(Deuteronomy 30, 15 – 20; I Corinthians 3, 1-9; Matthew 5, 21-37)
When I was studying social psychology, and again when I was training to be a teacher, I came across the work of a Frenchman called Jean Paiget, the man who transformed the way we understand how children think and learn. He set out 4 stages in the development of children’s thinking and learning.
The first lasts from birth to about 2 years old. At this stage, children acquire knowledge through feeling objects. They take time to learn that objects exist separate from themselves, and that they continue to exist even when they can’t see them. As they get to the end of this stage, they begin to build up ideas about things, and match them to their names.
In the second stage from about age 2 to 7, children learn by play and by acting out situations. They still struggle with logic; their understanding is still governed by what they see (so although they see the same amount of water poured from one glass into another, they will say there is more in one than another if it is a different shape and looks more) and they are still very self-centred and struggle to see someone else’s point of view.
In the third from age 7-11, children learn to think logically, and begin to be able to see other people’s point of view, but they are still very rigid in the way they think, and struggle with abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.
From age 11 into adulthood, there is an increasing ability to think logically, to understand abstract ideas and to reason. Adolescents come to see there are many solutions to a problem, not just one, and many opinions about things.
Lawrence Kohlberg applied these stages of to the development of morality in children, from the earliest, totally self-centred stage, through being moral through fear of punishment, to morality being based on the community’s rules, to the time when morality is based on reason and universal principles.
Then, when I was studying religion, I learnt about the work of James Fowler, who applied the stages to the development of faith. He talked about the intuitive stage of very small children, where fantasy and reality are mixed together, children pick up ideas from their family and society, but have strange almost magical beliefs.
At junior school age, children begin to move into a stage, when they understand the world in more logical ways. They learn the stories told by their faith communities, but understand them in very literal ways. Their religion tends to be about reward and punishment. Some people stay in this stage all their lives.
As teenagers, most people move into the synthetic /conventional stage. They are now operating in several different social circles and see belief systems as a whole. It is the time when people adopt a faith for themselves, but they tend to be very attached to their particular faith and get very upset when the authority of their chosen leader is challenged. At this stage people find it difficult to see they are inside the ‘box’ of a particular system of belief. Many people also remain at this stage.
As young adults, some people move to the reflective stage. They realize there are other belief systems, other ‘boxes’ which are different from their own. This is the stage when many people examine their own faith critically, and some become disillusioned with their former faith and leave. They are seen by people in stage three as ‘backsliders and some faith communities shun them.
In midlife, some people move into what Fowler calls Conjunctive Faith. They accept the paradoxes of life, and that all life is a mystery. They accept the limits of logic to describe faith. They return to an appreciation of the stories of their faith, but they understand them in new ways, often seeing them as symbolic. People in stage 3 often denounce them as ‘revisionists’.
The final stage in Fowler’s scheme is universalizing faith. Few people reach this stage, which is characteristic of the great religious leaders of history. They see that truth is to be found in many different forms of faith, and while being loyal to their own faith, appreciate insights from others and are not threatened by them. Their lives are lived without worry, trusting the divine, in service to others. Community, rather than legalism is most important to them.
In real life, things are probably more fluid than these schemes of development suggest. In faith, we probably all move forward and back between stages depending on our circumstances and situations. Our personalities, other people suggest, also have an influence on what we believe, and how we live out our faith. But these schemes do provide a useful tool for looking at the behaviour of individuals and faith communities at times of change.
Paul, writing to the Christian community in Corinth, clearly thinks it’s about time they moved on a stage. ‘You’re babies in the faith’ he says to them. ‘You’re like small children in the playground, splitting up into rival gangs, and arguing about who has the best leader. Why can’t you grow up and become more like Christ?’
In the book of Deuteronomy, we see a view of history which is still very common in religion. This says that if you are good, God will reward you, but if you’re bad, you will suffer. There’s a version of this nowadays that’s found in some parts of the world, often known as ‘the Prosperity Gospel’. It says that if you are a good, Bible believing Christian (and particularly if you follow the rules set down by a particular church and contribute towards the costs of its leader) God will reward you with material riches. Unfortunately, the only person who seems to get wealthy in this sort of church is the leader!
Actually, that’s not what Deuteronomy is saying. If you read it carefully, it’s promising possession of the Promised Land to those who obey God’s commandments, but disaster to those who follow other codes and other values. It’s not talking about material wealth but about what the Hebrews understand as ‘Shalom’, which is about community: peace, justice, health, kindness, welcoming the stranger, supporting the weak and vulnerable, living in equity.
As we continue to hear passages from the Sermon on the Mount in readings from Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples (and that includes us) how to be grown up Christians.
Serving God as we should is not about keeping the rules, Jesus says: it’s about a change of thinking and feeling that affects what goes on inside our hearts and minds as much as what we do and say. It’s about allowing God to capture our hearts, and give us a new one; it’s about listening to the divine word and allowing it to challenge us constantly to do better; it’s about growing more and more Christlike every day.
And it’s difficult! All of us will fail all the time, and we will often slide back into the easier way of sticking with our own community, and following its rules, rather than thinking and reflecting, and opening ourselves to be renewed.
Outward conformity is easy. It’s easy to go to church, sing hymns, say prayers, put our money in the plate or the banker’s order. It’s fairly easy not to commit major sins, to go through the list saying: “Murder, haven’t done that; adultery? no; stealing, well not anything major!” It’s much more difficult to be honest before God about our inner thoughts and actions, to look at Christ and the standards he demonstrates, and admit how far and how often we miss the mark (which is the root meaning of the Greek word for ‘sin’ used in the New Testament)
Paul and Jesus are urging us to become grown-up Christians in our own contexts. What might that look like for a 21st Century Christian? Let me suggest some ways – and I’m sure you can think of others.
Grown up Christians know that being faithful to Christ doesn’t always lead to personal prosperity, or lifelong good health or successful churches or growth in numbers or popularity with the political powers that be; often, it can lead to just the opposite.
Grown up Christians know that the Bible has to be read in context, and with some understanding of the beliefs, knowledge and circumstances of those who wrote and edited it. They understand the difference between story and command, and poetry and law, and letters written to particular people in particular circumstances. They know the Bible has always been interpreted, and that it’s not a handbook that gives easy answers to all life’s questions no matter what the circumstances.
Grown up Christians know that effective teachers sometimes use story, and humour, and exaggeration to make their points. It doesn’t mean everything they say has to be taken literally (which is a relief after today’s Gospel reading!)
Grown up Christians know that beliefs and practices and what is considered good and right change over time. They understand paradox, and that more than one point of view can be right, depending on the circumstances. They trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth – and they admit that sometimes they can get things wrong!
Grown up Christians don’t just follow the rules. They consider what impact following the rules has on real people, and whether that impact is what God would really want to happen.
Grown up Christians are prepared to listen to and learn about communities whose beliefs and practices differ from those of their own community, and appreciate the good in them. They are as critical of their own community as they are of others.
Above all, grown up Christians don’t spend most of their time challenging and criticising the actions of others. They see their main task as challenging themselves to grow up into maturity, measured against the full stature of the fullness of Christ.
And grown up Christians know they haven’t got there yet, and probably never will – but that God in Christ loves them still.