The Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey on the landscape of religion in the United States showed a drastic change in the way people relate to religion and spirituality. Those who identified with the categories of “unaffiliated” or “nothing in particular” reached 38.6 percent of the population, suggesting a crack in the United States’ identity as one of the world’s most religious countries. However, 84.1 percent of those surveyed who identified as unaffiliated or nothing in particular still demonstrated some degree of belief in God or a higher power or deemed religion as important. Furthermore, there was an increased level of diversity within every category of religion.
Counseling students can expect to encounter clients who no longer fit neatly into conventional religious categories. So the question becomes, how can counselor educators adequately prepare tomorrow’s counselors for the evolving landscape of religion and spirituality? The answer is in our ability to provide expanding definitions, examples, theoretical frameworks and training activities.
It is crucial for counselor educators to define the nuanced relationship between religion and spirituality. Both concepts require separate, though related, awareness on the part of counselors. Informed by the writings of P. Scott Richards, Allen E. Bergin and Kenneth Pargament, religion can be explained as a subset of the spiritual. Religion tends to focus on institutionally held dogmatic beliefs, practices and feelings, while spirituality is a relationship with the sacred that tends to be more personal, fluid and affect-oriented.
When teaching about this distinction, I project an image of a framed photograph — for example, a picture of a flower — that is growing out of its frame. The frame represents the necessary religious rules and dogmatic boundaries that provide the structure for expressing one’s religious or spiritual identity. The subject of the picture (the flower growing out of its frame) is symbolic of the spiritual and gives purpose to the frame. However, in its transcendence of the frame, the subject of the picture also represents the function of spirituality that might lead an individual to explore beyond the defined rules.
Creating a distinction between religion and spirituality can sometimes lead to seeing the two as dichotomous. Perhaps religious dogma takes on all of the negative qualities of faith — for example, in the concept of rejecting a community member on the basis of sexual orientation. Spirituality, on the other hand, may be given all the credit for the transcendent aspect of faith practice. A more objective picture will see each side of the religious-spirituality coin as containing both beneficial and challenging characteristics. It is important to emphasize that religion and spirituality have been associated with both mental health benefits and struggles.
Post-conventional faith speaks to the emerging and blended religious and spiritual identities that defy the classically neat categorizations of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and so on. Post-conventional faith can be seen in James Fowler’s stages of faith development as an individual moves from an acceptance of a socially prescribed faith framework to a complex resolution of a conflict between the individual’s experience of the world and the previously accepted faith.
What follows in the next section is an example of an organizational expression of post-conventional faith. Although this example can be used to educate counseling students, it is important to emphasize that the allowance of diversity and fluidity within the group speaks more to post-conventional faith than does the group itself.
Example of post-conventional faith
Since 2007, the organization Kohenet (which means “priestess” in Hebrew) has trained and ordained Hebrew priestesses. The mission statement of Kohenet (kohenet.com) includes that it “revives and re-embodies Judaism through the gifts of women spiritual leaders and through experience of the sacred feminine. Kohenet facilitates the creation of transformative Jewish ritual that is embodied, earth-based, feminist and inspired by traditions of women’s spiritual leadership.” This statement is in stark contrast to the traditional male-dominated leadership of the Jewish community and the traditional image of the Jewish God as characteristically masculine.
The “mission” page on Kohenet’s website provides further insight into the organization’s post-conventional faith expression: “We seek to serve the Shekhinah [sacred feminine] through traditional mitzvot like the practice of caring for the mourner and rejoicing with the bride, and also through honoring ages and stages of women’s lives that previously went ignored. We seek to be transmitters of Jewish tradition and practice, and also to evolve Jewish tradition and ritual to acknowledge the emerging needs of Jewish women and the planet as a whole. We seek to honor traditional images of the Divine, and also to make the Divine feminine a full part of our liturgy, ritual and lives. … This experimental model of spiritual practice and leadership offers an embodied, ecstatic earth-based approach that is interconnected with all life.”
Kohenet is an organization rooted in Jewish culture, but it in no way fits into, or intends to fit into, a conventional Jewish framework. The organization’s inclusion of Goddess spirituality, “Jewitchcraft” and paganism can be seen as directly opposed to traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. The founders of Kohenet and cohorts of Hebrew priestesses challenge these conventional assumptions and make space for their religious and spiritual paradigm in part by using the same tools of hermeneutics and creative interpretation that allow the conventional Jewish perspective to be redefined from generation to generation. (For example, see Sisters at Sinai by Jill Hammer.)
Kohenet’s work is making space for the voice of Jewish women to be heard in new ways and is drastically challenging the classic boundaries of Judaism in general. Kohenet has stepped far past convention, serving as an example of a movement that is inspiring post-conventional faith.
Theoretical frames for post-conventional faith
To help counseling students understand post-conventional faith from a theoretical perspective, I suggest teaching Crystal Park and Susan Folkman’s Meaning Making Model and Kenneth Pargament’s concept of search for the sacred. Both frames have been used to explain the nature of growth in the face of spiritual struggle. The first takes on a meaning perspective, while the second deals directly with language of the sacred. The theories help explain how post-conventional faith develops for clients.
Meaning Making Model
Post-conventional faith can be explained in terms of meaning because religion and spirituality are ultimately meta-meaning frameworks in which people orient their lives and provide a sense of cohesion. The Meaning Making Model deals with two levels of meaning: global and situational.
Global meaning is the comprehensive meaning framework held by an individual. It is composed of one’s beliefs and values about the way things are and how they ought to be. For example, a traditionally religious Catholic will most likely believe in God’s eternal goodness and that everything happens for a reason. Situational meaning, on the other hand, is the appraised meaning ascribed to a situation that one encounters in life. The meaning of a situation is appraised from the perspective of one’s global meaning. The Catholic believer encountering serious illness, for example, might be challenged in his or her belief in God’s ultimate goodness.
From this conflict between global and situational meaning, meaning making can arise in at least two ways. The believer might reappraise the situation so that it can be better assimilated into the global meaning framework. Thus, illness becomes a test that brings a person to a deeper level of faith. God remains good and in control. Alternatively, one’s global meaning can be altered to accommodate the appraised meaning of a situation. In our example, the Catholic believer might consider that not everything happens for a reason but that God ultimately can be found in the community support that brings comfort and nurturing.
The Meaning Making Model can be used to help counseling students understand the narratives from which a post-conventional faith identity emerges. Most clients and counseling students themselves are born into some faith tradition (global meaning) that becomes a source of struggle (situational meaning) at different times in their lives. One might imagine the variety of possible life narratives that would result in someone finding a spiritual home in an organization such as Kohenet. Similarly, the Meaning Making Model can help make sense of the high percentage of people who believe in some form of a higher power yet remain unaffiliated in their religious identity.
Search for the sacred
In this construct, sacred is defined as any aspect of life that is seen as connected to divinity. A person first encounters something sacred through a social or personal experience. For example, an individual is born into an Orthodox Jewish family and is raised to conceptualize the sacred through the lens of Orthodox Judaism. Once established, a person will go to great lengths to conserve his or her relationship with the sacred. Thus, at first, an Orthodox Jewish man will most likely deny any homosexual desires that might arise because, according to the Orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Bible, homosexuality is abhorrent.
At some point, one’s relationship to the sacred is challenged by internal or external changes. To continue our example with the Orthodox Jewish man, his same-sex attraction becomes so strong that he can no longer pray with his community without becoming aroused. These spiritual struggles challenge his relationship with the sacred so fiercely that conservation is no longer possible. He may now experience an interruption in his search for the sacred. For example, he may disavow the Orthodox Jewish conception of God completely or be propelled to seek out the sacred in a new way, such as embracing a more personal experience of the divine that accepts the spiritual potential in same-sex attraction.
This search for the sacred can be applied to the spiritual journeys of clients and students alike who have transcended conventional faith identities in favor of more nuanced and complex sacred expressions.
Training recommendations for counselor education
Classroom experiential activities are one way that future clinicians can gain both comfort and competence in working with clients who express post-conventional faith. An important step in training counselors is to help them become aware of the potential biases that exist when they encounter religious and spiritual language.
An exercise to uncover these biases involves preparing several PowerPoint slides, each containing a single word or phrase that is associated with religion and spirituality. For example, separate slides might contain the following words or phrases in large, bold letters: God, Divine Mother, Blood and Body of Christ and Pagan. Instruct students to attend to the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that arise as they are shown each new word or phrase. After displaying each word or phrase, ask students to share what they are experiencing. Trainees can witness their own automatic internal responses to a variety of religious and spiritual language, and they can see how their peers might react in ways that are different or similar. At the conclusion of the exercise, ask participants to reflect on how their reactions might have surprised them or what insights arose knowing that their peers experienced different internal responses.
With these personal biases exposed, counselor educators can facilitate an exercise in which students expound on their own religious and spiritual identities, values and beliefs, increasing the sense of religious and spiritual diversity that exists within and between individuals. Janine Roberts shared the following exercise in a chapter appearing in the text Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy, published in 2009. The exercise is called On the Line: Voices and Views.
In this activity, students are asked to clear a space in the middle of the classroom stretching from one end of the room to the other. One end of the line across the classroom is designated as “highly agree,” while the other end is designated as “highly disagree.” The instructor projects multiple PowerPoint slides, one at a time, each containing a different phrase that shares an opinion held about religion and spirituality. For example, I use the following statements:
- Everyone should be able to find their unique blend of religion — the more choices the better.
- Everyone is spiritual, even if they identify as agnostic or atheist — even if they choose not to express their spirituality.
- I believe there is a force of goodness in the world and that everything happens for a reason.
As each statement appears, participants stand along the line in the place that symbolizes their degree of agreement or disagreement with that particular statement. Students can be asked to turn to someone standing near them to discuss why they chose that position. Next, they can be directed to find someone standing elsewhere on the line and discuss why their positions differed. Alternatively, a selection of students along the line’s continuum can share out loud why they chose their current position.
The goal of these exercises is to tune students in to their own religious and spiritual beliefs, expose them to a variety of other religious and spiritual beliefs, and learn how to manage their expectations and reactions to an endless array of faith identities that exist outside of themselves.
Counselor educators have a responsibility to help students think beyond conventional faith designations. Post-conventional faith speaks to the increasing diversification of religion and spirituality in the United States.
Groups such as Kohenet provide real-life examples of post-conventional faith expressions. The two frames of meaning making and the search for the sacred can help students understand how post-conventional faith develops. Because of ever-expanding faith expressions, counseling students need to be taught to take a narrative approach to assessing for spirituality and religion.
Finally, I shared two experiential exercises that I use to help future clinicians achieve greater comfort and competence in dealing with post-conventional faith. Please be in touch with me as you try these exercises and as you create your own.
This article was adapted from a previous article published in VISTAS 2014 (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas).
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Zvi J. Bellin is an assistant professor of holistic counseling at John F. Kennedy University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com