Saturday, August 26, 2017

Level Up!

Part I

I’m always looking to level up. Though everyone has their type A tendencies, I am by nature and training more driven than most, and a big reason I blog is to spur myself to level up more frequently in more areas of my life. One example of this is my deep dive into personal finance early in the year, which resulted in a quantum leap in my financial literacy. But more important than this transformation has been the growth in my spirituality over the past six months. Here's how this has unfolded:

Like countless people throughout history, I've experienced my share of existential angst and “dark nights of the soul.” Like many postmoderns, it started with learning that evolution is actually true-- in college, in my case. And like most millennials, it ultimately resulted in disaffection with institutionalized religion. For me, it took from 2007 to 2014 to reach my breaking point. Yet break I did, and for three years I struggled to find my way forward out of intractable doubt and unbelief. It didn't help that I was consumed with my work as a resident, with little margin to even begin to dig deep into my mountain of doubt, fear, and anxiety. So I stuffed my doubts down, acknowledging them only to myself and a small handful of close friends. I stayed in the closet.

A key concept that started progress in the right direction last year was that I needed to be more transparent-- especially to Mindy. Stuffing wasn't working; it never does. Though I knew it would cause anxiety and uncertainty, I realized that the only shot I had to get through my doubts was to allow us to face them together. So last fall, I started being brutally honest. Fortunately, core values of Mindy's are transparency and faithfulness, and I experienced nothing but acceptance and assistance from her. She pointed me towards Mike McHargue's Doubt Series, which catalyzed my period of growth. And though the results weren't immediate, I started noticing a change within a few months. Challenges from atheists to my weak and wounded faith didn't quite break me anymore. Objections from fundamentalists didn't frustrate me quite as much. And then, I started to see it-- the middle way.

The middle way involves the idea that doubt is not a sin to be fought, but a power to be harnessed. The destination is a non-dual consciousness. And it turns out there’s a huge river of tradition created by people whose spiritual deconstruction has actually made their faith stronger. The desert fathers and Cappadocian fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Ancient and modern Eastern Orthodox mystics. Western mystics like Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr. Modern theologians and philosophers like Paul Tillich and Pete Rollins. Authors and popular intellectuals like Kara Tippett, Rachel Held Evans, and Rabbi David Wolpe. The Liturgists Podcast and The Deconstructionists podcast delve into the ideas of thinkers such as these. Though I’m just starting to digest some of the meaty ideas they’ve served up, here are few different frameworks that have helped me process my own spiritual transformation:

Part II

The first concept is that spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction is a never-ending journey of growth and discovery. It is the persistent “farther up and further in” that C.S. Lewis imagines at the end of The Last Battle, something we only start here and hopefully continue forever in heaven. Study, contemplation, and action are the keys to this process. To understand anything, it is first necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object. But since God is not an object, but rather the force that holds all objects together, we cannot study Him directly or understand Him fully. In addition, our understanding of the systems of knowledge that produced our comprehension of God (including the Bible and our respective traditions) is severely limited. So if we are not frequently finding our philosophical and theological constructions to be inadequate in light of the infinitude and mystery of the divine and the complexity of human history, we’re doing something wrong.

Moreover, since language itself is built on metaphors, which can only reveal certain aspects of an abstract idea, it can never give us a perfect sense of the idea itself. So in its attempt to articulate truth, language itself will forever prove to be limiting. And if that wasn’t enough, theology and physics have both demonstrated that mystery and uncertainty are essential characteristics at the heart of our universe. So although study is necessary, it is not sufficient to discover truth. All of which should give us a hefty dose of humility.

Yet as I’m sure you’ve noticed, humility is something that seems to be in short supply in most camps these days. Exemplars of arrogance that come to mind include atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Christian fundamentalists Ken Ham and Jerry Falwell, and Islamic fundamentalists the world over. They easily garner media attention because they make absolute, inflammatory claims that are sure to evoke emotional responses from all sides. And even worse, they are blind to their own hubris. So how are we to respond? I would humbly submit that in order to prevent ourselves from being caught up in their egotistical and ultimately fruitless arguments, we must contemplate.

Mindfulness-based meditation and mantra-based prayer are a couple contemplative practices I am starting to integrate into my daily routine. With this kind of contemplative practice, we can silence the noise of our monkey brain enough to gain an awareness of the beautiful mystery of being and the transcendence and immanence and oneness of God. Words are inadequate to describe what happens subjectively in meditation, but the objective physiological benefits should be more than enough to motivate us all to have a regular contemplative practice. Unfortunately, the evangelical tradition is anemic at best in this area, so the best place to start with this is Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Hopefully we’re all open and humble enough to not feel threatened by other traditions, because of how much we stand to learn!

Action, or service, is another essential of spiritual transformation. Theological and philosophical ideas become more real to us when they are experienced. Love in particular, the most essential element of God’s nature, is less an idea than a relational experience that can only be understood in community. By mindfully and generously giving time, energy, thought, emotion, and resources to others, we access the core “stuff” of the universe-- whether we call it God or something else. And that infuses our lives with Meaning. Conversely, if we do not love, we are nothing, and life becomes meaningless even if we happen to profess a belief in God. See I Corinthians 13 and I John 2 if you’re not convinced.

Part III

So that’s my best shot at explaining my new understanding of spiritual growth. If you’re still with me, I’d like to some frameworks of spiritual development that I have found extremely helpful. The first is James Fowler’s 6 stages of faith, which Sarah Bessey references in Episode 14 of The Deconstructionists podcast. Based on a neurocognitive model of development, it presents spiritual development as a linear progression from least to greatest sophistication. Here it is:

  • Stage 1: Intuitive- Projective

This is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. During this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society.

  • Stage 2: Mythic-Literal

When children become school-age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. They generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. A few people remain in this stage through adulthood. Stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally. People stuck at this stage are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. If they do end up converting to the next stage, it often occurs in a very dramatic way.

  • Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional

Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don't recognize that they are "inside" a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one's beliefs. This is the stage in which many people remain. At this stage people rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and often get upset when these are called into question.

  • Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective

This is that tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. Individuals here take personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings, which leads to angst and struggle. As they critically examine their beliefs, they often become disillusioned with their former faith. As a result, people either lose their faith or develop a new complexity of faith. Ironically, Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become "backsliders," when they have actually become more sophisticated.

  • Stage 5: Conjunctive 

It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. People here begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols, but this time without being stuck in a theological box. Individuals resolve conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent truth that cannot be fully explained by any particular statement.

  • Stage 6: Universalizing, or “Enlightenment”

Few people reach this stage. Those who do realize that there is truth to be found in all the previous stages and that life is paradoxical and full of mystery. More emphasis is placed on universal love and justice than on individual concerns, and people become free from worry and doubt.

So that’s Fowler’s stage of faith. But though it’s hugely helpful, it leads to pride if you start to see yourself as more advanced or sophisticated than other people. So along with gaining an intellectual understanding of this framework, it’s key to maintain insight into our own limitations. For which contemplation is necessary (see above).

Part IV

A less linear, more complex conceptualization of this process was described by The Liturgists Podcast in Episode 5: “Spiral Dynamics.” Even though this post is getting long, I think it’s important to briefly share this framework because of how helpful it is for understanding societal dynamics. Here is a link to a textual description of this concept if you’d rather read about it than listen to the podcast episode. And here is an image with brief descriptions of each valueMeme of level 1:

Part V

Finally, I’d like to share something from Episode 49 of The Liturgists Podcast: “Spiritual Trauma,”  in which psychotherapist and author Teresa Pasquale Mateus outlines 11 steps to recovery from spiritual trauma. Though these stages aren’t always experienced in this kind of linear fashion, it’s a helpful framework for understanding how a traumatic spiritual experience influences the stages of faith that are outlined above. They are:

1. Recognize the hurt, inconsistencies or wrongdoing in your faith system or with the persons within your faith system.
2. Begin to question.
3. Seek outside input.
4. Leave your spiritual home and/or faith of origin.
5. Begin your own pilgrimage into the spiritual desert.
6. Enter the anger stage of grief and loss.
7. Explore other ideas, beliefs and opportunities.
8. Begin to re-integrate meaning, values and beliefs in some way for yourself.
9. Begin to trust in individual and communal relationships again.
10. Move toward a non-dual consciousness (or the middle way) and away from absolutes.
11. Enlightenment. Game over. You win!

Though my spiritual trauma has not been as dramatic as many others’, it was was hugely encouraging to learn that I have been joined by countless others in my questioning, leaving, grieving, exploring, and reintegrating. Simply sharing this roadmap with someone who is questioning can give them hope when they may feel hopeless, and direct them down the path of healing when they feel like there is none to be found. It also removes the guilt from leaving the church and entering a time of “detox,” which is not something I was ever encouraged to do when I was in beginning my pilgrimage. That was probably because I didn’t seek enough outside input, but it still would have been helpful to hear that it was good to stop reading the Bible and going to church for a while, which is what I was doing anyway. Michael Gungor's song "You" and Derek Webb's track "Goodbye, For Now" poignantly echo this sentiment.

So if and when you find yourself in the wilderness, do not despair-- just be brutally honest with yourself, and with a couple close friends. Journal-- focus on wherever you feel stuck, no matter how painful. Read, listen, and learn from those who have traveled this lonely path before. Use this time as an opportunity to explore streams of thought beyond the tradition in which you were raised. Explore different contemplative practices. Meditate. Stay healthy. And above all else, love-- yourself, others, and all creation. And healing will come.

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