Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Prodigal Son and Stages of Faith

Great doubt: Great enlightenment
Little doubt: Little enlightenment
No doubt: No enlightenment
  — Zen Maxim

From the stained-glass window of a church in Charleston, South Carolina: The father greets his younger son upon his return home.
The Book of Luke, chapter 15, with its three parables, concluding with the Parable of The Prodigal Son, is surely the most preached-about chapter in the Bible at the Union Gospel Mission.

This is understandable since the prodigal son in the story easily serves as a representation of the typical congregant at the mission: someone who has left, or lost, his life to a period of waste and self indulgence.

In the middle of the story, the son reaches his nadir. All the money has been spent and he is left in a terrible job and is destitute. He has an epiphany: I can go back to my father, not as his son (since I am shamed and sinful), but as one of his humble servants.1

The story concludes with the son returning home, his father being overjoyed, and a great party in celebration of the return being thrown. What more clarion message could there be that God wants the lost, the sinner, to repent and be saved?

Stages of Faith relating to the Mission

The effort by the evening preachers at the mission, whether they are directly aware of it or not, is to gain commitment from congregants to have a synthetic/conventional faith.

Synthetic/Conventional Faith is Stage Three in James Fowler's system recognizing stops along the path of faith. It is described, in part, thus, at the Integral+Life website:

One of the hallmarks of this stage is that it tends to compose its images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship to which I'm known deeply and valued. I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I'm struggling to find who I can be.
Don’t read too much meaning in the mention of adolescents in the paragraph above. Conventional Faith can be achieved by teenagers, but is also the depth of faith experienced by, perhaps, the majority of adults.

I have often written that I am frustrated that our love of God and others is much less discussed than God or Jesus’s love of us by preachers coming to the mission to speak to the “guests.” I now understand this overwhelming focus on ‘us being loved’ as a function of establishing conventional, basic faith in the hearts of the congregants.

In a way, like adolescents but different, the addicted men who come to the mission are struggling to find out who they can be.

I don’t know much about what goes on with the guys who enter the mission’s Rehab program, but I believe it serves to move men from foundational Conventional faith to Stage Four, Individuative-Reflective Faith.

Stage Four is described, in part, thus at the Integral+Life website:

Stage Four … is a time in which the person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world that defines one's life

Stage Four is concerned about boundaries: where I stop and you begin; where the group that I can belong to with conviction and authenticity ends and other groups begin. It's very much concerned about authenticity and a fit between the self I feel myself to be in a group and the ideological commitments that I'm attached to.
In the Rehad program, the guys are encouraged to fully leave their former lives — of being angry or being addicted to substances, gambling or sex or being lawbreakers — and the people they associated with in that former life, to become wholesome Christians who are authentic and joyous in a new, profoundly-different life.

Stage of Faith relating to Dean Baker's message at Trinity Cathedral

Dean Brian Baker of Trinity Cathedral Episcopal Church talked about Luke 15's Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son parables earlier this month.

In the viddy, below, he tells us, early on,

The problem with Jesus' parables, is that they're like these subversive brain teasers.  The more you read them, and the more you ponder them, they begin to change the way you look at the world.  And they might mean something, after deeper reflection, that's completely opposite than what you initially thought. And that's what happened with me with these parables.

Lost, Sermon 9/12/10 from Trinity Cathedral on Vimeo.

I submit that a summery of Dean Baker's deeper understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not a substitute for listening to the video, but here's mine:
God doesn't care about those who suppose themselves righteous.  Thus, people/Christians must recognize their brokenness, their lostness.  God is in the business of healing the lost, and they are all of us. [Excepting, perhaps, an enlightened/saintly few?]
I believe that Dean Baker is preaching in the mode of Stage Five of Faith, Conjunctive Faith, described, in part, at the Integral+Life webspace thus:
There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God's mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God's closeness and clarity.

Stage Five is a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious—those myths and taboos and standards that we took in with our mother's milk and that powerfully shape our behavior and responses. We really do examine those, which means we're ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in paradoxical tension.”
-----
1 In his book, 'Narcissism: a new theory,' Neville Symington writes:

Despairing of illusory images and solutions.

It is necessary to note some of the logical consequences of the reversal of narcissism. What leads to psychic change is inner psychic action. Interpretation does not bring about change. Interpretation may either encourage the individual towards the moment of psychic action, or it may be the product of psychic action that has already occurred. It is extremely important to realize this. The inner psychic action is made by the person alone, in their freedom.

What sorts of conditions favour inner psychic action? in the example of the recovered alcoholic [a story, from his psychiatry practice Symington wrote about several times], it was crucial that he had reached rock-bottom. He had been thrown out of this home and out of the hospital ward, and he was sitting on a bench in the pouring rain. In that situation of near despair the lifegiver, which had been repudiated but never entirely killed off, became unsmothered. If a would-be philanthropist had come up and tried to soothe him as he was sitting on the bench, the moment would have been wrecked.
As you can see, Symington’s alcoholic is very similar to the prodigal son, fitting the biblical scenario to a tee.  But that is not intentional; Symington is an atheist.  But, the parallel is there for indeed, the prodigal son had been narcissistic. Interpretation [that is, understanding his situation] had not brought about change for the prodigal son; it was psychic action [being renewed, reborn] in freedom [from his own Free Will]. The lifegiver [the father, the saviour] was “unsmothered,” or un-repressed.

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