The focus of a developmental systems theory of religious development describes and explains the changing nature of one's perceived relationship with the divine across the life span as defined by the unique, dynamic interaction of characteristics of the individual and characteristics of the individual's context across time. All developmental systems theories describe and explain development as a relational process involving the integration of variables from multiple levels of the human ecology (i.e., from biology through cultural and historical levels). Recognition in developmental systems theory of multiple contexts and their interactive relationship with variables of the self necessitates much more than a singular conception of religious development, both in terms of quantitatively measured growth (e.g., growth in amount of knowledge about religious tradition) and in terms of qualitative growth (e.g., change in the subjective experience of the sacred). In addition, domains of knowledge, such as religious knowledge, can show growth at different times throughout the life span. In this developmental systems perspective, the notion of temporality indicates that there are multiple meanings of time affecting religious development, and all are embedded within historical changes. For instance, normative age-related and normative historical (i.e., period in history) changes may impact individual and contextual variables in their structure and function, and nonnormative historical events (e.g., wars, economic depressions) may also impact religious development across the life span. In turn, there can be distinctions among individual, family (generational), and historical time. To understand religious development across the life span, it is necessary to consider how all components of temporality interact.
In assessing religious development, it is therefore important to consider the age of the person in question to determine, for example, his or her probable cognitive level (impacting the ability to think abstractly about purposefulness and connectedness) and if and how the individual is influenced by the historical time in which he or she is embedded. In terms of nonnormative events, as an example, September 11th challenged Americans' individual and collective identities and will likely influence (in both positive and negative ways) the religious identities of many, particularly those most highly affected. As a result of the interconnectedness of all other variables, no human variable is protected from the influence of time. Given that developmental system theories acknowledge the temporal (historical) embeddedness of all levels of the ecology of human development, it therefore also recognizes change as a ubiquitous component of religious development. As such, these theories see the potential for plasticity (i.e., systematic change) in religious development, and this potential affords an optimistic view wherein planned actions (interventions) can be undertaken to promote positive developmental change.
IDENTIFYING THE INDIVIDUAL AND CONTEXTUAL VARIABLES THAT INFLUENCE RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT
Variables of the person that impact the personcontext relation and thereby influence religious development include one's cognitive developmental level and, more specifically, the ability to think about issues related to self and other (e.g., the divine or sacred)-issues that are religious in nature. The ability to manipulate oneself physically within the world also might play an important role in the development of religiosity (e.g., in one's ability to participate in religious rituals and/or attend religious services), as does socioemotional competency, such as the ability to develop healthy interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. The separate and interrelated influences of cognitive, motor, and social competencies on religious development differ for each individual and change throughout each individual's life span.
Recognizing the broad diversity of religious traditions and practice, it would be difficult to delineate all of the possible variables related to the religious. Certainly, contexts such as faith-based institutions, faithbased activities such as youth programs, and religiously devoted families are common contexts of influence. Whereas there are a great number of common contexts of influence, the religious contexts that are less common (e.g., personal places of prayer and meditation, personal resources such as scripture, psalm, and art) are innumerable, and internal characteristics such as cognitive capacity vary widely between and within individuals across time. As such, religious contexts can be diversely described both between and among individuals and between and among groups. In addition, for each individual and group, the influence of multiple levels of the context on religious development changes across time. Whereas some well-known theories of development (i.e., Piaget's theory of cognitive development) provide developmental systems theory with knowledge about the role of individual characteristics such as cognitive competency in religious development, King provides a categorical system that accounts for a wide range of potential contextual influences on religious development. The contextual categories she names are (1) the ideological, (2) the social, and (3) the spiritual. For their breadth of contextual identification and description, these three contexts are considered in a developmental systems theory of religious development. The ideological construct is provided by the religious tradition that intentionally promotes certain moral codes and values. Smith explains that the major world religions offer wisdom in the form of an ideology for the human race about how life should be lived.