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Life on a Trellis: Spiritual Beliefs as a Support for Spiritual Life
Bill Epperly, PhD

We humans are built for growth, designed to change over time and in response to changing conditions. We evolved from other species and continued evolution at every level of being is fully expected to continue. With change and growth written into our nature at the genetic level, shouldn’t our spiritual lives also be places of lifelong growth, deepening, and development? Yes! But sadly, it’s not always the case.

If we were lucky, we were been born into a family and a culture that expects this growth of us and supported us in it. But many of us, probably most of us, found ourselves in the very unnatural situation of being born into a belief system and culture that suggests it will serve us for life. What’s more, these belief systems came with stern warnings for anyone who thought they might outgrow them. We got the sense, sometimes drilled into us, that to question our beliefs would put us at risk of losing God’s good favor and jeopardize our chances of being considered for a spot in Heaven.

How have we gotten to this state of affairs? And what are we to do about it? Do we try to suppress the thought that wants to question the central dogmas? Do we angrily toss out everything, the “baby with the bath water,” and forge out on our own without a belief system at all, into a time of “anything goes” spiritual exploration? Do we give up on God entirely and seek a good life on merely human terms?

There are many ways in which we experience outgrowing our faith and here I mean faith in the sense of beliefs. I want to suggest that a good belief system is like a trellis, like a trellis that you would use to grow climbing roses or clematis. It’s a structured framework that supports growth and development of your spiritual life. And the thing about roses is that if they are in a good spot and cared for, they’re going to grow to the top of the trellis and then want to go beyond it. And when they get to that beyond part, their growth is unsupported and they are going to fall all over the place. Similarly, we can reach the edge of our belief system and may need to find a taller trellis if we are to continue growing. Sometimes we just wing it and build the trellis out intuitively. This can work but has its risks. Other times, many times if we are lucky, helpers will come at just the right time to suggest a whole new extension to our trellis. Then, with a new extension in place, we can resume our growth into a wholly new experience of the Divine.

We’re built for lives of unceasing growth and exploration of Divine life. So it’s not a question of whether we will outgrow our belief systems, but of when. There’s no choice, we must grow if we are to stay vital and vibrant! I want to suggest that most of us will need at least four trellises over the course of our spiritual lives. I’m going to borrow from integral theory here and name the four as: the Conventional, the Universal, the Individual, and the Integral Trellis.

The Conventional Trellis has a crucial role in our spiritual development. It’s not as if we could just start on the advanced trellis! No, we all need to start with a trellis custom-designed for the cognition and meaning-making of the person we are in our early years. Once we hit puberty, we begin to think for ourselves and need to question things. At about puberty, we gain a cognitive skill developmental psychologists like Piaget call “formal operations,” and as this skill becomes established, we are going to get curious about most anything we’ve taken “on faith.” As we start to think using this new capacity we may find it impossible to make sense of a faith that has served us well to this point.

As a child, I had good associations with church and I particularly loved receiving Holy Communion. It was special, in kind of a neat and creepy way, to know that I was eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood. I remember kneeling at the altar in prayer, after receiving the elements, and feeling an odd sensation in my belly. The sensation felt spiritually significant and mysterious. Had I really eaten Jesus’ body? What was I sensing? Was it God’s life within me? The trellis was supporting my growth and I was already on track to becoming a mystic in time. But by a few years later, I was 13 and studying for confirmation, and somehow I had outgrown my trellis and I’d decided that I must be an agnostic. I did not believe the way my peers said they did and I considered dropping out of confirmation class. I had outgrown my trellis and had no extension ready to help me move into the next phase, the Universal Trellis, so I decided I had a problem with my spirituality, my faith. I was now an agnostic.

With rational thought and the other gifts of formal operations, it is time to transition to what I call the Universal Trellis. Where the Conventional Trellis sees truth as held only by the faithful, and often only by “our subgroup” within the faithful, the new belief system sees truth as universal, as being one truth, one reality variously experienced by different people. So there is a beginning of tolerance of difference. A warm welcome is given to rational thought. Yes, the Universal Trellis encourages us to articulate our individual belief systems, with no felt need for them to be the same as others’. The excitement of this stage is in this differentiation process, one in which we figure out “who we are” and what, exactly, we believe. We are becoming individuals now and building our own systems for making meaning out of the world. On the downside, it can be a lonely time and anxious time, particularly if those still on the Conventional Trellis are urging us to come back to the safety of their view.

In my case, my agnostic period caused me to deeply question all the dogmas I’d learned as a child. I wondered about things as simple and far reaching as if there were a God and, if so, “was He love,” as my minister preached? I didn’t see any evidence of this love in the world. I saw the end of the Vietnam war, my own unhappiness and that of friends, and a general lack of love in the world. Later, when I took a western civilizations course in college, my break with the church reached completion. I wanted nothing to do with the church I’d learned about in class, which seemed corrupt to the core and all-too human. Though some of my spiritual practices like receiving communion remained meaningful, I was adrift without an orienting framework to help me grow into my emerging understanding. I decided to throw out the whole business and be done with what I now saw as religious half-truth, corruption and hypocrisy. My spiritual life was reduced to my experience of the sacred in nature and music, especially classical music.

I found my re-entry point outside of formal religion, in a 12 step group. Coming in at a personal low point, I was open to new ideas (and reconsidering old ones) and I found the non-religious presentation of spirituality inviting. I could create my own sense of a Higher Power, they said. One man spoke of having an important awakening of his faith while watching a worm crawl across a sidewalk in the rain. This was natural spirituality, universal spirituality, stripped of narrow dogmas, mythic elements, and group-think. I quickly took up prayer, found my own sense of the Divine, and was a regular at church within a year’s time. I had gone back with my own sense of God, and with an experiential basis that was stronger than before. I was re-entering my childhood faith from my own starting point. For me, 12-step had become my Universal Trellis.

I stayed in this phase for perhaps 20 years. During this time I found my first great teacher, Br David Steindl-Rast, and discovered mysticism as a way of thought as well as an experiential relationship with the Divine. I became interested in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, a deep conversation between Christian and Buddhist monks. And through this dialogue, partially recorded in books like “Speaking of Silence” (S. Walker, ed.) and “The Christ and the Bodhisattva,” (Lopez and Rockefeller, eds.), I further refined my beliefs and found Fr. Thomas Keating and Reggie Ray, both of whom became important teachers of mine. I became a Buddhist-Christian and a biological chemist. I came to believe that awakening was real and that there were definitely better (and worse) ways of reaching it. I was interested in the best way I could find and for me at the time that meant Korean Zen. I believed that awakening was possible to anyone of any faith and that there was a universality to the path to awakening. I also felt that some paths were better, more effective, than others and I was happy to be on the best path I could find. Surely, I would find awakening!

Sooner or later, we will come to realize that although the path seems universal (we are all humans, living on the same planet, subject to the same energetic and spiritual “fields”) that people experience spirituality differently, each in his or her own way. And we realize that it may not even be clear that they are all talking about the same reality. It may seem like each has his or her own reality. Our own growth takes us beyond the Universal Trellis to a more nuanced trellis, which I’m calling the Individual Trellis. This is the place of radical appreciation and respect for the individual and the uniqueness of each person’s spiritual journey. Once we’re on the Individual Trellis, what we can now see is quite amazing: we see that the relative importance of the nature of God vs the importance of the person experiencing God is shifting. On the conventional lattice, your nature and personality are not given much thought – it’s all about God and your being in right relationship to God. In the movement to the universal lattice, we own our unique thoughts and create our own system of meaning-making through which we hope to reach what is experienced as the one universal God reality, known by various names by the different religions. On the individual lattice, it is not clear that there is one reality; in fact, it seems that there are as many realities as there are people. We might even doubt that there is any shared reality at all, any universal God, just perspectives shaped by personality, culture, and experience.

What we’re seeing on the individual lattice is the way in which Ultimate Reality is uniquely perceived and embodied by each person. Our cultural lenses, our systems of meaning making and belief, our bio-energetic nature and gender – all these influence the way we perceive the Sacred. What’s more, each of us has his own path to healing and awakening, based exactly on our unique history of woundings, our personalities, and gifts. It’s very possible that one person might find their spiritual life drawing them to investigate the very thing that another is giving up. The way forward during this stage, is experienced as intensely personal and individualistic.

We may turn our focus outward to the incredible diversity of religious expressions in society. This can be a time when interest in other religions appears or deepens. We find beauty in the many faces of religious and spiritual expression and the unique way in which each person interprets their spiritual life. For others of us, this fascination turns inward. We marvel at the mystery of our being, we notice that we have many sub-personalities, each of which seems to have a claim to being the answer to the question, “who am I?” Yes, we “are large, [we] contain multitudes,” as Whitman beautifully said. In us there are many perspectives, many ways of understanding life. We might even feel a bit lost as to how to move forward in the face of such diversity of inner voices. To which voice should we listen? If we don’t know who we are then, how do we make a decision? What are our life plans if we don’t know who we are?

It was while on the Individual Trellis that another sacred helper appeared. Susanne Cook-Greuter, a Harvard professor and co-founder of the Center for Leadership Maturity, has developed an extremely helpful model for human development (if you’re familiar with her work, you’ll see that I am drawing upon it here, for my four trellis model). In a coaching session, Susanne helped me understand that I was confused by my myriad sub-personalities. Yes, each had its own ideas for how I should orient my life, for what next step I should take in my career. Most disorienting for me, I had no coherent “sense of self,” no stable sense of who I was, just this amalgam of selves: educator, poet, wounded child, meditator, husband, and entrepreneur to name a few. Each of these had its own gestalt; each was its own world of values. I remember Susanne comforting me by suggesting that a new coherent center would emerge, in time, of its own accord. She suggested some practices I could do to help this happen, but emphasized that the new sense of self would emerge in its own time. I would leave the Individual Trellis when I had accomplished what was before me to live and experience there, and not before.

This need to complete the “life tasks,” if you will, of each developmental stage of our lives is so important to understand. There simply is no way to bypass the spiritual maturity that comes with living our lives, with its pains and its precious moments. The way is before us at all times and if we take care of each step, we will find ourselves learning and growing our whole lives. To try to rush it can make such a mess of things.

Be sure to check in next week when I will bring this piece to completion with a description of the movement from the Individual to the Integral Trellis. And please, I hope you’ll share your thoughts and reactions to this piece with me in the comment section below. I thought this little essay would be about ¼ its current size, but it has just wanted to keep on growing. I trust that your comments will add to it and shed new light on it for all of us!

 

Notes on Figure One:
*I am indebted to Susanne Cook-Greuter for her work and friendship.
**For more on Fowler’s system, see the seminal work of James Fowler and his book, Stages of Faith.

Copyright 2015.  Bill Epperly.  All rights reserved.

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