An Evolutionary Integral Understanding of the Cross

The idea of substitutionary atonement ends up saying that Jesus saves us from God—Larry Swaim article on “The Death of Christianity” is right. That’s a pickle for Christians who are supposed to believe that God is love and not vengeful retribution. Here is the question: “If Jesus preached we are to love our enemies, does God practice what Jesus preached?” If you are a follower of Jesus, you would think that the answer must surely be, “Yes!”

My approach in my most recent book, Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, is to apply the principles of integral theory as articulated by Ken Wilber to the understanding and practice of my Christian faith. Here is a brief outline of one part of integral thinking and my application to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Our understanding tends to unfold in a series of stages. At each stage we can see only what our current worldview allows us to see. It is helpful to think about how different Christian institutions in our world today tap into the feelings of these different stages.

A brochure from the "Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel" portrays cult leader Jim Jones as a loving father. Jones led his followers to commit mass suicide in 1978. Credit: Creative Commons.

Within each of our lives, we start at a childhood stage filled with fear and fantasy. The ghosts lurking everywhere must be appeased and cajoled into not harming us. Within institutionalized religion, this stage is epitomized by the People’s Temple led by Jim Jones with its mass suicide of 913 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh near Waco, and the polygamist FLDS church led by Warren Jeffs. Of course God, who is decidedly a “he,” must be appeased by the death of his son on the cross to keep his wrath off his devoted followers.

As we grow older, we enter a stage of hostility and aggression: high school bullying, street gangs, sports teams, sword and sorcery stories, and hostile, unethical corporations. This stage is about aggression, impulsive behavior, and violence. It is resonant with the holy wars, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Today the religious institution that taps into this mindset most strongly is the fundamentalist church. While the word may have a pejorative meaning, these churches use it proudly in the sense of holding to five “fundamentals” of a belief system that arose in the early nineteenth century. Beliefs at this stage are less magical and more literal. God lives up in heaven but comes down to earth as an avenging warrior. Jesus is the mighty agent of the wrath of God, making war on sin and death. Hell is the place of eternal punishment for those who do not believe in the right doctrines or act in the right way.

This aggressive stage is epitomized by the Westboro Baptist Church with its “God Hates Fags” posters picketing funerals. My church has been picketed a number of times by this group. For this level of Christian thinking, accepting Jesus’ violent death on the cross is the only way to appease an angry God for one’s sins.

The next stage is characterized by a traditionalist longing for law and order in our chaotic world. External rules and guilt produced a more controlled society. These longings are seen in Boy and Girl Scouts, the religious right, extreme patriotism, and in most church leadership and structures. I imagine that about half of the world’s population ascribes to this sort of traditional consciousness. The vast majority of the world’s churches seem to operate at this traditional level today. The traditional level may hold many of the same beliefs as the fundamentalist stage, but they are not as angry about it all.

The "traditional approach" to God depicts him as a powerful ruler who is a schizoid God who is sometimes loving and sometimes vengeful, Smith argues. Credit: Creative Commons/Viktor Vasnetsov.

This traditional approach has a schizoid God who is sometimes loving and sometimes vengeful. Or it may look like good cop/bad cop with God as the bad cop and Jesus as the good one. The view that God loved us so much to send Jesus to die for our sins to save us from the wrath of God is the very foundation of this divine split personality. The traditionalist—sincere, faithful, and genuinely goodhearted—just doesn’t think about this very much because it is so familiar and somehow comforting. As the lady said when leaving church one Sunday, “Pastor, you really made me think today. Never do that again!”

The traditional approach sometimes gives way to a modern approach focused on individual freedoms and opinions. People who ascribe to this modern approach think in worldcentric terms. Tolerance and compassion for others around the world became a high order value. Christians who take this modern approach tend to see Jesus as an historical figure who was crucified by the Romans, not ascribing divine meanings to the crucifixion but rather seeing social and political forces at work.

In Christianity, the modern approach has given way to a postmodern approach. Modern consciousness focused on questioning the foundations of past knowledge while postmodern viewpoints question whether we can really know much of anything at all. The modernist bumper sticker advises, “Question Authority.” The postmodern bumper sticker says, “Question Reality.” Postmodernism is the world of the sensitive self, the pluralistic worldview, and believing that there are many ways of looking at reality. It has given birth to the green earth movement, second-wave feminism, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and gay rights. The postmodern Christian usually rejects atonement views and understands the cross as sacrificial love. Jesus spoke out for the oppressed and was martyred for it as were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others.

I believe that we can move beyond postmodern approaches to religion and develop a new approach altogether: an integral perspective. Within the last twenty or thirty years, this perspective has been gaining more adherents. It attempts to integrate as many viewpoints, traditions, and streams of thinking and experience as possible into a larger map that values the truth in each and acknowledges each truth needs the other truths to give the fullest picture.

From an integral perspective any church or individual at any given moment has a right to be at any of the levels I have just described and deserves our understanding and respect. Postmodern tends to be inclusive without being discerning. The integral perspective is inclusive but sees that some views and practices are more loving and healthful than others The fear-based and aggressive stages only become problematic when they use hatred, manipulation, or force to impose their beliefs on others. The aggressive stage can be challenging to respect because of its militancy and oppression of others. Integral people do whatever is necessary to ardently protect others from abuse while taking care to not to abuse the abusers. The task for those moving into the integral stage is learning to not get angry about people who are angry.

The crucifixion seen from the integral perspective as I interpret it is this; I respect the perspectives about crucifixion at every stage, even those that hold to violent substitutionary atonement views. However, I long ago left that viewpoint for the very reasons Swaim so clearly outlines.

I agree with Swaim’s modern viewpoint that Jesus’s body was not physically resurrected. However, I differ about the resurrection (“The hysterical character of these encounters…”). I hold to a more postmodern and integral post-rational mystical (not pre-rational magical) viewpoint that Jesus (his divine essence which is the same divine nature we all participate in) did survive and his appearances were real and at an energetically subtle level similar to the visions of loved ones that have passed that are common in every culture. I experience Jesus somewhat this way almost continuously.

I still value the image of the cross as a dramatic symbol of death, but now as a symbol of our own internal dying to our false self so that our true self can come to life. I believe this was the deeper meaning of going to the cross that Jesus demonstrated. He let go of his life as a part of speaking up for the socially, politically, and religiously oppressed.

madonna fresco

Could another image replace the cross as a central Christian symbol? "I love Swaim’s idea of a symbol of a picture of a woman holding a child with a loving figure behind her imaging the sacred dream of a safe place for a child," writes Smith. Credit: Creative Commons/Miko Stavrev.

Notice how, as it seems to me, the meaning of the crucifixion moves from outer to inner the more one deepens and evolves. When Christianity is at fear-based, aggressive, and traditional stages, it is all about some outer transaction or bargain between God and us. At the modern level we can see the unreasonableness of trying to have a God who is loving and yet wrathful at the same time. At postmodern we keep our good reasoning and add the inner compassion of our hearts as we see Jesus and a long line of others who give their lives so that others may live in greater freedom. At the emerging integral mystical stage and beyond, the meaning moves to that inward losing our lives to save our lives that Jesus spoke of. We relinquish the last stronghold of our ego that would hold us to this life at all costs and let the eternal heart of God that is the innermost True Self of every being shine forth that life may be lived at its fullest and most compassionate, giving itself away for the sake of others. In Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world!”

Finally, I love Swaim’s idea of a symbol of a picture of a woman holding a child with a loving figure behind her imaging the sacred dream of a safe place for a child. Absolutely beautiful!

Personally, as a Jesus mystic, I hold that the transfiguration was the central event of Jesus life This combines the fully human—the joy, suffering, and healing love of this life as they left the mountaintop to come down to heal a troubled youth—with the fully divine: the transpersonal, incandescent shining forth of the sacred light now and always present within every person.

Somehow, if we could put a radiant picture of the luminous event of the transfiguration on top of our steeples and hang a glowing image of that around our necks, we would be much better off. Maybe even transformed.

(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives associated with the “Christianity Without the Cross?” section, click here.)


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