As we grow, so does our mental capacity. As this happens, we go through various stages of development - cognitive, moral, social, and otherwise.
James Fowler put forward this model of the stages of spiritual development across the lifespan. What follows is an extreme simplification of his ideas. If you find yourself interested, please check out his book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.
Stage 0: Undifferentiated faith
- Learning to trust or fear the important adults in our life and also to trust or fear the environment. We come to believe that either the world will take care of us or that it won’t.
- This sense of trust or fear will become foundational in our later sense of faith in the Divine.
Stage 1: Intuitive-projective faith
- Early childhood (3 – 7)
- Cognitively, this stage is fantasy-filled. It’s all about imitation and imagination.
- Fantasy and reality are the same.
- In this stage, development of spiritual understanding is based on interactions with important adults and the stories they tell.
- In order to progress, we must develop concrete operational thinking; i.e., we must be able to use concrete concepts (concepts with a physical referent)
Stage 2: Mythic-literal faith
- Middle/late childhood (7 – 15), this is the first stage that some people never move beyond
- Here there is a literal interpretation of mythology and religious stories.
- God is seen as a parent figure
- To move on from this stage, we must develop abstract thinking
Stage 3: Synthetic-conventional faith
- Early adolescence (15 – 21), can last into and through adulthood
- This stage is characterized by conformity to the beliefs of others and integrating the faith of one’s culture
- It is the beginning of creating a personal identity and shaping a personal definition of faith
- To move on from this stage, we must experience internal conflict between personal beliefs and social expectations
Stage 4: Individuative-reflective faith
- Late adolescence/early adulthood
- Independent critical thinking leads to unique, individualistic worldview
- This is where we begin to balance our view of self, other, and Sacred
- To move on, we must desire to integrate the way we see the world with the worldview of others
- (We have to want to get over “I’m right and you’re wrong” thinking.)
Stage 5: Conjunctive faith
- Middle adulthood and beyond
- Awareness of our finiteness and limitations leads to becoming more open to paradox and opposing viewpoints
- (We know that we don’t really know. We are always open to the possibility that we could be wrong and someone else might have something valuable to say.)
- There is an increasing appreciation of symbols and myths
- We value our own direct experience as well as affirm other people’s beliefs
- To move on, we must desire to reconcile our personally developed transforming vision with the world as it is
- (We’ve changed but our world hasn’t. And that has to be ok.)
Stage 6: Universalizing faith
- Middle and late adulthood
- Few ever reach this stage
- Awareness of complex universal issues and loss of egocentric focus leads to transcending belief systems and realizing a sense of oneness with all beings
- Conflicting events are no longer viewed as paradoxes
- Often manifests as disciplined activism toward transforming the social order
So, to simplify it even further, when it comes to stories like those we’re going to talk about,
Stage 1 would say, “Neat!”
Stage 2 would say, “It’s not mythology; it’s history.”
Stage 3 would say, “This is a blueprint for how I ought to live.”
Stage 4 would say, “I call bullshit!”
Stage 5 would say, “Fascinating. What can I learn from this?”
Stage 6 would say, “How can I implement these lessons to make a world a better place?”