Integral Theory and Interfaith Dialogue

At the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Park Forest, I gave a talk on Integral Theory and how it could be used to foster interfaith dialogue.

In the talk, I introduced the five elements of integral theory and gave examples of how an awareness of the theory could improve communications within the church itself, between the church and other religious institutions, and between church and the society at large.    This is not meant as an in-depth explanation of Integral Theory, which I explain in other posts, but rather its application towards the subject of using it as a tool to enable dialogue between church members and those who may have different perspectives, whether they be church members, members of a different church, or someone else in the community with whom the church member wants to converse about any given topic.

1.   Quadrants

The four quadrants represent the four different perspectives one can use when approaching reality, the intentional, the behavioral, the cultural, and the social.

Here’s an example of how using an awareness of quadrants helped in a discussion within the church.   At a different UUCC chapter in Orange County, CA, I had led a forum whose focus was on the obesity epidemic in America.   What were its causes, and what were potential measures that could be used to combat it?

One person said it was a matter of will power; people just needed to be stricter about dieting.    Someone else pointed out that all the intention in the world to diet doesn’t overcome the fact that restrictive dieting alone won’t help you lose weight because of the physiology of the body.    If you start restricting calories, you start your body craving food more and more until you gave into those cravings and ruin the diet.

Someone else said it was a problem of people buying too much junk food, and someone then pointed out that the reason why they do that is because there are so many commercials on TV encouraging people to engage in this unhealthful behavior.    Finally, someone said that the government was subsidizing agribusiness and not local farmers, which meant that the cost of junk food was artificially low but that the cost of healthful fruits and vegetables was so high that most poor people could not afford it.   They preferred junk food not just because of the commercials, but because government subsidies distorted the “free market” to the extent that it was cheaper for them to buy it.

When I heard this, I realized that all of the perspectives were valid according to Integral Theory.   The comment about will power had to do with intentions, and the physiology of the body shaped the behaviors of people when they were diets.    The culture affected people’s purchasing decisions, but so did the social structures just as the government’s policies towards giving subsidies to certain large corporations but not to small, family farmers.   The problem in such a discussion becomes when people think that their perspective has a monopoly on what the real truth is.   No, their perspective contains only a piece of the truth.    Understanding this concept is key to really being able to listen to the perspective of others.

2.  States

The basic states of consciousness are waking, sleeping, and dreamless sleep, with a potential fourth state called nondual occurring in situations where people have peak experiences.   For church members, I said the important thing for them to pay attention to there is the fact that if you go on a retreat and have a peak experience, it may give you a momentary higher state of consciousness, but if that higher state is not nurtured through continuous practices, it will fade away back to a normal state.

Also, when people have these peak experiences, they will interpret them through the lens of their own belief system, so if you talk to someone who believes in the existence of the Devil, you may have to translate that into your own belief system in order to understand where they are coming from.    This actually happened with someone out in California who I was networking with frequently.    I said, “sometimes I think I am getting an impulse from my ego rather than my larger self, and you talk about getting an impulse from Satan.”   I asked him, “do you think we might actually be talking about the same phenomenon?”   He considered this, and said, “maybe we are.”

3.  Lines

An important thing to remember about lines of development is that besides the cognitive line of development which is the thing measured by scholastic or IQ tests, there are other intelligences such as emotional intelligence, a moral sense, and other lines of development which are also important in the larger scheme of human interactions.    Here’s an example of three levels of development, and how a hypothetical person measures up to them along different lines.

The important thing for UUs to remember here is that just because you are developed along one line, doesn’t mean that you are going to be developed at the same level along another line.   Also, when putting together teams of people to handle a task, it is good to have a mix of people with different strengths along different lines of development.

4.  Types

Of course, the biggest type difference we encounter in daily life is that of gender, the sex with which we identify, and sexual orientation, which is the sex to which we are attracted.   Other types to be aware of are communication preference types.   If you are trying to give a talk or a sermon, you need to include elements for those people who have the preference of a) action, b) ideas, c) processes, and d) people when communicating.    Give takeaways of actions people can take for the people who prefer action, discuss ideas by using quotes and giving statistics or names of books, give a beginning, middle, and end to your sermon for people who like orderly processes, and tell emotive stories for the people who communicate in terms of relationships with other people.

5.  Stages

There are eight stages of development according to Spiral Dynamics, which Ken Wilber has incorporated into the Integral Theory model. These represent the “units of concern” that a person has starting out with the obvious egocentric levels.   Gradually, a person starts to care for more than him or herself and the immediate and/or extended family; the person learns to identify with a particular religion, race, ethnic background, and that is the ethnocentric level.    If you identify with the people of the country at large, you are at the sociocentric level.  Those who are concerned about all human life can be said to be at the worldcentric level.

These are the first tier stages, as contrasted with the second tier stages.    Those in the first tier usually identify those groups to be contended with as all of the other stages; however, those at the second tier recognize that those at lower tiers are just at different stages of development.    As a UU, you are going to encounter those who are at different stages, and I don’t mean to imply that you should use this to feel superior to them in any way.   I am saying this to let you know that you if you want to communicate with a person at a different stage, you need to adopt their language to get through to them.

For example, if you are at the green level and want to enlist the participation of someone in your campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, then you will need to get a sense of what stage they are in.   You are not going to be able to argue about global warming to someone at the orange level who thinks that the Keystone XL pipeline is going to bring in much-needed jobs to the country.   You will have to talk to that person in terms of economic pros and cons of a short-term nature, rather than the long-term, global consequences of that pipeline.   And you will have to deal with the self-interest of someone in the amber or red level in terms of the effect of that pipeline on the quality of their drinking water and how it affects them or their community personally.


The purpose of gaining the ability to perceive multiple perspectives is essential in communicating with others, and Integral Theory provides a framework with which to do this.   The talk was well-received this morning at the church, and there was much discussion afterwards, which showed that it stimulated some thinking about how it could be used in practical situations involving communication both within the church and in the larger community.   For that reason, I call it a successful talk.


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