I wrote the following essay to voice an issue that has concerned me for some time. I apologize for the length, but it was necessary to adequately express my perspective. I welcome your responses.
I have been a fan of Ken Wilber and Integral Theory for about eighteen years. In my life-long quest to make sense of spirituality in general and Christianity in particular, Ken’s work has been especially pivotal. That said, I must share that I see a consistent weakness in much of what claims to be Integral Christianity. There is much there of which I approve and from which I have benefited, but there is an important sense in which I feel it falls short. This is very much a matter of the pre-trans fallacy, as I shall attempt to explain in what follows. This is not a problem simply for Integral Christianity but lies at the heart of the crisis that has beset all of Christianity in the Modern period. It is a crisis that is well on the way to rendering institutional Christianity obsolete and irrelevant for anyone who occupies stages at or above Orange. Integral Theory points the way out of the crisis, but, so far, the pill has proven too bitter for the tradition to swallow.
The problem is that Christianity has not completed the work set before it by Modernity. That work is the differentiation and reintegration of the objective and subjective dimensions of human experience and cognition. For Christianity, as a mythic religion, this work means sorting out the objective and subjective truth and falsity of its history, myths, and theology. Specifically, it means fully acknowledging and accepting the objective truth that its myths are not literally true while embracing the profound meaning they carry.
The matter of my concern is the differentiation of Jesus of Nazareth (the Jesus of objective history) from the Jesus Christ of traditional Christianity (the Jesus of subjective myth). Integral and progressive Christianities today tend to be socially Green, but if you look closer, the Christology is usually Amber. This is Christianity that has avoided the thorough application of critical reason required to truly pass through Orange.
Research into the historical Jesus and the development of early Christianity has progressed slowly in fits and starts over the past few hundred years, but it has progressed. A basic picture of the real Jesus of Nazareth is available today to those who are willing to read the evidence honestly. The picture is necessarily “basic” because the evidence is limited. The primary sources are the New Testament, especially the four canonical gospels, the earliest of which was written at least thirty years after Jesus. These are not historical documents. They are documents with complex and obscure origins that were written and revised for liturgical, devotional, instructional, exaltational, apologetic, theological, political, polemical, and evangelical purposes. Myth was the language of religion in that era, and it seems that the writers of the Christian gospels were deliberate about writing in that language. The gospels are substantially the products of complex processes of myth making. They cannot be taken at face value as historical records of what Jesus actually said and did. Pointers to the historical Jesus are to be found in the oldest layers, but only with careful critical analysis and a tolerance for imprecision.
Such analysis suggests that Jesus must be understood entirely within the context of Jewish messianic prophecy. He was an apocalyptic preacher, interpreter of Torah, and leader of a messianic movement. His goal was to bring about the Kingdom of God prophesied in Jewish scripture. In particular, he seems to have been inspired by the book of Daniel. In what seem to be very old layers of the Jesus tradition, he speaks in the third person of the Son of Man, a mighty angelic figure from Daniel. He expresses the expectation that the Son of Man would soon descend from Heaven with an army of angels to establish God’s rule on Earth. Jesus seems to have believed that he would play a messianic role in this scenario as King of the Jews, which was the title under which the Romans crucified him. Crucifixion was a punishment for slaves and sedition and would not have been applied to someone accused by other Jews of blasphemy or who simply preached a countercultural message of peace, justice, and enlightenment. Those who thought Jesus to be King of the Jews would also have called him Son of God because that was an established title for Israel’s kings, but that did not mean that his Jewish followers saw him as divine.
Jesus seems to have believed that the necessary condition for the advent of the Day of the Lord was for Jews to get the Covenant right between themselves and God, which required getting it right between each other. His preaching of the Torah reflected that concern. It is clear from earlier layers of the gospels that Jesus intended his message for Jews and not for the broader Hellenistic culture of his day.
Jesus made his last trip to the Temple to forcefully challenge the practice instituted by the High Priest of changing money and selling sacrificial animals within the Temple precincts. Those changes helped the sacrificial system run more smoothly, but they also ran counter to prophecy regarding the hoped for Kingdom of God. The last verse of Zechariah says, “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.” (Zechariah 14:21b RSV) Jesus’ action in the Temple was not a peaceful, street-theater demonstration but a violent attempt to force the Temple authorities to change their policies. The Temple was a potential flashpoint for the Romans, and they had no tolerance for any sort of disturbance there, especially during large festivals like Passover. What Jesus did there threatened to set off a popular uprising, and the Romans crucified Jesus to squelch that threat.
Leaders like Jesus were not so very unusual in that region in the centuries before and after him. What kept his particular movement going after he was crucified was the insistence by some of his followers that they had experienced him as resurrected—again, an idea from Daniel. This allowed them to conflate Jesus with the heavenly figure of the Son of Man and to believe that he would soon return as that Son of Man to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. This story somehow came to resonate within the broader culture of the day. What Jesus had begun eventually spread, diverged, and evolved from a Jewish messianic movement into a gentile-dominated Christianity of many varieties.
The orthodox Christianity that eventually prevailed turned Jesus into the pre-existent, fully divine Son of God incarnated on Earth to intentionally die for the salvation of humanity. This and most other traditional Christology draws heavily on the Gospel of John, a book of profound spiritual meaning, but one that presents a Jesus of doubtful authenticity when compared to the first three gospels. There is evidence that most of the miracles of Jesus were invented by the gospel writers and that the bodily nature of Jesus’ resurrection was a late development in the gospel traditions. Jesus’s violent actions in the Temple and his belief in the violent advent of the Kingdom call into question the authenticity or intended scope of the anti-violent teachings attributed to him. In other words, the picture of Jesus of Nazareth that most Christians carry in their heads and who many adore is substantially false.
From the Amber perspective of traditional Christianity, such assertions are blasphemous and contrary to the very core of the faith. Amber believes its myths and lives from within them. Supernatural deities who magically fulfill the ego’s desire for endless life make perfect sense to Amber. Not so Orange. Orange rejects the supernatural for critical reason and scientifically discovered patterns of cause and effect. Where Amber sees sin and death as arising from human disobedience, Orange sees competition, conflict, and death as necessary for evolution. But Orange need not dismiss the myth. Orange is capable of seeing a more primitive form of reason at work in myth, a reason based in collective social intelligence and deep intuition. While many who transition to Orange simply leave the myths behind—hence the precipitous decline of mainline Christianity—it is possible to retain the myths, not as objective reality, but as metaphorical expressions of deep truths about reality.
It seems to me that much of the Christianity that calls itself integral or progressive has not fully transitioned through Orange. It acknowledges that most of the Christian narrative is myth, but it is just not willing to fully accept the mythical nature of Christ. It still wants to see the historical Jesus as having accomplished some sort of cosmic breakthrough that made available to the rest of us a new level of consciousness and relationship with God. That is a big part of the myth, and we can’t take Christianity all the way into Orange until we let it be a myth. Jesus was a very human messianic pretender, like all the others, who died miserably for his belief, who did not rise physically from death, and whose followers were quite wrong about his imminent return as the Son of Man. I am sorry if that seems disrespectful, but we cannot enjoy the full, undistorted meaning and power of the myth at rational and transrational levels if we don’t see it honestly.
Yes, Christianity is very much about opening to greater levels of consciousness and realizing our oneness in and with God, but little of that teaching derives directly from Jesus of Nazareth and his ministry, and it has always been true regardless of what Jesus of Nazareth may or may not have done. Myth is a social phenomenon, and it forms in social groups. Jesus’ basic teachings and story were a seed that many others watered and fed. We need to stop seeing Christianity as a supernaturally instituted religion that stands on the person of Jesus as some sort of ascended spiritual master. Instead, we need to see it as a profound myth of timeless meaning that has arisen from and been shaped by the spirit present in all the people involved at every stage of its development. Jesus’ story got the ball rolling, but it has been pushed along by many, many people throughout the history of the tradition. It has bubbled out of the deepest spirit within humanity. In different cultures this bubbling has produced different religions, but they all come from the same deep places by the same general mechanisms. Other religions have their own gods and avatars, and it is easy for Christians to see them as mythical figures; we need to see Christ, Christianity’s avatar, in the same way.
This absolutely does not mean we must delete Christ from Christianity. Christ is central to the tradition. We must simply be more honest about who and what Christ really is. Christ derives from the Greek word for “anointed”, which is also the meaning of messiah . Messianic prophecy expressed the hope of the Jewish people for one or more divinely anointed leaders to deliver them from political repression into peace, freedom, and prosperity under God’s rule in this world . Jesus’ followers thought he was such a leader, but that did not work out as expected, and it was necessary to adjust expectations. Early in the development of Christianity, especially with the letters of Paul and the Johannine literature (the gospel and letters of John and the book of Revelation), the risen Christ came also to be seen as a mystical state of relationship with God that Jesus’ followers could enter into. Christ took on a collective dimension, as though the followers of the Way recognized that the Christ-ness they projected onto Jesus was something they too participated in. The Church, the collective of all followers of Christ, came to be spoken of as the body of Christ. Christ also came to be identified with the Logos of Greek philosophy. As such, Christ came to be seen as the divine source and essence of Creation and a person of the Trinity. These mythical dimensions of Christ are powerful and deeply meaningful. It is unnecessary and counterproductive to continue to project this mythical meaning fully back onto the very human Jesus of Nazareth in ways that historical scholarship cannot support.
To be sure, the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, that “he” is fully human and fully God, is essential to Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth is the human on whom the full humanity of Christ has traditionally been anchored. But, if we read the Synoptic Gospels honestly, Jesus did not understand himself to be God in any special way. The dual nature of Christ emerges in the myth, and, in the myth, Jesus is all of us and all of Creation. The deep meaning of this is that God is incarnate, not just in Jesus, but in all of us and in the whole Cosmos. Jesus was the human from whose story the idea of Christ emerged into the culture of the West. What is necessary for fully Integral Christianity is to decenter Christ from Jesus as some sort of external savior and recenter Christ as the cosmic dimension of consciousness/spirit in which all of us, including Jesus, participate. It is that cosmic dimension of consciousness/spirit that is both the ultimate source and the true meaning of Christianity.