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"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Teaching/Sermon Material

Spiritual Growth

What are the signs of maturity? Child through young adult.

Portions Copyright © 1980 Dorian S. Cole

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Spiritual growth closely parallels psycho-social growth through the first four of six stages of faith. In the first four stages we acquire the rules that society needs for living in an effective social order. We slowly learn during those stages to temper that with love. In this first article, we look at Wayne Fowler's six stages of faith, the development of faith in ancient religion, and my own faith development, so that we have a good reference of how faith develops. In part 2, we look at how individuals in Ancient Judaism and early Christianity made decisions through various modes of faith, including the development of morality in early Christianity.

I don't want to grow up. I may be physically mature, and intellectually my small brain may be full, and I unfortunately understand the consequences of my actions so I can't act like I'm two years old, and emotionally I get it, but I still want to be 21 and loving life. Whatever there is out there for me, I want it. If it's interesting, I'm into it. If it's unjust, I want to fix it. And some days I would just like God to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Go do that," because that would be a lot easier to figure out. But it doesn't work that way.

I can't define maturity for you. I can't tell you who is mature and who isn't, least of all me - you already know that I want to be 21 and act like I'm 2. What I can do is describe for you some paths that I see followed in the Bible, in the Buddha, and some findings from research. These talk about maturity in the faith, and moral/ethical*1 decision-making maturity.

1. Moral and ethical are nearly interchangeable words. The both refer to what is right and wrong. The word "moral" usually points to a religious background, while the word ethical points to a more secular background. While each of us may have some sort of "inner compass," or "conscience," every person is likely to have a slightly different source and definition of what their morals or ethics are. As we can observe in every child, they have different levels of empathy and slightly different ideas of what is right or wrong, and these change as they grow.

Some of the researchers I will talk about take more of a developmental approach. While I use and respect their work, I have to add that life is seldom a linear step by step logical building of knowledge and experience, so each of us take a different path that can't be defined by specific steps. The person who becomes "street smart" from experience has an altogether different development than someone who gains most of their information and experience from religious studies and interaction with their siblings.

Wayne Fowler*2 outlines 6 stages of faith. I have to say that the first four stages are well correlated with psycho-social stages and I believe are on sound and non-controversial ground. The last two stages are a matter of opinion by the faithful as to whether they are appropriate or not. I feel that the emphasis that religion places on love leads many people into the last two stages, a more universal faith, as outlined by Fowler. But I don't necessarily agree that we are all intended to get there and especially don't feel (nor does Fowler), that there is a superior nature to any of the levels - you simply are where God leads you. I think that most communities of faith more naturally fit, for a variety of reasons, at stage 4. I also think that stage 5 and 6 are the least likely to occur from a linear progression, but I don't have the benefit of primary research that was done by Fowler and his associates.

2. My reference for the moral, psychological, and social stages, besides my own experience, is Stages of Faith by James W. Fowler, which I highly recommend for further reading or study. Fowler heavily relates the work of Lawrence Kohlberg for moral development, Jean Piaget for childhood cognitive development, Erik Erikson for developmental psychology, and himself for faith development. All of these have their detractors, but are generally recognized as significant authorities in their fields.

I'm talking about faith development from the following perspective: No one gets up in the morning and says, "I'm going to do things today to develop my faith." We don't raise ourselves up by lifting ourselves by our own shoes. God develops faith in us. This is accomplished by our following God.

There are essentially three aspects to spiritual growth. One is in how we understand the leadership of God. The second is our understanding and practice of morality, which is the essence of religious teaching. Morality means how we treat our fellow people, both restricting behavior that can harm others, and proactively doing things that will benefit others.

The third aspect of spiritual growth is the integration of these first two aspects in our lives that results in how we determine our own path in life, which will be the second article in this series.

Spiritual growth, whose outcome results in our view of morality, is influenced by our mental and psychological development. It is very difficult to separate the two at the first three stages of spiritual growth. So this first article correlates these various aspects of growth, showing our individual development, and my personal notes about my own development, and what I believe happened in religious development through the ages.

Here are some hints about these two aspects of spiritual growth. Regarding God's leadership, do we see God as a Santa Clause from whom we request favors and gifts? As a moral imperative? As a slave driver who tells us what to think and what to do? As a mythical legend? Regarding our understanding and practice of morality, in both the early history of the nation of Israel, and the early Christian movement, there were very strict codes of obedience that carried death as a penalty. Do we see morality as a list of inflexible rules with penalties, or do we see abstract guidelines?

Moral simply means how we treat each other. Some prefer to divorce this from a religious context and call it "ethics." Moral standards means the code of rules we agree on about how we treat each other. Rather than a complex system of rules, most people use the overriding moral code, "Love your neighbor as yourself," summed up in the golden rule, "Treat others as you wish to be treated."

Predictable human development in mental capacity, physical maturity, moral reasoning, and faith

If you watch children very much, you begin to recognize a lot of patterns in their development. You can predict what children, and even adults, are going to do. My wife seemed to have ESP when it came to realizing that one of our children had done something he shouldn't. One of them actually parted the back of my wife's hair to find the eyes in the back of her head.

Lying is one of those phases that many children go through. You are usually aware when it begins, and know when it is coming to a close... not that children or adolescents won't return to lying if they figure it will get them what they want. You can stay one step ahead of this by realizing that children base their behavior on dedicated self-interest.

Children in their early years, up to age 5, don't really have morals. I often chide my daughter with the comment, "If you are acting as if children have brains (are capable of rational thought), you're absolutely wrong." She smiles, knowing that I'm teasing her, but that I'm gently reminding her that there is an element of truth to what we are sharing. Children are largely emotionally reactive at this stage of development. They have no idea why they do things, and many still don't know why when they are adolescents. Asking them why they did something is a useless exercise - they don't know why and asking them doesn't really make them think. They don't have the ability to analyze their own thinking, and they don't think in the sense that adults can.

We would all like to think that we are "rational" human beings. But even as adults often something happens and we react, without really thinking about why we are reacting or if there are better alternatives. Experientially based emotion is the larger part of decision-making for most people. By that I mean that we have many experiences in our history, and needs, which create an emotional disposition to various events. They form the basis of how we react - our attitude. To react differently we have to think about it rationally and objectively and make a decision to react differently.

I thought that I would enjoy being a father, as I could see myself patiently talking to my children about their behavior and using that as my main method of behavioral modification. I was very disappointed by reality. The age groups that we classify as children have very little of this capacity for rational thought. They are not able to see things much from other's point of view. They are not able to think about their own thinking. They simply react to their own needs and external forces. So as a parent of pre-puberty children, what you are mostly dealing with on a day to day basis is simply stimulus response behavior, while trying to encourage moral development and the capacity to think rationally for the long-term.

Children up to age 5 are very reality based in their behavioral learning. Do this and you may get rewarded. Do that and you are likely to get punished. Imagining consequences for their behavior, such as, "Doing this may burn down the house," is not something that they are capable of thinking. Believing a child will leave matches alone because it will catch something important on fire, is an exercise in wishful thinking. They simply do not have the capacity for that kind of thought.

I had to laugh when my daughter told me her 4 year old boy's response to being chastised for pushing and hitting his younger sister, which he often does. He said, "But Mommy, I had to. I can't stop doing it." There is a direct link in the brain between his frustration and pushing his sister. It satisfies his anger when he doesn't have another way of dealing with it. The thought process that causes restraint isn't developed to the point that he can voluntarily intervene in his own behavior through rational thought. This is a developmental process that takes time. What can potentially control his behavior is the realization that pushing or hitting will get him an immediate punishment.

Nursery workers are very good about working with children of this age. Each time they see a behavior, they correct it with "Use your words," and if necessary place the child in timeout. The child eventually learns to modify his behavior to using words instead of pushing and shoving. School systems in general use a similar approach through high school. The misbehaving adolescent is talked to and placed in detention. The legal system uses the same basic approach: talk, punishment, and then jail.

Unfortunately we often expect children to control their behavior like adults, yet there are many adults who remain in this stage of development, unable to control their own behavior. Something happens, they react. I have seen this as an adult in my own anger, and in other's anger. Adults often allow passion (strong feelings of anger, love, fear, identification (social image and attachment, etc.) to rule their lives.

In my experience, even the experience of having a pet being run over is insufficient to prevent children from letting a loved pet go outside. Even direct experience and certain knowledge does not change children's behavior at this age. Right and wrong and consequences are abstract concepts that most children at this age are not capable of grasping. Right and wrong are value judgments, and children at this age have few values, the love of parents being the principal one. To some degree they do understand rewards and punishments. Their idea of right and wrong can be summarized in the statement: "John got candy, so I should get candy, too." It is very self-oriented.

When it comes to faith, children of this age believe in Santa Clause and anything else that adults tell them. If an adult tells them something, then its validity isn't questioned.

Children 6 to 12

From around age 6 to around 12, children have enough direct experience to begin to understand what is possible in a situation. Their mind is bigger and can grasp more, but they still have difficulty thinking rationally to make value judgments. They still are emotionally reactive. They "act out." There is hardly any such thing as free will in children of this age. They don't evaluate competing values, options, and make judgments to any extent. Primarily they react to their internal emotional content and do what "feels good."

Children's idea of justice at this stage is "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." You hit me, I hit you. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. They have rudimentary ideas about fairness, and are upset when someone is treated unfairly. Their behavior can be governed by rules. Their idea of right and wrong is basically a concrete set of rules given to them by others. Rules are absolutes in the sense that their validity isn't generally questioned except when they get in the way and others are safely ignoring the rules. Children don't have the ability to analyze rules and determine whether they are valid. And without that ability to analyze rules, children often feel safe in ignoring them if it serves their purpose.

My wife tells the story of when she was in 8th. grade she was reprimanded for something she can't even remember now. She was always up to some mischief. The principal told her, "You have a choice, you can get spanked or you can miss recesses today." She replied, "Oh, just give me a spanking and get it over with." The principal laughed despite himself and let her go.

In that choice was displayed the value system of a child that age. The rules are absolute but irrelevant. The punishments may be worth getting to do the behavior. A spanking may be more desirable than missing recess and having fun. The rules have no firm grounding in experience, and everything is a tradeoff.

I personally felt like I could do anything I could get away with at this age. I explored every vacant building in town that I could get into. I waded in flood waters. I dug tunnels in sand for hideouts with trains rumbling alongside. I filled pens with gun powder to make rockets. I climbed tall buildings and to the top of trees. I left in the morning on my bicycle and didn't come home until evening, sometimes riding miles out of town... or sometimes stayed at a friend's house overnight... without calling home. I smoked. I had a paper route in my small town, so I knew everyone, and every nook and cranny in the town. Life was a great adventure, and I lived it - rules be damned. I drove my mother, who had four other children to look after, insane. My mother's reaction was to move us to a farm where I had limited resources and friends to get into mischief with. Rules were just rules - I really didn't have the experiential capacity to understand the need for them. I felt that I could live without rules.

You can say to a child at this age, "How would you feel if you were treated this way?" and it sometimes works. Often it doesn't because they are not yet very able to put themselves in others shoes, but this ability grows during this time, as does the fledgling ability to evaluate competing values, options, and make judgments.

To help children develop moral capacity during this time from 6 to 12, children need guidance, some discussion of why things are right or wrong, and what are appropriate punishments and rewards. But they aren't likely to appreciate why things are right and wrong because they lack direct experience. As a parent, grandparent, and occasional youth teacher, I found it very difficult for children in this age group to see things from any other point of view than their own and make judgments that weren't heavily biased in favor of what they wanted. But I have seen some children in this age group who do have a great deal of empathy for others and had the ability to put themselves second. Children vary a lot, even in the earlier years.

Complications in moral development can arise at this age in several areas that are necessary for their moral development to progress. 1) children must gain a sense of their own competence, 2) they must fit in social circles well enough that they can discuss moral alternatives, and 3) if the rules are relaxed for their older siblings, that sense of "John got candy so I should get candy, too," can become an obstacle that impedes further development.

Doubting one's competence impedes one's ability to make moral judgments. Discussing moral alternatives in groups with others, opens the person's eyes to alternatives, so that judgments can be made. This is part of moral development that leads to the next stage.

Relativity of rules

Children at this age are not capable of understanding that rules can be relative. Rules are absolute, and have no grounding in experience. Children who have difficulty accepting authority will have great trouble with the absoluteness of rules, or the validity of any rule. In most cases, children can at least accept that things will be better for them when they get older. But the thing is, children at this age are typically not able to make the kind of value judgments that say that older brother Ted has more experience and can be trusted to do something, but they can't. They just have to live with their parent's decision. The rules for the younger are absolute and must be obeyed. Discussion about this when the child wants to do something just leads to argument because the child doesn't have the experience to appreciate why. The response often has to be, "Because I said so."

Development in religion

In the early days of the development of religion, we see similar things operating. The Israelites were given very strict rules through Moses to govern their conduct, and those had to be unquestionably obeyed. Justice was a reciprocal eye for eye. The penalty for breaking rules was harsh: often death. In everyone's religious development, there is a time for rules. Usually this religious development corresponds to their development as children, but for those adults who have difficulty controlling thier behavior and making moral judgments, they should gravitate toward rules based religious experience as being the best for them. This is more often found in fundamentalism.

The difficulty of two value systems existing, the rules based religious experience and concept based religious experience, was discussed by the Apostle Paul. Some in the new Church were eating meat sacrificed to idols. Others considered this offensive to God, but to those in the know this was just a rule that didn't apply anymore and eating the meat was harmless. Paul realized that eating the meat offended those who would not because of conscience, and this might cause them to stumble and fall back into other old destructive habits. Too much freedom can corrupt fledgling believers - rules are a necessary vehicle of moral growth. He said in 1 Corinthians 8:9 and 13 (NIV), "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall."

Problems in development

If a child has not developed normally before reaching adolescence, he won't have confidence in himself, he is likely to be socially isolated, and his ability to evaluate moral choices will be warped or poor. He is likely to become a major behavior problem in adolescence, if he isn't already.

Development of faith

By development of faith, I mean that God worked with people where they are. You work with children as children, not adults. I don't mean that God developed. I don't mean that all ancient people had an infantile idea of faith. But as a whole, people were first given elementary ideas to work with.

Faith in God also develops during this time as an absolute. The elementary logic of, "It either is, or it isn't," applies. We can also see this in the early development of religion. The logic born of absolute belief took early religious doctrine to the extreme: "God requires absolute obedience, or He rejects you, the imperfect. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and is everywhere (omniscient). Man's only reason for being is to please God. Every event in this world is caused by God, whether punishment of the wicked, natural disasters, being conquered by others, etc., and you have to interpret events from the perspective of you did something wrong to anger God to bring the punishment." Later we understand more fully, but this type of elementary faith is a place to begin. It establishes boundaries of faith that the young person can develop in.

Fowler labels this stage of faith, Mythic-Literal Faith. It brings with it the ability to narratize experience into stories that have meaning in our lives.

Stories (narrative) play a very important role in our lives. They help create meaning in our world. We pass stories from one to another, and in that sense pass meaning to other people. For example, the heroic strongest man becomes idolized as the iron man who then jumps into the molten steel to make enough steel for the war. A version of the story can be seen at: Joe Magarac, a legendary Croatian steel worker in the USA ( Stories like this encourage us to be better workers and sacrifice for a larger cause.

All through our lives we form and recognize boundaries. We can see what happens when people feel they don't have boundaries, as evidenced in the lives of young TV and movie stars, and rock musicians. They get this sense that the rules just don't apply to them (probably because they are rich, powerful, and have been exposed to a much wider life style). They get into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and break the rules that most of us live by, which lands them in jail or wrecks their lives.

Narrative is important to setting our boundaries. We tell stories around the water cooler, in the stadium, between classes, in the bathroom, over the phone, in our religious establishments and schools, and on the Internet. All through our lives we pass meaning to others through stories, and through these we establish meaning and boundaries in our lives.


If children are developing normally, by adolescence they can begin thinking about their own thinking. That is, they can evaluate multiple approaches to problems and choose the better alternative. They can understand concepts, not just rules.

What we commonly see in adolescence is a keen sense of idealism that is fully developed in young adults. "This is the way the world should be." There is an accompanying contempt for those who don't live up to the ideal. Usually they have developed their identity, and various parts of their personality have integrated into a personality that compels them to take action. They know what they stand for. They know who they listen to. They know what group they are a part of.

One difficulty for young adults is that they don't miss any falseness or hypocrisy in religious institutions. This creates contempt, which drives young people away from religious institutions since they are idealistic and the tarnish on the image is overpowering. Combined with their search for finding their own path, they often flock in a different direction.

Adolescents are able to see things from other's perspectives, so they develop the ability to empathize with others. They can painfully understand how they would feel if they were treated in some way. They can even look at themselves from other's point of view, and this often is a source of problems as they project their undeveloped values onto others and think that others are seeing them through very critical eyes. "I have acne. My nose is too big. My personality doesn't sparkle. I'm not a sex goddess. I don't have the physical prowess of a stud. I'm not as smart as some in class. My clothes are not in style. My cell phone is outdated and looks clumsy." Teens have a long list of value concerns about life that they feel painfully, and are often most critical of themselves.

As adolescents begin to make moral judgments for themselves, another difficulty occurs. The most important, and most influential group in their lives becomes their peers, as attested by research during the 1990s. Sorry Mom and Dad, you're out of here. Their earliest reaction is to conform to other's expectations of them. Their values become those of their peers. Right and wrong now become the right and wrong established by the group. Mom and Dad's rules apply... at home. (Actually Mom and Dad's influence on morals is not out the window - but it can be if not involved as an advisor.)

Antisocial and risky behavior can be encouraged by peers as well as positive behaviors. As I wrote in a previous article, peer influence peeks around age 14, and slowly diminishes with many children as they age. "Middle adolescence is an especially significant period for the development of the capacity to stand up for what one believes and resist the pressures of one's peers to do otherwise."

- Age Differences in Resistance to Peer Influences (study).

"Although being a member of a popular group may bring benefits such as positive social behavior and esteem, potential costs include higher rates of risky behavior and social aggression."

- Peer Groups Have A Significant Influence On Children's Behavior But Some Are More Influential Than Others (study).

In all previous centuries before the 20th, children were often married by age 12 to 18, and had lives and children of their own. In the early 20th. Century, people married right out of high school, and worried about becoming old maids if not married by their early twenties - mating was considered an essential and those who weren't married thought they were undesirable. Today we ask young adults to wait to accept adult responsibilities, for good reasons, and they often wait until they are 28. People don't die today by age 30 - life is longer and young adults can afford to get more prepared for a life that is typically lasting in reasonable health to age 86. But in our thinking as parents, we have to realize that young adults have physical, mental, and social needs that are difficult to put on hold.

Lack of experience in young adults is coupled with rapid development of the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in reasoning, which leaves the adolescent less capable of reasoning than an adult.*3 Quoting from an American Bar Association article on youth development and legal culpability: "The evidence now is strong that the brain does not cease to mature until the early 20s in those relevant parts that govern impulsivity, judgment, planning for the future, foresight of consequences, and other characteristics that make people morally culpable…. Indeed, age 21 or 22 would be closer to the ‘biological’ age of maturity." The paper concludes that "...adolescents have significant neurological deficiencies that result in stark limitations of judgment."

3. Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability.

Kohlberg's work, and other research, indicate that in general people are not able to "fully" appreciate consequences until around age 28. Interestingly many young adults are remaining at home until this age, and age 28 is now the average age of those men getting married for the first time (25 for women).

We have placed such emphasis in the US on education and the ability to reason, that we have undervalued or ignored the value of experience. Our attitudes are anchored by experience since experience provides emotional content, and decisions are more influenced by emotion than by reason. Experience gives us the capacity to understand and appreciate (give a value to) the things we must judge. For example, one study showed that students value feedback more if they have had the experience of getting and using feedback. With age and experience comes an appreciation of the value of feedback for learning.

In teenage development, teens start by wanting to be just like everyone else, but they soon want to establish their own identity. So they want to be like others but different. It's like a company that wants to create a competitive product that everyone will like. It has to be a product that does the same as other products, but is new and different in a way that makes people want to buy it. This is what being a teen is all about: being like everyone else, but new and different in a way that makes everyone value you.

As a youth growing up in town, arriving at puberty, I was around a number of other kids and realized that some of them were trouble. I tempered my associations with those who were trouble - yet they didn't turn out to be any more problematic than my other friends. They simply had the label of coming from "bad" families. I don't question my parent’s decision to move to the country - in fact it seemed like an adventure to me and was probably what kept my mother sane - but from that time on, my identity, my social development, and my moral decision-making development was arrested. In High School, I didn't feel part of any group, and often hung out with others who were not part of any group. It was a time of isolation for me.

Peer influence doesn't apply just to teens. I have seen adults walk away from faith because it's "not the done thing" in their academic or social circle. Adults seek out people who are like themselves as associates and friends, and in this sameness they stand out (are admired or respected) only for the unique qualities that they want to promote. Peer groups are important throughout life, but their influence usually diminishes as people mature and have more experience and confidence in themselves. While people may have learned in their adolescent years to stand up to their peers, I have seen psychologists cave under the pressure of their peers and employers to deny their training orientation in order to fit with the group, and this is certainly true for all academics and professionals.

Sameness and acceptance are important to social development - groups are an important part of identity. If a teen is radically different from others, like having very different rules, the teen is going to struggle to be more like others. It will either be war at home, or deceit, to get to conform to their peers. If there are unresolved issues during this stage of moral development, they are likely to be unable to make commitments later, which is essential to continued moral development.

If the teen has successfully come through this stage with a developed personality, he is able to see various points of view, is able to reason or evaluate those points of view, and is able to retain family and communal values of right and wrong. What he does not have at this point are three things: a good appreciation for lengthy commitments for things like marriage and child rearing, his own moral code (not just an enculturated one), and a good appreciation for consequences. These things require experience to develop. Unfortunately people head off to college, family, or career without these things.

Development in religion

The religion of Israel struggled with its own adolescent stage. The people in the land were repeatedly warned not to accept the values of their peers in the land. They were not to worship other gods, they were not to consult with those who spoke to the dead.... They had judges, prophets, and priests who tried to keep them in a tight community with its own set of rules. This actually very effectively gave them an identity that kept their community together, although they often accepted the religious ways and symbols of those already in their land. It was a constant battle.

The prophets of Ancient Israel repeatedly came to them and reminded them of their moral values. They failed to take care of widows and orphans. They gave false testimony against others. They worshiped other gods. They cheated in business. They stole and committed adultery.

Finally one day it changed. The old covenant (agreement with God) came to an end. In the old covenant, sons and daughters might be judged by what their parents had done back seven generations, and entire societies might be condemned. They entered the age of a new agreement, the age of personal responsibility in which each person would be judged on his own merits. (See Isaiah 56:1-7.) They left adolescence and became adults.

Development of faith

Religious faith for adolescents is basically a learning process of rules and why. Adolescents can learn why doing something is bad - it hurts others or themselves. They can see things from other's perspectives. The rules have less of an absolute sense, and more of a "this is why" sense to them. Obey God. Obey the rules. Learn about God and how he leads you and gives to you. Learn about the rules and why we must have them.

I was raised a United Methodist, and later on the farm attended another church off an on. For me, religion was just something that was there. I accepted Christ at an early age, and accepted the rules and doctrines without question, although following commandments wasn't something I found easy. My high school teachers brought me a sense of being objectively critical of everything that society put forward - to examine things and think them through. I took them at their word. But it wasn't until later that I began to seriously examine my own faith.

The adolescent phase of faith is essential to development. We learn through the experience of obedience and through learning about morals, to understand and appreciate their use in our own lives.

Fowler labels stage 3 as Synthetic-Conventional Faith. It is the time when our lives become ordered by others. Their expectations of us influence what we are and become. If the person is religiously faithful, God becomes a major influence in this person's identity. But it is not an examined faith - it is simply given by others.

Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.












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