One of the last classes in my master’s degree covered developmental theory. While studying Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, I read an article which stated there is actually an inverse relationship between conservative Christianity and higher levels of moral reasoning. While Christians should be able to function at the principled level of reasoning, which involves acceptance of ambiguity, complexity, and paradox (grace and truth, mercy and judgment, and that Micah 6:8 tattoo), studies dating back to the 1970s show that seminary students “tend to choose items on moral development test instruments that do not involve reflective application of biblical principles. Instead, items chosen are ones phrased most closely to familiar doctrinal statements.” 

More: “These students deliberately set aside items involving reasoned considerations of justice in favor of items in close congruence with the way religious tenets are expressed. If this finding has validity for explaining low scores of other Christian groups, it may suggest that the evangelical mind is ‘checked out’ when difficulties are encountered in relating biblical principles to life’s tough situations.”

This article by Dennis Dirks from Biola is from 1988. This is not a new problem. (See also Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.) The article goes on to suggest application for educators in Christian colleges and universities and the importance of pushing students to apply biblical truth to life instead of “reinforcing faith without assisting its maturation” and “acting as though our task is to deliver Christian minds intact, rather than accepting the challenge to grow them.”

While this research is geared toward the academy, the same challenge is before the church. Although I work for a Christian university (with some professors who do this hard work of pushing our students to grow), I do not think it is the university’s job to disciple a generation of Christians. This is the church’s job, and the church’s failure to do it will not be solved by Christian colleges or Christian campus ministries. If anything, the church’s failure in this area makes it much harder for universities like Johnson to even begin this work.

The following week, my class read Fowler’s theory of spiritual development. Interestingly, his work parallels some of the secular researchers and stage theorists in suggesting that later phases of spiritual development include a greater comfort level with nuance, paradox, and gray areas. Once again we find conflict because conventional evangelical doctrine leads to what Kohlberg calls conventional morality: either/or thinking, a preference for easy answers, and a morality based on looking good to others.

So: tl/dr?

Right now “deconstruction” is the thing. And for good reason. But that process and the subsequent reconstruction cannot be based on feelings, nor can it be reactionary. It is not progress to construct a new belief system that is just as poorly-thought-through as the one being torn down. It is not growth to build a new value system in anger. What our young people need, what we ALL need at this pivotal moment in the church, are mature faith leaders who have a confident commitment to the truth claims of their tradition, the humility to consider what they don’t know, and the willingness to disciple others who are a step or two back on the journey.

After all, it is scary to move beyond thinking and reasoning like a child, to put the ways of childhood behind us. It is even scarier to do it in an anti-intellectual tradition based in fear. We need people who understand that one day we will know fully and be fully known, but for now we know in part—and who can model what it looks like to live this with integrity and thoughtfulness.

There is a reason 1 Corinthians 13 ends on this note. This is a hard work of love. It’s my prayer for the American church today.