The idea of Faith Stages fascinates me. I’m bursting to share it with every religious and used-to-be-religious person I know. If you’re wondering why your loved ones feel like they’re outgrowing your church, or if you feel like you’re outgrowing your church and it’s confusing, read on.
First, a little background: Who remembers Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning? You might have been asked a question in your education days similar to this:
“Your child is dying and there is a medicine that will save her life. But you don’t have the money, and the pharmacist won’t give it to you under any circumstances without full payment. What do you do?”
What is your answer? And more importantly, what’s your reasoning for your decision? Kohlberg stated that people’s moral reasoning progressed through stages as summarized below.
- Pre-Conventional Reasoners avoided pain or focus on rewards. (I don’t want to go to jail for stealing the medicine, and I feel safe when I follow rules.)
- Conventional Reasoners shift their emphasis to connection with others. (It’s not fair to steal from the pharmacist, society works when we all follow norms.)
- Post-Conventional Reasoners attempt to take the perspective of all individuals in balance. (The pharmacist isn’t being ethical and life should be prized higher than profits.)
An American theologian named James Fowler took this idea a step further and created the Stages of Faith while M. Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist, simplified the idea into 4 similar stages of spiritual development. This table is the best, more concise way to help you see what Stages of Faith is all about.
Why does this fascinate me so? For one, I live in a religion where people are leaving in droves. And to look nationwide, this is not a pattern unique to Mormonism. There are a bunch of church members who don’t get why it’s happening and sometimes explain it as “sin” or “laziness,” and there are also a bunch of church members who struggle to stay, or choose not to stay. The Stages of Faith theory provides context that might help all church members better understand each other.
Stage 1 and 2 – Not much to say that’s revolutionary. We start as children, believing simply, relying upon the tradition of our parents and society. We’re also sort of self-centered at that age and hopefully some clear rules/expectations keep us in line.
Stage 3 is a safe, solid place of certainty in spiritual perspective, unity in community, and trust in the authority keeping us spiritually safe. The sanctuary-like feel in Stage 3 should be honored and not looked down on by those in different stages. For many people, it is enough and often for a lifetime. Conventional Spirituality is a beautiful tribe to belong to when you fit within its framework.
Yet sometimes, spiritual change comes knocking.
Personal example – I was knocked flat by the spiritual growth that showed up on my doorstep in my early 30’s. (Right on schedule, according to Fowler and Peck). Prior to that uninvited growth I lived solidly in Stage 3, not recognizing how thoroughly I was inside a belief system, relying upon a church to give me stability, and feeling extremely threatened when those beliefs were called into question (I remember well the uncomfortable feelings of listening to friends or family talk baldly about the church I loved, and how squirmy I was at how heathenish they sounded!)
It was agony for me to lose the sanctuary of Stage 3; all of my life my self concept and self worth had been intertwined with spiritual certainty, literal interpretations and unquestioning obedience to authority. Having a conventional spiritual life was my identity.
A question you may be asking: How did uninvited growth just show up? In my religion, members are genuinely encouraged to find personal answers and not rely upon following blindly. Members are also regularly reminded to keep spiritual searches to approved sources. Supposedly if you stick to this plan, you should be fine. But for me, life experiences at that time made me uncomfortable with some doctrines, which my own scripture research and spiritual pleas left me increasingly unhappy about, and it quickly unraveled from there. (Without any influence of ‘forbidden web pages’ or ‘anti-church literature,’ and zero egregious ‘sins’ on my part, FYI). I felt torn apart inside and wondered if I was indeed being led astray in a way I’d been cautioned against my entire life. I also felt intense guilt that perhaps I hadn’t been righteous or diligent enough.
Yet as my thoughts about truth and worth and faith expanded, I started feeling more deeply and consistently joyful, with a growing spirituality that brought me daily closer to the divinity I’d relied upon all my life. As I let go of literal checklists and embraced symbolic beauty, what started out as terrifying abyss became a major step forward. I saw divinity everywhere when I stepped outside my conventional box. Instead of feeling constant low grade guilt for everything I wasn’t living up to, I started feeling like I was enough and God actually cared about bigger, grander things than I’d believed in my prior box. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ is a litmus test that’s never led me astray, and whenever I retreat to my Stage 3 roots and question my own heathenism, I remember the fruits of spiritual growth that have come my way from this marvelous change of perspective and priorities. Outgrowing the comfort of unquestioning religious loyalty and the need for spiritual certainty actually increased my daily spirituality and consistent joy to new levels I didn’t know were possible.
But I digress. This isn’t meant to be an essay about me. I use my own examples to bring comfort to anyone as lost as I felt when my conventional faith was stripped from me, and to give examples to those still trying to understand why people ‘turn away’ from the religion of their youth.
Disillusionment and apathy appear to be the hallmarks of Stage 4. That stage initially felt the same as intense betrayal to me, because it’s painful to make the switch from literal and certain belief to symbolic faith and uncertainty. You feel lied to, by your own feelings from youth and also by those who taught you. Even if your religious teachers at the time existed in a higher stage of individual or conjunctive faith, teaching to a group is done in a conventional format consisting of literal and certain ‘facts.’ It’s confusing to unravel that, and the feeling of betrayal is why it doesn’t surprise me that Peck says many people in Stage 4 – which is often non religious – stay there permanently.
What’s also extremely interesting, given the religious community in which many of us live, is Fowler’s comment that moving to Stage 4 looks like regression to people in the conventional faith Stage 3. You see, Stage 2 is self-centered. And Stage 4 and beyond, with its growth toward individual faith over literal authority, looks self centered and even hedonistic to people in the Conventional Stage 3 which relies so heavily on authority and following norms. I think about this every Sunday at church; every time I second guess making a comment because I know how it will sound to those who prize obedience and certainty. I totally get it because for two decades I was that person with conventional faith assuming that the outside-the-box commenters and questioners were lacking in faith and loyalty.
There are limits to logic, Stage 5 recognizes. Aristotle got it right here – “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Yet making peace with uncertainty and allowing the unknown in, instead of holding fast to literalism, is intensely freeing, almost like you can stop exhausting yourself trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Literal answers don’t equal faith; in scripture Alma says faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things. We can, with faith, sit back and say comfortably, “I don’t know, but I trust Divinity.” It is deeply empowering to recognize all the non-categorical, gray area, paradoxical truths and beauties in this vast world. I think it causes us great discontent and actually shows a lack of faith in the Divine to try to fit everything into neat categories. Isn’t that what faith is about? To trust, not knowing the literal answers? To trust by following the greatest commandments of loving God and loving each other, not striving to get all the answers figured out?
I really like Peck’s statement in the table that at the highest stage, one recognizes truth in prior stages. You can both personally grow and rely upon a church for stability. You can see life as a paradoxical mystery and still look to religious symbols and theology. You can prize your individual spirituality and nurture it in the context of a religious community. That’s why I can, from my active religious status, comfortably share an essay like this, because spiritual growth does not have to equal outgrowing religion. And being a faithful religious member does not have to mean dismissing faith outside the conventional norm.
To those who are happily solid in their conventional faith and religion, I beg you to hold open arms in your community for those growing differently in their faith than you. Maybe it will take more faith than ever on your part to open up to gray areas and let them worship equally alongside you, not making them feel compelled to leave if they’re not conventional. Jesus sat in the temple debating for hours with religious scholars and religious debate continues to be a hallmark of Jewish religious tradition. Religion and faith can tolerate differences and we’ll all be better – and have improved faith – for the diverse discussion and faith views. Your loved ones might not take the faith path you’re certain is best, but love them and encourage them to build something meaningful and allow some creative differences in worshipping alongside you.
To those who are growing into unchartered spiritual territory that may feel foreign to the literal faith of your youth, I encourage you to hang in there and don’t get too hasty either in forcing yourself back to certainty -or- giving up when you feel betrayed by the uncertainty that strips your formerly literal beliefs and identity. Follow good fruits in your own life, and if/when you reach the point that you’ve deconstructed your literal faith, I encourage you to next REconstruct a symbolic faith that’s meaningful to your life. Stage 4 disillusionment is not the happiest place to set up a permanent home. Find something beautiful and meaningful that’s uniquely yours, and keep in mind that faith growth doesn’t have to mean outgrowing your religious community. You could get creative in merging the faith of your youth with a new, personally meaningful take on it.
Above all, as we live the greatest commandments to love God and love each other, hopefully this Stages of Faith theory can give us increased understanding, compassion and support for each other. May we all respect individual faith journeys as we live and worship together in this beautiful existence.