Here’s a train of thought that came to me this morning while praying. It’s pretty basic really, but could be helpful for those who are struggling with trying to understand Christianity in a way other than the old fashioned “be good and go to heaven when you die” paradigm.
We know that human ethical development typically (and broadly speaking) emerges through three stages, which can be defined as preconventional, conventional, and postconventional stages of moral development. Let me explain this. At the first or preconventional stage, morals are understood and experienced solely in terms of what the ego demands (“if it pleases me, it’s good; if not, it’s bad”). This is normal for infants and small children (and sociopaths). But with relatively normal/healthy social development, we move into the stage of conventional morality: where our moral sensibilities are shaped by one or more group identities. This can take several forms, such as patriotic or religious values (“What’s good for America is good for me,” “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”). At this stage, ethical values are shaped by the group and “good” or “bad” often refer to one’s conformity with group norms. Finally, as postconventional ethical consciousness emerges, we begin to think not in terms of conformity to any given group, but begin to define ethical values by universal principles that may or may not align neatly with our previous group identity. Here is the ethical stance of those who were willing to question the Iraq war even at the risk of being labeled “unpatriotic” because they believed that conformity to what the President said was in the national interest was not as important as being faithful to higher values (such as nonviolence, diplomacy, or cooperation with other nations). In other words, postconventional morality is willing to “break the rules” when it clearly serves a higher purpose than what the group defines as good or bad.
I’m asking “What’s the point of Christianity?” because I believe a major fault line in popular religion has to do with the stages of moral development. Simply put, for many people the point of being a Christian is to get a ticket to heaven. It’s about being saved from the fires of eternal perdition. This cuts across denominational lines: the Catholic who worries about mortal sin is roughly equivalent to the Protestant who believes everything hinges on being born again. What we have here is a curious blending of preconventional and conventional morality: goodness, religiously speaking, is all about me: do I get to go to heaven or not? But it is achieved in strictly conventional terms: do I conform to my group’s expectations, or not? (okay, most Christians would say it’s about conforming to God’s expectations, but God is typically experienced as speaking according to the group norms: God’s word is discerned by the way the community of faith — i.e., the church — interprets the Bible and/or Christian tradition). But where does all this existential angst about what happens after we die come from? Clearly it arises out of the Biblical teaching that “narrow is the way,” in other words, that most people will not get to go to heaven, but will suffer some form of eternal punishment and/or eternal separation from God (different theologies interpret the doctrine of hell in different ways, but it always amounts to missing out on the big party). Furthermore, the church insists that salvation must be worked out on earth (there’s no trying out hell and then changing your mind and asking for a celestial transfer). So there is a tremendous ethical incentive to conform to group expectations in order to ensure personal advantage in the hereafter.
But as a person (or entire communities of people) make the transition from conventional to postconventional morality, this entire world-view begins to fall apart. For many people, postconventional religious sensibilities involve a sense of fidelity to universal values such as love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and kindness. Sure, values like justice and fairness are important, too, but even those values can lead to questioning previous religious commitments (is it truly just for a person to spend eternity in hell just because he failed to become born again, or failed to confess the “mortal sin” of missing a Sunday mass?). A postconventional thinker begins to be troubled by questions that hold God to God’s own divine standards: in other words, why would an all-loving and all-merciful deity be so invested in sending rebellious/wounded mortals to an everlasting punishment? The conventional thinker dismisses this question with an answer that’s basically “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” — but this line of thinking appears specious and naive to the person at the postconventional stage. Postconventional ethics not only places universal principles above community-defined norms, but also begins to question this entire notion of the few get saved, while the many are damned. Why worship a God who is so wasteful, creating so much consciousness only to discard it eternally? Why opt for personal comfort when others will continue to suffer eternal torment (even if it is torment of their own choosing)? How can I in good conscience orient my spiritual practice toward saving my own skin when I know that so many will be damned? What does that say about my ethical development, let alone the character of the God I worship?
These are the kinds of questions that begin to bug a person as he or she moves from conventional to postconventional ethical thinking. At this point, it seems that many people jettison religion altogether; others opt for an arrested development, holding on so tenaciously to religious belief that they are willing to repress their own moral growth; finally, it seems that a small number of people choose to live into the paradox, loving and cherishing the Christian faith for its profound cultural and historical beauty even while trying to comprehend new ways of understanding the Gospel that make sense in a postconventional ethical context.
Thankfully, those new ways can be found, in scripture and in tradition. The parable of the prodigal son, understood in terms of conventional morality as the story of a young sinner who repents, becomes to the postconventional thinker an inspiring story of the lavish grace of the father, poured lovingly on the son before he even has a chance to say he’s repented. To the conventional moralist the sacraments are tools to help us make the right decision; to the postconventional mind the same sacraments are luminous signs of an abundant grace that flows everywhere, to all people, crossing boundaries and transgressing limitations as they transform the world with the resplendent grace of God. And on and on it goes.
So back to my question: what’s the point of Christianity? To the preconventional and conventional minds, it is a tool for ensuring existential safety in a big and frightening universe, even at the risk of believing many others will fail to achieve the same level of safety. To the postconventional mind, however, it loses the competitive “I go to heaven but you don’t” dimension, transformed instead into an aesthetic sign of just how safe the cosmos is — even when it feels unsafe — for all of us.