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Personal and Spiritual Growth

World views

As people grow in discipline and love and experience of life, their understanding of the world and their place in it naturally grows apace. Conversely, as people fail to grow in discipline, love and experience of life, so their understanding fails to grow. Consequently, there is an extraordinary variability between people in the breadth and sophistication of understanding about what life is all about.

However, since everyone has some understanding, then everyone has some world view, no matter how limited or inaccurate.

Sooner or later in the course of psychotherapy most therapists will come to recognise how a client views the world, but if the therapist is specifically on the lookout for it, he or she will come to this recognition sooner. It is essential that therapists arrive at this knowledge, for the world view of a client is always an essential part of their problems. A correction in their world view will be necessary for their progress in therapy.

Usually our world view is only partially conscious. We are often unaware of how we view the world. Sometimes we think we have a particular view of the world when we may actually have a completely different view.

The most important factor in the development of our world view is our culture. We tend to believe what people around us believe. We tend to accept as truth what these people tell us of the nature of the world as we listen to them during our formative years.

But less obvious, except to psychotherapists, is the fact that the most important part of our culture is our particular family. It is where we develop, and our parents are its "culture leaders". Moreover, the most significant aspect of that culture is not what our parents tell us about God and the nature of things, but rather what they do, how they behave towards each other, towards our brothers and sisters and, above all, towards us.

What we learn about the nature of the world when we are growing up is determined by the actual nature of our experience in the microcosm of the family. It is not so much what our parents say that determines our world view as it is the unique world they create for us by their behaviour.

When we are children our parents are godlike figures to our child's eye and the way they do things seems to be the way they must be done throughout the universe. If we have loving, forgiving parents, we are likely to believe in a loving, forgiving God. In our adult view, the world is likely to seem as nurturing a place as our childhood was. If our parents were harsh and punitive, we are likely to mature with a concept of a harsh and punitive monster-god. If they failed to care for us, we will likely see the universe as similarly uncaring.

The fact that our world view is initially largely determined by our unique childhood experience brings us up against a central problem: the relationship between our world view and reality. It is the problem of the microcosm and the macrocosm. In the larger world, the macrocosm, there are many different kinds of parents and people and societies and cultures.

To develop a world view that is realistic, i.e. conforms to the reality of the world and our role in it, as best we can know that reality, we must constantly revise and extend our understanding to include new knowledge of the larger world. We must constantly enlarge our frame of reference. We are dealing again with the issues of map-making and transference.

The world view of most adults is a product of transference, i.e. the childhood map that works in the microcosm of the family is inappropriately transferred into the larger adult world.

Most of us operate from a narrower frame of reference than we are capable of, failing to transcend the influence of our particular culture, our particular set of parents and our particular childhood experience on our understanding.

It is no wonder, then, that the world is so full of conflict. We have a situation in which people, who must deal with each other, have vastly different views as to the nature of reality, yet each one believes his or her own view to be the correct one since it is based on the microcosm of personal experience. To make matters worse, most of us are not even fully aware of our own world views, much less the uniqueness of the experience from which they are derived. So we squabble over our different microcosmic world views, and all wars are holy wars!

Spiritual Growth

Spiritual growth is a journey out of the microcosm into an even greater macrocosm. In its earlier stages it is a journey of knowledge and not of faith.

In order to escape the microcosm of our previous experience and free ourselves from transference, it is necessary that we learn. We must continually expand our realm of knowledge and our field of vision through the thorough digestion and incorporation of new information.

To develop a broader vision we must be willing to forsake, to kill, our narrower vision. In the short run it is more comfortable not to do this - to stay where we are, to keep using the same microcosmic map, to avoid suffering the death of cherished notions. The road of spiritual growth, however, lies in the opposite direction.

We begin by distrusting what we already believe, by actively seeking the threatening and unfamiliar, by deliberately challenging the validity of what we have previously been taught and hold dear. The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.

We must rebel against and reject the world view of our parents, for inevitably it will be narrower than we are capable of if we take full advantage of our personal experience, including our adult experience and the experience of an additional generation of human history. There is no such thing as a good inherited world view. To be vital, to be the best we are capable of, ours must be a wholly personal one, forged from our own questioning and doubting; the product of our own experience of reality.

We have to be sceptical of everything we have learned to date. It is the scientific attitude that enables us to transform our personal experience of the microcosm into a personal experience of the macrocosm. However, while the world view of the scientific minded is a distinct improvement on a world view based upon blind faith, local superstition and unquestioned assumptions, most of the scientifically minded have only barely begun the journey of spiritual growth. Scientists have grave difficulty in dealing with the reality of God.

Belief in God

When we look from a vantage of sophisticated scepticism at the phenomenon of belief in God, we are not impressed. We see dogmatism, holy wars, inquisitions and persecutions. We see hypocrisy: people professing the brotherhood of man, yet killing their fellows in the name of faith; lining their pockets at the expense of others. We see a bewildering multiplicity of rituals and images without consensus. We see ignorance, superstition and rigidity. The track record for belief in God looks pretty poor. It is tempting to think that humanity might be better off without a belief in God. It would seem reasonable to conclude that God is an illusion in the minds of humans.

Is belief in God a sickness? Is it a manifestation of transference - a concept of our parents derived from the microcosm and inappropriately projected into the macrocosm? Is such a belief a form of childish, primitive thinking which we should grow out of as we seek higher levels of awareness and maturity? What happens to one's belief in God as one grows through the process of psychotherapy?

Many psychiatrists and psychotherapists see religion as an enemy. They may even think of it as being a neurosis - a collection of inherently irrational ideas that serve to restrict people's minds and oppress their instincts towards better mental health. Freud, scientist, rationalist and the most influential figure in modern psychiatry, seemed to see things in this light and his attitudes contributed to the idea of religion as a neurosis. It is tempting for psychiatrists to see themselves as nobly combating the destructive forces of ancient religious superstition and irrational, authoritarian dogma.

Psychotherapists must spend time and effort in the struggle to liberate their client's minds from outmoded religious ideas and concepts where they are clearly destructive. It may be necessary for the therapist to actively challenge a client's religious ideas in order to dramatically diminish the influence of the God-concept in his or her life. Conversely, the therapist may even consider actively challenging a client's atheism or agnosticism and deliberately leading a client in the direction of a belief in God.

Is developing a belief in God a form of psychotherapy? If we are to move away from childhood teaching, local tradition and superstition in a direction of spiritual growth, it is a question that must be asked. The answer sometimes is yes.

Scientists are dedicated to asking questions in the search for truth. But, they are too human and would like the answers to be clean, clear and easy. In their desire for simple solutions, they are prone to fall into two traps as they question the reality of God: The first is to throw the baby out with the bath water; the second is tunnel vision.

The baby and the bath water

There is certainly a lot of dirty bath water surrounding the reality of God, as we have already discussed. But is all this what God has done to humans or what humans have done to God? It is abundantly evident that belief in God is often destructively dogmatic. Is the problem that humans tend to believe in God or that they tend to be dogmatic? Is it the belief in God or the dogmatism that we need to get rid of?

A mark of maturity in scientists is their awareness that science may be subject to dogmatism just as much as religion. Scientific notions can also become cultural idols that need approaching sceptically as, in our quest for spiritual growth, we question all that we have been taught.

It is indeed possible for us to mature out of a belief in God. However, it is also possible to mature into a belief in God. A sceptical atheism or agnosticism is not the highest state of understanding we can arrive at. On the contrary, there is reason to believe that behind all the spurious notions and false concepts of God, there lies a reality that is God.

It is possible that the path of spiritual growth leads first out of superstition, through agnosticism, then towards an accurate knowledge of God. The God that comes before scepticism may bear little resemblance to the God that comes after.

There are many levels to belief. Some may be unhealthy; others may be healthy. Psychotherapists are dealing so directly with the growth process that they have to consider the healthiness of a client's belief system. Where psychotherapists are blinkered by a purely scientific approach, they will be unable to do this because they will consider any passionate belief in God to be pathological. They will then be doing a disservice to some of their clients. This will also be true where they regard all belief in God as healthy.

A psychotherapist cannot withdraw behind a cloak of objectivity and fail to deal with the religious issues of their clients. Clients need their involvement and psychotherapists need to be more aware of religious and spiritual issues than they frequently are.

Scientific tunnel vision

Many scientists simply do not look at the evidence of the reality of God. They suffer from psychological tunnel vision that prevents them from turning their attention to the realm of the spiritual.

The use of measurement has enabled science to make enormous strides in the understanding of the material universe. But, by virtue of its success, measurement has become a scientific idol. The result is an attitude on the part of many scientists not only of scepticism but of outright rejection of what cannot be measured. Because of this attitude many scientists exclude from their serious consideration all matters that are, or seem to be, intangible, including the matter of God.

The strange, but remarkably common assumption that things that are not easy to study do not merit study is beginning to be challenged by several recent developments within science itself: Methods of study are more sophisticated. We can now measure complex phenomena that were for decades immeasurable. The other development is the discovery by science of the reality of paradox.

Is it possible that we are beginning to see a meeting of minds between science and religion? When we are able to say that "a human is both mortal and eternal at the same time", and that "light is both a wave and a particle at the same time", we have begun to speak the same language. Is it possible that the path of spiritual growth that proceeds from religious superstition to scientific scepticism may ultimately lead us to a genuine religious reality?

It is exciting to consider intellectually, but it is only a beginning. For the most part, both the religious and the scientific remain in self-imposed narrow frames of reference: Even the idea of a miracle is anathema to most scientists. The church is more broad minded; what cannot be considered in terms of known natural laws is a miracle, but the church has been unwilling to consider them very closely. However, such phenomena as spontaneous remissions in cancer patients and apparently successful examples of psychic healing are prompting examination by some scientists and religious truth-seekers.

In thinking about miracles, our frame of reference has probably been too dramatic. We have been looking for the burning bush, the parting of the sea or the bellowing voice from heaven. Instead, we should be looking at the ordinary daily events in our lives for evidence of the miraculous, while maintaining a scientific orientation. In this way we will come to an understanding of the extraordinary phenomenon of grace.

See also Appendix: Stages of Spiritual Growth

Exploration and Discussion

1. What does "spiritual growth" mean to you? How would you define it?

2. Arriving at our own beliefs we go through the following stages:

  • Unquestioning acceptance
  • Questioning non-acceptance
  • Experiencing uncertainty and mystery
  • Some certainty of beliefs

Where are you now?

3. The word "belief" comes from the old Anglo-Saxon "by-life". What are your operational beliefs, the beliefs by which you actually live?

4. In what ways would you wish to change your beliefs?

5. What is helping and what is hindering you in growing?

6. What was your earliest impression of God, as a child?

7. How has your concept of God changed? Describe God or Reality as you perceive it today.

8. Miracles are often day to day occurrences. What miracles have you seen recently?