Thursday, September 8, 2011


I recently listened to an interview with Bruce Sanguin and Rev. Kelly Isola in which Sanguin talked about how he’s applying the Spiral Dynamics model of human development to explain why Jesus means so many different things to so many different people. 

I have been a fan of Spiral Dynamics for quite some time.  Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human development introduced in the 1996 book by Don Beck and Chris Cowan which was based on the work of professor Clare W. Graves.  This theory explores the process of human emergence and how living systems evolve, grow and change.  Each new level transcends and includes all previous levels.

 The following diagram illustrates the different levels of development and their associated characteristics:






Group bands together
to stay alive





The sense of family-tribe
with time honored





Power-action driven,





Purposeful, absolutist,
"one right way"














Natural processes, mutual realities; live for mutuality




Harmony, holism, spirituality

In his book The Emerging Church, Sanguin applies these stages to how Christians see Christ.  Each stage's view has a positive and a negative aspect:

Purple--Christ is the Tribal Christ. "He makes the world go 'round when proper ritual is performed....He answers the prayers of those who are obedient." (p. 94).
The negative can be superstition: praying for football victories, parking spots, and miracle cures.
Red--The Warrior Christ. "Followers of the Red Christ go with him into battle on behalf of their tribe, nation, or belief system....In its most positive expression, following this Christ gives us the energy to "fight" for what we believe in--to take a stand."
But, "The Red Christ led the Christian armies in the crusades. He also led the U.S. army into Iraq." (p. 94)

Blue--The Traditional Christ, a Divine Scapegoat. "As part of the divine plan, God sends his only son to suffer and die on behalf of humanity, modelling sacrifice of self for a future reward....Christ's own sacrifice invites followers to led lives of self-sacrificial love, with the hope of eternal reward.
But...he can be used in a triumphalistic manner. He is the only truth, the only way, and the only life, and if you don't believe it you're going to hell." (p. 95 emphasis author's)

Orange--The Modern Demythologized Christ and Christ as CEO. "Christ is seen as the human one, a teacher of spiritual wisdom....In its positive expression, the Orange stage helps us transcend the literalism of previous levels....modernist values give us permission to think for ourselves.
But......In its negative expression, the Orange level leaves no room for Spirit." (p. 95)

Green--The Egalitarian-Postmodern Christ. "The postmodern Christ embraces multiple cultures and downplays the "Truth" of any particular religious system. The Green Christ draws the circle ever wider, so that it includes the outcasts, the left-behinds, and the marginalized.
But...In its negative expression, followers of the Green Christ are impatient and dismissive of all other value systems." (p. 96)

Yellow--The Integral/Ecological/Cosmic Christ. "The Yellow, integral Christ encompasses the universe and all cultures as an integrated ecology of systems....Followers of this Christ become fascinated by the world that the new sciences are discovering, and by how this world connects to the core metaphors and narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition." (p. 96)
 But...elitist thinking and impatience with those perceived to be 'below' this stage.
Turquoise-The Mystical Christ. "At this level, the world is experienced--not merely conceptualized--as one. A follower of this Christ does not merely perceive the universe an integrated whole. She knows herself to be a form of the integrated whole, the part in whom the whole is manifest. The great diversity of life is also an expression of the Holy One. All of life is sacred revelation, for those with eyes to see." (p. 97, emphasis author)
(Thanks to John Shuck at Shuck & Jive, for this summary).

I can see my own journey reflected in this spiral. Although it has not been a smooth journey (I'm more than sure that I've expressed both positive and negative traits at each stage!), I've traveled through magical thinking, dealt with anger problems and judgmentalism, escaped the bonds of fundamentalism, questioned everything I ever thought was true, and come to a place where I can embrace the Oneness and inclusiveness of the Divine.

I fully believe we need to have space for people to think for themselves and ask questions, but I've been puzzled lately by the attitudes of some (certainly not all!) skeptics that I've encountered on blogs and in comment threads.   So what was really illuminating for me was Sanguin's perspective on the unhealthy aspect of the Orange meme's worldview.  This seems to fit with what I'm encountering: a tendency to leave out spirit; a mindset that rejects the spiritual completely and reduces everything to the level of matter and empirical evidence.  Throwing the baby (spirit) out with the bathwater (mythic literalism), so to speak

In his book, Sanguin describes healthy Orange: "The orange value system embraces scientific rationalism...Within this system, Christ is seen as the human one, a teacher of spiritual wisdom.  The divinity of Christ is downplayed in favor of the flesh-and-blood human being...In the scientific era, we learned that Christ didn't actually walk on water, heal the blind, or raise from the dead.  These are rich metaphors, but not to be taken literally...In its positive expression, the orange stage helps us to transcend the literalism of the previous levels" (p. 95).

According to Ken Wilber in his book Integral Spirituality, both modern science and religion have confused the premodern mythic level with spirituality itself. He went on to say that religion itself needs to make room for and sanction the orange, or modernistic, interpretations of its religious messages.  Wilber recommended the works of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Stephen Carter, and F. Forrester Church as religious and spiritual writers who have emphasized the orange interpretation of Christianity without dispensing with spirituality (p. 178-179).

To disregard any level of development leads to rigidity and lack of growth.  Let us allow room for one another to retain a connection with the Divine at whatever developmental level we find ourselves.  May we encourage one another to grow and transcend each level in a healthy manner, and may each of us enter into the place where all of life is experienced as sacred.


Don said...

I have found it to be particularly difficult to find yourself at the "orange" level and not want to somewhat do away with the "spiritual" aspect of the Christian story.
I have found myself rejecting the literalism of my upbringing while desperately trying to find some part of the story to hanging on to. It's like a child that suddenly realizes there is no Santa Claus".........Now what do I do? There is too much richness to the story, so you search and search for a new angle from which to approach it.
I have found that Spong's approach to the story speaks to to me where others do not. That is not to say that the other mentioned in your post do not speak to me at all. For instance I love Marcus Borg's simple approach. But it is Spong's scholarly style that speaks to me the most.

Mae said...

I can relate! But even though Sanguin addresses Christianity, I think his idea of the orange level transcends any one religion; it’s healthy to grow into a place where literalism is rejected whether we’re Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., but we can retain spirituality through this level while in a particular tradition or apart from any of them. I think whatever tradition we come from, life without Santa Claus is certainly a difficult place to be! I’m really thankful for men like Spong who have deconstructed literalism in a gracious manner and I’d like to see him move more into constructing what comes next. Where ARE we going??? To a place where all of life is experienced as sacred, I hope.