The understanding of human development is one of our great inheritances from the last century. Human life and knowledge are not static but developing. When I go to the doctor, I appreciate that my doctor’s knowledge and skill are far more developed today than when I was a teenager.

For most people, a developmental understanding of reality is just a fact of life. Sorting through some old things stored in our attic I had to chuckle at the small computer I used to write my doctoral dissertation, now so many years ago. It was one of the very first laptops. My son considers it an historic artifact; and I guess it is. (Perhaps just like his dad.) Nevertheless, I have now been through a few computers, laptops, and iPads. 

I suggest today that understanding a process of development is also an essential element in our lived faith experience and in theology as it tries to understand and interpret that faith experience. 

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with an evolving and developmental understanding of faith and theology, especially when it touches on dogmatic teachings and moral “certitudes.” Certainly not for some people in my Christian tradition where an entrenched old guard wants to push people back into a 1950s religiosity with dogmatic rigidity.  

When other sciences are undergoing rapid development, official institutional theology often remains static. In many ways, the institutional church is still burdened with a theology which assumed form in a prescientific age. This affects biblical understandings, male and female roles in the church, the relationships between Christian churches, and the relationships between Christianity and other religions. Very basically it affects our understandings about the birth and life of the historical Jesus, and of course about Christian morality. 

Morality is certainly developmental. Many moral rules and values change over time. A good example of a shift in morality over time is our attitude toward slavery. Most people in the world today think that it is immoral to own slaves but that was certainly not the case a century ago. And of course it used to be morally acceptable, with a biblical backing, to keep women at a secondary social level under male control. Sexism as a virtue?

In my own theological understandings, as I grew up I moved from a static to a developmental understanding. I once thought Adam and Eve were historic people, but now I understand them as part of a rich and ancient religious mythology. They are not historical. But they are certainly not meaningless. I am a Catholic. I once thought Protestants belonged to a “false religion” and only Catholics had the “true faith.” Now I know better.  I understand that Protestants and Catholics belong to the Body of Christ. Together we pursue Truth. 

My own developmental understanding has undergone a number of changes about human sexuality, about the meaning of a vocation, and how I understand and experience God’s presence in my life. I don’t want to regress. I have been happily married, a theologian, a teacher, and a learner for more than fifty years.  I want to move ahead and continue learning – developing as a person and as a believer.

How do we protect ourselves from regressing? How do we  move on with a healthy developmental understanding of human life and Christian belief? 

Here are seven suggestions I have found helpful: 

  • Forget the good old days: Frankly they were not always so great. Two of my elementary school classmates had polio and ended up in “iron lungs.” I had scarlet fever and other childhood diseases. Yes I have a pretty good understanding of the past. I experienced it. I have no desire to live like back then. But where are we going today? Are we really dealing with contemporary reality, reading the signs of the times, and building for tomorrow?
  • Augustine (354 – 430) theologian and Bishop of Hippo divided the world into two camps: the City of God and the Human City. I have no desire today to get into a discussion about the pros and cons of Augustinian theology. There is a problem, however, when we fail to understand that the Human City — in which we live — is the place where we encounter and live with the living God. It is sometimes tempting perhaps but neither healthy nor authentically Christian to run away from the Human City. It is not healthy to simply condemn it as “secularized,” and then ignore the men and women wrapped up or crushed today under a broad array of human concerns and problems. The world is not our enemy. It is where we live with our brothers and sisters. Incarnation means God-become-one-with-us. What is God-become-one-with-us asking us to do this day?
  • Building temples: My old friend, who died much too young, Bishop Ken Untener (1937 – 2004) Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, often reminded people that building temples can be very seductive but has very little to do with Christian ministry and witness. If we follow the example of Jesus, he said, we cease being temple-builders and become traveling pilgrims pitching our tents. We follow and live with God’s people wherever their lives take them. Are we often too wrapped up in building and maintaining our own temples? 
  • Finding scapegoats: It is easy to find scapegoats in today’s society and in today’s church. I agree that problematic and abusive people need to be sanctioned. On the other hand, if we spend most of our energy on finding and heaping abuse on our scapegoats, we risk becoming incapable of being change agents. By only focusing on the sawdust in another’s eyes we risk ignoring the planks in our own. We need to be critical. But we also need to pick up and carry our own crosses. We need to take charge. Who is my scapegoat and how am I going to make constructive change?
  • Having the truth: No one has all the truth. No theology, whether progressive or conservative, has all the truth. No single religious tradition has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers and we need each other as we move along in our truth-seeking-journeys. Arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the lives of Christian truth-seekers. Collaboration, humility, and compassion are the key virtues for all seeking the truth. Have we become arrogant and narrow-minded about our own positions? Are we really willing to listen, learn, and collaborate with others?
  • Exercising authority: Authority in the church is greatly misunderstood and greatly abused. Authority comes from Latin auctor which means the capability to influence people. It is connected with action and encouragement. Jesus provided the model for Christian authority: compassion, service, and the work of the Spirit. Authority in the church should be used to motivate and transform people, based on trusting relationships. Authority is horizontal not vertical. We all have authority. But how do we exercise it? Jesus says in the Gospels that whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Servant ministry = Servant leadership. 
  • Protecting the church: Church leaders sometimes behave in very unchristian ways, arguing that they are “protecting the church” or “safeguarding the name of the church.” This is not development. This is regression into a static self-protective power base. Gay people who get married are fired from church positions “to protect the name of the church.” Clergy who abuse children are allowed to continue their immoral behavior but in a different parish, in a different state, or in a foreign country “to protect the good name of the church.” It goes on and on. At all levels. A church that condones and promotes immoral behavior is not worth defending. Are we critical enough or too tolerant? And yes, it does take courage and supportive helpers.

As our understanding about life develops, we still have so much to learn. I am reminded of an observation by Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955): “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike. We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us. It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware…The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

  • Jack

14 thoughts on “Development Not Static Regression

  1. Well said! Christianity is moving into a new millennium. Time to sweep away the cobwebs of fear, retain the Gospel Truth and throw open theology to Holy Spirit!

  2. Jack,

    Spot on! When we had a static view of the Church and theology, the Church and her priests were perfect and could do no wrong, which led to unquestioned, unchanging teachings and clericalism. The Church is and has always been a human institution with warts and feet of clay. This dynamic view of the Church and theology is not only more real, but it is more open to constant reform and transformation. This type of a Church is a more comfortable place for us “sinners”. Hopefully, this dynamic Church will have more appeal to our young people.


  3. Jack…I really appreciated this post. With the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II coming up in 2022, I have been using my Facebook page to post entries on Vatican II – hoping to raise awareness of the Council, introduce a new generation to this moment in our church’s history, etc and I am currently preparing a post on the topic of “Ongoing Revelation”…what it is, its connection to Newman’s concept of the Development of Doctrine, and to erase misconceptions some people have, e.g., that it is seen as a type of relativism, etc. So I found this post of yours very interesting and helpful. Thank you so much. Hope all is well.
    Maureen (Sullivan)

  4. Dear Jack,
    What a beautiful vision of what our world of faith should be. It is also a great call to commitment. As I read your words, I realized that I have a smug, self righteous view of my own faith. The sawdust/beam description calls for an honest self evaluation and a realization that simply criticizing others without viewing my own flaws is detrimental. Your words are a call to action. Be the leader you seek; act on the values you espouse; live the beliefs of love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy in order to have credibility when it comes time to speak out. I will be re-reading this message again and again, Jack. Thank you for being the voice of the Spirit among us.

  5. Thanks, Jack, for your words of wisdom this week. It was such a great relief to me when I realized in my life that church doctrine and dogma needed to change to keep up with new knowledge, when I realized that so much of our morality was built on prescientific knowledge, as you say here. I love the fact that we continue to learn and grow and adjust our understanding of God and God’s presence in the world, in our lives, in us! The image of pilgrims on a journey fits, carrying our tents, our actual life, rather than large temples which can’t be moved and never change. We can see now that just isn’t how life is — it’s always changing. And we are challenged to be faithful to God, to see and interpret God in our changing world.

  6. Jack

    Your focus on the need for Catholics to appreciate the importance of development hits the heart of the matter. The history of Catholicism’s development sheds a lot of light on where we were, where we are, and where we have to go. I would like to add something that affects people’s ability to grasp a developing idea. Their own psychological development either makes that possible or makes them cognitively unable to do so. The research of Piaget on human cognitive development was a total eye openner for me. The book, “The Evolving Self” by Robert Kegan is a great explanation of Piaget’s theory of human cognitive development. This has been one of the most important books I ever read. I was fortunate to have Kegan as a professor for a year as he took us through the development of that book. He was clearly one of the finest teachers I ever had. I put him in the same rank as Bernard Lonergan. They both had a remarkable understanding of the human subject, but from very different perspectives. Thanks for the list of suggestions. Are we mature enough to act on them? Thanks too for the quote from Einstein. Only the most cognitively developed thinkers have the psychological capacity to live with so little certitude in our world, but why did Einstein have a need to think that the world was a book? He was deeply disturbed by the thought that there was no inherent rationality to explain the world. Here is where the person of faith dwells. The Catholic theological tradition has to come to terms with such a world. Its traditonal focus on truth rather than love is presently its problem, but your essays reveal that Catholicism is developing a profound appreciation for love. Keep writing. Thanks.

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