From Janet’s 19 July Service, which generated much interesting discussion…
Earlier this year, I had the unexpected pleasure of learning about the work of Robert Kegan – a noted Harvard Psychologist who has spent his career charting the upward movement of consciousness across the life span. (repeat)
What does that mean? It means understanding how humans make meaning and how our meaning making systems change as we age. He has been able to disprove the long-held believe that human complexity, like height, stops growing at adolescence. That’s right – there is finally some good news about getting older.
Kegan’s work immediately resonated with me (even beyond the age stuff). It highlights, among other things, how different people at different phases of evolution see the world differently – how they create reality differently, and construct a world that makes sense through their own eyes. It also explains why it is so darn hard to help groups of people to work together – they are all viewing the world through their own unique lens.
But, it also got me thinking about something else…if humans’ meaning making systems change over time, then don’t their religious needs? As Unitarians, we accept that concept quite easily – the free search for meaning. But what about people from other belief systems?
I asked this question on an online forum of students of Kegan. A student of the subject of psychology and religion gave me this answer, which I found especially insightful:
“whether an individual believes in god or not, is not nearly as important as how they do that. The how of religion is a much more important question that whether we might be religious or not, since religion is our way of making sense out of our existence”.
So, I started to make this connection…the complexity of our meaning making systems and our desire for and needs of religion.
Let’s talk a bit more about that complexity…
Kegan’s work describes several distinct stages of human evolution across the life span. He talks about these as being a subject-object relationship – the stuff that is so much a part of our meaning making systems, that we are subject to it and cannot see it. We might also think of this as a ‘me’ and ‘not me’ relationship…our ability to take steps back from our ‘me’ and see ourselves and the world from any vantage point. Clearly, this kind of stepping back is not something everyone can do. For example, an infant can’t do it. But, it is something we can start to do as adolescents. Here are Kegan’s words from an interview with EnlightenNext Magazine
RK: In adolescence and early adulthood, a transformation occurs in which we essentially develop the complexity to internalize and identify with the values of our surround—an epistemology that enables us to be truly a socialized member of the tribe. Socialization, from a psychological point of view, is the process by which we become more a part of society because the society actually becomes more a part of us. Thus, the self feels whole, connected, and in harmony through its identification with a set of values and beliefs that both make the self up and simultaneously preserve its intimate connections—relationships to the bigger tribe or to the culture of which one is a part. So a person who has reached this level is able to think more long term, more abstractly. Based on the particular tribe or culture, one constructs a set of values with which one is identified. And we call this the socialized mind, or third order consciousness.
The Kegan phases of adult development in complexity I will talk about today are just 2: This 3rd order consciousness, or what Kegan calls the socialised mind, and the 4th order, which we will come to later. As Robert has just explained to us, the socialised mind is subject to others views and values. People in this mind find their meaning and comfort in the values and measures of others. They pick up their ideas wholesale…they like the priest and his book.
If you are not familiar with the work of Jeanette Winterson, I highly recommend her first book, ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’. I think it tells a story about human evolution and religious needs quite beautifully. The book is the story of a young girl looking back on her life being raised in an evangelical household whose world is overturned when she falls for another girl.
She begins the story by telling us how her mother viewed the world:
JW “Like most people, I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill-town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.
She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.
Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms); Next Door; Sex (in its many forms); Slugs
Friends were: God; Our dog; Auntie Madge; The Novels of Charlotte Bronte; Slug pellets…
The book soon shows us that Winterson will make a transformation that her mother has not yet made. Winterson describes the book both as autobiographical and not.
Her mother is subject to the church and its beliefs and that is all Jeanette knows. Yet, she begins to be able to see ‘me’ and ‘not me’ as separate. The church is still very much her life, but soon she can see multiple vantage points. These vantage points cause her to confront most of what her mother and the church have taught and to begin to select which of those beliefs she chooses to keep as her own. Kegan calls this move to the 4th order the self-authoring mind. According to Kegan’s research, 79% of the population never transforms beyond the 3rd order (58% of middle class and above).
RK: Now, the transformation that is most common to the period from twenty-five to fifty is a move out of this orientation of being shaped by one’s surround to become what we call self-authoring. This is fourth order consciousness. While this particular transformation doesn’t happen for everyone, it does take place with considerable density. In our highly pluralistic postmodern world, we do not have a homogeneous definition of who we should be and how we should live. We’re living in the midst of a rapidly expanding pluralism of tribes, which means that there are competing demands for our loyalty, faithfulness, time, money, attention, and so on. Thus, the stance of being shaped by our surround is actually insufficient to handle modern life. Rather, we are called on to have an internal authority by which we ourselves are able to name what is valuable, or respond to the claims and expectations on us, sort through them, and make decisions about which ones we will and will not follow. So we are not just made up by or written on by a culture, but we ourselves become the writer of a reality that we then are faithful to.
It is these competing demands that cause us to abandon our 3rd order thinking. We begin to ask questions. We begin to put into question what we once took for granted. We begin to objectify what we were previously subject to and start to cobble together ideas from multiple sources and make our meaning in a self-authoring way. But it happens in stages.
James Fowler actually dedicated his life’s work to studying these stages. Here is how he defines the stages of faith.
The third stage is labeled Sythetic-Conventional faith. The majority of the population finds its permanent home in this stage. Usually arising in adolescence, this stage demands a complex pattern of socialization and integration, and faith is an inseparable factor in the ordering of one’s world. It is a stage characterized by conformity, where one finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective, and lives directly through this perception with little opportunity to reflect on it critically. One has an ideology at this point, but may not be aware that one has it. Those who differ in opinion are seen as “the Other,” as different “kinds” of people. Authority derives from the top down, and is invested with power by majority opinion. Dangers in this stage include the internalization of symbolic systems (power, “goodness” “badness”) to such a degree that objective evaluation is impossible. Furthermore, while one can at this stage enter into an intimate relationship with the divine, one’s life situations may drive one into despair (the threshold to the next stage). Such situations may include contradictions between authorities, the revelation of authoritarian hypocrisy, and lived experiences which contradict one’s convictions.
The life situation that drives Winterson into despair and causes her out revolution is when she falls in love with another woman, Melanie. She now faces this contradiction of convictions…the church vs. love.
JW : I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie, but she was beautiful and good and had loved me. Can love really belong to a demon? What sort of demon? The brown demon that rattles the ear? The red demon that dances the hornpipe? The watery demon that causes sickness? The orange demon that beguiles? Everyone has a demon like cats have fleas. “They are looking in the wrong place,” I thought. “If they want to get at my demon they’ll have to get at me.” I thought about Robert Blake. “If I let them take away my demons, I’ll have to give up what I have found.”
And, in fact, it is that sense of giving up that is the first sign of transformation from socialised to self authoring. It signals the beginning of a journey. And, often a painful one that involves letting go. This is Fowler’s 4th stage of faith…
The fourth stage is known as Individuative-Reflective. This is primarily a stage of angst and struggle, in which one must face difficult questions regarding identity and belief. Those that pass into stage four usually do so in their mid-thirties to early forties. At this time, the personality gradually detaches from the defining group from which it formerly drew its identity. The person is aware of him or herself as an individual and must–perhaps for the first time–take personal responsibility for his/her beliefs and feelings. This is a stage of de-mythologizing, where what was once unquestioned is now subjected to critical scrutiny. Stage four is heavily existential, where nothing is certain but one’s own existence, and disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be and, although it can last for a long time, those who stay in it do so in danger of becoming bitter, suspicious characters who trust nothing and no one. But most, after entering this stage, sense that not only is the world far more complex than his or her stage three mentality would allow for, it is still more complex and numinous than the agnostic rationality of stage four allows.
Letting go of the meaning-making system might also mean letting go of the people, as it does in ‘Oranges’. In Winterson’s book, she makes a deal with her demon and repents to buy herself some time. But time does not change much. When Jeanette’s character is caught with her second girlfriend, the church once again intervenes and tries to drive the demon from her. By this time she is more self authored and she can objectively see what before she was subject to:
JW: The days lingered on in a kind of numbness, me in ecclesiastical quarantine, the in a state of fear and anticipation. By Sunday, the pastor had word back from the council. The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St Paul, and allowing women power in the church. Our branch of the church had never thought about it, we’d always had strong women, and the women organized everything. Some of us could preach, and quite plainly, in my case, the church was full because of it. There was an uproar; then a curious thing happened. My mother stood up and said she believed this was right: that women had specific circumstances for their ministry, that the Sunday schools was one of them, the Sisterhood another, but the message belonged to the men. Until this moment, my life had still made some kind of sense. Now it was making no sense at all. My mother droned on about the importance of missionary work for a woman, that I was clearly such a woman, but had spurned my call in order to wield power on the home front, where it was inappropriate. She ended by saying that having taken on a man’s world in other ways I had flouted God’s law and tried to do it sexually. This was no spontaneous speech. She and the pastor had talked about it already. It was her weakness for the ministry that had done it. No doubt she’d told Pastor Spratt months ago. I looked around me. Good people, simple people, what would happen to them now? I knew my mother hoped I would blame myself, but I didn’t. I knew now where the blame lay. If there’s such a thing as spiritual adultery, my mother was a whore.”
And now we know that she has objectivity. She is maturing on her journey toward being self-authored. She has seen the line between ‘me’ and ‘not me’. And she can objectify both her mother and the church. I suspect many people in this room have had some kind of ‘not me’ moment that signalled a transformation.
Eight years after writing Oranges, Winterson used the following words to describe the work:
JW “Everyone, at some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe, but which is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of consciousness into a personal place, unknown and untried.”
But the next question you might be asking is what drives this movement of choice? In Winterson’s case, there was a compelling, emotional event – relationships with woman that put her values of love and faith in conflict. But, for most of us, it is more subtle than that. Kegan points out that emotions associated with transformation do not always equal transformation. You have to have an interest in bringing about transformation in relationships to yourself and others, or as he says ‘to separate the rose from the perfume’.
Here is what Kegan has to say to the question ‘what is it that drives human development?’
RK “Now you really are asking a religious question about what is the nature of life itself… If you ask me about ultimate motives, I would say that it’s all going somewhere. The process by which each living thing in the universe organizes and reorganizes itself—which is transformation—is a process by which each living piece, or part, is, in a certain way, better recognizing its true nature. And this is a declaration of faith here—its true nature is ultimately its participation in a single intelligent whole. Prayer is sometimes described as an expression of our dependence on this force that is bigger than ourselves. And that may be so, but our own transformation is an expression of God’s dependence on us. That’s what we are called to do, what the universe needs of us. And each living thing in the universe has the opportunity, through the process of transformation, to move toward a more complex form.”
We each have the opportunity, yes. But, not everyone’s God calls them to do it. In fact, some people’s gods (or at least their human representatives) might take issue with this transformation to a new meaning-making system – making that transformation even more painful. Not all religions choose to teach about transformation to a more complex form.
Maybe people join some religious groups when their needs are socialised and depart as they become self authored. And maybe it is it the self-authored folk who the Unitarians catch. But somewhere someone has a goal of membership retention and that person has probably not heard of Bob Kegan or James Fowler. In a perfect world the those religions and the Unitarians would get together – them recruiting early and us taking over when things get more complicated. Each church would become a place for the people for whom it is best suited.
Somehow we can accept as fact that primary school is a place for young minds and secondary school for older ones. Our teachers do not feel rejected when we graduate. Science has shown us that this meaning-making evolution is a natural part of our human development. Yet, the churches fight hard against the thought of a changing meaning-making system. Some churches seem to want to put a gate around our beliefs. But just as we cannot hold back an approaching storm, there can be no gate – our religious needs have seasons or their own.
“I could have been a priest instead of a prophet. The priest has a book with the words set out. Old words, known words, words of power. Words that are always on the surface. Words for every occasion. The words work. They do what they’re supposed to do; comfort and discipline. The prophet has no book. The prophet is a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning.“