Spiritual Development – Can We Define What It Is?

Spiritual Development - sun and leaves

One Approach to Understanding Ourself and Others

Have you ever wondered:

  • why many people view life in terms of right and wrong, black and white, and yet others people seeing things in more shades of gray,
  • why some take religious texts literally, while others understand them as metaphoric,
  • why others think their religion is “the only true one,” while others view all religions as streams leading to the same ocean?

One possible answer lies in what researchers have found; as we experience emotional and intellectual growth, we progress spiritually. Just as we experience phases in human physical and psychological growth, we can also define stages in normal spiritual development.

Spiritual staircaseJames W. Fowler, an early researcher in the field of developmental psychology, defined six stages of spiritual development. He believed it can be applied to everyone, regardless of beliefs, culture, or nature. Published in his book, Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, Fowler based his research on interviews with hundreds of people of all ages. This group includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, and atheists.

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist, later refined Fowler’s categories, based on his years of working with his patients. In his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, he outlined a simpler approach using Fowlers stages as a basis to define a person’s way of making sense of life. In addition, his approach explains how we change as we mature.

So Fowler and Peck’s models give us a guide to understanding where we are in our spiritual development. They try to explain why many people are moving heading, while others never move forward spiritually. In addition, they try to explain why people at an earlier levels of spiritual progress cannot understand those at a more advanced level; and why people at earlier levels are either distrustful or be afraid of the more spiritually advanced.

For example, when I look at my own spiritual journey, I see how I moved through these phases, so can identify with Peck’s approach. His simpler approach is the easiest to understand, so will focus on it.

One proviso, these models depend on a western and logical approach to personal development, which places limitations on them. Two pines Fowler and Peck attribute much of our movement through the stages to emotional and mental development. I plan on addressing these limitations some other time.

We also should keep it in mind that one level is not better than the next. As an illustration, I try to remember that a mature tree is not necessarily better than a young tree, they are just at a different points of development. So with this in mind, let’s look at Peck’s model, as supported by Fowler’s research.

One last point, I somewhat revised Peck’s category names to try to more clearly convey the meaning of each.

STAGE I: Chaotic – Self-centered

According to Peck, most school children and many adults fall into Stage I, a period of undeveloped spirituality and a chaotic lifestyle. Adults who have not progressed beyond childhood development are generally incapable of loving others. They may think of themselves as loving, and even pretend to be; but their relationships are essentially manipulative and self-serving. People at this level are usually self-centered, egocentric, unprincipled, and not very aware of the world outside of themselves.

Childhood lego choasAs a result, this group lack integrity, since they have nothing to govern them except their own wants. As adults, these people are often plagued by alcoholism, drug addition and unstable relationships. Finally, they often find themselves in trouble, even ending up in jail.

If they mature to the next phase, it may occur in a very sudden and dramatic way, such as a conversion, or born-again experience. To mature from Stage I to Stage II is a leap in socialization.

STAGE II: Conventional, Rules Based and Faithful

According to Scott Peck, Stage II development first shows up in school-age children or teen-hood. At this point, this group needs strict limits and consequences. Parents, schools, churches and other institutions impose these limits. Here people find discipline, boundaries and certainty, which give them stability.

Limitations of teenhoodMany never move beyond this level, as they fail to develop these boundaries. They may end up in strict institutions such as the military, which are good at dealing with people with chaotic backgrounds.

James Fowler says as people mature they accept the values and opinions of their social or religious group. They often develop a strong sense of right and wrong, true and false, black and white. They interpret beliefs literally. Moral rules are absolute and unresponsive to changing circumstances.

Though these beliefs are often deeply held, they may go unexamined as these people do not yet understand the spirit of the rules. This person has not thought about the reasons why they hold their beliefs.

As a conformist, this person is just beginning to build a self-identity. However, because their group provides the basis for their identity and outlook, personal identity may not be fully developed until the next level. The major challenge of this stage is that the person may never develop the confidence to think for themselves, and move beyond the beliefs of their community.

Straight LegosPeck argues that fundamental and dogmatic churches are at Stage II. They teach people the rules, and acceptable boundaries of life. Although they generally consider him loving, they also see their God possessing the ability to judge and punish them. Thus, law and order are maintained through guilt and/or threat of punishment.

Along these lines, in his book, Spiritual Market Place: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, Wade Clark Roof notes, “Rules make you good and blameless.” He says their concern is focused on avoiding “sin,” not being “bad,” and perhaps fearing “hell,” and needing “salvation.” As a result, these are law-abiding people, who raise strong families, and have reasonably successful lives.

In traditional Christianity, God is viewed as an external, omnipotent, anthropomorphic being, which intervenes in the affairs of humanity. He may be viewed as a sky-dwelling, wish fulfiller. Consequently, these people commonly have little appreciation of an indwelling God, or divine higher self.

Stage II can become very limiting when it becomes characterized by fundamentalism, including rigidity, dogmatism and extreme literal-mindedness. Because of their need for certainty, these people tend to be threatened by someone who thinks differently from them, or when their beliefs are questioned.

Fowler says that many people stay stuck in this phase and do not progress. They feel safe with the group view. They may fear that breaking beyond its limits will mean losing everything, and returning to chaos.Isolation and sand

To move beyond Stage II to Stage III can be a lonely struggle. One can have an internal battle against God, their church, emotions and former beliefs. They may experience a period of doubt, discontent, even near despair before new and deeper spirituality starts to emerge. They may liken it to being alone in a wilderness.

Stage III – Skeptic – Individual

Fowler believes this stage can begin to develop as early as adolescence. For many, it does not occur until their 30’s, if at all. Those who transition out of the last stage usually start when they seriously question things on their own. As a result, they begin taking responsibility for what they believe, relying on skepticism and/or reason. In the end, they have the self-confidence to work out their own beliefs, rather than just accepting the beliefs of the group. The move into this level is common, but not universal.

Here a person begins to develop a more personal identity, and to integrate self-identity with a larger and more complex worldview. One wants and needs to question the rules and beliefs taught to them in Stage II, and the authorities who taught them. They want to know what’s behind these rules? These questions may be viewed as heretical and frightening to friends and family.

Events that can stimulate this transition include:

  • moving away from one’s family,
  • changing where we live, or
  • dealing with a challenge to one’s belief system.

Mind expanding university classGoing to college or a university is a common stimulus that engages development into Stage III. These institutions are full of a group transitioning into Stage III, eighteen to twenty-one year olds.

A characteristic of this level is the person’s increased ability to critically reason. As skeptics, they are often scientifically minded, demanding a logical explanation for everything. As a result, they may reject intuitive knowledge, including experience that can’t be measured and analyzed.

Particularly, in young adults, this stage may be characterized by great idealism, with sometimes total rejection of former beliefs. Many people at this level end up being non-religious, agnostic or atheist. Roof, a professor of religion, notes that “often in these people’s stories, ‘leaving religion’ carries overtones of an exodus and hope for a promised land.”

They may have too much confidence in their own powers of reason. Just as Stage II can become characterized by fundamentalism, rationality can be pushed to an extreme. Reason may become the final judge of everything, which can lead to a close-mindedness. Many people never leave this level.

Stage IV – Mystical – Communal

Of people who want to continue advancing spiritually, many begin to experience a deeper connection to life, a more mystical way of thinking and feeling. They sense something is out there or within them; but are not sure what this presence is.

Mystery cristal Increasingly, life can be full of mystery, as they become open to unconscious factors, including their inner self. They realize the more they understand, the greater the mystery becomes, and they are not frightened by it. Fowler believes that people rarely reach this stage before the age of 40.

Desiring further growth, these people open even more to a deeper sense of truth. As they develop a profound understanding of themselves, they develop a deep understanding of human desires, limits and psychology. Commonly, this person has increased creativity, increased spiritual love and a desire to serve others.

This group has reached the limits of logic, and begin to question western rationality. They realized that reason and science are not the last word. Reason is viewed as one source of knowledge, but also they recognize the importance of intuitive sources of knowledge, which may be viewed as superior. This group often desires unity of religion and science.

Along these lines, Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy says spirituality can’t be understood, or studied by empirical methods. He believes that religion or spirituality has to be savored and felt, not dissected by the mind.

Whereas, religious or rational certainty closed them off in earlier stages to further growth. They now are guided by something beyond the conscious mind. In spite of reason, they increasingly respond to inner signals, which may or many not seem reasonable at the time.

Thus, this group is less dogmatic, less sure and uncertain as to their approach, doubt encroaches. They are far less reliance on external authorities; and they realize that any group they join holds only a partial view of spiritual reality.

This is just the opposite to Stage II people, who want certainty and clear-cut dogmatic structures. Stage IV people are not looking for clear-cut answers. They tend to interpret scripture as metaphoric rather than literal.

Ancient ScriptureThey recognize that scriptures and doctrine are the words of fallible people, who experienced the nature of the Divine in their lives. These writers attempted to express what they sensed and experienced.

As the stage of wisdom, this person perceives the meaning behind religious symbols. One begins to realize that much of what is taught in stage II is true from a wider and more complete view.

This person is characterized by a release of their self-important ego. Material belongings and success have less value to this person. Not as concerned with his own needs, this person focuses on the needs of others and humanity. They recognize that they are a small part of an interconnected whole. Out of love and commitment to all, they transcend their backgrounds and culture.

Common characteristics of people in this stage include:

  • higher levels of acceptance,
  • forgiveness,
  • gratitude,
  • humility,
  • seeking community,
  • comfortable with uncertainty,
  • preferring mystery over answers,
  • awareness and trust of inner guidance, and
  • a more universal worldview.

Mystics at sunsetOften viewed as mystics, these people are found in all religious traditions. Through contemplation, meditation, reflection and prayer, they see the connectedness and unity of humanity with the Divine. These people develop an uplifting sense of spiritual union with something greater than themselves. Mystics of all religious traditions have spoken of this.

Peck says that his experience suggests that this progression of spiritual development holds true in any culture, or religion. He believes one of the things that characterized the great religions is their capacity to be relevant to people in both Stage II and Stage IV.

Stage IV Plus – Universal – Saint

Fowler goes on to define a further level that is rarely reached, a stage of “enlightenment,” or “sainthood.” This person stops striving, relaxes, and allows grace to take over. One no longer needs to control events. Gandhi - EnlightenmentThe ego is further diminished, and self-importance is reduced. Their internal and external self is fully integrated. They show unconditional acceptance, great calm, spiritual love and extreme compassion for everyone and everything. This person typically becomes involved in service to all.

These people are often great spiritual leaders, who are totally open, and have a deep spiritual understanding. They are mentors to people in other stages, and often people see them as nearly super-human in their spiritual knowledge. Jesus, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. may be examples.

Final Thoughts

I believe that many who digest these ideas will find value in them. Knowing where we are, can help us decide where we want to go, or if we want to go ahead further.

However, one should keep it in mind that the stage model of spiritual development discussed here is a generalization, like other psychological models. Many people find this approach useful in looking at their own journey, but others may find it of little use.

The distinctions between stages may not be as distinct as the models suggest, and factors used in developing the models can’t explain every aspect of spiritual development. We are complex and unique people, and no two people’s spiritual journeys are the same.

As a last note, as a scientist, I can identify with Peck’s four stages, but my wife’s path is not as well described. For her, significant factors are not adequately addressed. I will expand on this in a later article.


Fowler, James W. 1981. Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Otto, Rudolph. 1923. The Idea of the Holy. London, England: Oxford University Press.

Peck, M. Scott. 1987. The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Peck, M. Scott. 1978. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace – Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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