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The Four Stages of Religious Development

The Four Stages Of Religious Development by James M. Somerville

By James M. Somerville

Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 

Citation: Somerville, James M. The Four Stages of Religious Development. Quest  93.3 (MAY-JUNE 2005):86-89

True open-mindedness is not a condition we are born with. Children assume that their parents' values and prejudices are the correct ones and that the way things are is the way they ought to be. In adolescence, we may begin to challenge the values and assumptions of our childhood and become open to other ways of thinking and acting. This attitude of receptiveness to new ideas develops in stages, and it can be spoken of as a kind of enlightenment.

Anyone on the road to enlightenment should be able to view objectively and sympathetically opinions quite different from what may be the sectarian absolutes accepted by his or her friends and relatives. In searching for a few words to characterize each of the four stages of religious development, I have settled upon the following: (1) the ecclesial or sectarian, (2) the retrospective or familial, (3) the transcendent, and (4) the nondual or advaitan. The ecclesial or sectarian adheres to the present, the way things are now and should forever be. The retrospective or familial looks to the past, to the anointed founder or flag bearer of one's faith. The transcendent goes beyond both the present of the ecclesial and the past of the retrospective to the eternal source of all being. Finally, the nondual transcends transcendence in the sense that it encompasses the present and past as well as the eternal in the realization that there is only one Reality in which we have our being. Enlightenment is the conviction that we, as free and intelligent agents, participate in the Source, that in some sense We are That.

The Ecclesial Level

I take the ecclesial to stand for the religious or political establishment with some kind of constitution consisting of rules of behavior to be obeyed and doctrines or dogmas to be believed. People need some kind of shelter to come into out of the rain, 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 born into the one true religion or ideology without which no one can be safe. Adherents are instructed in exactly what their traditional scriptures mean and are warned of the serious consequences if they deviate from the norm. With this dogmatic approach, the unforgivable offense is to leave the denomination or reject any of its teachings. The apostate's punishments in the afterlife are beyond description. Thus, the strict ecclesial establishment incorporates powerful cultural inducements, to join the community and never leave it. In addition, members have an obligation to spread the word and convert others, to rescue those who have fallen away from the true faith and practice. This constitutes an ideal formula for the survival and propagation of the tradition.

Theologically, those with an ecclesial mentality, whether they are ultraorthodox Jews, Christians of the extreme right, or Muslim fundamentalists, incline toward selective scriptural literalism and religious exclusivism. In an open society, they tolerate nonconformists because they lack the power to suppress them, but in situations where they have complete control, they are not so lenient. Obviously, not all members of ecclesial establishments are so narrow-minded. For a truly enlightened person can learn from and be comfortable with a form of practice based on a particular tradition other than one's own, whether Christian, Jewish, or Hindu, without compromising one's primary commitment. For example, many Jews incorporate Buddhist practice in their lives.

The Retrospective Level

Most religious traditions look back to a charismatic leader or founder, one whose person and teaching the members of the ecclesia depend on for guidance and inspiration. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, or one of the incarnations of Vishnu, such as Sri Ramakrishna, are the inspirational figures to whom sectarians have recourse when in doubt about what to believe or how to act. Not all sectarians interpret the doctrine of the original teacher in the same way. Jews subscribe to the Law of Moses, or the Torah, but not all agree on how much of the Pentateuch can actually be traced back to Moses. First-century Pharisees incorporated elements of an oral tradition into their teaching and practice, contrary to the belief of the Sadducees. Some Jews are exclusivists; others in the Renewal movement are ecumenically oriented and seek to work with and learn from other faiths. Islam is divided into two great sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites. Mahayana Buddhism as it developed in China and Japan differs considerably from the Hinayana Buddhism of south and Southeast Asia, especially regarding the extent to which the later scriptures are understood to reflect the actual words of Siddhartha Gautama. And, of course, Christianity is divided into three major sects, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, with Protestantism embracing scores of different ways of interpreting the teaching of Jesus.

Whereas the ecclesial outlook concentrates on the now of the existing one true faith, the retrospective or familial looks to the past, to the founder and the sacred scriptures that preserve his teaching. However, there is no demonstrably right way 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, respect the values and commitment of Christians of different denominations, people who, like themselves, look back to Jesus. The same holds for Buddhists and Muslims with regard to their respective founders. While there may be rivalries and a history of disagreement between committed Muslims, for example, they are all members of the same religious family. Unfortunately, some of our fiercest enemies are often the family members who are closest to us, as the religious wars between different Christian denominations and rival Muslim sects sadly attest. Very often the enmities can be traced to outrages that took place many centuries ago. People love to cling to their sacred hatreds.

Admittedly, it can be hard for members of one religious family to convert to the mentality of a completely different religious tradition. Although we can usually experience fellow feeling among members of our own religious family--even if they belong to a different sect and interpret the teaching of the master in a different way--few can entertain the same degree of warmth confronted with the teaching 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 of members 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 feel completely at home in the foreign environment of an alien religion. Yet, there is a way of looking beyond appearances in the recognition that all the major world religions do teach and believe in the existence of a transcendent order, of the divine, however defined. At this level, the transcendent level, all religions converge, and family differences become less and less important. Christian Cistercian monks have little difficulty in engaging in contemplative prayer with Tibetan Buddhists, as they proved when they lived and prayed together for several days in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. There can be warm fellow feeling in such an encounter, whose players are engaged in mystical experience of the Other, beyond the narrowness of sectarianism. The Source is One. People call it by different names.

But, as might be expected, the transcendent level of understanding has its limitations. The focus of the mystical experience can migrate from a transcendent being to a God who becomes personified and yet beyond our reach. In the minds of many, even of sincerely religious people, God is somebody else, a being so far beyond our poor capacity to conceive that He, She, or It becomes the Great Absence. Such a God is a cosmic being who dwells beyond the most distant galaxies. The Deity may intervene at times in answer to prayer, but the very idea of intervening suggests habitual absence and distance. So while theologians may talk about God's immanence as well as transcendence, the transcendence so predominates that we are left with a form of radical dualism: God is out there and we are down here. Having exorcised the demon of sectarianism and seen that all religious families are on the same quest, we now learn that the object of our quest lives in the great Elsewhere.

Advaita in the Form of Modified Nondualism

There is a form of immanentist nondualism that denies any kind of transcendence. It may take the humanistic form or the scientific one, but in either case it seeks to derive all that exists from matter, with mind and spirit dogmatized as byproducts of molecular complexity. It often goes hand in hand with the kind of scientific snobbery that ridicules any mention of the possible existence of a transcendent order. Along with this kind of materialistic monism, there is also a species of idealistic nondualism, such as that proposed by Sankara. It treats the material world as maya, or illusion. It is a form of Hinduism that a committed Vedantist like Sri Aurobindo positively rejected.

Ramanuja Acarya's modified nondualism, called Visistadvaita, is no friend of the kind of theistic dualism described earlier. Neither does it go to the opposite extreme and adopt the out-and-out nondualism of classical Hinduism. Ramanuja's nondualism is the kind with which the mystics of the world are familiar. What they tell us is that they experience some kind of oneness with God, or the Absolute Self. But the human spirit never is nor does it ever become God in the sense that God is God. Nevertheless, the chosen few know that the substance of their being is made out of God-stuff. Their spirit is not qualitatively coextensive with God, but they truly participate in the divine Life. God is wholly present in such a way that it becomes impossible to determine which is God and which is the self. When blue and yellow combine to produce green, it is almost impossible to distinguish the two primary colors in the secondary color. Such is the nature of the experience of the unity of God and self in the mystical state. However, the mystic knows, in reflecting on the experience afterward, that the blue and the yellow God and self do remain distinct. The yellow is not the blue, even though their union results in the phenomenon I have called green. Few of us experience this unity, or greenness, in our day-to-day activities. Nevertheless, we are all green at the deepest level.

Last night I had a most vivid and interesting dream, yet I cannot recall it now. As with dream after dream, so much of our inner life escapes us. On the other side of the dream, at the deepest level, there lies the vast forgotten world of the true Self where Atman is Brahman. The mystic simply has the gift of experiencing in a more vivid way what is ultimately true of the constitution of every one of us. Once that identification has been realized, or accepted by faith, one begins to see the world and all creation as God does. In the eyes of the divine, there is neither Jew nor Hindu, Christian nor Buddhist. When we share God's way of seeing, even religious family divisions break down. For we all are, literally, children of God, divine offspring, living images of the Source. The fully enlightened person does not see a Muslim or a Jew but only the living, divine presence in every other man, woman, and child.

Finally, then, the true test of enlightenment is whether one is able to see God in all things, not only in human beings, whether saints or sinners, but also in lower forms of life, down to and including the atom. Once he manages to experience Godness in everything, it follows inexorably that I, too, am That. I now know that my true Self and the Self of others subsist in the bosom of the Absolute beyond every manner of sectarian or familial description. As God ceases to be somebody else out there, so too does my neighbor become not somebody else but an extension of myself and of God's all-encompassing Self.

Yet even in the rarified atmosphere of high mysticism, the leopard cannot change its spots. One has to be somewhere. If one is culturally a Catholic American male of Italian descent, there is no need to abdicate or attempt to be something else or nothing at all. As ecumenical as I may feel, I have to see the world from the point of view of what I am in this body, in this incarnation, now. One can be a particular person with a particular past and present while not being confined to that role. Charity may begin at home, but it is not limited to the narrow circle of one's immediate community; it is as wide as the universe. To live and act in that guise is to be enlightened.

James M. Somerville is professor emeritus of philosophy from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was cofounder and executive editor of the International Philosophy Quarterly is widely published including The Mystical Sense of the Gospels (Crossroad, 1997)and Jesus: A Man for Others (Univ. of Scranton Press, 2004). He lives in North Carolina with his wife Beatrice Bruteau.