Spiritual Maturity
Rev. Douglas Taylor

This past fall, while I was on sabbatical and serving Meadville Lombard Theological School as its Minster in Residence, I taught a class on Adult Religious Education. My class met once a week for three hours and I led six students, who were on the path to becoming Unitarian Universalist ministers, through religious education theory and practice. I focused on the spiritual path of teaching and on the stages of faith development. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith is one of those books that I and many of my contemporaries, heard about, read synopsis of, but never actually read or worked with directly. So I made these students actually read the book, learn all six stages, and make some attempts to apply the theory to our work as ministers leading adult religious education classes.

Fowler talked about the human development of faith as something separate from beliefs and a person’s religious tradition. It may be helpful to see a distinction between religion as a set of answers and beliefs, and religion as an ongoing journey of deepening and maturing. This is almost a distinction between beliefs and faith. James Fowler saw it that way. His ground-breaking work on faith development asked questions like:

What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy? What power or powers do you rely on and trust? To what or whom are you committed in life?

These are not questions about beliefs; these questions do not lead a person to answer in a way that assumes one religious tradition’s answers are the best answers. Instead these questions are open to the lived experiences of each person, they draw out of you answers that are likely to change and grow as you continue on your own journey of growth and discovery, of development and maturity. It is not about arriving at the ultimate set of timeless and permanent truths, rather it is about developing the qualities of spiritual maturity.

Fowler listed six stages of development. The sixth and final stage is the one that excites people. It is that stage which includes persons like Gandhi and Mother Teresa, saints and people who have reached enlightenment. The great mark of the rare people who are considered to be in this stage is that they live in a kind of Universal understanding of life. More often there are people in whom there are glimpses of this way of seeing and living in the world. It is a hard way to actually fully live. One synopsis has this description (from a UUA curriculum manual), “They live with a felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world. For this reason, many times they are seen as subversive by the establishment and often die at the hands of those they wish to change.”

There is something about such people, they are grounded in life, but they seem to be larger than life as well. And it is not just the famous people who are counted in this list. Many extraordinary souls are out there. In the same sermon I used for our reading earlier, Kendyl Gibbons writes this about Spiritual Maturity:

It is obvious to anyone who has any historical or international awareness that there is something that the world’s most acknowledged spiritual leaders have in common; some attributes that characterize the Gandhis and Dalai Lamas and Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings of the world, no matter what historical religious tradition they identify with. And of course, these qualities are not limited to those who achieve wide recognition; they exist as well in French villagers who hide Jews from the Nazis, in Rwandan hotel keepers, in neighbors and teachers and elders everywhere, who exemplify for us what it means to grow into the radical acceptance of others, self-awareness, active compassion and sacrificial love that are the highest expressions of any faith.

Kendyl’s list of characteristics is this: self-awareness, radical acceptance of others, active compassion, and sacrificial love. That is a pretty tall order. Fowler points out that many of us are fascinated by the lives of such people. Most of us are not going to find ourselves in monumental scenario so as to be thrust upon the world stage for all to see and note our spiritual maturity. Most of us will only ever be the everyday people living our lives as neighbors and teachers and elders. But the point is to see even the small moments as rife with opportunities to grow and mature spiritually.

And we don’t need to be stage six saints to be spiritually mature. Fowler insists that the real work is not to get through each stage until you arrive at the last one. He said the real work is to discern your own faith and how you can live more fully in the stage in which you currently reside. I don’t want to get lost in trying to teach you about Fowler’s stages of faith development. Instead let’s get lost in the defining questions Fowler asks at the front of his book. Let’s get lost in the basic questions of ‘what is spiritual maturity?’ The reason to bring Fowler into all of this is the way he characterized faith as something you develop rather than as something you either have or do not have. Faith is a continuing journey of discovery; it is a process of maturing, of growing. The core questions Fowler asks are these:

What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy? What power or powers do you rely on and trust? To what or whom are you committed in life?

To ever achieve a decent level of spiritual maturity, we need to be able to know what power or powers we rely upon and trust. Faith is the ground for spiritual maturity. We need to trust enough to move beyond ourselves. We need to trust, to have faith, in something larger than ourselves – however it is named and recognized. We will know it by our commitments and by where we spend ourselves. The more worthy the object of our faith, the more solid will be the ground of our faith for future growth.

Such is true for any person in any religious tradition. We might well ask, however, what does it look like to be a spiritually mature person within the context of Unitarian Universalism? What is our distinct and integral way of growing in faith? Rev. Tom Chulak (in a document entitled “10 Characteristics of Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Maturity” which can be found at: http://www.sld.uua.org/newspackets/Aug09packet/2_10CHAR-TomC.pdf ) wrote, “The starting point for spiritual maturity within [the] Unitarian Universalist tradition is openness.” He further identified our openness to the ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’

This sounds spot on to me. The way to begin, for anyone, is to be grounded in your personal faith. And the way the Unitarian Universalist tradition has done this is through openness. Other traditions may offer other avenues: saying certain prayers, doing certain practices, visiting certain holy sites. For us the practice we lift up is simply openness: opening yourself up to the perspective of others, opening yourself up to truth as you search it out, opening yourself up to the hard work of listening to your own life.

Listening again to that short list Kendyl Gibbons offered, we hear openness echoing. How else can you begin a journey of spiritual maturing but through opening yourself up? Gibbons says the marks of spiritual maturity include: self-awareness and a radical acceptance of others. Self-awareness and a radical acceptance of others. This is very Unitarian Universalist place to begin! Open yourself up to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; open yourself to the deepening journey of self-understanding and self-awareness. Allow yourself to open up to others, offering a radical acceptance of those who are different from you. Relax, you don’t need to control your interactions, be not afraid of other people’s differences. Instead, be open. Learn and grow from the encounter. This is the Unitarian Universalist starting point for spiritual maturity: Openness to yourself and your journey, openness to others and new perspectives, openness to being changed, to growing.

This so easily leads to a letting go. Letting go is a huge step in spiritual maturity. In our openness, we let go of who we have been in favor of who we are becoming. We let go of who we have perceived others to be if favor of learning who they really are. We let go of our labels of other people, we let go of our initial perspectives for the sake of something larger. This leads us back to faith. If you will be open and if you will let go, then you will need to be firmly grounded in something both trustworthy and larger than yourself.

In that well worn passage about love in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians, 13:11) The path of spiritual maturity is the path of leaving behind earlier ways that may have worked well in the past but are no longer suited to what you need now. The path of spiritual maturity is the path of leaving behind old patterns that never really worked well in the first place. It means being open to the new and letting go of what’s no longer moving you forward. It means letting go of grudges and your status as a victim, and moving into a place of forgiveness and of accepting yourself and the consequences of your choices and your actions. It means letting go of greed and selfishness and the desire to have what you want, and moving into a place of generosity and working to satisfy your own needs as well as the needs of others. In means letting go of trying to get other people to make you happy, and opening yourself up to the full measure of joy and sorrow that pours though every day of your living. It means letting go of expectations and opening up to ambiguity and paradox and apparent contradiction so prevalent in love and compassion for all people and all of life.

Oh, it is a life of virtue, the stuff of enlightenment and sainthood. But it is also available to you and me and anyone who will begin in faith to open up and let go. In the write-up for this sermon I told you I would explain just what Spiritual Maturity is and I said I would also talk about how we can cultivate it in ourselves.

Growth and maturation can happen in a number of ways. This is true cognitively, physically and emotionally as well as spiritually. The first way is in keeping strictly with developmental theory, that it is the natural order of life for us to mature. There is directionality and a natural pacing to our development. This form of growth and maturation is almost unnoticed as we go through our lives. It is just automatic like a seed growing. Unless something goes wrong, we naturally mature. It is also true that occasionally we develop more quickly when some outside influence causes sudden growth or transformation. There may be a teacher or a book that suddenly opens up an insight for you, or there has been a loss that was unexpected, or perhaps a major transition is one aspect of your life that triggers an unlooked-for opening in what seemed like an another unrelated aspect of your life. Physically, this is like when little kids go through growth spurts. They are suddenly hungry ALL THE TIME and can sprout up an inch in height over a weekend. This second form of maturation is not unlike the third form, which is the really exciting one. The third form of spiritual growth is to go looking for it, to create sudden growth or transformation; or perhaps more accurately to create opportunities within your life for transformation.

You can train your body to run a marathon physically, you can meet with a therapist to work on your emotional life, and you can take a class in various subjects to cultivate your mind. You can also participate in various spiritual exercises or programs to cultivate your spiritual growth. Like going to school to improve your cognitive maturity you can go to church to improve your spiritual maturity. Rev. A. Powell Davies said a church is where people come to grow a soul. Is that something that is happening here in this congregation? Are people growing wiser, more spiritually mature, as a result of anything we are doing here in this congregation?

Now, for the same reason schools do not offer only intellectual opportunities and instead seek to feed the whole student with music and Phys. Ed. and social events like dances and such – similarly religious communities such as this one will offer a range of things including intellectual stimulation, social opportunities, ethical and moral encouragement, and so on. But the basic function of a religious community is to aid people in becoming more spiritually mature. One of the current phrases used by the UUA in its advertising, its current tagline, is “Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal the World.” The first part of that tagline is squarely focused on each person’s spiritual growth and maturation.

I think deep down many of us yearn to be more spiritually alive and mature. In the same way that we want our physical bodies to be healthy and balanced at whatever age we find ourselves, in the same way we want our emotional needs to be met – to be loved and to share our love with others in, in the same way we find our minds demanding truth about the world in which we live, truth about life; … in this same way we yearn for a spiritual grounded-ness in our lives. We yearn to be more open and accepting, more compassionate, more self-aware, more generous with our gifts that can bless the world and bring more peace.

The basic function of any religious community is to feed that hunger, to help people develop their faith, to nurture their spirit, to become more spiritually alive and mature. Here we encourage one another in spiritual growth. Here we hallow a place and a time to grow more spiritually mature. Here we open ourselves to the journey of faith.

In a world without end,
may it be so.