When I was in college, I briefly attended one church off campus. I say “briefly” because briefly was about all I could stand without intravenous sedation. It was a small and quaint congregation. The pastor and people were all very nice. But I remember I couldn’t help feeling, as I entered the church, as if I had just walked into an alien spacecraft that had landed in the middle of this intellectual community. You have to understand, this was the land of Einstein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woodrow Wilson and Joyce Carol Oates. So the atmosphere and culture of this little church could not have been more foreign to us. The pastor was a kind, hard-working, and compassionate man, but that did not seem to make up for the unforgivable sin of preaching with a East-Texas accent and telling stories about armadillos and rat snakes. He was also vociferously fond of country music and NASCAR and would invite country gospel singers with ruffled skirts and big hair. Such cultural oddities seemed to leave some in the congregation completely bewildered; others, I believe, came merely out of curiosity, like people who gather to watch an orphanage burn to the ground.
All these cultural differences could perhaps have been overlooked by a broad-minded person (intellectuals can be just as bigoted as the ignorant kind), if they had not been coupled with a brand of fundamentalism that disdained modern culture, science, academia, and something called ijucation. I often wondered back then, if God really wanted to reach the thousands of lost souls in that academic community, why did he send such a hostile witness, who, deep down, probably did not like us much, and who certainly did not speak our language? One evening, at the beginning of his sermon, the pastor called out, “Ushers, lock the doors! I have a message from God tonight!” Now, was locking the doors meant to keep people in or keep them out? Or was it both? You decide.
One of the problems young Christians encounter once they are off to college is finding a religious community that speaks their language. In his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled, the late M. Scott Peck, MD, develops a theory of human spiritual development, based on decades of observing his patients grow (or not grow). This theory he divides into four stages. The first stage is that of the toddler. It is the id run amok. “I,” “me,” “mine.” There is little concern for the needs and feelings of others. While such a stage may be appropriate for two or three-year-olds, some individuals do get stuck here. The penal system is filled with them, as is the corporate boardroom (perhaps the only place where such behavior is actually rewarded).
Gradually, however, the child learns there are rules and boundaries. So the second stage is that of the legalist. The focus here is on obeying the rules, coloring inside the lines. In his recent book Not the Religious Type, Vineyard pastor David Schmelzer, applies Dr. Peck’s stage theory to the community level. Most churches, Schmelzer says, are rules-based or stage-two cultures, a fact that serves society well, since they turn out good, law-abiding citizens. Yet according to Peck, in terms of spiritual development, individuals who are stuck in stage two tend to see things as black or white, good or bad. Those who disagree with them are considered a threat; non-conformity is anathema. Disobedience must be punished.
The third stage is that of rebellion, in which the adolescent begins to question the rules. Institutions of higher learning are bastions of stage-three culture, Schmelzer says (and he ought to know; he pastors in Cambridge, MA). Many scientists and educators get stuck in this stage, as confirmed skeptics. But for Peck there is a fourth stage, which he calls the “mystic.” This does not mean that in this stage the person moves into a cave in the desert like St. Antony and begins battling demons and having visions. But stage-four individuals do begin to reexamine the old rule systems they had perhaps previously rejected, reinterpreting them or embracing them in new ways. They are much more comfortable accepting paradoxes and holding conflicting spiritual truths in tension. The focus is more on loving and accepting people than on maintaining rule-based systems. God becomes much bigger and more awesome than our man-made systems. For example, when were the twelve disciples actually saved? Was it when they first started following Jesus? At Philippi after Peter’s confession. Or after the resurrection? Stage two theologians will scramble to figure that one out, to plot the disciples’ salvation on some kind of spiritual map. Stage four, by contrast, might simply answer, “yes.” Have you ever heard someone say, “The more I know, the more I am convinced I don’t know anything”? That person is probably well on her way to stage four. Like the medieval summist Thomas Aquinas on his death bed, we whisper, “I have just seen the Lord, and all I have written is but straw!”
Sadly, so many young people go away to college only to return to the same stage-two communities they have outgrown. Parents may think that higher education has ruined little Jimmy and so they send him to talk to the pastor or youth director. But Jimmy emerges from this inquisition unscathed; he is not going back, nor should he. For the problem is not with Jimmy, but with the lack of mature spiritual direction to help him negotiate the often rough and dangerous passage from stage three to stage four. No wonder that, to him, the threat of returning to stage two feels like some kind of self-annihilation. In reality, and ironically, if we accept Peck’s theory, in stage three Jimmy may be further along in his spiritual development than most pastors, if only he could find a healthy model and mentorship for the next stage in his journey toward Christ. But tragically, like salmon struggling upstream, most do not make it, but lie flopping and gasping on the rocks, disillusioned, or else they try to find what they are looking for in the pools of other world religions. It is not education that has failed little Jimmy. It is the church.
Not surprisingly, these days, many young people are exploring or embracing more ancient strains of Christianity, especially those with a strong mystical tradition, such as Eastern Orthodoxy or various forms of medieval Catholic spirituality. Pastors and church leaders might do well to explore these as well. Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, may appeal to some stage-four individuals, since, unlike Western Christianity, it has been able to avoid over-codifying and defining itself, choosing instead to preserve the mysteries of the faith over dogma, and the majesty of God over human formulas or reason.