Richard Rohr’s Levels of Spiritual Development – Part 2

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?


About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
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