Faith – like life – is a journey of growth, development, becoming. It involves change, movement, loss and gain. A number of phases or stages of the faith journey can be identified, mirroring the stages of human psychological development from infant to adult, or (staying with the cocoon/chrysalis metaphor) with the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle.
The idea of stages of faith has been very helpful to me in my own journey out of fundamentalism. I believe it needs wider airing, because so many intra- and inter-denominational conflicts and misunderstandings stem merely from people being at different stages of their journeys. Christians in earlier, ‘pre-critical’ stages of faith often see those in later transitional or post-critical stages as apostates or backsliders when in fact they are just going through healthy scepticism and growth, moving beyond the rigid boundaries of their earlier beliefs. Caterpillars don’t always like emerging butterflies. And those who are breaking out of their faith chrysalises can feel unsupported, rejected and fearful that they are in fact committing apostasy.
James Fowler and M. Scott Peck
The theory of ‘stages of faith’ was originally set out by Professor James Fowler in 1981, identifying 7 stages of spiritual development. M. Scott Peck then produced a simplified 4-stage schema in A Different Drum (1987).
Fowler’s stages relate to normal/typical human spiritual development, in terms of the individual’s relationship to the ‘Universal’ or ‘Transcendent’ (not necessarily God). Each stage corresponds roughly to an age range (e.g. children between about 3-7 years are usually in Fowler’s stage 1; teenagers are in his stage 3).
M. Scott Peck’s schema, by contrast, is not tied to specific age ranges but relate to stages in the development of religious belief/faith leading to and following on from a conversion experience. In this schema, a person may convert at any age, and at any later age may start to question and then deepen their faith. For this reason I find Scott Peck’s schema more helpful than Fowler’s and will be basing my thoughts mainly on the former. However, one advantage of Fowler’s is that it acknowledges that many people grow up in faith and will not necessarily experience a classic ‘conversion’ experience.
(There’s a useful chart comparing Fowler’s and Scott Peck’s stages of faith here.)
Gerard Hughes and von Hügel’s ‘Three Elements’
Catholic theologian Friedrich von Hügel (d. 1925) came up with the idea of ‘The Three Elements’, three dimensions which co-exist in balance, tension or friction in all religion and in the human soul. These are the historical/institutional element (seen in church tradition and hierarchy), the scientific/intellectual element (rational, critical thinking and questioning), and the mystical/experiential element.
In his charming book The God of Surprises, Gerard Hughes uses von Hügel’s three elements as the basis of three types – or stages – of faith, each relating to a stage of human psychological development: Institutional (child), Questioning (adolescent), Mystical (adult). These map roughly to Scott Peck’s stages II, III and IV. Hughes believes that a healthy church needs to be able to accommodate and understand all three types.
Yancey and McLaren’s stages
Other Christian thinkers and writers have come up with slightly different versions of the ‘stages’ idea. Philip Yancey identifies three broad stages in a person’s faith life, similar to but not the same as Gerard Hughes’: child, adult, parent. The child stage is, Yancey writes, very much where the Old Testament Israelites were at in the desert – with lots of hands-on parental involvement from God, and lots of rules, but not a lot of maturity in their response. The adult stage, for Yancey, is a more nuanced and mature version of belief but can be a little self-centred. Yancey sees the true end of faith as the ‘parent’ stage when you’re able to exit centre stage and invest in other people’s growth and development.
Brian McLaren identifies four stages in the life of faith: simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony. Simplicity is broadly similar to Scott Peck’s stage 2, a black-and-white simplistic approach. Complexity betokens a more mature and nuanced understanding. Perplexity is when it all stops making sense, perhaps when the complexity reaches a level that feels like chaos – Scott Peck’s stage 3. And Harmony is a fully mature, deep level of faith which can embrace paradox, mystery and uncertainty.
The stages of faith (my version)
Here’s my own version of the stages of faith, based on a synthesis of Scott Peck and Gerard Hughes plus my own experience:
|0. Pre-conversion||I. Chaotic-Antisocial||–||–||–|
|1. New convert
Childlike, enthusiastic, unboundaried
Need for strict limits/ consequences; binary views of right/wrong
|II. Formal-institutional||3. Synthetic-Conventional||Chrysalis*||Child|
Questioning and possibly rejecting former beliefs
|III. Sceptic-Individual||4. Individuative-Reflective||Breaking out of chrysalis||Adolescent|
Deeper, more open and mystical faith
|IV. Mystic-Communal||5. Conjunctive faith||Butterfly||Adult|
*NB In his excellent book Chrysalis, Alan Jamieson identifies the caterpillar stage with the pre-critical ‘Formal-Institutional’ phase (‘Stage 2’) and the chrysalis with the ‘dark night of the soul’ which grows out of the critical/questioning phase (‘Stage 3’). The butterfly life-cycle is a metaphor or parable and there are different ways of reading it. I’ve equated the chrysalis with pre-critical fundamentalism because to me that stage has felt like an enclosed, sheltered and ultimately restrictive cocoon from which I’ve longed to break free. I acknowledge that Jamieson’s use of the metaphor is better thought-through, and I can’t recommend Chrysalis highly enough to anyone exploring the spiritual journey.
Stage 1 – new convert
This is from my own experience – Scott Peck and Fowler do not recognise this phase, which in psychological development terms equates to the baby/infant stage. This then is the ‘childlike’ new convert – often full of blissful excitement and joy (and occasionally deep despair); with tremendous faith, but with little understanding and responsibility and few limits. I equate this phase with the caterpillar; Alan Jamieson uses caterpillar for the next phase.
Stage 2 – pre-critical (‘fundamentalist’)
Scott Peck’s ‘Formal-institutional’ stage, equating to the toddler/child stage of development. In butterfly terms, I see it as the confining cocoon or pupa (Jamieson sees it as the caterpillar, feeding incessantly on Christian services, teaching and doctrine).
At this stage there is a need for strict limits and consequences, and a strong sense of binaries of right/wrong, true/false, in/out, us/them, black/white. The pre-critical (often fundamentalist) stage is characterised by a degree of rigidity, dogmatism, legalism, exclusivity and literal-mindedness.
Though not always attractive from the outside, this is nonetheless a vital stage of development, and those going through it need to be shown patience and understanding. This stage is often associated with people’s more negative experiences of evangelicalism (the chrysalis I mentioned in the previous post).
It’s worth noting that it’s perfectly possible to be a fundamentalist atheist – e.g. Dawkins. It’s also entirely possible to be a ‘nice’ fundy – not all who hold strong and strict beliefs are intolerant bigots by any means. An important related idea is that of the spectrum of healthiness in religious belief.
Fowler points out that many people remain stuck in this phase and do not progress. There’s a feeling of safety as well as restriction in ‘stage 2’, and a fear that breaking beyond its bounds will mean losing everything of importance.
Stage 3 – challenging/sceptic
I’ve identified this stage with the butterfly pushing to break out from the constrictive cocoon (chrysalis); for Jamieson though, it is actually the precursor of the true chrysalis stage, as the person starts to feel dissatisfied with former beliefs and church activities.
This phase can be likened to the adolescent/teenage stage of psychological development, where there is a need to rebel and break free; to question and challenge all the rules, beliefs and authorities that were previously accepted on trust. This stage can be characterised by great idealism but also violent iconoclasm, sometimes with a total (though often temporary) rejection of former beliefs. Often the stricter and more rigid the preceding fundamentalism, the stronger the rebellion against it; those whose ‘pre-critical’ stage was milder and more open are less likely to turn their backs on it so violently. These are more likely to struggle constructively with their faith, often coming out at the other end with a deeper and stronger – though less black-and-white – faith than before.
People in this stage want (and need) to ask lots of difficult questions which authorities may see as dangerous. They need to understand why the Bible doesn’t always seem to say what they’ve been taught, why some passages seem to disagree with others, or whether touchstone doctrines are actually biblical or reasonable. They need to engage with points of view which may seem frighteningly heretical to friends and family.
People in stages 1 and 2 are apt to think that those in stage 3 have lost or compromised their faith. Though this may sometimes be true, in most cases they are simply at a different stage of the faith journey and are speaking a different language. It’s vital that those in this critical phase are not treated as dangerous apostates or wayward backsliders, but rather receive full love, acceptance and understanding from other Christians – and those who do are far more likely to hold on to the core of their faith rather than turning away completely and permanently.
Transition – ‘the dark night of the soul’
The move from a pre-critical to what Jamieson calls a ‘hyper-critical’ faith (stage 3) can be the start of a lonely struggle – an internal battle against God, the church, one’s own emotions and former beliefs; a period of darkness, doubt, discontent, even near despair before a new and deeper faith can start to emerge. It’s been likened to a wilderness or desert, a dark night, a crucible, a chrysalis. It’s a tough, testing period of transition and transformation that can last for months or (for some) years, and not everyone makes it through with faith intact. Even those who do will come out very different to how they went in.
As the period of struggle and transformation draws to an end, the idealisms and iconoclasms of the critical/questioning phase can – for some – start to give way to the deeper, more mystical way of thinking and being characteristic of the final phase (below).
Stage 4 – mystic/communal
This is the stage of mature adulthood, and in faith terms it is marked by a deepening of faith but often in a more open and mystical, less dogmatic and doctrinal form, with less rigid certainties and less reliance on external authorities. In some ways it can look a little like the unboundaried childish faith of stage 1, but now it is because the boundaries have been fully internalised and can therefore be transcended. This is the butterfly taking flight.
In this phase there will also probably be a deeper level of engagement in community, rather than a merely individualistic faith. There will probably also be a generosity of spirit, and a desire to invest in others who are at earlier stages on their journeys – while never losing a longing to go on learning and to grow ever deeper.
Just a model – some more thoughts about the stages
The idea of stages of faith is just a model, rather like one of the schemas for classifying personality types (Myers-Briggs, The Enneagram, the Four Temperaments etc). Like these models, many have found it useful in charting their own journey; others may find it entirely unhelpful. The distinctions between phases are not always as clear as the model might suggest, and the movement between phases does not always follow a predictable path. We’re all complex individuals; no two of us are exactly alike and no two people’s journeys of faith are identical.
Different people come to faith or go through faith crises and struggles at very different points in their lives. Some grow up in the faith and never experience a moment of ‘conversion’ – this does not make their faith any less real or valid. It may however mean that they have some rebelling and challenging to do at some point – going through the critical ‘Stage 3’.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one stage is better than another – that it’s better to be a butterfly than a caterpillar. Each of the stages has inherent strengths and pitfalls, and each is right for a particular time, a particular developmental stage. Adults aren’t better than children – they are just more fully grown. And in fact, if we go through all the stages properly we will have internalised the best from the earlier stages and will still be able to draw on those resources – we don’t have to lose everything as we move on.
It’s not uncommon to miss out stages in development, though ideally we need to go through them all at some point if possible. We may actually need to go through some several times, returning to earlier points in the journey and going over them again. It’s also quite possible to remain stuck in one stage for many years – or even the whole of life, though it’s a shame if this happens. This is probably most common for the ‘Stage 2’ black-and-white phase which it can feel difficult or dangerous to move on from.
Also, we can actually be in different stages simultaneously in different areas of our life – I may be in stage 2 in my attitudes to sexual morality, at stage 3 in my prayer life, and stage 4 in my attitude to money. In different aspects of our lives, we may all be both fundamentalists and liberals.
Finally, development never ends in this life – at least, it needn’t.
- Books: Chrysalis by Alan Jamieson
- Walking in darkness – Reflections on Holy Saturday (dark night of the soul)
- My faith journey
- Moving beyond either/or
- Swearing at God
- Don’t read your Bible – the dark night and letting go
- Who’s afraid of the big bad fundamentalists?
- Streams of faith
- Emerging from the evangelical chrysalis