Thinking about conversations in the Faith and Robert Kegan

Each month, after Church at Villars, we go to the hotel, drink some wine, and discuss matters concerning ‘life the universe and everything’. Each Wednesday, too, I am having some very interesting discussions with two people who have questions about the Christian faith.

The characteristics of my conversation partners are that they are exploring Christianity ‘in the negative’. By this, I mean that for some, who have been burned by an upbringing in the faith that has focussed on guilt and punishment, their involvement in the Church has been with groups that are like this. But they have escaped. They have moved away. Now, when we have conversation, they speak suspiciously of the Church, and talk of the Church as only interested in control. Thanks to Dan Brown and some scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the accounts of other recently discovered texts, they mention with disapproval the Church’s suppression of these Gnostic accounts of Jesus, and his relationship with Mary Magdalene as proof of their mistrust of the Church.

My response has been to listen to these accounts, and to provide ‘counter arguments’. When, for example, they cite with approval, information about the Gnostics, then I offer an alternative view of the human person, saying why I think it is better not to be Gnostic. And so the conversation goes.

But I am having a think about all this. The first thing that is being challenged is my assumption about the purpose of these conversations, and who I am in them. One model of becoming Christian, or renewing one’s commitment to Christ in the Church is to begin by ‘making enquiry’. This means that a basic direction has been set, and the enquiry is designed to confirm this basic movement. It is like a relationship where there already is some ‘chemistry’ and then the swapping of information and the asking of questions is designed to confirm whether or not this basic ‘chemistry’ has any thing substantial to it, which may be built on.

But these groups are not like that.  Here the ‘chemistry’ is a sort of ‘negative chemistry’. The people in the group want to have the connection with the ‘official Church’, but for some other purpose. This is what I am thinking about.

When I really think my way into the situation of these enquirers, my first response is one of great admiration. When I was working as a chaplain, there was a certain freedom form parish life and all the difficulties associated with living in ‘the goldfish bowl’ and spending a lot of time as a priest on matters that on the surface don’t feel very ‘priestly.’ Anyway, I remember riding my bike one day, and thinking about my next position, after finishing as a chaplain. The option of being a Parish Priest came to me again,  but my anxiety went up. I said to God ‘You don’t want me to go back in there again do you??”

Well this is how I picture my conversation partners. Despite the hurts and negativity that they have experienced as they have committed themselves to the Church, they are still there, talking! I can imagine that people say ‘I’m not going back in there’. But somehow the question will not let them go. ‘Good on them.’ I say. I think that I write this as a ‘note to self’ that just because I do the ‘Church’ professionally and represent it as a priest, it does not mean that I can feel as though I ‘have’ something . What I ‘have’ is the state of having made some decisions about the Church. And I have said ‘Yes’ to God in my vocation. But that does not mean that I always have the courage that I see in these people who despite hurts, keep asking their questions.

The other day, in the shower, another piece of information moved from my ‘implicit knowledge’ to my ‘explicit knowledge’ about this situation. I am a fan of Robert Kegan’s theory of psycho-social development. Without going into it too much, Kegan thinks that people develop by becoming ‘conscious of’ that which previously they were ’embedded in’. Take a baby for example. In the first year of life a baby is completely unconscious of the food they take in, or the waste they send out. But this cannot go on forever. By two year’s of age a child must learn to be conscious of, and have a relationship to its intakes and outputs. It’s called ‘potty training.’ The ‘terrible twos’ are the response of a child to this necessary step up in consciousness. Kegan thinks that in life there are times of transition, which are times of ‘differentiation’ (making ones self different from where one began) and times of ‘integration’ that is re-joining society with a new ‘self’ that has made the step-up in consciousness. He remarks a two year old’s ‘No’ is more a ‘No’ to the one year old they once were, than a ‘no’ to their parents.

So I am thinking that one way to understand my conversation partners is to see them in the mode of ‘differentiation’. This involves them in a saying ‘No’ to the destructiveness of what they once were. Dan Brown and other scholars support that process of saying ‘No.’  

Kegan gives me some guidance as to how best to be in these situations. He says that the roles of the guide in these situations are three fold. The roles are (1) Holding on, (2) Letting Go (3) Hanging around. Holding on refers to the kind of admiration that I have expressed above. It is to affirm the journey, not knowing where it will end up, but to be a faithful companion.

Many churches that depend upon ‘belonging’ as their main thing, are intolerant of these questions because it destroys the grounds for belonging: thinking and feeling the same. But the wise parent knows what processes are in train, and can allow the questions.

Letting go means offering an alternative. Just as the pearl is produced by grain of sand in the oyster, so the pearl of consciousness is produced by the grain of sand of contradiction. My stance of affirming the process, and affirming what I can of the content, but at the same time offering an account of the issues, from the point of view of the Church as I understand it is a good stimulus to thought, just as these conversations are a stimulus to mine.

Hanging around means being there to see the results of the conversation and to help the process of re-integration. Whether or not this will be the case for my conversation partners and me is, of course, unknown but the idea of ‘hanging around’ fills out the compete arc of the process from beginning to end, and reminds me of what the ‘whole thing’ looks like.

So there you are. Thank you to my conversation partners for enriching my life, and adding another thing to it (see last week’s reflection) that makes me feel like a proper priest.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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