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The Four Stages of Religious Development

The Four Stages of Religious Development

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Published by: bde_gnas on Jun 22, 2013
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The Four Stages of Religious Development
By James M. Somerville
True open-mindedness is not a condition we are born with. Children assume thattheir parents’ values and prejudices are the correct ones and that the way thingsare is the way they ought to be. In adolescence, we may begin to challenge thevalues and assumptions of our childhood and become open to other ways ofthinking and acting. This attitude of receptiveness to new ideas develops instages, and it can be spoken of as a kind of enlightenment.Anyone on the road to enlightenment should be able to view objectively andsympathetically opinions quite different from what may be the sectarian absolutesaccepted by his or her friends and relatives. In searching for a few words tocharacterize each of the four stages of religious development, I have settledupon the following: (1) the ecclesial or sectarian, (2) the retrospective or familial,(3) the transcendent, and (4) the nondual or advaitan. The ecclesial or sectarianadheres to the present, the way things are now and should forever be. Theretrospective or familial looks to the past, to the anointed founder or flag bearerof one’s faith. The transcendent goes beyond both the present of the ecclesialand the past of the retrospective to the eternal source of all being. Finally, thenondual transcends transcendence in the sense that it encompasses the presentand past as well as the eternal in the realization that there is only one Reality inwhich we have our being. Enlightenment is the conviction that we, as free andintelligent agents, participate in the Source, that in some sense “We are
The Ecclesial Level
I take the ecclesial to stand for the religious or political establishment with somekind of constitution consisting of rules of behavior to be obeyed and doctrines ordogmas to be believed. People need some kind of shelter to come into out of therain, and the ecclesial, or sectarian, level of commitment provides such a refuge,for lost souls are confused about life and its meaning. Others have never felt lost:they are convinced that by the grace of God they have embraced or been borninto the one true religion or ideology without which no one can be safe.
Adherents are instructed in exactly what their traditional scriptures mean and arewarned of the serious consequences if they deviate from the norm. With thisdogmatic approach, the unforgivable offense is to leave the denomination orreject any of its teachings. The apostate’s punishments in the afterlife are beyonddescription. Thus, the strict ecclesial establishment incorporates powerful culturalinducements, to join the community and never leave it. In addition, membershave an obligation to spread the word and convert others, to rescue those whohave fallen away from the true faith and practice. This constitutes an idealformula for the survival and propagation of the tradition.Theologically, those with an ecclesial mentality—whether they are ultraorthodoxJews, Christians of the extreme right, or Muslim fundamentalists—incline towardselective scriptural literalism and religious exclusivism. In an open society, theytolerate nonconformists because they lack the power to suppress them, but insituations where they have complete control, they are not so lenient. Obviously,not all members of ecclesial establishments are so narrow-minded. For a trulyenlightened person can learn from and be comfortable with a form of practicebased on a particular tradition other than one’s own—whether Christian, Jewish,or Hindu—without compromising one’s primary commitment. For example, manyJews incorporate Buddhist practice in their lives.
The Retrospective Level
Most religious traditions look back to a charismatic leader or founder, one whoseperson and teaching the members of the ecclesia depend on for guidance andinspiration. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, or one of the incarnations ofVishnu, such as Sri Ramakrishna, are the inspirational figures to whomsectarians have recourse when in doubt about what to believe or how to act. Notall sectarians interpret the doctrine of the original teacher in the same way. Jewssubscribe to the Law of Moses, or the Torah, but not all agree on how much ofthe Pentateuch can actually be traced back to Moses. First-century Phariseesincorporated elements of an oral tradition into their teaching and practice,contrary to the belief of the Sadducees. Some Jews are exclusivists; others in theRenewal movement are ecumenically oriented and seek to work with and learnfrom other faiths. Islam is divided into two great sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites.Mahayana Buddhism as it developed in China and Japan differs considerablyfrom the Hinayana Buddhism of south and Southeast Asia, especially regardingthe extent to which the later scriptures are understood to reflect the actual wordsof Siddhartha Gautama. And, of course, Christianity is divided into three major
sects, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, with Protestantismembracing scores of different ways of interpreting the teaching of Jesus.Whereas the ecclesial outlook concentrates on the now of the existing one truefaith, the retrospective or familial looks to the past, to the founder and the sacredscriptures that preserve his teaching. However, there is no demonstrably rightway to read the mind of the founder of an entire family of believers. At this stage,baptized Christians, while preferring one ecclesial position to the others, respectthe values and commitment of Christians of different denominations—peoplewho, like themselves, look back to Jesus. The same holds for Buddhists andMuslims with regard to their respective founders. While there may be rivalriesand a history of disagreement between committed Muslims, for example, theyare all members of the same religious family. Unfortunately, some of our fiercestenemies are often the family members who are closest to us, as the religiouswars between different Christian denominations and rival Muslim sects sadlyattest. Very often the enmities can be traced to outrages that took place manycenturies ago. People love to cling to their sacred hatreds.Admittedly, it can be hard for members of one religious family to convert to thementality of a completely different religious tradition. Although we can usuallyexperience fellow feeling among members of our own religious family--even ifthey belong to a different sect and interpret the teaching of the master in adifferent way--few can entertain the same degree of warmth confronted with theteaching and symbols of a “foreign” family from the other side of the globe.
The Transcendent Level
How to progress beyond a feeling of discomfort when in the company ofmembers of an entirely different spiritual family? One can pretend to be broad-minded, but a high degree of spiritual openness is required for one to feelcompletely at home in the foreign environment of an alien religion. Yet, there is away of looking beyond appearances in the recognition that all the major worldreligions do teach and believe in the existence of a transcendent order, of thedivine, however defined. At this level, the transcendent level, all religionsconverge, and family differences become less and less important. ChristianCistercian monks have little difficulty in engaging in contemplative prayer withTibetan Buddhists, as they proved when they lived and prayed together forseveral days in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. There can be warm fellowfeeling in such an encounter, whose players are engaged in mystical experience

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