Children go through stages of development - and so do religious/spiritual folks. And there's nothing quite so tedious as a spiritual baby pontificating to the masses on how things ought to be when all you want to do is yank the pacifier out of his mouth and tell him to sit in the corner and take a time out for showing his spiritual ass.
You know what I'm talking about. When an otherwise intelligent person starts spouting nonsense about how the latest hurricane is God's punishment for accepting homosexuality, you know you've run smack dab into a temper-tantrum throwing child with immature notions about how the world works, and what God does and does not do.
At each stage in a child's life, they are in the midst of learning something and trying to accomplish something. A toddler going through the "terrible twos" is trying to figure out that he or she is not actually the same person as his or her mother. He is trying to differentiate himself. He is learning to be an autonomous human being with his own wants and needs. Children in elementary school are faced with the task of finding out whether they can get things done - or not. It's all about industry and a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that yes, I can do things, I can be successful, I can put together a science fair project, I can read a book. Puberty comes along and suddenly they are aware of sex and sexuality and questions about who they are and who they want to be and what their place in the world is. They get rebellious because they are trying to separate themselves from their parents and learn how to stand on their own two feet. Their peers become more important than their parents because, to be successful as adults, they will need to work together with their peers.
If you know what stage of development a child is in, you can better help that child in his development.
The same is true in the religious/spiritual life. There are distinct stages that are plain as day to those who have gone through them and know what they're about.
Children go through stages of moral development, which have similar parallels with religious development. Younger children refrain from doing things because they don't want to get caught. It's not about right and wrong, sin or virtue, good or bad. It's about not getting caught and nothing more. If they can get away with something, they will happily do it and lie about it afterward and never have a single pang of guilt.
But at some point a more mature understanding of behavior comes along, and children begin to understand the difference between right and wrong.
Older children often look to their peers for approval. They refrain from doings things which their peers consider "uncool." They follow their peers like sheep hoping to get their approval. Their sense of right and wrong depends heavily on what their peers think.
Younger children view their parents are god-like figures whose word is not to be questioned. Older children begin to ask questions - sometimes very uncomfortable questions. They have the uncanny ability to see how their parents don't always live up to their stated values. And they no longer view their parents as the final word on important matters. They began branching out to other forms of authority and insight.
As children grow up and move on to college and adult life, they stop worrying so much about what their parents think, or what their peers think. They began the process of figuring out who they really are, what they really believe, and what their values really are, as opposed to what they have been told their values should be.
All of this is Child Development 101 stuff and it is mirrored in the lives of religious/spiritual people. There is the believer who is caught up in authority and takes the pastor's or priest's word as gospel truth. There is the believer who begins to question, who begins to sense that the pastor's or priest's stated values aren't necessarily reflected in his or her life. There are believers who do whatever they want, but are careful to make sure fellow churchgoers don't find out - they're not concerned about the moral value of their actions, only that they don't get caught.
Thing is, as soon as a believer opens his mouth and starts talking, you can pretty much tell where he is on the moral development stage. Is he is his terrible twos and saying "no" all the time? Is he an elementary child who is trying to get away with things and worried about getting caught? Is he a brimstone kind of guy fixated on punishment and retribution and bowing down to authority? Is he one of those troublesome folks asking too many questions? Is he overly worried about how is viewed by the folks sitting next to him in the pews? Is he convinced he knows it all and has nothing to learn from his elders?
There was a time in my spiritual development when it was all about authority. The authority of the pope. The authority of the Catholic Church. The authority of the bishops and the priests.
There was a time when I was motivated simply by the fear of going to hell.
There was a time when I wanted to be like everyone else in the pews, when their good opinion and approval meant more than anything else.
There was a time when I began to see that what was preached from the pulpit was not necessarily what was lived in the pews.
There was a time when I did things merely to get a reward, when I thought of God as an ATM machine, when I thought I could manipulate him (or her) with prayers and rituals and pleadings.
There was a time when I was a self-satisfied, smug know it all who thought he had nothing to learn from others.
There was a time when I wanted God to prove his love for me. And then there was a time when I realized he had been doing that every day of my life.
There was a time when I was not satisfied with the answers that had been handed to me by authority.
There was a time when I rejected authority and went my own way.
And, eventually, there came a time when I realized that those who knew the most were not necessarily the ones who were the most talkative. They're not on the television screens trying to make a name for themselves. They're not trying to get you to buy their latest book. They're not on public speaking tours or holding forth in mega-churches.
I discovered the most authentic spiritual people are so busy doing their spiritual life -- living their values and beliefs -- that they have little time for talking about it.
Where are we on the spiritual development scale? Is our religion or spirituality based on fear? Or love? Do we do things in hope of a reward? Or because it's the right thing to do? Do we explain to God how things ought and need to be, or do we accept things as they are?
Are you a spiritual baby? If you are, then for heaven's sake, grow up.
- Nick Wilgus is an award-winning author based in Tupelo, Mississippi. Check out his latest novel from Dreamspinner Press, RAISE IT UP, available in paperback and ebook formats.