Finding Your Religion
As we grow older, our ideas and questions about faith change.
Our searching inquiries can lead us in unexpected directions to
new and deeper understandings of our spirituality and the meaning
By Scotty McLennan, University Chaplain
Kevin Gallagher remembers
the first time he learned about heaven. He was in the second grade
and one of the nuns in his parochial school drew a diagram on the
chalkboard. "Heaven" was at the top of the board and "human
beings" at the bottom. Between the two there was a straight
line. The nun then drew several jagged up-and-down lines that ascended
toward heaven like a stock market index.
"This," she said, pointing to the straight line, "is
Catholicism. These lines are other denominations. They all get to
the top, but tell me, class, which one is the best?" Kevin
had often wondered about other religions. Why were there so many?
Does God rule over all of them? Does everyone in every religion
get to go to heaven? Now the answer was in front of him, drawn on
the chalkboard and so easy to see. The class responded in unison.
Even Kevin knew the answer.
As the youngest of six children growing up in the late 1950s, Kevin
was secure in his Catholic identity. His father had studied to be
a priest. His mother attended Mass every day. His oldest sister,
Sylvia, had joined a Dominican convent when she was eighteen, and
his oldest brother, Dan, had graduated from seminary. No matter
where he turned, Catholicism was present in so many forms and so
many ways in his life.
At an early age, Kevin tried to use his religion to his advantage.
"Catholics around me believed that not just God, but Jesus
and the Virgin Mary and the saints all had special powers for us,"
he said. "It was a panoply of supernatural beings. I remember
going to piano lessons and not wanting the nuns to rap my knuckles
with a ruler when I made a mistake on the keys. So I would pray
to the Virgin Mary to help me make it through because I never practiced.
Confession also played a major role in Kevin's childhood. His teachers
taught him that sins are "blots" on your soul, and that
these blots get darker and darker unless you go to confession. "I
remember walking out of confession when I was six or seven thinking
that I had a scrubbed soul. I thought it was pretty easy-I could
commit a small sin and make up for it the next week by saying a
couple of Hail Marys." Yet as he grew older, Kevin found it
harder to deal with the problems he had with the Catholic Church,
like the notion that Catholics are somehow better than members of
other religions or denominations. During high school Kevin began
to retreat from his Catholic upbringing.
Thanks to the influence of several young Jesuit teachers, he was
drawn to other traditions, like existentialism and Buddhism. He
read Albert Camus and Hermann Hesse. The priests also involved him
in social issues like civil rights and environmentalism. He still
attended Mass every week, but only to appease his parents. He stopped
praying and going to confession. He began having trouble with the
idea of miracles, and he lost the sense that Jesus was literally
and uniquely God. Catholicism had always seemed like a package to
him- "You buy all the dogma or none." As he put it, "Once
there were a couple of loose threads, the whole thing unraveled
like a theological double-knit suit." By the time he went to
college, he didn't go to church at all. In his rational mind he
retained some notion of a divine power or force somewhere out there.
But that was all, and it had no connection to institutional religion.
When he married a Jewish woman and they had their first child in
the mid-1980s, Kevin decided not to have his baby daughter baptized
in the Catholic church. He couldn't believe that the destiny of
his daughter's soul would hinge on this Christian ritual. How can
a loving God condemn those who aren't baptized, he asked himself.
Then, since he wasn't actively involved in a religious tradition
himself but his wife still felt some connection to Judaism, he had
no objection when she wanted to raise their children Jewish.
A few years ago Kevin and his wife, Susan, bought their dream house
in Chicago. By then they had two children, a girl and a boy. Susan's
only connection to Judaism, it turned out, had been lighting Sabbath
candles on Friday night and celebrating Hanukkah along with Christmas.
When she decided to start going to the local synagogue with the
kids because of its outstanding reputation, Kevin was struck by
the sincerity and energy of the congregation, especially the young
rabbi. As his growing family settled into their new home and this
new synagogue, Kevin found himself attending more and more Jewish
functions with his wife and children. He found the spiritual community
comforting and appealing.
Reading Martin Buber's I and Thou built a bridge for him
from Christianity, existentialism and Buddhism, to Judaism. A German
Jewish theologian who spent the last third of his long life in what
became Israel, Buber wrote expansively of Jesus, Nietzsche and the
Buddha while developing his humanistic Jewish philosophy. He saw
human existence at its core as being grounded in relationships.
We betray ourselves every time we treat others as objects or things.
The sacred for Buber is here and now between people, primarily.
The door was opened for Kevin to study the tenets of Judaism more
closely, and they spoke directly to his heart. Finally, after many
years of floating at sea without a spiritual port, Kevin decided
to convert to Judaism. His decision resulted from a number of factors.
Above all else, the recent death of his father had put his own mortality
into focus. Also, he had just turned forty, and with the new house,
a beautiful family, and a job he loved, he realized that he wanted
to have a spiritual grounding to make his life complete. Something
had been percolating on the right side of his brain without any
meaningful expression for the last twenty years. Within his family
of origin, his sister Sylvia had left the Dominican convent after
ten years and married, but remained a committed Catholic. His brother
Dan did not become a Catholic priest after seminary; he also married
and then found a spiritual home with his wife in the Methodist church.
His middle sister had become a Buddhist after spending a lot of
time at the Naropa Institute in Colorado and taking periodic trips
to Nepal. Kevin no longer saw religious traditions as boxes with
impenetrable walls. His other siblings and his mother remained Catholic,
but Kevin did not see himself moving away from Catholicism as much
as moving toward Judaism. For example, this tradition emphasized
"living right, choosing well, and understanding the importance
of every deed." In fact, that was a confirmation of what the
priests had taught him in high school about living out one's faith
in action. After deliberating by himself for several months, Kevin
finally told his wife of his decision. She was surprised but supported
him. After a year of classes with the rabbi, Kevin had his conversion
ceremony at their synagogue.
* * *
Like Kevin, most people go through different spiritual phases in
life. We need to be open to change because it's virtually inevitable.
Some scholars such as James Fowler, in his book Stages of Faith,
believe that spiritual stages are a human universal that can be
described with a fair degree of precision; levels are also accompanied
by different, stage-appropriate perceptions of God or ultimate reality.
They happen sequentially, and most of us have to reach a certain
chronological age before the next stage is a possibility. However,
there is no guarantee that we will change. That is, many of us remain
perfectly happy at a particular stage throughout our lives, while
others continue moving on. What I call Faith Stages, with Individual
Experiences of God, are as follows:
||Experience of God
||Distan God (or atheism)
The first stage, Magic, can occur anytime after the first two years
of life and usually concludes by age ten. The world is perceived
magically, full of fairies and demons, superheroes and villains.
It is hard to separate sleeping and waking states, nightmares and
daydreams. Children in this phase speak of God as all-powerful-someone
who is responsible for everything that happens internally and externally,
usually including both good and ill, from good health to plane crashes.
God can create ghosts and destroy dragons. A five-year-old I know
described God as having the power to disappear and reappear anywhere
in the world in an instant to "do good" and "fight
monsters and dinosaurs."
Usually sometime after the age of six, however, children begin
to separate fact from fantasy. They enter the stage of Reality,
in which they learn to think logically and order their world with
"scientific" categories such as number and time and causality.
"Is it real?" becomes the refrain. Santa Claus no longer
brings presents on Christmas Eve, because kids now realize how impossible
it is to visit so many children with so many presents in one night
and get down chimneys. In this reality-based spiritual stage, God
begins to be imaged more tangibly as a person-in our culture, often
as an old man with a long white beard. The Bible and other scriptures
are read concretely and literally, rather than as mere tales. Moral
rules begin to have an impact. Now there is a cause-and-effect relationship
to God or Ultimate Reality. God can be influenced by good deeds,
promises, and vows. People have some degree of free will and choice,
which also means some control over good and bad results. At this
stage in his life, Kevin prayed to the Virgin Mary to help him make
it through piano lessons without getting his knuckles rapped, and
it worked. At six or seven he was convinced that he could easily
make up for sins by saying a couple of Hail Marys.
Yet, before they get to this Reality stage, most children go through
a transition period during which they still hold onto fragments
of their Magic stage. For example, a child may believe more strongly
in Santa Claus when she starts to believe that God has moral rules
that reward or punish her for being "naughty or nice."
The transition usually takes place after the age of six, when some
children are more oriented toward one stage and some toward the
other. Therefore, I find it useful to describe childhood as a period
of spiritual tension between the stages of Magic and Reality.
Most adolescents, by contrast, struggle with a very different spiritual
dynamic: the tension between Dependence and Independence, as Stephen
Covey and others have noted. The need for dependence, which starts
around age twelve, stems from a number of unavoidable factors in
both psychological and physiological development. The first and
most important factor is puberty, which can be a confusing and sometimes
painful time for girls and boys. Around this age, children also
become affected more by peer pressure and are more easily influenced
by the leadership of respected older people. These factors contribute
to the period of dependence, during which time an individual is
susceptible not only to cult involvement and "brainwashing,"
but also to the development of a meaningful outlook on life.
In the Dependence stage, the young person hungers for a very personal
relationship with God-the One who knows the person and loves him
or her unconditionally. God then helps and directs the person as
an idealized parent, often replacing one's actual parents, whom
the adolescent begins to see as flawed. An undergraduate I knew
taught nine-year-olds in a Baptist Sunday school class. Tom considered
it very important to "teach by the book." He didn't want
to question church doctrine or go beyond the lesson plan for the
day. If something came up about sexuality, for example, he would
refer it to the minister or say, "Let me get back to you on
that next week after I've checked with Reverend Johnson." Often
I heard him say how the minister is "a really great guy."
I also observed how intent Tom was on saying and doing the right
things in front of Rev. Johnson. Clearly, Tom was in the Dependence
stage of his spiritual development, with his minister a central
authority for him.
* * *
One's spiritual Independence stage, by contrast, can begin as early
as age sixteen. Instead of relying on outsiders, social conventions
and spiritual advisors to define one's religious orientation, the
late teenager or young adult begins to find spiritual authority
within. This is a common time for the individual to say "I'm
spiritual, but I'm not religious," not wanting to be part of
any institution or under anyone's control. At the same time, God
or ultimate reality tends to become more impersonal and more distant.
Even for those who find in effect that the kingdom of God is within
them (Luke 17:21), and in that sense close at hand, the internal
God is usually described as soul or spirit. This form of God is
not something with which one interacts interpersonally in the way
one would with a parent. Instead, God lies buried, waiting to be
found as an animating force, deep beneath layers of one's personal
psychology and various kinds of self-deception.
Some people become functional deists during the Independence stage.
Deists feel that a Supreme Being may have created the universe but
has long since retreated and left the universe subject to the forces
of natural and human laws. Perhaps this God or Force remains present
in the form of energy or electricity, but certainly not as a person
who intervenes to break natural laws with miracles or as someone
who carries on conversations with us. A common analogy for the absent
deist God is that of a clockmaker, who constructs and winds up the
clock, but lets it run on its own. Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire
were deists throughout most of their lives.
Some people in the Independence stage demythologize religious symbols,
rituals and stories. They search for historical background, literary
function and conceptual meaning. That also means that sacred power
is muted or lost. Instead of experiencing the holy directly, these
people have trouble getting beyond critical examination of the rituals,
symbols and myths that mediate the sacred. Harvard Divinity School
professor Harvey Cox once described to James Fowler a demythologizing
experience he had. A college friend whispered to him as he was about
to receive the body and blood of Jesus through the communion bread
and wine at a Christmas Eve service: "That's just a primitive
totemic ritual, you know. Almost all premodern religious and tribal
groups have them. They are ceremonies where worshippers bind themselves
together and to the power of the sacred by a cannibalistic act of
ingesting the mana of a dead god." Cox says communion was forever
changed for him after that.
By the time he went to college, Kevin had apparently reached the
Independence stage. He no longer believed in miracles, and he had
lost the sense of God as a person-in particular, of God in the person
of Jesus. Instead, he had an impersonal notion of a divine power
or force at some considerable distance from himself. In his mind
that force had nothing to do with institutional religion, and he
stopped going to church.
The Interdependence stage might be referred to by philosopher Paul
Ricoeur's term "second naivete" because it is a time when
religious symbols become sacred once again and are found to have
new power. As the name suggests, this stage of Interdependence is
the reconciliation of the previous stages of Dependence and Independence.
People at this spiritual level live in a dialectical yin-and-yang
world, where they are able to tolerate ambiguity and seeming contradiction
and enjoy complexity. God or Ultimate Reality is experienced paradoxically.
For example, many people at this stage can pray to God the person,
even though they intellectually understand the divine as an impersonal
force in the universe. Instead of taking an either-or approach to
life, people at the Interdependence stage are able to see all sides
of an issue at the same time. As with the onion-peeling effect of
discovering symbolic depth in great literature, adults at the Interdependence
stage are able to read scripture simultaneously at the literal,
allegorical, historical, conceptual, poetic and inspirational levels.
Religiously, people at the Interdependence stage are open to dialogue
between different traditions because they understand that truth
is multidimensional. Any particular religious symbol, myth or ritual
is necessarily limited and incomplete, bound by the follower's personal
experiences. This is not a purely relativistic approach, however,
as it is in the Independence stage. People in the Interdependence
stage know the value of picking a particular path. Kevin as he converted
is a good example of someone at this stage because he understood
that there was more than one way to get up the spiritual mountain,
but he chose Judaism as his path. Also, those in the Interdependence
stage do not demythologize religion, because critical analysis is
tempered by spiritual awareness. For example, someone at this level
recognizes that communion, on the surface, is a totemic ritual but
still feels the sacred meaning of the Eucharist.
The final spiritual level is populated by the mystics. Sometimes
they emerge in their thirties, but usually not until ripe old age.
While people at the Interdependence stage recognize partial truths
and their limitations, people at the stage of Unity feel unconditionally
related to the Ultimate. In other words, they have a direct awareness
of the oneness of all existence. I have had such experiences, but
they have happened rarely and lasted only a few minutes. People
at the Unity stage have these kinds of experience much more often,
which continually inform the rest of their understanding.
Yin and yang and all other forms of paradox now disappear into
undivided unity. People at this stage speak of God in an all-pervasive
sense: God is felt to be in everything, and everything seems to
exist in God. As a result, they possess a universalizing compassion
and a vision of universal community beyond all forms of tribalism.
Personal security also ceases to be a concern at the stage of Unity,
and virtually all forms of ego attachment disappear. One is now
ready for deep relationships with individuals at any of the other
faith stages and from any other religious tradition. These mystically
aware people can be seen to be subversive of structures and organizations
(including institutional religion). As a result, they can become
targets of misunderstanding and conflict. Over time some have died
at the hands of others, like Mohandas Gandhi, who was assassinated
by a fellow Hindu for his openness to Muslims. Often these figures
are more revered and respected after they are dead. Two modern examples
of those revered well before their deaths are Mother Theresa, a
Catholic, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama, a Buddhist.
* * *
When I teach the stages of spiritual development at Tufts, students
have a lot of questions. They often resent the notion that their
own particular experience can be categorized into six universal
states. As Jim put it in one class, "The journey is a personal,
creative and undefined one that cannot be outlined by attempted
clinical or scientific research." Evan added: "Religion
isn't an instinct, like other theories we deal with. Each individual
has his or her own special way of dealing with it, regardless of
whether they are two people on opposite sides of the world, or identical
Mary responded, "But I could relate to many of the stages
described. With some stages that I feel I have not reached yet,
I recognize friends and acquaintances who have, and so I understand
more where they lead." Joan added: "I was so glad to be
able to see myself through the stages. For example, going from magic
to reality, I remember being about nine or ten. I knew, inside me,
that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I hoped with all myself
that he existed, and so I wrote one last Christmas Eve letter, hoping
he would respond and somehow this 'reality' would be wrong. My mother
wrote me back. It was a disappointing Christmas."
By the end of the discussion, Jim had relented: "I can see
that I have experienced bits of each of the stages, and right now
I would probably place myself in the Independence stage. I do also
remember a time during junior high and my first year of high school
when I was relatively 'religious' and felt that God/Jesus was like
an idealized parent, always protecting me."
Tony had a different critique: "This discussion excites in
me, as I'm sure it does in many of us, an immediate self-reflection
and categorization of myself. But I don't think this is beneficial
in and of itself, and we should be warned against it. I think stage
theory can be very dangerous, especially to people who are unsure
of their path and only have a cursory knowledge of it." Jane
elaborated on Tony's point: "This may not only be detrimental
and possibly discouraging to individuals in terms of their own growth,
but it misses the real point of spiritual development. It makes
the reader become goal-oriented and it may undermine the importance
of nurturing the spirit at whatever stage it happens to be, rather
than looking further along the path."
In fact, Roger wondered why, once he was aware of "the strange,
but interesting idea" of religious development within himself,
he shouldn't "be able to sort of speed up the process and skip
ahead." As he put it, "After all, if I can recognize where
I am and know where I am going, why shouldn't I be able to just
go?" He also felt that stage theory is judgmental, implying
that later stages are better than earlier ones and that some people
are more religiously "developed" than others.
A professor of psychology and ordained Episcopal deacon who was
visiting the class pointed out how religion is often perceived through
nondevelopmental lenses, so that many people speak of religion as
if it were something one either "gets" or "doesn't
get"-as if it were some one thing to be fully embraced or rejected.
The stage approach, by contrast, allows us to see religion quite
differently-"as a process rather than a product, as something
continuously changing and hopefully developing." She also explained
that stage theory presents the opportunity to discover similarities
between various religious traditions and between various spiritual
lives. "Making such discoveries is no easy achievement, for
what strikes us first are differences between religions, not similarities."
The stages, then, help prevent judgmentalism, by pointing to "deep-structure
similarities between the spiritual paths taken by people from various
It is important to explore fully the place where you find yourself
on the spiritual mountain, rather than looking behind or ahead,
up or down the slope. Open yourself to change. You may soon find
yourself in another stage of your life-one that you'd never imagined.
Scotty McLennan is the University Chaplain at Tufts. This article
is adapted from his book, Finding Your Religion: When the Faith
You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning, recently published by HarperSanFrancisco,
and which grew out of an interview in the Fall 1996 Tuftonia. The
stories here are those of Tufts students, faculty and alumni, whose
names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality. McLennan's
book has proved popular with alumni, who have turned out in large
numbers to hear him speak at Alliance events across the country.