Spiritual Maturity

If I were to say "I'm physically more mature than a 5 year old child", not too many people would argue with me. Physical maturity, barring some medical condition, comes with age. If I were to say "I'm mentally more mature than most high school seniors", again, not too many would argue with me. Mental maturity, barring a child prodigy or some mental limitations on my part, comes with experience and knowledge. But if I were to say "I'm more emotionally mature than most people," I'd probably get a good argument from a good many people. Emotional maturity is not something that automatically comes with age, although in general, the older and/or more experienced someone is, the more mature they are emotionally. It also seems in this case that experience (and how we deal with it) counts more than age in determining emotional maturity. This allows for the phenomenon of a ten year old being more emotionally mature than a twenty year old or even a forty year old. So let's take it one step further. What do you think the reaction would be if I said "I'm more spiritually mature than you"? Or "My faith is more mature than yours"?

I've pondered this for quite a few years now, trying to figure out why even implying this triggers such a strong reaction in people. I tend to think that people in general seem to equate "more" with "better" and so when someone says, "I'm more mature than you", most people hear "I'm better than you." If someone says, "My faith is more mature than yours", they hear "My faith is better than yours." Of course, a person with maturity doesn't go up to someone with less maturity and say "I'm more mature than you"— that in itself would be a sign of the lack of maturity. But on the other hand, getting upset because someone claims to be more mature than I am is also a sign of immaturity. I myself have no problem admitting that someone like the Dalai Lama is more spiritually mature than I am or that his faith is more mature. Is there such a thing as spiritual maturity? Are some faiths more mature than others? And if so, how do we determine the level of maturity?

To make a case for there being such a thing as spiritual maturity isn't difficult. We can argue that everything else associated with the human psyche has various levels of "maturity", so why not spirituality? (This, however, sounds too much like the argument that every parent dreads hearing from their child's mouth: "But everyone else is doing it so why can't I?") A more convincing argument would be that spiritual growth is possible— most of us have experienced it— and with growth there is the implicit association with a new level of maturity. We can make comparisons to other forms of maturity: as one emotionally matures, one's understanding of why s/he reacts in certain ways deepens, for example. So as one's understanding of one's faith deepens, one can be said to be spiritually maturing. When we mature mentally, we understand why division is a short cut for subtraction and why we can lift heavier weights if we use pulleys or levers. When we understand that eclipses are not caused by an angry god, we have a more mature faith than those who still fear the gods' anger (and are never quite sure exactly what it is that got the gods angry in the first place.) I think there would be very little argument over the existence of spiritual maturity or the idea that some faiths are more mature than others. But when it comes to how to measure it and which ones are more mature, that's another matter altogether.

Most faiths have some sort of creation story associated with them. In this story, the deity is seen as the loving parent-like figure, creating mankind out of love and giving them everything they need to survive in the world. So it is only natural that we look to our own experiences with parent/child relationships to understand the processes by which maturity is measured and indicated.

If we look at children as they grow up, we see at least a partial measure of their maturity in how many explicit rules they have to follow. You have to be very literal with a toddler. If you say, "Don't write on the walls with crayons", they will find something else to write on the walls with and say "But it wasn't crayons!" As the child gets older, saying "Don't write on the walls" is understood to mean "with anything". And as the child gets older still, saying "Behave" implies, among other things, not writing on the walls with anything. We can see in the Bible, for example, this same sort of progression for the Israelites. In the time when their faith was new, there were many laws: Leviticus is filled with almost nothing but laws on everything from how temples should be built to what animals to offer as sacrifice for what occasions to who you could or could not marry. As time goes on and the Israelites understanding of their faith deepens, God gives them the Ten Commandment as their "new" set of rules, much as a parent gives a ten year old a different sent of rules than a five year old. And later still, when Jesus teaches, he says the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as you love God. So we see within a sacred text that is the history of a faith (according to that faith) that the spiritual maturity of the people is measured, at least in part, by how many explicit rules they have to follow. The more rules, the less maturity is credited to the one following the rules. The less rules used that still protect the individual (as the rules of the parent still protect the child even when the only rule is "Behave"), the more mature a faith.

The number of laws/rules one must follow is a direct indication as to the level of our freedom of choice. A five year old, for example, doesn't have the same freedom to choose what clothes to wear to school because s/he doesn't understand that s/he can't wear his/her favorite sleeveless shirt to school in the middle of winter. As that child gets older, they are given that freedom to choose their attire because they understand what happens when they wear inappropriate clothing. So how much freedom of choice we have is another indication of the level of maturity of the individual (barring, of course, abusive/controlling parents, whose very need to abuse/control is a sign of their own immaturity). And the willingness to give the freedom to choose is an indication of the level of maturity of the faith itself, just as a mature parent doesn't seek to control every aspect of their child's life, so too a mature faith does not seek to control every aspect of the follower's life.

At this point, it is necessary to point out that failure to adhere to an earlier law does not automatically mean that one has violated the rules. For example, a parent might tell a five year old not to ever plug anything into an electrical outlet. As the child matures, the parent no longer enforces that rule because the child is now mature enough to appreciate the dangers of electricity and to take necessary precautions. The change in the rules is usually never stated as it is simply understood that the rule becomes unnecessary when the child understands the reason the rule was made and chooses to voluntarily abide by the goal of the rule. In virtually every case case, the rule's intent was to keep the child safe. When the child understands this and takes safety precautions around electrical outlets, the need for the rule prohibiting the use of such outlets is no longer necessary. Which leads us to another measure of maturity: the ability to not only recognize the intent of the law but to understand the wisdom of abiding by that intent voluntarily. (We're going to ignore the option of choosing to disobey the law for the sake of this discussion since we're focusing on how to spiritually grow/mature in one's faith and simply disregarding the rules/laws of one's faith is not a sign of spiritual maturity any more than it's a sign of maturity to simply disobey civil laws or the rules of one's parents for not reason other than you don't want to obey.)

During the time of the Old Testament, the law against eating pork, for example, was a wise one. Raw pork often contains bacteria that can be deadly to humans. With no way to refrigerate pork and the ability to "smoke" meats to preserve them being what it was, it made more sense to simply not take the risk. Likewise the prohibitions against marrying someone too closely related by blood: the chances of getting pregnant are lessened while at the same time chances of birth defects or a spontaneous abortion are increased the more closely related one is by blood. At a time when average life expectancy was so low, where living conditions were so harsh and wars between clans threatened the very existence of one's tribe, such prohibitions were wise since the very survival of the tribe depended on the ability to reproduce healthy offspring who made it to adulthood. But those things were unknown at the time except to God and so the laws were laid down to protect his children from harm. As those children matured spiritually, those laws changed until by the time Jesus came, they were down to two: to love God and to love your neighbor as you love God.

There is another measure of spiritual maturity: the ability to understand the necessity for different laws for different people and the wisdom of not "forcing" any one group to abide by the laws of any other group. We can see this in comparing a five year old and a sixteen year old's rules. The five year old is told not to answer the phone, not to cook anything in the microwave or on the stove and not to let anyone in the house. The sixteen year old is told to behave. Shortly after the parents leave, the phone rings and the sixteen year old answers it. Five minutes later, he lets his friend (perhaps a stranger to the five year old) into the house and they go into the kitchen and cook hotdogs on the stove and microwave a bag of popcorn for lunch. In the eyes of the five year old, no amount of logical reasoning will convince him that the sixteen year old is not going to get into trouble— after all, the sixteen year old broke all the rules! Yet when the parents come home, the sixteen year old doesn't get into trouble and the five year old doesn't understand why and claims it's not fair. The sixteen year old understands the wisdom of not allowing the five year old to answer the phone, to let someone in the house or to cook on the stove or with the microwave while the parents understand the wisdom of allowing the sixteen year old more freedoms. We certainly wouldn't consider a parent who left a five year old home along or gave him the keys to the car to be a mature parent, yet we would not make such a judgment if the same parent left a sixteen year old home alone or gave him the keys to the car. Why? Because we recognize the different levels of maturity and we recognize that as maturity grows, the rules become less restrictive as we give the child the freedom to not only make his/her own choices, but to learn from those choices as well. It's like a child learning to walk: if you're always holding his/her hand, guiding them step by step, s/he'll never gain the sense of balance s/he needs to walk on his/her own. S/he must fall down in order to learn how to balance and we as parents are failing our children if we don't let them fall. (Of course, we're also failing them if we don't take measures to make sure that the fall is as painless as possible.) It is our job as parents to teach our children how to make wise choices and we do that by giving them the freedom to screw up and make mistakes. But we lessen the "damage" done by the mistakes by slowly "loosening" the rules, giving them a little more freedom until they learn how to handle that and then giving them a little bit more. If they screw up bad enough, we go back to an earlier set of rules and help them learn all over again. A sure sign that your child is maturing is when they come to you and say, "I understand now why you wouldn't let me do that when I was younger." And you also know that the rule forbidding them from doing it is no longer necessary because they understand why you didn't let them do it. Conversely, if they continue to demonstrate a lack of willingness to act responsibly, the rules are not changed and they're not allowed greater freedom of choice.

The same indicators that apply for individual maturity also apply to the maturity of the faith as a whole. The more maturity one demonstrates, the more freedom one is given to make choices. An "advanced" civilization (ie, a more mature civilization) would not need any law except one: to respect in others the rights you take for yourself. Likewise, a mature faith would need only one rule: Love one another as God loves you. So a mature faith is one that has fewer rules yet still protects each individual from harm. Fewer rules means greater freedom of choice. Greater freedom of choice implies a willingness to accept responsibility for one's actions, ensuring that one's choices don't cause another harm.

By now, most of you are probably asking, so what's your point? Others may question my level of maturity for writing an article like this. After all, I myself said that a sign of maturity is not saying "My faith is more mature than yours" or "I'm more spiritually mature than you". So let me try to explain my purpose for this article.

In today's world, with all the violence and the uncertainty and all the hatred, often being spread in the name of some religion, many people are turning away from the more "traditional" religions and seeking a more personal faith. But there is no direct correlation between individual spiritual maturity and the maturity of one's faith. There are some very spiritually immature people following some very spiritually mature faiths and as a result, some of these less traditional faiths end up with some very bad reputations. There are also some very immature faiths being practiced by some very spiritually mature individuals who, because of the level of maturity of the faith, are compelled to attempt to "convert" you to their faith. Because of their level of individual spiritual maturity, they can make some pretty compelling arguments for following their faith. So how does one evaluate what faith is best for oneself?

One must first come to some understanding of one's level of spiritual maturity. The willingness to be honest about one's level of maturity is in itself a sign of maturity.

  • Are you willing to accept full responsibility for your actions and the consequences of those actions or do you want your faith to tell you what is right and what is wrong?
  • Do you know in your heart of hearts how to live a good life or do you need your faith to tell you how to do that?
  • Do you truly believe in what your faith teaches or are you following the faith because you've never taken the time to figure out what you believe?
  • Do you know why your faith teaches what it does or do you simply accept that that's what it teaches because that's what someone told you it teaches?
  • Do you follow your faith because you choose to or because you're afraid not to?

If you choose the first option in each of those questions, you have a high level of spiritual maturity, regardless of what faith you choose to follow.

Once you have an idea of what level of spiritual maturity you are at, then you have a better idea of what faith is best suited to you. Oftentimes, someone who is spiritually mature may feel stifled by one of the less mature faiths. At the same time, someone who lacks spiritual maturity may be a danger to him-/herself and others by following a more mature faith, much as a five year old would be a danger if given the keys to the family automobile.

Here are some signs of a faith that is less mature:

  • Lots of "thou shalt not's".
  • The belief that the "thou shalt not's" apply to everyone, regardless of their age, faith, gender, ability to understand, access to the knowledge of the rules of the faith, etc.
  • A belief that it's not fair if someone gets the same "reward" they get without doing the same things they had to do.
  • A lack of understanding of the intent of the laws they are following which often manifests as a statement something along the lines of "Because God said so" or "it's not for us to understand why, simply to obey."
  • A need to control the actions of others, even those not of the faith.
  • A belief that questioning what one is told by one's spiritual leader is a sign of lack of faith.

Please keep in mind that nowhere in this discussion did the word "better" come up. The sixteen year old is not a better human being simply because s/he is more mature: in fact, to think s/he is is a sign of lack of maturity because it demonstrates an inability to understand why the rules change as you grow up. In that same vein, someone who has more spiritual maturity is not a better person simply because they possess that maturity. This isn't meant to be a contest or as a means of comparison between different individuals or different faiths. The purpose of understanding one's level of spiritual maturity is for the purpose of self-improvement. There are paths that are better for the individual, based on that individual's circumstances and needs. But simply because that path is better suited to that individual does not mean it is better suited for all individuals and recognition of this fact is yet another sign of spiritual maturity.

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