Sunday, March 08, 2009

Stages of faith: What's your spiritual quotient?

One little outpost of journalism, The Vancouver Sun, has discovered James Fowler's Stages of Faith - a little late to the party, but they're the first one to show up, so it's all good. Cheers to Douglas Todd for this article.

The article mentions many integral thinkers, and gives a shout out to our blogging friend, Chris Dierkes, of Indistinct Union. Very cool.

Stages of faith: What's your spiritual quotient?

Many thinkers are making the case that humans are capable of evolving spiritually, of progressing to higher rungs

The stages of spiritual development are based to a degree on age. Some of the stages require a certain degree of life experience to reach.

The stages of spiritual development are based to a degree on age. Some of the stages require a certain degree of life experience to reach.

Photograph by: Stuart Davis, Vancouver Sun, Files, Vancouver Sun

We all have IQs. Or Intelligence Quotients. IQ measure human's ability to reason with language, numbers and spatial relations. We also have EQs. Or Emotional Quotients.

Made famous by psychologist Daniel Goleman, they describe humans' skill handling emotions. We also have what could be called MQs, or Moral Quotients. Researcher Lawrence Kohlberg has been among those measuring humans' capacity for empathy and ethical reasoning.

We also, I would suggest, have SQs, or Spiritual Quotients.

Psychologists have done incredible work in the past century measuring the developmental stages of humans as they transform from mother-hugging infants into rebellious teenagers and, with a bit of luck, responsible adults. Some complain that religiosity, or belief in God, should not be similarly categorized. In this politically correct era, they don't want to hear about (gasp) spiritual hierarchies -- in which one spiritual stage is considered higher than another. But why not?

Just as Swiss social scientist Jean Piaget mapped out the four stages in which children learn to take in reality, and psychologist Erik Erikson outlined eight healthy stages we can go through from birth to death, many thinkers are making a good case that humans also spiritually evolve.

People are capable of progressing up a spiritual ladder. It doesn't mean they become smug on the higher spiritual rungs. Au contraire. But they can learn to function at a more complex, subtle and profound spiritual level.

Some of the scholars, psychologists and mystics who have been mapping the stages of spiritual growth include Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, Sri Aurobindo, Don Beck and especially Ken Wilber in his book, Integral Spirituality. In Vancouver, educator Chris Dierkes is among those specializing on the subject.

One of the spiritual development experts I find most intriguing is psychologist James Fowler of Emory University, author of the classic book, Stages of Faith. Fowler believes every baby starts out "undifferentiated." Babies don't make a distinction between a mother's warm, safe breast and God.

Fowler doesn't even call this primal beginning a stage. As a result, he says the first stage of spiritual development, which lasts from ages two to seven, is the one of unconscious religious fantasy.

After this comes the "mythic" stage. It's when people begin holding to literal and absolute truths. They might, for instance, believe the Genesis account of a six-day creation is fact. After this comes the third stage -- of "conventional" faith or spirituality.

It occurs when people move beyond their family of origin and seriously engage schools, peers and the media. They accept the judgment of significant others, like teachers and clergy. This conformist stage is when people develop loyalty to an ideology, group or lifestyle -- whether religious, military, artistic, economic or political. It is also when many religious groups often choose, unwisely, to hold "confirmation" classes, requiring teenagers to commit to a religious doctrine.

Many people, however, move on from this conformist approach -- to stage four, which is where Fowler says spirituality becomes more of an individual struggle. Stage four, to Fowler, marks a more reflective time, where self-actualization becomes the prime concern, and people try to take personal responsibility for their beliefs. In stage four a person starts listening to often-disturbing inner voices that challenge orthodoxy. They begin looking seriously at other religions and belief systems, realizing some of their convictions may be relative. This stage can happen in young adulthood or in one's 30s or 40s.

It often rises up just after religious "confirmation" classes, leading many teens to completely reject the religion of their youth. It is a "demythologizing" stage, Fowler says. It includes some atheists.

"It's dangers are inherent in its strengths; stage four comes with an excessive confidence in . . . critical thought and a kind of second narcissism."

The fifth stage of spiritual development leads to integration. In this stage, which is unusual before mid-life, Fowler says we recognize our own weaknesses and can see truth in paradox. The religion scholar Paul Ricouer would see stage five as one of "second naivete," Fowler says.

It's a helpful phrase. "Second naivete" occurs when people no longer take literally the stories of any spiritual or cultural tradition, either western or eastern. Instead, they deeply explore in themselves the "symbolic power" of stories about Moses, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha and others. They treat the stories "as if" they were true, mining them for transcendent meaning.

Finally, there is the highest stage of spiritual growth -- six: The universal. Fowler says it is "exceedingly rare" to achieve stage six, which some might call enlightenment. People in this stage "have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community."

"Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival and significance. Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change," Fowler says.

No doubt thinking of people such as Jesus, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha, Aung San Suu Kyi and other courageous luminaries, Fowler says universalizers don't necessarily have to believe in God. But they do "have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us." They are not necessarily perfect. But people who have reached this enlightened sixth stage of spiritual development think globally, while still cherishing the particular.

That includes their specific communities, which at their best can be "vessels of the universal." Life, for those at stage six, is "both loved and held to loosely," Fowler says. "Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition."

To me, Fowler and his ilk make a convincing and eloquent case: Not all spiritualities are created equal.

ONLINE: Read Douglas Todd's blog at

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