Stuck on the Spiritual Spectrum

Stuck on the Spiritual Spectrum


A dispute at a small evangelical college; the death of a Supreme Court Justice; the presidential election campaign—these and other recent events reminded me, yet again, that our religious attitudes and spiritual orientations are almost infinitely diverse. Not only are there vast differences among adherents of every tradition, but also diversity within the diversity within the diversity. Within every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, ashram, yoga studio, coven, meditation center—in fact everywhere the spiritual impulse is engaged—individuals vary more than we realize.

Scholars have found that one reason for this internal diversity is that people tend to move upward on a continuum of spiritual expansiveness. Perhaps the best-known map of this process was charted by James W. Fowler, a theologian and social scientist who taught at Harvard and Emory. In his seminal study, the basis of his book Stages of Faith (1981), Fowler defined steps of development that we all go through as we mature, and some stages that are reached only by some.

Between age seven and puberty, most people rise to what Fowler called the Mythic-Literal stage, in which God is anthropomorphic and religious stories and symbols are taken literally. In the next stage, Synthetic-Conventional faith, beliefs are determined by doctrines and precepts handed down by authority figures. With further development, people elevate to Fowler’s Individuative-Reflective stage of critical reflection, where stories and symbols are “de-mythologized” and self-actualizing drives emerge.

At the next level, Conjunctive, individuals are “alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions,” and “freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.”

At the earlier levels, the Other is likely to represent a threat, or an object of derision, or perhaps an opportunity for conquest or conversion. Attitudes toward the Other are more accepting at higher levels, and especially in Fowler’s final stage, Universalizing faith, which is characterized by a “taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality…devotion to universalizing compassion” and “enlarged visions of universal community.”

Evidence suggests that the higher stages are less rare now than they were when Fowler published his important work. Still, it is not hard to conclude that most religion-driven tension stems from the dogmatic and tribal mindsets of those stuck in the early stages of development. Throughout the world, tension and conflict arise when they bump up against one another, and against those whose perspectives are more pluralistic and inclusive.

We saw one expression of this tension recently, when Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins was disciplined for making a public statement of solidarity with Muslims. She posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a traditional hijab in support of Muslims, who, she declared, worship the same God as Christians like her. School officials objected to that statement on theological grounds, saying Hawkins violated the declaration of faith signed by all faculty members. As professor Hawkins is an African American woman and the relevant officials were white men, accusations of sexism and racism were voiced, but if we look only at the theological argument we see a clash between inclusive and exclusivist visions. Hawkins reached across boundaries and her antagonists were inclined to remain apart from (and above) the religious Other. To his credit, Wheaton provost Stan Jones eventually apologized for his “lack of wisdom and collegiality,” but the beleaguered Hawkins and the school parted company. If I ran a college, I’d hire her in a heartbeat.

The enormous judicial and political ramifications of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death received wall to wall scrutiny, of course. But the spiritual overtones should also be contemplated. By all indications, Scalia’s religiosity was as conservative as his politics and his legal philosophy. That his written opinions often reflected a deeply conservative Catholicism is obvious in cases involving homosexuality and abortion, where his writing was sometimes shockingly retrograde. It would not be surprising if his religious orientation mirrored his famous constitutional originalism, in that it emphasized fidelity to reified texts, in one case the U.S. Constitution, in the other scripture and church doctrine, as originally intended. That sounds like Fowler’s Synthetic-Conventional stage. His replacement’s position on the faith continuum could be as meaningful as his or her judicial perspective.

As for the incessant, inescapable presidential campaign, the religious attitudes expressed by the leading Republican candidates are as regressive as their sophomoric insult battles. Evangelical presidents like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush seem like Thomas Merton compared to the trinity of Trump, Cruz and Rubio, whose anti-Other, tougher than thou fervor places them squarely on Fowler’s lower developmental rungs. Someone ought to read those self-anointed saviors the passage in Matthew (6.5) where Jesus denounces religious showboats. It is harder to get a bead on the spirituality of the Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton seems to be squarely rooted in the progressive, inclusivist Protestant tradition, and Sanders is a secular Jew who’s made vague reference to a “we’re all in this together” spirituality. Just how deeply spiritual any of them is will remain a mystery, but the Pope’s distinction between building walls and building bridges would seem to be one barometer.

At this point in history, it does not seem unreasonable to expect people in positions of power to be situated further along the spectrum of spiritual developmental. But it seems we have some work to do before we get there.

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