Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Four Stages of Spiritual Growth

In my latest reading of Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Toward Spiritual Growth, M. Scott Peck discussed four stages of spiritual growth.  Stage One is called "chaotic/antisocial" and it is a selfish stage, in which people are unprincipled and manipulate others for their own benefit.  Stage Two is "formal/institutional" and is marked by an embrace of institutional rules, in many cases in rejection of the previous chaotic/antisocial stage (think religious conversion).  Stage Three is "skeptic/individual", and it is a rejection of religion in favor of science, without repudiation of morality.  And Stage Four is "mystical/communal", which sees interconnectedness and values paradox and mystery.  The transition from Stage Three to Stage Four occurs when people look for truth and end up finding beauty, which "strangely resembles many of those primitive myths and superstitions their Stage Two parents or grandparents believed in" (page 125).  According to Peck, people can have within them elements of all four of these stages, or they can be partly in one stage and partly in another.

For Peck, a mystical orientation influences how one interprets teachings of one's religion, and there is a difference between how adherents to Stage Two and adherents to Stage Four understand the same teachings.  The statement that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom", for example, is understood by Stage Two people to mean that "When you start fearing that big cop in the sky, you really wise up", and by Stage Four people to mean that "The awe of God shows you the way to enlightenment" (pages 125-126).  The statement "Jesus is my Savior" is interpreted by Stage Two Christians to mean that Jesus rescues us from trouble when we call on his name, and by Stage Four Christians to mean that "Jesus, through His life and death, taught me the way that I myself must follow for my salvation" (page 126). According to Peck, Stage Two and Stage Four are both correct, in a sense.

(Conservative Christians would probably object to Peck's characterizations of the "Jesus is my Savior" positions, saying that Jesus is Savior because he forgives people of sin, not so much because Jesus delivers us from peril.  They'd also dismiss the notion that we're saved by following Jesus' example as salvation by works.  Their objections would be valid.  And yet, focusing on Jesus as one who forgives us because we broke rules is a Stage Two sort of focus, since Stage Two emphasizes rules, and so the stages are still relevant to the conceptualization of Jesus as Savior.  And saying that we're saved by dying to self does not necessarily mean that we have to do certain meritorious deeds to earn a place in the good afterlife, but rather that spiritual liberation comes to us when we die to our narcissism.)

The interpretation of Scripture was a significant theme in my latest reading of Peck, as Peck gained practical insight that was based on certain biblical passages, although his approach to the Bible was not literalist or fundamentalist.  The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids in Matthew 25, in which the wise bridesmaids refuse to share their lamp-oil with the foolish bridesmaids who failed to bring enough (with the result that the foolish bridesmaids were excluded from the marriage feast), teaches that we can only do our own preparation, but we cannot prepare for others; others are responsible for their own preparation, even though we can try to give them a motive to prepare themselves.  As an example, Peck mentions doing homework and earning a degree. (Peck said that he initially regarded the wise bridesmaids as selfish, but then he realized that the parable is teaching a valuable lesson.)  Peck interprets the story of Lot's wife looking back and turning into a pillar of salt in light of the principle that we become "pickled" when we are continually looking back (page 113).  And Peck interprets the akeda story in Genesis 22 (in which Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac) in light of the principle that we eventually have to let go of our children and turn them over to God, rather than holding on to them.  I thought that Peck's interpretation of the akeda was a stretch, but I liked how he interpreted the other biblical passages.

Where am I, in terms of the stages of spiritual growth?  I'd say that all four stages are in me, on some level.  But, if I were to try to plot where I am, it's probably in between Stage Three and Stage Four.  I am somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to religion.  At the same time, I value spirituality, and I look for some way to be spiritual without being a fundamentalist.  But people I know who lean towards mysticism seem to me to be pulling their religion out of their rear-ends, playing fast and loose with what the Bible says in attempting to reconcile it with their own beliefs.  That offends my Stage Two and my Stage Three sensibilities!   

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