NOTE: This unfinished post was originally published in my personal blog. The subject matter may be too controversial and off-topic to fit well into the personal blog & is perhaps more fitting for Search for Truth… I have not yet finalized my decision, but this post will not remain in both places for very long.
I have been deeply fascinated with spirituality and truth for about as long as I can remember, but the entire search for religious and/or spiritual truth has taken on new meaning and urgency in the last couple of years. The broad effort began in earnest when I finally became willing to engage in deep, ongoing, objective-as-possible spiritual research — a type of long-term study and examination that cannot possibly be conducted from a typical Protestant Christian fundamentalist church library (most of which are full of books supporting a specific brand — their preferred flavor — of religious misinterpretation).
This willingness, which was followed by consistent, vigorous action, did not occur until my 30s – and only after a real wreck of an era that included such highlights (or lowlights) as:
- A lifestyle characterized by addictive behavior
- Causing pain in the lives of others (e.g., my family; virtually every serious girlfriend, up to that point)
- Emergency room visits in Nashville, Atlanta for reckless behavior, "partying"
- Multiple stints in treatment facilities
- Numerous twelve-step program starts & stops
- Related unmentionables
My only regret – and it really isn’t really regret at all, but more of a wish that I’d implement in a life relived: Making the same mistakes sooner, and the earlier research and practice of varied spirituality, spiritual practice, spiritual truth/seeking, etc.
For now, on a purely temporary basis, I am going to include only the most presently relevant portions of the stages of spiritual growth: the parts containing the most critical points for current teaching applications. This consists primarily of excellent, useful, powerful information that I have been struggling to convey to others in my life.
These articles and posts about the stages of spiritual growth will cover two major, popular, and broadly accepted systems that separately documented the stages of spiritual growth: the systems of:
- Scott M. Peck, M.D.
- James W. Fowler
I will also contrast the above stages of spiritual growth with similar material by Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra:
- Deepak Chopra in How to Know God
- Wayne Dyer in Manifest Your Destiny
Deepak Chopra’s book How to Know God describes seven (7) stages of what could easily be called spiritual growth, except that he specifically uses more religious terminology, such as knowing God, to mean precisely the same thing.
We’ll also include Wayne Dyer’s similar list of the progression of spiritual development towards the front of his excellent and tight spiritual book, Manifest Your Destiny.
Fowler’s stages of spiritual development
This is what Fowler calls a “pre-stage” that refers to infancy: Undifferentiated Faith.
When language and thought come into play, the child moves on to Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith, typical of children ages 2 through 7. The child is egocentric, and this stage includes the formation of the imagination.
Stage 2: Mythic; Literal interpretation
Children — as well as adults stuck in this phase — begin to separate the wheat (truth) from the chaff. In the literal interpretation stage, stories such as those in the Old Testament of the standard Protestant Bible seem to provide unity and value to life experiences; however, the poetic devices and other symbols that are so crucial in those stories are still viewed as one-dimensional and literal.
Religious beliefs, morals, and attitudes are still viewed and interpreted literally: God is an anthropomorphic being in the sky; heaven and hell are actual places; Satan is a real being — essentially a second god with incredible powers of evil influence; etc. My own upbringing also included literal translations of popular Bible stories like the six-day creation of the universe by Yahweh, the God of Israel; the tower of Babel, with its scattering of humanity and language across the earth; and my all-time favorite Bible story, Noah’s ark and the ensuing global flood! Noah’s ark and the flood have remained my favorite Old Testament Bible stories because they pointed to the truth of non-literalism at such an early age. I could not avoid critically thinking about those things — and still cannot!
The adherent’s thinking might go, "If I follow the rules, God will give me a good life; if I pray, God will grant my wish."
A person may begin to grow out of this phase when he begins to encounters and address the numerous, deep conflicts and contradictions in the religious stories he continues to interpret literally, and finally begins to reflect on their real meanings: the inherent spiritual truths.
Stage 3: Synthetic, conventional stage
Folks typically move into the third stage around puberty; but apparently many adults never move beyond it.
Authority is still external, located outside the self: The pastor and other church leaders, government, in the social group, etc. Thus the name Synthetic: Beliefs are not the result of any type of analytical thought; rather, religious concepts are “tacitly” held, and the person is not fully conscious of having chosen to believe something. Attempts to reason, suggestions to move away from literal interpretations of the Bible or other religious texts – or to demythologize the religious beliefs — are still seen as negative, or a potential threat to what they still regard as “true beliefs.”
When a person finally begins to see numerous contradictions between the authority sources (e.g., fundamentalist church teachings) and truth/reality – and also becomes willing to actually conduct objective research on these old beliefs — then he gets closer to moving to the fourth of James Fowler’s stages.
Stage 3 can be viewed as systematic attempts to rid oneself of bad theology, erroneous literalism, religious fundamentalism, fideistic worldviews about the nature of faith, mythology, cultish beliefs, superstition…
Stage 4: Individual reflective faith
According to Fowler, it is ideal that a person reach this stage in their early to mid-twenties. It certainly did not happen to this writer until almost a decade later; however, it is sadly evident that many religious adults never reach Stage 4.
If this happens in one’s thirties or forties, per Fowler, it can be much harder for the person to adapt.
At Stage 4, one finally realizes that he absolutely must research religion and spirituality for himself (and not to limit the search to books in the church library). The responsibility of such a realization can be frightening, but also freeing; however, fundamentalist religious groups will always discourage such examination.
Religions do their best to prevent this simply because this type of research threatens the viability of the institution if people start asking the standard, difficult, embarrassing questions that ultimately reveal the failure of pure religion alone to meet mature spiritual needs.
(NOTE: Fowler’s Stage 4 is roughly equivalent to the rational or world-centric stage at Exploring Spiritual Development.)
Stage 5: Conjunctive faith
People at this level evolve into inter-faith exploration and support; these individuals seek out dialog with those of other faiths in order to see things from varying perspectives, which just so happens to be one of the greatest wisdom delivery systems of all time. The seeker engages in an ongoing search for spiritual truth, striving to align one’s own beliefs with truth and reality.
One cannot reach Stage 5 until they have successfully demythologized their religious beliefs and traveled through the incredible life-changer known as Stage 4 where the common folly (in the U.S., especially it seems) of literal religious interpretation and literal meaning has been addressed and corrected. (As has been addressed elsewhere in Search for Truth, it is exceedingly difficult for those who have been successfully indoctrinated – essentially brainwashed – in religious fundamentalism for decades, especially when their personality types are not given to critical thought, reasonable skepticism, philosophy, and so on.
Rational inspection and deep contemplation have helped the Stage 5 spiritual seeker to break down religious symbols into a more comprehensive, metaphorical interpretation that more closely aligns with basic universal spiritual principles.
Fowler includes the following quote as an example of Stage 5 faith:
…doesn’t matter what you call it. Whether you call it God or Jesus or Cosmic Flow or Reality or Love, it doesn’t matter what you call it. It is there. And what you learn directly from that source will not tie you up in creeds… that separate you from your fellow man. (p. 192)
The Stage 5 truth-seeker in Fowler’s system is learning how to reengage with some type of faith that is beyond their rational control. This individual recognizes that only partial truths are delivered by religion; however, he may choose to re-engage with religion in spite of the differences, in spite of the fact that he no longer goes to the church for real answers. He can appreciate and recognize symbols as such without remaining attached to their literal meanings. Socially, the Stage 5 seeker is now committed to a form of justice that extends to those outside the confines of tribe, class, religious community, or nation.
With this very inclusive worldview, people at Stage 5 have great potential to make incredible contributions to local or world society, but sometimes give in to a paralyzing passivity out of fear for their own comfort and well-being — or are paralyzed by the yawning chasm that separates actual reality and the view they would like to hold as real.
Stage 6: Universalizing faith
Few ever reach this stage, which seems to be reserved for those rare, amazing personalities that succeed in transcending the self to spend their lives in spiritual service. Examples: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, South Africans Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and so on.
Resources: Stages of spiritual growth
This post was started on Monday, April 09, 2012