The Integral Worldview

October 19, 2003



The Integral Worldview (10/19/03)

Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This week’s sermon and next week’s sermon go together. I’ll warn you in advance they are a bit challenging—especially today’s sermon. The sermon for today deals with the way we look at the world—the way we think about this…this…whatever this thing is you and I are sharing here—the universe, reality, creation. And after we challenge some of our usual assumptions about the universe this morning, next week we’ll try to figure out where God fits into the picture. So, let’s strap in!

In our culture, which has been shaped by the European Enlightenment, we have a scientific worldview. We view life as a biological event. For us to believe there is more to our being than this physical existence requires a leap of faith. And often, there are those who force us to get on one side or the other. People of science put up with religion, but sort of look askance at those who they see as being too weak to face the world as it really is. And religious people tell us that if we believe what we see through our telescopes and what we discover in our archeological digs, we are turning away from God.

These two ways of thinking are called worldviews. A worldview, quite simply, is the way a person thinks about the world. A person’s worldview is the way a person understands reality. I have been intrigued over the past several years by those who are calling for an integral worldview. Before we can discuss this idea, however, we need to consider the ideas that must be rejected before we can develop an integral worldview.

First, we must reject scientism. Notice I did not say we must reject science. The idea of rejecting science is absurd. Consider the definition of science: a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. A second definition goes like this: systematic knowledge of the physical or material world.

Science is the best friend we’ve got. To turn away from science is, quite literally, to turn away from the truth of the world in which we live. But scientism—that is another story. Scientism is the belief that the universe is strictly empirical—in all cases, measurable through scientific method. Beauty? Our sense that something is beautiful can be attributed to a chemical reaction in the brain. Love? The same. Spirit? Nothing more than an illusion caused by the fear that haunts us when we face our mortality. That is scientism, and those calling for an integral worldview say scientism must be rejected.

On the other side of things, we must also reject the traditional religious worldview that claims science is our enemy. Nothing frustrates me more than when people of faith look at the plain facts of the world before them, and insist that unless we refuse to believe our eyes, we are doing something evil. These are the people who insist the universe is about six-thousand years old, because they’ve read through the Bible and done the math. They see those stars out there that are billions of years old and simply ignore them. They see the dinosaur bones that are dated back fifty million years and more, and adamantly insist that the devil put them there to confuse us—to turn us away from our faith. And that is not religion—not really. That is superstition. And we must reject superstition just as surely as we must reject scientism.

Now, many people have resolved the problem between science and religion by saying they are two completely separate things. Science is science and religion is religion, and never the twain shall meet. They like to say that science and religion ask two different questions, and that is why they give such different answers. Science asks how; and religion asks why.

And that can be helpful. But for those asking the human race to evolve into an integral worldview, it is not an acceptable answer; because saying that science and religion are separated by an unbridgeable chasm would indicate that there are two kinds of truth—scientific truth and religious truth. And that will never satisfy a mind truly in search of truth itself. After all, there is only one universe. Every galaxy, every cell, every thought, every soul, every fact and every illusion is a part of the one whole—the universe. So there must be some way to integrate scientific and religious truth. Those seemingly different truths must be integrated; hence, the term integral worldview.

I have been spending quite a bit of time lately reading Walter Wink. It’s always wonderful to discover a quality thinker you’ve overlooked in the past, and Walter Wink fits that category for me. Wink would say it is an over-simplification to divide people into two worldviews—scientific and religious. He says there are actually five worldviews, with the fifth and ultimate worldview being integral thinking, or an integral worldview. Each of those five worldviews tries to understand the difference between the religious domain and the scientific domain, or, to put it in simple terms, between heaven and earth. How can religious truth and scientific truth be reconciled? What is the relationship between time and eternity, between Creator and creation, between heaven and earth? Let’s walk through the five ways of thinking about the universe, as identified by Walter Wink.

First there is the ancient worldview. This is the way the people who wrote the books of the Bible thought about the world—about the universe. And don’t dismiss this worldview just because it is ancient. There are great truths to be plumbed from humanity’s distant past. The ancient worldview holds that everything that happens is a combination of both heaven and earth; every event is a combination of both elements of reality.
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Every physical reality has a spiritual counterpart. If war is raging on earth, then war is also raging among the spiritual powers. This thinking is not confined to the biblical authors. The ancient Romans, Egyptians, Indians and Chinese all adhered to some variation of this worldview. The brilliant thinkers of ancient Greece, such as Plato and Aristotle, spent their lives considering this unbreakable relationship between heaven and earth—between the material and the spiritual. Those of you who love philosophy will remember that for Plato, the physical world springs forth from what he calls eternal ideas; and in Aristotle’s philosophy, the accidents we see in time and space—the height, width depth and shape of things—are part of an underlying spiritual reality, which he calls substance.

So the ancient worldview is more than just ancient—it’s brilliant and powerful. There were times when that ancient worldview became overly simplistic. Earth was down here and heaven was up there. We walked a flat earth and God lived somewhere up in the sky. It is important for our purposes is to remember that the Bible was written from an ancient perspective, and in places accepts that up and down way of thinking about heaven and earth. And it is perfectly reasonable, and appropriate, to keep that in mind when we read the Bible. And there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the ancient worldview of the Bible, and applying other worldviews to those great writings.

The second worldview Walter Wink asks us to understand is the spiritualist worldview. This notion had been simmering beneath the surface in several religions and philosophies, but gained prominence in the century after the life of Jesus. In the ancient worldview we just examined, both heaven and earth were good things. Mind and matter, body and spirit, however you want to think about it—they were important parts of a whole, and together they were good. The spiritualist worldview drove a wedge between heaven and earth, between body and spirit. Spirit is good, they claimed, but the material world is evil.

This worldview envisions our spirits as beautiful and heavenly spirits which are trapped in bodies and stuck in the world. Because our spirits are stuck in these bodies, our spirits have been corrupted by earthly powers. Now, with this thinking, heaven and earth are at war with one another. And that battle takes place within each of us. The body is evil and sex is wicked. The whole point of life, according to the spiritualist worldview, is to escape from our bodies; to find some way to regain the perfection of heaven, so as to return again to the spiritual realm from which we have fallen.

Practically every religion had movements that grew out of this worldview. In Christianity, Gnosticism and Manicheism were powerful sects that believed the spiritual is good and the material is evil. And while those sects were eventually found to be heresies, they have remained a powerful force within the Christian faith.

The spiritualist worldview played a key role in the puritanical attitudes toward sex of our Puritan forebears. And look around today. Eating disorders; negative self-images; abuse of the body with drugs and alcohol—all of these point toward a rejection of the body itself. We tend to think we’re trapped in this thing that isn’t good enough for us, as if we could somehow pry ourselves out of our bodies and still be the same person. Religiously, it takes the shape of placing far too much emphasis on getting to heaven, and spending too little time working to make the world itself a better and more loving place.

The third worldview Walter Wink asks us to consider, and reject, is the materialist worldview. This is the exact opposite of the spiritualist worldview. Like the spiritualist, the materialist drives a wedge between body and spirit, between heaven and world; but unlike the spiritualist, the materialist claims that heaven does not really exist. The claim of the materialist is simple: there is no heaven, no God, no spiritual world, no soul, no higher self. There is nothing other than that which can be known through our five senses, with a little help from human reason.

According to the materialist worldview, matter is the ultimate reality. What is a human being? Atoms and chemicals. And this is the primary ideology in the Western World. Materialism and science are not the same thing, but they have become so closely associated with one another, even many scientists are blinded to the new physics. The universe, in Walter Wink’s words, has been re-enchanted by the 20th Century discoveries of quantum physics, in which it seems that the material world sort of disappears into the idea from which it comes. So counterintuitive is this discovery that only the most brilliant scientific thinkers seem to understand the ramifications: quantum physics is the death of the materialist worldview.

And that leads to the fourth worldview, which Walter Wink calls the theological worldview. These are the thinkers who divide science and religion into two separate categories, with science asking the “how” questions, and theologians asking the “why” questions. The theological worldview is the natural response to the materialist worldview. I mean, the materialist looked the theologian squarely in the eye and said, “You are living a lie. You have devoted your life to an illusion.” And since the theologian was unable to prove the truth of spirit, God, and religion with the tools of science—you just can’t measure out a couple of grams of love, or two or three pounds of the Holy Spirit—the theologians split heaven and earth into two realms. They told the scientists to stay over in the empirical, measurable world where they belonged, and leave the spirit side of things to the pros—the theologians.

This didn’t bother the materialists at all, since they were convinced the theologians were committing their lives to the study of something that simply does not exist. The materialists were more than happy to leave the heaven side of the equation—the non-existent fantasy side of the equation—to the misguided and deluded theologians.

As for the theologians, the result was tragic. They turned away from science. They were forced to run the other way, or at least hide their eyes, every time a new scientific truth was uncovered. Walter Wink tells of a friend of his who was a doctoral student in geology at Columbia University. He was a religious fundamentalist, who believed what his preacher taught him every Sunday at church: that the universe was created in the year 4004 B.C. Monday through Friday, however, as a scientist—a geologist—he had no problem accepting the fact that the universe is something approaching 14 billion years old. How can a person resolve this in his or her mind? Simple. We become schizoid. We think with two minds—our religious mind and our scientific mind. And when they are in conflict with one another, we just stop thinking. Surely that’s the way God would want it.

Well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a new answer is needed, and for those of you who enjoy reading about religion, physics, psychology and philosophy, you know that there is a serious movement taking place called integral thinking, which calls for an integral worldview. This worldview insists that science and religion are not at war with one another.

There have been several important thinkers who have laid the foundation for this movement. Psychologist Carl Jung and process theologian Alfred North Whitehead are key figures. Paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin is another person whose thinking helped set the stage for the integral worldview. The great quantum physicists of the past century, from Plank to Einstein, all contributed greatly. The theologians, philosophers, psychologists and scientists who currently lead this movement include Ken Wilber, Matthew Fox, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Berry, Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne.

At the heart of the integral worldview is this insight: There is only a single reality. The attempt to separate heaven and earth, or spiritual and material, is a mistake. They are part of the same reality. They cannot be separated, because they are entirely dependent upon one another. If we must think of them in different ways, we can best think of them as the inner and outer aspects of the same reality.

This is very close to a return to the ancient worldview, with a key difference. The ancient worldview thought of heaven as up and the earth as down. They were separate from one another. But the integral worldview says, along with science, there is no such thing as up! As our planet sails through space and spins about, it is inconceivable to think of heaven—of God—as being up there somewhere.

The ancients, from the biblical writers to the Greeks, were pointing toward the truth, but their metaphors no longer work for us. The only spatial metaphor for spirit that works in the universe as we know it is not up, but within. I’ll quote Walter Wink:

In [the integral] worldview, soul permeates the universe. God is not just within me, but within everything. The universe is suffused with the divine. This is not pantheism, where everything is God, but panentheism, where everything is in God and God in everything. Spirit is at the heart of everything, and all creatures are potential revealers of God.

Well, this is all a bit of a challenge, to say the least. And it is a little bit scary, if we are honest with ourselves. The God we encounter through the integral worldview is quite different from the God we encounter with those other worldviews. For starters, we’ve got to get God out of the sky. He’s not up there, because there is no such thing as up—not in this wildly complex and spinning universe. And for that matter, God is not a “he,” because the notion that the God who is in all things and in whom all things exist requires gender just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And here is our problem. How can we communicate with such a God? If I envision God as some old man sitting on a cloud, I at least know how to ask him questions. But this God who is supposedly inside every atom of my body and at the same time in every atom of the most distant star in the most distant galaxy—how do I talk to that God?

That’s what we’ll talk about next week. Praying to God in an integral universe. It sounds challenging. But you know, the bottom line is simple: God is not going to change, regardless of how we pray. God will remain the same God that called this universe into being in the first place; the same God who sustains it moment to moment; the same God who will redeem this universe when time has run its course.

You and I, we may change. We may discover that God is closer than we think. Much, much closer than we think.