I was repeatedly stumped on the spiritual path when I started out. Why was spirituality practiced in such a variety of ways? Why did fundamentalism seem to be the only answer for some while others were more relaxed and rational in their approach?
The answer became apparent when I read M. Scott Peck’s book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled in my late twenties.
In one chapter, Peck simplifies James Fowlers Stages of Faith (a scholarly work that references theorists such as Kohlberg, Ericson, and Piaget).
He makes the case that people evolve spiritually (and I am paraphrasing here) from (1) being egocentric, trying to run their lives on their own will, to (2) being institutional, running their lives by the strict rules of others, to (3) being skeptical, running their lives based on rationality, to (4) being mystical, seeing that rationality is limited and noticing a spiritual undertone and value in each of the previous stages.
Peck likened the four-stage progression to the maturation of children.
The Four Stages
Within this framework, stage one is equivalent to the egocentrism displayed by two- to five-year-olds, who magically believe they can control the world around them. They think it, express it, and it happens, or else they stomp, cry, and rage until the world complies.
Stage two is equivalent to the period when six- to twelve-year-olds have begun to understand that they are not all-powerful. Instead, sensing their own limitations, they start to believe that their parents may be all-powerful, or at the very least they believe that God must be—that is, if they are going to a place of worship that teaches that (as this is the best time to instill faith). Accordingly, people at stage two beckon to their parents (or God) and follow strict rules. Their worldview is black and white and has no room for shades of gray.
Stage three is likened to the teenage years, doubting, self-reliant, and rebellious in many ways. Youths enter this stage when they experience some of the unfortunate realities of life firsthand, and when they begin to see the limitations of their parents (and God). Yet, in this context of growth doubting is a necessary step up. It represents a more complete worldview than the previous black-and-white perspective.
Finally, stage four of spiritual growth is equivalent to adulthood. The healthy adult sees the importance of each of the preceding steps and is capable of following the rules without becoming a fundamentalist—capable of discerning without disowning.
Adult Spiritual Progress
When this model is applied to adult spiritual progress in broad strokes, then growth evolves from a chaotic, egocentric nonbelief (stage 1), to a fundamentalist worldview that requires a firm structure (stage 2), to a doubting stance that sees the limits of literal interpretations (stage 3), to a mystic union that accepts the coexistence of rational ideology, such as scientific values and reason along with spiritual principles, such as grace and inner peace (stage 4).
Developing from stage one to stage two is a rapid process. The unethical and chaotic life is replaced by a rigid, yet comforting, structure. Uncertainty is replaced with certainty. It is the equivalent of being “saved” in Christian terms. Stage two is an important stepping-stone on the growth curve, as it is necessary to know the rules before you can break them. Therefore, taking the leap from stage one to stage two represents tremendous progress.
But spiritual growth doesn’t stop there.
If it happens—and that if is true about all growth—the transition from stage two to stage three occurs when people begin to doubt their absolutist structure. Fundamentalism means following the rules without exceptions, while the third stage is a realization that there are exceptions.
Ensuing that, the transition from stage three, skeptic, to stage four, mystic, is a slow-moving evolution that may take anywhere from a few months to a few years, finally replacing skepticism with integrated mysticism.
And, even then, Peck acknowledges that integrated mysticism may not be the final step, keeping the model open for even more growth.
Far From My Final Destination
After learning about this—and I have continued to examine a variety of growth models to this day—I think the biggest takeaway for me was that humans are too quick to put a lid on growth. They reach a certain stage of understanding and shout “Eureka! I have found it!”
While there is great comfort in such blind certainty, I was relieved to know that I was far from my final destination, that I could look forward to a life of spiritual growth. And even though I must admit that some of that growth has been about taking two steps forward and one step back, heck, sometimes I have taken one step forward and three steps back, I can safely say that knowing that there is no lid on spiritual growth freed me.
It is one reason why I am still on the path.
Author & Interfaith Minister
Article based on a section from my book, Trans-Rational Spirituality.
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