Mathematics and Spiritual Maturity
From the moment we are born, we start growing, changing, and maturing. In fact, to mature is one of the goals of a living creature. If we humans are fortunate, we eventually grow into adults. Perhaps we’re wise; perhaps foolish. Most likely, we’re a bit of both. Yet to gain more than a physical maturity, become spiritually mature, we must do more than just live. We must travel into the dark and secret places of our soul. We must take the hero’s journey.
Generally, we don’t start this journey on purpose. Even through adolescence, some of us ignore the call to explore and question. Only when life pinches or teases or discomfits are most of us willing to face the long and uncertain path the hero must take. Most of us don’t like life’s vagaries, the paradoxes and ambiguities that hide in shadows. We want clear answers. We like the model where two plus two equals four.
Yet even mathematicians must wrestle with conjecture, doubt, and possibility. In his article, “Doubt, Proof, and What It Means to Do Mathematics,” Robert Talbert explains how one “proves” a mathematical equation. We don’t simply explain what is true and not true. First, we have to realize that what we think of as fact may actually be conjecture. We must be willing to question our perceptions. Otherwise, we won’t even reach the point of proving. We will live not with truth, but with the illusion of truth.
Learning to Doubt
Talbert notes that it can be difficult for students to accept this. They want to state a thesis, or make a conjecture, without having to doubt first, but if they’re going to do math right, then doubt they must. Indeed, you could say that mathematics teaches students how to doubt. In this way, it guides them on the first step toward spiritual maturity.
Doubting is not the final step, however. One must move beyond that. Yet sometimes, in our modern, relativistic world, where your beliefs are as good as mine, we get stuck there. While we don’t like uncertainty, we also resist certainty.
Talbert’s students tend to be as uncomfortable taking a definitive stand as they are asking questions. They prefer the indeterminate, yet also insist that if they “feel” something is right, it must therefore be so. Yet, writes Talbert, “mathematics somehow demands that we reject both casual uncertainty and warm-fuzzy conviction and replace them, respectively, with principled skepticism and rigorous belief.” 
Why does this matter? Clearly it makes a difference in the realms of calculus and geometry, but it also informs how we live in the world. As Talbert says, if we have not fully explored a conjecture, we cannot be secure in the truth of it. Thus, when we depend on authority figures to tell us what is right and what is not, we will bluster and shout to convince another, or use violence to force another, to accept what we take as truth.
What Talbert thinks we should do instead is realize that math, like life, is not about getting the right answer from rote computations. Instead it is about observation and truth. Mathematics takes rigorous honesty. By that I don’t mean just speaking one’s mind, whatever dreck is on the top of that mind, but rather having the intellectual and spiritual discipline to honestly examine one’s assumptions, conclusions, and observations.
Yet will this give us the right answer? Is there a right answer? According to many spiritual traditions, the world in which we think we live is an illusion, a dream. How can we, then, understand truth? Can we ever fully know what is real?
Those same spiritual traditions would say that, yes, we can wake up from the dream and see within and beyond the veil. Talbert says that doubt is “essential to mathematics.”  So it is in life, as well. Yet in both realms, doubt is not everything. Answers can be ascertained. Truth does exist. Learning to prove an equation in math can teach us how to live a spiritually-mature life.
The Move from Certainty to Doubt to Something Bigger
Partly, that’s because spiritual maturity comes when we can open ourselves up to paradoxes such as the fact that we can never know the essence of the universe, while at the same time, we already know it; that nothing matters, while at the same time, everything matters; that mathematics, like the examined life, demands a certainty that can only be discovered through doubt.
This is the nature of the hero’s journey, to move from certainty to doubt and back to a new and larger knowing that is comfortable with mystery and serene in the face of chaos. All of us experience the hardships and setbacks that invite us into the murkiness of the hero’s path, yet not all of us accept that invitation.
Why should we bother? To do so means to embrace the solitude, anxiety, and peril of asking questions and making mistakes. On the hero’s journey, we look foolish, feel ashamed, and are forced to face our imperfections and insignificance. Who would want to experience that?
What Is Spiritual Maturity?
Maybe none would relish it, yet for many of us, the way is worthwhile, for it leads us to spiritual maturity, grace, and an inner calm we would never have found before. Spiritual maturity is an open-hearted, tender, generous way of being that makes life worth living. Maggie Ross describes it as a movement from “dependence to independence to interdependence.”  Through spiritual maturity, we enhance our capacity to love.
Speaking about our relationship with money, Dan Hotchkiss suggests that the spiritually-mature person can look at reality without denying or distorting the facts. Although none of us do this completely, a spiritually-mature person must at least be willing to critique what she observes and believes. 
To be spiritually mature means to feel comfortable with paradox, to make reasoned decisions in the face of competing values, and to forgive ourselves when we fails. When we are spiritually mature, “we no longer mistake individuality for authenticity,” writes Ross.  We will have discovered the essence of who we are, and from that essence we will learn to live.
Spiritual Maturity and Stages of Faith
You might say that spiritual maturity coincides with James Fowler’s fifth stage of faith development, the Conjunctive Faith.
In stage five, we recognize that our conscious mind informs only a small part of who we are and what we do. We see truth as complex and multidimensional. Ecumenical dialogue becomes possible because those in stage five can listen to others, even those unlike themselves, with a heart that is open to being influenced and changed, to allowing other truths to augment and enhance its own.
The spiritually-mature person does not need to be in control of the universe or even of her own small part of the world. She understands that reality is malleable, that we only see a minuscule part of it, and that we can control almost none of it. This doesn’t mean the spiritually-mature person is out of control. Instead, he can hold onto the stillness of reflection and of silence. She has a curious mind and is willing to ponder and question, to consider and reconsider. 
Yet the fifth is not Fowler’s final stage of religious or spiritual development. Some few of us may reach a sixth stage, the Universalizing Faith. In this stage, we not only conceptualize the idea of oneness, but also experience it. Not only do we believe that our material security is unimportant, we act from that belief. We love everyone, forgive everything, and know a peace beyond understanding. To reach this sixth stage, our hearts must be shattered and then redeemed.
Not long after 9/11, I was talking to a patient who had been in New York when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Desperate to get home to Oregon, she finally managed to get an airline ticket. She couldn’t help being frightened, however, for so many people had just died from a hijacked flight. As she sat in her seat, worrying about what might happen, she heard a voice in her head say, “Don’t worry, Daughter. Whatever happens, you will be home.”
Even after that life-changing moment, she struggled in life. Indeed, I met her on a detox unit, where she was once again trying to gain control over an addiction that had destroyed relationships, cost her a job, and shattered her self-esteem. Yet on one level, she felt secure, knowing that she had a god, and that her god loved her, and that she would get home one way or another.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
None of us, even those who live with a Universalizing Faith, are perfect. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Whoever we are is who we will be, even after the sky opens and God touches our hearts. Enlightenment doesn’t take away our pettiness, our stinginess, our laziness, or our grouchiness. Probably those character defects will be tempered, and we will be better able to sink into that space of compassion and grace that epitomizes a spiritual maturity, but they do not go away completely.
The degree to which they lessen, however, is probably equal to the degree we are willing to go “into the desert and wait.”  Spiritual maturity gives us the courage to journey into the unknown, to embrace the lonely and desperate moments that shatter our literal and concrete understanding of the world and leave us with mystery, with a sometimes painful openness, and with a serenity that does not fail us even when we feel anxious, depressed, or betrayed. Without such tempering, we cannot grow, yet when we are spiritually mature, we know that growth is worth it.
Percival and the Holy Grail
Before he could truly become a man, Percival had to be tempered.
He did not start out a hero. He grew up sheltered, a poor boy in the forest, never seeing a horse, a sword, or a knight until one day when he broke away from his protective mother, and there before him stood a man encased in armor. Suddenly, Percival knew his destiny. He was meant to be a knight.
Thus he went forward into the world. As is the way with life, hardship and failure battered him. On his search for the holy grail, he came upon it without realizing what it was. He saw the Fisher King in his boat on the lake, unable to stand because of an old wound in his thigh. The last in a line of men charged with protecting the grail, the king might have yielded the cup to Percival had the young knight asked him the question that would have healed his injury.
Yet Percival did not. Having been taught that to question an elder is rude, he asked nothing at all. Like Talbert’s students, he was more interested in finding answers in the dictates of authority than in doubting what he had been told. He lacked the internal wisdom to do what was right, especially if it defied convention. So he failed in his task, and the world turned into a wasteland. Sometimes our ignorance and folly have serious consequences.
Growing Up and Trying Again
In the myth, Percival leaves the Fisher King in shame. He spends years learning how to be a knight, how to listen to others, and how to act from the wisdom of his own heart rather than depending on the authority of others. Then, when he returned to the king, he finally had the compassion and the humility to know what the right thing to say.
There are many Percival stories, and they contain different questions. In Chrétien de Troyes’ poem, the correct question is “Who is served by the grail?” Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Percival asks, “Sir, why do you suffer so?” In some versions, we never learn what the question is. In his opera about Parsifal, as the Germans spell the name, Richard Wagner discounts the question entirely. The only thing Parsifal asks is, “Who is the grail?,” and this he asks not of the Fisher King, but of his uncle, Gurnemanz, who responds, “That cannot be spoken, but if you are called to its service, the knowledge will not be hidden for long.” 
The experience of spiritual maturity cannot be spoken. It is understood, felt, lived. If we are called to spiritual depth, one day we will know it, for our life will turn upside down, and we will see and understand what we did not know before. To grow in spiritual maturity, one must, like Percival, experience disappointment. The ground beneath us must shudder, the waters must rush over us, and we must find we are powerless to pick ourselves up. Only the tragedies that leave us gasping and empty, desperate for mercy and grace, scour us enough to mature our souls.
“It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” writes Ross. 
It Doesn’t Just Happen
That doesn’t mean that just because you’ve lived through hard times, you’ll end up spiritually mature. We all know bitter, angry men and women who have led miserable lives full of abuse, torment, and poverty, yet die angry at the injustice of the world, especially that done to them.
So how is that some remain stuck in their anger and resentment while others, who have experienced as much or more harshness, die grateful for their abundance, in love with the world around them?
The difference is that the first refuses the invitation to dive deep into the water and drown in the depths. The turn away from the hero’s journey. They don’t realize that the lake does not take us forever. Eventually, we will be lifted up, we will break the surface, and we will find ourselves the same, yet different.
We Can All Embrace the Hero’s Journey
Of course, if your life has been comfortable and easy, that doesn’t mean you can’t become spiritually mature. You need not die certain that you are special, nor need you scorn all those whose lives are painful or chaotic.
Everyone experiences some loneliness and fear. Embrace that. Into all our lives, no matter how much money we’ve saved or how strong our bodies or how many friends we have, a view of that eternal nothingness will one day come. Notice it. Choose to accept the invitation, to walk through the desert, to experience the emptiness and claim the brokenness, so you can reach the other side. Even in the face of comfort and ease, we can choose challenges that teach us empathy, we can listen with compassion to the stories of others, and we can gaze around us at the mystery of life with wonder, openness, and courage. Spiritual maturity is found in such wondering, hearing, seeing, knowing. It is found in stillness and surrender. It is found on the hero’s journey.
In faith and fondness,
- Talbert, Robert, “Doubt, Proof, and What It Means to Do Mathematics,” The Chronicle, July 23, 2013, https://www.chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines/2013/07/23/doubt-proof-and-what-it-means-to-do-mathematics/, accessed 1020/18.
- Ross, Maggie, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity, New York: Seabury, 2007, 189.
- Hotchkiss, Dan, Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends, Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2002, 53.
- Ross 189.
- Fowler, James, Stages of Faith, New York: Harper Collins, 1995, 186-187.
- Ross 190.
- Everett, Derrick, “The Question,” Monsalvat, http://www.monsalvat.no/question.htm, accessed 10/20/18.
- Ross 99.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens