Seeking Integration in a Fragmented World

I’m glad to have been invited to contribute regularly to the Theopolis Institute website. Thank you, readers, for welcoming and joining what I hope will be a venture of integration. Integration itself is what I want to explore. And for me personally, this is the shape of my current integrative quest.

Christian believers of certain traditions have had the term, “integration,” in their vocabulary for decades as part of the endeavor to “integrate faith and learning.” Americans of recent decades have the term in their vocabulary in connection with race and gender relations. Both are instances of integration (where they occur); they involve interweaving things that have been, unfortunately, rendered separate.

I would like to explore integration as something not so much specifically applied but as a venture fundamentally lived. I think that integration lies at the heart of all we are as human persons, at the heart of knowing and of reality. Understood this way, we can see that we humans seek integration: making sense of life, putting it all together, connecting the dots. Every one of us seeks a deep center that somehow is the source and anchor of who we are. Integration is seeking that center. We seek it because we need it as we need breath. Attunement to the center is what makes us authentic beings. To live is to integrate, or to long for it. It can be seen as the hoped-for trajectory of our lives. We seek to be integrated persons ourselves, put, or pulled, together. In some way we seek to be joined integratively to all else, to God most of all.

But many people we know, including ourselves at times, imagine that products and outcomes are reducible to their components in a linear, additive way. They’re guaranteed, commodifiable, results. Many people imagine that creativity is the bailiwick of artists and artistic creation—not the “main act.” We’ve reserved use of the term, integration, for Christian colleges and race-relations. It’s not hard to see that the prevailing outlook, modernity, exalts the disintegrated. We privilege breaking things down, analyzing reductivistically into operable components. We honor the fragments so much so that we feel guilty for secretly longing to put it all together. We presume that it is not even possible, let alone desireable. It is, however, especially because of the prevalence of disintegration in our era’s mindset that affirming, attending to, and seeking integration is important and timely. It disputes and healingly disrupts this mindset, and starts to put us back together.

Preliminarily, let’s define “integration” as creatively putting things together. The word can signify the process, or it can signify the result. Integration’s opposites are dis-integration, or fragmentation. Integration creatively crystallizes a simple sense-giving pattern that connects us with the real and shapes us in the process. It is not arrived at linearly or additively. The integration is irreducible to whatever we had been working with or indwelling, even as it catches all that up into a profounder pattern. You may find it helpful to think of an integration as a “gestalt,” a whole which makes profounder sense of its parts, and is irreducible to the parts.

Integration signals a grasp of life, of the real that we sense exceeds any specific words spoken. Integration distinctively engenders meaning, beauty, wisdom, and shalom. As an integration, it is irreducible to its parts. Just because of this, in it we sense that it has taken a graced intrusion from outside of us to cause its manifestation: a face, a person, a word, a story, a place, a vision, an inspiration, a discovery, a breakthrough, an epiphany, a work of art, a narrative.

Integration both climaxes our search and invites us into further, deeper, probing. It’s never over; it’s always opening out wonderfully into fresh prospects. And that is no frustration but rather the telltale inexhaustible depths of an abundant reality. Far from frustration, we are herein in touch. We delight to dive more deeply into the integration. Having integrated, unless the pattern were to prove to have been utterly mistaken, we’re not ever “done” with it so as to move on to something else. Rather, it signals the onset of unfolding, deep communion with the real.

Lovers of God easily see that Jesus Christ is the integration of all things, ourselves included. He is the one in whom all things cohere, in whom are the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He is the pearl of great price. He is the integrative point of reality, even as he puts our humble lives together. To seek integration is to seek him. The process of integration signposts him; it honors him as it references him. He is the heart of reality. I try to put things together integratively just as my love for him; in my integration I seek—and see—him. It is my spiritual service of worship. Integration discloses him, immerses us in him. But as humans, as image-bearers, we long for a deep integrative point whether we know his name or not.

It should not be necessary to advise you to give some thought to this; we cannot live without giving thought to it. If we aren’t giving thought to it, perhaps in some sense we are dead. Perhaps dis-integration, fragmentation, has for now won the field of our lives. It can have discredited the quest, and dulled us to it. It can be thwarting it.

I’ve pursued philosophizing for its integrative service; in fact, I think that philosophizing is essential to integration, or part of it. I’ve lived a life devoted to putting things together philosophically to make sense. There are other routes to integration besides studying philosophy, but I would argue that they all have a philosophical dimension and would be aided by philosophical awareness as philosophical awareness is aided by them. –Which is integration also. For me, pursuing integration has been no idle, uncommitted, curiosity. It has been life itself. It’s the quest that I am. And I believe that it is the human person’s longing for God.

I come to the idea of integration via my decades long study of Michael Polanyi’s epistemology, specifically his proposal that subsidiary focal integration is the way all knowing works. I see my own “covenant epistemology” as augmenting but never surrendering this account. All coming to know is integration.

In recent years I have connected with two key players in my own pilgrimage of integration: Christian philosopher D.C. Schindler, and artist Makoto Fujimura. In encountering Schindler’s account of “reason as ecstatic,” and reality as epiphanic, I have felt as if the little candle of covenant epistemology has been welcomed out into the light of the sun. Fresh vistas and depths are opening for covenant epistemology. I study to deepen my grasp of Schindler’s work so as to deepen the integration I already grasp in part. In my classes this semester at Geneva College, I have several students reading and talking about Schindler with me.

I am one of many admirers of the artist, Makoto Fujimura. We teach his work in humanities at Geneva. He is a superb resource especially for Christian believers with respect to art and culture and our involvement in it. I now collaborate with him professionally as a Fujimura Institute Scholar. In that capacity I am always seeking to connect my work with his in a way that unfolds and abets both reciprocally. And I notice repeatedly that “integration” is a “happy word” for Mako; it appears to be his greatest desire and what art does.

I deem encounter with both of these people as just the sort of grace-induced intrusion that prompts my integration. They are “Esther-specific,” overwhelming evidence of the Lord’s delight in me. I am grateful to call them friends and colleagues.

So my agenda for these my “Theopolis Papers” is to explore and integrate the work of Polanyi, Meek, Schindler, Fujimura, and a few others. This represents the “cutting edge” of my own quest for integration—not to mention my heart’s worship of the Lord. And as I have been suggesting, not only will integration be the action plan in these reflections; it will be the theme. Early on, my installments will acquaint you with the streams of thought I seek to integrate; then I will explore places where they—well, integrate.

Why does integration matter? Assuming that you breathe the aroma of modernity, you struggle existentially (explicitly or tacitly) against dis-integration. Integration puts us together, pulls us together, as persons. I hope that these reflections will inspire and aid your efforts.

Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:​Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for Knowing; Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People .Photo below by Don Regier.