Stages of spiritual growth
[back] Spiritual

[Stage 4 people are Don Juan, Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, Wilson, Lilly, not belonging to any groupthink like religion, and you wont find any of them in the media showing up Big Brother's atheism-for-everyone propagated by the likes of Richard Dawkins.  Stage 1 and 2 provide the numbers for Authoritarian followers, who vote in the psychopaths.]


See: Authoritarian followers 

After I had been practicing psychotherapy for some years, a strange pattern began to emerge. If religious people came to see me because they were in pain and trouble and difficulty, and they really got involved in therapy, then—more often than not—they would leave therapy as questioners, doubters, skeptics, agnostics, possibly even atheists. But if atheists or agnostics or skeptics came to me in pain, trouble, and difficulty and they really got involved in therapy, then—more often than not—they would leave therapy having become deeply religious or spiritually concerned people.
    This pattern just made no sense.....until it slowly began to dawn on me that we are not all at the same place spiritually and that there are these different stages.
At the beginning—the bottom, if you wish—is Stage One, which I label "chaotic/antisocial." This stage probably encompasses about twenty percent of the population, including those whom I call people of the lie. In general, this is a stage of absent spirituality and the people at this stage are utterly unprincipled. I call it antisocial because while they are capable of pretending to be loving, actually all of their relationships with their fellow human beings are self-serving and covertly, if not overtly, manipulative. Chaotic because, being unprincipled, they have no mechanism that might govern them other than their own will. Since the unharnessed will can go this way one day and that way the next, their being is consequently chaotic. Because it is, the people in this stage will frequently be found in trouble or difficulty, and often in jails or hospitals or out on the street. Some of them, however, may actually be quite self-disciplined, from time to time, in the service of their ambition and may rise to positions of considerable prestige and power. They may even become presidents or famous preachers. 
occasionally, they may convert to Stage Two. Such conversions are usually—I say usually because there are always exceptions— very sudden and dramatic. It is as if God literally reaches down and grabs that soul and yanks it up in a quantum leap. Something astonishing happens to that person and it is usually totally unconscious. If it could be made conscious, I think it would be as if that person said to himself or herself, "I am willing to do anything—anything—in order to liberate myself from this chaos, even submit myself to an institution for my governance."
    And so it is that they convert to Stage Two, which I have labeled "formal/institutional." I label it institutional because people in it are dependent upon an institution for their governance. For some the institution may be a prison. In such places, in my experience, there is always a prisoner who, when the new psychiatrist comes in to work in the prison......For others the institution may be the military. .....For still others, the institution to which they submit themselves for their governance may be a highly organized business corporation. But for most people, it is the church.  Indeed, the majority of churchgoers fall into Stage Two..... Although there are gradations and nothing is absolutely cut-and-dried within these stages, certain things tend to characterize people's religious behavior in Stage Two. As mentioned, they are dependent on the institution of the church for their governance, and I call it formal because they are very attached to the forms of the religion.
    Stage Two people become very, very upset if someone starts changing forms or rituals, altering their liturgy or introducing new hymns. For example, in the Episcopal church, in the mid-seventies, it was decided that there might be some alternative ways to say the same things on different Sundays, and many people were so up in arms that a full-blown schism resulted.....This kind of turmoil goes on in every denomination of every religion in the world. And it's no wonder that people in Stage Two become so upset when the forms of their religion are changed, because it's precisely those forms that they depend upon to some ex    tent for their liberation from chaos.
    Another thing that tends to characterize people's religious behavior in this stage is that their vision of God is almost entirely that of an external being. They have very little understanding of that half of God which lives inside each of us— what theologians term immanent—the dwelling divinity within the human spirit. They almost totally think of God as up there, out there. They generally envision God along the masculine model, and while they believe Him to be a loving being, they also ascribe to Him a certain kind of punitive power which He is not afraid to use on appropriate occasions. It is a vision of God as a giant benevolent cop in the sky. And in many ways, this is exactly the kind of God that people in Stage Two need.
.....Stage Three.... I call "skeptic/individual." Again speaking generally, people in Stage Three are ahead of people in Stage Two in their spirituality, although they are not religious in the ordinary sense of the word. They are not the least bit antisocial. Often they are deeply involved in society. They are the kinds of people who tend to make up the backbone of organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility or the ecology movement. They make committed and loving parents. Frequently they are scientists, and certainly scientific-minded. Invariably they are truth seekers. And if they seek truth deeply enough, and widely enough, as I've suggested, they do begin to find what they are looking for, and get to fit enough pieces of truth to catch glimpses of the big picture and see that it is not only very beautiful, but that it strangely resembles many of those primitive myths and superstitions their Stage Two parents or grandparents believed in. And it is at this point that they begin to convert to Stage Four, which I call "mystical/communal."  I use the word "mystical" to describe this stage even though it is a word that is hard to define and one that has been given a pejorative connotation in our culture and is usually misdefined. But certain things can be said about mystics. They are people who have seen a kind of cohesion beneath the surface of things. Throughout the ages, mystics have seen connections between men and women, between humans and other creatures, between people walking the earth and those who aren't even here. Seeing that kind of interconnectedness beneath the surface, mystics of all cultures and religions have spoken of things in terms of unity and community. They also have always spoken in terms of paradox.
    Mystical has as its root the word mystery. Mystics are people who love mystery. They love to solve mysteries, and yet at the same time, they know the more they solve, the more mystery they are going to encounter. But they are very comfortable living in a world of mystery whereas people in Stage Two are most uncomfortable when things aren't cut-and-dried.
    These principles hold true not only for Christianity and not only in the United States but in all nations, cultures, and religions. Indeed, one of the things that characterize all of the world's great religions is that they seem to have a capacity to speak to people in both Stage Two and Stage Four as if the very teachings of a given religion have two different transla­tions. ....
    The greatest problem of these different stages—and the biggest reason it is so important to understand them—is the sense of threat that exists between people at such different points on the spiritual journey.
To some extent, we all may be threatened by the people still in the stage we have just left, because we may not yet be sure or secure in our new identity. But for the most part the threat goes the other way, and we particularly tend to be threatened by people in the stages ahead of us.
People in Stage One will often tend to appear like cool cats—seemingly nothing bothers them very much. But if you are able to penetrate that facade, you find they are terrified of virtually everything and everyone.
People in Stage Two are not particularly threatened by the Stage One people: the sinners. They love the sinners, seeing them as fertile ground for their ministrations. But they tend to be threatened by the skeptic individualists of Stage Three, and more than anything, by the Stage Four people, who seem to believe in the same things they believe in and yet believe them with a kind of freedom they find absolutely terrifying.
    Stage Three people, the skeptics, are not particularly threatened by the unprincipled people of Stage One, or by the Stage Two people, whom they simply toss off as superstitious idiots. But once again, they tend to be threatened by the Stage Four people, who seem to be scientific-minded like them and know how to write good footnotes, yet still somehow believe in this crazy God business. And if you mentioned the word "conversion" to the Stage Three people, they would see a vision of a missionary arm-twisting a heathen and they would go through the roof.
    I have used the word "conversion" rather freely to describe the transition from one stage of spirituality to the next. It is, however, a markedly different experience in each case. Conversions from Stage One to Stage Two are usually very sudden, very dramatic. Conversions from Stage Three to Stage Four, on the other hand, tend to be gradual. For example, I was in the company of Paul Vitz, the author of Psy­chology as Religion, when he was asked when he had become a Christian. He scratched his head and said, "Well, it was along about somewhere between '72 and '76." Compare that to the Stage Two man who says, "It was eight p.m. on the night of the seventeenth of August!" Obviously, a different sort of phenomenon is going on here.
    I have also spoken of Stage Three people—the skeptics and doubters—as being spiritually ahead of the vast majority of churchgoers of Stage Two. These people have also undergone a "conversion"—that is, a conversion to skepticism and doubt, which is something equivalent to what the Bible calls a "circumcision of the heart." They are ahead of the Stage Two man who acknowledges Jesus to be his Lord and Savior at exactly eight p.m. on the night of the seventeenth of August, but may yet have to undergo a conversion to peace or to justice. Conversion is not a onetime thing. Like any kind of spiritual growth, it is a continuing process. I expect and hope to continue to be converted until the day I die.
I'd like us to be reminded at this point how God can interfere with my categories, and how we need to be both cautious and flexible when we make diagnoses of where our fellow humans—and we ourselves—fall in this spectrum of spiritual growth. There are quite a number of people who superficially appear to be in one stage when, in fact, they are someplace else entirely. For example, there are people who  attend church and who, to the naked eye, appear to be in Stage Two, but who inwardly are dissatisfied with their religion and are skeptical of it and have become scientific-minded. This is so common that entire congregations have been created which are only faintly religious. A lot of Methodist and Presbyterian ministers in wealthy suburban communities don't talk to their congregations about God on Sunday mornings, but about psychology. God forbid they should talk about God. It would be too threatening. Then again, there are people who talk about God but are not the least bit religious or spiritual. These are people who may appear to be in Stage Four, who can wear Stage Four veneer— like certain cult leaders—but who, in fact, are Stage One criminals.
    Similarly, not all scientists are Stage Three people. They too know how to write good footnotes, but only in an ex­tremely narrow area of research where they have the scientific doctrine down so pat that they feel very safe while ignoring all the mystery of the world. Such scientists are really Stage Two people.
There are also people whom psychiatrists refer to as borderline personalities. One of the things that characterize them is that they seem to have a foot in Stage One and a foot in Stage Two, and a hand in Stage Three, and a finger in Stage Four. They're all over the place. They lack coherency, and that, in a sense, is why we call them borderline: they don't have much in the way of borders or boundaries.
Furthermore, there are people who might begin to enter a more advanced stage, then slip backwards. We actually have a name for the person who slips back from Stage Two to Stage One—"backslider." Typically, he might be a man who ran around drinking and gambling and chasing after women and leading a dissolute life, until one day he bumped into some fundamentalist folk who had a chat with him and he was saved. For the next couple of years, he leads a sober, God­fearing, righteous life and then he vanishes one day, and no­body knows where he is until six months later when he is discovered back in the gutter or gambling house. His church friends talk with him and he is saved again and does pretty well for another couple of years, until he backslides once more.
There are also people bouncing back and forth between Stage Two and Stage Three. An example of such a person might be a churchgoer who says, "Of course I still believe in God. I mean, look how beautiful nature is—those hills turnng green and the white clouds flying and the flowers blooming. Obviously, no human intelligence could have created such beauty, so there must have been a divine intelligence that set all this in motion millions and millions of years ago. But you know, it's just as beautiful out on the golf course as it is in church on Sunday morning and I can worship my God out on the golf course just as well."
So this man chooses the golf course over church. And all is well, until his business undergoes a mild reversal and he says, "Oh my God, I haven't been going to church! I haven't been praying!" He goes back to church and starts praying very hard, until after a couple of years there is an upturn in the economy—for all I know perhaps because he's been praying so hard—and he begins to drift back onto his Stage Three golf course.  [1998] The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety