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Beyond a Spiritual Deadlock: Levels of Spiritual Development, Part 2

By Thomas Schmidt

Read part one

Much of our discussion remains on a superficial level with two or more people repeating over and over their ideas, representing their levels, without the other engaging the other’s points. We seem to think that by repeating, maybe the other will hear. However, the reality is that neither deeply understands what the other is talking about, and neither understands the meanings and ramifications of the other’s ideas. It is as if we are talking to a series of mirrors, with voices of other thinkers coming at us, using our words which are taken from a completely foreign dictionary. “Incarceration” may be used by one but the other thinks “slavery” when they hear it, and neither understands what the other is suggesting, or incapable of suggesting. At a recent City Council meeting some testifiers wanted to talk about “illegal immigrants” while others insisted on using the term, “undocumented immigrant.” Same entity, but different conceptions and levels of experience.

I will briefly describe Piaget’s levels of consciousness, then describe some of Robert Kegan’s levels of moral development, as stated in his book, “In Over Our Heads.”

Piaget was interested in education so he worked out, with empirical studies, four stages that a youth goes through until they reach adulthood. He later, with others, added a fifth adult stage. The first stage is that of a baby, and is largely preverbal. It is one of a string of experiences, at first largely unconnected, but gradually becoming a series. Several events seem very similar, like the father’s face. One may become recognized as following one certain experience, as a feeling of security and happiness on seeing the father smile, which itself followed the baby’s smile. Conservation of similar experiences is learned.

What was a level of unrelated fantasy and magic slowly morphs into the second stage, the preoperational stage of a toddler. Here stories become very important. Often and early they are filled with fantasy, as in talking dogs, cracks that will break your mother’s back, or burning bushes and  human swallowing fish and never seen angles (which are given no deeper meaning). Yes, Mary, there is a Santa Clause. There may be consistency, but little need for logic. I could not change one word of “Where the Wild Things Are.” The child goes for the drama of the story, but cannot apply any deeper meaning to his or her own life. Gradually that element changes. The series develops a cause and effect chain.

The third stage is the concrete operational, where, largely through the child’s need to seek the adults’ support and approval, they “learn lessons” and begin to see if – then chains of events, adopting the rules of the adult. There is little independent thinking, with ideas of others adopted because doing so pleases the other. The judgement of worth and reality depends on what significant others believe. The truth of a matter depends on what the authority says. One’s consciousness here can be very simple and dependent early on, say from late grade school, or quite complex and full of fact and supposition as in early high school. Later in this stage the individual often changes the primary authority from the parent to his or her peer group as the significant other, but the lack of independence and the acceptance of authority is still holding sway. Abstractions are hard to make, and such things as love are usually a combination of behaviors so defined by the peer group combined with the feelings of arousal and calm security that are associated, through repetition, with these behaviors, such as wearing matching clothes, or of being an exemplary member of a group who call themselves loving.

Piaget’s forth level is the formal operational, and is developed in and beyond the later teen years as the individual becomes able to abstract. This skill happens, if at all, usually because the individual is able to find a sense of individual identity and be able to meet, confront, learn from, and defend their own or other opinions. Here we meet other concepts that might be similar to ours, and we become able to generalize, see subtle differences, and test these differences in our own experience. There is a movement from “I, along with my significant others, am right, you’re wrong,” toward adding the idea that, “although you’re not as right as I, by answering your objections I strengthen my ideas.” I remember being told that it was all right to read Marx or attend a Catholic mass so I could better see how correct the principles of “our” religion, or capitalistic system, were. In this stage I allow that others may have valuable contributions, and I must be responsible for my stances. It’s as if I like to try new dances and dates, but have definite preferences that I know are better.

Piaget and others later expanded the fourth stage to include a fifth, where the individual reworks the stories and experiences they have experienced in the light of the ideas and experiences that others have had. Here, hopefully, the individual has found an environment in which they may feel safe enough to voice dissenting views, and a sense of equality that allows them to respectfully listen to others. Here, I can dance your dance and teach you mine, and we have to do that if we’re going to live together.

Kegan’s levels of moral consciousness parallel Piaget’s levels of consciousness, with the further expansion of adult levels. The first adult level, following teen development of group identity, moving into individual identity and responsibility, includes a growing sophistication with abstractions. The ideas of others become more and more incorporated and illuminating of one’s own ideas, shifting from opposition to becoming supplemental and additive. “Either/or”  becomes “this/and a bit of that.” Finally the sixth stage is reached, one of wisdom, where any two different yet similar conceptions may be held at once, especially with a toleration of incompleteness and irony. Where there can be truth in both of two or more conflicting views, tending toward the point of acceptance of the equal validity of conflicting, even contradictory views. The level of mutual respect has been reached with “both/and.”

A recent question asked of the writers for SpokaneFaVS shows this development and growth. The question was put as “How do you define ‘love?’” Note how the wording of the question assumes a limited answer, that love is an entity that seems to have one definition, and that definition remains constant and unchanged, at least for the individual if not for everyone. Love is seen as a concrete entity, the same whether found in a bed of rose petals or a slurry of animal waste products. Several people objected that love must be defined according to behaviors which vary according to context. That brings in a level of abstraction, and there may be several definitions, true according to the context in which the word is used – e.g., brotherly love, romantic love, or spiritual love. The definitions still might be limited by the conceptions of one’s peer group, a problem that is obvious in trying to define the boundaries of marriage relations. The growth is from a child’s view to that of an intelligent, thoughtful teen, who does not yet have a clear conception of self -identity separate from one’s peer group. Several people with adult experiences of love relations then described different ideas of love that could contradict, while pointing out how valuable it was to listen to other’s definitions to get a deeper sense of what love could be. Often they would rise to the level of saying several different views contain similar abstractions. Some even very wisely said, “Isn’t it wonderful that we have so many definitions and types of love, for they all supplemented and built up each other.” Ultimately, on a deep level, with respect and equality, every loving relationship became the same, for each served the life of the other.

If we hadn’t parsed the meanings of love through the different levels, we would have had a poor conversation, indeed, as if love were only one entity, regardless of context.

Berghoef’s levels of spiritual development follow these moral levels. The very young child, most likely preverbal, will have a nascent spiritual experience on being held lovingly while suckling. Face to face contact with a loving object usually involves the same hormones present in adult religious experiences. As the child grows he or she  begins to pay attention to stories. Since the story of Noah’s Ark is called religious by the parent, and is taught in Sunday school, similar things become the content of religious and spiritual experience. Tell me the old, old stories! The pre-pubescent child begins to identify with the Biblical hero. Young girls are taught the spiritual benefits of being Ruth – whither thou goest – abstractions are developed, and the teen might see the spiritual necessity of heading God’s call, like Jonah, unlikable but inevitable.

Soon, if one is free from the world’s demand to conform to the group’s view (a low level of spirituality) and allowed individual development into adult forms, one may begin to notice differences and similarities among the views of gods of different religions. How are  Yahweh and Allah similar and different? What is the significance of any conflict? God may be seen as all powerful, but such a god becomes unapproachable. A weak god, like the one suggested by the words and actions attributed to Jesus (as in Paul’s appeal to the foolishness of the crucifixion), might suggest a much more satisfactory and a much higher view. Lower levels will see true and false gods. Some may insist that gods exist on the same level of existence as a rock (having a caused beginning and a caused ending, which leads to an intellectual quagmire if God is also above time and of infinite power). Others will say that is not necessary, that “is” means different things according to context. “There is no God” is as true as “but God.”  The spiritual meaning of the exhalation of breath – there is no God – is meaningless without the sister behavior of the inhalation – but God.

The final stages of spiritual development have been reached. The pilgrim sees that there are always deeper meanings lurking in the conversation of ideas. In fact, I sat at the feet of one realized being as he said that the only way to measure truth was to understand that every word, which humankind has been given jurisdiction over, can destroy life or build life. Words, like our notions of love, can be used to limit and divide us, or to expand our co-existence and remove barriers. Here we might experience the spirituality of dogmatic group belief, or the spiritual irony of life and love in the New Kingdom.

Ya Fattah!

About Thomas Schmidt

Thomas Schmidt is a retired psychotherapist and chemical dependency counselor who belongs to the Sufi Ruhiniat International order of Sufi’s and is a drummer in the Spokane Sufi group and an elder at the Country Homes Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church. He is a member of the Westar Institute (The Jesus Seminar people). He studied for the ministry in the late 1950’s at Texas Christian Church and twice married Janet Fowler, a member of a long tern TCU family and a Disciple minister. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement, studying philosophy at Columbia University and psychology in the University of North Carolina university system. He has taught philosophy and psychology, and was professionally active in Florida, North Carolina, and, for 25 years in Spokane. He has studied and practiced Siddha Yoga, Zen Buddhism and, since the mid 1970’s, Sufism and the Dances of Universal Peace. He has three sons and three grandchildren. With the death of his wife, Janet, he is continuing their concentration on human rights, ecology, and ecumenical and interfaith reconciliation.

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