The Integral Learning Cycle: An Apostolic Example

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Monday night I spoke at the Vancouver Integral Salon (at which some of the Beams & Struts brethren were in attendance).  I focused on the Integral Learning Cycle developed by integral theorist Mark Edwards pictured above.

The cycle is an expansion of Ken Wilber's ideas of the 3 Strands of Knowledge.

The cycle--*in a simplified form described above--consists of four parts:  action, experience, interpretation, and confirmation.

An individual or group undertakes some action.  For example, if learning meditation, the individual might be taught to repeat a word or learn to count the breath.

Then experience/data arises.  In our meditation example, one might notice the arising of all kinds of thoughts and emotions that were not previously being experienced.

Then there is a process of interpretation, of meaning-making.  Given this data, what are the implications?  How do I make sense of this event?  What story am I telling about this event?  Into what context(s) does it fit? 

And lastly, that interpretation, experience, and action are typically checked with those who have gone through the cycle of learning in this field and are recognized as having a certain kind of wisdom.  In the meditation case, this would be a meditation teacher (guru, roshi, etc.).  One receives confirmation, advice, and some form of evaluation from the wisdom figure.

With that loop, one cycle is complete and new action (and a new cycle) begins.  

For Edwards, this 4 part learning cycle gives rise to learning in various domains of human existence.  In my talk the other night I used examples from science (Darwin), art (music lesson), sports (basketball shot coach), and warfare (OODA Loop).

Here I'd like to use a religious example to concretize the map.


It comes from the 10th chapter of The Acts of the Apostles from the Christian New Testament.  The backdrop to this story concerns the Apostle Peter (a Jewish follower of Jesus) and a man named Cornelius (a Gentile who will become a Christian disciple).  The story involves the pressing question for the early church: what about the Gentiles?  Jesus was a Jew, his early disciples were all Jewish, and Jesus appears to have maintained a ministry to Israelites, if not exclusively, then certainly primarily to Jews.  After the death of Jesus and the claim of his resurrection by certain of his followers, Gentiles started becoming attracted to the new movement.  The question became:  do they need to become Jews in order to become Jesus followers?  There was difference of opinion among the apostles themselves on this very question.

Peter is a figure in the middle.  He is an observant Jew but open to interacting with Gentiles and seeing where it all leads.  He has a vision in Chapter 10 of a giant tent-like canopy descending from heaven with all the creatures of the earth under it.  A heavenly voice tells him to eat, but Peter replies that he cannot for some of the animals are "unclean"--i.e. they violate Jewish kosher food laws (like for example a pig).  The voice interestingly tells him however to eat.

As Peter is trying to make sense of this (to him) confusing vision, Cornelius has his own vision in which a heavenly voice tells him to go seek out Peter.  Cornelius sends some of his soldiers (Cornelius is a captain in the, note this, occupying Roman army) to find Peter.  Peter finally arrives at the house of Cornelius.  Cornelius describes his vision to Peter.

And here is where we pick up the story (Acts of the Apostles, Ch.10, New Revised Standard Translation):

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

So within this story, the four strands of learning occur.


Peter preaches the central narrative (called kerygma) of early Christian belief.   As a sidenote, notice how the earliest "belief" system of Christianity is not a bunch of doctrines (as the term is normally understood) or bullet propositional points on a board, but a story.


v. 44 "The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word." 

 The experience or world that now emerges (mysteriously) through the action of preaching is one in which The Holy Spirit is upon the people.  This event was helped by the fact that earlier the listeners say that they are ready to listen to whatever Peter has to say (v. 33).  In other words, the context has properly been set for a spiritual experience to emerge.


v. 45: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles..."

That means, the Jewish Jesus believers ("the circumcised believers") had not imagined God might bring Gentiles to the same belief in the resurrected Jesus and the kingdom of God movement he initiated.  For them, Jesus' ministry was to Jews only, a restoration of Israel.  But now God is (for them) doing something unimaginable--that is calling Gentiles.  This new "data" of spiritual confession is causing them to re-interpret and re-think their understanding of their religion and its boundaries.

Confirmation/Social Action:

vv 47-48.  Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

The confirmation point for the Jewish Jesus believers is that the Gentiles speak in tongues, proof of the existence of the Holy Spirit's "falling" upon them.  As they are mature believers in the faith, i.e. these believers are considered in the community of the learned on who is and isn't a true Jesus follower, they can recognize the proper signals.

The consequence or social action that grows out of their confirmation is the decision to baptize these Gentile believers.  Baptism becomes the mode of social action "confirming" the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The four of these together constitute a loop in the cycle of learning.  This single loop will lead for the Christian community to another set of loops and debates--namely what they would do now that they have received Gentiles into their community of faith without making them Jews.  The Gentile believers in that story notice are immediately baptized and not first made Jewish (through circumcision).

I invite readers to find concrete versions of this learning cycle in their own lives:  career, relationships, personal growth work, etc.

Out of this cycle grows four values central to the post-postmodern project:

1. (From action):  Conscious intention and sincere action.

2. (From experience):  An ability to feel and become sensitive and responsive to various forms of experience.

3. (From interpretation):  The ability to dialog, to become humble and share our experience.  To become transparent.

4. (From confirmation):  To stand in the community of wisdom and seek to reason together.  To find new norms, new ways of healthy boundary-creation and judgment.


* The cycle can be nuanced significantly.  e.g. The arrows can also be drawn going in both directions.  Also each of the four moments can themselves be drawn as four quadrants, since for example, any action always takes place in a cultural, social backdrop by a body with conscious intention.  That gives a four by four matrix (16).  But I think it's helpful at the beginning to look at it in this simplified (though not simplistic) form.


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