In her analysis of the behavior of believers, the historian Laina Farhat-Holzman contends that some religious movements are accepting of persons at all levels of development and consciously make room for 1) those who base their belief on the “magic” of holy relics,
2) those whose religion is confined to ritual, and 3) those who struggle to understand the teachings of their prophets. Two excellent examples of religions that span the range of moral development from the lowest to highest levels are Roman Catholic Christianity and Hinduism.
In scholarly literature, the results of objective studies are mixed when analyzing the differences between denominations or religions. The most consistent finding has been that fundamentalists have a lower level of moral development than liberals. Interestingly, this appears to be true for those liberals professing no religion, as well as for those who practice Christianity or another religion. Some fundamentalist Christians have charged that these attempts at objective measurements have been biased; however, I believe that there is an alternate explanation.
Developmental psychologists have known for some time that people can truly understand only the moral stages just above and just below their own. Moses was above the masses of Jews of his time but NOT so far ahead that they could not understand him. Jesus was speaking to a more sophisticated group morally, one that had already been socialized by the “conventional” rules of Moses. In other words, Moses HAD to happen BEFORE Jesus could happen. If Jesus had confronted the people of the Exodus with, “Love thy neighbor…”, his message would not have been understood by them.
Often we religious liberals are hard on fundamentalists whom we accuse of being literal, concrete, and rule-bound. However, I must come to their defense with regard to this fact: these “conventional” people with specific messages are the ones most able to appeal to those at the level of “pre-conventional” morality and help raise them up. Although we reject their religious message and viewpoints, it is good to remember that humanity must crawl before it can walk. Years ago, an optimistic friend of mine questioned a fundamentalist who explained that, “We are fundamentalists because we NEED the tight controls of a ‘Thou Shalt Not’ morality; otherwise, we would go wild!”
Another important truism for religious liberals to remember is that ALL children must pass through ALL stages of morality. No matter how intelligent your child may be, her moral maturity cannot be inherited at birth! All children need to experience structure and kindness so that they can develop to the stage where the Golden Rule can be understood and, ultimately, to the level where it can be lived. Research into how to accomplish this is mixed, but activities which require reasoning and exploration of moral issues appear to foster a progression toward the “post-conventional” level. Adults who have had an opportunity in college to explore moral issues must continue to find forums for discussion, reasoning, and moral growth. I think that this is an excellent challenge for Sunday Schools and Adult Education programs in our churches!
In closing, I’d like to express my own opinion about developmental revelation expressed in the Biblical stories. Although the stories of the Old Testament are part of our literary culture, Christianity has wallowed too long in their primitive “pre-conventional” morality. And although there is nothing more beautiful than the declaration of St. Paul that “love is patient and kind," many churches have allowed themselves to stagnate in his largely “conventional” message.
In the recent past, a movement has been gradually growing which takes seriously the “post-conventional” morality of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. In my view, this should be the predominant message heard in our churches, inspiring people to “climb up” to the next rung on the moral ladder. But it’s easier to worship Jesus than to follow his teachings. The “post-conventional” morality of Jesus demands that we live in the Kingdom of God RIGHT NOW – that it is possible to be ONE with the Father. In the Gospel of Luke (17:21), Jesus proclaims that, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” We need to call it forth for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of all humanity, and for the sake of our whole planet.
Ken R. Vincent, Ed.D. is the former Webmaster for the UNIVERSALIST HERALD.