ou know that moment when the sand at the bottom of the hourglass starts to cave in toward the center? And it seems like suddenly the grains start to quicken, to pick up speed. But it’s an illusion, right? They don’t really move any faster, do they? Time doesn’t speed up if we have less of it. Or does it?
2012, The Year of the Dragon (my birth sign) is coming to a close and I was told to expect both profound “promise and demise.” Looking back on this year, I suppose both of those things are true. On one hand, I wasted most of the year — beating around the bush, hesitating out of fear, trying on old habits, instead of taking a deep breath and stepping onto the end of the diving board. And on the other hand, I also took my time and I meditated. I’ve finally come to a decision, deliberately and purposefully, about what my next steps should be. Something in me has been building steam for quite a while, and it’s high time that I tell everyone what I’ve been up to. Not just to share the news with you — my friends and family — but in hopes that by giving voice to my intentions, by articulating my plan, I will help to further realize it in my own heart and mind.
I am forming a non-profit, religious organization called the Integral Church. Something that is, in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, a brand new religious denomination. Something that until very recently, hasn’t existed.
Religion means so many things to different people, that for our purposes here, we should make an attempt to define it. “Religion,” in my opinion, is not just dogma, doctrine or creed — which all refer specifically to passages of scripture, koans, mythology, mantras, law, ethics, etc. These are parts of religion, yes. But they are not the whole story. Religion, to me, relates to the way an individual understands their own consciousness, it is the method in which they are self-aware, and it is the way that person struggles with or attempts to answer life’s big questions. The big questions like, “What is my purpose,” “What (or who) is God,” “Where did the universe come from,” “What is the nature of time,” etc. These questions can be tackled by personally investigating the nature of the self and the universe — by doing the experiment and seeing with your own eyes, they can be contemplated and interpreted through mythology and storytelling, or both. But the big question is usually centered in the “I.” How do I relate to the universe/God? What happens when I die? And it’s through the exploration of these questions that a spiritual practice and ways to honor the cosmos or God are consciously developed (or not).
You don’t have to tell me — religion has been a less than perfect solution for a lot of things. But that’s why now, more than ever, we need to build something new. Something that the world has never seen before.
The reason for starting a religious organization, and not simply another community non-profit, is the next logical step in a personal journey that began in the woods of Central Wisconsin as a teenager. That is where I experienced my first epiphany — a vision of the universe as a spinning record, and myself as the needle. I was nudged down this path when asked by a dear friend of mine to officiate my first wedding (I have grown to further appreciate and understand the deep importance of ritual in family life and have since performed my sixth wedding, a memorial service and countless fatherhood rituals). An intellectual seed was planted when I discovered the writings of Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilber, and began to sprout when I realized that their life’s work was a continuation of those who came before them — Sri Aurobindo, William James, Aldous Huxley. When I finally discovered the writings of the modern Catholic reformers — those who had been exiled from the institutionalized religion that they loved for demanding further reform and more inclusive liturgical structures (i.e. Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, Bishop John Shelby Spong, and Fr. Richard Rohr) — I began to see the forest for the trees. I also saw the path that cut straight through the archaic wilderness to the heart of a post-modern center. I understood that we needed to build something new.
But none of this justifies the foolish act of starting a religion, does it? Starting a religion is a crazy thing to do, right? Especially in Florida. Nobody does that.
Let me be perfectly clear: the reason for this undertaking is not just because we need a new vision of the world, a world where religious tolerance is the rule; where religions are not seen as warring tribes, but as neighboring families that each contain their own spectrums of consciousness — from traditional conservatives to modern progressives. A world where believers and non-believers alike can find a common language and a sense of context. There are too few places where compassionate atheists and humanists can get involved with environmental causes or helping the less fortunate. Our vision of the world includes the creation of — and access to — these types of programs. But, it also includes children being taught mindfulness and modern (peer-to-peer) informational literacy, it includes cities being built (or re-built) around biodiversity, community farming and cooperation. It is a world where everything is a Holon¹ (a whole and a part) and where “spirituality” is understood (and practiced) in very real terms, knowing that there is indeed an energy in me that is identical to the energy in you. In an integral context, that means an individual approach that at once includes meditation/contemplation, exercise/nutrition, sustainability/environmentalism, and community service/civic engagement². In this new world, being open-minded is celebrated, “transcending and including” is the new norm and those who change their mind can more easily imagine a changing world³.
The reason is also not simply because many of us are finding that we have a shared set of beliefs — a belief that God is beyond gender (neither male or female), that human gender roles and sexual behavior do not exist discretely as male or female but as points along a continuum†. A belief that science and philosophy are tantamount in answering life’s big questions. A belief that new gender-balanced mythologies (that have yet to be written) are necessary for our modern age — stories that take into account how we interact with the technology and computer networks that we’ve built to encircle our planet and how we use these networks to communicate with other nations and nationalities around the globe, sometimes on a daily basis. And, finally, a belief that the First Cause that created the universe is simply unknowable and that love may very well be all you need‡.
The reason for starting a religious non-profit — for building a “ministry” — is to spread the message that we change the world by living in it ∞. That our personal unfolding, our continually-expanding consciousness, the ability to take more and more perspectives, the primordial drive toward increasing biological complexity, is directly related to the evolution of the entire cosmos. We — our interiors and exteriors — are all part of that whole. It is one action. In fact, it is Spirit-in-Action.
It’s also time we demanded more from our religious institutions. It’s time that our wisdom traditions, our rituals and rites of passage, and our understanding of religion catch up with our collective intelligence, our knowledge base and intellect, our empirical understanding of the world. It’s finally time that our reality informed our morality, instead of the other way around. And it’s not enough for our churches to be “liberal.” They must be revolutionary. They must continually be tearing down and re-building, re-evaluating what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true. They must put down their old maps and draw new ones.
Christianity, as an example, is the most “open-source” of the worlds’ religions when it comes to doctrine. There are over 40,000 Christian denominations in the world. Even so, it has begun to decline, and will soon be the second largest religion in the world. But, Jesus’ teachings of non-violence, charity and a direct relationship with God should not be ignored because the newest generation can’t get next to the idea of original sin.
Mohammed’s submission to God, one of the greatest exemplars of surrender and devotion to a power greater than the self, should not be discounted because a percentage of fundamentalist Muslims are guilty of oppressing women.
The messages of the great teachers and sages haven’t changed, but if we are to survive by synthesizing what works in this world, our understanding of them needs to. What if we could take everything that is right about religion — our search for meaning, our commitment to personal and social transformation, the core values and principles they all have in common — and build a new approach to spirituality? What if instead of talking about our differences, we made efforts to work toward our collaborative potential?
It should not be our goal to change what a person believes. Our goal should be to inform a person so fully that any doubt or existential crisis transmutes into a mindful navigation. The churches of today, so as we all, must understand that religion is the phenomenon, the experience itself; philosophy is the law, the observation of what is experienced; and science is the theory of experience, determined by altering one’s environment°. And, this trinity of religion, philosophy and science, if kept in balance, is an ideal that speaks to both our essence and our nature.
This sounds good on paper, but what do you plan to do about it?
It will be the mission of Integral Church to co-create services and events that change people — to facilitate experiences with meaning and to create programs that matter. Everything is on the table, from individual study and contemplation to interfaith retreats and ceremonies, and we will continue to improve ourselves by always taking the perspective of others. We will lead and live by example, and will strive for the courage to connect with others in a meaningful way. In an age where we are regularly prompted to “report suspicious activity and baggage” to the authorities and where advertisements for home security systems would have us fearing our own neighbors, a decision must be made to open our hearts and not live in fear. Just as it is your choice to share the excess fruit from your trees, we choose to create moments and experiences that connect and unite people instead of keeping them apart.
Where are you located?
We don’t yet have a building. But when we do, it will be a community center, where we can host events, workshops, ceremonies, conferences and services, where after-school programs or family outreach can help foster education, where a community garden might help families learn to grow their own food, and where concerts and festivals will regularly showcase artists trying to make a difference in the world. This place will host regular interfaith dialogues, debates and discussions, as well as yoga and meditation. We will also work hand in hand with existing organizations to provide plenty of opportunities to volunteer and perform community service. I look forward to the day that we begin building this space of our own. But, for now, engaging one person at a time remains our mission.
If you’re thinking, “This is crazy. It’s time to write this guy off. What he’s preaching goes against what I believe, and I can’t support people who would drink this kind of Kool-Aid,” then I say this: There will be no preaching at Integral Church. That’s the point. There may be moderated discussion groups, there may even be ceremonies led by a pastor, minister, rabbi, yogi, imam or guru, but there will be no telling you what to believe or that what you believe is wrong. There may, however, be Kool Aid. We are open to sampling it (or a healthy alternative) on-site at all of our outreach events. Because we think that’s hilarious.
If you’re thinking, “This sounds just great. How can I get involved?,” and if you’re interested in helping spread the word about Integral Church, then I encourage you to join our community, either on the ground in St. Petersburg, FL or online. Send us an e-mail, attend our events, volunteer where and when you can, subscribe to our mailing list, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, click the “Share This” buttons below — in general, just be present and make your support and interest known. We are currently holding regular meetings and assembling our board of directors. Now is the time to get involved, as now is when you are needed the most.
If you think you’d like to help, but just can’t imagine where you’d find the time, I’d challenge you by asking when any of us find the time for anything. We find time to spend (or waste) online, telling our friends how we’re feeling, instead of asking how they are. We’re constantly finding time to shop for things we don’t really need. Why not spend those moments with friends who are motivated and willing to make a difference in the community? Why not spend them reading or studying, meditating, tutoring or counseling someone who needs help, tending a garden, or simply returning to your breath? Think about your values and your passions. Think about the causes you advocate. Do they fit into our mission like one of the colored playing pieces from Trivial Pursuit? If we could get the momentum of our entire network behind some of these ideas, do you think we could effect real change in our community? What about the world?
Does this still smell like some kind of amateur new age movement? Does it sound like some crackpot waxing poetic about the next stage of human consciousness? Do you think we’re kidding ourselves? Do you think we don’t realize that our work is cut out for us? Well, that’s what any religion does. It enables people to share the “good news” about a new paradigm shift, or a new way to see the world. That’s what religion is supposed to do — get people excited about experiencing and feeling the world around them. This is only the beginning, and I, for one, am ready to plunge into the world, head- and chest-first. I’m ready to feel it. I’m ready to witness it. And I’m ready to do the work.
Joran Oppelt, Founder
St. Petersburg, FL
Citations and credits – Arthur Koestler¹, Ken Wilber², Scott Rosenberg³, Andrea Dworkin†, John Lennon‡, Greg Norris ∞, Joanelle Lusk°,