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Does the Christian Faith Promote Black/White Thinking?
Joy Bonham, MA

One of my favorite sayings is … ‘there is a light and shadow to every way of being’. Making distinctions is useful, especially in coaching. Reducing complexity helps make decisions easier, facilitating choice and action. Too often we engage in muddy thinking and clarity is often a welcomed gift.

When making distinctions, what is also true is that we can take it to an extreme. In psychology, this type of behavior is called black and white thinking. In simplistic terms, it is believing that there are only two options or two states of being, black and its polar opposite, white. The gray space between the two poles is either ignored or denied.

It is the shadow of black/white thinking that concerns me the most. If we examine this way of being from a logical perspective, it would fit into the category of “false dilemma”. It is the assumption that there are only two answers to every question; a false choice. Unfortunately, it is sometimes used deliberately and deceptively to force a decision between two extremes; implying the lesser of two evils is the best option available. This is an effective propaganda tool, often used by cults and political parties to gain converts and influence opinion. For example, a letter to the editor ran in the local paper today with the following … “Oil and water do not mix, neither does capitalism and socialism.” This is a clear example of black/white thinking. There are only two choices, capitalism or socialism. Anything in between does not exist and a false dilemma is being presented to the audience.

Through personal observations, I have developed the opinion that very conservative religions tends to be more grounded in black and white thinking. The more conservative or fundamental the sect, the greater the propensity towards this ontology. The ‘OR-isms’ of this tradition are many and certainly provide plenty of fuel for misdirection. To name just a few there are: ‘heaven OR hell’, ‘saved OR damned’, ‘good OR evil’, ‘sinner OR saint’.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a good example of a tradition seeping in black/white thinking. They believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. It is either the word of God or Not the word of God. Because it cannot NOT be the word of God, every word must therefore be the word of God. In order to support black/white thinking, this entire community lives in a perpetual state of denial. Even to the point of building an alternative history (creationist) theme park for the devoted, who believe the Earth is only 6000 years old, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Christianity is certainly not the only victim of black and white thinking. Many faith traditions have been plagued by fundamentalists who use black and white thinking to manipulate and control others.

If we view Christianity as a sliding scale, somewhere between liberal Christianity and conservative Christianity, is progressive Christianity. Progressive Christianity embraces eight key tenets and tends to live in the gray space between black/white thinking. The most relevant for this discussion is to “find grace in the search for understanding and (to) believe there is more value in the questioning than in absolutes”. Many in this tradition accept that the Bible was written by men and that men are prone to error. They embrace the spirit of their tradition, rather than the literal interpretation.

What the research data suggests is that conservative Christianity is declining in membership and progressive Christianity is growing. As a transpersonal ontologist, I have to ask … what is behind this trend and can it be related to a shift away from black and white thinking?

An interesting psychological theory which may shed light on this shift is Kohlberg’s “Six Stages of Moral Development”. There are three states of being, each consisting of two stages providing six levels of distinction.

Preconventional morality consists of stage one ‘obedience’ and stage two ‘self-interest’. For stage one folks, the ego is focused on avoidance (it’s all about the punishment). For stage two folks, the ego is focused on self (it’s all about me).

Conventional morality has two stages as well, stage three is ‘relationships’ and stage four is ‘order’. For stage three folks, the focus is on social expectations (it’s all about belonging) and stage four is focused on the rules (it’s all about duty).

Postconventional morality consists of stage five ‘obligations’ and stage six ‘conscience’. For stage five folks, the focus is more on values (it’s all about commitments). And finally, for stage six folks the focus is on ethical and moral principles, even at the expense of civil disobedience (it’s all about what is just). A key attribute of postconventional thinking is the ability to hold a paradox.

Does Kolhberg’s theory apply to our religious ways of being? If so, then how? It appears that individuals, at various stages of ego and moral development, will gravitate to a particular Christian faith tradition. Fundamentalist Christianity appears to be aligned with preconventional thinking. The focus is on avoiding going to hell and saving one’s soul. Modern Christianity appears to be aligned with conventional thinking. The focus is on community and following the rules. Progressive Christianity appears to be aligned with postconventional thinking. It is focused on Christian values and a commitment to one’s conscious (or spiritual essence); supporting integrity, justice and peace. Another distinguishing characteristic is the inability to tolerate or support hypocrisy, even for the sake of the faith, which aligns with Kohlberg's stage six attributes.

Could it be that Christianity is actually being held hostage to a black and white mindset, rather than being the source? Studies suggest that spiritual-not-religious (unaffiliated) is one of the fastest-growing groups in the United States. As modern society has evolved, so has our way of being. The old ways, supported by preconventional thinking, does not win many religious converts in a conventional and postconventional society. Faith traditions that do not shift and evolve with the growing enlightenment of their flocks, have historically waned and died. Are we witnessing Christianity’s epitaph or the second coming of Christ consciousness?

Footnote: It is important to note that Kohlberg’s theory has met with some criticism. Mostly because it is focused primarily on justice as the motivation for behavior, especially in stage six. Other more spiritual motivators, like love and compassion, were not included. However, it would be just as easy to name compassion in place of justice as the motivation for stage six. I would also suggest that the categories and stages (pre 1/2, actual 3/4, and post 5/6) instead be considered ontologies, or 'ways- of-being'; each one influenced by an archetypical way-of-being (object/relational).

Copyright © Joy Bonham 2011 All Rights Reserved

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