The stages of collective development portrayed in the biblical story of God’s people broadly parallel the stages a person goes through in healthy individual development. The two most significant revolutions in the biblical narrative centre around the figures of Moses and Jesus. The revolution of Moses was a revolution of law that formed the foundation of a tribal society, whereas the subsequent revolution of Jesus was a revolution of freedom in the Spirit of God that transcends tribal distinctions. Moses brought law, order, commandments, rules, boundaries, limits, and standards. Jesus brought freedom, grace, forgiveness, love, and maturity in following the Spirit of the Law.
Healthy individual development likewise includes some combination of boundaries and freedom. Without some of both, individuals becomes imbalanced and developmentally arrested in dysfunctional ways. Learning rudimentary rules, boundaries, and roles while exercising a limited amount of freedom is the general scheme of early human development. But as an individual matures, she internalizes and builds upon the rudimentary learnings of early life while simultaneously exercising greater amounts of freedom, independence, and voluntary responsibility over time.
We generally acknowledge society’s need for laws to preserve some degree of social order, without which society would degenerate into disorder and chaos. Useful laws, customs, and cultures function to create needed social predictability, stability, and order. The same principles apply to psychological development and stability. Learning to follow basic laws, rules, and boundaries is absolutely indispensable, especially in early psychological development.
Various developmental psychologies acknowledge a child’s need for clear rules, boundaries, and limits as a precondition of healthy early development. Individuals begin life extremely dependent and helpless. Each nascent individual psyche needs clearly defined and predictable “laws,” so to speak—guiding boundaries, rules, and standards—to support and orient its development, without which the psyche can become disordered and disoriented as it is pulled apart by conflicting desires, needs, aspirations, and external demands. This learning also helps lay the foundational structures of an individual’s perceptions and psyche that further development is built upon.
Teaching rules and standards of good behaviour to developing children helps individuals learn how to respectfully and considerately interact with other individuals too. When children learn how to play well with other children, they are learning basic patterns of behaviour that will later enable them to be productive members of adult society. So if children do not learn how to “follow the rules,” and if they do not learn how to “play well with others,” there is a greater likelihood they will develop permanently isolating and antisocial tendencies that will interfere significantly with their ongoing development and fulfillment.
Learning reasonable personal and social boundaries allows children and adolescents to strengthen their own psychological boundaries and sense of self, as well as their ability to properly regulate impulses and emotions in complex relation to the external demands of other people and circumstances. Early boundaries first form around the line between what is me and what is not-me: around my body, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts, my ambitions, and myself. Repeated boundary violations in any of these areas in the form of unwelcome physical, emotional, or mental manipulation and domination can severely compromise healthy individual development in enduring ways.
Having habitually poor physical, psychological, emotional, and/or relational boundaries—which are typically learned in childhood—is a hallmark of many social dysfunctions and mental disorders. And raising a child in a disordered, unpredictable, and unsafe environment is a recipe for longterm psychological problems. Individuals who cannot form some basic psychological order out of chaos for themselves, for whatever reason, will figuratively drown within the stormy waters of their souls. Individual development cannot occur so long as a person is fighting simply to keep his head above water. He’s struggling just to survive. Which means he has no leftover energy to devote to growing or realizing his potentials.
Children (and adults) likewise need boundaries partly because a infinitely boundless environment is overwhelming and unmanageable. Boundaries and standards function like the dry ground of a familiar island, without which a child would feel as if he is lost at open sea. So when kids engage in testing boundaries, it is at least partly because they need to gain a psychological sense of the limits of themselves, their relationships, and their environment in order to develop a much needed sense of familiarity, predictability, and safety.
A common symbol of cultural structures in mythology is the Great Father, which has manifold significance. Generally, the Father represents the order and culture that organizes human life. In its positive manifestation, culture provides order, predictability, stability, familiarity, and security, all of which can organize a society (and a psyche) in ways that decrease unnecessary stress and increase psychosocial harmony and productivity. The Wise Father/King is a mythological image of this positive aspect. But in its negative manifestation, culture can become excessively outdated, rigid, degenerate, oppressive, and restrictive in ways that inhibit natural and necessary adaptation. The Tyrannical Father/King is an image of this negative aspect.
As a child enters adolescence and eventually adulthood, there is an increasing need for the individual to venture beyond the known boundaries of his father’s home and his forefather’s culture. There are various adaptive and maladaptive strategies a person could follow when undertaking this (unavoidable) challenge. Ideally he will have internalized the ways of his forefathers so deeply by voluntarily participating in his traditions as a boy, that now he can creatively incarnate the spirit of his people as he freely ventures into new and unknown territories as a man. This is the Hero’s Journey in mythology, and it parallels a crucial stage of individual development where a person crosses the threshold from being a student of his tradition to becoming a creative innovator and contributor to his tradition. It parallels the voluntary acceptance and exercise of greater freedom, responsibility, and independence as the person transitions from childhood into adulthood.
This developmental process is comparable to learning any complex skill. When a person learns how to play piano, they generally begin by learning rudimentary scales and chords by disciplined practice and repeated exercise. As they practice more and more, often over the course of years, what was originally a very foreign activity increasingly become second nature. Once the rudiments have become internalized so deeply to the point where the pianist takes for granted all of the complex tasks she does without even consciously thinking, then she can increasingly express her own creativity and freedom through her music. But it is a creative freedom that is built upon learning rudimentary structures; a freedom that remains guided by the rules of music. And it is a freedom that has emerged as a result of rigorous and disciplined practice, without which the pianist could not possibly play as skillfully—or freely. And if she decides to creatively break some rules of performance, it is with full knowledge and appreciation of the tradition she is a student of.
A general rule of human development is you don’t enter a new stage of development without first fulfilling the tasks of the previous stage.
Which means you don’t become Beethoven without first learning scales.
And you don’t become a responsible adult without first successfully navigating childhood.
And you don’t get to Jesus without first having Moses.
Jesus’s teaching and behaviour was so unusual that was accused by his religious opponents of trying to abolish the law. In a similar fashion, the Apostle Paul had to defend his teachings against claim that he was antinomian (anti-law). But both Jesus and Paul defended themselves against these misguided accusations. Jesus explained that he did not come to abolish the Law but rather came to fulfill its latent purposes in manifesting the ways of the same Spirit that inspired the early laws of his people. Jesus was bringing his people forward, showing them that following the Law was never meant to be the end goal.
Rather, in its context, the Law at its best is a means for training people in following the ways of the Spirit, for it is the Spirit that people are meant to serve. Jesus showed that the fullness of human development requires individuals to move beyond rigidly legalistic thinking and living. But this does not mean the laws are abolished! What it does mean that no set of laws can exhaustively contain the manifold Wisdom of the Spirit of Love, which is why the transcendent Spirit of the Law must be internalized and honoured even above specific laws if the inherent purposes of the Law are to be fulfilled.
Eventually learning to follow the uncontrollable movements of the Spirit is far more important in the grand scheme of development than rigidly following the letter of the Law. It is as if Jesus was teaching his followers to move beyond strictly playing the notes on the sheet music, as useful as this exercise can be, towards learning how to freely play in harmony with the rich melodies of Being.
Understanding the biblical narrative in terms of a developmental process also compellingly addresses some longstanding theological debates. What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament? What is the enduring value of the Old Testament? To some extent, these question are similar to asking, What is the relationship between childhood and adulthood? And what is the enduring value of childhood?
Like all healthy developmental patterns, Jesus represents a revolutionary progression that simultaneously transcends and includes all that came before him. It is an evolutionary development that is simultaneously conservative and progressive. So implicit in the biblical story is the general ascent of human development from early childhood into adulthood. This begins in learning the established rules, customs, and ways of one’s people to the point that one internalizes the spirit that has inspired the laws. Then as the law and order become internalized structures of one’s being, one matures by following and applying the spirit of the law in the face of new challenges and circumstances in ways that may even transgress the specific laws of one’s forefathers. One simultaneously fulfills the Law by even transcending laws, because, like Christ, one’s highest allegiance is to the Spirit of the Law.