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Stages of Spiritual Growth

In Further Along The Road Less Travelled (Simon & Schuster, 1993) M. Scott Peck developed further his ideas on spiritual growth and human nature. He realised that we are not all at the same place spiritually. He outlines four stages of spiritual growth or religious development. There is a need to be cautious and flexible when attempting to diagnose ourselves or others to see where we or they fit into this spectrum of spiritual growth. People can superficially appear to be in one stage when, in fact, they are someplace else entirely. These stages are more than just labels. It is important to understand them because of the sense of antagonism that exists between people at such different points on the spiritual journey. We may feel threatened by people still in the stage that we have just left, because we may not yet be secure in our new identity. But mainly the threat is the other way - we particularly feel threatened by the people in the stages ahead of us.

Stage One - Chaotic / Antisocial

This is a stage of absent spirituality. People at this stage are utterly unprincipled. They can be called antisocial because while they are capable of pretending to be loving, actually all of their relationships with their fellow human beings are self-serving and covertly, if not overtly, manipulative. It is chaotic because, being unprincipled, they have no mechanism that might govern them other than their own will. Since the unharnessed will can go this way one day and that way the next, their being and living is consequently chaotic. People at this stage will frequently be found in trouble or difficulty. Their whole existence is a facade of coolness, yet they are invariably terrified of virtually everything and everyone.

People in stage one may occasionally get in touch with the chaos of their own being. When they do, it is perhaps the single most painful experience a person can have. Generally, they just ride it out; occasionally, they may convert to stage two. Such conversions are usually very sudden and dramatic. Something astonishing happens to the person, usually unconsciously or from the prompting of the unconscious mind - recognising that the person is ready to change. That person may then say to themselves, "I am willing to do anything in order to free myself from this chaos, even to submit myself to something other than myself for my governance".

Stage Two - Formal / Institutional

This is a stage where people in it are dependent on an institution for their governance. It may be a prison, a psychiatric unit, the military, a highly organised business organisation or a cult. But, for most people it is the church. Indeed, it could be said that most churchgoers fall into stage two. It is formal because they become attached to the forms of religion. They become upset if someone starts changing forms or rituals, altering their liturgy or introducing new hymns. No wonder! It is precisely those forms that they depend upon for their liberation from chaos. They tend to be threatened by the sceptics of stage three and, more than anything by the stage four people who seem to believe in the same things they do, yet do so with a kind of freedom that they find terrifying.

People's religious behaviour at this stage is characterised by a vision of God that is almost entirely an external being. They have little understanding of that of God that is within themselves, within each one of us, what theologians term immanent - the dwelling divinity within the human spirit. They think of God as almost totally up there, out there. They have a masculine model of God, and while they believe Him to be a loving being, they also ascribe to Him a certain kind of punitive power which He is not afraid to use on occasion. It is the vision of God as a giant benevolent policeman in the sky. Because, in many cases, this is exactly what people in stage two need.

Stage Three - Sceptical / Individual

People in this stage will have become principled and self-governing, no longer dependent on an institution for their direction or control. In respect of church, they may have fallen away as agnostics or atheists. Nevertheless, they can be said to be ahead of people in stage two spiritually, even though they are not religious in the ordinary sense of the word. They are not in the least bit antisocial. Often they are deeply involved in society. They make committed and loving parents. Frequently, they are scientists or scientifically minded. They will be truth seekers; and, if they seek the truth deeply enough and widely enough, they begin to find what they are looking for. They get to fit enough pieces of truth together to catch glimpses of the big picture and see that it is very beautiful - strangely resembling some of the myths and superstitions common in stage two belief. They can dismiss the superstitions of stage two belief, but feel uncomfortable knowing that people in stage four can be scientifically minded like them, yet still believe in this crazy God business!

Stage Four - Mystical / Communal

Certain things can be said about mystics: They are people who have seen a web of cohesion beneath the surface of things. Throughout the ages, mystics have seen connections between men and women, between humans and other creatures, between people walking this earth and those who are not here. Sensing that kind of interconnectedness mystics of all cultures and religions have spoken in terms of unity and community. They have also always spoken in terms of paradox.

Mystical has at its root the word mystery. Mystics love mystery: They love to solve mysteries; and yet, at the same time, they know the more they solve, the more mystery they are going to encounter. They are very comfortable, nonetheless, living in the world of mystery. That is what distinguishes them from people in stage two, the people who are most uncomfortable when things are not cut and dried.

One of the characteristics of all the world's great religions is that they seem to speak to people in both stage two and stage four as if the very teachings of a given religion have two different translations.