Three weeks ago I started my semester at Carthage teaching Understandings of Religion (your basic World Religions 101 sort of class), and I always begin by asking them to write a Personal Reflection paper about their religious background and/or experiences. The good, the bad and the ugly.
It never fails, every time I do this I find myself somewhat saddened by the lack of what I consider spiritual maturity. Though, if I’m honest, I probably shouldn’t expect too much more from a group of 18 and 19 year-olds.
The ones most sure about their religious beliefs and their understanding about God are those who can rattle off the traditional theology of the church. They may as well be reciting a creed or reading from a list of cliches. Their papers sound something like this: “I believe in Jesus, the son of God who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered and died on the cross for my sins and was resurrected. I believe in the Holy Trinity. I believe we are all sinners, but that we must strive to be like Jesus and ask forgiveness if we are to get to heaven. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason.”
I’m sad about this because (in my humble opinion) they have been brought up in a church that values indoctrination over spiritual maturity. I’m sad about this because the pastors and people in those churches are convinced that believing this, and living by this, is spiritual maturity. The chance of them learning anything different and actually growing personally and spiritually is slim.
Another set of students had been turned off by the church because something happened that didn’t fit with what they’d been taught. A few named having a friend or family member who was gay or lesbian, but that the church denounced them. A few others experienced the death of someone close to them and didn’t understand why God had to take someone so good and why God didn’t answer their prayers. They were done with church and God. And perhaps I was saddened because they didn’t have anyone to meet them where they were and help them grow through their questioning.
I decided to try a google search on spiritual maturity. Here’s how most people defined it, or promoted it:
- Growing in wisdom and understanding Biblical teaching
- Must have a steady diet of Biblical teaching from one trained in the doctrinal truths and application of scripture.
Wow. My definition doesn’t look anything like that. Where is there room in here for searching, questioning, doubting, experiencing, or feeling?
Too many churches want to give people the step by step procedure to becoming “spiritually mature.” This often includes reading the Bible, going to church, doing what the preacher tells you, giving to the church, maybe attending some sort of classes. This is the magic formula for spiritual growth. Now, I realize I’m a bit cynical, and for some people in more healthy churches, this may in fact be a helpful part of the path. But for other churches that favor obedience over thinking and questioning, this formula simply serves to indoctrinate someone in the “right” ways to think and believe and then keeps them at a kindergarten understanding of God. Honestly, it makes my blood boil with its manipulative, egotistic, self-serving, self-preserving BS. (I apologize if that is too blunt, I’m still working on my own path which may someday include more tolerance of this.)
Spiritual maturity just isn’t that easy. I see it as a life-long path to awareness of oneself and the Divine. There is a clear connection between emotional and psychological health and spiritual health. Inner peace is often named as a characteristic of spiritual maturity. Yet, one can’t claim to have inner peace if they will not address the areas of their own lives that are not peaceful – guilt, shame, anger, grief, insecurity, passive-aggressive behavior, depression, addictions (to name a few).
Spiritual maturity also requires a great deal of openness to new thoughts, ideas and experiences. This means that there are likely to be growing pains in the process. It’s the struggle to let go of what we thought we knew and leap into the unknown looking for new answers. It’s being disappointed in the old, pat answers. It’s occasionally doubting there even is anything resembling a God out there. It’s becoming comfortable with saying “I don’t know.”
Richard Rohr speaks of spiritual ripening in the same way I think of spiritual maturity. He says, “If we are to speak of a spirituality of ripening, we need to recognize that it is always (and I do mean always) characterized by an increasing tolerance for ambiguity, a growing sense of subtlety, an ever-larger ability to include and allow, and a capacity to live with contradictions and even to love them! I cannot imagine any other way of coming to those broad horizons except through many trials, unsolvable paradoxes, and errors in trying to resolve them.”
In a nutshell, I believe spiritual maturity involves letting go of our ego-centric needs and desires. It involves tons of self-reflection and dealing with our baggage. And it calls us to embrace the journey, the questions, the conversations that make us think, and the ambiguity.
Blessings on your journey,