Jul 112012
 

Last week, I discussed the research of James W. Fowler, a Methodist minister, into the developmental stages of faith. Dr. Fowler built his ideas on the pattern of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. This is also worth considering.

Dr. Kohlberg found that moral development was revealed by one’s attitudes toward justice and how one reasoned on, and resolved, moral dilemmas. Related research identified justice as a masculine orientation and added caring as the corresponding feminine. At each stage of development, our moral behavior becomes more responsible, nuanced, and predictable.

Young children (and some poorly-developed adults) judge the morality of an action by its immediate consequences. Snatching a cookie or running a stop sign are just fine so long as you are not caught and punished. The focus is on personal benefit without considering ethical standards. Obedience can only be enforced with the threat of punishment.

The next stage is able to consider the needs of others, but only to the point of  deciding how to get what one wants. This is the “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” attitude of moral relativity.

Adolescents usually begin to judge the morality of a situation according to the expectations of authorities within their culture. They are willing to comply obediently because they are convinced that “it is the right thing.” This rigid morality typically views things very strictly in terms of “black and white.” A “good boy” or “good girl” conforms to accepted social roles. Morality is usually judged by intent and how an action affects relationships.

Some people understand that social order requires voluntary compliance to the standards of their community. They accept that laws must be obeyed and personal sacrifices made because it is their duty. They will stop at all stop signs simply because it is the right thing to do and because it sets a good example for others.

As it becomes obvious that different cultures hold different expectations, laws become regarded as adjustable social contracts within each community. The most important consideration becomes an understanding of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The operation of an effective Democracy requires this understanding and acceptance of compromise as inevitable for the common good.

Eventually, moral reasoning stops being derived from others; it depends on an individual appreciation for ethical abstractions and universal principles. This is not the same as moral relativity. Each person becomes responsible for deciding that he or she cannot march neighbors into gas chambers, no matter what. If a law is unjust, there is an obligation to disobey it. There are fewer arguments about rights, but more empathetic consideration of what is right. This stage is still considered rare.

© 2012, David Satterlee

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Jul 112012
 

It should not be surprising, in our scientific, technological world, that faith has been subjected to empirical studies and analysis. Hold onto your hat: it turns out that both people and communities of faith develop through a predictable series of stages… or find a comfortable level and stay there.

James W. Fowler, a minister in the United Methodist Church, wrote “Stages of Faith” in 1981 while a professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Additional research has followed. Here is a summary of the results.

Preschool children often confuse fantasy and reality. Their mix of ideas are picked-up, but not fully-developed, from those around them. They may believe in God and the Tooth Fairy, but already know that the guy at the mall is not really Santa.

School-age children begin to use logic and take things very literally. They may strongly and stubbornly hold onto ideas that come from trusted authorities. Their parents may still be insisting on the details of Santa’s visit to every home on Christmas eve.

Teenagers become aware of multiple, conflicting belief systems, but often associate strongly with a single institution and its doctrine. These staunch believers tend to “double-down” against any challenge to the anchors of their faith. They are easily persuaded that exposure to other ideas is dangerous so that they are determined to remain isolated within their community of support.

In young adulthood, with continued exposure to other peoples and their beliefs, some begin a period of critical re-examination of the elements of their faith. They may become disillusioned with their former community and move forward to independently search for a new foundation. Paradoxically, this progressive movement is often criticized as “backsliding.” Many men, especially, become “spiritual but not religious” and stop worshiping in a church.

In mid-life, it sometimes occurs to people that much about life is conflicting, unknown, or even unknowable. Neither faith nor logic fully satisfy. Much has to be taken, at any given time, as a paradox or mystery. Sacred stories and symbols may be a comfort, but not a foundation. Their spirituality may merge with their intent to “live a good life.”

A few older folks reach a point where they feel that life and gratitude, day by day, is sufficient blessing. There is no need to agonize over doubts, carry guilt from past mistakes, or dread what may happen in the next year, or the next moment. These folks may open themselves, within their remaining capacities, to take full satisfaction in the love of, and service to, others. These people may still embrace the formal worship of a specific divinity, but their capacity to love is no longer dependent on any given doctrine.

No developmental stage that serves the needs of the individual and their community is necessarily bad. Still, increasing tolerance always accompanies increasing spiritual development.

© 2012, David Satterlee

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