Spidey the Mystic

Spidey the mystic


cropped-screen-shot-2017-03-13-at-4-09-41-pm.pngWarning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen the latest installment in Marvel’s Spiderman franchise, Far From Home, you may want to put off reading this post until you have.

Thanks to those of you who attended our last book club discussion of Faith Beyond Belief. Not everyone loved the book, but we had a robust discussion. While I don’t presume to speak for everyone, this post is my best attempt to summarize the ideas that were discussed along with my own response to the book.


In her book Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Margaret Placentra Johnston uses Peck’s 4-stage theory of spiritual development as a backdrop against which to present the real stories of people who lived out a god-related twist on the classic Myhrvold drama:

Boy meets god

Of course, the stories were not all about boys. They summarized the experiences of men and women from a range of belief systems, including Mormonism, Islam, and Catholicism, among others. Johnston then used the stories to illustrate key transitional moments in the lives of these individuals, highlighting their progression through Peck’s stages of spiritual development.

What are Peck’s stages of spiritual development?

For those readers who are not in-the-know, here is a quick summary of Peck’s 4 stages, from youngest to oldest (in terms of the age of greatest prevalence):

  • Lawless: Most common in early childhood, this stage is characterized by a lack of principled ethics, where choices are driven by one’s own desires.
  • Faithful: Most people reach this stage later in childhood. It is characterized by black-and-white moral reasoning and blind belief in authority figures, usually out of fear or desire for a promised reward.
  • Rational: In heterogenous religious communities, most reach this stage in late adolescence or early adulthood; in more homogenous religious communities, many reach it later or not at all. This stage is characterized by skepticism and questioning, and much more nuanced moral reasoning. Rational individuals don’t accept things on faith; they require logic and reason.
  • Mystic: Not everyone reaches this stage. Among those who do, it is rarely before mid-life. People in this stage retain their skepticism, but they begin perceiving patterns in nature and developing a deeper understanding of good and evil. Mystics focus on loving others, losing their attachment to the ego, and forgiving their enemies.

The author also maps these stages to the theories of others, including James Fowler. (For those familiar with Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Peck’s “faithful” stage maps to Fowler’s stages 2-3; his “rational” stage maps to Fowler’s stage 4; and his “mystic” stage maps to Fowler’s stages 5-6.)

What does this have to do with Spiderman?

The newest installment in the Spiderman series serves as a useful narrative for understanding Peck’s mystic stage. The villain in the movie, Mysterio, is a highly intelligent inventor and former employee of Tony Stark (who died at the end of the prior Marvel movie). Mysterio is angry at Stark for, among other things, giving stewardship over some fancy piece of tech to the teenaged Spiderman. Mysterio manipulates Spiderman into giving him the tech, which he then uses to create holographic illusions (using pre-programmed drones equipped with holographic projectors) to depict monsters attacking major European cities. The depictions fool everyone. These attacks are followed by further illusions of Mysterio battling and beating the monster. Mysterio does this to persuade the world to see him as a hero.

In the end, Spiderman discovers his mistake and realizes that he must battle the powerful Mysterio, even though he knows that he too is vulnerable to being fooled by the illusions. Spiderman realizes that he can’t rely on his eyes and ears if he is going to win. He must rely on his Spidey-Sense, which is humorously referred to throughout the movie as his Peter-Tingle. (“Don’t call it my Peter-Tingle,” he tells Aunt Mae.) Ultimately, in a scene that is reminiscent of the use-the-Force-Luke TIE-fighter scene in A New Hope (where Luke puts aside his visual sensor and relies on his feelings to destroy the Death Star), Spiderman also has to rely on what seems like a vague, supernatural tingle. In the final fight, his eyes and ears tell him (and the audience) that Mysterio is dying on the floor in front of him, but it turns out to be an illusion. Spiderman surprises us all by reaching up to grab the gun that an invisible Mysterio is actually holding to his head.

Through the lens of Peck’s stages of spiritual development, we can consider both Luke and Spiderman in these scenes to be ignoring their objective (i.e., “rational”) senses and relying exclusively on their “mystical” senses.

Why didn’t everyone in the book group love the book?

Not everyone agreed with the premise that there is a more “advanced” stage of spiritual development beyond the rational stage. I thought this idea could be illustrated by seeing how the Spiderman drama does not have to be seen through the mystical lens. It could be viewed from the rational perspective. The rational person would say that there are scientific explanations for every observable phenomenon. This would include both Mysterio’s holographs, which are produced through the known and quantified (in the movie universe) forces of technology, and Spiderman’s Peter-Tingle. The rational person might point out that the only reason that Spiderman’s Peter-Tingle could be characterized as a sort of supernatural phenomenon is that it is not yet understood as a scientific, measurable phenomenon.

The idea that one man’s science is another man’s supernatural phenomenon is nicely addressed by the hilarious (though potentially offensive to the delicate reader) memes that flooded the internet after the Insane Clown Posse released a song extolling the wondrous “miracles” that are evident in the world — wonders that defy all explanation — such as magnets and rainbows.

To the rational individual, any seemingly supernatural phenomenon will really have scientific explanations. For me, this tendency to explain things with science is useful. But, I admit that it caused me some disappointment when George Lucas demystified the Force in his prequel The Phantom Menace. In that movie, the Force was revealed to be nothing more than microscopic “midichlorians” in the blood of potential Jedi masters like Annakin and Luke Skywalker.

Where do I stand on the idea of a “mystic” stage?

It’s important to keep in mind that these models for faith development are really just constructs — that is, human creations that aid us in our understanding of complex phenomena that are not directly measurable in and of themselves. That said, I lean toward the idea that there is a stage beyond the rational stage as described by Peck. I believe that the rational stage is a transitional stage characterized by grief and anger over having previously allowed feelings to manipulate and shape our worldview. In this window of grief, we temporarily reject all appeals to feeling as flawed, and we attempt to rely exclusively on rationality. We will begin to transition beyond this stage, into Peck’s mystic stage (Fowler’s stage 5), when we begin again to re-integrate feelings into our way of understanding the world.

I don’t believe that the “mystic” stage represents an abandonment of rationality, an idea that is confirmed by Peck’s definitions. Rather, it represents an integration of rationality and feeling, improving humans in two ways:

  1. Feelings can help us bridge the gap between the known and unknown, and
  2. When feelings and reason are in alignment, humans are more successful in their endeavors.
Bridging the gap between the known and unknown

As much as I love science, and as much as I believe that every observable phenomenon will eventually have rational explanations, I also know that there are plenty of things that don’t yet have them. For those things, making use of unexplained phenomena may only be available to those who are open to the mystical.

For example, consider the placebo effect. Science currently cannot explain mechanisms by which the placebo effect works, even among those who know that they are taking a sugar pill. Sure, at some point there will likely be neuroscientific studies that can characterize and quantify every last mechanism by which a sugar pill can improve someone’s depression, but right now it is only an apparently irrational observable phenomenon.

My personal theory is that the mechanisms of the placebo effect will ultimately be revealed to coincide with the mechanisms by which things like prayermeditation, and mindfulness also enable humans to access an as-yet-uncharacterized power for self-healing. Once that power is adequately characterized by science, innovators will likely develop ways to make that power more accessible to all of us. Until then, because they may be the only ones open enough to the unknown to give such strategies a try, that power may only be available to the mystics.

Consider Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. When he went into his TIE-fighter battle to destroy the Death Star, he didn’t know about midichlorians as a scientific explanation for the power of the Force any more than the rest of us did in 1978. However, that lack of knowledge did not stop him from being able to access the power of the Force. If he had been too rational, he might have rejected the idea of an apparently supernatural Force granting him telekinetic powers (and more), and the power of the empire to destroy whole worlds might have gone unopposed. (One shudders at the thought!) It’s because he was open to the possibility of something that seemed irrational to him (and to the audience) — because he was a mystic — that he was able to use his feelings to bridge the gap between the concrete/known and the as-yet unknown power of the midichlorians.

Similarly, Spiderman was also able to access his Peter-Tingle to help him take down the powerful Mysterio only because he believed in a seemingly irrational phenomenon.

So, for every potential unexplained phenomenon, until we have rational explanations for them and until technology advances sufficiently that we can all access the powers they contain, perhaps the mystic path can enable us to access powers that we don’t yet fully comprehend.

The importance of aligning reason with feeling

Personally, I don’t actually believe in human rationality as a saving grace for humanity. That’s because even the most rational of humans has great difficulty seeing beyond their own enormous cognitive biases. Most of us believe that we are thinking our way through this existence, but I believe that we humans are mostly just feeling our way through life.

Jonathan Haidt has a useful analogy to describe how two parts of the human brain work together — the emotional and the rational parts. (Again, these are just constructs; we don’t really have two brains, one observably emotional and the other observably rational.) In this analogy, the human brain is like an elephant and rider. The elephant is the two-ton emotional mind that does all the heavy lifting, and the rider is the little hundred-pound guy on the elephant’s back who is, presumably, doing all the planning. In his analogy, if the human wants to go in a particular direction, he is only going to get there if the elephant wants to go there too.

For example, when I was 22 years old and my first child was about to be born, I was considering going back to school the next semester and embarking on a years-long educational journey that would span the next ten-plus years. I knew that it was a pathway to greater financial security for myself and my family. But as I discovered in the subsequent years, if I didn’t feel like slogging through a series of educational programs for more than a decade, I was not going to be successful. In fact, I almost quit more than once in the years that followed. If I had not been able to align my feelings with my rational goals, then I would have quit. By the time I finished my post-doc at the age of 35, I knew that what it had required more than anything else was motivation, which is all about feelings.

Part of why I like Haidt’s analogy is because of the sheer size difference between the elephant and the rider. Personally, I think that it illustrates the relative magnitudes of energy spent thinking versus feeling in the minds of most humans. It may be hard for us to see, given the extent to which we culturally glorify science and reason, but it probably isn’t unfair to say that the average human mind is more than 99% emotional and less than 1% rational. (And yes, that even includes Richard Dawkins.)

In fact, it may even be valid to question whether we are rational agents at all. The idea that humans are capable of rationality may be a cognitive bias in itself. That’s because some neuroscience research validates the conclusion that Haidt’s elephant is really making all of the decisions, and his human rider is just sitting up there making up stories to persuade himself that the direction he’s taking was his idea all along.

Either way, I don’t believe we can simply ignore feelings in our way of understanding the world. If we choose to try, then we are allowing ourselves to be completely blind to what may be the largest influence on our worldview. Our rationality may help us to understand some objective truths, but unless we can feel our way toward them, then we may not be able to make use of them. To be effective in any potentially rational enterprises, at a minimum, requires us to align our thinking and our feelings.

Where do I position myself on Peck’s spectrum?

If Peck’s model is a useful map of faith development, then I would probably plot myself somewhere between the rational and mystic stages. I don’t think I’m quite fully in the mystic stage as defined by Peck because I have not yet truly forgiven myself and others for being so biased. I am still working through quite a bit of grief and anger about the human inability to see clearly.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m fully in the rational stage. I’m not sure I was ever really there because I never stopped incorporating feelings into the construction of a new worldview after my faith deconstruction. It may be because I work in science (again, I believe in science) that I can see how foolish we are to rely so heavily on rationality. This mistrust of the human capacity for reason draws me toward the mystical stage out of hope that there are forces out there that we don’t yet understand. I hope for the unknown because, for me, none of the forces that I do currently understand appears to be sufficiently oriented around drawing humans closer to a culture of love, peace, and harmony.

A tale of two futures

Presentation5

This dystopian novel takes place in an alternative historical timeline in the United States (US). When the novel begins, members of the US government have been executed, including the president and all of congress. A new theocracy has taken power and eliminated women’s rights to own property, work for pay, read, fall in love, choose whom they will marry, choose when or if they will have a family, and for many, choose whether or not they will raise the children they give birth to. The main character, formerly a mother, wife, and librarian, is now a reproductive slave. She has been assigned to be a surrogate mother for a childless couple. The husband is a highly placed government official. The wife was formerly a religious conservative activist who preached in support of a return to traditional roles for women. When she got what she thought she wanted, she discovered it also meant that she no longer had a voice or power of any kind.

In the context of current events, the story was terrifying. Ever since election night on November 8th, 2016, we have begun to peer deeper into the hearts of those who seek to take away women’s reproductive rights and those who fight women’s equality. I have begun to suspect that a much more insidious agenda is at play. I no longer believe that those who pursue these policies are motivated by religious fervor about morality. (Though, I suspect that many common citizens have been tricked into championing these policies because of a belief in sexual purity.) I have begun to suspect that there is a movement afoot that is founded on racism and misogyny and the idea that the only people who matter are white men.

Hear me out:

A few years ago, I was flying home from a trip abroad, and I sat next to a gentleman who expressed concern about the anti-immigration sentiment that we had begun to see in many western countries. He believed it is a policy error to place draconian restrictions on immigration; that’s because our economy depends on having a thriving population of able-bodied workers. He pointed out that, given the current declines in birth rates in western societies, immigration is the only solution for maintaining sufficient population growth to continue having a robust economy. I had never looked at it that way before, but since that conversation I have watched the simultaneous assaults on both women’s rights and immigration from a new perspective.

In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond talks about how food-producing societies were able to conquer non-food-producing societies because food production resulted in several advantages, including for one, greater population densities. In part, this was attributable to the fact that hunter-gatherer societies had to carry their young as they migrated, which meant that their lifestyle could not support a birth interval much shorter than every 4 years. (He says they achieved this birth interval by way of things like lactational amenorrhea, infanticide, and abortion. He also included abstinence on the list, but I am personally skeptical for reasons I will point out in a minute.) Nonetheless, he shows that food-producing societies were able to shorten the birth interval to every 2 years. The resultant increase in population densities for food-producing societies led to many advantages, including military might and economic strength. Western societies were the beneficiaries of these advantages until about the 1960’s.

Since the 1960’s we have had cultural changes that have lengthened the birth interval in spite of the fact that we are a food-producing society. One important cultural change was the discovery of the birth control pill, which enabled women to begin to have control over whether and when they would reproduce, even while also being sexually active. (Although Jared Diamond cites sexual abstinence as a birth control method in hunter-gatherer societies, I find it difficult to believe that women ever had so much social power that they could choose when and if they would have sex. In my mind, that’s why women in western societies did not begin to have longer birth intervals until they had the capacity to do so without restricting sexual activity.)

It’s possible that other cultural factors also contributed to the lengthened birth interval, including that there was also an increased emphasis on educating women beyond secondary school and a greater recognition that women had the capacity to perform well in the workplace and make important contributions to the economy. However, this leads to a chicken-egg conundrum, as we can’t know whether the longer birth interval contributed to these things or whether these things contributed to a longer birth interval. Regardless, these forces were cyclically reinforcing one another, and this was the course of history.

Of course, women’s entry into the workplace led to a short-lived economic boom, which we saw over a few subsequent decades, including the 1980’s and 1990’s. The 50% of the population that had previously been shut out of the economy could now work for pay, contributing to greater productivity and increased demand. However, that boom was necessarily limited because, while women were seeking educations and pursuing careers, they were also delaying childbirth and choosing to have smaller families. Consequently, there has been insufficient population growth to sustain a robust economy.

Of course, as a result of these cultural changes, we have now begun to see the economy decline in some parts of the country. We have also seen increasing numbers of men’s rights activists blaming women (especially feminists) for all their problems. Because after all, if women were not free to enjoy the same range of life choice options that men have always enjoyed, or if women would only have chosen to remain exclusively in the traditional childbearing-housewife role, we would not have seen a declining birth rate and America would still be great.

Two sets of policies to address this problem have since emerged:

One set of policies seeks to reverse the trends that led to declining birthrates. For example, passing laws that limit women’s reproductive freedom will result in a return to the days when women had no control over their reproductive lives, shortening the birth interval, and bringing us a bunch of new babies. Refusing to pass laws in support of equal pay will result in wage stagnation for women, and a resulting decrease in economic incentives for women to work outside the home. With fewer incentives to work for pay, women will focus more on their role inside the home, bringing us a bunch of new babies.

If you can get past the idea that taking women’s choices away so that they will have more babies is essentially making them into reproductive slaves, then you might favor this set of policies. If you believe that women somehow don’t deserve to have the freedom to make those choices for themselves, then you might favor this set of policies. If you believe that reproductive capacity is a gift from God while birth control is a tool of Satan, then you might favor this set of policies. If you can convince yourself that women are less intelligent, weaker, less resilient, less reliable, less capable, less deserving of autonomy and independence, that birth control makes them fat and ugly, that they don’t have good brains for math and science, then this all goes down a lot smoother. You might even be able to convince yourself that it isn’t evil.

A different sent of policies, rather than seeking to reverse the trend, seeks to ride the waves of disruption that result from allowing people the freedom to choose their own paths. For example, progressive tax policies; universal pre-K; high-quality, government-subsidized childcare; family-leave policies; increasing years of public education; and increasing the minimum wage are all policies that would minimize the burden of children on families. These could enable families to space their children closer together. Similarly, accepting increased numbers of immigrants also increases the number of able-bodied contributing members of the workforce. Taken together, these types of policies may grow the population sufficient to maintain a robust economy. And certainly, to anyone who values human rights, these solutions are preferred over taking away the choices of others.

It is a solution that embraces our humanity, instead of our depravity.

I am someone who comes from a religious tradition that teaches that the US is a “promised land” to which nobody comes except by the hand of God. Over the last decade of knowing and working with refugees and immigrants, what I have observed about them only reaffirms that belief. They are some of the strongest and most resilient people on the planet. They are people who have faced the worst conditions and who tenaciously persevered, pressing forward in hope toward a new future far away from the places they have known their whole lives. They have succeeded against odds that would have killed me.

Current political forces are pushing hard to take away women’s reproductive rights and to limit immigration so we can grow a population of, presumably, white babies. We hear fear-based rhetoric about how all these nonwhites are coming to take over our country and how, in just a few years, whites will be a minority. Personally, I wonder what difference it makes what color we are in 50 years, so long as we are still governed by an inspired constitution that champions a belief in the equality of all humans, so long as we still embrace principles of democracy, truth, justice, and the right of all people to pursue happiness. If we keep our country white but lose our humanity, what good is it?

One set of policies embraces our humanity. The other set of policies brings hate, fear, and a loss of liberty. What set of policies do you want to support?