The life cycle of faith – stages of spiritual development (stages of faith)

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.

So many conflicts stem from people being at different stages of their faith journeys

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:

Stage Scott Peck Fowler Butterfly* Human
0. Pre-conversion I. Chaotic-Antisocial
1. New convert
Childlike, enthusiastic, unboundaried
Caterpillar* Baby/infant
2. Pre-critical
Need for strict limits/ consequences; binary views of right/wrong
II. Formal-institutional 3. Synthetic-Conventional Chrysalis* Child
3. Challenging/sceptic
Questioning and possibly rejecting former beliefs
III. Sceptic-Individual 4. Individuative-Reflective Breaking out of chrysalis Adolescent
4. Mystic/communal
Deeper, more open and mystical faith
IV. Mystic-Communal 5. Conjunctive faith Butterfly Adult

Chrysalis by Alan Jamieson*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.

It’s vital that those in the critical phase are not treated as apostates

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

No two people’s faith journeys are identical

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’.

One stage is not better than another

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.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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52 Responses to The life cycle of faith – stages of spiritual development (stages of faith)

  1. Hey Harv,

    I managed to do some teaching on faith stages drawing on the work of Fowler (shamelessly plagiarised from Alan Jamieson) to homegroup leaders at an old church I attended. See here for my notes: http://hostcommunity.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/encouraging-spiritual-growth.pdf.

    I first became aware of it through Dave Tomlinson’s book The Post-Evangelical. I think I prefer Fowler’s stages. I don’t think you can divorce spiritual/faith development from personal development as faith involves the entire being of an individual – many adults can enter into faith through a later stage and bypass the fundamentalist position entirely.

    Kester Brewin in his book The Complex Christ uses Fowler’s stages in reference to society and the movement from modernism to post-modernism. Whereas modernism is very much Stage 3 (conformist) post-modernism is stage 4 (the critic) where deconstruction takes place and cusping on stage 5 (the seer) where paradox and mystery can be held. This is an interesting point in regard to mission.

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    • harveyedser says:

      This is brilliant – thanks Simon. I think there are good points in both Fowler’s and Scott Peck’s systems, and I guess both have to be treated as fairly loose models rather than too prescriptively. And a lot depends on culture, personality, age that you come to faith, whether you were brought up in a religious family and if so how strict, etc. But as a general schema, the idea of moving through fundamentalism to criticism and finally to mysticism has been very helpful to me.

      I agree that not everyone has to go through a fundamentalist phase in their faith. But I sometimes wonder if people who don’t actually miss out on something – a bit like missing out on the boundary-learning stage of childhood. My feeling is that those who have been through fundamentalism and then moved on often have a stronger faith in the end than those who started as critics or mystics. But I may be completely wrong!

      (I tend to stick with Scott Peck’s stages simply because the phrase ‘Stage 2’ has become synonymous with fundamentalism in my head!)

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      • I appreciate the comment of “hostcommunity” above and intend to look into the books by Dave Tomlinson and Kester Brewin. I’m not sure about the nature of the faith of middle-aged to older adults in terms of having gone thru fundamentalism or not. Could go either way. But Fowler is the only theorist, to my knowledge, to base his stages on a large amount of research data, combined with prior theory.

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  2. Finally, Jamieson in his book Chrysalis likens the Chrysalis phase to the dark night of the soul and the Critic phase in Fowlers stages. It is here where a pre-critical version of faith ‘dies’ to allow something fresh to emerge.

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    • harveyedser says:

      That’s interesting. I still see the fundamentalist phase as the chrysalis, because it’s so restrictive, blinkered and boxed-in. But as the chrysalis is a metaphor I guess you can see it either way.

      I’m not too sure about the dark night of the soul and where it comes – being a bit of a depressive, I feel like I’ve had several at different stages! I think any time of transition can involve that kind of experience.

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  3. johnm55 says:

    In transition to the final phase (below), idealisms and iconoclasms may gradually give way to a more reasoned, settled scepticism. There may be a gradual return of faith for those who have lost it, but it will probably be to a steadier, more rational and tolerant kind of faith.

    I think that the real trick is to get from stage 3 to stage 4. I find that in my case the idealisms and the iconoclasms have given way to a reasoned and settled agnosticism. Although you could argue that agnosticism and scepticism are the same thing. The return to any kind of faith that a god exists is a way off.

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    • harveyedser says:

      I don’t think it’s something you can force (moving from one stage to another). I’ve got a lot of time for scepticism and agnosticism, and I’m at least partially agnostic and sceptical about most of my own beliefs! However, I would see a difference between scepticism and cynicism – I’d see cynicism (though entirely understandable) as less healthy, as it implies that nothing can be trusted and there’s no point trying.

      What do you think were the things that caused you to move away from your previous faith, and what do you think might be needed for you to believe again? (Not that I’m saying you should, I’m just interested.)

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      • johnm55 says:

        I think ultimately Tim Humphrey has to take the blame. It was him who first persuaded me to preach occasionally. That led me to actually having to work out what I believed and didn’t believe rather than just parroting the party line.
        A bit of it was partially behind my Telling White Lies to Children Post. A course I did about twelve years ago called Workshop, which I would recommend to anyone believer or agnostic with a sympathy towards a more radical Christianity, gave me a lot of the tools that I needed to have a critical look at my faith, and faith in general. The tools allowed me to take my faith apart but after I had discarded the bits that no longer worked, there wasn’t enough left to rebuild a working model.
        I think the two major things I need to get past are on a general level the complete lack of direct evidence for the existence of a deity, and on a religious level, the circular logic of apologetics.
        “This statement is true”
        “Why is it true?”
        “Because my holy book says it is true”
        “Why should I trust your holy book”
        “Because my holy book is my god’s words”
        “How do can I know that they are your god’s words?”
        “Because my holy book says that they are”
        I know that is a gross over simplification, but there is truth there.

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        • tonycutty says:

          I did Workshop too – 1987-88, Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Led by Noel Moules and with guest appearances from leaders like Dave Tomlinson. An amazing experience.

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    • harveyedser says:

      Thanks John, that’s really interesting – and very honest. ‘Workshop’ looks good as well – may sign up to it one of these days!

      This comment probably isn’t the best place for me to respond in-depth to your very valid and legitimate problems with believing in God / Christianity. I’ll just say for now that I’ve also wrestled hard with these issues and found that I still believe, but in a less certain, dogmatic and doctrinal way (hence this blog).

      I used to be a huge fan of apologetics but increasingly it leaves me cold – there’s a post about this titled Unapologetics on my other blog. In it I said (amongst other things):

      God is not a hypothesis to be tested, a proposition to be proved or a problem to be solved. God is a reality – The Reality – to be encountered, experienced, engaged with, entered into. I can never prove God either by logic or by display of supernatural power.’

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  4. Terry says:

    While I recognise these stages in my own life (probably at the ‘adolescent’ stage in most things), there’s something about the eagerness to form these categories that bothers me. Is there an implicit judgement in these stages that to be adolescent is better than being a child?

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    • harveyedser says:

      Well, if the ‘stages’ idea isn’t helpful to you, ignore it. It’s just a tool / model, which some people like me find very helpful, and others clearly not. I don’t see it as an eagerness to form categories so much – categories always exclude and compartmentalise, and the ‘stages’ can’t be seen as hard-and-fast categories with clear boundaries. It’s more an attempt to see some kind of meaningful shape in many people’s experience of their own spiritual journey, which does often seem to go through recognisable stages.

      I wouldn’t see any implicit judgement that it’s better to be an adolescent than a child – each is right and necessary for its own time. But if you remain a child beyond the time when you might be expected to have moved on to adolescence or adulthood, then maybe something needs addressing. I don’t therefore see fundamentalism as bad or wrong as a stage of development, but it’s when it becomes fixed beyond its usefulness that it can be a problem.

      The reasons I find the ‘stages’ idea helpful are that:
      a) It corresponds with and helps me understand my own often confusing experience
      b) It helps validate the worrying feeling of losing early faith as a useful part of the spiritual growing-up process, rather than some kind of apostasy or backsliding
      c) It helps explain why so many Christians find it hard to understand each other, and why fundamentalists distrust questioners and vice versa.
      d) It helps me judge and look down on other people who aren’t so far along the journey. Only joking.

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      • Terry says:

        I’m not saying that I don’t find the stages thing helpful – I did say, after all, that I recognise the stages in my own life. It’s purely its potential to be abused as a means of labelling the spiritual maturity of others. I’m just not convinced that I can say a fellow brother or sister in Christ is less mature than I am because s/he holds to, say, young-earth creationism and I don’t.

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    • harveyedser says:

      No I agree – it’s all too easy to use it to make those kind of judgements, and I confess that I do it all the time. But then I guess all good things have the potential to be abused thusly, even the Law of God apparently, according to some bloke in the Bible.

      Actually I’m not sure that someone with a ‘further-on’ faith is necessarily any better than someone earlier on, say a YEC-er – any more than someone in a ‘more developed country’ is necessarily better off than someone in a ‘less developed’ one. To say that you’re further along a particular journey doesn’t necessarily make you more sorted or better in other ways, and I’m sure there are many fundies who are a lot closer to Jesus’ heart than many mystics. So for me it’s just a way of acknowledging that faith does change over the years, but not implying judgement on different stages of the journey.

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  5. harveyedser says:

    Another interesting and semi-related model is Kohlberg’s stages of moral development:

    Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
    1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
    2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)

    Level 2 (Conventional)
    3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms; the good boy/good girl attitude)
    4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)

    Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
    5. Social contract orientation
    6. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)

    This doesn’t map directly onto the Stages of Faith schema but you can see links between Kohlberg’s Conventional level and the Synthetic-Conventional phase, and between the ‘Principled conscience’ and the Mystic-Communal phase of faith.

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    • MacKenzie says:

      As an aside, Kohlberg was roundly criticized by colleague Carol Gilligan for using only male test subjects and rigid hypothetical moral quandry questions in the research, formulation, and development of these stages. She is now well known for her care-based ethics approach to developmental stages versus the very logic-based and hypothetical-problems based formulations which our society still thinks in. Perhaps care-based moral development is more Jesus-like than our ideas of this ”Developmental” series of steps. Check her work out!

      On another note, thanks very much for your thoughtful blog which I have just discovered and am profiting from greatly. Cheers!

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      • Hi, thanks for your comment, and very glad you’ve been finding the blog helpful! Yes, I have to admit to not really knowing much about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – I only really included them as an afterthought, as it seemed like a possibly-related idea that I’d be interested to look into further. But it’s Fowler’s/Scott Peck’s ideas on spiritual development that I find more interesting and helpful, and which resonate with my own experience. Anyway, I’ll certainly try and check out Carol Gilligan’s work! Thanks for the pointer.

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  6. I think Terry makes an important point here about the potential of these ‘stages’ to be abused e.g. I am more spiritually mature than you!

    From what I understand thinkers in psychology no longer think in terms of stages as it implies improvement and one stage being superior than another. So I think Fowler et al are now a bit dated.

    However, like you both I found this work really helpful in plotting my own journey and preventing a possible faith meltdown! I also found it helpful relating to others at different stages and appreciating their distinctive views of the world.

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  7. Pingback: Streams of faith | The Evangelical Liberal

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  10. dsholland says:

    Interesting discussion. I am not familiar with the ideas (Fowler, Peck, etc) presented but I can relate to the concept of (and there is no way around it) maturity levels in the examined life. I don’t have a problem with the idea that maturity is an improvement in most cases as long as we remember that youthful exuberance also has its valid contributions (enter as a child doesn’t just mean conversion).

    That said my own experience leads me to interpret the stages of faith more as a cycle than a linear progression. Each time I think I have finally “arrived” it seems I turn around to find I have only scratched the surface. Once again I am just a child in my understanding about to be disabused of my conceits (why is that always painful?). This has been going on for several decades. Whenever I come back around to “stage 3” I end up at John 6:68 (Lord, to whom should we go?) and the cycle continues.

    I think this is what you refer to in the section “a few more points about the stages” near the end of your post.

    Thank you for the illuminating read.

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  11. Great information. I am in stage three trying to get to the other side. Your blog was a nice find. Your moving from black and white to color reminds me of the line from Paul Simon’s song ‘My Little Town’

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    • Thanks Daryl – really glad you’ve found the information helpful. I think I’m also in stage 3, though very gradually starting to emerge (I hope!). It can be hard work to get through from this stage but don’t give up on it.

      I’ll have to listen to that Paul Simon song – I like his stuff but haven’t heard that one. 🙂

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      • Ron Amundson says:

        The superiority of stages is troublesome… I’ve often thought it could be God calling folks to different levels as they are able, bearing in mind the emphasis on child like faith. I grew up in a stage 4 environment and assumed all Christians were the same. Egads was I surprised when I got to university and found Christians in stage 2. So much so, I thought they were a cult!

        The thing is, even though I ascribed to Christianity in a set of stage 4 beliefs, when tested, it ended up being pretty shakey. Over time, i cycling through a 2,3,4 cycle a number of times, even today as an older fellow I see a ton of cycles still on the horizon. In retrospect the folks in the stage 4 environment I grew up in were cycling, but alas each time out it seems the pendulum sway gets less and less.

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        • Hi Ron, thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you – I do say in my post that later stages aren’t superior to early ones, any more than adults are better than children. The earlier stages are essential if the later ones are to have any depth and reality – you can’t successfully bypass stages or shortcut faith development any more than you can with physiological or psychological development. The later stages rely on the earlier ones – they encompass and include their good elements, rather than completely replacing them.

          Though I obviously don’t know your circumstances, from how you describe it I’m not entirely convinced that the environment you grew up in can have been truly stage 4. Stage 4 certainly isn’t a synonym for ‘liberal’ – that’s more stage 3 if anything – but rather represents a deeper, more mature faith that has gone through darkness, doubt and struggle and come out the other side. However, even ‘stage 4-ers’ are imperfect people and will probably need to revisit earlier stages again, maybe many times.

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  12. dumb77 says:

    I challenge the stages. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks for your comment and welcome to The Evangelical Liberal!

      I’m interested in your views – what do you disagree with about the stages? As I acknowledge in the post, it’s just a model and it does have limitations. I find it useful as a general framework rather than as anything too prescriptive. But it does seem to chime with a lot of people’s experiences – mine included.

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  13. Tony Cuckson says:

    This is probably the most intelligent and encouraging debate and reflection that I have come across under what might be broadly termed fundamentalism, even if it is a liberal kind. I love the stages of spiritual growth and development which, like yourself, I see as a framework but a very useful one. I sometimes think I am arrogant in assigning a higher stage to myself than maybe I am really at. However, it encourages me to continue to expand into the unending journey of Love.

    My interest in stages of spiritual development was taken from reading Putting on the Mind of Christ by Jim Marron. I happen to love this book and it was really the first book that gave me some sense of the power available within the teachings of the Christian tradition. This was a tradition I was brought up in Northern Ireland where the focus was on the fact that one was a sinner which left me and most of my friends with a legacy of shame and guilt. I never returned to the church but always have had a heart longing for the teaching of the Christ which I have over many years fought within myself

    Thanks for sharing your views. When I search the web for views on such ideas I find the debate not to be a debate once fundamentalist Christians simply begin to quote words from the bible without any real depth understanding of the symbolism inherant within the language and the poetry inherant in the language.

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    • Hi Tony,
      Thank you so much for your very generous and encouraging comment – and I’m sorry for not responding sooner (I’m very much a part-time blogger!).

      It’s very sad that so many parts of the church that claims (and even tries) to follow Christ often just end up harming and even betraying people in his name. I can only express deep regret at what the Christian tradition in Northern Ireland did to you. My own experience has been very different, for which I’m profoundly grateful. I was merely bored to tears by the High Anglican church tradition I grew up in, and was able later to return to find more open and accepting expressions of Christianity – though I’m still searching. ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, but I’m sure that whatever it is it has Christ and Christ’s love at the heart of it.

      I’ll definitely add the Jim Marron book to my list to read!

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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  14. john says:

    I was looking for information for my book and stumbled across your blog. It’s great! Thank you for your work and sharing your journey. I also present education session to our church’s RCIA (Rite of Christian Initation for Adults) ministry and hope to use some of your material. I hope you don’t mind – I will give you credit 😉 )

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    • Hi John, thanks very much for your comment! You’re very welcome to use any of the material from my blog in your sessions. I can’t claim that any of it’s particularly original anyway, especially the material about the stages of faith which all comes from James Fowler’s and Scott Peck’s work (among others).
      All the best,
      Harvey

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      • john says:

        Hi Harvey, I read all the material from Fowler and Peck but liked how you added the stages of life for a butterfly – also your saying, ‘from black and white to color” – very good! ;). I needed a metaphor for the spiritual stages and you brought them all togeher in you chart. Everything I was looking for on one page. Thanks again, John

        Like

  15. MaryM says:

    Thanks I found this really helpful in understanding where I’m at at present

    Like

  16. kljh92 says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I used to be quite an intense Christian and over time I realized that something deep down was really wrong with certain stuff that I was told to believe. The initial part of going into stage 3 was really tough, I tried forcing myself to stay in stage 2 but my mind and heart realized that it was inevitable, a natural progression of my faith that would result in me questioning the fundamentals of my beliefs.

    It was tough initially because I had mixed emotions of fear, guilt, a sense of being decieved all these while and at the same time trying to control my emotions against some of my best Christian friends who suddenly became really disappointed and judgmental towards me because of my questioning. I know finally understand why so many Christians become atheists, and it was at this juncture where I actually even contemplated becoming one.

    Thank God for my desire to keep seeking and finding answers. I realized overtime that the problem didnt lie in this faith but rather in certain perceptions of this faith that was built up overtime. I look back in disgust at how I once viewed the world and the people around me in a very black and white manner, whilst subconsciously living in a spiritually superior and judgmental state (even though I denied it back then I know deep down most Christians feel this way). It took me a lot of courage and soul searching (as well as sleepless nights) to finally realize that when Jesus says follow me He is really asking us to follow Him and not follow Christianity, which became a product of decades and centuries of religious conformism and doctrines that were forced upon the masses, it’s foundation built upon fear and condemnation should one even question any aspect of this faith.

    I realized that most Christians are unconscious products of religion, the very same force in society that Jesus was actively preaching against 2000 years ago. A thorough study of the bible can yield so many misconceptions and misinterpretations due to translation of language or misuse out of context etc (for example when Jesus preaches about hell, the original Greek word never meant eternal torment)

    I came to the ultimate conclusion that if the truth is really meant to set you free, then surely something is wrong when one feels constricted and trapped in a certain way of thinking. And when I finally had the inner stability to let go of the fear and judgmental thinking as a previous intense (border lining fundamentalistic) Christian that once insidiously ruled my thinking, I’ve never felt more free and peaceful in my life before!! I felt so much closer to certain truths that I would have never explored if I stayed as a stage 2 Christian.

    It’s good that Christians dare to open their minds to see certain problems plaguing their faiths, only then can we realize why so many ppl turn away from Christianity and so many others can trapped in misery, a huge irony to what the original intended message of Jesus probably was

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    • Hi, thanks so much for your kind and very interesting comments! It’s great to hear some of your story, and I’m really glad you’ve been able to get through that initial stage of emerging from the rigid and restrictive mindset of borderline fundamentalism. I strongly identify with what you’re saying, as this is essentially my journey too! I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

      All the best,
      Harvey (The Evangelical Liberal)

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  17. kljh92 says:

    Reblogged this on Kljh92's Blog and commented:
    Really true and thought provoking. A gd read for all professing Christians

    Like

  18. Pingback: Phases of the Convert

  19. Peter says:

    I found this last year when Tim Chastain reposted ‘Why Fundamentalism is not the true expression of religion’, and I spent some time looking at your blog. I printed it out at the time and I’ve just come back to it. I’ve spent a couple of hours this morning enjoying some of what you have written. Great Grandad is struggling to collect my thoughts and I’m trying to bring together my work of ‘Stages of Faith’ with a book review of ‘Faith SHIFT’ by Kathie Escobar. I sense we have a lot of common ground. Any chance of sharing thoughts? I live in Brighton?

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    • Hi Peter, great to hear from you, and I’m really glad you’ve liked what you’ve read of my blog! It does sound like we have a lot of common ground, and I’d be very glad to share thoughts. Is it okay if I send you an email initially (I’ve got your email address, as I think you have to enter it when you submit a comment)?
      All the very best,
      Harvey / The Evangelical Liberal

      Like

      • Peter says:

        Hi Harvey, I sense that email would be the best way to communicate initially – please feel free. I’ve just updated ‘Changing Beliefs’ to include some links to material I have looked at in the past. Look forward tp hearing from you.

        Like

  20. Joe Austin says:

    It seems to me the “natural” growth of faith is toward certainty:

    “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:
    now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” [I Cor 13:12]

    In the early Christian church, the “growth” of faith often resulted in a conviction and activism that confronted the world with a zeal that ended in martyrdom.

    So are these speaking here of stages in the GROWTH of Faith, or in the stages of its DEATH?

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    • Hi Joe,
      Thanks for your thoughts, and you certainly present an interesting challenge to my views! I disagree though. I think that the ‘growth’ of faith you see in the early church accords with the earlier stages of faith – a strong conviction that accompanies a ‘conversion’ experience. This is a good and vital thing, but it’s not necessarily the end goal of a mature faith, in my view or my experience. I do strongly believe that these stages are not phases in the death of faith as you suggest, but in its maturing into something which is deep, strong and genuine.

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    • Hi again Joe,
      I’m not convinced that the natural growth of faith is towards certainty, at least in this life. The passage you cite in 1 Cor is referring to the final consummation of faith in the world to come, when our current faith will be entirely replaced by certainty, because then we shall see and experience reality in its fulness. In the meantime, faith is always going to be ‘through a glass darkly’.

      Sometimes the growth and deepening of faith can feel like its death. We question old ideas and practices that used to be dear and helpful to us. We worry that we’re losing our first love or that the fire is going out. But actually these changes are part of the natural growth process, and the apparent ‘death’ of our early faith can be the birth of new faith.

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  21. Pingback: The life cycle of faith – stages of spiritual development | Joe's Blog

  22. Pingback: Meaning In Life, From What You Were Told All Along | "What Is The Meaning Of Life?"

  23. tonycutty says:

    This is a brilliant piece and describes exactly what I have been through in my faith journey. I am a buterfly now…. 😉

    Like

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