Richard Rohr’s Levels of Spiritual Development (Part 1-4) by Wes Eades

This morning at St. Paul’s Episcopal, here in Waco, I’ll be facilitating our second conversation on what it looks like to bring faith into every crevice of our lives. What does it mean to be a “Christian Businessperson, “Christian Teacher,” “Christian Parent,” or “Christian Grocery Shopper?” Most of us acknowledge that there is much about Christian faith that is “subversive” to he culture, and yet most of us participate in the culture, usually, without thinking twice about it.

I’ve asked the members of the class to be reading to classics of Christian Spirituality: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence and In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Each of these books raises the question “What would Jesus do?”

This morning at St. Paul’s I’ll begin to raise questions about what we mean by “spiritual formation,” which is the fancy term we now use rather than the older term “discipleship.” Anyone raised in a religious setting is familiar with the concept of “spiritual growth.” This concept is all over scripture, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me (1st Corinthians 13:11).

There have been many, many attempts to describe, in more detail, what this process of growth looks like. Rohr does an excellent job of integrating many of these attempts into the following “levels.” He presents this material in his book The Naked Now. I’ve relied very heavily on the summary is from this site in presenting this material.

I’ll open the conversation this morning with my elaboration on Ken Wilber’s metaphor of the warehouse, and then get into Rohr’s material.
Here’s the basic list of the stages:

Level One: My self-image and my body is “who I am”.
Level Two: My external behavior is “who I am.”
Level Three: My Thoughts / Feelings are who I am.
Level Four: My deeper intuitions and felt knowledge in my body is who I am.
Level Five: My shadow self is who I am (The dark night).
Level Six: Who I am Is Empty and Powerless (God’s Waiting Room).
Level Seven: I am much more than I thought I was.
Level Eight: I and the Father are one.
Level Nine: I am who I am, just me.

And here’s a bit more on the first two levels…

Level One: My self-image and my body is “who I am”
Level one spirituality is the natural state of a new born. Security is of the highest importance, and a new born is truly at the mercy of adults for getting all needs met. This is a time of natural “narcissism.”  However, some adults continue to live in this stage. If I am living here, I am consumed with safety and security first, and then with simply getting what I want. The narcissism that is natural to a young child continues into adulthood. Such a person, for example, will vote for the candidate which promises to provide security and “stuff.” Thinking on this level is usually dialectical: either/or, black/white, right/wrong. This person is controlled by fear and anger. “Grace” is an unknown force. The concept of faith is “believing in things that are impossible to believe”.

Level Two: My external behavior is “who I am”
In this stage a person needs to look good “outside” and to hide or disguise unfavorable traits from others. This is the natural stage of later childhood and early adolescence. Adults who are stuck here are preoccupied with accumulating the symbols of status (car, home, clothing), while hiding flaws. One becomes so good at hiding flaws that soon their negative qualities are hidden even from themselves. This leads to the emergence of the “shadow self” that is hidden inside the person (psychological denial). Carl Jung observed that we can be so good at hiding our flaws from others that we hide them even from ourselves. Many people living in this stage, and who are active in religion, find it important to “follow the rules.”  Anyone who does not is considered “wrong” or “sinful”. The Scribes and the Pharisees exemplify this level showing judgmental attitudes of hate and a lack of love. The Scriptures, the aim of which is to foster conversion and growth to this level of person, instead are used as ammunition to convert others. Getting stuck at this level is very common among conservatives.
Growth to the next level involves a “letting go” of current values, being able to live with confusing darkness until the Spirit opens the door to new life.
More next week….

Last week at St. Paul’s, here in Waco America, we began our discussion of Rohr’s 9 levels of spiritual development. We focused on levels 1 and 2:
Level One: My self-image and my body is “who I am”.
Level Two: My external behavior is “who I am.”

I’ve asked the class to be reading In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon, and it occurs to me that this book begins with a description of a classic level 2 congregation and pastor. I find it hard to tell if Sheldon is mocking this fictional First Church as he describes how much they admire themselves for attention to detail, or if he is simply commenting on what he finds to be the state of many churches. Nonetheless, Sheldon taps into old wisdom as he sets up the sort of crisis that is necessary to shake people up. Sadly, we often require a crisis in order to start asking fresh questions about faith.

This morning we’ll be discussing levels 3 and 4.

Level Three: My Thoughts / Feelings are who I am
As a person moves into level three he or she begins to question conventional values and  conforming external behavior. This is a natural place for adolescents to be. However, immaturity is revealed by a need to simply rebel against anything and everything. Mature growth involves the development of the intellect and will. A person seeks to have his or her own value-centered thoughts and feelings and begins to develop more self-control. This person doesn’t just rebel, this person understands why he or she is rebelling.

A common danger in this stage is that person’s will confuse education with transformation. For example, a person my have been raised with a belief that creation literally happened in seven days, as the book of Genesis describes. It may take an intro to archeology class in college to raise questions about this belief. At this point, there is something of a “crisis.” My model of superstitious, functional, and mature religion suggests individuals might respond in one of three ways:

The superstitiously religious person might decide that archeology is of Satan, and might even choose to leave a college that teaches such things.
The functionally religious person might just compartmentalize these concepts, and choose to never even think about how scientific story of creation is in conflict with the biblical story.
The mature person, however, will come to see how these two stories can enrich each other if the Bible is read metaphorically.

But here’s some irony. Some people will make this shift in how they read the Bible, but will then become judgmental of those who have not become as wise as them! In other words, they have become more educated, but not transformed. It’s not enough to let go of the need to be “right,” which is at the core of level 2, it also requires the letting go of a desire to judge others.

Rohr notes that this stage is very common among liberals and the educated. I’ve heard Rohr use the term “limousine liberals” to describe those who are proud of the fact that they no longer judge anything as “bad,” except for those who don’t think they way they do. A person who is truly finding transformation in this stage still understands that there is still such a thing as “right and wrong.” He or she is just shifting the way one defines this.

This is a good place to mention what  Ken Wilber refers to as “transcend and include.” This means that, in healthy development, we integrate what has been of value in the past into our fresh points of view. It has occurred to me along the way that sometimes we try to transcend by rejecting. For example, some people, when confronted with the major problems of reading the entire Bible literally, simply reject the Bible altogether. Also, a person may simply reject the concept of “evangelism” because he or she associates this with aggressive attempts to badger others into the Kingdom of God. (By the way, simply referencing Ken Wilber is enough to get you labeled a heretic in many theological circles. )

One more observation… I find it fascinating how so many people begin to “sniff” level three as adolescents and young adults, only to go scurrying back to level two, usually when they start having children.

Finally, it should be noted that the leap from “three” to “four” is considered the biggest leap in the entire spectrum of growth. Natural brain development pushes us through the stages up to this point. Since the human brain reaches maturity around age 25, it is easy to get lazy about spiritual growth beyond young adulthood. It often takes a major defeat, shock, or humiliation to pass through and move beyond.

Level 4: My deeper intuitions and felt knowledge in my body is who I am
At this level, a person begins to first sense unity: “You know yourself in God and God in yourself.”  However, this level can be very overwhelming, especially because, in my opinion, traditional congregations don’t know what to do with these people. Consequently, these people often disconnect from faith community altogether. This can lead to individualism and self-absorption. Often find people themselves indulging in self-help books or being drawn to other faith traditions in a quest to find something that “fits.” They risk becoming isolated from the Body of Christ, losing contact with transcendent Mystery, and practicing religion as a technique.

A memory just came to me… I’m recalling a college philosophy class where we were discussing some philosopher’s view that anything done in the name of love is inherently morally “good.” (Can someone please remind me who that philosopher was?) Still being rather conservative in my views, and feeling a need to champion Christianity in my secular classroom, I found this view almost outrageous! It sounded to me like such a philosophy could lead to a woman choosing to have sex with numerous men simply because she believed this would enhance their self-esteem!

What I see now is that such a philosophy is so deeply unsettling because it places all of the responsibility for moral behavior back on the individual. Operating responsibly from this place requires that a person have a vital, living relationship with God, and many people simply don’t want to go to that much trouble. I’ve come to understand that this is what was behind Jesus’s excoriation of the Pharisees.

The hard work in this level involves the confrontation with the “shadow self.” If we are going to let go of all the rules that have guided us in the past, then we better be developing a clear sense of how our own brokenness can twist our perspectives. Those who are moving into the stage in healthy ways are willing to ask this hard question: How might I be a bigger problem to myself, and those around me, than I’ve realized?

Next time we’ll jump into level 5, which is commonly referred to as “the dark night of the soul.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
This morning at St. Paul’s I’ll be picking up again with Rohr’s levels of Spiritual formation. In previous posts we’ve covererd:

Level One: My self-image and my body is “who I am”.
Level Two: My external behavior is “who I am.”
Level Three: My Thoughts / Feelings are who I am.
Level Four: My deeper intuitions and felt knowledge in my body is who I am.

As I touched on in a previous post, stage Four can be a very liberating place to be early on, but gradually becomes more troubling. The liberation comes from the loosening grip of religious dogma combined with a willingness to trust one’s own experiences as providing insight into the Mystery of God. One example of what this might look like involves generosity. Those raised in conservative Christian settings are taught to give 10% of their income to the church they attend. In stage Four a person begins to move past this “rule” for giving toward a principal of sacrificial giving. They might decide to give less to the local church, and direct more funds toward other projects that they perceive are serving the Kingdom of God.

As I also said in that previous post, this can be daunting becomes it places much more responsibility on me! If I’m going to operate from my intuition and experience, instead of according to a set of rules, then I must take more time to truly examine myself and understand my motivations. The temptation is to simply return to a rather narcissistic place where I say, “Hey, I make my own rules!”

I’ve been asking the class to read In His Steps as an example of a congregation seeking to evolve spiritually together. By the middle of the book it is clear that the characters have been thrown into Stage Four together. Many of them keep discovering that simply asking he question, “What would Jesus do?” creates more fog than clarity. Yet through mutual support they tease out their answers, and act on them.
The self-examination needed to navigate this stage successfully will no doubt stir up plenty of anxiety (as it does for Sheldon’s characters) If we can sit in that anxiety, then we move into Stage Five.

Level Five: My shadow self is who I am (The dark night)
Richard Rohr describes his experience in Stage Five like this:

As a young man I thought I had become a Franciscan and a priest to teach and talk about love, that I had left everything to love God and neighbor. But by my forties and fifties I had to be honest and say, “Richard, have you ever really loved anybody more than yourself? Is there anybody in particular that you would die for?” My celibacy was based on the utterly false premise that if I did not love anybody in particular, I would automatically love God more. I realized that that was not at all true. All I did was love myself more, but in a very well-disguised form. Much of that middle period of my life I spent shadowboxing, seeing my own inability to believe and to practice the very things I was teaching to others. And this continues!

In this stage of development weakness, along with a deep sense of hypocrisy, may seem overwhelming. The previous stage invites a much more honest look at oneself. As this unfolds one begins to realize just how broken he or she is, and that the tendency to project “evil” on to others is a genuine issue. One may began to think, “How could I have ever claimed to be Christian?” Confronting anger and fear is important, but it is also necessary to “upgrade” one’s understand of Grace. It can be very painful to sit in this place, and trust that God is the one who transforms us, and we cannot transform ourselves. Many people benefit from a close relationship with a spiritual director during this time. As with every stage, there is a danger of feeling overwhelmed, and tempted to retreat to an earlier stage.

Earlier, in Stage Three, one becomes liberated from all of the dogmatic rules regarding what one has to do to be saved. In Stage Four, one begins to realize, “Dang, I may not be lost in the ways I was taught back then, but I’m still lost!” Stage Five unfolds as one truly sits in this anxiety.

This is the stage where Grace truly becomes a life-giving reality. The only way we can live with our destructiveness is to believe that God is indeed redeeming all those who wish to be redeemed (and maybe those who don’t).

Once again, if we navigate this leg of the journey, our reward is not much in the way of contentment.

Level 6: “Who I am Is Empty and Powerless” (God’s Waiting Room) still doesn’t sound like a wonderful place to be!

This is a stage of profound emptiness. A danger here is that a person will regress back to a place of simplistic, perhaps superstitious, religious practice. All a person can do is wait and ask and trust. Here is where the deepest expressions of faith are taught, and a person is asked to trust that darkness can be a good teacher. Here is where we truly start turning loose. Defeat is a better teacher than accomplishment. Darkness is greater than light. You begin to sense that the divine presence may be in you and in others. God is about to become real.

Level Seven: I am much more than I thought I was.
This stage represents the death of the false self, and birth of the True Self (I, that is Wes, prefer Burleson’s designations of small self and Authentic Self). I am who I am. At first, because you are not at home yet, this level will feel like a void. Even if a wonderful void. there is a sense of “I have never been here before.” Gentleness and Compassion become a part of your demeanor. You have been patterned to see and act oppositionally, now you drop dualistic thinking. You move towards “both/and” rather than “right/wrong”. John of the Cross would call this the “luminous darkness”

Until you get to levels 5, 6 and 7, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make much sense.

Level Eight: I and the Father are one.

This stage is captured by St. Teresa’s declaration, “One knows God in oneself, and knows oneself in God.” All else is a passing ego possession, and I do not need to protect it, promote it or prove it, to anyone. This is a place of true freedom. The fig leaves from the Garden have finally been totally discarded because one has nothing to hide. A person who is living in this space is no longer governed by guilt and shame.

Level Nine: I am who I am, just me.
The stage seems to be a fuller living out of level eight. There is no need to appear to be anything but who I really am. Fully detached from self-image, living in God’s image of you–which includes and loves both the good and the bad. The serenity found in the saints. Totally non-duality. This person fully realizes the religion is a container that we humans need in order to approach the Mystery. The Mystery can never be contained by any religious container, but religion is valued as an avenue to open ourselves up to a very graceful and loving Mystery.

One thing I’ve realized as I’ve worked through Rohr’s stages intellectually is that, for me, things get really fuzzy with levels 4, 5, 6, and even 7, all of which reflect great unrest and darkness. It seems to me that Rohr offers 4 stages to lay out what James Fowler describes in one stage (Fowler’s stage 5).  What I think I’m seeing from my current vantage point, that of a privileged white male who is 58 years old, is that I’ve certainly sat in the pain of these dark stages, and grown from it. Still, I can see how I’ve routinely retreated back to the pseudo-enlightenment of stage 3 as a way of soothing my anxiety and regaining the illusion of solid ground. I’ve believe my Authentic Self has solidified to a place where I can parent my small self effectively, yet I can’t say I’ve really tasted the sort of freedom that Rohr tells us is available.
I guess I’m saying that it sometimes seems ridiculous that I’m trying to teach this stuff!

Mature, Functional, and Superstitious Religion (St. Paul’s class starts January 12)

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus — Philippians 4:7 (New International Version)

Why am I so anxious? This question chases me around, for at least a little while, every day. I was raised on hefty doses of Philippians 4:7. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons on the peace of Christ. I’ve taught Sunday School lessons on the peace of Christ. I love the communal response: “May the peace of Christ be with you.” “And also with you.” (And I’ve discovered it’s a nifty way to bring order to a room, if there’s enough current or former Episcopalians present!)

So, why am I so anxious? I think I know the answer, at least intellectually. It takes a life time for Julian of Norwich’s declaration to soak down into our bones: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. I’ve come to see how hard it is to settle into this faith while surrounded by a culture that measures success by production and consumption.

I’ve been teaching a class at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Waco, America) for the past three years. This Spring the group has asked me to help them wrestle with how we can take the next steps in taking faith into our worlds in concrete and practical ways. I’m considering a number of approaches to our study, and I’ll be starting with a consideration of the chart below. I’ve been playing with the concepts of mature, functional, and superstitious religion for years, and this chart is an attempt to capture my thoughts.


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