood and my undergraduate years. But what a relief to find such validation, even this late in life!
For instance, although I was inspired by reading mystics from diverse religions to begin believing that God loved me just as I am, I was also cowed by many years of being told that mysticism is just so much hooey. Like Smith himself, I was taught that “‘mysticism’ begins with mist, centers on I, and ends in schism” (p. 44). But Smith points out that when we decide to “follow Jesus instead of a literal Bible,” we find that Jesus was intimately, mystically connected to an Abba who was “unconditionally loving and inclusive” (p. 81). This is the same connection described by every mystic I ever read.
Or take the issue of getting messages from the spirits of those who have “died.” When I tried to share with my brother the joy I got from comforting messages from our mother after her demise, he told me to “shut up” on the basis of Isaiah 8:19 and similar Scriptures. So when a channeler—a modern prophet, according to Smith—when a channeler brought me a wonderfully loving message from my father just a week after his death, I did not speak of it to my fundamentalist family. But Smith swept away my timidity by pointing out that Jesus himself spoke with the dead—and of course, he did, on the mountain of Transfiguration, when he conversed with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3, Mark 9:4). In a way that is very poignant for me, Luke even tells us that they talked about the death Jesus was soon to face in Jerusalem (Luke 9:30-31).
If it was good for Jesus to receive encouragement from those who had gone before him, why should his followers deny ourselves similar encouragement? But I had to ask myself this question: why had I never before made that connection? The answer: because we tend to see only what we expect to see—until some blessed teacher comes along to remove the blinders from our eyes.
Incidentally, perhaps someone who has heard me speaking from a platform may be surprised to learn that I am timid about any shifts in my belief system. If so, please be assured that my shaky self-confidence stems not only from sexist socialization and fundamentalist theology, but primarily from being abused as an infant and young child. Such experiences are known to cause a very tentative and weak sense of certainty. Fortunately, however, that weakness has forced me to search not only the Scriptures but also their surrounding scholarship to provide evidence for the hope that has developed within me. So at this point I feel grateful for my early trials, which were good training for the justice-oriented ministries I have engaged in for many years.
Integral Christianity has been particularly helpful to me in the area of prayer. As a theologian, I have tended to focus on God as Infinite Being—the Single Unified Energy Field of which quantum physicists speak, the ineffable Presence before which we must fall silent in our unknowing. But in times of need, it is difficult to cuddle up to the Ground of Being. Smith helped me to claim for myself other aspects of the Holy One that I’ve been teaching for years: that God is not only Infinite, but also Intimate, Someone who walks beside us throughout life and through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And that God is also Inner, the very Realm or Kin-dom that is within each of us as it was within Jesus.
Furthermore, Smith defends the practice of using a special prayer language the way people did at Pentecost. I was taught that glossolalia was no longer needed because now we have the Bible, and I endured many hours of hearing Bob Jones Sr. making fun of speaking in tongues during my years at Bob Jones University. So when I found myself privately praying in a tongue unknown to me, I promptly squashed that impulse. But Smith comments that nowhere did Jesus condemn the use of a private prayer language, and nowhere did the New Testament authors claim that its use was no longer permissible. So I am happy to have permission to allow the Spirit to pray through me, even if I do not always know what I am saying. As Smith points out, in John 7:37-39 Jesus “envisions a release [of Spirit] from the inside and not a ‘coming upon’ from the outside” (p. 117).
From another angle, I have always felt a great urgency about producing meaningful work all day every day, and have had difficulty justifying “time out” for prayer. But Smith assures me that “Spiritual practice which leads to awakening is fundamentally the same as preparation and practice for death…. Once our fear of death is eliminated, then our way of being in the world is transformed” (p. 290). Now, that’s something I can really make time for!
Although he is very respectful of much “New Age” thought, Smith is careful to point out the partialness of the concept that we human beings “create our own reality.” He argues (correctly, I believe) that our thoughts “influence reality but do not create it” (p. 264) because our lives are also affected by the thoughts of the seven billion other people who share our planet, and by the fact that “part of our reality is created by the nature of the material world around us” (tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.). Smith also denies the notion that “no viewpoint is better than any other viewpoint,” which can end up affirming pathological and destructive attitudes. Instead he calls for “wisdom to discern whether one is helping or harming others” (p. 265).
People who know me are well aware that I have long had a thing for lighthouses. Why? Because I love the fact that Jesus told us both that he is the light of the world (John 8:12) and that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16), thus establishing a connection between our essence and his essence as our Elder Brother, “the firstborn among many [sisters and] brothers” (Romans 8:29). Because I have often been rebuked for my faith that Jesus will bring everyone home to God’s Love, I am grateful to see that Smith’s “Jesus-friendly reading of Scripture” also leads him to trust that everyone will be saved and that the purpose of our lives is to become divinized, with Christ [or Divine Love] living within us, through us, and as us.
And I was delighted to read that for Smith, Jesus’ most astonishing statement is “You are the light of the world.” When Jesus said this, he was talking to a large crowd of people from all over, including the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon (in what today we call Lebanon). They were people of many religions and no religion. Therefore, Jesus’s point is that “everyone is the light of the world” (p. 332)—so we’d better get over classifying other folks as inferior for any reason whatsoever.
As for ourselves, we had better stop putting ourselves down. For as Smith says, “The light is already inside of us. It is always inside of us. It has never left and will never leave. You don’t need to get it. It’s already there. You can’t earn it. It’s already there. As the real you. You can’t lose it, because it’s the real you which is part of God. And God never loses any part of herself anytime or anywhere. This is ‘the astonishing light of your own being’” (p. 334).
And let all the people of God say, Amen! And then let them go out and buy this book, sharing as many copies with others as we can possibly afford. It is a must for every church and college library wherever English is spoken.
Reviewer Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the William Paterson University of New Jersey. A prolific writer (author or coauthor of 13 books, including Omnigender, and most recently, a revised and expanded edition of Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism), she is a frequent contributor to Christian Feminism Today. Virginia will be one of the presenters at the EEWC-CFT Gathering in Indianapolis next summer. Her website is www.virginiamollenkott.com.
© 2011 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Fall (October – December) 2011 issue of Christian Feminism Today, Volume 35, number 3.