by Ken R. Vincent
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish ways.” (I Cor. 13:11) This familiar passage of St. Paul describes normal human development.
My thesis is that there is a parallel between the development of the individual and the progress of whole cultures throughout history and that evidence for this maturation process can be found in the stories of the world’s religions. Because the Bible documents a 2000-year period of human development, it is particularly rich with examples of developmental revelation.
There are many approaches to studying human development and religion, and these are reflected in the research of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Jane Loevinger, and others. James Fowler, who is both a psychologist and theologian, devised a compelling list called, “Seven Stages of Faith Development”.
The theory of human development with the most cross-cultural and comparative religious research to its credit (and my personal favorite) is that of Larry Kholberg. It is the one I have selected to explore with you in greater detail. To date, the consensus of his research shows that, when education and socioeconomic status are controlled for, human beings around the world from all faiths and cultures vary widely among themselves and that no faith or culture is clearly superior.
According to Kholberg, there are three levels of moral development, each of which has two stages:
2) Conventional, and
It is important to realize that not all people reach all stages of development, neither in the past nor today.
The “pre-conventional” level is the most remedial, and its first stage is called the “punishment and obedience orientation”. This is the stage of pre-schoolers. The child at this stage lacks the mental structure to understand the rules but does understand rewards and punishment.
Children at this age are not educable, but they are trainable. This is also the moral level of your dog or cat.
Consider this example: At about age 3 or 4 years, your daughter has figured out that pushing the chair up to the kitchen counter will allow her to get to the cookie jar. Later, you come into the kitchen, see the chair and the empty cookie jar with its lid off, and you see the child with crumbs all over her face. When you ask,, “Did you take the cookies?”, your child gives the “right” answer—“No, I didn’t take the cookies!” The parent is often devastated, assuming that his child is not only STEALING but LYING! The parent fails to realize that the child does not yet make the connection between cause and effect. Thankfully, very few adults remain stuck at this moral level.
In the Bible, the best-known example of this is the second Creation Story (Gen 2:4-3:24) in which you might substitute the “forbidden fruit” for the cookie jar. Adam takes no personal responsibility but blames Eve for giving him the fruit, and Eve blames the snake for her misbehavior!
In the same story in Genesis, we are introduced to the oldest form of punishment – the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise. As demonstrated in the work of Jane Goodall, this links us with the behavior of baboons who banish members of their clan for “crimes” of dominance, sex, and murder.
In the 5,000-year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead, this stage of morality is reflected in the behavior of the deceased who is expected to lie to the god Osiris in the Afterlife by reciting a magic formula known as the Negative Confession in which he denies all wrong-doing. We see this same magic formula in the Christian theology of “Jesus Saves.” All one
needs to know is John 3:16 and/or John 14:6. This is a gross distortion of the teachings of Jesus. Another Christian theology at this level is Predestination. In predestination, individuals cannot influence their own salvation and like the small child have no understanding of the reason for the rules. Before we leave the level of “magic” in human development, it is important to note that in times of distress, any of us may want a little magic! In Hinduism, it is said that if you die with the name of the god Vishnu or one of his incarnations like Rama or Krishna on your lips, all your sins will be taken away. Gandhi, who achieved the highest level of spiritual development, died with the name of Rama on his lips!
The second stage of “pre-conventional morality” is that of reciprocity. This is the stage most of us reached in elementary school and is adopted to satisfy personal needs. At this stage, the rules exist to be manipulated. Children will give favors in order to get similar rewards in return. They discover that they can make “deals”, i.e., “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. A child will say, “I don’t want to play that game. That is YOUR game, and we played that yesterday. Today is MY turn.” Even in modern times, some adults get stuck at this stage.
Obviously, this level includes primitive religions in which an animal or human is sacrificed as a bribe to the gods with the understanding that the gods will do (or not do) something for the worshipers. Also, the idea in the Hebrew Bible that the righteous will always prosper, and that
if something bad happens to you, it’s because you have sinned belongs at this level. Some years ago, a student told me of working at an affluent church school that did not admit handicapped students; because it was evidence that their parents had sinned. In the Book of Job, Job’s friends express this view. The Prayer of Jabez is a “give me” prayer and at this level.
In the Bible, this level of morality is also represented in the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24). Getting stuck with this mentality can lead to barbarism and reminds us of the relentless retaliatory strikes we hear about on the evening news between the Israelis and Palestinians. Unless people are encouraged to higher levels of thinking, in the words of Martin Luther King, we are all at risk of becoming “blind and toothless”. The only good thing about this rule is that you are only allowed to take one eye for one eye and one tooth for one tooth.
Many of those to whom Moses preached were no doubt at either the first or second stage of “pre-conventional” morality – largely equivalent to that of today’s small children. It also appears that the people addressed by Mohammed 2000 years later were at this level.
The next level of moral reasoning is the “conventional” level which is reached by most people in adolescence; most adults never progress beyond one of its two stages. The first of these stages is the “good boy/nice girl” phase in which “right” behaviors are the ones that please the person’s reference groups, including family, friends, and peers. This is the first stage that goes beyond the manipulation of others for personal gratification and includes a genuine consideration for others. It is the first level at which the Golden Rule can be understood, if not practiced.
In the Bible, the beautiful story of Ruth reflects this level of development when she declares, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Although this love passage is sometimes used for modern weddings, Ruth is not saying this to her husband – she is addressing her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth wants to remain with her mother-in-law because she loves her --- not because she thinks Naomi’s God is superior!