At a certain point in my spiritual journey, the words of the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised ceased to have clear meaning, and I was at a loss as to say whether or not I considered myself a Christian. I knew what various groups of people understood by the claim that “I am a Christian;” I knew what prominent writers and theologians meant when they said “I am a Christian;” but I did not know what those words would mean for me.
One way of looking at this situation is to say that I was lost in the Babel of religious language, striving to make sense of different dialects of faith and reclaim a relationship to the words of faith that might restore sense and sensibility. Without having discovered an integral or evolutionary understanding of spiritual development — such as the writings of theologians James Fowler and Jim Marion and psychological theorist and philosopher Ken Wilber — I might have remained stuck in this painful place.
What the Integral Framework provided was a new approach to religious language, a robust set of meta-linguistic tools that allowed me to see a compelling vision for organizing Christian language (and the worldviews in which they are expressed) into a comprehensive picture that could be correlated to the language of a vast array of religious, scientific, psychological, and philosophical traditions. In essence, the Integral Framework acted as a sort of “meta-language,” allowing me to hold meaningful conversation with “Integrally-informed” individuals, form new communal connections of an interfaith and interspiritual nature, and shift of our modes of thinking and being into ever more holistic directions.
There is a certain “Integral language,” a rapidly evolving new way of communicating about personal and collective development, complete with a variety of dialects and accents. The most dominant dialect is AQAL, the version of the Integral Framework in development by the Integral Institute. Its vocabulary is rich with a glossary of terms compiled by Matt Rentschler such as Agape, agency, altitudes, AQAL, artifact, autopoiesis, causal body, center of gravity, deep structures, depth, and so forth.
Not all of the terms in the Integral Framework mean what someone who has never read a book about Integral Theory might think it means. For example, altitude isn’t something an airline pilot talks about with air traffic control. In order to understand AQAL’s definition of altitude as
A general degree of development (i.e., degree of consciousness or degree of complexity), applicable to any given line
you must first have an understanding of such concepts as “degrees of consciousness,” “complexity,” and “lines of development.” It also is important to understand why Ken Wilber introduced the term in his 2007 book Integral Spirituality and the problems it was intended to solve with the previous version of Wilber’s Integral Theory (i.e., Wilber IV).
The Integral language isn’t for everyone. And even many people drawn to the embodied practices and holistic sensibility of the Integral movement aren’t particularly turned on by talking in the abstract terminology of psychological meta-theory and post-metaphysical ontology, empistemology, and methodology. Hardcore “Integral geeks” are to be found, but whenever Integrally-informed people gather together they seem to self-create a new dialect for communicating what is important to them and sharing it with people not “in the know.”
In time, I want to tell you more about the progress of my spiritual journey in the six or so years since penning Soulfully Gay, including shifts in my understanding of Christianity and how my attention shifted over time to the dream of contributing to a “meta-language,” one that could help to bridge the communication stumbling blocks that I suspect will becoming vitally important to rapidly increasing numbers of people in the years ahead. But today, let’s just sit with the question: what is it to have a “religious language,” how does it relate to philosophy or theology, and how do we best develop fluency?
Today I heard about a new book that promises to shed some light on these questions. I’ve read the excerpts available online and look forward to reading Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored by Marcus J. Borg, the Portland-based theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
Borg discusses the crisis in contemporary Christianity as a problem of losing a common language, and he targets especially the linguistic problems caused by overly narrow and literal translations of Christianity’s traditional language of “heaven/hell,” “sin/redemption,” and so forth. In the Introduction to Speaking Christian, he writes:
Every religion has a basic vocabulary: its “big” words and collections of words, spoken and heard in worship, embodied in rituals and practices.
Thus to be Jewish means “speaking Jewish”; to be Muslim means “speaking Muslim”; to be Buddhist means “speaking Buddhist”; and so forth. By “speaking” I do not mean merely knowing either the ancient languages or these religions or their modern descendants. I mean something more basic: the way practitioners use the concepts and ideas from their religion as a lens through which to see the world, the way they use them to connect their religion to their life in the world.
To use an illuminating phrase from recent scholarship, religions are “cultural-linguistic traditions.” What this means is both simple and important. Every religion oriented in a particular culture and thus used the language of that culture, even if in ways that radically challenged it. If a religion survived over time, it became a cultural-linguistic tradition in its own right, with its own language, its basic vocabulary, sacred texts and stories, rituals and practices. These are often organized into comprehensive systems of thought — what Christians call theology, including doctrines and dogmas.
Borg’s agenda in the book is to “reclaim” the language of traditional Christianity, building fluency in the “true meaning” of the words of the faith. The book has received positive attention in publications such as the Christian Post and So What Faith as well as other progressive spiritual sources. Also, Prickliestpear, the pseudonym of The Way Ahead blog on integral Christianity, has a favorable take:
Borg … prefers redeeming the language, and I agree with him…. Language is such an integral part of a religious tradition that it cannot be replaced to any great extent without becoming another religion. There is much to be gained by reclaiming traditional language and much to be lost by replacing it.
Until I get the chance to read the book, I’m sitting with a suspicion that Borg will likely oversimplify the issues it addresses to some point of increasing muddle and nonsense. So long as we are trying to look back to the original sources of religious language and find the “true meaning” of a word, we are already buying into a host of philosophical assumptions that may be useful at some early stages of development but are probably less useful the further along we progress.
In “Integral-speak,” we could say that Borg’s Speaking Christian appears to offer an interesting perspective on the Lower-Left Quadrant from a stage of consciousness somewhere on the “subtle floor” (i.e., Orange, Green, or Teal). Put simply, it has part of the picture, but its wholeness may be less than fully developed. Nevertheless, I think the book’s attention to religious language couldn’t be more welcome or important to raise to a wider audience at this time.