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Growing Up

Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians using Paul's name) is pretty clear in his letter to the Ephesians that spiritual growth is a responsibility to be taken seriously. Just as we have to grow up and become responsible adults through continued schooling, training for new jobs, learning how to grow in relationships, so too, are we responsible for our spiritual growth.

In Ephesians 4, Paul basically tells folks that is it time to grow up spiritually. Stop being so fickle and listening to anyone you come across. The truth will always be based in love – agape, the unconditional love, unbounded love, immense love of God. Stop living like the rest of the world, because “their minds are empty” and they don’t think beyond themselves and their own wants and desires. They don’t seek understanding and truth. They don’t ask questions. They have simply hardened their hearts. In other words, they are self-centered and stuck. Paul reminds us to let go of our egos to move forward and let our minds be “renewed by a spiritual revolution” which brings us closer and closer to that cosmic consciousness or oneness with the Divine.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

While everyone experiences their spiritual journey differently, psychologists have found that there are fairly clear stages that people move through (or get stuck in) as we grow in our spiritual lives. Before I go into this, please understand that I am not trying to make anyone better than anyone else. In fact, we all probably still operate at different times in any one of these stages.  However, in recognizing where we are, how we got there, and that we want to grow in our spiritual lives, we then become able to “cooperate consciously with God in the process,” as M. Scott Peck said.

James Fowler and M. Scott Peck are both known for their studies of the Stages of Faith. Below I have essentially merged their two models into the four stages that Peck delineates.

STAGE 1: Self-centered/mythic/literal
-          Childhood (20% of adults reside here)
-          Ego-centric
-          Fantasy and reality confused
-          Accept and understand stories of faith in very literal ways
-          Undeveloped spirituality
-          Tribalism – need belonging, but can create suspicion about those who are different
-          Adults who end up here either have a very simple, humble, dutiful piety or can have a very angry “us-vs-them” fundamentalism

STAGE 2: Formal-Institutional
-          May begin in teenage years, but many people stay here for life
-          Rely on institution for answers and stability
-          Legalistic, parochial and dogmatic
-          Attached to the forms of their religion (doctrine and liturgy); get extremely upset when these are called into question
-          God is transcendent and external. Have little to no understanding of God as immanent and indwelling
-          Have a hard time seeing outside the box, and really don’t recognize that they are in a box

When I was teaching at Carthage College, I experienced a example of someone stuck in stage 2. I had a student who browsed through one of the books I was using for class (Healthy Religion, by Kania) and saw that it was pretty hard on fundamentalists, and went to see the Chair of the religion department demanding, “Do you know what she is teaching?”  The Chair suggested that we can also learn things from people and ideas we don’t agree with, but he refused to take my class.

We all know people like this who believe that not only is God unchanging, but the church should be, too. Many churches are caught here. They see their membership slipping away and keep saying they want to attract younger people, but they don’t want to evolve in their thinking.

STAGE 3: Skeptic-individual
-          Often begun in young adulthood
-          Often unbelievers, including atheists, agnostics and scientifically minded
-          Start seriously questioning
-          Critically examine their beliefs and become disillusioned with former faith
-          Thinking outside the box and see other boxes
-          Often deeply involved in social causes
-          Necessary step for growth, but many stay perpetual questioners/seekers

Peck notes that one of the greatest challenges of the church has been to facilitate the growth of persons from stage 2 to stage 4 without losing them forever in stage 3. Consequently, the church has historically avoided this dilemma, rather than face it, by discouraging doubt and questioning altogether. Peck believes that doubt and questioning need to become Christian virtues and a responsibility, because there is simply no way to grow without them.

I have seen people get stuck here, unable to move forward or back. I remember one woman specifically who was proud of the fact that she was questioning and searching. She tried all kinds of spiritual practices, visited many churches and religions, but never seemed to move forward.  She couldn’t live with the fact that questioning simply brought more questions than answers. She wanted certainty, but that isn’t to be found on the spiritual quest. The only certainty lies within our hearts and within the realm of Divine Love, but that isn’t necessarily reasonable, logical or measurable.

To move out of stage three, we must not only find the pieces (answers) to our spiritual puzzles, but recognize and accept that the puzzle doesn't have any edge pieces.  It simply keeps growing. To enter stage 4 we must allow ourselves to be drawn into that mysteriously expanding puzzle. And, we must be ok with saying “I don’t know, but my heart resonates with that."

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from the Buddha:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it 
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. 
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. 
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. 
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. 
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

STAGE 4: Mystical-Communal
-          Rarely reach before mid-life
-          Limits of logic are reached, and begin to accept paradoxes (non-dualistic thinking)
-          Begin to see life as a mystery
-          Can look at sacred stories and symbols without being in a box (metaphorically)
-          Recognize the connectedness of all things with God
-          Acknowledge the enormity of the unknown and seek to penetrate deeper into it
-          Emphasis more on community than on individual concerns

Bede Griffiths was a British born Benedictine monk and priest who lived in ashrams in India and became a noted yogi. Clearly one would consider this man to have been in stage 4, but even at that level growth does not stop and we may still find ourselves with vestiges of earlier stages.

John Philip Newell, in The Rebirthing of God, tells this story“At the age of 86, Bede had the most transformative experience of his life.” (Note: he only lived to be 87.) ”During early morning meditation, he experienced God as Feminine. For years he had been teaching the marriage of East and West, and the importance of conjoining the feminine and the masculine within ourselves and within our religious images and rituals, but that was in the realm of ideas. This was different. This was an experience of God as Feminine. It shook him down to the foundation of his being… Spiritually it was an experience of Divine Love. He now realized that everything else was insignificant. A few days after the experience, he wrote to Sister Pascaline Coff at the Osage Monastery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 'The ego has collapsed. I feel totally free. All the barriers have broken down.' It was an experience of liberation. He had been set free, not only from his own ego but also from the ego of his Western culture, education, and religious tradition.”

We are all invited to ponder where we are in our spiritual journeys and to notice the progression of our faith through our lives. What vestiges of earlier stages might we still carry with us, and is it time to let them go? If we'll open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit, I believe opportunities further growth will present themselves to us. And perhaps, as Paul says, we may even experience a spiritual revolution where our mind is renewed and we’re brought ever closer to being who we were created to be.

Love & Light!

Kaye