Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Power of a Little Affirmation

A couple of nights ago, I was in bed reading as I usually do before sleeping (I know, it’s probably not a good idea but old habits die hard). I had picked up a book entitled When Faith Meets Reason, Religion Scholars Reflect on Their Spiritual Journeys at the Jesus Seminar on the Road conference the previous weekend in Sarasota. It is a fascinating book where the scholars of the Westar Institute, the home of the Jesus Seminar (and now seminars on Paul and the early church) lay out the contents of their spiritual lives. The combination of spirit and scholarship is very appealing to someone who has spent much of his life in higher education as well as devoting a good chunk of his life to the institutional church.

I began with an essay by a professor of religion and philosophy at Otterbein College in Ohio, Paul Alan Laughlin. I had enjoyed his presentation at an earlier fall meeting of the Westar Institute where he had discussed the work of Don Beck and Clare Graves work on Spiral Dynamics along with Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality. All of those systems build in part upon Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning, a theoretical system I use regularly in my classes and which strongly informs my understanding of the world.

Laughlin’s chapter was entitled “A Mystical Christian Credo” and took the form of an “idiosyncratic affirmation of faith,” the rare case where the seeming oxymoron of a mystic providing a systematic discussion of his spiritual understandings makes great sense. I found myself resonating with virtually all nine of his articles of faith. But it was his Article 9, Spiritual Stages and Dynamic Development, that most interested me given my interest in and use of Kohlberg.

In the midst of his explanation of the history of dynamic systems which included James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development, Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory and Erik Erickson’s system of life stages, Laughlin mentioned Kohlberg. Here is what he said: [Fowler’s theoretical model] “draws heavily on the work of Harvard’s Lawrence Kohlberg, whose model of moral development was the subject of an excellent paper presented at the Fall 2005 Westar meeting.”

At that point I almost stopped breathing. The paper Laughlin was referring to was my own. I had presented it to the Fall 2005 Westar meeting. But my memory of that day was not that the scholars found it “excellent,” but rather quite the opposite.

My paper had laid out Kohlberg’s model as well as some of the research by people like James Rest which has produced about five decades worth of data validating Kohlberg’s model. I noted some of the critiques of Kohlberg from conservatives like James Bailey, former economics professor at UCF, and Carol Gilligan, whose work In a Different Voice sought to respond to Kohlberg’s initial research from a feminist perspective.

For the record, neither critique is particularly compelling. Conservatives tend to focus on conserving conventional structures so it’s not surprising so few of them ever escape conventional stages 3 and 4 to reason at post-conventional levels. That doesn’t make the model biased against conservatives, it simply reflects the way moral reasoning works.

Gilligan’s critique that Kohlberg’s initial conclusions which drew a disparity between males and females, suggesting the former were more likely to engage in post-conventional reasoning, became the basis of Kohlberg’s revision of his theory. Moreover, testing results from Rest’s Defining Issues Test (DIT) since it was first formulated have shown that women and men are about the same in their propensities to reason at principled (post-conventional) levels. If anything, women are slightly more principled in their reasoning. Gilligan’s primary contribution to the field comes from her excellent discussion of how different socialization patterns of girls v. boys plays a role in the development of moral reasoning. But ultimately, her three stage system which she offers in place of Kohlberg’s is little more than an adaptation of Kohlberg’s model.

In the paper I presented at Westar, my argument was that the moral reasoning identifiable in the statements the Seminar found most likely to have been made by the Historical Jesus were in fact post-conventional (stage 5/6) statements. They tended to reflect a concern for humanity that crossed tribal sectarian (stage 3) and nationalistic (stage 4) lines. By definition those statements drew conventional reasoning into question (Love your enemies? Seriously?) as well as the authorities charged with enforcing those values (Temple cult, Roman imperial agents). And, not surprisingly, the response of those authorities was to get rid of the irritant and eliminate the challenge.

But it’s precisely because these statements were post-conventional and thus distinct from the conventional religious and ethical reasoning of the day that Jesus was remembered. The Seminar had used a number of criteria in attempting to ferret out the words of Jesus. Among them was the criterion of distinctive discourse: “Jesus’ sayings and parables cut against the social and religious grain.” “Jesus sayings and parables surprise and shock: they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations.”

Among the sayings receiving high levels of authenticity in the Seminar’s deliberations were those which called for turning the other cheek, the beatitude’s congratulations to the poor (and accompanying denunciation of the wealthy), the admonition to love one’s enemies and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly all of those sayings “cut against the social and religious grain” if not calling for “a reversal of roles.” In short, Jesus’ principled teachings pointed toward a higher ethic than conventional understandings.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, as writer and Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce observed. Post-conventional, principled prophets essentially hold up a mirror to the world and dare us to see both who we are and who we could be. The prophet embodies human potential. And we usually reward him or her for that insight by killing them, putting them out of our misery. If we want to understand why Jesus was killed, we don’t need to construct a vengeful deity needing human sacrifice. We only have to look in the prophet’s mirror to see how a glimpse of our own unrealized potential and its indictment of our laziness, fear and unwillingness to delay gratification (which M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled called entropy, our actual original sin) could prompt us to respond with violence toward the one who would dare to awaken us from our slumber.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the reception of a paper which laid out this pattern at the Seminar was less than enthusiastic. The session was mainly attended by associate fellows, those of us who were not biblical scholars but who had expertise of our own. Many were pastors with theological doctorates. A few of the Westar Fellows, biblical scholars who formed the Jesus, Paul and early church seminars, were also present.

As I laid out my theory, it became clear that the biblical scholars present were skeptical, to say the least. One suggested that Jesus’ death could simply have been a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Another questioned Kohlberg’s system ending his comments with the challenge, “Am I just supposed to take your word for this?”

What eventually became clear to me was that the scholars had not actually read my paper. One of them confirmed that after the session was over. “When I saw the title I didn’t even bother to read it,” he said. Another said he had been around when Kohlberg’s model first was published and had to endure classmates (who clearly did not understand the model) assessing each other as “just a stage three.” One of the Fellows took me aside and said he had read my paper, thought I’d raised some very good points and then concluded with a troubling statement: “I’m not sure what happened today. I’ve never seen the Seminar treat anyone so rudely,” apologizing for what he saw as their abusive behavior.

I realize that the world of academia is for many a contact sport. I know that a good bit of ego is invested in intellectual property which must be guarded with one’s life. I admit to some level of guilt on both counts. On the other hand, I’m not adverse to being questioned on my understandings or even to consider changing them when I am convinced those understandings were mistaken. I anticipate resistance to my ideas at conferences and accept that as simply the nature of the beast.

But I also recognize bullshit when I see it. I don’t have much patience for my students coming to class unprepared, which is one of the reasons I create many assignments due at class time to insure they at least have done a modicum of reading and consideration of the material. They’re undergraduates and at some level I expect a bit of immaturity from kids right out of high schools. But I do expect more from self-identified scholars. The idea that one would come to a session where an academic paper is presented unprepared and then presume to tell the presenter that they are wrong is pretty presumptuous. And to publicly dismiss them as unworthy of one’s consideration goes beyond rude.

My presentation came on the final day of the five day conference, a day which concludes with a banquet complete with speeches, entertainment and some of northern California’s best wines. But I could not bring myself to attend the banquet that night. I sat by the stream next to my hotel, trying to make sense of the day’s events, my own glass of wine in hand, watching the sun go down. It was a very long evening. And it was the beginning of the cooling of my long time love affair with Westar.

That’s why Laughlin’s description of my paper in his essay prompted me to leap from bed and read that portion of his essay aloud to my partner. I found myself elated, overjoyed that one of the Fellows had admitted to reading my paper and taking it seriously on its own terms. That he found it “excellent” was incredibly affirming – and in no small manner a vindication given the otherwise rough treatment I had endured at the conference.

It’s surprising what a little affirmation can do for a human being, particularly those of us who do not readily recognize our own value (which is also why dehumanizing events like the trashing of a paper at a conference can be so devastating). Increasingly I find myself standing at the cusp of a new era in my life in which I am clear that whatever writing I am going to do needs to be done in the next few years of my life. I sometimes feel as if I have demons in my head that increasingly insist upon being exorcised, cast onto paper, committed to words and distributed to others to do as they will with them. Sometimes that occurs in the middle of the night when the chatter in my head can be endured no more and I find myself sitting at my computer pecking away at 4 a.m. More and more I am struck by the sense that my life is turning once again and that this new phase is demanding its due.

A little affirmation goes a long way in such a context. And so I am grateful to this anonymous endorsement from Paul Alan Laughlin in his essay. It is a badly needed shot in the arm at a critical moment.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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