The Mosaic of Maturing Spirituality – Part 1: introducing the model
Here’s what I’m trying to do: I want to provide a description of the way we develop into maturity, particularly in a way that includes our spiritual development. First, I want to introduce the heart of my model (“The Mosaic of Maturing Spirituality”). I will begin each of these next posts with a brief summary and then a longer explanation that invites thoughts, feedback and pushback from others.
There are two main aspects of this model:
1) Our maturing spirituality is not best described by distinct stages that are “sequential, invariant, and hierarchical”* but by several facets that always co-exist, though each facet takes “centre stage” during different seasons in our lives.
2) Unless we are stuck or blocked, we all grow in the direction of maturity, which I define as “increasing complexity held together by integrity” (getting bigger and holding diversity but keeping a sense of unity).
Why it matters: this model emphasizes a shared journey that we learn about in conversation rather than a hierarchical path that experts teach to those in earlier stages. When I teach this model, I want to describe what everyone has already been experiencing and can continue to experience. We all, together, see familiar places we have been and potential maturity we can look forward to.
1) During the last decades, we have most typically thought of human development as passing through distinct stages. If you’ve taken any courses in psychology, you may be familiar with some of the better known stage theorists: Piaget, Erikson, or Kohlberg, and if you’ve studied theology or Christian education you may be familiar with the most important model of faith development: that of James Fowler.
Stage theories like that of Fowler and others have many advantages. They are easy to learn (or teach) and it is easy to cite an infinite number of examples and case studies that support the theories. Childhood cognitive theories can even “prove” some of their key stages with experimental research. In the case of Fowler’s theory (or the popularized versions by writers like Scott Peck or Brian McLaren) they have helped countless people understand how their faith experience has looked very different at various points in their life, and perhaps most valuable of all: why spiritual growth sometimes looks like a lack of faith to those who have not yet had similar experiences.
The problem is that the linear pathway that these stages have been based on is too simplistic. What about the wise and loving grandmother who never went through any rebellious questioning? What about the moments of out-of-character immaturity from the highly developed spiritual teacher (Henri Nouwen?) or the crushing depression of saints (like Mother Teresa who has often been used as an example of Fowler’s highest stage)?
What I am suggesting is that rather than rigid, sequential stages, we find several facets coming to the forefront at different times in our lives. Like a handbell choir, they take turns; sometimes two facets might be in the limelight at once. These facets share some of the typical themes, questions or lessons that have been associated with stage theories like Fowler’s, but I am suggesting that they are always present in each of us. In later posts, I’ll describe these facets and the way in which they take turns.
Maturity: increasing complexity held together by integrity
2) By defining maturity as “ increasing complexity held together by integrity,“ I am suggesting that except when we are temporarily stuck or blocked, we tend to grow. This is happening somewhat simultaneously within each of the facets as well as in our lives taken as a whole. Obviously it is possible that some people can settle into a place where they are stuck to such a degree that their maturing is halted or even regresses. These are the individuals (or communities?) that may not make progress unless they have some kind of crisis or conversion.
This definition also suggests that there are consistent characteristics of what maturing looks like (through any of the stages that others describe). In other words, I emphasize the continuous rather than the changing nature of the maturing process. I will give a full description of what I mean by maturing in my next post.
The Big Question: Does this really matter? What is the point of describing a new model of spiritual development? For me the big value comes in the way theories are taught and the way that such teaching invites us into engaging our experience and those of others. In my view, stage theories invite comparisons and even competition rather than solidarity and empathy. It is nearly inevitable that others (especially those we disagree with) are perceived as “less developed.” We are more likely to see first the stuckness of others, rather than their maturing, since people are described within their stages.
Teaching spiritual development on the basis of what everyone has already been experiencing and can continue to experience more – rather than putting people at different levels
As I said in the opening summary, my goal is that when I teach this model, I want to describe what everyone has already been experiencing and can continue to experience more. We all, together, see familiar places we have been and potential maturity we can look forward to. And there is a bonus: all the facets stay relevant throughout all of life!
What do you think? How have you been helped or hindered by stage theories? Anything you’re most curious about when it comes to spiritual development?
*”sequential, invariant, and hierarchical” is a quote from Fowler’s initial description of his stages, which he still maintained as late as 2001 [Fowler, J. Faith Development Theory and the Postmodern Challenges. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 11(3): 159-172].