Stages of Spiritual Life

gnosticismA comment came in yesterday to ask for my reflections on James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development. I answered

This review seems very interesting. I haven’t read Fowler’s book, but I might be tempted to order it. The stages seem to correspond with Berdyaev with his “orthodox Gnostic” tendency. Most people never move beyond the literalistic / materialistic phase before they give it up as “a load of old bunk” and move to the “new atheist” camp. I have no mystical pretensions, but I recognise and admire the “4th stage” and the “5th stage” of the saints.

There are two possible approaches: read the book and find out who James Fowler is. That would make a critical approach possible. We have to be careful because we have two James Fowlers. One is James W. Fowler, an American psychologist and Methodist theologien. The other is James H. Fowler, born in 1970 and also an American, specialising in sociology, psychology and genetics. The Dr Fowler who interests us is the former, born in 1940. All the same, for a critical approach, I would have to become widely read in his work and know about his religious positions and thought. Such work would be very time-consuming. I don’t think I am called to such a task, so I will merely offer my own reflections on the same subject.Obviously, schematising human development into a discrete number of stages is a pedagogical tool and a way of organising thought so that ideas can be got over to others by means of the spoken and written language. Like history, borders are blurred, and we can be at a loss to determine whether a given person or situation belonged, for example, to the late middle-ages or the Renaissance. There are transitional periods, shades of grey in a continuum, and the reality is never as clear as theory. Church dogma speaks about seven Sacraments, but surely the Mystery of Christ is not limited by this symbolic number. This is my first reflection to shake off literalism and projected absolutes. My guess is that Fowler would concur with this, given that he postulates the higher stages of spiritual development as post-literalist.

At various times over the last few years, I have taken an interest in Gnosticism and Jung’s psychology. The process of individuation is something essential for the human being who wishes to be more than a part of a deterministic machine. It is the only way we can escape the infernal circle of depression and many of our neuroses and irrational fears. We all have work to do on ourselves, and often with the help of a professional therapist (good [and affordable] ones are increasingly difficult to find) or a spiritual father (or mother).

The first thing that attracted me was the notion that we can indeed go beyond the letter and the institution, as the contemplative soul goes beyond icons and images to something much higher. Another thing that strikes me is that this map of developmental stages resembles the Scriptures and the contrast between the God of the Pentateuch and the Torah to the Spirit of the Prophets and Wisdom writings. There is a development, eventually leading to Christ and the fulness of revelation, and to the surprising sayings of Saint Paul about the letter and spirit, and about the Law and the freedom of God’s children. Saint John gives an extremely profound vision of man’s participation in God, and indeed the whole of creation.

There has always been tension between literalism / legalism and the spiritual view of the physical / metaphysical universe. There will always be conflict between us and within each one of us. This is the battle Saint Paul and the Prophets before him had to fight. Many of us are brought up and indoctrinated as Christians, and others discovered Christianity freely and were convinced by it through experience or by becoming convinced by doctrines and ideas. Either way, we each have to grow and integrate, by discarding the trash or giving it deeper meaning.

I am lucky by having come from a family with Christian values but without intolerance or too much religiosity. As a teenager, I might have thought my parents were agnostics or atheists, but I discover that my father in his late autumn years is a profoundly contemplative person is his own secret way. He is beyond listening to moralising sermons and reading the will of God into human sin and hypocrisy. Many of those who reject the institutional Church are not apostates, but those who seek a higher way to transcend sin and weakness.

Most whom I have known who were “formatted” in the faith have forsaken the Church in search of something higher. They were indoctrinated in notions of the devil and hell, the idea of a fickle and vengeful God, and were left fragile in the face of competing ideas and human experience. If religion is simply a kind of fairy tale for children, we simply grow out of it and discard it like Santa Claus and fairies at the bottom of the garden. Later in life, we find the meaning of these symbols – Saint Nicholas of Myra and invisible spiritual beings who interact with humans in this world, called angels. On seeing Entre Terre et Mer, the TV series I mentioned when writing on my week’s “schoolboy” holiday in my boat, I observe the religion of those rude people in the 1920’s, as in the Middle Ages, in that rudimentary stage. The superstition of the sailor is a powerful instinct for anyone with experience of the fickleness and god-like power of the sea and the elements. This is the stage of trying to negotiate with God to obtain favours.

We grow out of the children’s “fairy tale” when we meet contradictions and incoherence. Thus, the post puerile mind is critical of the idea that Father Christmas loaded with bags of presents can squeeze down the chimneys of every house in the world at exactly the same time on 24th December at midnight! The eight or ten year old child comes to the conclusion that this character does not exist. He feigns sleep at this crucial hour and discovers that the bringer of the Christmas stocking is simply his own flesh-and-bones mother. Later in life, we come to strip Christmas of the commercial trash and hype and consider the incarnate Christ in the stable or cave of Bethlehem. As we get older, Christmas becomes sad, the over-indulgence of selfish people and our own confrontation with the long dark nights of winter.

A few days ago, I wrote about “mainstream” institutions, and this is something of importance for us all. We all try to cling onto something that gives us security. We are upbraided for belonging to small “splinter groups” because the “mainstream” Church no longer has any meaning for us – for whatever reason. Should we forsake the institutional Church altogether, or compromise by belonging to a small group in which we believe the Church subsists through a metaphysical notion of the priesthood and Sacraments? We agonise for years, as I have done, and we find the decision is ours with no help from anywhere else. Dead right! Most people never move beyond the legalistic / literalist phase. It has to be right and infallible, because any criticism would be threatening of emotional security. A few of us sacrifice emotional security for something higher, without which religion can only be a load of bunk. The exchange is made – make or break. The ship weighs anchor to navigate in uncharted waters.

We all have questions to ask. The contradictions point to something being untrue, or beyond our immediate understanding. Some come to rushed decisions about things being untrue. For others, we reserve judgement until we have investigated things and become better informed. Faith must be able to withstand the use of reason. This is an essential rule of the science of theology. Mysteries are above and not against reason! We have to question outside authorities, and search for knowledge, what the Greeks called γνώσις. This kind of knowledge comes not through reading and study, but through experience. This kind of relationship with God brings both freedom and responsibility – and the wrath of those who remain stuck in the previous “stage”.

This is the stage at which we become agnostics and atheists, or discover inner freedom and new meaning. Our religion becomes “liberal” in the sense of demythologising symbols and narratives and transcending human language. That is what happens when we are able to make the distinctions necessary to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The best attitude to have in this state is that we can’t possibly know everything, and that (to misquote Shakespeare) there are many things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophies. We become very vulnerable in this state, which brings great sufferings.

It is a great help to us to open our minds to other religious traditions, getting to know something about Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufi Islam, Judaism and the so-called “pagan” traditions. There are also the “heretics” of Christianity like the Modernists and Pierre Teilhard du Chardin, even Küng and characters like Bishop Spong. What made them go the way they did? How are we different? What have we kept that they lost? Did they find the hidden treasure? There are also those who communicate with the dead through mediums and examine the experiences of those who have been “flatlined” and nearly dead.

We need also to listen to those who cannot relate to churches but yet seek a relationship with what lies beyond materialistic life and limits. We need to understand the limits of our religious “systems” and know that many are beyond them. Some are materialists and others are much further down the spiritual road.

The final stage of Fowler is that of the Saints, the fakirs and gurus of Hinduism, the Shamans of Red Indian spirituality and γνώσις. It is also Philip Neri and Thersa of Avila, Theresa of Calcutta, Seraphim of Sarov and Padre Pio. There were also Joseph Labre and the holy fools for Christ in Russia. This is the final assumption of humanity into Christ’s divinity. They are signs of contradiction and true anarchists.

Of course, this is a rational discussion of things that escape reason, whether they are parts of existence outside our experience, like electromagnetic frequencies to which a radio is not tuned, or within ourselves – forming part of the same transcendent existence. We talk of “stages” because our language is limited and we try to organise ideas rationally. That’s the way we work and communicate with each other.

What do we become? Like being or not being, that is the question

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7 Responses to Stages of Spiritual Life

  1. Simone says:

    Dear Father, thank you for the insights. Good food for mind and soul as usual. I will also check again past blog entries about Berdyaev. Maybe I have a foot outside orthodoxy, but Jung’s visions always fascinated me.


  2. Stephen K says:

    A wonderful reflection, Father! Lots in this, and it rings so true.

    • Thank you. I seem to have seized the root of atheism and “spiritual but not religious”. The Church needs to be aware of and sensitive to human freedom and the possibility of intelligent reasoning. But, this is an old problem. I think it was Newman (unless it was Dupanloup) who warned that if Papal infallibility went through back in 1870, it would alienate both the “common” classes and intellectuals. The whole credibility of the Church went on the line – find just one factual discrepancy in history and the whole system is shot to pieces!

      • William Tighe says:

        My recollection is, that Newman’s warning about the then proposed definition (about which he had no doctrinal or theological doubts) was that if it went through, there would be the possibility that some people (“liberals” and minimalists generally) would then be able to claim that only those matters on which the church had spoken “infallibly” were binding on the faithful. If that seems fanciful, I can place against it the cases of (a) a practicing Catholic man of my acquaintance years ago who was much given to amorous pursuits, and justified them to me by saying that the Church had never “infallibly defined” fornication to be “a mortal sin,” and (b) the many tiresome Catholics of my acquaintance over the years who have supported, variously (or together), the pretended ordination of women, the acceptance by the Church of same-sex “partnerships,” and even (more recently) the claim that one might “in good conscience” seek and undergo an abortion — all because the Church’s positions on these matters had not been “infallibly defined.” I even recall a conversation about religious matters years ago in which one of the speakers claimed that the Church’s teachings/doctrines on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were more “certain” than those about Our Lord’s Virgin Birth and Bodily Resurrention, because the former had been “infallibly defined,” and the latter had not.

      • Indeed, Newman was an inopportunist. Whether he really believed in Papal infallibility – or whether like Strossmayer he went along with it for the sake of his community and to avoid being thrown out into the street – seems to be up for question without the possibility of our ever getting an answer.

        I go along with your reasoning. Non-infallible doesn’t mean optional. I acknowledge and respect my Bishop in all things but sin (he has never asked me to sin) without needing him to be infallible. If I break that relationship between a priest and his Bishop, there would be consequences to assume both for my membership of an institutional Church and my intimate vocation.

        Thus the Pope doesn’t need to be infallible to have authority – like any bishop – to teach, sanctify and govern the Church.

        As a historian, you will know that most of the chief whips for Papal infallibility were Liberals from the school of Lammenais, Montalembert and company reacting against Gallicanism (it’s better to have a dictator far away than on your own doorstep!). Only afterwards did a distinctive Ultramontanist school grow out of the liberal anti-Gallican set. This was one of my favourite chapters of Fr Bedouelle’s church history course at Fribourg in the 1980’s.

        I can’t vouch for the credibility of the author, but this seems interesting, at least to provoke discussion –

      • Stephen K says:

        A very interesting link on Lamennais! It will be worth re-reading several times. It gives a very interesting and coherent context to modern religious differences.

        On the subject of Newman, and his views on infallibility, I have two books that are very illuminating. (1) “Newman on Tradition” by Father Gunter Biemer (1967) and (2) “Newman and the Modern World” by Christopher Hollis (1967). If you can come across these, you should enjoy them.

  3. A Sinner says:

    I really liked this reflection and the article it linked.

    I too immediately saw a big connection to the entire evolutionary sweep from Old to New Testament, and to Paul’s profound statements, in Romans, about the Law “versus” Grace.

    I too have been thinking a lot lately about spirituality that prioritizes spiritual growth and learning rather than “avoiding making mistakes.” The goal of the game, I presume, is to win. It’s to make the most baskets, not to minimize the number of misses. Someone who shoots 100 times, misses 90, but makes 10…is better than the person who is so concerned with “not missing” that he takes only one shot. He might make it, but while he was “avoiding missing,” looking with horror at the guy who missed 90 shots…that guy also MADE 10, and won the game.

    But, at the same time, let’s remember that neither Christ nor Paul abolished or said to ignore the law, even in the face of grace. “The Law condemns, but it does not save.” I think the Church knows this, but it is also true that most people are always going to live in the “conventional” stage because that’s simply how it works. Expecting a world where everyone attains post-conventional spirituality all at once is a utopian fantasy, and besides it can ironically become a sort of Phariseeism of its own. Post-conventional spirituality is supposed to look benignly on those at lesser stages, like adults look benignly at the foibles of childhood and the teenaged years. Yet I fear, often, that there is a touch of CONTEMPT in the way that the post-conventional speak of the conventional. This is only a barrier to further growth for everyone.

    Of course all sorts of people are conventional; it’s a process of growth. And of course the Church panders to them. Indeed, sometimes I think of the Church as like the parent of a teenager. The parent knows that the right thing is to “lay down the law” and establish all sorts of boundaries and to be strict with them, even while knowing and expecting that the teenager will transgress them and will experiment and negotiate with the boundaries. Such is life, and I’m sure a mature parent looks at it benignly. But they know they also have to play the role of the “bad guy” very often, because in order to learn how to negotiate with boundaries, you have to be given boundaries to negotiate with in the first place. A good parent knows this.

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