My friend Ellen writes a post that shows how cross-gender friendship fits into the stages of spiritual and psychological development. Ellen gives us a spiritual and psychological framework for men and women to work and dwell together in our churches and move past our fears to enjoy life-enhancing best of friends relationships.
Ellen Haroutunian, MA, CSD is a Psychotherapist, Spiritual Director and Urban Pastor practicing in Denver, CO. She has a passion for seeking spiritual wisdom and practices that enhance genuine Christian transformation. She is married to a hospice chaplain, and has two adult children who are shocked that her generation still needs to learn about the beauty of cross-gender friendships because their own friendships have never devolved into Bacchanalian debauched orgies as feared. They are all pilgrims, along with two retired racing greyhounds and two reluctant cats.
The fear of intimate cross-gender friendships that is seemingly inherent in evangelical communities is merely a symptom of a larger issue. We offer up the idea of moral concerns, but our real concerns are likely much deeper. We are afraid of change, afraid of losing ourselves to what we don’t understand, afraid that all that is familiar will break down and be lost. Our rules and barriers protect what we believe is good, but we forget our ability to imagine more.
Healthy, intimate cross-gender friendships are not the problem, but a beautiful fruit of mature life and faith. Unfortunately, we have not allowed ourselves to grow up to the point where embracing the other– whoever that other may be– is understood to be love of the highest order, a love that is both personally transformative and world changing. This is a love that cannot be contrived. It is formed in us by fire.
Edward Bloom in Big Fish (2003) is a young man on a hero’s quest, taking him to places unknown and testing his heart at every turn. This archetypal journey mirrors the developmental path of the human heart. We all reach an age when we must move out of what is safe and known to find our unique and truest selves through the fires of transformation. The quest is a crucible that reveals our deepest identity. The quest is our Story too.
During his journey, Edward Bloom visits a quaint, hidden town. People are pleasant, friendly and inviting. All is well in this place, always. But Bloom is horrified to find that in this place of unchanging serenity, his favorite poet can no longer write a word. His poetry has lost its beauty and depth. In the midst of seeming perfection, his creativity has died. The poet is trapped; he is stuck fast in the safety of what is predictable and secure and it has shriveled his soul.
This shock propels Bloom to keep moving on. As he prepares to leave, he is surprised to find that a child has stolen his shoes and thrown them high up over a wire in order to keep him there with them. After all, living in a place of safety and security is good and necessary—for a child. Bloom leaves his shoes behind, even though he muses, “I suspect it will hurt a lot”. He recognizes that to not get stuck and lose one’s own soul is worth the hardships of the journey.
Our Journey Begins
Like the child who took Bloom’s shoes, we must start the journey of life in relative safety. Ideally, we all experience the nourishment of a womb and bask in the collective embrace of family, in whose safety we begin to develop an early concept of “I”, a separate self. A small child thrives and learns that she is valuable when she is kept safe and given predictable and fair rules.
Eventually the child internalizes those parent-given boundaries, learning to be in the world as part of a family, a church, and a community, striving to honor and fit into their norms. Kids are of course ill behaved or unruly at times. But conformity is an important stage for the young, developing psyche. There is comfort in sameness. Girls are cool and boys have cooties (or vice versa). Those beliefs continue to strengthen her sense of “I”.
Yet, like Bloom, we each must venture out of the safe and known in order to become a whole and self-actualized person. We are meant for pilgrimage. Therefore, that same child raised in safety and conformity will eventually begin to “kick against the goads”, testing many of the rules in order to figure out who she is apart from them. This is healthy and necessary; she needs to try out her values and ideas against a bigger playing field so that they become truly her own and not just that of her parents and community. Eventually she will also come to appreciate that from which she arose, and see that the rules were not goads at all, but hopefully, a strong foundation from which to spring. But from that place she is moving toward becoming a healthy individuated self who is then able to offer herself to others in relationship in deeper ways.
By developing a strong sense of who she is internally, her heart is enlarged to love in ways that are no longer designed to shore up and protect her own ego-self. She is able to engage and have empathy for ideas and people that are very different from that of her previously known world. This could be a friend of the opposite sex or someone with a completely different worldview. Just as Jesus crossed over every religious and cultural boundary set up to keep out those who didn’t fit or who were seen as a threat, she is crossing over to inclusive, transformative, Kingdom love.
Fear of the Unknown
In our moral and spiritual lives we often remain at the level of conformity. We may awaken to the idea that there is more to life than the approval of the status quo, and more to our souls than we can become in that context. However, the decision to set out is often met with dismay and stern cautioning (or shoes tossed up over a wire) by those who remain behind. In their minds, we are heading down the slippery slope, away from what is certain and in danger of getting lost. Poet Jan Richardson observes that just like in the maps of ancient cartographers, we are cautioned away from unknown parts with the warning, “Beyond here be dragons.”
As mythologist Joseph Campbell says,
“The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored. The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.” [The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949.]
The cost of not venturing out will mean that we will continue to define ourselves and others by external measures, and be driven by conformity rather than integrity. We become obsessed with rules and appearances, safety and certainty, but never reach beyond the safety of religious obedience to the wild, earth shaking love of the gospel. Jesus often broke the religious law when he would touch an “unclean” person. He knew that the deepest morality is shaped by love, not rules.
Moral and Spiritual Development
The stages of moral development mirror our psychological and spiritual growth. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg identified three stages of moral development in a person. The earliest stage is the pre-conventional stage, where the child responds to rewards and punishments. It is considered a pre-moral stage, because a child is not fully aware of right and wrong, but more interested in avoiding pain and gaining approval and pleasure.
In the conventional stage the child begins to desire to meet the standards of the family and society. He or she has internalized the morals of the larger group. This is the classic “good boy” or “good girl” orientation, where the child desires to fit in and be accepted. This is the stage of conventional rules and conformity and it is often where many people remain for their lifetime.
In the final, post-conventional stage, the individual develops a self-accepted morality or a sense of inner authority. This person is less controlled by social norms and what others think than by integrating larger experiences and beliefs about God and the worthiness of self and others that in turn, shape behavior and lifestyle. Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and most certainly, Jesus, demonstrate this level of moral development. They were not bound by conventional behaviors; they crossed all sorts of norms and laws and in doing so released a new level of vision and transformation for society.
It is believed that only a small percentage of adults ever reach this stage. When someone steps out of the borders of convention, too often it is the faith community itself that is waving the warning flags, worrying about dragons and lost shoes, and coaxing people back into the safety of the fold. Through fear, we thwart each other in the necessary steps of growth that would lead us toward the type of boundary breaking love modeled by Jesus.
In my work with people, I often use Psychologist James Fowler’s insightful work on the stages of faith development.*
- Stage 0 – "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
- Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
- Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
- Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one's beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
- Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one's own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one's belief.
- Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent "truth" that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
- Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment." The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.
[Adapted from Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, 1981.]
*Developmental stages are not meant to be a scale on which to measure the validity of one’s faith, nor are they a measure of intellectual ability. They merely demonstrate that we are all on a developmental journey.
When people of faith operate out of rules and fear, they are often at stage 2 or 3. Everything they know and believe still fits into a predictable template. When someone within a conventional community starts asking questions or chooses to interpret the Bible differently, the community may attempt to pull them back, convinced they are in danger of going out of bounds, and that the community alone knows the correct and safe place to drive a stake in the ground of certainty. Trying to dissuade them is usually not effective, even though they are typically well-meaning, good-hearted people.
However, appreciation for this developmental mindset has created a space in my own heart for compassion and understanding of their concerns. More importantly, I think it can help us all let go of guilt and fear, and gain the courage to set out on pilgrimage. Jesus said, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” He calls us to let go of what binds us, even the good things, for he adds, whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
This knowledge can be a springboard to freedom. When we find ourselves kicking against the goads of conformity, it is probably not because we are rebellious, faithless, or backslidden. It may simply be a sign that desire is stirring on a deep soul level and we are ready to set out on the quest. We are ready to be tested. We are ready for more.
Stepping Into the Light
The first rewards from the quest are deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness. The awakening may be uncomfortable at times, as it was for Edward Bloom on his shoeless trek. We become aware of our shadow side – the part that is usually forced underground by our obedient, conforming selves. We become more accepting of our darker impulses, not with the will to sin more, but to free ourselves from shame and hiddenness.
We also learn that we often cope with the shameful parts of our shadow sides by projecting them outward. We see this from the very beginning of our human Story. When caught in hiding, Adam projected his guilt outward: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I took it,” he cried to God. How often woman is portrayed as the source of a man’s fall! A fully individuated and integrated man learns to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, as will a fully individuated and integrated woman. And both will realize the great cost to others when they do not.
A person who knows their shadow side is far less likely to deceive him or herself and thus violate anyone else in the context of a cross-gender friendship or any other relationship for that matter. We step out of our denial and into a place where we can become more humble and dependent on the grace of God.
An unexpected bonus is that we may also find some hidden treasure in what has been pushed into shadow. We may find courage and strength that we never knew we had. For example, a woman may find that she has an assertive side, which may not have been affirmed or encouraged in her faith community. She had pushed it down for the sake of conforming, but the quest will call it forth.
Strengthened in our Inner Person
We will come to see we have the grace-filled capacity to face our lives, for better or for worse. The paradox of the conforming stage is that we tend to push painful memories, emotions and longings underground where they have all the more power to drive us to pacify them in less than desirable ways. The person who is willing to bring them into the light may find that those things lose power to control them. Moreover, if they find they are not able to bear them, healthy friendships most certainly can. We are not meant to do life alone, hidden in shadows. Together, we have many resources for healing. Dragons can be slain.
The fully individuated and integrated self knows her yeses and noes, and learns to love without conditions, acquisitions and attractions. We outgrow the illusion that “all must be the same as me” in order to be safe and for our world to make sense. Our view of holiness expands as well. We no longer seek “the kind of purity that wants the world cleansed of the other,” but rather, “the heart cleansed of the evil that drives people out…”. [Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 1996.] This creates in us the space for the other, who is no longer seen as a threat to our well being, but as one who expands our hearts and minds.
Finally, as we journey we learn that we no longer need to carry the old maps. We are guided by something internal and rich, where deep calls to deep. We are led further up and further in. The path is no longer clearly defined by how-to steps; it is made by walking.
Onward toward the Goal
Ultimately, we will find more of God. God was always in the small quiet spaces of our beginnings. I have no doubt that God is delighted by our youthful attempts to conform and fit in and be good. But I believe it is God who pushes us out of that nest, stirs our capacity to kick against the goads, and allows lots of bumps and bruises on the way down before we discover that we have wings. As we journey onward, we will grow in our capacity to see God anew – in places we never would have dreamed. We see the face of God in the eyes of the other.
"Cross-gender friendships are a litmus test for us."
Cross-gender friendships are a litmus test for us. The mirrors that we find in these relationships teach us to see the other as a whole. Instead of reducing the personhood of the other to body parts and sexuality to the act of sex, we can leave behind the belief that the other is a source of danger and find that they can be and are meant to be a source of blessing and enrichment.
In addition, there is a high correlation between holding dualistic views of gender roles/romantic relationships and holding dualistic views of other races, creeds and worldviews. As we grow in our journeys towards individuation and healthier, more mature faith, we are less threatened by the other of any type, and learn that they too, can be a source of wisdom, insight and blessing. We see ourselves more clearly through the mirror of their eyes as we offer the same grace to them.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says,
"Those on the edge of any system and those excluded from any system ironically and invariably hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. You see, therefore, why the church was (is) meant to be that group that went consistently to the edges, to the least of the brothers and sisters, even to the enemy...When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be Christ.... The church is always converted when the outcasts are invited back into the Temple. You see this in Jesus' common action of sending the marginalized people that he has healed back into the village, back to their family or back to the Temple to show themselves to the priests. It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance but actually for the group itself to be renewed." [Radical Grace, 1995.]
Ultimately our path of growth will create in us in a mature love that enhances our lives, friendships and community. It calls us to be as Christ in this world, with a vision towards an expansive Kingdom. We will find that this magnanimous love of God not only stirs us to bring hope and healing to the other but that the very act of welcoming them is the secret to Christ being formed in us. The very thing we thought we should avoid turns out to be the very key to the deepest longing of our hearts – Christ in us, the hope of glory.
The Fish Tale
The end of the Big Fish story is capped by Edward Bloom’s funeral. It is attended by dozens of the colorful characters that this adventurous soul had encountered on his journey, much to the surprise of his more conventionally minded son. They bring tears of gratitude and stories of Edward’s deep care for them all: male and female, people of all types, shapes and colors.
They testify to a life well lived, a life that reached far outside of the safe and predictable, a life of risk, exploration and great love. Through them, Edward’s son was finally able to understand his father’s colorful and unconventional life, completing the circuit of connection that had eluded father and son. And from that day forward, Edward’s son began to step outside his own borders of safety, leaning into and embracing the same boundary-breaking Love. May it be so for us all.