Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Religion is belief in someone else’s experience.  Spirituality is having your own experience.”
– Deepak Chopra

Many years ago I was a behavioral therapist and an art therapist at a large children’s home in Tennessee.  My first responsibility was to identify and document unacceptable behaviors and then create a behavioral modification program aimed at changing that behavior.  Once in place the program generally entailed “time outs” (i.e. isolation and ostrasization) for the errant individual every time the offense occurred, a common methodology in those days. In simple terms the child was cut off from the community and their peers until he/she conformed to my expectations.
It was a kind of forced indoctrination, nothing less, and it worked very well.  “Just tell me what to do,” required no thinking or reflection.
However, my other “hat” as an art therapist was just the opposite. It required creating programs wherein the children could freely express themselves through their creativity and the synthesis of divergent ideas. The ultimate goal was to help them think and learn positive ways to express themselves.
In this case the key was in learning how to take multiple ideas (some of which seemed incompatible), adopt, adapt and internalize them into ways of being which led to self-control and self-realization.  This way of working was much harder for them and for me, but for those who could successfully use their imaginations to become a new person the hard work usually took root and was maintained, but those successes accounted for only 10 percent of the population.
James W. Fowler, a theology professor at Emory University, wrote two books in the 1980s, “Stages of Faith” and “Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian”.  His research proved that faith development and cognitive development both followed distinct stages, but that faith development has its own unique track. High cognitive development did not necessarily result in a mature faith development.
To grossly oversimplify the stages of faith in Fowler’s thesis they are:
(0) Primal faith, ages 0-2, wherein the parent is “god” and the nurturing environment is either safe or hostile;
(1) Intuitive-Projective faith, ages 3-7, wherein the child’s psyche is like a sponge absorbing stories, experiences, images and the behaviors of those around them, thereby advancing an unconscious expectation of who and what God may be;
(2) Mythic-Literal faith, most elementary school age children, wherein stories and metaphors are taken literally and become embedded as concrete and factual;
(3) Synthetic-Conventional faith, adolescence through adulthood, wherein a religious authority (i.e. priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, etc.) demands and expects conformity to a specific type of thinking and behavior, and those demands are accepted and internalized. A fear of being cast out of the community results in absolute compliance with the stated expectations;
(4) Individuative-Reflective faith, one’s 20s and 30s, wherein the individual begins to question his/her beliefs and to take personal responsibility for the complexity of one’s faith.  It is a time of great struggle and angst wherein hostile criticism at the very least is to be experienced;
(5) Conjunctive faith, mid-adulthood, wherein the individual transcends inherited systems of belief and is self-confirming in his/her beliefs and feelings;
(6) Universalizing faith, “enlightenment,” wherein the individual reaches a stage of faith in which all people are treated with universal principles of love and justice.
As in my experience working with problem children who preferred strict programming to critical thinking, very few people take the step from stage 3 to stage 4 because they are unwilling to challenge their literal, absolute ideals and risk being ostracized from their community or given a punishment.
As a result their behavior is modified to comply with the authority.  It is an extreme challenge to one’s training to make the leap from stage 3 to stage 4, and very few attempt it, no matter how cognitively advanced they may become, preferring instead to hold onto their affiliations and concrete beliefs, no matter what.  However, those few who make the leap from stage 3 to stage 4, and eventually manage to attain stage 5 despite fear, criticism and rejection, reach a place of genuine individuated spirituality and personal peace. Stage 6 is the hardest leap to make which only those like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Buddha and such manage to attain and maintain.
So the bottom line here is that everyone goes through these stages.  Even those who claim no religious connection find a substitute in something else, such as clubs, gangs, sports and politics for example, and their lives and beliefs still follow Fowler’s stages. The only difference is their “god” may be a political party, a specific group, a “hero,” a football team, or so forth.
But often for those who claim to be religious in the conventional sense “God” becomes the divine texts (the Bible, the Koran, the Pentateuch, etc.), the denomination or religious party with its trappings and expectations, or persons with charismatic or ordained authority.
Sadly, at least 90 percent of any given population is stuck in literalism and affiliative religiosity, but have little or no genuine spirituality or personal interaction with God. For most their lifelong instruction to religiosity makes scriptural literalism, ritual, doctrine and conformity to authority their God and all they want or desire.  As a result they rarely or never experience a genuine encounter with the divine.
Attaining a genuine spirituality does not necessitate abandoning one’s religious roots and practices, but it does mean always holding in one’s heart and mind the question, “Is that really true?” and taking the leaps of personal, critical exploration necessary to hold a self-individuated spirituality.  After all, “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience.  Spirituality is having your own experience.”

by Michael Doty

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