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Kohlberg, Revisited


I have always known that there are different kinds of Seventh-day Adventists, but nothing has brought that home like the discussions on this forum. Given all that we have in common with one another (more commonalities than differences, I’m quite sure) why do we so quickly fall into conflict?

Is it just about how we interpret the Bible? Mere intellectual differences would seem fairly easy to deal with, not unlike scientists discussing the meaning of a difficult gene sequence. Even if we couldn’t agree, it shouldn’t have to lead to angry, emotional accusations.

Then is it, as some imply, because the others are misled by Satan, rebellious against God, or even (as I was once labeled) an inside agent for the Jesuits? That would explain the anger, though these remain insolent and unBiblical judgments for one human being to make of another.

I get some insight into this from the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, once professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, who’s best known for his theory of the stages of moral development. Building on what is known about the cognitive maturation of children (a la Jean Piaget), Kohlberg created a model for the development of moral reasoning.

Kohlberg suggested three large categories:

The pre-conventional stagedescribes a time in life when children make choices because of consequences, such as punishment or reward. A toddler learns that doing some things (pulling the lamp off the side table by its electrical cord) may get him a slap on the bottom, while for doing others (finishing his vegetables) he gets praised, or even rewarded. This is “what’s in it for me?” reasoning.

In the conventional stage the child, wanting to be thought a good boy or good girl, begins to internalize reasons for behavior, and to expect the same from others. In this stage we adopt a law-and-order view of the world: there are rules, and we all have to follow them for things to work out well. Justice becomes a concern, especially for oneself. This stage is characteristic of adolescence. (Remember as a young teen complaining, “Why did he get to do it and I don’t? It’s not fair!”?)

The post-conventional stage shows a broadening empathy, as a result of having learned by hard experience that life is difficult and complex. Kohlberg said this is dealt with by our joining in a tacit social contract, where we accept that others have different ways of looking at the world which we can respect without adopting. We learn to compromise, to “agree to disagree,” and to abide by the decisions of a majority. This is where, at its best, democracy can function, whether in government, family, or workplace.

Kohlberg thought there was an advanced form of post-conventional maturity where one is motivated by universal ethical principles. People at this level (which Kohlberg maintained few ever reach, and no one consistently) work for the good of others even if it means sacrifice to themselves. Because their community of reference is large they must accept contradictions and uncertainties, but beneath it all they find a moral foundation that transcends laws, rules, creeds and religious or national loyalties.

Because the development of faith heavily overlaps that of morality, Kohlberg’s theory also says a lot about the kind of faith that people hold, and why they react as they do to disagreements about it. James W. Fowler’s Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning is perhaps the most well-known book based on the Kohlberg model.

It’s not hard to find in many religions—Christianity is no exception—people practicing faith mostly because of fear of punishment and possibility of reward, as in Kohlberg’s pre-conventional stage. I remember years ago attending, out of curiosity, a movie about ever-burning hell that was being screened at a Pentecostal church. Makeup-charred actors writhed in faux-flames, rubber worms eating at their eyes and skin, while they wailed regret for their unrepented sins. Some in the pews were in tears, and the pastor ended with quite a successful altar call.

In our own denomination I vividly remember an evangelist, during an emotional altar call, telling about a man a few weeks earlier with whom, while the choir sang, the evangelist had gone down from the platform and pled to accept the truth. The man had refused. The next day his wife called the evangelist to say the man had died that very night. It got me (then 10 years old) to the front: I didn’t want to die that night!

I suspect people sometimes give money to the church believing that it will earn them salvation, and we church leaders haven’t balked at accepting it.

Fowler described this stage as based on a sort of magical cause-and-effect thinking. God rewards obedience and punishes sin. Prayers always get answered, or we can explain why they didn’t. (Remember Glenn Coon’s The Science of Prayer?) All stories and faith claims are simple and literal, and need no interpretation. People at this stage are naturally very concerned about their behavior (which may be why Last Generation Theology sells so well to the young).

Conventional faith development (characteristic of adolescence and young adulthood) begins to take account of the world beyond the family, which may be why it plays a big part in organized religion. Here, faith becomes personal (internalized values) and universal (everyone else should see it the same way). People in this stage—Fowler felt that many of us never advance beyond it—are drawn to “unifying truths,” while minimizing doubt and ambiguity. God operates by rules, and is in that sense fully knowable, leaving no one an excuse. Every Bible text is fully explainable, and generally there is a simple faith formula which, once learned, is an infallible guide. Contradictions (someone taking a non-literal view of creation, for example) are threatening—the whole structure could fall apart. Calls to be loyal (“Hold them accountable!”) and to follow the rules (“Ellen White says we must become perfect before His return, so you’d better get in line!”) represent this kind of faith. As we learn that we’re responsible for our own faith choices, we may evolve an arrogant, individual view which says, “I hold the right theology, and all the rest of you are wrong.”

The higher stage (Kohlberg called it post-conventional, Fowler “conjunctive faith”) results from having experienced “the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts,” says Fowler—which is saying that we’ve failed and struggled enough to appreciate that simple answers won’t suffice. All that was certain and knowable begins to seem less so, and so we must make room for paradox and ambiguity. The world is bigger and more complicated than we once perceived, and the fairness that was so important in the previous stage now must extend to many kinds of people, not just those in my immediate vicinity.

Fowler sees here “a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality”—in other words, we’ve finally understood that we don’t know as much about the immortal, invisible, all-knowing God as we once thought we did, and so while appreciating and living the spiritual truths we know, our judgments are softened by humility.

People in this stage aren’t always at home in conventional organized religion, for accepting paradoxes and uncertainties can lead to a diminished commitment to and activity within the church—which is why conservative religious groups grow and attract resources while liberal ones don’t.

Fowler agrees with Kohlberg that few of us ever reach the highest post-conventional stage, where we “become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.” His description of these people as “often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures),” who in the end “die at the hands of those whom they hope to change” and are “more honored and revered after death than during their lives” can’t help but bring Jesus to mind as the perfect example of this type.

It would be unwise to rely upon any single model to organize all of our faith questions, but this one seems to me useful in understanding why we have conflict over them. If it sounds like people in this forum are talking past one another, it’s because that’s precisely what we’re doing: there is, in a sense, a spiritual generation gap, having more to do with emotional and social development than with cognitive ability.

Of course, no one operates always at any one level. Any driver spotting a highway patrolman with his speed gun aimed instantly reverts to the lowest. Any of us might take a law and order view of the world should we believe we’re not being dealt with fairly. We may think post-conventionally in one area of life, while simple formulas still beguile us in another.

One thing is certain, though: looking down on others because you believe you’re the highest-order practitioner of your faith is probably a pretty good sign that you’re not, for it is quite possible to hold an inclusive, sophisticated theology and still be an unkind hypocrite. In fact, the higher you are on the scale of faith development, the less likely it is you’d think others beneath you. Of the highest stage, says Fowler, “Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages”—and that, it seems to me, describes Jesus, whose example we mean to follow.

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