The Problem is Orange

People often speak of "polarisation" in the Catholic Church; this term denotes a widening gap between two opposing groups, and these two groups are usually called "conservative"/"traditional"/"orthodox" on the one hand, and "liberal"/"progressive" (as well as a number of less flattering epithets) on the other. There is also a tendency, I think, for people to see these as two sides on a horizontal axis.

The reality is, as I've argued before, rather more complicated than this, and I'm going to explain a bit more how I understand this conflict in the light of developmental spirituality.

It is probably safe to say that the large majority of adults in the Church today fall into three of James Fowler's six stages of development (and the corresponding altitudes in Ken Wilber's thought, as mentioned in a previous post). These are "Synthetic-Conventional," or amber-altitude; "Individuative-Reflective," or orange-altitude; and "Conjunctive," or green-altitude. There are some adults at the "Mythic-Literal"/red-altitude stage, and others at the "Universalizing"/teal-altitude stage, but these are probably small minorities.1

Fowler himself has noted that individuals at the (amber-altitude) Synthetic-Conventional stage tend to be the "orthodox" believers; this stage of faith, he says, "can be seen as having rootage in and preserving important elements of pre-Enlightenment forms of cultural consciousness" (emphasis in original; Faithful, 161). Beliefs at this stage are held tacitly; individuals at this stage are generally non-reflective -- or, at least, not very reflective -- particularly when it comes to matters of faith. Additionally, authority is located externally at this stage. Wilber would add this stage is typically ethnocentric, which is manifested in the triumphalism and exclusivism of conventional Christianity.

The orange-altitude "Individuative-Reflective" stage emerged with the Enlightenment, and reflects a "modern" consciousness. It is characterised by a more reflective awareness of one's faith, and a more critical approach to one's beliefs. Orange faith also features a "relocation of authority within the self" (Fowler, Stages, 179). Fowler identifies this as the "progressive" stage (Faithful, 161ff.). It was this type of spirituality that eventually precipitated the "modernist crisis" in the Church in the late 19th century, which provoked an aggressively amber response from the Magisterium. It also brought us rigorous biblical criticism, and made a measure of openness to non-Christian religions possible for the Church. (The documents of Vatican II are essentially a mishmash of amber and orange ideas, with, perhaps, an occasional sprinkling of green.)

I would argue that most of the really committed progressives in the Church are more likely to be at the green-altitude "Conjunctive" stage. Green faith moves beyond the dichotomous rationality of orange, and embraces a more dialectical form of reasoning. It can move beyond a merely critical approach into a post-critical position (Paul Ricoeur's "second naiveté"), and is more experiential and pluralistic. It reflects a more "post-modern" consciousness.

If, as I've asserted, most committed progressives are at green, then what is orange? Who do we find there?

One well-known type of orange spirituality is that promoted by the retired Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong. This is not to say that Spong himself is at that stage (I don't presume to know what stage he's at), but his work is very much aimed at converting late-amber Christians into orange faith. Spong, at least in his works that I've read,2 follows an aggressive demythologising approach. It's not uncommon for people to read Spong and ask why, if what he says is true, anyone should bother with Christianity?

And that is the problem with orange. It simply isn't very appealing. Orange is the stage where many people say their goodbyes to the Church (and religion in general), and many never look back. Some will regress, and re-embrace, often with great fervour, an amber-level spirituality. Still others will ride it out, continue to develop, and find a much more satisfying spirituality at green, or higher.

The lack of an appealing orange spirituality is, I think, the great unrecognised cause of the so-called polarisation within the Church. Many progressives look at their conservative co-religionists and wonder, "Why do they have to see everything in black and white?" "Why can't they just think for themselves, and trust their own experience?" "Why is it so important for them to believe their religion is the only way?"

"Why," we might as well be asking, "can't they embrace a green-altitude spirituality?"

The problem is orange. It's a massive stumbling block -- that is, until you've cleared it, at which point it all but disappears.

I'll talk about some of the implications of this, as I see it, some other time.


[1] Wilber and Fowler match up quite well in the stages up to Conjunctive/green-altitude, but the next stage in Wilber, which he identifies as having reached "Integral" consciousness, is probably a more common achievement than Fowler's Universalizing stage. I've indicated in the past that I have some problems with Fowler's Universalizing stage, which he identified in the 1970s, long before Integral philosophy began to find a following.

[2] I haven't read a book by Spong since his autobiography, Here I Stand, was first published in 1999. I read several of his books prior to that, with Why Christianity Must Change or Die, which I also read in 1999, sticking out in my mind as particularly memorable. I suppose he might have changed his approach in the decade since then.

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Blogger Frank L said...

Brilliant. I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why it is so hard for folks to move beyond the amber to the green: Orange is a downer. I never thought about it in these terms before, but it really describes what's going on out there. I know many folks who struggle with amber but have no desire for the faithless void of orange.

I am not sure I agree that Vatican II would be mostly amber and orange, I read a lot of green in it, but maybe it is more that the door is open to suggest green than actual green itself. To me, green is the natural consequence of Vatican II when it all gets worked out.

I also would caution to define what "orthodox" means. I think all too often the word "orthodox" gets confused with the word "fundamentalist" and they are not the same things at all. You are talking about the "pre-enlightenment" understanding here more than "orthodoxy" itself. There are many folks in the orange and green levels who would openly call themselves "orthodox"--Chesterton, Dorothy Day, etc.

7:12 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Frank, thanks for your comment. I have a bit more to say about this, coming soon.

I disagree with your comments about Vatican II. If you read the documents carefully, there's a lot of amber (see Lumen Gentium).

As far as my use of the term orthodox goes, I agree that it is problematic. Actually, I only used because Fowler did, and even he was alluding to someone else's work when he did so. I personally don't think "orthodoxy" is a meaningful concept, but that's a separate discussion. It's also burdened with too many definitions; it can, for example, refer to beliefs/ideas that are considered acceptable to the official leadership of the Church.

If we understand it that way, then it is quite true that amber is not the same thing as "orthodox"; some of the Church's greatest thinkers of the past century -- Lonergan, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Congar...I could probably name a dozen more -- were demonstrably beyond amber, but are nevertheless considered "orthodox" (in that all of them were known to the magisterium, but none of them were, to my knowledge, ever formally censured).

What I meant (and what I think Fowler meant) was something more like "conventional" beliefs, like the stuff the magisterium actually teaches (as opposed to that which it merely tolerates).

1:47 p.m.  

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