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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


Some Thoughts on Cognitive Development and the State of the Church

Some Thoughts on Cognitive Development and the State of the Church

By David Cook

I have been working hard on this for about eight months, and I am just beginning to pull it together. I don't know when--if ever--I will have time to develop these thoughts properly in writing, but I frequently feel called to respond to the current discourse by writing something about this line of thought, if to no purpose other than to encourage others who may live longer to investigate these same ideas.

I posted a few comments along these lines about two months ago on the PEPchat board, and received a number of positive responses. I remember Bishop Righter was particularly encouraging. This is as close as I can come right now to following up on his words of encouragement.

There are numerous theories and structuring devices for considering the process of personal growth in cognitive and emotional terms as a journey through a series of stages, each of which can be labeled, typified, and its boundaries defined. It can then be very helpful to characterize the types of events and experiences that lead a healthy person from each stage to the next.

Of course, as with any process of imposing a system or structure on the understanding of people, it is necessary to keep constantly in mind the fact that that system or structure is not reality and is only a simplifying device to be used when it is helpful for the purpose of discussing and thinking about these aspects of people's lives. In short, real people are not as easily fitted into boxes or positioned upon dimensional scales as the model would have them appear.

The most famous of theorists along these lines was Piaget, who developed a system of stages of cognitive development that is very helpful in understanding the development of children and adolescents.

Similar theories have also been proposed to help in the understanding of how faith develops in concert with development in thinking skills and breadth of thinking. James Fowler is the best known.

For the purposes of writing about the effect of cognitive development (or the lack of it, in some cases) on the present life of the Episcopal Church, I propose tentatively to condense the most widely understood bodies of theory and to simplify them in the following form.

Among adults over the age of majority, we may think of cognitive and social/moral development as being divided into four stages:

1) Preconventional Thinking

This is the state of most children before adolescence. For the purposes of understanding how children learn, this stage can be variously subdivided; for our purposes it is sufficient to say that there is a part of a person's life in which the person has not yet learned to adopt conventions in thinking, and does not understand the world in terms of belonging to a clan or class or way of thinking that provides a sense of place, a notion of safety, and a requirement for loyalty.

Children normally progress from preconventional thinking to conventional thinking as they have opportunity to question the myths and illusions by which their early lives were structured and to explore social competencies. Most people have left preconventional thinking behind by the age of 12-14, and have developed a full, if relatively simple, set of conventional relationships to their surroundings.

The next two stages are the parts of Conventional thinking, and, for the purposes of these discussions, I consider them to be divided into Closed Conventional Thinking and Open Conventional Thinking. Most American adults in the early 21st Century are locked into the Closed Conventional phase of cognitive and social/moral growth, though a large segment of the adult population lives in a boundary state along the line between Closed Conventional and Open Conventional thinking.

2) Closed Conventional Thinking

The emphasis in the period of Closed Conventional Thinking is on ``convention.'' This stage of development should be well established by the end of Middle School, and continues for a length of time that varies widely.

An intellectually normal person who is educated in a nurturing and stimulating setting and who learns to deal skillfully with the fear that normally accompanies opportunities for personal growth will move on to the next stage by the middle of college years, and has a good chance of continuing to the stage or stages beyond.

In Anglo-American society at the present, the skills for overcoming the internal resistance to growth are rare, and education is generally neither nurturing nor stimulating. In this situation, many - perhaps the majority - of American adults remain in the Closed Conventional mode well into adulthood and perhaps throughout life.

The perfect example of Closed Conventional mode in religious terms is the mental state of those who are now referring to themselves as ``orthodox,'' meaning ``right-thinking.'' The Closed Conventional environment is the ideal medium to promote and reinforce the belief that ``right thinking people always and everywhere have thought as (we) think, and no other way of thinking can possibly have any validity.''

In the normal academic environment, orthodoxy of this kind begins with the Junior Varsity assumption, ``North Barefoot County High School is the greatest, and the kids that go to South Barefoot County High are all poop-heads!'' If a mechanism exists that allows a person to continue into adult life without moving beyond this kind of emotive thinking, the result is the thinking and writing of spokespersons for the ``neoconservative'' or ``ultraconservative'' positions, whose expression of their ideas has been inescapable and is familiar to all involved.

The most direct way to characterize and identify Closed Conventional thinking is to recognize that it is done inside a closed space, or ``box.'' The box is made of rigid rules and unquestionable assumptions, and reinforced by the sense of safety the box provides, usually in the form of the assent of some group. The co-orthodox: our family, our town, our congregation, our network, or some other identifiable form of cohort are the ones that think rightly, and any other is to be looked upon with suspicion until it can prove that it thinks exactly as we think.

Thus arises the notion that righteous people should not object to being asked to sign a declaration of faith or other confessional document, and to submit to the scrutiny of the community.

One feature of the ``box'' is that it has one small window, through which its occupants may observe the world outside. That world, by definition, is the domicile of evil and wrong thinking. When the Closed Conventional thinker looks out the window of his safe box, he sees only chaos, decline, and destruction: dangerous people doing dangerous things and thinking dangerous thoughts, and slippery slopes everywhere you look.

Outside the window is an Hieronymus Bosch painting, and everyone that lives out there, unless converted, is damned. The person who thinks this way has a very clear understanding of what it means to be ``saved,'' that may not be shared by those whose thinking is more sophisticated.

To be ``saved'' is to be inside the box, and therefore separated from all that goes on outside the box. One need only read the founding documents of the Network of Dioceses and Parishes lately espoused by the AAC to see a classic example of the art of box-building. In fact, it might be said to be more accurate to read the AAC's motto, ``A place to stand,'' as ``A box to stand in.''

Another classic example of box-building is the Affirmation of St. Louis, 1977. That document also serves as a locus classicus for the difficulties that arise with hard-core box building. It is only necessary to realize how quickly and how thoroughly the signatories of that Affirmation then went their separate ways, each to build their own boxes apart from each other.

There are many other features and characteristics of this and the other stages that could be discussed at any desired length. For the purpose of understanding typical spokespersons for the ``orthodox du jour'' position, and why they are so frightened of being presented a better idea, however, consider the image of a person (or a whole faction of persons) contained in a box of rigid forces, looking out at the wrong-headed world through a small window and judging that world unsafe and unsaved.

There is a classic trade-off there that many people make, with a lesser or greater understanding of their decision: It is the trade-off between safety and freedom. The great 20th Century philosopher of psychology, Abraham Maslow, drew this simple diagram:

            SAFETY    <-------<<   PERSON   >>-------->   GROWTH

It hardly needs explanation. Growth as a person is scary. The longer one avoids facing that fear, the less likely one is ever to overcome the fear. That's the typical AAC adherent in a nutshell. With every curse comes a protection. Sleeping beauty slept for 1,000 years, and never grew older. But she was cursed to sleep, and not live. That's the AAC in a nutshell.

It can easily be said that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were archetypal box-dwellers, and that the universal meaning of the crucifixion is that it demonstrates how some people may react to being confronted with the fear of personal growth. You can't get to heaven if you are afraid to step off the back porch.

The experience that moves a person from Closed Conventional thinking to Open Conventional thinking is normally exposure to other cultures, new ideas, and other ways of thinking. A healthy person living in a nurturing, stimulating environment is usually able, sooner or later, to confront the fears that are aroused by those novelties and to learn to at least understand and accept the validity of the world outside the box.

3) Open Conventional Thinking

The difference between Closed Conventional thinking and Open Conventional thinking is the difference between Single Vision and Dichotomy. Where Closed Conventional thinking allows the existence of only one box, and insists that everything outside that box is evil, unacceptable, eternally damned, and downright unpatriotic, Open Conventional thinking acknowledges that there may be other boxes that may be acceptable habitations for other people.

The emphasis is still on Convention first and foremost, as safety and a sense of life purpose comes from the acceptance of the group that establishes the convention. The transition from closed to open comes when one acknowledges that there are other conventions that may be valid because they are conventions, whether accepted as ``other than damned'' or not.

Where in Closed Conventional thinking the other is not to be considered in any way other than as ``the outside'' or ``the un-saved,'' in Open Conventional thinking, the ``Us-versus-them'' dichotomy emerges. Where the Closed Single Vision wants the reality to read that all Buddhists, Homosexuals, French Citizens, Democrats, intellectuals, biblical scholars, and countless other groups are damned and must either be converted to orthodox exactitude of thought or perish in the flames, the Open Dichotomous Vision says, ``It's okay for the French to think what they think as long as they do it `way over there and don't try to bring it here.''

``It's okay for you to be a liberal as long as you don't do anything that impinges on my box.'' ``It's okay for someone to be gay as long as they don't bother anybody.'' ``Immigrants belong back where they came from.''

Clearly dichotomy is a considerably more sophisticated mode of thought than single vision. Almost all of those people who are nowadays called ``fundamentalists'' are adults who are arrested in the stage of Closed Conventional thought, and most of their acknowledged leaders and authors are opportunistic adults arrested in the stage of Open Conventional thought. Even though the Open Conventional thinker demonstrates a considerable reduction in the systemic fear response that holds a person in Conventional thinking stages, that person still finds it easy to play on the fears and manipulate the fearful conscience of the Closed thinker for political and monetary gain.

Open Conventional thinking has become so conventional in the American academy that it has become possible for a large number of persons to climb through that towering labyrinth to become teachers, lawyers, clergy - even bishops and ``canon theologians'' - while not ever having been required to see beyond the ``us-them'' level of dichotomous thinking.

This explains the existence of figures like Bob Duncan and Kendall Harmon, who appear to live in tightly-riveted boxes whence they take delight in lobbing mud bombs of clever rhetoric at those wiser and more knowledgeable than themselves, so as to ingratiate themselves with those less aware and less informed.

That is to say that if (like the typical fundamentalist) I live in a tight box and I am terrified of the world outside, and I have made a psychic compromise with reality by declaring the world outside to be evil and un-saved, then I will greatly appreciate those who seem to keep the window secure by using their slightly greater ability to discourse with the outside to cast aspersions upon the outside in tones that seem genuine and knowledgeable to me.

Examples are numerous in the press and among those who hold such titles as "canon theologian" of people who make a living as "guardians of the window;" that is, by presenting themselves as able to beat wiser and more knowledgeable people at their own argument.

The transition from Single Vision and Dichotomy on the one hand to Post-Conventional thinking is supposed to be the purpose of being educated, though the educational system has been subverted in many places so that it is no longer capable of bringing about this transition for those who wish to avoid it.

4. Post-Conventional Thinking

The characteristic way of thought in Post-Conventional thinking is dialectic. Classically, one of the main processes of education was learning to engage in dialectic, of which, of course, the true form requires a genuine escape from the state of fearing ideas and actions of other cultures and schools of thought.

To think dialectically, a person must be able to enter into the thoughts of others and regard them as valid or at least potentially so. A dialectic thinker considers the arguments of those who think otherwise than the self and allows the self to be influenced by those ideas, while exercising some kind of discernment process to help determine the extent to which those alien ideas might be useful in determining a guiding concept based on the truth as best it can be ascertained.

Clearly, the person who thinks this way lives in a world far more open and dynamic, as well as stimulating and rewarding than the ``safe'' world occupied by the conventional thinker. All it takes is the willingness to question whether one's fear of the thoughts of others is a valid fear - alas; such willingness seems increasingly rare in our time.

The requirement for dialectic explains some of the most outrageous misbehavior of the Bush administration. There is no one in the upper echelons of that administration that is capable of entering into dialectic, and the administration has a tendency to rid itself of people who think in Post-Conventional and dialectical ways.

Bill Clinton is a dialectical thinker, and his enemies had no power to deal with him on the level on which he operated and lived unto himself. Because they could not confront him on an intellectual or spiritual level, his detractors found it necessary to invade his private life and ``put him on the spot'' for the exercise of perquisites common to the presidency and to the positions of other powerful leaders.

And of course Jesus lived constantly in the kind of tension that accompanies dialectical thinking. And he knew what the consequences would be. So he formed a church to take the place of his body, and formed it to live in those same tensions. Almost from the very beginning, the story of the Christian faith has been a story of the conflict between two sub-sections of the faithful:

a) Those who understood that the church was made to live in dialectic with the outer reality - and the tensions that go with that dialectic - thus building a power on earth that was unafraid and able to live in a dynamic fashion into whatever future sprang up.

b) Those who wished to make the church a tight box to protect them through the cooption of political power and media-savvy public influence.

As we see, this conflict continues. I believe that this conflict requires of us today the highest virtues of patience and the willingness to engage the ``stuck'' in our midst with gentleness and truth, and to be ready to stimulate, nurture and encourage those for whom those acts are useful, while also being willing to ``shake the dust from our feet'' (that is, to conserve personal and institutional resources) when necessary.

The ``force field'' of reality in which the planet Earth is suspended is energized by truth and realism that will perpetually confound the fundamentalist and the opportunist who panders to the fundamentalist; that is to say, ``The light in the darkness shines, and the darkness did not cast it down.''

Dialectic, and the openness to risk that dialectic requires, as rare as these things are, are God's greatest gifts to those of us who will seek to exercise them. Thinking from as many sides of the discourse as possible - and eliminating every possible fallacy - is one of the great purposes for which the Crucifixion - and all the moreso the Resurrection - were created, and from this kind of clear thinking will tend to descend the goodly fruits of the spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

--David Cook

Albemarle NC, July 2004


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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