Changing Religious Loyalties: A Seeker’s Journey

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In his book, Your God is Too Small, J. B. Phillips asserts that because of the way we think about God we often put him into a box that limits His ability to influence the areas of our lives outside of that box, such as the societies and communities in which we live.18 This compartmentalization of God runs counter to His intent and design to permeate all aspects of who we are. And, that by putting God in a box we significantly limit how much God can actually impact us. Gestalt psychology proposes that the desire for wholeness, completeness and consistency in life is an innate quality in human beings.19 So when parts of our lives become too compartmentalized or fractured the result is often mental dysfunction of sorts. I believe that the innate desire for wholeness moves across the compartmental boundaries we build, or that society builds for us. As humans we possess the desire for a more holistic/complete spiritual relationship with God, as well as wholeness in our social relationships, life callings, and so on. And depending on the particular aspects of our individual personalities, as well as the social environmental contexts in which we live, it is not uncommon for us to sense a drawing or developing throughout life for this completeness.

Although some ability to compartmentalize various aspects of our lives is necessary,20 my intention is to point out the limiting aspects of allowing the compartmentalization of our beliefs in God to go too far. Early in our development as a Christian this compartmentalization is an unconscious process. We may become Christian because of a specific crisis or because it appears logical to follow in our family’s heritage. However, as time passes continued acceptance of a religious system’s importance in our life is validated because of the status it has come to occupy, and its endorsement from the societal order in which we live. By this time we have also developed some pretty significant feelings of sentimentality regarding the system or God-box we have adopted. The result is that we often fail to think about these sentimental structures (or boxes) very critically until a later point in our lives. Often it is a crisis or turning point that forces us to look more closely and when we do we may find the sentimental box grossly inadequate for this new situation. Further, to the degree that the compartment has been constructed to be quite distinct from other religious boxes we may find our God of personal and small boxes inadequate.

In the triangle model, the spaces/gaps between the three smaller triangles are often emphasized as a way of pointing out the perceived important uniqueness of each and why one is preferred over the other—pointing out better from worse, good from bad, and so on. As Phillips points out, the result is a . . . version of God cramped, . . . inadequate . . . and regulated who behaves according to the man made formulas of the worshiper. Granted He is a good churchman . . .and even a party leader to a particular point of view.21 But he is a God who is limited primarily to a particular triangle and is rendered unable to be all things to all people. It is often such a theoretical construct that meets an individual’s needs for a time, but is unable to adapt as the individual’s needs change and grow.

C.S. Lewis – The Great Divorce
In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes/implies at least two crucial elements to be considered in the journey of moving toward or away from a particular point in one’s life.22 First, when leaving hell [an unfulfilling, or stagnant, or even malignant environment],23 one must let go of the things he or she has been clinging to. Some things will not get better or facilitate our growth, regardless of how long we hold on to them, or how sincerely we want them to be good for us. Thus, letting go is essential. And, even though the change in direction may seem relatively minor at first, the degree of distance from the starting point grows dramatically the further one moves away from the specific point of change. Conversely, large steps or changes that appeared almost too difficult at first are likely to appear relatively small by comparison several years down the road.

Second, the direction one is traveling may very well be more important than the specific point at which one is located. For example, two individuals may pass through the same small village at approximately the same time of year, but going in different directions. When the direction or destination is considered to be positive, or beneficial, the conclusion can be drawn that the experience of passing through the village was at the least necessary in order to reach the desirable destination. Even if making it through the village was a difficult task full of detours and ditches, the experience may well be framed within the scriptural context of knowing . . . that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”24 Conversely, the conclusion drawn about the individual traveling in the opposite direction may be that the passage through the village was another step in the wrong direction. Both individuals passed through the same village at the same point in time. For one that passage contributed to the eventual reaching the positive and even prized end, for the other, the opposite is true. Thus, the impact that passing through the village has on each traveler depends on the direction traveled. Likewise, those individuals who are genuinely seeking a closer relationship with God, and in the process find themselves attracted to various theological perspective(s), may find that the end result of their seeking is the development of a more complete and balanced spiritual identity.

The Challenge within Christian Academia
Academia within the Christian university context frequently faces a specific set of challenges relative to the nature of seeking. First, is the need to maintain and even facilitate a worldview that is either inclusive of, or at least appreciates, perspectives beyond the biases of our specific religious culture. Providing a liberal arts education involves more than students enrolling in a selected number of courses from various disciplines. Consistent with current thinking, the liberal arts portion of the degree is equivalent in importance to a separate major. Just as the major area of study equips the student to think in a sophisticated and critical manner about a chosen field, the liberal arts experience should set in motion life-long learning and thinking about important areas outside the individual’s training, history and heritage.25 However, in much of today’s Christian climate, at least in the United States, broad- or open-mindedness is often synonymous with political liberalism. Just as religious conservatism is often associated with a narrower single-mindedness. To hold to relatively conservative religious beliefs, while thinking about or viewing ideals and concepts from a broad point of view is often seen as incongruent or even hypocritical, especially to conservative university constituencies and, perhaps, even to the boards of trustees.

In order to understand where and how one fits into the bigger picture, and what role might fit best, faculty must develop a deeper understanding of the other parallel and opposite perspectives. In times of exploration it is not uncommon for individuals to develop at least an appreciation for some aspects of those other views, if not a realization of the need to incorporate some of those views into their own worldview. The result of this development on a personal level is often felt as maturity and/or a greater sense of wholeness, or a clearer sense of identity achievement. Those who work and live in relatively conservative environments, with expectations to view the world only through narrow lenses, may catch themselves thinking, “. . . if they knew what I was thinking,” or “. . . I’d be labeled as one of those people.”

As academics of faith we encounter and impact students who, in addition to being students, are often spiritual seekers. Part of our role is to assist them in the process of integrating their spiritual and religious life with the daily life of studies and the development of intellectual and vocational identities. However, a necessary condition for the integration of two concepts is the need for some level of equality or balance of influence/power between the two concepts. Arthur Frank Holmes points to a problem that is not atypical of Christian academics.26 Faculty, according to Holmes, in their respective fields has matured to a level consistent with that of an expert, as would be expected from individuals with doctoral level educations. Yet, often their faith appears arrested at an elementary Sunday school level. Therefore, the integration displayed is often lopsided, with a high level of sophistication in the field of study, and a little Sunday school thrown in. However, if one is expected to experience a personal level of mature integration, and then facilitate that same process in students, a more balanced level of sophistication and a broader spiritual worldview is essential.

Developmental Process
Consistent with much of psychological theory,27 the transformational process of religious conversion is viewed as a developmental process and described as occurring in a series of developmental stages or steps.28 Hill’s description of a four-stage process serves as an example: an initial transition, attempting to answer life’s troubling questions. The second step is coming to grips with claims of [a particular] faith system. The third step is a greater immersion into the depth of a converted life, which leads to a final step, a total transformation. This fourth step might be considered consistent with entire sanctification, or being filled with the Spirit, through the working of the Holy Spirit.

The transformational nature of religious experience, as well as its psychological benefit, was presented by William James over a century ago and is described as the formation of a new habitual centre of personal energy.30 Regardless of how the steps might be labeled or progressed through, the end-result of conversion, from a developmental/stage-wise perspective, may not be viewed as psychologically complete until all steps have been accomplished; or, at the very least, until the individual reaches a point in development that is consistent with a predetermined set of benchmarks.31 Whether one ascribes to a series of stages that one passes through or a single event as James describes, there is agreement that a definite shift in perspective takes place, and that the change often hinges on some sort of personal crisis, or sense of urgency or despair.32 Thus, the sense of crisis motivates the individual on to the next stage of development.