Stages of Spiritual Development

Just as there are stages of development for nearly every aspect of living: physical, moral, mental, psychological…so are there stages for spiritual development. Various experts present their variations.  Basic to all is the classic three-level states of spiritual life: purgative, illuminative, and unitive.  Today, James Fowler’s six stages of spiritual development are a popular reference for many of us.  But here I’ll mention four stages that loosely coincide with those presented by M. Scott Peck and summarize well versions that preceded and followed his.  It is important to know that we can jump around from one to another and even more important to realize that the highest stage is really just a starting point to attaining a unitive relationship with God.  It might be interesting to locate yourself along these stages and prayerfully consider whether or not you can use that place as a base for further development.

We are born into Stage One, a stage of chaos, which is normally associated with children who do not yet have structure or an understanding of good and evil.  But it also exists in some adults who are immoral or amoral, who do not possess the capacity to comprehend goodness, or who choose not to participate in bringing goodness into their relationships.  These include church-people who go through the motions without any internal impact.  They can be culturally religious, like our famous Christian CEOs (Christmas-Easter-Onlys) or those in any religion that might share in cultural acts (Hanukkah, Ramadan, Tet…) but have no connection to the principles of the faith they ritualize.  A businessman who goes to church on Sunday and then lies, cheats, steals, and takes advantage of others in his business practice all week long fits this category, as do closet-hedonists that are sexually promiscuous or drink or gamble to excess.  They are essentially the ones we label “phonies” or consider to be incredibly out of touch beyond the physical, material world.

Those in Stage Two might also be out of touch; Jesus labeled some of them as phonies. Whereas the first group has no structure or rules, these have found structure and are ruled by rules.  But they are motivated by fear more than by love.  Their image of God is external and transcendent, rather than immanent or indwelling.  This stage can be valuable for children and youth but not adults.  When it manifests in adults, they become legalistic and unimaginative.  They adopt a “holier-than-thou” attitude and are dependent on catechisms and codes that emphasize the letter of law.  Pharisees, fundamentalists, apologists, and ideologues fit into this stage.  They might know a lot about God but they don’t know God.  They see everything in black and white, as right or wrong.  Dogma and doctrine provide them answers for everything.

Stage Three is focused much more on questions than answers. It coincides with teenage years and early adulthood and is characterized by doubting and searching.  Those in this stage often label themselves as agnostics, atheists, or non-believers—but they are searchers for a truth that is beyond dogma and ritual.  They easily identify BS from adults in the earlier two stages and view them as hypocrites.  Those in this stage have an iconoclastic nature that challenges religious leaders or anyone who claims certainty with God or anything else that is empirically unknowable.  Though non-believers, adults in this stage are more spiritually advanced than those in the previous stage.  They push back against structures of all kinds, especially buildings of worship, while embracing creation (mountains, oceans, clear skies…) as the manifestation of god (if only he exists).

Stage Four contains the mystics, those who are comfortable with mystery. They view life not as a problem to be solved but a mystical journey to be traveled.  They know that the more they know God the more they know that they don’t know God; yet they appreciate encounters that move them closer to the heart of this divine mystery.  They are not threatened by questions that do not have answers, as are those in Stage Two.  They are able to surrender themselves to the unknown, unlike those in Stage Three.  Their prayer might consist of the same words as those in Stage Two but with a “cathedral of creation” mentality like those in Stage Three.  Stage Four is merely a beginning spot for responding to God’s pursuit of us; it inculcates a vulnerability to live in, learn from, and even love the godly mystery.

A part of us exists in each of these stages. As we all know, some infants and children are incredibly close to the mystery of God; their imagination and communication with the spirit world attests to that.  Jesus spoke in The Holy Gospel According to John about how some come from God and others do not.  Perhaps these inherently good humans have what we sometimes call “old souls.”  Whether or not that is true, every child gets taught to value structure and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  While this formation advances us beyond Stage One it also distances little ones from their innate spirituality.  Though each of us also exists in Stage Four, at least at random times, it may not be where we are most comfortable.  Yet it remains the best stage for us to deal with the purgative and illuminative aspects of relating to God that will ultimately bring us into unity with Him.

In whichever stage you identify yourself existing primarily, you might want to ask: Is it a place for me to come closer to The Lord?