top of page

Integral Theory: The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Some Autobiographical Reflections on Discovering Developmental Stage Theory

From Egocentrist to Sociocentrist

I grew up in an Evangelical household with a certain brand of literalist Christianity. My parents had already been swept up in a number of communities that one mightly fairly characterize as "cults," but had finally landed in a (relatively) stable church with a less puritanical and domineering bent (though highly conservative and literalist nonetheless). However, despite my parents' best efforts to shield their children from a sinful and fallen world, I somehow managed to get a more-than-healthy dose of postmodern media in my formative years--all of which I devoured. The irony-satured film and television of postmodernism enthralled me with its cynicism (though, of course, I had no idea that that's what it was). I was jaded young. To give one example, my childhood equivalent of a favorite stuffed animal was a small Pillsbury Doughboy beanbag doll, for which I, as an already-ironized 8 year old, concocted an elaborate narrative wherein the iconic smiley mascot was actually a maniacal dictator of a totalitarian regime, whose secret police (the DRS [Doughboy Revenue Service]) repeatedly terrorized my sister and her Barbie Dream Household with Kafkaesque intrusions and an intolerable string of banal evils. Again, as an 8-year-old, I had no way to contextualize why all of this was amusing within the framework of postmodern irony, cynicism, and post-War apprehensions about power and consumerism. It was just...funny.

But I digress. Point is, things were messy. Despite the religious background of my world, my lived reality as I reached early adolescence was generally one of cynicism. Operating from this perspective as I entered the bleak jungle of public middle school existence, I fell into an egocentric spiral of narcissism and took advantage of people--all of which formed the basis for a heart-felt conversion experience at 13 to my parent's Evangelical church and its strict morality. I was fallen, a sinner, and needed salvation. Guilt and zeal motivated my intense turn of attention to Christianity.

The Death of God

But if Christianity was indeed so important, surely it warranted my entire life's attention. So I sought to know it to the depths. In attempting to do so, however, I came to discover that the reasoned and well-documented interpretations of actual biblical scholarship differed markedly from the literalist, conservative dogma I'd been told was ultimate truth. After fits and starts, a couple drawings back from the abyss, and a BA's worth of religious studies knowledge later, it all came to a head. I'd been lied to. This religion stuff was bunk, a bad guilt-trip and some rotten history. God was dead.

The nihilism thing ultimately didn't prove to be such a great alternative, though, which put me between a rock and a hard place. I was unhappy without meaning, when my new hedonism told me that happiness was everything. If a happy life requires meaning, but meaning seems to require naivete, how can a rationally disillusioned person live a happy life? At least for me, some kind of God was needed, it seemed. But if God was dead, what was one to do?

Well, resurrect Him, of course! Whatever that looked like...

Easier said than done. This would need to be worked out.

I would slowly think through this effort via my epic poem, GOD. Much emerged from the four-year process. During it's composition, I began to situate myself better in my contextual situation, for one. I read the Western canon (or as much of it as I could). I filled in the gaps missing from my sense of intellectual history. I read up on modernism, postmodernism. I realized that in many ways my personal journey was just a microcosm of what Western civilization more broadly had experienced since modernity. All of which led me to ask...

What's next?

I knew that just looking to cynically bring God back for some illusional human happiness seemed backwards, regressive, and nihilistically reactionary. But the trajectory followed by history seemed to be only one of increasing secularization and materialism. How could we return spirituality while still going forward?

Onward and Upward

That's when I discovered metamodernism. The analysis of the Dutch scholars Vermeulen and van den Akker suggested our culture had indeed moved beyond postmodernism--but not into more nihilism. Rather, an informed naivete was being embraced, an ironic sincerity, a pragmatic idealism that looked again toward myth and meaning. Something like romanticism was coming back, something like metanarratives. Here was a progressive step that seemed to be reclaiming meaning after postmodern disillusionment. And it seemed to echo a lot of the sentiments I was exploring in my work.

By the end of writing GOD, I realized that what I'd lost in my old Christian faith was actually only one old, narrow, metaphysical and naive form of God; what I'd drawn out by the end was a halting gesture to gestate a new, wider, experiential and critically-aware God--a metamodern God.

Something was clarified. The way out was forward, not back. And the work had only just begun. A whole new conception of God was needed.

And what a task! The meaninglessness that my old faith had quenched had returned with a vengeance with my nihilism, but that itself was now quenched by the adoption of this great undertaking: my meaning was to help give birth to a new God concept. To craft a God...what an art project! And indeed, it would require all the epic aesthetics required of so great an endeavor.

There I was, on the nexus where art and spirituality met. God was no longer a pre-established given you simply accepted passively, but a horizon to be explored, developed--an emerging form to be actively sketched. A new epic was needed, a new Myth, a new crystallization of this emerging Sacred. Some Scripture akin to Dante's sprawling and ineffably grand vision of all the structured cosmos. A new metanarrative. One that could help transform the old God into the new. One that could help people make the perilous journey from the old myth to the emerging one--as I had done and was still trying to do. Creativity, I realized, and art--those were the means...

Stages of Faith

I'd abandoned academia when I abandoned my old aim of becoming a professor of Biblical Studies (for obvious reasons). But, in a second pass, I saw there was a whole field devoted to Religion and the Arts, Religion and Literature, religion and aesthetics. I enrolled in Yale Divinity School's program in 2015. And there I met Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard exemplified what an aesthetic approach to theology could do. Working with different fictional characters, he charted different stages of faith, from self-centered aestheticism to a transformative religiosity. To articulate this, his works met people where they were at using different voices at different stages in the process. By reading them, you could identify with that stage, but ultimately see how it self-destructed and led to something higher. Kierkegaard was leading you to a richer, profounder sense of the divine on a conveyor belt of different pseudonymous characters, each one walking you through the dialectic (as he saw it). Through art, to revelation.

But Kierkegaard's stages seemed a bit too idiosyncratic to me. They didn't quite capture the reality of the spiritual journey as I'd experienced it, anyway. His path went from aesthetic to ethical to two forms of (Christian) religiousness. Mine had gone from narcisstistic to mythological to rational to nihilistic to metamodernist. The forms and ideas were good, but the content needed work...

Meanwhile, seeking inspiration, I was reading medieval mystics and meditating. And here a totally different set of stages abounded. Pseudo-Dionysius had his celestial hierarchy! St. Bonaventure had his graded stations on the Soul's Journey to God. Plotinus, his great chain of being. The Buddhists had their many-tiered cosmology of jhanic devas. And, again, who could forget Dante? (I certainly couldn't, after taking a 2-semester course on the Divine Comedy with Peter Hawkins). Reading these staged ascents to God was intoxicating and deeply edifying--even if just as inspirational works of art. It felt like taking the ride of your life, from the mundane to the sublime. Surely, whatever metanarrative needed to be crafted for this new God concept, it should feel like this. Some kind of stage theory was needed, and states, too--but, again, none of these old articulations seemed to fit my experience, or the modern realizations about metaphysics.

I forged ahead with the project, and, taking a cue from Kierkegaard, began my annotated version of GOD, with different voices to speak to different perspectives and topics--some even writing on the meta-topic of perspectives itself ("The Midwife" + "Postscript"). The pseudonyms, the ironic distance, the multi-perspectival approach--it was all intrinsic to the project. However, no one seemed to understand this mad undertaking. When I explained my thoughts about developing God and writing a new scripture, everyone just thought I was trying to start a cult. Were there any others out there who "got" this thing? who were also eager to move Spirit forward? who also saw this as urgent for resolving our cultural meaning crisis and its consequent social and environmental degradation?

The Right Map for the Territory

Then, as I continued my explorations into metamodernism, I finally got around to reading Hanzi Freinacht--and his synthesis of cultural metamodernism with Wilber's developmental integralism.


Here, in this integral-inspired map, was my own spiritual stage model, the one I'd lived: egocentric narcissism (red) to mythic traditionalism (amber) to rational modernism (orange) to relativist postmodernism (green) to integral metamodernism (teal)--just as I'd experienced it! And here was the metanarrative I'd been trying to articulate all along: the development of God himself, the evolution of new spiritualities into higher and wider realizations and awareness. Here was the tie-in with meditative states, and a metamodern, post-rational articulation of spirituality tiself.

The secret ingredient was developmental psychology. Spiritual development was tied to growing up itself.

This opened the floodgates. Piaget, Kegan, Commons, Graves, Cook-Greuter, Stein. Gebser, Aurobindo, de Chardin. And all this tied to leading-edge theories of consciousness like integrated information theory. And to rich, first-person meditative practices. All interconnected in a deep, rich treasury of insights from Wilber's numerous tomes (Sex, Ecology Spirituality; Integral Psychology; Integral Spirituality; The Religion of Tomorrow, etc.), as well as work from the Integral community more broadly (Jamie Wheal, Steve McIntosh, etc.). And all this material was being avidly explored in a pre-existing community of enthusiasts who were already primed to consider the evolution of God, post-postmodernism, psychoactive literature, and the importance of aesthetically-mediated belief. I'd finally found the party I'd been looking for these past 10 years. The missing piece (or a massively important one, at least) had finally fallen into place.

Every Light Casts a Shadow

None of this is to say that Integral Theory is the be-all, end-all answer, mind you. As much as it's clarified things, the integral (and metamodern) movement is also rife with its own ugly misapplications, myopic perveyors, inter-community strife, dogma, out-to-lunch nut-jubs, marginal cult dynamics, feckless idealism, and countless other issues. That being said, such shadows plague every discourse where diverse groups of people are involved (which is to say, any discourse of any real size whatsoever). In integral circles, these things emerge largely out of issues related to hierarchy and value-ranking, but that doesn't mean the same dynamics, albeit with different content, aren't to be found in totally equity/egalitarian-driven social justice circles; or supposedly-rational-minded New Enlightenment circles (to say nothing of the naive mythic-literalist circles).

Personally, I have zero interest in assigning altitude color labels to people from afar, or trying to size up a writer's MHC stage by some arcane sentence analysis, or denigrating indigenous cultures as necessarily backwards, or romanticizing indigenous cultures as necessarily enlightened, or fawning over my 3rd Tier Ultraviot wig-wearing guru, or gaining power for myself by claims of high complexity stage theory, or gaining converts by claims of high state achievement, or...

No, for me, integral theory simply offers a brilliant framework to understand the progression of worldviews and their associated God-concepts in a way that matches not only the empirical data of numerous researchers but also my own personal experience. With this, it provides a reliable map to a richer, deeper God. It offers a rough draft outline for that meaningful metanarrative, where human beings participate in the further development of Spirit. It offers a set of terms and tools to discuss this vital topic with people likewise eager to change the world for the better.

And whatever other nonsense people like to use stage theories for, you can count me out.

Building the Conveyor Belt

So, now the real work begins: of collectively crafting the metamodern God, with a whole new range of thinkers and ideas to serve as guides. Of creating new communities and rituals and scriptures as a conveyor belt to a deeper sense of spirituality and purpose--one that can bring about genuine transformation in people, and thus the world.

Is all of this idealistic? You bet! But we'll be needing that idealism (tempered with some good ol' postmodern skepticism, and seasoned with some classic humility and the ability to take ourselves not-so-seriously) if we're to make things better. If we can do that, without letting our very tools get the better of us, it could mean the world.