This article explores the relationship
between a newly emerging world religion, the Bahá'í Faith, and the
cognitive-developmental school of psychology. It does so by
illustrating three major concepts shared by the protagonists of
cognitive-developmentalism, such as Piaget and Kohlberg, and the
primary authors of the sacred writings of the Bahá'í Faith:
Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. These concepts include
(a) a developmental teleology, (b) the stage-like nature of
development, and (c) the importance of a cognitive, or epistemic focus.
It is intended that this article chart an avenue of communication
between members of the Bahá'í Faith and the therapeutic community over
topics of mutual interest (cf. Laszlo, 1989a, 1989b).
If you ask a small child the reason to keep a
promise, the response, "Because Mom told me to," with no further
justification possible, may be heard (Stage 1). Inquiring from an older
child about a promise to return a friend's cassette tape, the child
might be fully satisfied to say, "So Johnny will return tapes that I
loan to him" (Stage 2). Asking teenagers why they should follow up on
their agreements with their fourth-period cooperative study group might
elicit, "That way they will think well of me" (Stage 3). Probing adult
executives' reasons for not misrepresenting their company's products
may bring forth, "Being honest with consumers is also being honest with
yourself; it involves your own integrity." (Stage 4). Questioning wise
senators about why they will stick to their campaign commitments may
bring this answer, "Promises are based on trust, and trust is the
foundation of all human interaction" (Stage 5).
These five scenarios represent five
hierarchically different stages of thought about moral issues.
Cognitive-developmental stages of scientific thought were introduced by
Piaget (1932/1965, 1936/1963, 1964/1968, 1970) and later applied by
Kohlberg (1958,1984) to moral, or justice, reasoning.
These stages have been used to explain human
understanding in domains as diverse as religious faith (Fowler, 1981)
and the understanding of art (Parsons, 1987). Counselors' daily work,
however, is assistance in the development of the individual self of
their clients. Therefore of particular interest to counselors is Robert
Kegan's (1982) work on the development of the self. Kegan transforms
Piaget's stages of scientific reasoning to stages of understanding
one's self and others.
Piaget's (1968) Preoperational stage is
equivalent to Kegan's (1982) Impulsive Stage 1. At the Impulsive stage
the child's understanding of others is limited to physically obvious
features and behaviors. Piaget's Concrete Operational stage is parallel
to Kegan's Imperial Stage 2. Once the child can transcend the
physically obvious (Impulsive stage), they can observe patterns of
behavior and attribute concrete traits to persons (Imperial stage). The
child or teen at the Imperial stage, however, is unable to understand
inner feelings of others. Kegan's Interpersonal Stage 3 is analogous to
Early Formal Operations in Piaget's theory. The ability to think
abstractly at this stage allows the person to understand others' inner
lives. At the Interpersonal stage, however, the person is unable to
establish a systematic identity because he or she is absorbed by
mutuality with others.
Kegan's (1982) Institutional Stage 4 is based
on Piaget's (1968) Advanced Formal Operational stage. It is called
"institutional" because the self becomes systematic and organizes
itself around a consciously held value system. Institutions are like
that in that they have formal mission statements and evaluate
themselves based on those mission statements. A person at this stage
can objectively evaluate others based on their value system, so they
are no longer bound by mutuality. This ability to be independent,
however, becomes its own limitation when a person asks him- or herself
why their own value system is better, or worse, than someone else's
value system. Honestly facing this form of relativity pushes a person
beyond Piaget's stages and into Kegan's highest stage, the
Interdependent Stage 5. At the Interdependent stage, a person comes to
realize that they are simultaneously independent of, but nonetheless
dependent on, others. This kind of highly developed thought requires
"dialectical" schemata (Basseches, 1980, 1984) and "open-systems"
operations (Koplowitz, 1984).
INTRODUCTION TO BAHA'I
The Bahá'í Faith is an independent world
religion, begun in the middle of the 19th century, with communities in
over 205 countries (Barrett, 1988). The people of the Bahá'í faith
regard Bahá'u'lláh, the prophet-founder of the faith, as a
manifestation of God and view his writings as divinely revealed.
Bahá'u'lláh (1976,1978) emphasized developmentalism, including
physical, social, and religious evolution. Bahá'u'lláh taught that
truth is simultaneously absolute and relative. For example, God's
knowledge is absolute but human knowledge is always relative.
Therefore, humans can never be all-knowing, but can always become
more-knowing. Bahá'ís believe that God is manifested periodically
through personages such as Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Christ,
Muhammad, and Bahá'u'lláh. God's purpose in doing this is to reaffirm
regularly to humans eternal spiritual principles such as love and
justice. Because social conditions change in different epochs of human
history, these messengers of God reveal different laws and social rules
that are applicable to a particular time and place. These different
rules may be based on the same principles. For instance, it may have
represented justice to take an eye for an eye during the Mosaic
dispensation, but in the Christian dispensation justice is shown by
turning the other cheek. Bahá'u'lláh indicated that the apparent
differences among religions are superficial and due to the context and
particularities of every age. Bahá'u'lláh's social teachings for this
age include complete lack of prejudice for race, nation, religion, and
sex; support for the individual's independent search for truth; a fully
international government with universal weights, measures, monetary
exchange, and auxiliary language; abolition of extremes of individual
wealth or poverty, with an economic system based on a spiritual
conception of justice; and the essential unity of science and religion.
Bahá'u'lláh requires that all humans become literate and that each has
the right and the responsibility to interpret sacred scripture
according to their best conscience, thus eliminating the need for
clergy. Although there are no Bahá'í clergy, each Bahá'í community is
guided by a body of nine elected by universal adult suffrage.
Upon his death in 1892, Bahá'u'lláh appointed
'Abdu'l-Bahá as the authoritative interpreter of his writings.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, in turn, appointed Shoghi Effendi as his successor in
1921. After the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, the Universal House of
Justice was elected through universal adult Bahá'í suffrage. That body
now administers the worldwide Bahá'í community. For a popular
introduction to the tenets and history of Bahá'í, see The Bahá'í Faith
(Hatcher & Martin, 1984).
THREE SHARED FOCI
There are three particular aspects of
cognitive-developmental psychology that also have relevance in the
Bahá'í writings (Diessner, 1990). These are discussed in the following
sections under the headings of Developmental Teleology, The Stagelike
Nature of Development, and An Epistemic Focus.
There is a teleological focus that underlies
the cognitive-developmental research program (Diessner, 1989).
Teleology is the belief that human activity has "purpose" embedded in
it. In developmental psychology, a teleological view stands for the
belief that human development has a direction and a purpose. Tacit in
developmental theories is a teleological view. Cognitive-developmental
psychology implies that human development is the purpose of a human
life. This is clearly echoed in Kohlberg's classic piece "Development
as the Aim of Education" (Kohlberg & Mayer, 1972). The purpose, or
aim, of a human life is to unfold the potentialities that lie within
The word development encompasses two critical
meanings. One is that of change. Development necessarily implies growth
or change in an organism. The second is change for the better.
Development may be framed as an inherently normative word. Kegan (1982)
has stated about the evolving self: "later stages [are] 'better'. . .on
the philosophical grounds of their having greater truth value" (p.
294). Kohlberg (1981,1984) has made similar, if more involved,
The Bahá'í writings support developmentalism,
both on an individual and on a collective basis. The "chief goal [of
the Bahá'í Faith] is the development of the individual and society"
(Shoghi Effendi cited in Rost, 1979, p. 95). All humans "have been
created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization" (Bahá'u'lláh,
1976, p. 215). "The growth and development of all beings is gradual;
this is the universal divine organization and the natural system"
('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, pp. 198-199). "This state of motion is said to be
essential--that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because
it is their essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement
of fire to burn" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, p. 233).
Creation is the expression of motion. Motion
is life. A moving object is a living object, whereas that which is
motionless and inert is as dead. All created forms are progressive in
their planes, or kingdoms of existence, under the stimulus of the power
or spirit of life. The universal energy is dynamic. Nothing is
stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner
world of intellect and consciousness. ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1982, p. 140)
The Stagelike Nature of Development
One of the classic controversies in
developmental psychology is whether human development occurs in
relatively distinct stages (qualitative change), or whether it is
gradual (quantitative change). Piaget's (cf. 1968) mapping of human
development relies heavily on the concept of stages. His four basic
stages, the Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and
Formal Operational, all represent four different ways of understanding
the world. Each progressive stage increases the breadth and depth of a
The Bahá'í writings have many references to
development through stages. Bahá'u'lláh's most popular mystical text,
The Seven Valleys (1978), describes the soul's development through
The stages that mark the wayfarer's journey
from the abode of dust to the heavenly homeland are said to be seven.
Some have called these Seven Valleys, and other, Seven Cities. And they
say that until the wayfarer taketh leave of self, and traverseth these
stages, he shall never reach to the ocean of nearness and union. . .The
first is the Valley of Search. The steed of this Valley is patience. .
.[The next is] the Valley of Love. . .The steed of this Valley is pain.
. .[Next] he will enter the Valley of Knowledge. . .which is the last
plane of limitation. [Then] the wayfarer cometh to the Valley of Unity
. . .[then] the Valley of Contentment . . .[then] the Valley of
Wonderment . . .[and finally to] the Valley of True Poverty and
Absolute Nothingness. This station is the dying from self and the
living in God . . . (pp. 4-36)
Piaget (1970) referred to his own theory as
one of "genetic epistemology." This means that the stages emerge
naturally (genetic) and that each stage represents a theory of knowing
(epistemology). Although the Cognitive-Developmental research program
has emphasized knowing and cognition, this does not imply that other
basic experiences, such as feeling or willing, are not equally as
important. Knowing, emoting, and willing are all inextricably
interactive. This article is not making a case of which is more
important, rather it is establishing that a cognitive emphasis is of
great importance. The theories of the cognitive-developmental research
program emphasize the importance of thought and knowledge. Kegan (1982)
referred to each of his stages as coherent epistemologies. Kohlberg's
later articulations of his theory referred to it as generally one of
"justice reasoning" (1984,chap. 3).
The Bahá'í concept of knowing and knowledge
likely exceeds typical usage of the words reason and logic. Human
intellectual powers are considered spiritual abilities in the Bahá'í
Faith (viz., 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, chap. 56). Bahá'u'lláh wrote,
"consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence
of man . . .Immeasurably exalted is this sign, in its essence and
reality" (1976,pp. 164-5). And 'Abdu'l-Bahá confirmed, "God's greatest
gift to man is that of intellect, or understanding" (1971,p. 41).
In the Piagetian view, the stage of formal
operations separates the child from the young adult. A similar view is
found in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writings:
The suckling babe passeth through various
physical stages, growing and developing at every stage, until its body
reacheth the age of maturity. Having arrived at this stage it acquireth
the capacity to manifest spiritual and intellectual perfections. The
lights of comprehension, intelligence and knowledge become perceptible
in it and the powers of its soul unfold. (1978,p. 285)
Of particular interest to many counselors,
and their clients, is the relationship between faith and reason in
human development. The Bahá'í writings make clear the limitations of
reason. Reason, although critically valuable, is fallible as used by
human minds ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, chap. 83). On the other hand, faith,
if not supported by reason, is superstition. "If a question be found
contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible and there is
no outcome but wavering and vacillation" (Bahá'u'lláh &
'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956, p. 240). Bahá'ís are expected to use reason to
critique their faith and to use their faith to critique their reason.
The relationship between faith and cognition is intimate. Separating
faith and knowledge from action is to misunderstand the nature of
faith. "By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the
practice of good deeds" (Bahá'u'lláh & 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956, p. 383).
"Faith in God, and the knowledge of Him cannot be fully realized except
through believing in all that hath proceeded from Him, and by
practicing all that He hath commanded. . . (Bahá'u'lláh &
'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956, p. 188).
Similarities to this Bahá'í conceptualization
of faith and cognition are found in Fowler's (1981) work within the
cognitive-developmental school on stages of faith. In referring to
Niebuhr and Tillich, Fowler stated that faith is "a way of seeing the
world. . .[it] is a kind of knowing, a constructing of the world in
light of certain disclosures of the character of reality as a whole
that are taken as decisive" (p. 98). This coincides with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's
(Bahá'u'lláh & Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956) idea that faith is conscious
knowledge; faith is intimately involved in what we know. If we do not
know something, in some way, we cannot have faith in it. And as Fowler
(1981) has shown (see Table 1), stages of faith are correlated with
stages of cognition.
RELEVANCE FOR COUNSELORS
There are currently 5 to 6 million Bahá'ís
worldwide who have formed organized communities in over 205 countries.
It is the second most widely distributed religion on our planet,
according to The Encyclopedia Britannica (Barrett, 1988). Although
Bahá'ís strive to develop a spiritually and psychologically healthy
community, it seems likely, based on the stresses and strains of modern
life, that counselors will have opportunities to counsel Bahá'ís. In
particular, guidance in the Bahá'í writings urge Bahá'ís to use mental
health professionals if necessary (Hornby, citing Shoghi Effendi, 1988,
The teleological emphasis in Bahá'í is found
in several therapies, particularly that advocated by Adler and
Dreikurs. "Adlerian psychology regards a human being as a goal-oriented
individual and considers everything the person does from the point of
view of the goal" (Blumenthal, 1988, p. 13). Counselors familiar with
this approach could easily engage Bahá'ís in the therapeutic process by
indicating this connection.
Some counselors already use stage theories in
their work. Many counselors are familiar with Erikson's (1950)
psychosocial stages of development. Counselors interested in a
transpersonal approach may be familiar with the Spectrum of
Consciousness stages advocated by Wilber (1977). They can make use of
the citations in this article about stage development in the Bahá'í
writings to build communication bridges with Bahá'í clients.
The Bahá'í focus on the value of the rational
powers of the human mind is an important factor in counseling.
Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behaviorism (Meichenbaum,
1977) and rational-emotive therapy (Ellis, 1962), which emphasize the
use of reason to overcome emotional difficulties, may be quite amenable
to a Bahá'í.
Counselors wishing to study the practical
aspects of the cognitive-developmental school should refer to
Kuhmerker's The Kohlberg Legacy and the Helping Professions (1991); the
last chapter of Kegan (1982), "Natural Therapy"; and to Lickona's
(1982) book, Raising Good Children. Counselors in the schools would do
well to examine works by Power, Higgins, and Kohlberg (1989); Reimer,
Paolitto, and Hersh (1983); and Mosher and Sprinthall (1970). These
texts all address psychological development of students in public
schools from a cognitive-developmental framework.
It would be inappropriate to advocate for the
superiority of one therapeutic approach over another for Bahá'ís in a
short article such as this. Its primary usefulness for counselors is to
understand further the mind set of Bahá'ís, in general, and thus set
the conditions for accurate empathy.
TABLE 1 Stages of Various Theories of the Cognitive-Developmental Research Program
Legend for Chart:
A - Theorist/Content Area
B - Stage 0
C - Stage 1
D - Stage 2
E - Stage 3
F - Stage 4
G - Stage 5
Concrete Operations Formal Operations
Formal Operations Postformal Operations
Kohlberg / Justice
Social System Social Contract
Kegan / Self
Fowler / Faith
'Abdu'l-Bahá. (1971). Paris talks. Addresses given by
'Abdu'l-Bahá in Paris 1911-12. London, England: Bahá'í
'Abdu'l-Bahá. (1978). Selections from the writings of
'Abdu'l-Bahá (A committee at the Bahá'í World Centre and
M. Gail, Trans.). Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre.
'Abdu'l-Bahá. (1982). Promulgation of universal peace (2nd
ed.). Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust.
'Abdu'l-Bahá. (1984). Some answered quest/ohs (pocket size
ed.). Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust
Bahá'u'lláh. (1976). Gleanings from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh
(2nd ed.) (S. Effendi, Trans.). Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í
Bahá'u'lláh. (1978). The seven valleys and the four valleys
(3rd ed.) (A. K. Khan & M. Gail, Trans.). Wilmette, IL:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust.
Bahá'u'lláh, & 'Abdu'l-Bahá. (1956). Bahá'í world faith (2nd
ed.). Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust.
Barrett, D. B. (1988). World religious statistics. 1988
Britannica Book of the Year. Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia
Basseches, M. A. (1980). Dialectical schemata: A framework for
the empirical study of the development of dialectical
thinking. Human Development, 23, 400--421.
Basseches, M. A. (1984). Dialectical thinking and adult
development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Blumenthal, E. (1988). The way to inner freedom (N. Benvega,
Trans.). London, England: Oneworld Publications.
Diessner, R. (1989, November). Ethical development and critical
thinking in the college years. Paper presented at the
meeting of the Association for Moral Education, Los
Diessner, R. (1990). Selflessness: Congruences between the
cognitive-developmental research program and the Bahá'í
writings. Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 3(2), 3--12.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New
York: Lyle Stuart Press.
Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Fowler, J. (1981). Stages of faith. New York: Harper & Row.
Hatcher, W. S., & Martin, J. D. (1984). The Bahá'í Faith. The
Emerging global religion. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Hornby, H. (1988). Lights of guidance (2nd ed.) New Delhi.
India: Bahá'í Publishing Trust.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in
human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Kohlberg, L. (1958). The development of modes of moral thinking
and choice in the years ten to sixteen. Unpublished
doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
Kohlberg, L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development. San
Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development. San
Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Kohlberg, L., & Mayer, R. (1972). Development as the aim of
education. Harvard Educational Review, 42, 449-496.
Koplowitz, H. (1984). A projection beyond Piaget's
formal-operations stage: A general system stage and a
unitary stage. In M. L. Commons, F. A. Richards, & C.
Armon (Eds.), Beyond formal operations (pp. 272-295). New
Kuhmerker, L. (Ed.). (1991). The Kohlberg legacy for the
helping professions. Birmingham, AL: R. E. P. Books.
Laszlo, E. (1989a). Humankind's path to peace in global
society. The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 2(2), 19-37.
Laszlo, E. (1989b). The inner limits of mankind: Heretical
reflections on today's values, culture, and politics.
London, England: Oneworld Publications.
Lickona, T. (1982). Raising good children. New York: Bantam.
Meichenbaum, D. (1977). Cognitive-behavior modification. New
Mosher, R. L., & Sprinthall, N. (1970). Psychological education
in secondary schools: A program to promote individual and
human development. American Psychologist, 25, 911-924.
Parsons, M. (1987). How we understand art: A cognitive
developmental account of aesthetic experience. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Piaget, J. (1963). The origins of intelligence in the child.
New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1936)
Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child (M. Gabain,
Trans.). New York: Free Press. (Original work published
Piaget, J. (1968). Six psychological studies. New York:
Vintage. (Original work published 1964)
Piaget, J. (1970). Structuralism (C. Maschler, Trans.). New
York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1970)
Power, C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1989). Lawrence
Kohlberg's approach to moral education. New York: Columbia
Reimer, J., Paolitto, D. P., & Hersh, R. (1983). Promoting
moral growth (2nd ed.). New York: Longman.
Rost, H. T. D. (1979). Brilliant stars. Oxford, England: G.
Wilber, K. (1977). The spectrum of consciousness. Wheaton, MA:
Rhett Diessner is an associate professor
of psychology and education in the Division of Education, Lewis-Clark
State College, 8th Avenue & 6th Street, Lewiston, ID 83501.