Mosaic Part 5: facets instead of stages (“I’m all the stages!”)

mossy fence

For many years I had always appreciated and occasionally taught James Fowler’s stages of faith development (and still do). But one day in my late forties, I saw some key elements suddenly fall apart. I thought back to how, in my early twenties when I first read about these stages, I had been so tempted to think of myself in the next-to-final stage (after all, who wants to be so proud as to have reached the “highest” stage!). I let the recollection of that tempting thought (which I, then and now, believe to have been partly true) lead me into a more honest self-appraisal, and I came to what seemed an inescapable conclusion: “I’m in all the stages right now!”*

I realised immediately how good for me, how freeing, this insight was. Three positive results quickly grew out of this: a) It helped me appreciate more deeply all the different seasons of maturity/immaturity I had experienced in my life – so I could love and accept my moments of immaturity more, b) therefore, it was easier for me to appreciate and accept the moments of immaturity I saw in others because the distinction between them and myself became much more blurry, and c) suddenly the obvious anomalies were no longer problematic; i.e., now it made sense that there were so many people who seemed extremely wise and mature in some ways who also had aspects of their lives in which they were not all that mature or developed.

Oh, no! Don’t start talking about Trump…

Now consider the usefulness of this in light of current political polarities such as the American political circus dominating the media. Please forgive me one indulgence by way of example: The default assumption of progressive and/or educated people when looking at Trump supporters or the Tea Party or even fundamentalists of any stripe is that they are “less developed” or even (if we know our stage theories) “in a lower stage of development.” Oh sure, we might not say that out loud, but we’re thinking it.

However, progressive and educated people should also be particularly aware of our need to be self-critical – suspicious of our own biases and assumptions. So let’s remind ourselves of our friends, family, acquaintances and strangers who deserve the benefit of the doubt in spite of, for some reason, their doing the unthinkable, such as tweeting something positive about Donald Trump. Is it not likely that some of these people are actually quite developed in some of their thinking and behaviour in some areas of their lives?

When I think of loved ones who have, in ways that made no sense to me, participated in very conservative thinking on some world events or politics, it seems clear to me that these positions or beliefs were, thankfully, not representative of the whole person.

John Oliver recently stated: “There’s a part of me that even likes this guy — it’s a part of me I hate, but it is a part of me.”

In other words, I would suggest that characters like Donald Trump deliberately appeal to the less mature or developed parts of a person but that many of the resulting supporters also have very mature or developed parts somehow living in the same body. Or as John Oliver recently stated: “There’s a part of me that even likes this guy — it’s a part of me I hate, but it is a part of me.” Exactly! We’re all a mix of mature and immature, developed and undeveloped. And slotting ourselves and others into distinct stages blurs this reality and this undermines the potential of thinking and teaching well about development.

(Oh, and I would encourage John Oliver not to be so hard on the part of himself that likes Trump, and maybe that could enable a more respectful and less polarizing engagement with those who really like the part of themselves that like Trump – who partly like Trump because he enrages people like John Oliver.)


1) I don’t think the stage theories are completely true. I think they are only approximately true (“truthy” for Colbert fans) – true enough that we can often see some value in them, but untrue enough that the theories can get in the way. I believe the truth is that each of us (adults) is “all over the map.” We each have thoughts, feelings, assumptions, questions and behaviours that are characteristic of a wide variety of so-called “stages.”

2) As a result of the above, the way developmental theories are typically taught and/or received can be freeing for some but can become distorted and unhelpful for others. At their best, they can help us recognize and be expectant of certain milestones on the way to maturity while at their worst they can become self-justifications (especially during conflicts) that come across as elitist.

Next post: how all the facets co-exist


mossy fence

*Empirical evidence to support stage theories of faith development is thin once one looks beyond the cognitive development of pre-adolescents. In other words, there is little solid evidence for linear, sequential stages going into adulthood. (See Parker, S. [2010] in Fowler’s Faith Development Theory: A Review Article. Review of Religious Research. 51(3): 233-252.) And there is evidence regarding the closely related theory of moral development (Kohlberg) that different stages are experienced and expressed simultaneously (Kaplan, U., Crockett, C. E. and Tivlan, T. [2014]. Moral motivation of college students through multiple developmental structures: Evidence of intrapersonal variability in a complex dynamic system. Motivation and Emotion. 38:336–352)

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