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From Piaget to the Tetragrammaton: Religious Thought and Psychological Development

Worldview and Mind: Religious Thought and Psychological Development. Eugene Webb. Columbia, MO:  University of Missouri Press. 2009.


Let it be understood up front that Worldview and Mind is a something of a tourdeforce. It is judicious, erudite, insightful, and comprehensive, impressive not only in its main line of argument, but in arresting discussions of myriad topics along the way. Webb has the expositional prowess to present incisively complex bodies of theory in a few pages, even in a few paragraphs. Thus, within a brief compass, he is able to present a systematic account of religious worldviews, extending the project that, as he explains, Karl Jaspers started a century ago in his PsychologiederWeltanschauugen.

Webb’s mode of argument is synthetic. He assembles a comprehensive theory by connecting a series of thinkers and theorists in three main stages–developmental psychology, cognitional theory, and philosophical theology. The premise, or hypothesis, is that worldviews about the objective world are projected out of subjective states of mind that can be related to one another in a developmental progression. Successive “selves” project successive “worlds.” The ground-level of Webb’s analysis is provided by Piaget, Kohlberg, and other psychologists who define development in terms of an “invariant” succession of stages, each of which prepares for the next in a hierarchical progression from lower to higher. Piaget began as a biologist and the analogy is biological.

Advancing this line of thought, Robert Kegan describes six stages or “selves”: the incorporative, the impulsive, the imperial, the interpersonal, the institutional, and the interindividual. The first, newborn stage is purely subjective. The (adolescent) interpersonal stage moves to the inward imitation of the feelings and attitudes of others. The interpersonal stage brings an inner separation from institutions and an individual, reflective self.

James W. Fowler talks about stages of faith development, which include the mythic-literal (childhood), synthetic-conventional (teen years), and individual-reflective. The last, Webb explains, “regards meanings as separable from symbols and seeks to translate them into propositional form. Demythologizing comes to feel imperative . . . .” Finally, there is the stage of conjunctive faith, “a postcritical desire to . . . resubmit to the initiative of the symbolic.” A person trained in the critical reading of scripture now also “listens meditatively” for what further meanings the text itself suggests.

Webb caps these psychological analyses with a theory of cognition that stresses the developmental aspect of Bernard Lonergan’s approach. According to the latter’s 1968 Aquinas lecture, “we are subjects, as it were, by degrees.” We develop from the merely experiential subjects to intelligent subjects to rational subjects, then to rational consciousness and finally to rational self-consciousness, each sublating the level before.

All of that is achieved in the first half of the book (along with discussions of Ernest Becker and René Girard). This is a very impressive achievement, as one influential theorist after another is deployed to build a coherent overall view. It presents a challenge to a reader who approaches these issues from a quite different angle of vision.

For this reader, certain points of difference come into sharper focus. Put simply, Webb is skeptical about what I trust; and I am doubtful about what he trusts. For example, the developmental approach is not unproblematic. Webb, always judicious and balanced, notes some limitations himself. He correctly underscores Lonergan’s debt to Piaget and Piaget’s debt to Kant. The whole Piagetian tradition is indeed “as much a philosophical one as a psychological one.” This confirms my own reading of experiments in cognitive and developmental psychology, which has led me to be somewhat skeptical.

While claiming to verify theories empirically, the research seems to put Kant in and get Kant out. Other philosophical frames would interpret the same findings differently and, no doubt, as verifying their own theories. The Kant-Piaget tradition works from a self-to-world model: data are assembled by the mind to create a “world” that is not, of course, the real world–the latter remains an unknowable Thing-in-itself. An alternative tradition goes back to Aristotle and continues through Aquinas, Brentano, Husserl, the naturalist aspects of the pragmatists, and the common-sense tradition of Thomas Reid, G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin. Some of these are explicit revolts against Hume, Kant, and German idealism.

These thinkers start from the world (including the divine reality) and the fact that we are in the world with sensory and mental (and spiritual) capacities attuned to understand the world. The mechanisms are understood, not as our acts of constructing the world, but as ways of apprehending what the world is disclosing to us. In religious terms, this means starting from the objective pole with what the divine reality discloses to us in revelatory experience (using this term broadly). The psychological question then becomes how we can attune ourselves to the divine.

Treating ethical, philosophical, and religious positions not as rival theories but as stages of invariant development may mask normative claims in an empirical guise. Kantian presuppositions determine in advance that the abstract and universal will rank higher than the concrete and local. As Webb points out, Kohlberg himself admits to finding no empirical instances of his “universal” stage of religious understanding. In Kohlberg’s moral hierarchy, Kant’s universalism is superior to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre has shown, that imputed superiority is debatable. In any case, the displacement of the concrete always involves loss as well as gain–a point Webb acknowledges.

The second half of the book engages the issue of religious worldviews proper. Here Webb’s deep study of religious traditions is brought to bear. He begins with Marcus Borg’s account of his own childhood understanding of God, who seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to the parson and was mainly concerned with whether he had been naughty or nice. Something like this attitude, Webb says, is reflected in what he calls supernatural theism.

He does not pause to look at thinkers in this tradition, which is a loss, but immediately moves on to what is taken to be the superior alternative, which he calls panentheism. He uses this term to designate the idea that God is not a being but being itself and invokes Tillich (God does not “exist”; rather, God is) and Thomas Aquinas (God as IpsumEssesubsistens, ultimately best named just by the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, which, Webb explains, “signified nothing in itself but only pointed beyond all language into absolute mystery”).

Here Webb places himself in very good company. These are spiritual thinkers of the highest order, and we all understand the importance of what they are saying. God is not an item in the inventory of the universe. We cannot capture the divine reality in a conceptual net. Yet is there only mystery and is it absolute? Commenting that “Aquinas still thought theologically in terms of metaphor,” Webb seems to reject even analogical predication. But does the hidden god remain completely hidden?

Voegelin provides a subtly different analysis: “In the Beginning, the word of the hidden god creates the cosmos; when the word moves from the Beyond into man’s consciousness, it reveals itself through language. And in this revelatory language, the I-am becomes a subject that acquires predicates. On the side of the subject, the god who reveals himself is absolute Being; on the side of the predicate, he is what he lets be seen of himself concretely in the revelatory event.” (17:61) The hidden God becomes the manifest God. To disallow this possibility, he says, “would mean that the critic knows how God has a right to let himself be seen.” (17:307)

The final chapters explore dimensions of what Webb takes to be the highest mode of religious understanding, self-transcendence. He points out that cognition itself is founded on a willingness to give up one’s own preconceptions. Similarly, love involves stepping outside of one’s individual separateness to care for another. Hence love, cognition, and, finally, community all require self-transcendence. And that, in turn, requires not only a new self, but a radically self-transcending self, or no-self, “really an impermanent aggregation of constantly changing elements” as understood in the Buddhist (and Humean) analyses, but also reflected in Karl Rahner and in the Eastern church, and even in Paul’s “being in Christ.” Christ is here understood as a “mode of existence,” something like Teilard de Chardin’s Cosmic Christ.

The last chapter is on “The Future of Religion.” Most people, Webb notes, fall short of the highest stage. He quotes Freud with some sympathy: “The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with the nature of reality . . . it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.” It is a view of life that Webb, building on Girard, sees as replete with latent violence that threatens a deadly “clash of civilizations.”

But Webb is hopeful. “Religion is not going to go away . . . [but] it might grow up.” It will not grow up quickly. There is always “tug of war” between “critically reflective (in Kegan’s terms, modern or fourth-order) thinking” and those threatened by such thinking. The best religion can do is to provide a “holding area” that ministers to the spiritual needs of those still stuck in lower levels.

The reason for hope is found in the very developmental theories Webb appeals to. The higher level of understanding is “the natural trajectory of religious development, because it is the natural trajectory of human development.” And it portends “the emergence of a worldwide culture of dialogical truth.” This gives some indication of the unity and coherence of Webb’s theory and its applicability to a range of issues from deep theological topics to pressing matters of world politics. Those of us who prefer, at certain points, to take a different turn would be hard-pressed to provide an equally coherent and synoptic alternative.

Jerry L. Martin

Jerry L. Martin held held senior positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1988-95, including acting chairman. From 1967-82, he a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also served as the Director of the University's Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy. He is author of God: An Autobiography, as Told to a Philosopher (Caladium, 2016) and currently is chairman emeritus of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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