Research Findings: Spiritual Realm/Sphere of Discernment


Sphere of Discernment



This is where we are. Inspiration into the Spiritual Realm!

This is where we are. Inspiration into the Spiritual Realm!

Whereas a major task of character development is pursuing knowledge rather than certitude, with spiritual development we pursue wisdom as more valuable than accumulated knowledge.  As David Bentley Hart writes:  “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see, but now fortified by the ability to translate some of that vision into words.”  (Experiencing God, Yale, 2013, pg. 10)

This development into the spiritual realm is named by James Fowler “conjunctive faith” (1981, pg. 184).  Fowler begins this section bemoaning what appears to him to be a vagueness about this development, leading him to conclude that it had not been adequately described by him or others.  At the same time, Kohlberg had written his articles with F. Clark Power (1981, referencing Fowler) about a “hypothetical stage 7” that Kohlberg later abandoned as “soft”, “metaphorical” (1984) and not adequately researched (1987).

I beg to differ with these views, even from the standpoint of 1981.  What I am going to do is to string along a number of descriptions of the spiritual realization identified by this juncture of inspiration in the double-helix model, ranging from William James and Jacques Maritain, to Brother Steindl-Rast and F. Clark Power.  We will also consider how this realization relates to the Overview Effect experienced by astronauts, as well as non-western traditions.

William James published  The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902.  In it (Image Books, 1978, pg. 468),he looks at what is common to a variety of religious experiences.  In the broadest sense, he finds these commonalities to include the following beliefs and feelings:

  1.  The the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe fro which it draws its chief significance.
  2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end.
  3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof — be that spirit “God” or “law” — is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.
  4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form of either lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
  5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.

See also The Gospel of Relaxation in Pragmatism and Other Essays (Washington Square Press, 1975) where it is also clear that this kind of experience does not occur in the hectic world of commerce.  This is important to understand for the quality of life in intimate relationships where creative problem-solving is essential.  In the traditional  “problem-solving” process in the social work profession, the first step is to make sure one is in a “frame of mind” to define the problem in a way that makes it solvable.  One cannot be very upset and do this at the same time.

From William James, we get the elements of the spiritual experience to be calm, joyful, creative and holistic.  Let’s first compare this to the description from F. Clark Power (Kohlberg, 1981, pg. 345):

In religious writing, the movement to “Stage 7” starts with despair.  Such despair involves the beginning of a cosmic perspective.  It is when we begin to see our lives as finite from some more infinite perspective that we feel despair.  The meaninglessness of our lives in the face of death is the meaninglessness of the finite from the perspective of the infinite.  The resolution of the despair which we have called Stage 7 represents a continuation of the process of taking a cosmic perspective whose first phase is despair.  It represents, in a sense, a shift from figure to ground.  In despair we are the self seen from the distance of the cosmic or infinite.  In the state of mind we have metaphorically termed Stage 7 we identify ourselves with the cosmic or infinite perspective itself; we value life from its standpoint.  At such a time, what is ordinarily background becomes foreground and the self is no longer figure to ground.  We sense the unity of the whole and ourselves as part of that unity.  This experience of unity, often mistakenly treated as a mere rush of mystic feelings, is at “Stage 7” associated with a structure of ontological and moral conviction.

This description includes the movement from despair to belonging (“we sense the unity of the whole and ourselves as part of that unity”), the gestalt shift from figure to ground, and the “commitment” of “ontological and moral conviction”.  The “calm joy” of William James’ description is echoed here.

Next we can look more closely at the emotional and intellectual elements involved.  Here is Brother David Steindl-Rast’s description of gratefulness (Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer:  An Approach to Life in Fullness, Paulist Press, 1984, pgs. 9-10; see also his website here):

A rainbow always comes as a surprise.  Not that it cannot be predicted.  Surprising sometimes means unpredictable, but it often means more.  Surprising in the full sense means somehow gratuitous.  Even the predictable turns into surprise the moment we stop taking it for granted.  If we knew enough, everything would be predictable, and yet everything would remain gratuitous.  If we knew how the whole universe worked, we would still be surprised that there is a universe at all.  Predictable it may be, yet all the more surprising.

Our eyes are opened to that surprise character of the world around us the moment we wake up from taking things for granted.  Rainbows have a way of waking us up.  A complete stranger might pull your sleeve and point to the sky:  “Did you notice the rainbow?”  Bored and boring adults become excited children.  We might not even understand what it was that startled us when we saw that rainbow.  What was it?  Gratuitousness burst in on us, the gratuitousness of all there is.  When this happens, our spontaneous response is surprise.  Plato recognized that surprise as the beginning of philosophy.  It is also the beginning of gratefulness.

This description adds the “child-like” quality of wonder to the kind of spiritually awakening experience we are considering.  Erik Erikson often wrote about the value of “child-likeness” as distinct from “childishness”, thus identifying an antidote to the Prison of Adulthood described in the previous section.  As Wittgenstein wrote:  “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Brother David is part of an intellectual milieu that includes authors whose work led up to Vatican II and the Encyclicals of Pope Francis.  One of those authors was Jacques Maritain.  Perhaps Maritain’s most important contribution to philosophy was his description of the experience he calls “the intuition of being.”  Various authors have noted the key role that the idea of the “intuition of being” plays in the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and how it revolutionized Thomistic metaphysics by translating ontological concepts into experiential descriptions (link).

Here are two passages describing the experience:

Precisely speaking, this prime intuition is both the intuition of my existence and of the existence of things; but first and foremost the existence of things.  When it takes place, I suddenly realize that a given entity, man, mountain, or tree, exists and exercises that sovereign activity to be in its own way, in an independence from me which is total, totally self-assertive and implacable.  And at the same time I realize that I also exist, but as thrown back into my loneliness and frailty by such affirmation of existence in which I have positively no part, to which I am exactly as naught.  So the prime intuition of Being is an intuition of the solidity and inexorability of existence; and secondly, of the death and nothingness to which my existence is liable.  And thirdly, in the same flash of intuition, which is but my becoming aware of the intelligible value of Being, I realize that the solid and inexorable existence perceived in anything whatsoever implies — I don’t know yet in what way, perhaps in things themselves, perhaps separately from them — some absolute, irrefragable existence, completely free from nothingness and death.  These three intellectual leaps — to actual existence as asserting itself independently from me; from this sheer objective existence to my own threatened existence; and from my existence spoiled with nothingness to absolute existence — are achieved within that same and unique intuition, which philosophers would explain as the intuitive perception of the essentially analogical content of the first concept, the concept of Being.

Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason (Scribner, 1952), pg. 88.

Thus, the intellect embraces at one and the same time, and in its own proper sphere, with the possible real (the object “all being…” set before the mind and grasped by it and signified in the statement of the principle of identity “every being is what it is”), and the actual real (the reality of the thinking subject, though as not yet attained in final act).  Intelligible being and the self are given to the intellect together and from the very start.  But being is given in the foreground and upstage; the self is in the background, behind the scenes, as it were.  It is only with the mind’s second movement, in the reflex intuition that serves as the starting point for critique, that it moves to the front of the stage.

Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (Scribners, 1959), pg. 78.

In these two passages from 1952 and 1959, we find Maritain identifying many of the elements noted by the authors above.  Included are the relationship between absolute reality and our finite selves, our sense of being overshadowed and then identified with absolute reality, and the gestalt shifts from figure to ground and ground to figure.

Next, let us consider the holistic experience described by astronauts and termed “the Overview Effect” (from Wikipedia:  Overview Effect):

Two years later, Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell (joint record holder with Alan Shepard for longest ever Moon walk of 9 hours and 17 minutes) reported experiencing an “Overview Effect”. He described the sensation gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. It was an interconnected euphoria.

Schweikart and Mitchell’s experiences are not isolated anomalies, many other astronauts since the 1970’s have reported this Overview Effect. Andy Newberg, a neuroscientist/physician with experience in space medicine, hopes to find out whether this is an actual psychological phenomenon. Perhaps there is a medical reason for an actual change in an astronaut’s brain function when in space. What’s more, he’s noticed a psychological change in the men and women that have come back from space:

“You can often tell when you are with someone who has flown in space, its palpable.” – Andy Newberg

Planetary Collective produced a 19 minute video about the Overview Effect in 2012, interviewing 5 astronauts and including stunning footage:  Overview video link.

1-bluemarble_westThese testimonies are very consistent, including both intellectual and emotional components of the experience of belonging to the universe in spite of the mortality of our material bodies and frailty of our earthly world.

Similarly, Carl Sagan wrote In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine, 1997):

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

And for those of you who are fans of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago, 1970), yes, I do consider Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to be a spiritual perspective on matter and energy (and having the wisdom to know the difference as well as interchangeability of the two).

If the discussion thus far appears overly “western”, there are “eastern” equivalents as well.  In Chinese and Japanese spirituality, “kokoro” is the character for the essential being which is the core, heart, or basic nature of reality.  To perceive kokoro, one must manage “ki”.  Ki is the character for breath, and is associated with our posture and movement. Thomas Rohlen (“The Promise of Adulthood in Japan” in Adulthood, ed. Erik Erikson, Norton, 1978) points out the emphasis on posture in this tradition:

Posture is a primary initial concern here.  Whether seated or standing, a relaxed but alert posture that opens the central area and provides stability is often taught as the first step in managing ki.  The early practice of Zazen is a matter of learning to sit correctly, and posture is crucial to learning virtually all of the traditional arts.  There is no more powerful symbol of the perfected inner life than that of outward composure.  (pg. 136)

Managing ki is a prerequisite for mastering the traditional arts, and also a prerequisite for perceiving kokoro.  Rohlen says of kokoro that “its characteristics are ones that begin to appear as one holds ki properly” (pg. 135).  Again, a method of relaxation has allowed for a growing ability to perceive, recognize, and relate to another order of being:  the source of reality becomes manifest in reality.

The elements we have so far identified dove-tail with the findings of Paul Marshall who has studied to elements of mystical experience, which he identifies as:  cessation of time or experience of eternity, intuitive knowing, experiences of unity beyond the self, including the luminosity of reality involving intimate experiences of light, love and bliss (pg. 70, “Mystical Experiences as Windows on Reality” in Beyond Physicalism, ed. by Edward Kelly, Rowan & Littlefield, 2015).

But how do we know that this is an ultimately a viable and sustainable perspective given the grinding pressures of daily living?  Stay tuned.

P.S.:  For a gratitude survey, click here.  For Brother David Steindl-Rast’s presentation of a grateful day, click here.  And for the effects of spirituality on intimacy, see the Spiritual Development section of the Macro-Analysis at the beginning of this section, including the examples of Jeff Bridges’ marriage decision and Bono’s relationship to his newborn daughter linked here.


Once one has had the kind of experience as described by “the intuition of being” or” the overview effect”, there is a natural motivation to sustain or revive this “savoring” of the universe.  But this cannot be done with the same “theory preservation” kinds of “motivated reasoning” that we reviewed in the section on Character Formation.  Simply put, the spirit does not lend itself to ideological treatment.  More flexible and creative problem-solving is required.  David Bentley Hart writes the following about dealing with the aftermath of the “intuition of being”:

One cannot dwell indefinitely in that moment, of course, any more than one can remain a child forever.  For one thing, there is an almost paralyzing fullness to the experience, a kind of surfeit of immediacy that is at the same time an absolute remoteness from practical things.  For another, there is nothing to hold on to in the experience, because the source of one’s amazement is not some particular object among the objects of the world but simply the pure eventuality of the world as such.  The question of why anything at all exists is one that already exceeds its occasion, already goes beyond the reality of all particular things, and attempts to lay hold, however uncertainly, of the transcendent conditions of that reality.  Sooner or later, therefore, one simply must let the apprehension slip away, just so one can get on with the business of life.  (The Experience of God, Yale, 2013, pg. 89)

So how do we go about our daily business and while maintaining and developing the benefits of the perspective of gratitude?  First and foremost is a healthy sense of humor, particularly about oneself and one’s often tiresome spiritual pretensions.  Here is a good place to apologize for my occasional preachiness — and how pretentious is this!?  Enough said.

Aside from a ready sense of humor, systems thinking, also called dialectical or dialogical thinking, can help bring more imaginative, responsive, and resourceful approaches to difficult situations.  This is not just new age thinking, but ancient wisdom as well.  A sense of the unity and interdependence of the universe makes it easier to trust that one will find one’s friends when in a lurch, and a sense of humor sure helps to make and keep good friends.

Creative problem-solving has some enhancements over traditional problem-solving.  In the traditional model, first one gets into a frame of mind to solve the problem, then one defines the problem in a way that it is solvable (e.g. must be specific and subject to change), then brainstorming ideas, evaluating those ideas separately after brainstorming to look at possible consequences, both positive and negative, for self and others.  Next is fashioning a proposed solution, implementing that solution, and evaluating its success.

Creative problem-solving puts these methods into a broader life context where one is able to have a confident spontaneity based on a well-practiced sense of personal boundaries (e.g. not mixing business relationships with personal relationships).  When one is more comfortable within one’s own skin, it increases one’s situational awareness and ability to see potential danger from afar.  This “depth” perception for “red flags” gives one the latitude to rally personal and/or social resources to prevent or prepare for unwanted eventualities.  What success I have had as a professional social worker has largely been due to my skills at “dodging bullets”, allowing me to get more involved with problem-solvers to successfully address problems rather than getting bogged down with the problem creators and consequently mired in tragedy.  Over the years, this has helped me to help various institutions (schools, families, foster and group homes) to reduce aggressive behaviors and establish more cooperative problem-solving practices.

This stage of Spirit Comparison can be fascinating, bewildering, multi-faceted, and gratifying. At the same time, the detachment that comes with the spiritual perspective helps keep all of this stimulus seeking into a manageable, long-term focus.   A lot of what I gained intellectually at this time in my life helped me to identify my preferred identity, which is to be a friendly helpful adult, with enough personality, skills and judgement to contribute to society and stay out of trouble.  So far, so good.

This detachment is the same as what these days gets called “mindfulness.”  Mindfulness as a spiritual practice has been fostered by masters such as Austrian Catholic Brother David Steindl-Rast and Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (for an account of how Thich Nhat Hanh influenced the UN climate change agreement, see link).  Mindfulness involves weaving contemplation into our daily activities, appreciating each thing/person/task for its own nature and qualities, doing one thing at a time to avoid distractions.  Doing so helps to perceive the wholeness of persons and situations so that one can see past people’s conflicted positions and draw out the motivating interests to find common ground (see Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury, 1991).

Another spiritual practice that is relevant for many during this stage is the experience of kneeling.  Guitarist Eric Clapton found this spontaneously and without any spiritual intent when he was in rehabilitation for alcohol and heroin withdrawal:

“I was in complete despair.  In the privacy of my room, I begged for help.  I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew I had come to the end of my tether…and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.  Within a few days I realized that…I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.    From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life, and, most of all, for my sobriety.  I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do.  If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you…because it works, as simple as that.”  (Christianity Today, “Eric Clapton:  In the Presence of the Lord” by John Powell, April 9, 2008)

One of the struggles people often have in the stage is the lure of positive thinking.  Thinking positive certainly helps, but does not guarantee good results.  Without some healthy skepticism, positive thinking can become wishful thinking.  My motto is:  hope for the best, prepare for the worst (realizing that things could end up even better or worse than we can imagine, so don’t obsess on trying to predict).  This is my formula for being easily amused and seldom disappointed.

This discussion taps into one of the controversies over the nature of “post-formal” developments.  Klaus Riegel (Toward a Dialectical Theory of Development, Human Development, 18:  50-64, 1975) and Michael Basseches (Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development, Ablex, 1984) represent opposing views on whether dialectical thinking operates differently than formal operations (Riegel) or consistently with formal operations (Basseches).  This is a secular version of the Jewish/Christian debate over the role of “law” in the “kingdom of love”:  Riegel views Basseches’ position to be a kind of modern Pharisaism, whereas Basseches virtually calls Riegel an Anarchist in the following passage where he calls for the need for formal stability in the face of necessary fluidity:  “However, if this fluidity were maintained at the expense of sacrificing those abilities to grasp and create stability  which I view as essential to the organization of modern civilization, I would not equate such thinking with cognitive maturity.”  (pg. 219)

Perhaps Basseches here is warning against the ideological axiom that demands radical counter-culturalism:  “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm!”  Or a naive “love wins over all” attitude that would neglect important social institutions.  But that is not how I read this issue.  Riegel is pointing out what many other developmentalists and spiritually minded people (such as James Fowler) understand:  deductive reasoning plays a relatively small role in our over-all functioning, which includes throughout our lifetimes habits, imagination, inductive reasoning, pattern recognition, and abductive reasoning (among others, I am sure).

On the other hand, the relentless push to formalize all functioning (e.g. Kohlberg) and consider it “immature” until it meets all formal requirements impinges on spontaneity and the logic of discovery.  In other words, there is no significant appreciation of the joy and gratitude involved in dialogical thinking when it is subjected to this treatment (compare the above criteria for Spirit Formation, including gratefulness, to Basseches’ “Dialectical Schemata Framework”, which has many complex cognitive correlates, but no affective correlates, only a mere mention of the “value of relatedness”:  link).  To his credit, Basseches does acknowledge that not all dialectical thinking involves formal operations.  But his emphasis on stability leads him to consider a study subject (Subject #22, a 41 year-old college professor, pp. 199-204) who has obviously lost or never had much interest or pleasure in teaching, to be considered to have achieved an “incomplete” level of dialectical thinking simply because he has thought a bit about being a teacher (meta-cognition).  Formal operations is all about meta-cognition:  it does not matter how many times you think about thinking, if you still take everything for granted, you are still a “stick-in-the-mud.”  Read the interview:  the subject obviously has no interest in what the interviewer wants to talk about.  And the subject shows many of the symptoms of what was described under Character Relation as the Prison of Adulthood.  (For more on the debate between Basseches and Riegel, click here.)

The main point I would agree with Basseches on is that dialogical thinking requires prior “soul-searching.”  While soul-searching (questioning one’s own motives and judgements) is related to deductive evaluations, it also includes the affective caring values involved in character development.  By-passing soul-searching to assume a spiritual persona is a form of narcissism based in cultural development and the goal to impress an audience, not character development and true spiritual insight.

For those of you itching to get back to more cosmic considerations such as the overview effect and gratefulness, we’re now going to go on a little excursion with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Speculation is that James Lovelock developed his Gaia theory (that the earth acts as an organism) from his contacts with NASA and those who experienced the Overview Effect.  Another source for the Gaia theory is the writings of French Jesuit priest, scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).  Teilhard de Chardin was silenced by the Church for his researches into evolution, but he was not ex-communicated.  His writings were not banned, but they were not allowed on Catholic college campuses.  The main charge was that there was vagueness and ambiguity in his writing, and that he didn’t repeat the church doctrine on original sin (for some reason, any speculative work has to repeat all the main positions on moral doctrine to qualify for the nihil obstat –granting that the work poses no doctrinal obstacle).  Catholic supporters of Teilhard’s works after his death included Cardinal Henri de Lubac and US Senator Patrick Leahy.  Most recently Pope Francis refers to Teilhard’s philosophy favorably in his groundbreaking encyclical on global warming, Laudato si.

Teilhard’s speculations into cosmological evolution, tracing earth’s transformation from  geosphere to biosphere to noosphere, generated important insights and possibilities, but was not initially clear on the relationship between the material and the spiritual.  This is a common issue for spiritual writers, who will either over-materialize the spiritual (e.g. gnosticism, where good and evil are personified as opposing material forces) or over-spiritualize the material (e.g. pantheism, where all of nature is divine).  Either way, the significance of matter and humanity loom large in the face of God, making God’s “will” dependent on human moral accomplishments.  Gnostic spiritualists compose collections of opposing archetypes, like the poetic sciences of C.G. Jung,  Claude Levi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade.  Or it may take the form of a modern Christian metaphysics like the humanism of Nicolas Berdyaev (Orthodox), the psychologism of Willam James (Protestant), or the evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin (Catholic).

The issue here is the difference between the spiritual and the material, the creator and creation, the source and its manifestation.  For Berdyaev, “the idea of God as sufficient unto Himself and as a potentate who wields power, still includes relics of an idolatry which is not yet overcome” (Will Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians, Doubleday Anchor, 1958, pg. 107).  He concludes form this that “human freedom creates God”, and:

“The apocalypse of the religion of the Spirit depicts the final destinies of mankind as a divine-human creative act, as a work achieved by the collaboration of God and man.  The positive end, the end which decides things, must depend upon man as well, not only upon God.”  (pp. 113-4)

William James also mitigates the absoluteness of God through a psychological interpretation of divinity:

“Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous  with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and his ideals.  All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves.  Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.  (Note: this sounds an awful lot like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development)  It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.  It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all.  Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us — a polytheism which I do not on this occasion defend, for my only aim at present into keep the testimony of religious experience clearly within its probe bounds.”  (Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 504-5)

For Teilhard, the universe as a whole and its evolution are metaphysical principles guided by the Omega Point (center and end of creation).  In other words, the universe’s  material evolution is immortal and infallible.  In this manner he holds a position similar to Berdyaev:  God depends on the fate of the world.  Teilhard is different from James in that for him the universe is necessarily a unity, whereas for James, reality is probably a plurality (a multi-verse).  In the next section, we shall see that Teilhard partially moves away from this position.

I came across this kind of pantheism in the development of my own metaphysical thinking.  When I first explicated the metaphysical principle of identity, the formulation I first arrived at was that “the source is fulfilled in its manifestation.”  As with Berdyaev, James and Teilhard, this makes the creator dependent on the creation for realization, the result being a form of pantheism.  This vague pantheism hindered the development of my thinking until I reformulated it later (I took a session off from college before completing my thesis over this, working at a group home, only to return to UCSC to find that my thesis sponsor, Bhuwan Joshi, had died).

In spite of the metaphysical thicket involved in this stage, many strengths come out from this searching, including speculation on the relationship between science and religion.  We can learn a lot from Berdyaev’s distinction between spiritual freedom and spiritual slavery, from James’ distinction between the higher self and the  lower-self, and from Teilhard’s distinction between the believer in divine unification (the monist) and the unbeliever (the pluralist).


This chart summarizes the spiritual stages covered above up to and including Spirit Relation.  Donald Gelpi, SJ, used Carl Rogers’ schema of affective development and extrapolated it into other domains of development (Experiencing God:  A Theology of Human Emergence, Paulist Press, 1978):

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 8.04.14 PM

Click on chart to enlarge.

Coordinating the elements of the previous developments has many advantages.  One more quickly arranges one’s priorities so that problems can be addressed in a step-by-step fashion while having the situational awareness to change course when needed.  In this way, contemplation can be woven into action so that a sustainable pace of change can be established and maintained.  These are all good things for long-term goals and long-term relationships.  Sustainable pacing increases reliability and good working relationships.

Along with this long-term view comes some creative methods of de-escalating conflict. There were two key articles written by Donald T. Saposnek, PhD, that I have found most useful for my own practice and the training and supervision of students and interns.  The first is his expansion of the work of Thomas and Chess on temperament and development, and the second is his use of Aikido as a metaphor for mediating conflicted systems.  The attention to temperament is important for dealing with diverse people since one style of responding works better for one kind of temperament than another, and it is better to not rub against the grain unwittingly.

The use of the Aikido metaphor brings into play a perception of the direction of energy in order to work with rather than in opposition to that energy:

In contrast to the more linear Judo axiom, “Push when pulled, and pull when pushed,” the Aikido axiom is, “Turn when pushed, and enter when pulled.”  It is this spherical motion that give Aikido its dynamic and effective variety.  (Saposnek, “Aikido:  A Sytems Model for Maneuvering in Mediation”, in Applying Family Therapy Perspectives to Mediation, Mediation Quarterly, no. 14/15, Jossey-Bass 1987, pp. 119-136)

This metaphorical perception of maneuvers allows one to “slow down” how one perceives the action and con-currently realize more opportunities to change the course of the energy and eventual outcome.  Having this long-term, slow-motion view of developing conflicts can help pre-empt problems from starting in the first place.  The perspectives and methods Saposnek identifies include:  knowledge of attacks, process of defense, blending without clashing, extending, leading control, centering and using leverage, maintaining flexibility, preempting, presenting the unexpected, multiple challengers, and maneuvering rather than manipulating.  The “spherical motion” of an aikido maneuver fits well with the double helix dynamic by anticipating that development involves twists and turns as one shifts the energy of a “combat opponent” to that of a “dance partner” (Saponsnek, personal communication).

A perspective on creativity that I have valued and passed on to the students and interns I have supervised comes from an interview musician and producer Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno (musician, producer, artist, innovator) for Lanois’ film (and CD, 2008) Here Is What Is:

Scan 11

Creative problem solving requires a retreat from “hero worship”, and an understanding that one’s creativity stems from the creative milieu in which we operate.  Eno is the ultimate musical collaborator because he understands this so well.

Let us now shift from creative problem-solving to the relationship between the divine and human. The previous stage established a compromise between the human and the divine:  we move “up” towards God as God moves “down” towards us.  The conclusion of this way of thinking is that God is a higher force who changes as we change (the role angels perform in Catholic theology).  The result is that God is neither fully transcendent nor fully immanent.  God has neither the full characteristics of personality nor universality.

God’s universality means that God is unchangeable.  This is God’s transcendence (e.g. God’s truth).  God’s personality means that even though God is unchangeable, still God cares for us.  This is God’s immanence (e.g. God’s love).  We can find these two aspects of God expressed in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin (Chrisitian) and Martin Buber (Jewish).

Teilhard says of God’s personality:

It must be that in the supreme personality we shall inevitably find ourselves personally immortalized.   You may find this an astonishing prospect; but that is because the materialist illusion is still at work, in one of its many forms, and it is leading you astray, as it has led astray the majority of pantheists.  We almost inevitably, as I recalled at the beginning of this section, picture the great whole to ourselves as a vast ocean in which the threads of individual being disappear.  It is the sea in which a grain of salt is dissolved, the fire in which the straw goes up in smoke.  Thus to be united with that great whole is to be lost.  But what I want to be able to proclaim to all men is that this is a false picture, and contradicts everything that has emerged most clearly in the course of my awakening to faith.  The whole is not, definitely not, the tensionless, and thus dissolving, immensity in which you look for its image.  Like us, it is essentially a center, possessing the qualities of a center.  Now, what is the only way in which a center can be formed and sustained as such?  Is it by breaking down the lower centers which fall under its governance?  Indeed it is not — it is by strengthening them in its own image.  Its own particular way of dissolving is to carry unification still further.  For the human monad, fusion with the universe means super personalization.  (pp. 53-5)

Teilhard is able to criticize intellectual pantheism by reference to an inclusive (rather than exclusive) absolute.  God is merciful.  Buber also speaks of God’s personality when he writes of “the Divine Presence which resides in this world.”  (Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Early Masters, Shocken, 1978, pg. 3).  And Buber refers to God’s universality when he makes it clear that it is not this world that is holy:  “We do not put up with earthly being, we struggle for its redemption, and struggling we appeal to the help of our Lord, Who is again and still a hiding one.”  (quoted in Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians, Doubleday Anchor, 1958, pg. 203)

As I mentioned in the last section, the principle of identity formulates the relationship between a source and its manifestation.  The error in the previous stage was to think that the source is fulfilled in its manifestation.  In this stage, it is realized that it is the manifestation that is fulfilled in its source.  The source here is identified as the guiding partner independent of the choices made by a self-conscious manifestation.  Thus, our relationship with God is dependent yet undetermined.

My intent here is not to defend these philosophical and metaphysical perspectives (which I cover in the Roots:  Philosophical Perspectives section) but to describe them as they appear in the developmental and spiritual literature (including my own experience) and organize them in the patterns I perceive.

Before moving into the next forms of self-consciousness, there is one remaining major issue with Teilhard’s writings that bears mention.  Teilhard’s view of cosmic evolution predicts the inevitable union of this manifestation (the noosphere created by human consciousness) with the  divine Omega Point.  This view was easier to maintain before WWII and the Nazi extermination of the Jews.  Teilhard’s cosmology accounts for this evil as part of the inevitable birth-pains of a new creation.  Gabriel Marcel sparred with Teilhard at a debate on “Science and Rationality” (1946), arguing how technological society de-humanizes us, and citing the Nazi medical experiments at the Dachau concentration camp as an example where technological “progress” masked pure evil.  To the astonishment of the audience, Teilhard maintained his optimistic perspective, declaring that “Man, to become fully man, must have tried everything.”  (Mary and Ellen Lukas, Teilhard:  The Man, The Priest, The Scientist, Doubleday, 1977, pg. 238)  Problem was, the Nazis not only tried everything once, they tried it over and over, and were intent on making evil reign over the earth. Teilhard had experienced the horrors of trench warfare during WWI, maintaining a remarkable detachment during that time, but was studying paleontology in China during WWII, while Marcel endured in occupied France, marking the end of any idealistic tendencies he had previously entertained.  (see Teilhard, Writings in Time of War, Harper and Row, 1968, and Marcel’s autobiography Awakenings, Marquette, 2002)

This leads us to our spiritual limit where discernment becomes crucial to deal with the existential issues we inevitably face, whether through death, trauma, sickness, oppression or unjust incarceration.  This is an area more familiar to me through study than through direct experience.  To clarify the developments here, I will be focussing on the final years of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who left Germany with the rise of Hitler, but returned to join the resistance to Hitler and the plot to assassinate him.

Sphere of Discernment


This is the development that James Fowler named “universalizing faith” where the rare individual decides to sacrifice their own self in service of a larger cause.  In the field of mysticism, it is what the Spanish mystics Saint John of the Cross (1542 to 1591) and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515 to 1582) called the “dark night of the soul”, which follows the consolation of spiritual prayer experienced by the proficient.  Note that St. John was secretly imprisoned while he wrote the poems of the “dark night” (he escaped), and St. Teresa faced serious opposition to her reforms when she wrote her poems.  Both of them escaped their “imprisonment” in order to realize their vision of union with God, however painful.

We can also approach this development from a somewhat different angle.

Physician, philosopher and novelist Walker Percy wrote that when scientists or artists embark on a creative flight (metaphorically speaking), it doesn’t so much matter how high or how far or how fast they go, but how they land.  Many artists, and scientists, have crash landed in a blaze of alcoholism, insanity, suicide, etc.  This shows a lack of spiritual preparation and unsustainable creativity.  (Lost in the Cosmos:  The Last Self-Help Book, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983)

This reminds me of the story of Romel Joseph, blind Haitian violinist, music teacher and head of a music school.  When the 2000 earthquake hit Haiti, Joseph was buried in concrete for 18 hours, both legs injured and the fingers broken on his left hand.  To keep himself sane until he could be rescued, he mentally played violin concertos, one an hour, for 16 hours.  He says that Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things made it so that he wouldn’t “feel soo bad.”

His pregnant wife was never found, and it took him 3 years of rehabilitation before he could play in public again.  Stevie Wonder gave him one of his keyboards as part of his treatment, and a Florida hospital sponsored his treatment.  His son and his daughter are both musicians and played with him at a benefit for the hospital (see it on this link).  He focussed more on his spirituality and wrote a book on music before dying of a stroke at age 56.

Romeo Joseph didn’t crash land in a frenzy of creativity, but the world crashed down on him.  His spiritual preparation saved his spirit from being crushed in this blow, and he came out of it a more inspiring human being.

Discernment is a multi-faceted process, with many twists, turns and insights.  It lays in wait, keeps in shape, is alert and on the ready, and sleeps on things.  It is necessary to be successful in very trying positions, such as Pope Francis and Vice-President Joe Biden (in spite of being known for his loose tongue).  Examples?

Pope Francis (after Pope John XXIII):  See all, turn a blind eye to much, and correct a little.  (We all need encouragement)

Joe Biden:  Do not question other’s motives, but their judgement.  (We are all subject to self-deception)

I personally have been through a number of trying situations, but I have not had to deal with the degrees of responsibility shouldered by the individuals quoted above.  None-the-less, both Joe Biden and Pope Francis chose to pursue their positions of responsibility.  The story I am going to depict in this section was partly chosen, but more significantly imposed, on Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by the German Nazi regime during WWII.

Like Joe Biden, Pastor Bonhoeffer consistently questioned his own motives, and stated towards the end of his life that he was never really sure of his true motives.  This is the mark of a life-time soul searcher.  At the same time, he didn’t let his skepticism prevent him from bold, well planned action.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to prominent German parents.  His family and in-laws included well-connected legal, medical, religious and military professionals.  So when Hitler rose to power, the whole family was in alert to various degrees.  They knew they had to counter-act Hitler, but it was not clear how to go about it safely.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist and planned to train with Mohandas Gandhi in India.  He had two reasons for this:  1) to get closer to what he considered authentic Christian roots, 2) to learn ways to resist the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer received a personal invitation from Gandhi to accompany him for a few months in 1935.  Bonhoeffer abandoned this plan when pressures within his church hierarchy required his attention and he considered taking a post in the U.S.  When he realized that the church’s efforts to resist Hitler would not be effective, he decided to return to Germany and join the resistance.

The first plot was to have Hitler arrested, tried, and certified as criminally insane.  The group had the necessary professional authority to attempt to do this, but when France surrendered in 1940, Bonhoeffer realized that the plot was unrealistic.  The only realistic plot was to assassinate Hitler.  With no military training, Bonhoeffer assumed the role of the group’s moral compass, buttressing their resolve when it faltered.  Bonhoeffer reasoned that the command to love your neighbor, under Hitler’s reign, meant that lying and killing become necessary evils.  The group would have to lead double-lives, protecting each other and their families first.

The following account by Bonhoeffer’s biographer Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Harper & Row, 1977, pg. ) depicts a dramatic moment when he realized and communicated the need for the double-life:

While we were enjoying the sun, there suddenly boomed out from the cafe’s loudspeaker the fanfare signal for a special announcement:  the message was the France had surrendered.  The people round about at the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up and some even climbed on the chairs.  With outstretched arm they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horst-Vessel song.  We had stood up, too.  Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed.  “Raise your arm!  Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later:  “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”  (pg. 585)


Now that Bonhoeffer made his decision, he had to put it into practice in a disciplined, thorough and detailed manner.  The plot launched three attacks on Hitler — two before Bonhoeffer was arrested, and one after.  Secrecy was essential, meaning that family and friends not directly in the plot were to be kept in the dark.  Documentation was kept to a minimum, was guarded closely, and was destroyed when endangered with discovery.

From 1940 to 1943, Bonhoeffer travelled extensively throughout Europe to plan future international relations based on the assumption that a coup would be successful.  Unfortunately, a note written on a slip of paper by his brother-in-law got into the wrong hands and both his brother-in-law and Bonhoeffer were arrested in 1943.

Bonhoeffer spent 18 months at Tegel Military Prison.  During that time he made friends with many of the other prisoners as well as the guards.  When he got gifts from outside of books, tobacco and food, he shared it with his fellow prisoners.  He became so well regarded at the prison that the head of the prison asked him to head up a committee to improve prisoner treatment.

Bonhoeffer had four means of communicating with those outside the prison:  1) visits with family that were monitored and allowed no physical contact, 2) official letters sent through the prison censors, 3) smuggled messages coded in the borrowed books Bonhoeffer received, marking letters every few pages, and 4) smuggled letters carried by a sympathetic warden.  Through these means, Bonhoeffer was able to maintain his family relations (including visits from his fiancee), as well as help with the final plot on Hitler’s life July 20, 1944.

In his Letters and Papers from Prison, smuggled out by the warden, Bonhoeffer described his thoughts and experiences.  He agreed with the general guideline Victor Frankl (From Death Camp to Existentialism, republished as  Man’s Search for Meaning) developed for surviving in a chronic moral dilemma:  never do anything to save your own skin that might put others in danger.  Maintaining a regular routine, exercising and keeping healthy, and an active sense of humor were important elements for him in staying sane.  Humor helped in three ways:   1) boosting own’s own morale, 2) boosting group morale, and 3) discerning who is a true friend from false friends.  In this case, humor is a language of solidarity that helps detect those who are not practiced in the language.  (For more on this theme, see my chapter Humor and Forgiveness:  A Multi-Culture Survey in the Project Forgiveness section of this website.)

Bonhoeffer was so successful in making friends in prison that the warden who smuggled his letters plotted to help him escape.  The plan was almost implemented — a mechanic uniform was smuggled into the prison for a disguise and the warden was going to walk out with Bonhoeffer disguised at the end of his shift — but then they got word that Bonhoeffer’s brother had just been arrested.  An escape would have increased the danger for everyone considerably, so the plot was abandoned, and Bonhoeffer’s fate was sealed.  His cover was blown off, and we was sent to the concentration camps.


The final attempt on Hitler’s life was July 20, 1944.  Bonhoeffer was executed April 9, 1945.  There are two historical controversies concerning these two events.

Generally history had concluded that the attempt on Hitler’s life was a failure and that, although the German resistance was a noble effort, it had no effect on ending Hitler’s regime.  But the fact is that the attempt did injure Hitler and tipped him into florid paranoia to the point where Himmler had to take over the reins of power.  Hitler committed suicide 9 months after the assassination attempt, and less than one month after Bonhoeffer’s execution.

The other controversy concerns the account of his execution.  At the end of Bethge’s extensive biography, he includes the following account (pp. 830-1):

On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster…and Reichsgerichstrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them.  Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was so deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Wikipedia notes some questions about this account.  Apparently the doctor was on staff at the concentration camp and assisted with the executions.  He was also charged with devising methods of torturing those being executed, prolonging their agony.  The concern is that this doctor may have used this account as part of his efforts to exonerate himself, making it seem like the executions were less sadistic than they were.  But the documentation is scarce.  At the same time, there was so much chaos at this time that the executioners might have wanted to complete the task as quickly as possible.

Either way, the account is consistent with verifiable conduct by Bonhoeffer under chronic, dire conditions.  Even if this doctor made the story up to save his own skin, by changing his allegiance from Hitler to Bonhoeffer, he made the right choice about who to admire.

So even if the account is not a true depiction of a prayer by Bonhoeffer, it may still be accurate as a prayer to Bonhoeffer and the spirit he represented.

After this point, all is speculation and beyond the veil of life.  But notice:  the pattern of the double helix has a “green button” at the end.  Being “green”, whatever it leads to is pure affirmation, and that’s good news!

Look up here — I’m in heaven.  David Bowie, from his death-bed, Lazarus, Black Star, 2016.

For Iggy Pop’s account of how David Bowie “resurrected” him (after Brian Eno did the same for Bowie), click here.

Here are the lyrics of a song by David Byrne (Talking Heads, Fear of Music, Sire, 1979, produced by Brian Eno).  My favorite version of it he did live with Caetano Veloso at Carnegie Hall as their final song  (Live at Carnegie Hall, Nonesuch, 2012).  My interpretation of this song is that the reference to heaven as where “nothing ever happens” means that there is no negation, no bad vibes in this perfect experience.  The ironic cast of the lyrics and song is that we can think that heaven is repetitive and boring, but this song is a lullaby to heaven as the best thing to be addicted to over and over, without cessation or need for rest.  We can trust heaven to be ours together without competition or envy.

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 20.35.07

So what does it look like when the strand of negation in life ceases, and we are embraced by total affirmation?  Maybe something like this:

helix sun moon loopback copy


Baby can hear, and baby laughs!

Leave a Reply