The Christian Life is often described as being a journey. It’s a journey with Jesus; a journey of change; a journey of being ‘transformed’ into the likeness of Christ. We are actually intended – designed, if you will – to grow spiritually. And the Christian can walk secure in the knowledge that Jesus is the One Who will carry the work to completion:
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 (KJV))
Now, if you ask any Evangelical Christian about God working change in a believer’s life, he will certainly agree enthusiastically with the idea. The potter’s wheel (Jer 18:1-6), the Refiner’s Fire (Mal 3:3), being ‘…transformed from one degree of glory into another’ (2Cor3:18); these are just three Scriptures that contribute towards forming standard Evangelical doctrine on God’s transforming of believers on an ongoing basis, and there are many more such Scriptures. This is a well-established part of the Christian life, and you won’t find many dissenters on that point.
But the thing is, many believers don’t actually think beyond this concept; they have no idea what this transformation will actually look like in practice – and in any case it’s also going to vary from one person to another. What Jesus works in one person is always, almost by definition, going to be different from what He works in another (Jn 21:22); we are all different and Jesus meets each of us at our point of need.
An example of part of this transformation process is undoubtedly the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, which I have written about before here and here. And since this Dark Night is not actually all that well known about within Evangelical Christianity (although more people are discovering it for themselves simply by going through it), many believers either give up the walk entirely, or they stagnate at that point and can grow no more until they pass through it, if indeed they ever do. Or they live with their doubts and questions and just accept them, but this is not progress in the transformative sense. In my old Evangelical circles, they always used to say that until you have let God do the work He wants to do at the moment, He will not let you progress any further until you’ve jumped that particular hurdle in your life. While I don’t believe that God is actually that two-dimensional, I do sort-of agree with the sentiment behind it in that until you have grown in a particular area, you can’t really make any more progress in that area because part of your ‘toolkit’ of essential background will be missing. But of course, Father is pretty creative when it comes to finding solutions to our individual hurdles, and He does offer us a path through – but still He prefers our co-operation. If we insist on sitting still, He will usually honour that, but your spiritual growth will be delayed in that area until you let Him do what He wants.
So, what does spiritual growth actually look like? Well, by definition, growth implies change. The believer’s attitudes, doctrines, belief systems, trust, faith, will all change with growth. Like with the Dark Night, one of the main obstacles to change is this: that this change is not always understood nor welcomed by fellow believers. The person may be accused of ‘backsliding’ or of ‘falling away’; he may be threatened with ‘hell fire’ if he does not return to his conformative ways; conforming, that is, with the beliefs of the group he is with at the time – church or whatever. In some ways, this is understandable as the group as a whole feels threatened by anything ‘different’; maybe they feel that ‘false doctrine’ may be brought in which will threaten their carefully-constructed faith/doctrinal/belief structure, and the whole thing will come crashing down like the proverbial house of cards. You can’t really blame them; in some ways it’s actually an animal herd-instinct kind of thing. But the simple fact is that someone undergoing spiritual growth will change. It’s the normal way of things. And it may cause the changing believer to feel alienated, rejected and alone. Sometimes this is exactly why some people simply live with their doubts or other change pressures; they want to conform, they have a fear of rejection and so they stay where they are. And the irony here is that many Evangelicals – I remember it clearly from my time under that banner – would say that ‘if you’re not moving forwards, you’re backsliding’. Personally, I disagree with their physics/navigation in that idea, but the irony still stands. And we should not be trying to please men – which is what the ‘herd instinct’ wants to do – but God (Gal 1:10; Jn 12:42-43, Lk 16:15)
But the thing is that, no matter what the believer’s acquaintances think, this change is real and it’s God that’s doing it. So what’s the answer? Well, as usual, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. What if Evangelicalism has become so insular, so inward-looking, and so suspicious of outside influences, that Evangelical Christians in general are unaware of what’s happening? What if, in fact, unbeknownst to Evangelicalism in general, it is a recognised phenomenon that spiritual growth implies (often radical) change?
Well, in fact, this is indeed the case. It is indeed well-recognised that an individual’s faith and belief structure should normally go through doubt, questioning, revision and similar changes. We are mere mortals; how can we ever imagine that we can understand the vast mysteries of God in one go? So, in order to make this stuff a little clearer, and to reassure my readers that this is indeed a normal part of Christian growth, I would like to advance the idea of the ‘Stages of Spiritual Growth’ in this series – which may span several weeks, or even months – and the instalments of which will likely be interspersed with articles on other subjects.
In this series, then, I will be exploring this idea of the Stages of Spiritual Growth*, which is actually one of the most important discoveries/observations for a modern believer to be aware of.
To quote Dr. M. Scott Peck, from whom we are going to be hearing much more in this series,
“Just as there are discernible stages in human physical and psychological growth, so there are stages in human spiritual development… But I first came to an awareness of these stages through my own personal experience.
“The first of these experiences occurred within I was fourteen and began attending Christian churches in the area. I was mainly interested in checking out the girls but also in checking out what this Christianity business seemed to be about. I chose one particular church because it was only a few blocks down the street and because the most famous preacher of the day was preaching there. It was in the day before the “electronic church,” but this man’s every sermon was broadcast over almost every radio frequency across the country. At fourteen I had no trouble spotting him as a fraud. On the other hand, up the street in the opposite direction was another church with a well-known minister–not nearly as famous as the first but still probably among the top thirty in the Who’s Who of preachers of the day-a Presbyterian named George Buttrick. And at age fourteen I had no trouble spotting George Buttrick as a holy man, a true man of God. What was I to think of this with my young brain? Here was the best known Christian preacher of the day, and as far as I could discern at age fourteen, I was well ahead of him. Yet in the same Christian religion was George Buttrick, who was obviously light years ahead of me. It just didn’t compute. So I concluded that this Christianity business didn’t make any sense, and I turned my back on it for the next generation.
“Another significant non computing experience occurred more gradually. Over the course of a decade of practicing psychotherapy a strange pattern began to emerge. If people who were religious came to me in pain and trouble, and if they became engaged in the therapeutic process, so as to go the whole route, they frequently left therapy as atheists, agnostics, or at least skeptics. On the other hand, if atheists, agnostics, or skeptics came to me in pain or difficulty and became fully engaged, they frequently left therapy as deeply religious people. Same therapy, same therapist, successful but utterly different outcomes from a religious point of view. Again it didn’t compute–until I realized that we are not all in the same place spiritually.
“With that realization came another: there is a pattern of progression through identifiable stages in human spiritual life. I myself have passed through them in my own spiritual journey. But here I will talk about those stages only in general, for individuals are unique and do not always fit nearly into my psychological or spiritual pigeonhole.
“With that caveat, let me list my own understanding of these stages and the names I have chosen to give them…”
And that is where we are going. I will be examining why we feel and behave the way we do as believers, why we face so much opposition from our peers, and why these changes in our lives can produce so much fear, uncertainty and division amongst people who love and care for us, and are fearful of, and disturbed by, the changes they see – fearful either for us, or for themselves. And I will also be hoping to encourage you by reducing or even removing completely that fear, and to help you to reassure others too in a similar way. And, who knows? This knowledge may even help us on the path towards reconciliation between the various warring factions of Christendom.
This is an exciting project for me, which I have been thinking deeply about for a long time, and it will be hard work, but equally it will be well worth it. I believe that education is a very important tool that can open up entirely new areas that we never dreamed possible, and that’s my intention with this series. You will doubtless find yourself reading certain things and thinking (maybe even out loud!) “Oh, yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” And in so doing, your eyes will be opened, your understanding increased, and your Christian maturity deepened.
That’s my prayer for you for this series.
*Note that, in this series, I will be using the terms ‘Stages of Spiritual Growth’ and ‘Stages of Faith’ interchangeably. This is quite deliberate.
In this, the second piece in my series on the Stages of Spiritual Growth, I’m afraid I’m going to kind-of lay out right at the very beginning an overview of where this series is going, and indeed issue a bit of a spoiler! I’m not going to keep you waiting; I am going to explain up front what the various Stages are, and in later posts I will flesh out each Stage with examples and commentary. In this way, you can also do your own reading and research around the subject so as to be able to develop your own ideas and concepts that fit with your own personal journey, and then compare those findings with mine. I am actually not keeping any ‘secrets’ here; all the initial ‘cards’ will be laid out on the table and my own comments and ideas will follow in future posts, on the back of that. And remember we are all on a learning road together!
So, without further ado, here we go.
There are two, very similar, ‘schools of thought’ on the stages of spiritual growth.
Each of these Stages, and the ages at which they are thought to occur, are of course generalisations – some people may not have all the ‘characteristics’ of each stage, but they are reached (if they are reached at all) in sequence since each Stage builds on the things learned in previous Stages. Some believers may not reach the further Stages at all, and the ages are of course different from person to person. These Stages are summarised in the following chart, along with a short description:
I would imagine that you may already be identifying with much of what you have seen in that chart…
The other school of thought is known as the ‘Four Stages of Spiritual Development’ and was proposed by the late Dr. M. Scott Peck, from whom we have already heard in the previous instalment of this series.
Peck writes of the ‘Four Stages of Spiritual Growth’, and he does refer to Fowler, in passing, in an excellent [albeit abridged] version of his ideas which can be found here, and which refers to Peck’s book ‘The Different Drum‘ is where he expounds his ideas on his ‘Four Stages’. These ‘Four Stages’ follow a broadly similar structure to Fowler’s but are slightly more simplified. These are Peck’s Four Stages:
Stage I is chaotic, disordered, and reckless. Very young children are in Stage I.
Stage II is the stage at which a person has blind faith in authority figures and sees the world as divided simply into good and evil, right and wrong, us and them.
Stage III is the stage of scientific skepticism and questioning.
Stage IV is the stage where an individual starts enjoying the mystery and beauty of nature and existence.
Furthermore, Peck also argues that while transitions from Stage I to Stage II are sharp, transitions from Stage III to Stage IV are gradual. Nonetheless, these changes are very noticeable and mark a significant difference in the personality of the individual.
I’d also make the observation at this point that Stage III can, in my opinion, be one of the points at which the person may go through a ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘. It certainly was for me. This also corresponds with Fowler’s Stage 4. The transition experienced during Stage 4/Stage III may be sharp or it may be prolonged, and will vary in duration from person to person.
Again, Peck’s Stages can be summed up in a chart:
Note that these Stages, like Fowler’s, are generalisations in a similar way to those described for Fowlers Stages.
Now, let’s marry up the two sets of Stages so that we can compare them, in yet another chart (which you can click on to get a zoomable image to make it easier to read). Here you can see how Fowler’s and Peck’s Stages overlap and compare with each other:
I’m not saying that these ‘Stages’ are definitive, and (as I have already mentioned) they are to some extent a generalisation. But I must say that I can definitely identify with these Stages of growth in my own mind, and at the very least, these ideas should confirm for us that there are indeed spiritual growth stages of some sort out there, and that if we find ourselves changing under God’s guidance, we should not be surprised when we can indeed identify with some of the indicators of the Stages put forward by Fowler/Peck. So, when I am presenting and describing these Stages from both Fowler and Peck, I am not asking my readers to decide here and now (or indeed at any time) which Stage they are in – although I realise this is a natural tendency – nor am I encouraging anyone to feel ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to other Christians because of the ‘stage we are at’. This isn’t about others; this is about realising that we are all on a journey, that these Stages do exist in some form or another in most people, and that this is perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, I am not proposing that anyone be constantly mindful of the Stages and/or ‘trying to work out where we are on the scale’**. While introspection can be useful, I would far rather we are simply aware of these Stages as a perfectly normal part of personal spiritual development, as information that is useful in working out what is happening to us, but all the while still majoring on keeping our eyes fixed on “…Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2). He’s the important One!
In the light of this knowledge we now share, it is worth refocusing temporarily at this point and thinking about the effects that this knowledge may have on others who are at different Stages in their own walk of faith. St. Paul mentions something similar in Romans 14 where he talks about people whose faith is ‘weak’ (his words, not mine!), and not causing such people to stumble. I go into considerable detail on this idea in this piece. Please therefore remember to treat this knowledge as good and useful but at the same time potentially harmful to those who might feel threatened by it. Some people just aren’t ready to hear it yet. Jesus said in John 16:12 that, ‘I have so much more to tell you, but you are unable to bear it yet’. He was sensitive to the level of spiritual maturity in His disciples, and we should be no different in our attitudes towards our fellow believers. This is our chance to show Grace to others by considering them!
Anyway, as I have said, I will flesh out these ideas about the Stages of Spiritual Growth in future articles. In the meantime, I will leave you with the words of two wise men concerning the Stages we have just discussed, and relating to what Stage we ourselves are ‘at’:
“Once you say ‘higher level’ (regarding one’s level of spirituality), you appeal to the ego, and all the wrong instincts in people.”
-Fr. Richard Rohr
“When you begin to refer to where you’re at on your journey as a “deeper place,” “higher level,” “another dimension,” or some other such thing, you create a space where pride, arrogance, and superiority can thrive in the name of spirituality. No, we’re journeying, and on this journey, mountains are laid low, and valleys exalted. Every place is an equal place for the sincere, it’s just that we are never all in the same place at the same time, and tend to assume wherever we’re at is the place to be.
“The place to be is wherever you are”.
*The reason that Fowler’s ‘Six Stages’ are also known as the ‘Seven Stages’ is because the first stage is actually ‘Stage 0’, at which point it could be argued that the person does not actually have any sort of faith because they are too young to be able to form one, and therefore it doesn’t count as a Stage of Faith because there is no faith present. This of course is different from person to person; my eldest son had a faith structure from a very early age. But that’s the explanation, at any rate.
**One writer puts it like this:
“It is really important to recognize that no one person actually exists in any given one of these stages. The stages are more like a tendency that can change over time – sort of like optimism versus pessimism, or being an extrovert versus an introvert. No one is 100% in either of these camps, and may tend more or less so according to changing circumstances.
“So why do we study these stages if not to judge at which one a person exists? The real value of these stages is to understand what values, characteristics and traits are typical in spiritual maturity. They provide a roadmap showing which way is forward. Not all factors in our society (including many churches) strive to lead a person in a forward spiritual direction.”
Ok, I said that in my series ‘The Stages of Spiritual Growth‘, I was going to look at each Stage individually in more detail*. And the first instalment of that is presented here today.
In all of these commentaries, I will of course be using my own ideas, but I will also incorporate ideas and descriptions from others, some of which text will be copied and pasted directly since I consider that they are best expressed like that. I will not differentiate these passages in the text, but I will include links to my source materials (if used) in the References section at the end of each piece.
I should say here that the early Stages of Spiritual Development (Fowler 0, 1 and 2; Peck I) are not what we are mainly concerned with in this series, since most of my readers will no longer be in the ‘early’ stages, although some may yet be, as we shall see. But I will be discussing those early Stages in these first two instalments because they are important and relevant not only to people still in those Stages (and to those caring for these people) but also as a stepping-stone to show how we got here from there.
Today, I’m going to look at the ‘formative’ Stage 0 – a stage mentioned only by Fowler and considered by some to not be a ‘Stage of Faith’.
James Fowler’s stages start with what he calls a “pre-stage” that refers to infancy, called ‘Undifferentiated Faith’. It is also referred to as ‘Stage 0’, and it can also be thought of as “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith. It takes place from birth to approximately 2 years. It is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and language which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
In this ‘pre-stage’, the infant, (it is surmised, since they are rarely interviewed!) develops basic trust and mutuality (or lack thereof) with the ones providing care. The quality of interactions in this phase underly all future faith development for the individual.
So this means that, despite this Stage being seen by some as not even earning a mention as a recognised Stage, still this is a vital area in a person’s spiritual development. Remember that humans begin their development – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – from the very moment they are born. It is therefore equally vital that a child at this age is given a safe, secure and well-provided environment in which they can grow healthily in all of the ways mentioned above. As we are talking here about Spiritual Growth, let’s concentrate on that aspect. Interestingly and paradoxically, although we might not see children of this age as having ‘faith’, in actual fact they very much do so.
It is in fact a faith in those who are (or should be) providing that growth environment.
Think about it. A very young child has to have absolute trust – which, at this Stage, is analogous to faith, if you like – in those who provide for them – family, foster parents, whoever. What else can they do but to have that trust? Where else will they get what they need? They certainly cannot provide or obtain anything for themselves; there is a complete helplessness in this Stage that is quite unlike that experienced in any other Stage. Certainly the Biblical phrase ‘defining’ faith (amongst other things) as being ‘… the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb 11:1 (KJV) ) is quite apt in this context!
And therefore the model, if you like, of any object worthy (or otherwise) of our trust is based very strongly on our formative times with these providers and/or carers. If we are well-loved and cared for, we will generally be people who find it easier to trust in God later in life. It’s a very simple form of trust, a ‘childlike faith’, if you like, that simply knows that everything good will be provided by benevolent carers, without needing to worry about the source, frequency or quality of that provision. On the other hand, a bad experience at this age will undoubtedly set the child up for a difficult time in being able to trust. And the main take-home message for us fron this stage is this : Faith and Trust are closely related. In fact, at this Stage, they are indistinguishable.
Fowler himself formally puts it like this:
“In the pre-stage called Undifferentiated faith the seeds of trust, courage, hope and love are fused in an undifferentiated way and contend with sensed threats of abandonment, inconsistencies and deprivations in an infant’s environment. Though really a pre-stage and largely inaccessible to empirical research of the kind we pursue, the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this stage underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development
“The emergent strength of faith in this stage is the fund of basic trust and the relational experience of mutuality with the one(s) providing primary love and care.
“The danger or deficiency in the stage is a failure of mutuality in either of two directions. Either there may emerge an excessive narcissism in which the experience of being ‘central’ continues to dominate and distort mutuality, or experiences of neglect or inconsistencies may lock the infant in patterns of isolation and failed mutuality.
“Transition to Stage 1 begins with the convergence of thought and language, opening up the use of symbols in speech in ritual play” (1)
So, when thought and language begin to open the child up to the use of symbols in speech and ritual play, the child moves on to Stage 1: “Intuitive-Projective” Faith which is typical of children ages 2 through 7. We’ll take a look at Stage 1 next time, along with Stage 2, and compare these Stages with Peck’s Stage I.
*I must say at this point that although I am a Polymath (that’s someone who knows a lot about/is good at a lot of different things), I am not trained in any form of psychology, psychiatry or anything similar apart from in basic counselling skills, and that was a long time ago 🙂 Much of what I write here is from a layman’s point of view, but based on a fair bit of life-wisdom and personal experience in observing and participating in discussions between people at different Stages of Faith.
This is Part 4 in my series ‘The Stages of Spiritual Growth‘, in which I discuss the ‘Stages of Faith’ as described by James W. Fowler and M. Scott Peck.
In the second instalment of the series, I gave you a general overview of the Stages of Faith, whereas last time, we looked at the ‘pre-faith’ Stage 0, which is not generally recognised as a Stage of Faith, but which we saw is actually very much a Stage of Faith. Today, we will be concentrating on the next, but still ‘early’, Stages of faith: those called, in our Fowler/Peck models, Stage 1 and Stage 2 (Fowler) and Stage I (Peck).
So, to recap from that general overview, here’s the descriptive chart for those early stages (click the image to enlarge):
When thought and language begin to open the child up to the use of symbols in speech and ritual play, the child moves on to Stage 1: “Intuitive-Projective” Faith which is typical of children ages 2 through 7. Here the child is egocentric, in other words self-centred, or self-seeking; you might even think of this stance as being ‘selfish’.
In other words, the world essentially orbits around the child. This is not a bad thing, as it would be seen to be in adults, because a) it is all part of the learning process and b) it is part of normal development. Selfishness is only a problem if a person chooses to be selfish; at this stage, a child has no choice – ‘selfish’ is the only way a child of this age knows how to be, and being unselfish is a learned behaviour; this learning takes place during this time of the child’s life, both at home and at school. At any rate, it is in this stage that the child’s imagination is formed. This is because this Stage is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the ‘unconscious’, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. This is the Stage of preschool/early school children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together and are somewhat undifferentiated. Therefore, during this Stage, our most basic ideas about God and faith (although it will not yet be recognised as ‘faith’ as such) are usually picked up from our parents and/or society, and through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with, and the consequent interaction of these stimuli with the imagination, the unconscious, and the senses of fantasy and reality, together and in opposition.
In some ways, a partial reversion to these ways of thinking, for example the fantasy element, can indeed be helpful even in adulthood, and when at a more ‘mature’ Stage of spiritual growth. This is a good reason why the Stages of Spiritual Growth should not be seen as steps on a ladder which are left behind as ‘below’, ‘beneath’ or useless, but as part of the path we used in order to get to where we are now. In other words, our previous spiritual attitudes should not be entirely discarded, but instead be recognised as having value even though we have ‘moved on’ from that part of our lives and from those modes of thinking, because the spiritual tools and coping strategies we learned to use in those times can still be useful for us in our faith walk today. It can in fact be a good thing to ‘never grow up’!
In this stage, as I mentioned already, reality is usually not well-differentiated from fantasy. For this reason, adults preaching about the negative aspects of religion – for example, the devil and the evils of sin – can cause great harm to a child of this age, leading them towards a very rigid, brittle and authoritarian personality as an adult. Also, stories, concepts and ‘facts’ presented to the child at this level are deeply absorbed and can still be thought of as being ‘true’ and ‘factual’ – possibly unconsciously – even once the child has grown to adulthood. This can happen especially if the child tends to accept things at face value without questioning their veracity – something easily done at this level of maturity. This is one reason why I feel very strongly that children should not be taught about negative aspects of faith – such as Hell – especially if those teachings are being used in order to get the child to behave well or to conform to their parents’ wishes, or indeed those of any other authority figure. This Stage is the opportunity for a child to begin to learn to act out of love, liking and respect for people, rather than fear of punishment; a gradual weaning process (taking several years) from the selfish to the unselfish. Sadly, this opportunity is often missed.
Let’s finish this Stage description with Fowler’s formal summary:
“Stage 1 Intuitive – Projective faithis the fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults.
“The stage most typical of the child of three to seven, it is marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. The child is continually encountering novelties for which no stable operations of knowing have been formed. The imaginative processes underlying fantasy are unrestrained and uninhibited by logical thought. In league with forms of knowing dominated by perception, imagination in this stage is extremely productive of long-lasting images and feelings (positive and negative) that later, more stable and self-reflective valuing and thinking will have to order and sort out. This is the stage of first self-awareness. The “self-aware” child is egocentric as regards the perspectives of others. Here we find first awarenesses of death and sex and of the strong taboos by which cultures and families insulate those powerful areas.
“The gift or emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate* conditions of existence.
“The dangers in this stage arise from the possible “possession” of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or doctrinal expectations.
“The main factor precipitating transition to the next stage is the emergence of concrete operational thinking. Affectively, the resolution of Oedipal issues or their submersion in latency are important accompanying factors. At the heart of the transition is the child’s growing concern to know how things are and to clarify for him- or herself the bases of distinctions between what is real and what only seems to be.” (1)
When a child attains the capacity for concrete operational thinking, he can begin to move toward the second of James Fowler’s Stages.
Fowler’s Stage 2 is called the ‘Mythic, Literal Stage’. Here the child (or adult person stuck in this phase, as we shall see) is likely to start sorting out the real from the make-believe. Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience, but the symbols in those stories are seen as one-dimensional and literal. Moreover, beliefs, moral rules and attitudes are also held literally. Thus, God is an anthropomorphic (human-like) being in the sky; heaven and hell are viewed as actual places.
The person in this, the second of James Fowler’s Stages, is also more able to take or appreciate the perspective of another person, but his view of reciprocity is also rather literal. “If I follow the rules, God will give me a good life.” “If I pray, God will grant my wish.” In some faiths, this is expressed as a form of ‘Karma’ or ‘what goes around, comes around’.
Notably, Stage 2 is also the first Stage in which it is very possible to reach this stage and then never move on, even as an adult. Virtually everyone reaches Stage 2, even those without a ‘concrete’ faith or belief structure, because it is perfectly acceptable for people to live in the ‘Mythic-Literal’ Stage without having to realise any stated belief structure or religion. Some people in fact remain in Stage 2 for the rest of their lives.
Indeed, Fowler suggests that 20% of the adult population may best be characterised by this kind of faith. These adults, if they have a Christian faith, tend to appreciate churches where a more literal interpretation of Scripture is encouraged, along with offering security, deep conviction and commitment. God is viewed as stern, and being a just but loving parent, with rules and authoritative teaching being the norm. “A person may begin to grow out of Phase 2 when he encounters conflicts and contradictions in the stories he is interpreting literally and begins to reflect on the real meanings”.
As I have described this Stage, maybe people may have come to mind – even people of faith – whom you feel may still be in this Stage, or at least still show elements of it. In some ways, this is not necessarily a lack of spiritual progress, because as we shall see, most people, as they progress through the Stages of Faith, retain practices and beliefs that are still useful to them in their spiritual walk. And that’s possibly what could be happening – but remember, it’s not our place to judge or to ‘grade’ others on what ‘level’ they are at; this is not the point of this series. God moves each person along at the pace that is right for them.
Here’s Fowler’s formal description of Stage 2:
“Stage 2 Mythic-Literal faith is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stage’s imaginative composing of the world. The episodic quality of Intuitive-Projective faith gives way to a more linear, narrative construction of coherence and meaning. Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. This is the faith stage of the school child (though we sometimes find the structures dominant in adolescents and in adults). Marked by increased accuracy in taking the perspective of other persons, those in Stage 2 compose a world based on reciprocal fairness and an immanent justice based on reciprocity. The actors in their cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. They can be affected deeply and powerfully by symbolic and dramatic materials and can describe in endlessly detailed narrative what has occurred. They do not, however, step back from the flow of stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings. For this stage the meaning is both carried and “trapped” in the narrative.
“The new capacity or strength in this stage is the rise of narrative and the emergence of story, drama and myth as ways of finding and giving coherence to experience.
“The limitations of literalness and an excessive reliance upon reciprocity as a principle for constructing an ultimate environment can result either in an overcontrolling, stilted perfectionism or “works righteousness” or in their opposite, an abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or the apparent disfavor of significant others.
“A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. The transition to formal operational thought makes such reflection possible and necessary. Previous literalism breaks down;new “cognitive conceit” leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories (Genesis on creation versus evolutionary theory) must be faced. The emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking (“I see you seeing me; I see me as you see me; I see you seeing me seeing you.”) creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment.” (1)
Peck’s Stage I
Fowler’s Stages 1 and 2 are simplified by Peck into a single Stage which he calls the “Chaotic – Antisocial” Stage. It can happen that a person can get ‘stuck’ at this Stage, and never progresses beyond the ‘selfish’ mindset and behaviour pattern. Peck recognises here that such people still in this stage (so, Peck Stage I or either of Fowler’s Stages 1 and/or 2 (generally 2)) are usually self-centred, and can often find themselves in trouble (financial, legal, emotional or personal) due to what amounts to their unprincipled living.
Margaret Placentra Johnston puts it like this:
“A stage of undeveloped spirituality, people in Stage I of spiritual growth are manipulative and self – serving. Though they may pretend or even think they are loving toward others, they really don’t care about anyone but themselves. There are no principles (such as truth or love) important enough to these people to override their own desires.
“Because they don’t allow any principles to govern their existence, there is a lack of integrity to these people and a chaos to their existence. Personally, I find the term “anti – social” most misleading here. Some of these people are very engaging and personable and can really fool you. Some even rise to positions of considerable power, such as presidents or influential preachers.”
[For an expanded version of this concept by Peck himself (abridged by Richard Schwartz, see below]**
I can think of at least one such famous person right away. Maybe you can too 😉
In terms of spiritual growth, Peck’s Stage I appears to me to be where a person’s faith is generally not all that well-structured or thought through, if at all. Maybe there are a lot of assumptions made and attitudes picked up from one’s environment, parents or peers, and which are accepted as being correct almost without question. Because of this, the word ‘antisocial’ is not necessarily used to indicate that a person is a right prat who is literally very antisocial, but it could also be that the person’s faith does not take on a social aspect in that it is very much self-contained and does not require others’ input, at last not consciously – although as we have already seen, the environment, including other people, is very much a part of the formation of the person’s faith attitudes. People in this Stage who do not consciously ‘have a faith’, or those who are indeed very anarchic and/or otherwise ‘antisocial’ in their behaviour, might well be people who will remain in this Stage right through adulthood. If they do end up ‘converting’ to the next Stage, it often occurs in a very dramatic way and with huge changes in their lives. An example of this from Scripture would be the story of Zacchaeus the tax-collector (an ancient equivalent of today’s parking enforcement officers?), who was self-serving and self-centred in that he cheated people out of money and in so doing made himself very unpopular. Jesus came into his life and he changed in an instant. His story is found in Luke ch. 19.
Other examples of this kind of ‘conversion’ were seen in ‘revivals’ in the past, where great numbers came to faith where previously they had no faith at all. And, in so doing, they moved in to Stage 3 (Fowler)/Stage II (Peck).
We’ll have a look at these Stages next time.
*In these definitions, the word ‘Ultimate’ is used by Fowler to indicate concepts such as God, Heaven, Afterlife and Worldview. So, the ‘Unifying Power of the Ultimate Environment’ means God; the Ultimate Enviroment being Heaven and/or ‘Creation’.
** “Most all young children and perhaps one in five adults fall into Stage I. It is essentially a stage of undeveloped spirituality. I call it antisocial because those adults who are in it (and those I have dared to call “People of the Lie” are at its bottom) seem generally incapable of loving others. Although they may pretend to be loving (and think of themselves that way), their relationships with their fellow human beings are all essentially manipulative and self-serving. They really don’t give a hoot about anyone else. I call the stage chaotic because these people are basically unprincipled. Being unprincipled, there is nothing that governs them except their own will. And since the will from moment to moment can go this way or that, there is a lack of integrity to their being. They often end up, therefore in jails or find themselves in another form of social difficulty. Some, however, may be quite disciplined in the services of expediency and their own ambition and so may rise in positions of considerable prestige and power, even to become presidents or influential preachers.
“From time to time people in this stage get in touch with the chaos of their own being, and when they do, I think it is the most painful experience a human can have. Usually they just ride it out unchanged. A few, I suspect, may kill themselves, unable to envision change. And some, occasionally, convert to Stage II.” (2)
In this fifth part of my series, ‘The Stages of Spiritual Growth’, we come to Stage 3 – the ‘Synthetic, Conventional Stage’.
I may as well tell you now, this Stage will be familiar to most of my readers – probably all – because you will either be conscious of having passed through this Stage, or you may recognise that you are still in it. Many people don’t even realise they are in this Stage – for reasons that we will see – until after they have passed through it. I’d say that this is the Stage that many Christians in the Western world are in. And that’s fine, because as I said before, God has His own timing for all of us for our spiritual growth, and this is not something to be rushed.
I therefore want to be very sensitive in writing this piece, and the next two pieces as well, because these three essays will certainly be the key instalments in this series. Indeed, this is one of the dangers of knowing about these Stages; that we may feel like we are not moving fast enough or something. But remember what I wrote in the Spoiler! piece: these Stages are generalisations and are actually representative of no one particular person’s position. This is not a competition, nor is it a race (despite various Scriptural usages of a ‘race’ as an illustrative point)! This is the walk of discipleship with Jesus Christ. The only thing to realise is that this is simply a Stage, and you have not ‘arrived’. None of us will ‘arrive’ this side of the veil, if even then. Simply realise that there are others who have gone through this Stage; we will talk about those people more in the next piece. As I said in the closing statements in the ‘Spoiler!‘ piece, where I try to put the Stages of Spiritual Growth into perspective,
“I’m not saying that these ‘Stages’ are definitive, and (as I have already mentioned) they are to some extent a generalisation. But I must say that I can definitely identify with these Stages of growth in my own mind, and at the very least, these ideas should confirm for us that there are indeed spiritual growth stages of some sort out there, and that if we find ourselves changing under God’s guidance, we should not be surprised when we can indeed identify with some of the indicators of the Stages put forward by Fowler/Peck. So, when I am presenting and describing these Stages from both Fowler and Peck, I am not asking my readers to try to decide at any time which Stage they are in – although I realise this is a natural tendency – nor am I encouraging anyone to feel ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to other Christians because of the ‘stage we are at’. This isn’t about others; this is about realising that we are all on a journey, that these Stages do exist in some form or another in most people, and that this is perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, I am not proposing that anyone be constantly mindful of the Stages and/or ‘trying to work out where we are on the scale’. While introspection can be useful, I would far rather we are simply aware of these Stages as a perfectly normal part of personal spiritual development, as information that is useful in working out what is happening to us, but all the while still majoring on keeping our eyes fixed on “…Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2). He’s the important One!”
Furthermore, not everyone will identify with this concept of ‘Stages’. And that’s fine too; faith certainly is not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of thing!
I would suggest that two more Scriptures we need to keep in mind as we read, then, are these:
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”(Phil 1:6 KJV)
“Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy…” (Jude 24 KJV)
Remember, it is Jesus Who performs the work in us, and He will continue it to completion. God does not make mistakes.
Right then, here we go:
To quote from the Stage 3 part in the chart of Fowler’s Stages, “Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don’t recognize that they are “inside” a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs. [This is the stage in which many people remain.]”
A person will normally move into the third of James Fowler’s Stages, the Synthetic, Conventional stage around puberty (although it could happen at any time, even their late teens) but, apparently, many adults never move beyond it. Fowler estimated that 30% of adults remain at this stage.
People in this Stage most often hold to ‘…a set of tacitly held, strongly felt, but largely unexamined beliefs and values’. Here authority is located outside the self – in the church leaders, in the government, in the social group. When Fowler says that religious concepts are “tacitly” held, he means that the person is not fully conscious of having chosen to believe something. Thus the name “Synthetic” – beliefs are not the result of any type of analytical thought. This stage is also synthetic in the sense that it weaves together faith out of a variety of sources, in a synthesis: Fowler describes part of the work as learning to ‘form a story of one’s stories’. People who ‘convert’ to a Stage 3 position, from a background of not having much education in the matters of a certain faith structure, will tend to ‘absorb’ the belief systems from their peers by attending meetings, listening to talks, teaching and testimony, and from reading their holy books.
The Stage is ‘Conventional’ in that faith is at this stage formed in a social or group context (e.g. family/gang/church), and the individual follows the norms of the group, rather than adopting particular views after thinking them through for themselves. “Conventional” therefore means that most people in this stage see themselves as believing what “everybody else” believes and would be reluctant to stop believing it because of the need they feel to stay connected with their group.
It turns out that most of the people in traditional churches are at this stage. And in fact, Fowler comes right out and states that religious institutions “work best” if the majority of their congregation is in Stage 3. And that could indeed explain a lot of the preaching we hear about that appears to be intended to discourage people from questioning. To properly assure their continuance, churches apparently need people to remain in Stage 3.
People in this stage place a large amount of trust in external authority figures and tend not to recognize that they are within a belief system “box” as their beliefs are internalized but have not been examined. We are immersed in the ‘thought system’ of our faith community in a similar way to a fish that does not perceive the water it which it swims. This is one of the main reasons why most people in this Stage do not realise that they are in it, until they have grown beyond it.
This is therefore a ‘conformist’ Stage in which the individual is acutely attuned to the expectations and judgements of significant others – leaders, ‘spiritual fathers’, and so on. It is also a ‘tribal’ stage, where being part of the tribe is powerfully significant to the person – and being in a community of like-minded believers. They usually hold deep convictions and are loyal and committed workers and servants. Beliefs are typically not examined critically and are therefore tacitly held to. That is, they know what they know but are generally unable to tell you how they know something is true, except by referring to an external authority outside of themselves – “The Bible says” or “My Pastor teaches this”. Any attempts to reason with a person in this stage about his beliefs, any suggestion of demythologizing his beliefs, is seen as a threat.
Often, people in this Stage predominantly have a vision of God as an external, transcendent being with little reference to God as an immanent, indwelling God. Among adults, this is the Stage most commonly found amongst church members. Most find enormous meaning in their faith, as they share in church activities – worship, prayer, mission, teaching etc. Many express a strong sense of belonging, “being at home” or having “arrived”. Emphasis is on the “family of believers”.
Dualistic thinking is very prevalent: Christian/non-Christian; saved/unsaved; heaven/hell; black-and-white thinking, along with being a part of, and being accepted by, the faith community.
In this way, most people in this Stage feel comfortable, safe and secure ‘in their faith’ on the surface, as long as they do not look to deeply at their questions, if indeed they have any. This is because they have a set of lines drawn; a set of well-defined boundaries, maybe rules, expectations both written and unwritten, taboos, and tacit, shared beliefs, and a social structure based on those shared beliefs, within which they feel safe. It is a paradox that, whereas most religious belief systems encourage complete openness, honesty and trustworthiness, in fact many people have to hide their ‘doubts’ or questions and effectively have to lie about, or at least conceal, their true feelings. Therefore, if/when tricky questions arise, these have to be either pushed down or ignored, but the questions can’t be asked because despite the claimed openness of the group, because the person is afraid of rejection by the group, maybe because such questions are frowned upon since a tacit belief is held that such questions are unhealthy and show a ‘lack of faith’, although in fact any rejection would usually occur because the questions threaten the belief systems – and therefore the security and cohesion – of the group. In addition, the security found in the ‘knowledge’ that a person has in this Stage, is, quite rightly, tightly held, because at this point, letting go of those tightly-held beliefs is a terrifying prospect; this is true especially if the context is one where ‘eternal damnation’ is the perceived penalty for ‘going against the grain’ in the group. Most people who remain in their environment like this are therefore content to live with/ignore their questions, and just get on with their lives, including church activities.
Therefore, whereas, as we have already said, a person will normally move into this Stage sometime between puberty and their late teens, many adults never move beyond it. This will come as no surprise to people who have engaged in ‘discussion’ with people in the ‘Synthetic – Conventional’ Stage.
Either having no questions, or suppressing them if they do, is one of the main reasons why many people do not move any further forward from Stage 3. We feel safe there, and we don’t want to ‘rock the boat’. And actually that is admirable in some ways, because there is a concern there for the well-being of the others in the group. The transition to Stage 4 almost always involves facing into dissatisfaction, awkward questions, or other such disillusionment, and this is always uncomfortable at some stage, as we shall see.
There are many positives to this Stage. Most people in this stage are genuinely happy; happy with their lives, happy in their faith, happy knowing God in the way that they do. Churches are usually involved in some way with making the world a better place to live in; maybe they want to ‘make a better world’. They work with the poor, they work to better society by taking up political posts in order to perpetuate their beliefs into societal structures. They are sincere, they are honest, they are trustworthy, they are usually kind and generous to others – surprisingly, even sometimes when those they are being kind to are members of ‘forbidden’ groups, like gay people or other types of ‘sinners’ as they see them.
Personally, for example, when I was in this Stage, I found that although I was a die-hard Fundamentalist and stood very firmly against people with ‘alternative sexualities’, when I actually met such a person, I just loved that person as God loves them. The story is here. I do not deny that the love of God is present in most of the people at this Stage; I just don’t think they quite know how to express it because they are hindered by the taboos of their belief structure. Jesus had no such scruples. Jesus associated with those whom society – and remember it was a religious society – had rejected had cast on to the rubbish heap. But still He loved them.
Now let’s have a look at how Peck describes this Stage. In his system, he refers to it as Stage II:
Peck’s Stage II
Peck makes more valid points in his Stage II, which will enrich our understanding of Fowler’s Stage 3. Although it can be seen as reading quite harshly, this passage does make some excellent and perceptive, if possibly disconcerting, points:
“Formal, Institutional, Fundamental. Beginning the work of submitting themselves to principle – the law – but they do not yet understand the spirit of the law, consequently they are legalistic, parochial, and dogmatic. They are threatened by anyone who thinks differently from them, as they have the “truth,” and so regard it as their responsibility to convert or save the other 90 or 99 percent of humanity who are not “true believers.” They are religious for clear cut answers, with the security of a big daddy God and organization, to escape their fear of living in the mystery of life, the mystery of uncertainty in the ever moving and expanding unknown. Instead they choose the formulations, the stagnation of prescribed methods and doctrines that spell out life and attempt to escape fear. Yet these theological reasonings simply cover over fear, hide fear and do not transcend it in spite of with acceptance in expanding movement. All those outside of Stage II are perceived to be as Stage I, as they do not understand Stage III and Stage IV. Those who do fall, reverting from Stage II to Stage I are called “backsliders.”
“There is a [four famous Fundamentalist preacher names, removed because I don’t like to denigrate people – Ed] mentality (one-sided thinking – ignorance that produces hostility) in every religion, the one-sidedness, in every ideology. Christianity cannot be condemned as responsible for the fundamentalists who claim to represent such. One just has to look at Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. to see the opposite of such thinking. You can find the [Fundamentalist preacher name] in Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Mohammedism and of course Christianity. That is the narrow one-sided exclusiveness that limits insight to one set of rules and one objective truth, under the literal logic or rationialism, that fails to apprehend the unseen intuitive essence of existence and ignorantly labels outsiders as misled sinners, while surrounding themselves with interior neurotic and finite walls of security and certainty. All is safe in this illusion, but all is not just, nor fair, and does not transcend prejudice that surpasses tribal identity, an identity that must be scrapped in order to bring higher consciousness of planetary cultural peace and love based on principle with intuitive insight.
“There is also a [name of a famous ‘terrorist’ leader] (evil intolerance)in every religious culture and teaching, in every social, political and cultural view. Islam cannot be condemned as responsible for the extreme fundamentalists who incorporate harm and war. One just has to look at the other side within Islam, to the Sufi of compassion and peace, that of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen or Hazrat Inayat Khan. Yet the evil of extreme fundamentalism resides in all facets of society, those who would kill and destroy, torture and humiliate, all in the name of their theological and ideological views. They are of course the extreme fundamentalists, yet all forms of fundamentalism, both moderate to extreme, Stage II mentality, fails integration with non-acceptance, that of one-dimensional perception.” (1)
While, as I said, this looks quite harsh, remember that these Stages are not intended to describe any particular set of people or any individuals. While we may recognise some or indeed many of these traits in people or churches we know, I am absolutely sure that most people do not hold any of these points of view with any sort of malice or ill feeling. They are simply acting out of what they believe. Remember that this is all perfectly normal when we are thinking about spiritual development.
Peck then expands on these ideas:
“…There are several things that characterize the behavior of men and women in Stage II of their spiritual development, which is the stage of the majority of churchgoers and believers (as well as that of most emotionally healthy “latency” period children). One is their attachment to the forms (as opposed to the essence) of their religion, which is why I call this stage “formal” as well as “institutional.” They are in fact sometimes so attached to the canons and the liturgy that they become very upset if changes are made in the words or the music or in the traditional order of things. It is for this reason that there has been so much turmoil concerning the adoption of the new Book of Common Prayer by the Episcopal Church or the changes brought about by the Vatican II in the Catholic Church. Similar turmoil occurs for similar reasons in the other denominations and religions. Since it is precisely these forms that are responsible of their liberation from chaos., it is no wonder that people at this stage of their spiritual development become so threatened when someone seems to be playing footloose and fancy-free with the rules.”
“Another thing characterizing the religious behavior of Stage II people is that their vision of God is almost entirely that of an external, transcendent Being. They have very little understanding of the immanent, indwelling God–the God of the Holy Spirit or what Quakers call the Inner Light. And although they often consider Him loving, they also generally feel He possesses–and will use–punitive power. But once again, it is no accident that their vision of God is that of a giant benevolent Cop in the Sky, because that is precisely the kind of God they need–just as they need a legalistic religion for their governance.” (1)
So, how do we use this knowledge?
For anyone reading this far, you will have noticed that these descriptions and discussions of Stage 3/II are quite revealing, and maybe it feels uncomfortable for you – either because you recognise traits that you yourself have, or you see traits that you used to have and it makes you feel uncomfortable, or maybe you don’t identify with any of it. All of these reactions are perfectly ok; I am not making any value judgement on where you are ‘at’ in your spiritual walk, and neither should you. The point is that we are aware of these different Stages, and how they sometimes manifest themselves, and to realise that this is to a great extent what makes people respond in the ways they do when talking about the things of faith. Everyone’s faith is different; even those who are in a ‘conformist’ stage will each believe something slightly different from his neighbour.And that’s fine.God causes His sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike, and just because people in a certain denomination or faith tradition can feel the Presence of God in their meetings, in their lives, or whatever, it does not mean that they have everything taped as far as doctrine or belief goes. My own personal view – and you may or may not agree – is that God loves everyone, and He loves to make Himself known to them, and that He’s not particularly bothered what they believe as long as their hearts are turned towards Him. This may be seen by some as threatening to their belief system, but the thing to realise is that just because others’ belief systems ‘work’ for them, it doesn’t mean that yours is somehow ‘wrong’. It isn’t wrong; it’s what you believe. Now, granted, many of us believe many things about God which are incompatible with others’ beliefs, and some will indeed be correct and some will not, if indeed we can make such an assertion about knowledge of the infinite. But it is not for us to say that others’ belief systems are in any way invalid, because, for those others, they work.
For instance, Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no-one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). I believe that. But I also believe that those who come to the Father in other faiths also come through Jesus, it’s just that they don’t yet realise that this is the case. In Romans 3:23, St. Paul indeed says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – and many believers incorrectly stop short of the second part of the Hebrew poetry-style writing and omit the next crucial part of the verse: “…and [all] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”. That sounds like a Universalist perspective, I appreciate, but that’s what it says. Who are we, then, to tell others that their experience of God is not valid? To me, that’s the height of arrogance – but having seen how dogmatic people can be, it is unsurprising.
At Stage 3, we need the humility to realise that we have not yet ‘arrived’; indeed, if we feel we have, then we most certainly haven’t! God wants to take us further – but all in His own good time. This stuff can’t be contrived, nor can it be rushed.
St. Paul also has some practical advice about how to cope with different stages of growth. Although the concept probably hadn’t been formally recognised at that point in history, it’s clearly something that was on Paul’s mind in Romans chapters 14 and 15. In there, people are passing judgement on one another because some were more free than others, and hurt was flowing both ways. There’s more on these ideas in my piece, ‘How Not to Cause Others To Stumble‘
And don’t let anyone judge you by anything that you find acceptable, when they do not, or vice versa (Col 2:16) – it’s not their place to do so and neither is it yours. It may be disguised as ‘loving concern’, but the vast majority of the time, people wanting to change something about what you believe is as a result of them judging you, and they will keep on doing so if they get the opening. But you can choose to respond gently and lovingly. This is the key – take Paul’s advice that he puts in so many of his letters – bear with one another in love and all that sort of thing.
And don’t worry – trust God to bring you through, and to bring your brother or sister through too. Part of trusting God is to let go of the things that you feel are so important that you have to sort them out yourself.
Maintain a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at yourself and not take yourself – or life – too seriously. This was one of the things that the humourless religious elite of Jesus’s time had a problem with. One of the first things to be lost in any legalistic setting, whether it’s a church or a totalitarian state, is the sense of humour. Legalists love to be sense of humour police, amongst other things. This is one reason why the attempted imposition of legalism on those who are free is so repulsive; they are trying to drag you back to where they are. Remember that, if you are being so dragged, and also remember – and stop it – if you are the one doing the dragging. Live and let live. Let people follow their own walk with Christ!
If you learn nothing else from this series, the thing I want you to hold above everything else is that you can trust God. If He is for us, who can be against us?
Let’s finish with Fowler’s formal description of this Stage:
“In Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith, a person’s experience of the world now extends beyond the family. A number of spheres demand attention: family, school or work, peers, street society and media, and perhaps religion. Faith must provide a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex and diverse range of involvements. Faith must synthesize values and information; it must provide a basis for identity and outlook.
“Stage 3 typically has its rise and ascendancy in adolescence, but for many adults it becomes a permanent place of equilibrium. It structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective. While beliefs and values are deeply felt, they typically are tacitly held-the person “dwells” in them and in the meaning world they mediate. But there has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on or examine them explicitly or systematically. At Stage 3 a person ha an “ideology,” a more or less consistent clustering of values and beliefs, but he or she has not objectified it for examination and in a sense is unaware of having it. Differences of outlook with others are experienced as differences in “kind” of person. Authority is located in the incumbents of traditional authority roles (if perceived as personally worthy) or in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group.
“The emergent capacity of this stage is the forming of a personal myth-the myth of one’s own becoming in identity and faith, incorporating one’s past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment unified by characteristics of personality.
“The dangers or deficiencies in this stage are twofold. The expectations and evaluations of others can be so compellingly internalized (and sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment and action can be jeopardized; or interpersonal betrayals can give rise either to nihilistic despair about a personal principle of ultimate being or to a compensatory intimacy with God unrelated to mundane relations.
“Factors contributing to the breakdown of Stage 3 and to readiness for transition may include: serious clashes or contradictions between valued authority sources; marked changes, by officially sanctioned leaders, or policies or practices previously deemed sacred and unbreachable (for example, in the Catholic church changing the mass from Latin to the vernacular, or no longer requiring abstinence from meat on Friday); the encounter with experiences or perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs and values have formed and changed, and on how “relative” they are to one’s particular group or background. Frequently the experience of “leaving home” – emotionally or physically, or both – precipitates the kind of examination of self, background, and lifeguiding values that gives rise to stage transition at this point.
“The movement from Stage 3 to Stage 4 Individuative-Reflective faith is particularly critical for it is in this transition that the late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement toward stage 4 is underway the person must face certain unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one’s strongly felt but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to the relative versus struggle with the possibility of an absolute.” (2)
This article is the sixth in my series about the Stages of Spiritual Growth, and it describes Fowler’s Stage 4, which he calls the ‘Individuative – Reflective’ stage, but which can also in some cases be thought of as ‘The Wall’, or the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to get it published, but I wanted to get it right.
“Sometimes a believer has to go through a spiritual wilderness, which may or may not include a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, as described by St. John of the Cross. In those times, God feels distant, Church feels irrelevant and you wonder what your faith was all about in the first place.
“Well-meaning people suggest that you ‘go back to God’, repent, change your way of thinking, whatever. But what I would say, having been through fifteen years of this Wilderness experience, is that what they don’t understand is that actually God has His hand on you all along. There is no need to feel guilty, no need to feel lost, no need to feel ‘wrong’. God is using the time to sort out your feelings, your theology, your priorities, your ideas, your preconceptions and your motives.
“For you, it may last fifteen years, or it may last fifteen days. It doesn’t always feel good over that time. The thing is that God still has His hand on you and is using that time to mould you into the person He wants you to be. In some ways He has His hand on you more than ever, if that’s possible.
“Don’t be distressed that He takes you out of your familiar surroundings, such as a Church, a city or a relationship. Sometimes He has to take us out of the familiar surroundings so that we re-evaluate without distraction or preconception. Be encouraged; the next stage of your development as a believer is happening. You will emerge, sooner or later, but all in His time, into a new era of blessedness because of what seems like a real ordeal at the time. But never, ever forget that He has hold of your hand, even if you don’t feel it, and He will never let go of you no matter how it feels at the time.
“For those believers who have experienced this, you may well notice others going through a similar process, and indeed it is a process, and recognise the signs.
“If you have not been through this process, let me tell you that it will look from the outside as if your brother (and here I include sisters, but let’s keep it simple) has lost interest in the ‘things of God’; perhaps he comes up with some radical ideas about God and how He relates to others and himself. He may well especially have ideas that go against the orthodoxy of his previous belief structure. Maybe his behaviour will not reflect accurately what you believe should be ‘acceptable’ Christian behaviour. This is part of the process. It is those very preconceptions of belief and behaviour that are being challenged and changed, usually by sovereign Divine interventions, in apparent defiance of his previously professed faith – or perhaps he does not profess faith, so profound are the changes in action in the believer.
“Should we be surprised? For a believer who has never undergone this process, then yes; they may well be surprised. How can a ‘supposed’ Christian profess to believe in these things; how can he behave in these ways?
“But for those who understand, instead of passing judgement on the believer, they continue to believe in him. Believe in him as a person, believe in him as a brother and believe in him as a precious Child of God. For as in Romans 14:4, ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?’. Judge him if you will, but do not expect that judgement to have any visible effect. Because, by the time the believer has come out of the other side of the process, the judgement of others will not matter nearly as much. For him, the second half of Romans 14:4 will have new meaning: “To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
“Remember that the believer is undergoing a deep transformational process. What comes out of the other side may well have a passing resemblance to the person the believer was before, at least in a spiritual sense, but remember that this is God who is doing the transforming. We believe that the Spirit is transforming every believer, daily, to conform to the likeness of Christ. So why, then, are we surprised when that transformation occurs, and why are we surprised at its results? Transformation means by its very nature that changes will occur. That’s what transformation means. So in that sense, no, we should not be surprised that the believer comes out a different person from what he was at the start.
“And the amazing thing is that God is far more real to that believer after the process than He was before. God has not changed; His ways have not, but the believer has changed; how can things ever be the same again?
“And as for missing out on what God has been doing for all that time, don’t worry. God is still the same as He was before. He still does things in surprising, novel and delightful ways. It is amazing how quickly the believer comes back up to speed and hits the ground running. Things are kind-of as they were before, but now the believer has a new perspective. Wow, this is pretty deep stuff, but it’s real.
“So, don’t despair if you, or someone you love, is undergoing something like this. It’s not backsliding, falling away, or becoming apostate. When you first believed, did you not trust God with the whole of the rest of your life? Do you really think that He’s going to reject you because all of a sudden you no longer believe exactly what you’ve been told to believe by men? Do you really think that your salvation rests on such a shaky foundation as the weakness and failings of human flesh? By no means can it ever rest on that, otherwise Jesus would not have had to die for us. No, this is transformation, and it’s exactly how God has planned it to happen for that person.
“Finally, I want to thank those people who have believed in me during my time in the wilderness, who have never stopped believing in me and loving me. Thank you all!”
That’s my personal account of what it feels like, and it is of course going to be different for everyone.
But the fact remains that most believers, or at least those who think honestly about their faith, will come to a point in their spiritual walk where they feel that it’s ‘not working’, there’s ‘something more’, there are deeper depths to be plumbed in the things of God. Here’s theologian Pete Enns:
“You get the feeling from the Bible that being unsettled is almost a normal part of the process. Not that we should go looking for it— it will find us soon enough— but struggling in some way seems like something we should expect on our own spiritual journeys. True struggling in faith is a stretching experience, and without it, you don’t mature in your faith. You either remain an infant or get cocky. Feeling dis-ease and challenged in faith may be God pushing us out of our own safety zone, where we rest on our own ideas about God and confuse those ideas with the real thing. God may be pushing us to experience him more fully, with us kicking and screaming all the way if need be. Feeling unsettled may be God telling us lovingly, but still in his typical attention-getting manner, it’s time to grow.” (1)
To me, this is the most fascinating of the Stages of Faith/Stages of Spiritual Growth. This article describes the Stage of questioning; the Stage of deconstruction, and the Stage which, I personally feel, brings the largest single jump forwards in a person’s faith life – if indeed they ‘make it’ through*. Don’t worry about my terminology here; the very fact that you are reading this indicates that you are finding out what this Stage is all about and what it might mean for you, and hopefully increase the likelihood that you and your faith – even if you don’t consider you have one at the moment – will benefit greatly from knowing what is actually happening**. It is the period of huge change, usually resulting in huge positive growth, and yet to those looking on from the outside it often appears as if the believer has ‘fallen away’ from the faith, or is at best ‘backsliding’. This is why I find it so fascinating.
So this is what Fowler called Stage 4 – the ‘Individuative – Reflective’ Phase.
It’s a time of great change; of learning to stand on our own two feet, in a faith sense. It’s the ‘growing-up’ Stage; the Stage of the spiritual adolescent.
For a believer***, it is the Phase that presents the greatest challenge to his or her faith; although of course each Stage has its own challenges, this is the tough one. This is the Stage where the believer begins to come to terms with the awkward questions that don’t quite make sense. It is a time of change, almost always a large change, which has been likened to a caterpillar going into the chrysalis phase. It looks as if nothing is going on, or even that the caterpillar has died. But before long, the former caterpillar emerges from the chrysalis as a completely new creature. This is what I feel happened to me when I went through what I called my ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, as I described at the beginning of this piece.
Some other commentators (for instance, Pete Scazzero) refer to this Stage as ‘The Wall’. It can indeed feel as if your faith has hit a ‘Wall’ and there’s no way forward in terms of growth. Partially for this reason, it can be the Stage that many Christians in fact avoid or simply never make it through – although that’s not really what I mean. You see, as we saw in the previous article in this series, it can be terrifying for someone to confront the disturbing questions and doubts that threaten what they perceive as their spiritual security. Remember that for some people, their beliefs may be, apparently inextricably, mixed with instilled fears about those who ‘fall away’ becoming liable to ending up in ‘hell fire’. By a combination of their own thinking, ‘warnings’ and other teachings from authority (usually a combination of leadership teachings on, and their own personal interpretations of, the Bible), a person has a strongly-held and yet tacit (that is, ‘understood or implied without being stated’) belief structure that, consciously or unconsciously, they realise will not stand up to intense critical scrutiny such as would be posed by such doubts and questions. The doubts and questions can come from any source, but they very often stem from inconsistencies in doctrinal statements, contradictions in authoritative statements (whether from leadership or in the Bible), modern discoveries in archaeology and/or science, or reading material written by people who themselves either have similar questions, or who have passed through that questioning and into further maturity in their faith. Maybe the believer gets the feeling that their church leadership are not telling them everything they know, or that things are being withheld. Actually, that’s not usually the case; more often than not, and assuming a loving, non-controlling leadership, it is far more likely that the believer is actually reaching beyond and above the experience and knowledge of their leadership. Really mature leadership will see this and hopefully use their wisdom to encourage the believer onwards and upwards. But some will feel threatened by it, by a perceived loss of control, and that’s where the danger lies for the growing believer. The danger, that is, of not growing any further due to them feeling that they have to do as they are advised/told by leadership who do not understand the transformation that is taking place, as in my opening quotation. This is usually not a deliberate obstruction of the believer’s growth, but it probably stems from a genuine care that the believer does not go ‘astray’, but, as we have seen, this is not really what is happening.
In short, there is a tacit realisation in the believer that there is ‘something more’. My friend David Matthew has expressed this very well in his book ‘A Poke in the Faith’, an eBook version of which is downloadable for free from his website. In his book, David likens the structure of a person’s faith to being like the game of Jenga. In this game, you have a tower made of stacked, interlocking wooden blocks, and players remove said blocks from the tower one by one with the aim of being the last person to remove a block ‘safely’ before the whole lot comes crashing down. So, how ‘safe’ is it to challenge one’s own beliefs, removing one block at a time, while not wanting the whole tower of your faith to come crashing down? How vital is each belief or doctrine – the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy/inspiration of Scripture, a belief in hell, the deity of Jesus – to the entire structure of one’s faith? What will happen to friendships with people in the Church if you change your belief structures? In David’s book, he argues that as long as a person’s Relationship with Jesus Christ is real and living, then it is perfectly safe to ask of God all these awkward questions. Indeed, like me, David is a gentle man with a real pastor’s heart, who has taken these questions head-on and has come through the other side with his faith intact, and wants to help others who are going through similar questions. Here’s a quote from the book:
“My commitment to Jesus Christ, to his people and to the Scriptures as God’s Word remains undiminished. But I have undergone some changes in my views on certain aspects of the faith — including some of the ones listed above. I want to come clean and say that grappling with these issues hasn’t always been easy. In fact, they have caused me quite a few spiritual wobbles at times. I have come out the other side of those wobbles and find that my faith is now stronger and fresher than it has ever been since I became a Christian over sixty years ago. And my desire, in writing this book, is to help you reach a similar happy place.
“That, then, is where I stand. My intention in what follows is two-fold. First, I want to introduce you to some of the new ideas that are challenging traditional ways of viewing the Christian faith in general and the Bible in particular. I will do this as one who believes these ideas should be taken seriously. And second, I want to convince you that you can embrace some or all of them without losing your faith. Indeed, I want to strengthen you in your faith. But I will be asking some searching questions about issues that you may never have questioned, and you need to be prepared for that. Which leaves you now with two choices. You can say, ‘I don’t think I’m ready to have my boat rocked, thank you. I’m happy living out my Christian faith as it currently is, in the company of good friends in my church, and I’ve no wish to risk anything changing that.’
“Okay. Shut the book now, and God bless you. But if you do that, I suspect it won’t be long before some of these issues sneak up on you from other, less sympathetic, quarters, and you can only keep your head stuck in the sand for so long. Might it not be better to face them in my company, as someone who is rooting for you and your faith, rather than risk being shot down in flames by some bitter ex-Christian? That’s why I’d recommend the second choice, which is for you to say, ‘Okay, I know some big issues have been brewing in the background. It worries me, but I’m not one to shut my eyes and pretend it’s not happening. So here goes: I’ll stick with the book and hope it does me some good!’
“I think it will”. (2)
I feel that this book can be a most helpful read for believers in Stage 3 who have realised that they have ‘difficult’ questions, and who may be approaching their own personal ‘Stage 4’. It would also be excellent for those who feel they are actually passing through their own Stage 4, or maybe consolidating the thoughts and ideas they had during that time.
In fact I would even go so far as to recommend it as a ‘manual’ for people going through the ‘Dark Night’ or other Stage 4 experience; people who are trying to come to terms with the huge, and usually frightening, changes to their belief structures.
It will come as no surprise, then, for me to say that I consider David’s book to be one of the most important books written recently that speaks into this little-known area of Christian belief, and I am disappointed that no publisher has yet come forward to produce a paper version of it that I can read in the bath (it’s only available as an eBook). It’s a lot harder to read an eBook without dropping your Kindle in the bath water.
Right, let’s now examine what our old friends James Fowler and M. Scott Peck have to say about this Stage. Here’s what the chart says about it:
This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.
Fowler’s formal description of this Stage is as follows:
“The movement from Stage 3 to Stage 4 Individuative-Reflective faith is particularly critical for it is in this transition that the late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement toward stage 4 is underway the person must face certain unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one’s strongly felt but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to the relative versus struggle with the possibility of an absolute.
“Stage 4 most appropriately takes form in young adulthood (but let us remember that many adults do not construct it and that for a significant group it emerges only in the mid-thirties or forties). This stage is marked by a double development. The self, previously sustained in its identity and faith compositions by an interpersonal circle of significant others, now claims an identity no longer defined by the composite of one’s roles or meanings to others. To sustain that new identity it composes a meaning frame conscious of its own boundaries and inner connections and aware of itself as a “world view.” Self (identity) and outlook (world view) are differentiated from those of others and become acknowledged factors in the reactions, interpretations and judgments one makes on the actions of the self and others. It expresses its intuitions of coherence in an ultimate environment in terms of an explicit system of meanings. Stage 4 typically translates symbols into conceptual meanings. This is a “demythologizing” stage. It is likely to attend minimally to unconscious factors influencing its judgments and behavior.
“Stage 4’s ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers inhere in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self over assimilates “reality” and the perspectives of others into its own world view.” (3)
This formal description is perhaps better expressed in this passage by Margaret Placentra Johnston:
“According to Fowler, it is ideal that a person reach this stage in their early to mid-twenties, but as has already been discussed, it is evident that many adults never reach it. If it happens in the thirties or forties, Fowler says, it is much harder for the person to adapt.
“In Individuative-Reflective faith, what once was tacitly held becomes explicit. The faith the person never reflected about, and was not completely able to articulate how he arrived at it, becomes filled with both a freedom that he now CAN reflect on it, and the burden that he now feels he MUST examine. The responsibility of this can be frightening, and it seems religious groups are always trying to discourage people from making this examination (of course, because it threatens the viability of the institution if people start questioning!)
“Fowler’s Stage 4 faith requires that the person be willing to interrupt their reliance on external authority and relocate the source of authority within himself. Fowler calls this the formation of an “executive ego,” which is not a bad thing, like the other kind of ego. It just means the person is more able to govern himself without the need for rules from the outside. In Fowler’s Stage 4, meanings in stories are separate from the symbols themselves, so the stories are demythologized. (In losing the literal meaning of the religious symbols, people can – I think often! – at the same time lose ALL meaning of the symbol and that is how you wind up with so many atheists and agnostics at this stage.)
“Loss or demytholization of the symbols can result in grief and guilt in some cases, and the process can take up to seven years to complete. But in the place of the literal symbol, the person gains the ability to make comparisons and whatever meanings they retain are explicitly held (and thus more authentic in that they are personal.)
“The strengths of this stage lie in the capacity for critical reflection (and the willingness to face truths that may cause distancing from comfortable thought patterns and thus pain.) But a weakness of this stage is that the person may put excess confidence in the rational, conscious mind, thus ignoring unconscious forces that become more prominent in the next stage.” (4)
Peck – who calls this phase Stage III – the ‘Skeptic-Individual’ Stage – says this:
Those who break out of the previous stage usually do so when they start seriously questioning things on their own. A lot of the time, this stage ends up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently.
Let’s hear from Johnston again: “According to Peck, people in the third stage of spiritual growth have the principles of goodness “engraved on their hearts.” Thus they no longer need the forms of society or a church to keep their behaviour in check. They are self-governing. Because they no longer need the services offered by a church, they begin to feel free to question the value of religion in their lives. They may at this point choose to reject religious belief. Even though they may describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, people in Stage III are actually more spiritually developed than most of those content to remain in Stage II. They are often deeply committed to social causes. They are active seekers of truth.” (5)
Richard Schwartz quotes Peck thus:
“Skeptic, Individual, questioner, including atheists, agnostics and those scientifically minded who demand a measurable, well researched and logical explanation. Although frequently “nonbelievers,” people in Stage III are generally more spiritually developed than many content to remain in Stage II. Although individualistic, they are not the least bit antisocial. To the contrary, they are often deeply involved in and committed to social causes. They make up their own minds about things and are no more likely to believe everything they read in the papers than to believe it is necessary for someone to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Saviour (as opposed to Buddha or Mao or Socrates) in order to be saved. They make loving, intensely dedicated parents. As skeptics they are often scientists, and as such they are again highly submitted to principle. Indeed, what we call the ‘scientific method’ is a collection of conventions and procedures that have been designed to combat our extraordinary capacity to deceive ourselves in the interest of submission to something higher than our own immediate emotional or intellectual comfort–namely truth. Advanced Stage III men and women are active truth seekers.
“Despite being scientifically minded, in many cases even atheists, they are on a higher spiritual level than Stage II, being a required stage of growth to enter into Stage IV. The churches age old dilemma: how to bring people from Stage II to Stage IV, without allowing them to enter Stage III.” (6)
I know this is an awful lot of information to have to take on board, but I wanted to make it very clear what this Stage looks like, why it happens, and what the evidence is for its existence, because it so often either unknown or misunderstood.
But I also wanted to make it personal; applicable to me and you and people whom you meet.
Firstly, we have established in an earlier article that not everyone necessarily goes through these Stages. Spiritual growth is different for each individual, and some people have an entirely different way of maturing spiritually than to go through these Stages. However, I personally feel that I have gone through Stages in my spiritual walk, and so I am espousing these ideas to illustrate, with personal examples, what it can be like, from my own experience. We will look into the sequencing of the Stages later in the series. But for now, just know that many believers (and indeed non-believers) do go through these Stages.
So, we can summarise Stage 4/III (Fowler/Peck Stages) by saying that there comes a time in many believers’ lives when they start to question the belief structures that they have tacitly held, and possibly begin to deconstruct their old beliefs and to form their own beliefs.
This could take months, or it could take years. It depends on how much ‘baggage’ you need to lose from your previous Stages (most of this ‘baggage’ usually originates in Stage 3/II). For me, it took fifteen years.
The ability to question, deconstruct and reconstruct learned in Stage 4 are usually also carried forward into Stage 5; this ability is a good example of how the best and most useful parts of each Stage are carried forward into the next Stage. Which parts are so carried forward will be different from person to person, as each person will have generated different belief structures which they will need to modify individually, and different ways of coping with them. But we will look at Stage 5 in more detail next time.
If you feel you are at Stage 3, the ‘conventional’ Stage, and you feel there is more, maybe ask Jesus what He wants you to do next. If you are already in your ‘questioning’ Stage 4, then take heart. Others have trodden this path beore you. God is still with you and you are perfectly safe. If you are watching others whom you consider to have ‘backslidden’, please don’t judge them. God has them in His hands, and He will not let them go. They are perfectly safe. Remember that Jesus will carry on the good work to completion in them – but in His own time, and in His own way. You can trust Him.
Entering the Dark Night of the Soul – or indeed exiting it – cannot be rushed. You will not go through this before the right time. And you cannot rush coming out of it either. Read my testimony at the start of this article, and take encouragement. And, to use the most common phrase in the entire Bible – “Do not be afraid !”
Let’s take a look at this from another angle; another viewpoint. Here is a YouTube video of the aforementioned Pete Scazzero, with his wife Geri, talking about the Dark Night of the Soul/The Wall, and it is well worth watching. Pete is one of the few people I have heard talking about this Stage in the walk of Spiritual Growth, and he is pretty well-versed on it. Hint: As this was recorded in a large church service, maybe you might want to skip the housekeeping and preliminaries by fast-forwarding to about 4:30 in the video 😉 :
If you watch that video right through, you will notice that although Pete has a different set of names for the different Stages of Faith, still he is recognising that the Stages of Faith do exist, and he emphasises that the Wall is the tough one, but also the biggest growth phase of them all 🙂 The only thing I don’t agree with, in all that excellent talk, is this: when he says ‘Stay with God, don’t quit church; stay with Jesus…’ – sometimes the Church stuff is the problem and so you do, in those circumstances, need to quit church, as I did. (There are no rules or conditions for this Stage, and it’s going to be different – unique, in fact – for each of us). You might feel like you have given up on God; that you have ‘left Jesus behind’, but actually that doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that Jesus has not left you behind, no matter how much like that it may feel! And I think that another important point is, again, that the Wall/Dark Night/Stage 4, or whatever we call it, will be different – in fact, unique – for each of us, so there is no prescribed duration, frequency, content, requirement, or anything else involved. This is a time of setting-free, remember! I’m not even sure that everyone has to go through this Stage; I personally know people who have not had to shed baggage or religious preconceptions, and they may very well be ‘exempt’ from going through Stage 4. We just need to trust that God will bring each of us to it, and through it, in His own way, and in His own time. Remember it’s always going to look different for each individual.
Slight change of subject. Here’s a thought. Maybe the revival ‘breakthrough’ that Charismatic/Evangelical Christians pray for is already here. Maybe these people, like me, who have faced into the Dark Night and come through the other side, maybe we are the answer to those prayers. Maybe the breakthrough they need is to face into Stage 4/III themselves, and be honest with their questions. Maybe breakthrough isn’t possible without facing these questions, and the answer to their revival prayer is right there, staring them in the face. Maybe they need to cast aside their artificial security and learn to float free (see this article and this article for examples of what this looks like). If you feel that might be you, then, to trot out a well-used Christian phrase, I would suggest you ‘Let go, and let God’! I strongly feel that there is no way forward, for some people, other than to go through the Wall and out the other side into the broad, sunlit uplands of the true freedom of the Christian faith. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed (Jn 8:36).
Let me leave you with another excellent quotation from Pete Enns:
“Let go of fear. If I had to name the most common obstacle for Christians to a life of true trust in God, it would be fear— mainly the fear of being wrong about the Bible, which is often equated with being wrong about God. What we believe about God is very important to us, as it should be. Our faith defines who we are and helps us make sense of the world around us and the world that awaits us afterward. Our faith is the page upon which our personal narratives are written. To feel that our faith is threatened can easily turn to fear. But, judging from the long and varied history of thinking within Christianity, “being right” is elusive, and the Bible is never something we will actually master. The relentless and sinful human habit of creating God to look like ourselves, and thus distorting God, is also a constant problem. The choice we all need to make daily is whether we are willing to hold our narratives with an open hand and let God rewrite them when necessary. In the spiritual life, the opposite of fear is not courage, but trust.” (7)
If you are interested in reading more on this fascinating Stage, I have consulted many different sources during my work on this piece, the links to some of which I give below. In addition to the numbered references quoted and attributed to various authors in the References list below, then, you might find the books and articles linked to interesting and illuminating:
Bill Huxley on ‘Fowler’s Stages of Faith’. His observations on Stage 4 (what he calls Stage IV) are particularly interesting. I did not include them here because my present article is huge already. But his observations are well worth a look.
*I have heard it estimated that 60-80% of believers who hit the ‘Wall’ do not ‘make it’ through to the other side. They either stay where they are with their doubts and questions, push them down, or leave the faith altogether. However, I personally feel that the recent increase in awareness of the Stages of Spiritual Growth will bring this percentage down markedly, as people increasingly realise that this Stage – however it appears to them – is simply a normal part of Christian growth, and they embrace it and go through with it. This can only be a good thing. Actually I think that the Lord is making this more well-known in these days, so that more people not only understand it, but also they are able to help thers through it. For more on this topic of ‘The Wall’, follow up on Pete Scazzero’s course on ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality’ as mentioned in this piece, and also in that video above.
**The caveat I would re-emphasise, as in all these articles in this series, is that not everyone goes through the Stages of Spiritual Growth; you may not identify with any of this, and that’s fine. It’s not intended to explain or categorise your own, or anyone else’s, faith standpoint. Just be aware that these Stages do happen with many people, and, for some of those people, it can be a great relief to realise what is happening.
***For someone who is not a ‘person of faith’, for want of a better term, this Stage can also occur in their lives too since it can represent a major revision of one’s life-paradigm or worldview. Although I have written this article mainly for ‘believers’, those who are not ‘believers’ may also see some parallels with their own life journey and be encouraged by this article. That is my intention; encouragement of others is always my intention.
I thought I would present things slightly differently in this instalment of the series on the Stages of Spiritual Growth. Today, I’m going to present the ideas partly as personal testimony, and partly as a song: the beautiful ‘Where My Heart Will Take Me’, also known as ‘Faith of the Heart‘, from the TV series Star Trek – Enterprise. You’ll hopefully understand the reasoning behind this by the time we get there. And rather than disrupt the narrative flow of this article, I will place the more technical stuff at the end of the article, as an Appendix*.
First, let’s recap.
In the last episode of this series, I talked about ‘The Wall’, the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, the ‘Individuative – Reflective’ Stage (Stage 4) of Fowler’s Stages of Faith. In this Stage, a person realises that they have been in a spiritual ‘box’ and they find that the box is too small. And so the distinguishing mark of Stage 4 is that the believer is breaking free of all (or most) of the previous strictures under which they lived their spiritual life. They are realising that the paths of Grace and the open plains of the believer’s walk are so much huger, broader, wider and free, than they had previously believed while in their ‘box’.
Because I have recently (well, four years ago) come out of a ‘Dark Night’, much of what I write below is stuff that I can personally testify to; things I have personally experienced. But please remember that your own personal spiritual walk will not look like mine; we all have our own walk to experience for ourselves. Think of it as an example of what things can look like.
People who pass through Stage 4 and into Stage 5 – what Fowler calls ‘Conjunctive Faith’ – I believe, are the people who discover the true freedom in Christ that is spoken about so much but so rarely practised. Or, alternatively, if they are in the right kind of environment, they can go straight into Stage 5, and this does happen. Let’s say, for example, that there was no problematic doctrine, no religious straitjacket in a person’s life, then that person has very little to be set free from in terms of toxic spirituality. This might occur if someone has been brought up in an atmosphere of Grace instead of Legalism, or someone who comes to know the Lord later in life and has a clean slate which the Lord can write on. Having said that, just about everyone has some sort of ‘toxic’ baggage about faith which needs to be dropped at some stage – but only when the Lord feels you are ready to do so. (You can’t rush this stuff). And that’s what is known as ‘repentance – changing your mind about things. In this way, the way of faith is a continual walk of repentance, because we are constantly being taught new things by the Spirit of God in our hearts, and changing our minds, our thought patterns, to conform to what She teaches us.
Anyway, in Stage 5, we are free to pick and choose; accept and disregard, ideas, doctrine, advice, comment or admonishment from others, or indeed from any source. That’s not to say that we don’t discuss things with others, or that we don’t let ourselves be influenced by others’ ideas or opinions; far from it! We accept and take in the good stuff from others, while gently leaving behind those things we find unhelpful. In short, we can make up our own minds, think for ourselves, stand on our own two feet…and we are free to follow Jesus where He leads and to listen to His teaching without the constraints of others’ opinions. This sounds very much as if the believer is approaching something that looks like like spiritual maturity, doesn’t it? 😀 And this is really what I am talking about today.
And there is also the freedom that comes with this responsibility of thinking for ourselves. We as adults are now free to make our own choices: what we will eat tonight; what we will wear; whom we will hang out with; what we spend our time doing. In a similar way, a person in Stage 5 has developed the ability to accept the responsibility for his or her own beliefs, and is not bound by others’ opinions – or, at least, they are learning not to be so bound – and they can increasingly make their own choices. Do you go to the cinema? Yes, if you want to, you go. Do I listen to rock music? Yes, if you like it anyway. (I do). The person is free not only to make their own choices, but also to choose to live life in the Spirit. There is no need to worry about ‘straying into sin’ if a person is led by the Spirit. Freedom is only freedom when a person has a choice; if there is no choice, then there is no freedom. In fact, I would say that it is a logical progression from this that unless a person is free from living under Law, it’s actually not possible to live in the Spirit. Only once a person is free from the shackles, restrictions and indeed decisionsof following the Law, are they fully free to live life in the Spirit. So if in the past a believer was constrained by a set of ‘Rules of Expected Behaviour’, they have come through the (sometimes chaotic) Dark Night of Stage 4, and now they are in the process of learning how to live in that freedom that they have now they realise they have a choice.
And this is Stage 5. You can see that the person really has not ‘arrived’ at any kind of final stage of spiritual maturity despite me calling it the Stage of Spiritual Maturity – it’s more a stage of learning how to use that maturity and growing in it. Indeed, if someone thinks they have ‘arrived’, it’s a sure sign they have not!
Anyhow, have a listen to this song – ‘Where My Heart Will Take Me’, written by Diane Warren and performed here by Russell Watson:
Where My Heart Will Take Me
It’s been a long road Getting from there to here It’s been a long time But my time is finally near And I can feel the change in the wind right now Nothing’s in my way And they’re not gonna hold me down no more No, they’re not gonna hold me down
‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart I’m going where my heart will take me I’ve got faith to believe I can do anything I’ve got strength of the soul And no one’s gonna bend or break me I can reach any star I’ve got faith I’ve got faith, faith of the heart
It’s been a long night Trying to find my way Been through the darkness Now I finally have my day And I will see my dream come alive at last I will touch the sky And they’re not gonna hold me down no more No, they’re not gonna change my mind
‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart I’m going where my heart will take me I’ve got faith to believe I can do anything I’ve got strength of the soul And no one’s gonna bend or break me I can reach any star I’ve got faith, faith of the heart
I’ve known a wind so cold, and seen the darkest days But now the winds I feel, are only winds of change I’ve been through the fire and I’ve been through the rains But I’ve been fine
‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart I’m going where my heart will take me I’ve got faith to believe I can do anything I’ve got strength of the soul And no one’s gonna bend or break me I can reach any star
‘Cause I’ve got faith of the heart I’m going where my heart will take me I’ve got strength of the soul No one’s gonna bend or break me I can reach any star I’ve got faith I’ve got faith, faith of the heart It’s been a long road
This is the Stage of Faith where your heart is allowed to find its true expression, unshackled by Law, dogma and doctrinal strictures and limitations. You are free to be what you want to be, but, and here’s the beautiful irony, only because of what you have been through ‘before’, what you have built on that, and you’ve then put in its proper place. This is a position of faith where your wisdom has been learned through experience, both bitter and sweet, at the feet of the Master; sometimes consciously, sometimes not. And it is a living, dynamic faith, not a staid and static faith.
Because this faith enables us to respect others’ faith viewpoints as being valid for their holders at their stage in their spiritual walk; without seeing their ‘different’ beliefs as a threat to our own, because we are secure in our own faith, we actually appear more tolerant – because we are – and because our faith is stronger than ever; and not at the expense of pulling down someone else’s belief system. Because we have found that the freedom to question our own beliefs, without feeling lost or ‘unsaved’, also enables us to recognise that others’ faith can be different from ours because we have already questioned our own beliefs and are secure in why we believe what we do, because we have worked them out for ourselves. Our faith is therefore not under threat by people with a different faith. If you like, “The power of your own salvation does not depend on someone else’s faith being ‘wrong’”. And this isn’t to say that our beliefs can’t change; they can and they will. But the core Relationship with Jesus is the solidity that keeps us standing in the faith – whatever stage of our walk we are at.
In this Stage, it’s almost as if you are looking in at the Church from the outside, while all the time still being a part of it. You can see where all the tenets and beliefs come from; you can see the sources of the fears and problems. And all this is because your thoughts have been set free to hear the voice of the Spirit. Some might consider this a state of ‘enlightenment’; maybe it is, but the thing is that having had the blinkers removed by the detoxifying effect of Stage 4 (the ‘Dark Night’), you feel as if you can see it all so clearly. Paradoxically, you develop a childlike innocence and lightness of spirit, not weighed down by the constraints of Religion and those of its adherents, but the freedom to go, live, and be who you were always meant to be.
What to do with that knowledge, though, does require wisdom. One needs especially to avoid all kinds of being ‘puffed up’ by one’s own ‘spirituality’. As hinted at above, the spiritual maturity of a believer in this Stage is, usually by necessity, built on the Stages that preceded it. You need to know where you came from in order to have a firm foundation to know where you are going. And, for this reason, it is not good to disrespect those Stages you have come through, nor those who are still in those Stages, but to recognise their value in teaching you both the good and the bad in the Christian walk. But also don’t ever feel that you have to go back to that state of being. Because once you have tasted of the freedom of the Children of God, there is no going back, because the former things will likely look like a cage. You will never want to have your freedom taken away again, even though people may well try to steal your peace, kill your joy, and destroy your freedom (Jn 10:10). This is your freedom; no-one else’s, and it will not look like someone else’s freedom either, because we are all different and we were made that way.
Because of this, don’t follow someone else’s plan for your life; follow God’s plan. He speaks to your heart, so follow your heart. The answer to the question ‘What does God want me to do with my life’ is not found in the pages of the Bible, nor, in my experience, is it found in well-meaning ‘prophecies’ from people supposedly giving ‘direction’. It’s found in your own desires, your own personal longings for the things that God also wants.
Let God take the lid off your spirituality. Decide to go where your heart will take you. If it means a ‘dark night’, so be it. Don’t let them hold you down any more. Maybe its been a long road for you; maybe you’ve known a spiritual wind so cold and seen the darkest of days. But the winds of change are not here to bend or break you, they are here to give you a heart-based faith that you can indeed do anything, through Christ, Who strengthens you (Phil 4:13).
How can I put this any more effectively than this? Listen to the song again; be inspired by it, take it in and make it yours. Remember how I once said that some of the finest worship songs are actually secular ones? This one is no different. This is a song of the Spirit, it’s for you, and it’s for today.
This is freedom!
*Appendix: Fowler and Peck
Here are the more formal descriptions of this Stage from our old friends Fowler and Peck, as promised. It’s quite ‘heavy’, but it may increase your understanding a little.
In this table, we can see that Peck combines Fowler’s Stages 5 and 6 into one Stage IV. We will come on to this in a later instalment. For now, let’s take both Fowler’s and Peck’s table entries here together, because they do complement each other nicely.
“It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.”
Here is Fowler’s ‘formal’ definition:
Restless with the self-images and outlook maintained by Stage 4, the person ready for transition finds him- or herself attending to what may feel like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings one serves any or all of these may signal readiness for something new.
Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from one’s own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous faith. Disillusionment with one’s compromises and recognition that life is more complex than Stage 4’s logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend, press one toward a more dialectical and multileveled approach to life truth.
Stage 5 Conjunctive faith involves the integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4’s self-certainty and conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality. This stage develops a “second naivete” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past. There must be an opening to the voices of one’s “deeper self.” Importantly, this involves a critical recognition of one’s social unconscious-the myths, ideal images and prejudices built deeply into the self-system by virtue of one’s nurture within a particular social class, religious tradition, ethnic group or the like.
Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. What the previous stage struggled to clarify, in terms of the boundaries of self and outlook, this stage now makes porous and permeable.
Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are “other.” Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation. And with the seriousness that can arise when life is more than half over, this stage is ready to spend and be spent for the cause of conserving and cultivating the possibility of others’ generating identity and meaning.
The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination-a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.
Stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and rituals (its own and others’) because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer. It also sees the divisions of the human family vividly because it has been apprehended by the possibility (and imperative) of an inclusive community of being.
But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6. 
“People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns.”
Peck’s ‘Stage IV: Mystic, communal’ is also fleshed out by Margaret Placentra Johnston thus:
“According to Peck, Stage IV of spiritual growth arises when the seeker in Stage III keeps seeking. They keep finding more pieces to the puzzle and the “larger and more magnificent the puzzle becomes.”
“Thus the person in Stage IV grows to value the beauty of the mystery of our existence over the definitive answers provided by the traditional church. They speak of unity and connectedness and are not into magnifying the differences that divide us. Peck’s StageIV of spiritual growth is roughly equivalent to the “Mystic” stage [as described on her website].” 
Peck is also paraphrased by Schwartz:
“Stage IV: Mystic, communal. Out of love and commitment to the whole, using their ability to transcend their backgrounds, culture and limitations with all others, reaching toward the notion of world community and the possibility of either transcending culture or — depending on which way you want to use the words — belonging to a planetary culture. They are religious, not looking for clear cut, proto type answers, but desiring to enter into the mystery of uncertainty, living in the unknown. The Christian mystic, as with all other mystics, Sufi and Zen alike, through contemplation, meditation, reflection and prayer, see the Christ, Gods indwelling Spirit or the Buddha nature, in all people, including all the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and so forth, recognizing the connectedness of all humanity with God, never separating oneself from others with doctrine and scripture, recognizing that all scripture acts as fallible pointers of inspiration, unable to capture the essence of truth outside of both human perception and the linguistic straight jacket of language and articulation, that is, the words of fallible men who experienced the nature of God, that of their inner true self, and attempted to record their experience in human words, words constrained by the era of time they were written in that became compromised the moment they were penned and are further removed from objectivity when interpreted by us, fallible men and women who read them.
“It is as if the words of each had two different translations. In the Christian example: “Jesus is my savior,” Stage II often translates this into a Jesus who is a kind of fairy godmother who will rescue us whenever we get in trouble as long as we remember to call upon his name. At Stage IV, “Jesus is my savior” is translated as “Jesus, through his life and death, taught the way, not through virgin births, cosmic ascensions, walking on water and blood sacrifice of reconciliation – man with an external daddy Warbucks that lives in the sky – mythological stories interpreted as literal accounts, but rather as one loving the whole, the outcasts, overcoming prejudices, incorporating inclusiveness and unconditional love, this, with the courage to be as oneself – that is what I must follow for my salvation.” Two totally different meanings.
“The Stage IV – the mystic – views the conception of “back sliding” as the movement away from the collective consciousness and true inner nature, returning to the separate self – the ego, as opposed to the Stage II – the fundamentalist, whose conception of “back sliding,” is the movement away from mapped out security to that of chaos. Two totally different views.” 
References quoted in this article:
James W. Fowler, “Stages of Faith – the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning” – Harper San Francisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, p. 183, 197-8
I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last post in this series, The Stages of Spiritual Growth. To be honest, I have been thinking very hard about this subject and trying to come up with something meaningful.
You see, the thing is that I personally have no experience of this Stage of Spiritual Growth, if indeed it exists, and thus I would be writing from what is essentially a position of ignorance. But there are three things. First of all, just so long as my readers understand that I am writing this piece from that standpoint, and that I don’t really know much about this subject, then I’m not deceiving anyone – and I will write down my thoughts on it as I see them at the moment. Secondly, I am making the assumption that Stage 6 exists even though I personally believe that in some ways it’s just a natural progression to increased maturity in Stage 5. But then, as I said, I really don’t know. I must be honest and say that I have read Fowler’s chapter on this Stage and I can’t make head nor tail of it. Nothing has ‘clicked’ with me at all; it is all completely outside my experience. And finally, I can always draw on others’ perspectives and examples, which I do later in this piece.
So let’s begin our exploration of this Stage by looking at the summaries for Stage 6 (Fowler) and Stage IV (Peck) in that familiar tabular form (you can click on it to enlarge it):
Note that Peck combines Fowler’s Stages 5 and 6 into his single Stage IV. I think this is fair enough as this differentiation of Stage 6 is somewhat of a grey area, as I have already described, and in any case this whole thing about the ‘Stages of Spiritual Growth’ is very much a generalisation. Most people, being on a spiritual journey, are not necessarily ‘in’ a Stage at all; it is mainly useful as a tool to see how the structure of people’s faith changes as they too change personally. Or not; not everyone matures in this way – some stay where thay are and are perfectly happy, while others sometimes ‘jump’ straight into one ‘Stage’ or another without having any previous background in matters of faith. This is especially common with people who jump straight in at Stage 5, without going through Stages 3 and/or 4 first. I know quite a few people like this, in fact.
Let’s look at Fowler’s formal definition of Stage 6:
“Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. They are “contagious” in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance. Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives. The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us. Their community is universal in extent. Particularities are cherished because they are vessels of the universal, and thereby valuable apart from any utilitarian considerations. Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition.”
Where Fowler refers to part of Stage 5 as, ‘…without being stuck in a spiritual box’, I think that part of that is an increased understanding of the perceptions of those who have a differing point of view on the spiritual life. Which, when you think about it, is virtually everyone, since I don’t really think that anyone believes exactly the same things as anyone else; we all believe slightly differently. Even for people as close as Fiona and I were, we still believed slightly different things. In fact, one of Fiona’s things that she didn’t agree with me on was this very subject – the Stages of Spiritual Growth 🙂 Anyway, I feel that this illustrates my earlier point that Stage 6 is perhaps more of a natural progression, a deepening if you like, of attitudes and modes of belief and thinking from Stage 5. In this example, then, someone in Stage 5, realising that their views have changed, become more fluid, or if they have undergone a major deconstruction of their previous belief systems, then they might also realise that they don’t have everything right, and in fact are unlikely ever to do so. This makes it far more likely that they will have sympathy with those of other viewpoints – or even different faiths – simply because they realise that they didn’t have it all correct when previously they were so certain that they did, so what’s to say the other guy is wrong and we’re right? Of course this takes a bit of clear thinking and a lot of humility – as we shall see – but the Spirit does ‘soften’ people to the point where they can make this transition.
It’s especially important to remember that God moves us each through the Stages, if indeed He does so move us – as we have already seen, not everyone necessarily moves through Stages’ like we are describing here – all in His own good time. When and if God is ready to move us further into maturity, He will see that the right circumstances come into being at the right time and so on. In fact, the moving on is a gradual process anyway; as we spend each day walking in the Spirit, we will naturally mature. The transformation of the believer ‘…from one degree of glory to another’ (2Cor 3:18) strongly suggests that it was St. Paul’s experience that transformation occurs in degrees, gradually, one piece at a time. And we can expect this. So there’s no need to be all hung up about ‘progressing’; all we need to do is to rest in Jesus and He will perform the good work in us (Phil 1:6).
Having rambled on for a while from the perspective of my own, nonexistent, experience of anything beyond Stage 5, let’s also do the healthy thing and listen to others’ takes on the subject.
Here’s Margaret Placentra Johnston:
“Apparently people in this stage are able to overcome the action/inaction paradox of Stage 5 and are able to sacrifice their own well-being to that of their cause. NOT in the sense of a soldier going off to war. This is very different! Fowler uses the word “subversive” to refer to these people because their contributions are so radically different from the views of the rest of society. Such people commit their total being to their identification with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked or exploited. (They risk their own safety in order to help the helpless in unexpected ways.) ” 
“Stage VI – The Saint (Universalizing)
This Stage is the most difficult to understand. It is also very rare. It involves two major transitions:
1. “Decentralization from self, in which the self is removed from the centre of the locus of the individual’s life. It is a move beyond the usual human obsessions with survival, security and significance, coupled with a continued widening of the circle of “those who count”.
2. A shift to the complete acceptance of the ultimate authority of God in all aspects of life.
Fowler found only 1.6% of the population that operated at this Stage. Of those over 61 years of age, examples might be Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.” 
“Plus, most contemporary individuals who have received this type of anointing [Stage 6 – Ed] would likely shun becoming part of a research project. Very strong guess on my part – but based on pretty firm evidence that humility is such a strong part of Stage 6 that these people have so divested themselves of “ego” and taken on the mind of Christ – or whatever tradition they belong to – so that their “stage” would be part of a hidden mystery” 
“It is a rare person who reaches this stage of faith.
James Fowler describes people at this stage as having “a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.”
People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They are able to relate without condescension but at the same time are able to challenge the assumptions that those of other stages might have.
People at this stage cherish life but also do not hold on to life too tightly. They put their faith in action, challenging the status quo and working to create justice in the world”. 
“At all the previous stages, the person is more of a student of his faith. At this stage, the person tends to be seen as an exemplar of his faith. Regardless of the particular faith tradition that might be represented, this stage is characterized by a certainty of one’s own beliefs, a generous openness to the journey others are on, a sincere compassion for one’s fellow man, kindness, and the ability to be genuinely present, that is, to make the people they are with feel a sense of significance and sacredness just by keeping company with them.
Regarding this last quality, I think of the stories I have heard from people who were in Pope St. John Paul the Great’s presence who said that even if there were 100,000 people around them, for the moment they were with him, they felt like they were the only person in the world who mattered. Obviously, achieving this stage of faith is very rare but it is observable. If you think of the handful of people who you might consider to be truly holy, who are known for both their strength of faith and their genuine openness of heart, you will have a good sense of what I mean.” 
I think it’s fair to say that I would be completely remiss if I failed to point out two obvious people from the Bible whom you could categorise as Stage 6 people, if I can presume to describe God Incarnate in this way – one of these people, Who is of course Jesus Christ. If you read through Fowler’s definition above, most if not all of it applies to Jesus. He brought change and liberation wherever He went; He kicked out against the established religious and also, sort of, the political system – although this was not quite so overt. He was martyred for the trouble He caused. And so on. In every way, Jesus sets the example we can aspire to, as He always does, and He’s also the One Who does the inspiration and the changing. And His teaching continues to be the strongest individual influence on modern-day morality and legislation, far more than that of any other person in history.
Although I would also point out St. Paul as my second example, you could also pick out other Biblical writers, particularly those who wrote the New Testament (NT). Because of the lives they lived in the service of their King, their writings and influence have been immortalised – no matter how controversially – in the pages of the NT. But I like to single out Paul because not only was he the most prolific of the NT writers, but his history is also pretty well-known from an historical point of view. Paul was very much someone who fits Fowler’s definition of a Stage 6 person too, although obviously not to as great an extent as Jesus. Paul in particular used his many talents, but especially his intelligence; his skills and training in debate and logic; and his extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures that we now call the Old Testament (OT) in the service of Jesus. While Jesus’s declared focus was on the Kingdom of God, Paul’s focus was in Jesus Himself as the manifest Kingdom of God. In so doing, he advanced not only the Kingdom but also the knowledge of Jesus, which amounts to the same thing. “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him” – 2Cor 2:14
I think it also extremely important that this Stage must not be used as any kind of measuring yardstick for real people; more than any other, this Stage the is one where, unless we know something about it, any comment or criticism can only be made from a position of ignorance. And in any case, we shouldn’t be judging others anyway. Despite this, the Pharisees of Jesus’s day nevertheless criticised Him and eventually killed Him, partly because people at a ‘lower’ level* of the Stages of Faith cannot possibly conceive of someone who is ‘further along’ than they are; they assume they are heretics – or at least a threat to their power base – and they kill them, either literally or figuratively. We have no right to diss that which we know nothing about.
Another point worth considering is that to attempt to ‘define’ this Stage is effectively to limit it. We all have our own sets of limits and boundaries within which we categorise our ideas, concepts and perceptions. While Fowler refers to a certain outwardly visible form of ‘holiness’, ‘selflessness’ and ‘saintliness’ (my words, not his), I am absolutely certain that there are many unknown people walking among us this very day whom we, if we could take off the lid and peer inside their spirituality, would find are excellent examples of Stage 6 people. Maybe these people are not as rare as Fowler tended to think! You see, to me, it seems that one of the defining characteristics of such people – if indeed ‘definition’ is possible – is that they don’t tend to advertise what they are doing ‘for God’ or ‘for’ His Kingdom. They just get on with it quietly. I know of at least one person like that; in fact I’d think that you do too. It doesn’t need to be a publicly visible or apparent faith, or a visible life of sacrifice, nor does the person have to be a thorn in the flesh of the religious elite. They can just get on with being Jesus to everyone they meet, in a completely self-giving and self-sacrificial way. And, in those cases, I do sometimes wonder if we can even consider Stage 6 people to even be part of a Stage of any kind. They are so far beyond – in a good way – the criticism and judgement of others as to make such criticism or judgement irrelevant. At the same time, such criticism or judgement is still hurtful to them, because they would never want to think that they are ‘letting Jesus down’ in any way. Of course, here I am talking about Christian people in this Stage, but there will of course be Stage 6 people within any faith tradition. Like in Christianity, they will be rare, but they will indeed exist. This is what is called being ‘humble’, or ‘humility’.
In fact, my literary hero, C. S. Lewis, once described a ‘humble’ person like this. And I have no problem with equating this sort of ‘humility’ with Stage 6:
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” 
I think that’s pretty good, don’t you?
And I find it pretty hard to believe that anyone who has spent his or her life humbly walking with Jesus and listening to His Voice will not be drawn at least some way into this Stage.
They won’t be able to help it.
Anyway, hopefully this article has shed some light on this apparently most elusive of the Stages of Spiritual Growth. It’s been interesting to try to write a piece on something I know little about; hopefully I have done the subject justice!
In my next (and it will probably be my final) piece in this series, we will be looking at how these Stages apply in everyday life, and how we can use our knowledge of them to best effect.
*Although, as I have already said, to describe one Stage as being ‘higher’ or ‘beyond’ another is a misperception of what the Stages are all about. For more on this, take a look at what I wrote towards the end of this article.
Header picture shows a part of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, a picture showing some of the most distant galaxies ever observed. This is what the distant reaches of the Universe look like from our position within it.