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Finding Your Religion

As we grow older, our ideas and questions about faith change. Our searching inquiries can lead us in unexpected directions to new and deeper understandings of our spirituality and the meaning of God.

By Scotty McLennan, University Chaplain

Rev. Scotty McLennan in Goddard Chapel Kevin Gallagher remembers the first time he learned about heaven. He was in the second grade and one of the nuns in his parochial school drew a diagram on the chalkboard. "Heaven" was at the top of the board and "human beings" at the bottom. Between the two there was a straight line. The nun then drew several jagged up-and-down lines that ascended toward heaven like a stock market index.

"This," she said, pointing to the straight line, "is Catholicism. These lines are other denominations. They all get to the top, but tell me, class, which one is the best?" Kevin had often wondered about other religions. Why were there so many? Does God rule over all of them? Does everyone in every religion get to go to heaven? Now the answer was in front of him, drawn on the chalkboard and so easy to see. The class responded in unison. Even Kevin knew the answer.

As the youngest of six children growing up in the late 1950s, Kevin was secure in his Catholic identity. His father had studied to be a priest. His mother attended Mass every day. His oldest sister, Sylvia, had joined a Dominican convent when she was eighteen, and his oldest brother, Dan, had graduated from seminary. No matter where he turned, Catholicism was present in so many forms and so many ways in his life.

At an early age, Kevin tried to use his religion to his advantage. "Catholics around me believed that not just God, but Jesus and the Virgin Mary and the saints all had special powers for us," he said. "It was a panoply of supernatural beings. I remember going to piano lessons and not wanting the nuns to rap my knuckles with a ruler when I made a mistake on the keys. So I would pray to the Virgin Mary to help me make it through because I never practiced. It worked!"

Confession also played a major role in Kevin's childhood. His teachers taught him that sins are "blots" on your soul, and that these blots get darker and darker unless you go to confession. "I remember walking out of confession when I was six or seven thinking that I had a scrubbed soul. I thought it was pretty easy-I could commit a small sin and make up for it the next week by saying a couple of Hail Marys." Yet as he grew older, Kevin found it harder to deal with the problems he had with the Catholic Church, like the notion that Catholics are somehow better than members of other religions or denominations. During high school Kevin began to retreat from his Catholic upbringing.

Thanks to the influence of several young Jesuit teachers, he was drawn to other traditions, like existentialism and Buddhism. He read Albert Camus and Hermann Hesse. The priests also involved him in social issues like civil rights and environmentalism. He still attended Mass every week, but only to appease his parents. He stopped praying and going to confession. He began having trouble with the idea of miracles, and he lost the sense that Jesus was literally and uniquely God. Catholicism had always seemed like a package to him- "You buy all the dogma or none." As he put it, "Once there were a couple of loose threads, the whole thing unraveled like a theological double-knit suit." By the time he went to college, he didn't go to church at all. In his rational mind he retained some notion of a divine power or force somewhere out there. But that was all, and it had no connection to institutional religion.

When he married a Jewish woman and they had their first child in the mid-1980s, Kevin decided not to have his baby daughter baptized in the Catholic church. He couldn't believe that the destiny of his daughter's soul would hinge on this Christian ritual. How can a loving God condemn those who aren't baptized, he asked himself. Then, since he wasn't actively involved in a religious tradition himself but his wife still felt some connection to Judaism, he had no objection when she wanted to raise their children Jewish.

A few years ago Kevin and his wife, Susan, bought their dream house in Chicago. By then they had two children, a girl and a boy. Susan's only connection to Judaism, it turned out, had been lighting Sabbath candles on Friday night and celebrating Hanukkah along with Christmas. When she decided to start going to the local synagogue with the kids because of its outstanding reputation, Kevin was struck by the sincerity and energy of the congregation, especially the young rabbi. As his growing family settled into their new home and this new synagogue, Kevin found himself attending more and more Jewish functions with his wife and children. He found the spiritual community comforting and appealing.

Reading Martin Buber's I and Thou built a bridge for him from Christianity, existentialism and Buddhism, to Judaism. A German Jewish theologian who spent the last third of his long life in what became Israel, Buber wrote expansively of Jesus, Nietzsche and the Buddha while developing his humanistic Jewish philosophy. He saw human existence at its core as being grounded in relationships. We betray ourselves every time we treat others as objects or things. The sacred for Buber is here and now between people, primarily. The door was opened for Kevin to study the tenets of Judaism more closely, and they spoke directly to his heart. Finally, after many years of floating at sea without a spiritual port, Kevin decided to convert to Judaism. His decision resulted from a number of factors. Above all else, the recent death of his father had put his own mortality into focus. Also, he had just turned forty, and with the new house, a beautiful family, and a job he loved, he realized that he wanted to have a spiritual grounding to make his life complete. Something had been percolating on the right side of his brain without any meaningful expression for the last twenty years. Within his family of origin, his sister Sylvia had left the Dominican convent after ten years and married, but remained a committed Catholic. His brother Dan did not become a Catholic priest after seminary; he also married and then found a spiritual home with his wife in the Methodist church. His middle sister had become a Buddhist after spending a lot of time at the Naropa Institute in Colorado and taking periodic trips to Nepal. Kevin no longer saw religious traditions as boxes with impenetrable walls. His other siblings and his mother remained Catholic, but Kevin did not see himself moving away from Catholicism as much as moving toward Judaism. For example, this tradition emphasized "living right, choosing well, and understanding the importance of every deed." In fact, that was a confirmation of what the priests had taught him in high school about living out one's faith in action. After deliberating by himself for several months, Kevin finally told his wife of his decision. She was surprised but supported him. After a year of classes with the rabbi, Kevin had his conversion ceremony at their synagogue.

* * *

Like Kevin, most people go through different spiritual phases in life. We need to be open to change because it's virtually inevitable. Some scholars such as James Fowler, in his book Stages of Faith, believe that spiritual stages are a human universal that can be described with a fair degree of precision; levels are also accompanied by different, stage-appropriate perceptions of God or ultimate reality. They happen sequentially, and most of us have to reach a certain chronological age before the next stage is a possibility. However, there is no guarantee that we will change. That is, many of us remain perfectly happy at a particular stage throughout our lives, while others continue moving on. What I call Faith Stages, with Individual Experiences of God, are as follows:

Stage Experience of God
Magic All-powerful God
Reality Cause-and-Effect God
Dependence Parent God
Independence Distan God (or atheism)
Interdependence Paradoxical God
Unity All-Pervasive God

The first stage, Magic, can occur anytime after the first two years of life and usually concludes by age ten. The world is perceived magically, full of fairies and demons, superheroes and villains. It is hard to separate sleeping and waking states, nightmares and daydreams. Children in this phase speak of God as all-powerful-someone who is responsible for everything that happens internally and externally, usually including both good and ill, from good health to plane crashes. God can create ghosts and destroy dragons. A five-year-old I know described God as having the power to disappear and reappear anywhere in the world in an instant to "do good" and "fight monsters and dinosaurs."

Usually sometime after the age of six, however, children begin to separate fact from fantasy. They enter the stage of Reality, in which they learn to think logically and order their world with "scientific" categories such as number and time and causality. "Is it real?" becomes the refrain. Santa Claus no longer brings presents on Christmas Eve, because kids now realize how impossible it is to visit so many children with so many presents in one night and get down chimneys. In this reality-based spiritual stage, God begins to be imaged more tangibly as a person-in our culture, often as an old man with a long white beard. The Bible and other scriptures are read concretely and literally, rather than as mere tales. Moral rules begin to have an impact. Now there is a cause-and-effect relationship to God or Ultimate Reality. God can be influenced by good deeds, promises, and vows. People have some degree of free will and choice, which also means some control over good and bad results. At this stage in his life, Kevin prayed to the Virgin Mary to help him make it through piano lessons without getting his knuckles rapped, and it worked. At six or seven he was convinced that he could easily make up for sins by saying a couple of Hail Marys.

Yet, before they get to this Reality stage, most children go through a transition period during which they still hold onto fragments of their Magic stage. For example, a child may believe more strongly in Santa Claus when she starts to believe that God has moral rules that reward or punish her for being "naughty or nice." The transition usually takes place after the age of six, when some children are more oriented toward one stage and some toward the other. Therefore, I find it useful to describe childhood as a period of spiritual tension between the stages of Magic and Reality.

Most adolescents, by contrast, struggle with a very different spiritual dynamic: the tension between Dependence and Independence, as Stephen Covey and others have noted. The need for dependence, which starts around age twelve, stems from a number of unavoidable factors in both psychological and physiological development. The first and most important factor is puberty, which can be a confusing and sometimes painful time for girls and boys. Around this age, children also become affected more by peer pressure and are more easily influenced by the leadership of respected older people. These factors contribute to the period of dependence, during which time an individual is susceptible not only to cult involvement and "brainwashing," but also to the development of a meaningful outlook on life.

In the Dependence stage, the young person hungers for a very personal relationship with God-the One who knows the person and loves him or her unconditionally. God then helps and directs the person as an idealized parent, often replacing one's actual parents, whom the adolescent begins to see as flawed. An undergraduate I knew taught nine-year-olds in a Baptist Sunday school class. Tom considered it very important to "teach by the book." He didn't want to question church doctrine or go beyond the lesson plan for the day. If something came up about sexuality, for example, he would refer it to the minister or say, "Let me get back to you on that next week after I've checked with Reverend Johnson." Often I heard him say how the minister is "a really great guy." I also observed how intent Tom was on saying and doing the right things in front of Rev. Johnson. Clearly, Tom was in the Dependence stage of his spiritual development, with his minister a central authority for him.

* * *

One's spiritual Independence stage, by contrast, can begin as early as age sixteen. Instead of relying on outsiders, social conventions and spiritual advisors to define one's religious orientation, the late teenager or young adult begins to find spiritual authority within. This is a common time for the individual to say "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious," not wanting to be part of any institution or under anyone's control. At the same time, God or ultimate reality tends to become more impersonal and more distant. Even for those who find in effect that the kingdom of God is within them (Luke 17:21), and in that sense close at hand, the internal God is usually described as soul or spirit. This form of God is not something with which one interacts interpersonally in the way one would with a parent. Instead, God lies buried, waiting to be found as an animating force, deep beneath layers of one's personal psychology and various kinds of self-deception.

Some people become functional deists during the Independence stage. Deists feel that a Supreme Being may have created the universe but has long since retreated and left the universe subject to the forces of natural and human laws. Perhaps this God or Force remains present in the form of energy or electricity, but certainly not as a person who intervenes to break natural laws with miracles or as someone who carries on conversations with us. A common analogy for the absent deist God is that of a clockmaker, who constructs and winds up the clock, but lets it run on its own. Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire were deists throughout most of their lives.

Some people in the Independence stage demythologize religious symbols, rituals and stories. They search for historical background, literary function and conceptual meaning. That also means that sacred power is muted or lost. Instead of experiencing the holy directly, these people have trouble getting beyond critical examination of the rituals, symbols and myths that mediate the sacred. Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox once described to James Fowler a demythologizing experience he had. A college friend whispered to him as he was about to receive the body and blood of Jesus through the communion bread and wine at a Christmas Eve service: "That's just a primitive totemic ritual, you know. Almost all premodern religious and tribal groups have them. They are ceremonies where worshippers bind themselves together and to the power of the sacred by a cannibalistic act of ingesting the mana of a dead god." Cox says communion was forever changed for him after that.

By the time he went to college, Kevin had apparently reached the Independence stage. He no longer believed in miracles, and he had lost the sense of God as a person-in particular, of God in the person of Jesus. Instead, he had an impersonal notion of a divine power or force at some considerable distance from himself. In his mind that force had nothing to do with institutional religion, and he stopped going to church.

The Interdependence stage might be referred to by philosopher Paul Ricoeur's term "second naivete" because it is a time when religious symbols become sacred once again and are found to have new power. As the name suggests, this stage of Interdependence is the reconciliation of the previous stages of Dependence and Independence. People at this spiritual level live in a dialectical yin-and-yang world, where they are able to tolerate ambiguity and seeming contradiction and enjoy complexity. God or Ultimate Reality is experienced paradoxically. For example, many people at this stage can pray to God the person, even though they intellectually understand the divine as an impersonal force in the universe. Instead of taking an either-or approach to life, people at the Interdependence stage are able to see all sides of an issue at the same time. As with the onion-peeling effect of discovering symbolic depth in great literature, adults at the Interdependence stage are able to read scripture simultaneously at the literal, allegorical, historical, conceptual, poetic and inspirational levels.

Religiously, people at the Interdependence stage are open to dialogue between different traditions because they understand that truth is multidimensional. Any particular religious symbol, myth or ritual is necessarily limited and incomplete, bound by the follower's personal experiences. This is not a purely relativistic approach, however, as it is in the Independence stage. People in the Interdependence stage know the value of picking a particular path. Kevin as he converted is a good example of someone at this stage because he understood that there was more than one way to get up the spiritual mountain, but he chose Judaism as his path. Also, those in the Interdependence stage do not demythologize religion, because critical analysis is tempered by spiritual awareness. For example, someone at this level recognizes that communion, on the surface, is a totemic ritual but still feels the sacred meaning of the Eucharist.

The final spiritual level is populated by the mystics. Sometimes they emerge in their thirties, but usually not until ripe old age. While people at the Interdependence stage recognize partial truths and their limitations, people at the stage of Unity feel unconditionally related to the Ultimate. In other words, they have a direct awareness of the oneness of all existence. I have had such experiences, but they have happened rarely and lasted only a few minutes. People at the Unity stage have these kinds of experience much more often, which continually inform the rest of their understanding.

Yin and yang and all other forms of paradox now disappear into undivided unity. People at this stage speak of God in an all-pervasive sense: God is felt to be in everything, and everything seems to exist in God. As a result, they possess a universalizing compassion and a vision of universal community beyond all forms of tribalism.

Personal security also ceases to be a concern at the stage of Unity, and virtually all forms of ego attachment disappear. One is now ready for deep relationships with individuals at any of the other faith stages and from any other religious tradition. These mystically aware people can be seen to be subversive of structures and organizations (including institutional religion). As a result, they can become targets of misunderstanding and conflict. Over time some have died at the hands of others, like Mohandas Gandhi, who was assassinated by a fellow Hindu for his openness to Muslims. Often these figures are more revered and respected after they are dead. Two modern examples of those revered well before their deaths are Mother Theresa, a Catholic, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama, a Buddhist.

* * *

When I teach the stages of spiritual development at Tufts, students have a lot of questions. They often resent the notion that their own particular experience can be categorized into six universal states. As Jim put it in one class, "The journey is a personal, creative and undefined one that cannot be outlined by attempted clinical or scientific research." Evan added: "Religion isn't an instinct, like other theories we deal with. Each individual has his or her own special way of dealing with it, regardless of whether they are two people on opposite sides of the world, or identical twins."

Mary responded, "But I could relate to many of the stages described. With some stages that I feel I have not reached yet, I recognize friends and acquaintances who have, and so I understand more where they lead." Joan added: "I was so glad to be able to see myself through the stages. For example, going from magic to reality, I remember being about nine or ten. I knew, inside me, that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I hoped with all myself that he existed, and so I wrote one last Christmas Eve letter, hoping he would respond and somehow this 'reality' would be wrong. My mother wrote me back. It was a disappointing Christmas."

By the end of the discussion, Jim had relented: "I can see that I have experienced bits of each of the stages, and right now I would probably place myself in the Independence stage. I do also remember a time during junior high and my first year of high school when I was relatively 'religious' and felt that God/Jesus was like an idealized parent, always protecting me."

Tony had a different critique: "This discussion excites in me, as I'm sure it does in many of us, an immediate self-reflection and categorization of myself. But I don't think this is beneficial in and of itself, and we should be warned against it. I think stage theory can be very dangerous, especially to people who are unsure of their path and only have a cursory knowledge of it." Jane elaborated on Tony's point: "This may not only be detrimental and possibly discouraging to individuals in terms of their own growth, but it misses the real point of spiritual development. It makes the reader become goal-oriented and it may undermine the importance of nurturing the spirit at whatever stage it happens to be, rather than looking further along the path."

In fact, Roger wondered why, once he was aware of "the strange, but interesting idea" of religious development within himself, he shouldn't "be able to sort of speed up the process and skip ahead." As he put it, "After all, if I can recognize where I am and know where I am going, why shouldn't I be able to just go?" He also felt that stage theory is judgmental, implying that later stages are better than earlier ones and that some people are more religiously "developed" than others.

A professor of psychology and ordained Episcopal deacon who was visiting the class pointed out how religion is often perceived through nondevelopmental lenses, so that many people speak of religion as if it were something one either "gets" or "doesn't get"-as if it were some one thing to be fully embraced or rejected. The stage approach, by contrast, allows us to see religion quite differently-"as a process rather than a product, as something continuously changing and hopefully developing." She also explained that stage theory presents the opportunity to discover similarities between various religious traditions and between various spiritual lives. "Making such discoveries is no easy achievement, for what strikes us first are differences between religions, not similarities." The stages, then, help prevent judgmentalism, by pointing to "deep-structure similarities between the spiritual paths taken by people from various religious traditions."

It is important to explore fully the place where you find yourself on the spiritual mountain, rather than looking behind or ahead, up or down the slope. Open yourself to change. You may soon find yourself in another stage of your life-one that you'd never imagined.

Scotty McLennan is the University Chaplain at Tufts. This article is adapted from his book, Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning, recently published by HarperSanFrancisco, and which grew out of an interview in the Fall 1996 Tuftonia. The stories here are those of Tufts students, faculty and alumni, whose names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality. McLennan's book has proved popular with alumni, who have turned out in large numbers to hear him speak at Alliance events across the country.



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