Why Early Spirituality?

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Why is early spirituality important? I imagine that this topic will interest clergy, chaplains, pastoral counsellors, spiritual directors and mental health professionals interested in spiritual formation. The area of unconscious spiritual learning has been mostly neglected with unfortunate consequences. For example, we end up doing ministry blind. It is like the children’s game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’. We begin with generalized assumptions about the person we are seeking to help, after all the donkey is there somewhere, but easily miss the distinctives of what needs to change. Almost always there are elements of dysfunctional learning. I have found that this learning, once discovered, can be very specific. The ‘blindfold’ is taken off!

This assists us in understanding some common difficulties in ministry. For example, once something is learnt is feels true. It doesn’t matter whether it is right or wrong, it is known, and the believer will have a sense of certainty. It also explains why some beliefs are irrational but rigidly held. Since unconscious learning begins early in cognitive development, it is before there is any capacity for evaluation, so it is incorporated as if through a ‘vacuum cleaner’ with everything accepted. This is understandable if the source is from parents or authority figures, but it can result in ill-informed assumptions about ‘the way things are’. And if what has been learnt remains inarticulate there is no possibility of developing a counter-narrative, so that early learning will remain unchallenged and silently influence daily life. Such characteristics have consequences since we tend to act in consistent ways.

Marg was talking to her pastor. She had recently joined a Reformed church. Marg was having some difficulty understanding what seemed an important message, “I just don’t understand it when you talk about God’s grace, doesn’t God just ‘set the standards’ for how we are expected to behave as Christians?” Marg grew up in a strict, somewhat legalistic, home.[1] In this case Marg’s early learning proved to be a barrier to her understanding more about the love of God.

The process of unconscious learning is probably the same regardless of content. This includes early relational understanding, with implications for psychological development, and it appears to be the same process leading to spiritual development. There is both positive and negative input, adaptive and dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, though the balance may differ from family to family.

Spiritual formation is at least initially an unconscious process. We are formed by what we believe with a great deal of input prior to cognitive development or any possibility of raising questions. Potentially this has frightening implications.

Early learning is a ‘mixed bag’ largely dependent on the meeting or not of infantile needs. This is seen in pastoral and clinical experience. Compare the following:

Sally had a hard life. Her mother was addicted to heroin. She never knew her father. He left before Sally was born. She was subjected to a ‘merry-go-round’ of adult male figures who came in and out of her life. A number were violent and abusive. The only constants in her life were neglect, uncertainty and a lack of safety. After Sally’s mother died of an over-dose, Sally had a dramatic conversion experience and began to attend a Pentecostal church.

Nick was raised in a ‘white picket fence’ family. There was never a lot of money, since his father received a modest stipend as the Baptist pastor of a small rural congregation. His mother had social work qualifications but chose the role of a stay-at-home mother. Nick knew he was loved. There was always had a sense of God in his life, “There was never a time I did not believe, though my faith was challenged when I was at university. But I always came back ‘home’ in more senses than just visiting my parents!”

Sally and Nick had very different early childhood experiences. A psychologist would predict that Sally might be more psychologically vulnerable than Nick. She had experiences that often lead to chronic psychological disturbance, what might be considered characteristic of a personality disorder. Becoming a Christian does not ‘magically’ remove her psychological vulnerability. Additionally, that ‘hot house’ of early life experiences may result in different spiritual attitudes even while acknowledging a common ground of belief. For example, it would be hardly surprising if Sally experienced God as unreliable and even capricious with an “anxious attachment”; Nick might have a more stable “secure attachment” to God. Early experiences of nurture can be observed to be either mostly good or mostly bad but always mixed.

We all have a ‘mixed bag’ of psychological and spiritual, positive and negative, true and false learning. Sally and Nick illustrate this well. What is the way forward? We will take seriously unconscious spiritual learning. We will see that it is largely unconscious, but expressed in beliefs; hidden but discoverable; and inarticulate, but can be expressed in language.

Does the pursuit of self-understanding matter? As a psychologist, I tend to assume that it does. You might pause because you are unsure that it could possibly be of importance to your spiritual growth. But we can remind ourselves of what the reformer John Calvin said, “Our wisdom… consists almost entirely of two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[2]

[1] Marg, like others cited in this website, is an illustration drawn from my pastoral and therapeutic experience. She does not correspond to a specific person.

[2] Book 1, Chapter 1, part 1, John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes (Mac Dill, Florida: MacDonald Publishing Co., no date), 7. 

Author: Bruce Stevens

Professor Bruce A. Stevens (PhD Boston University, 1987) is the Wicking Professor of Aging and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University. He was previously Associate Professor in Clinical and Forensic Psychology in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of Canberra with over 60 graduate students. He is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist who has advanced accreditation in Schema Therapy (individual and couple). He was ordained in the Anglican Church and is an honorary minister-in-association at Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra. He is the author of 10 books and many research papers. His most recent book is The Storied Self: A Narrative Approach to the Spiritual Care of the Aged (Fortress Academic., 2018).

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