Spiraling Toward the Divine

As I went through a faith deconstruction/reconstruction (to use the in-vogue terms), I came across a model that helped me understand where I had been and where I was going. I started life as the grandson to Southern Baptist preacher, and I learned pretty quickly to not question the rules. As I entered my twenties, I tried, increasingly, to make my theology fit into a system that was able to withstand the slings and arrows of my doubts. Now, in my forties, I’m an Episcopalian who embraces the mystery of faith in a way that would’ve been heretical for me at the previous stages of my life.

This model is called Spiral Dynamics, which was originally developed by Dr. Clare W. Graves and continued in the work of Dr. Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics categorizes social and cultural groups based on how their power is structured and how they relate to others. Each level is named after a color and represents a developmental stage of an individual, group, or society.

Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind as we work through these levels is: each developmental stage represents a ‘best fit’ for that individual’s or group’s environment. In other words, there is no ‘best’ or ‘correct’ color. People at a green level are no more valid or important than people at a red level.

The first tier is called the Subsistence Tier.

Beige

Beige is all about the need to survive and to fulfill basic needs. No spirituality happens at this level, as Beige is too focused on the next meal or the next shelter. Prehistoric humanity would have existed in this state.

Purple

Purple is invested in magical thinking and holds to various forms of animism. They often follow shaman or spiritual leaders and form tight-knit groups based on kinship. The earliest societies in recorded history were Purple, including the world Abraham would have known. In a modern Christian context, snake-handlers are likely purple.

Red

For Red, gods, as opposed to animistic spirits arise, but these gods rule based on strength and fear. Red warlords rule by strength. “Might makes right” perfectly encapsulates the power dynamic of Red. David, in Hebrew Scriptures, represents an archetypal Red leader. He’s known for his martial prowess (1 Sam 21:11), and he used might to gather people to him (1 Sam 23:1-5). In a modern Christian context, Christian motorcycle gangs might be Red.

Blue

For Blue, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are clearly defined by an all-knowing God or organization. Rule-following is very important for Blue, and variance from the rules can have severe consequences. The Christian church has been Blue for most of its history. A staunchly traditional Catholic or Orthodox parish would be Blue.

Orange

Orange is the color of the Enlightenment. Orange is more scientific and systematic in thinking and often believes the world is completely knowable and predictable. Even if humanity doesn’t understand everything currently, for Orange, everything is potentially knowable. The Protestant Reformation represents a shift of Christian thinking away from Blue and towards Orange. Current Reformed Protestant churches are often Orange.

Green

Interconnectedness is a major theme for Green, which sees hierarchy as no longer helpful. Green tends to emphasize emotional connectivity, environmental health, and a desire to be less dogmatic. At the Green stage, care for others, the environment, and feelings can matter more than logic or facts. Many of the Mainline Protestant churches match well with Green.

The second tier is called the Being Tier.

Yellow

At the Yellow stage, the previous stages start to weave together. Science, logic, emotion, power, authority, and mysticism can, in some ways, be brought together. Yellow returns to systemic thinking but now emotions and uncertainty are integrated instead of excluded. All systems are valued by Yellow, which is able to see how all of the various systems, religious and scientific, fit together as a cohesive whole. Various Mainline Protestant congregations might reach Yellow, and Yellow individuals might find themselves comfortable in Green congregations.

Turquoise

Turquoise sees itself as just one part of the living world, and, in fact, the entirety of existence is all one. Everything in the moment is perfect, for Turquoise, but there is also a need for growth and change everywhere. The ‘already, but not yet’ mindset is pervasive in Turquoise. Turquoise spirituality is esoteric and holistic. Richard Rohr’s theology is an example of Turquoise.

These levels are messy, and blend together at times. Until entering the second tier, colors will tend to dislike lower colors and fear higher colors, believing their thinking represents the best view of reality. For example, Blue will see itself as superior to the overt power struggles of Red, but will fear the lack of hierarchy present in green. The logic of Orange threatens the whole reason for Blue’s power structures, but is, in turn, threatened by Green’s focus on emotions and feelings. Green might feel finally released from the bondage of the systems inherent in both blue and orange, and therefore not ready to incorporate them as Yellow does.

As I mentioned at the top, this model can be helpful for those undergoing faith transition. If you’ve found yourself feeling stifled at church or in different friend groups, the struggle might be because of a change in Spiral Dynamics for either you or your group. A Green, for example, will generally feel quite uncomfortable hearing Orange sermons on Sunday, just like an Orange will struggle hearing either Blue or Green sermons. And all of them will be uncomfortable with Turquoise theology, while a Turquoise could listen to Blue, Orange, or Green sermons and find value in them.

This model helped me put words to why I, suddenly, no longer seemed to fit in the context that had worked for me for years, and it helped me to move on without blaming anyone, as we are all at different places on the spiral. I no longer desire to try and force the Bible to be a single unified document without contradiction, but those in my old church still need that. This isn’t a negative statement about either me or them, as our color is a reflection of the environment in which we find ourselves. This model also helped me find theologians and a new social context that was a better fit.

There are many more resources on spiral dynamics, for those interested. Spiral Dynamics Integral: The Netherlands has a lot more information on the subject. The Liturgists podcast, Episode 5 also has a good discussion of the model.


Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year three of Sewanne’s Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence. 

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