In Greek, faith is a verb. Faith is an action, not a thing. Faith moves and breathes and grows with us in predictable stages. In the same way that Erick Erickson described predictable stages of emotional growth and development, others have described noticeable stages of spiritual development. These stages have been identified across religions and outside of religions as our spiritual development is a part of all human development. Over the next four blogs, I hope to describe an overview of these stages, but there are excellent books about these for those interested, which I will link here.
Stage One: Ages one to two years. Although the stages do not always follow chronological ages, stage one is an early part of development as it is mostly preverbal spiritual development. It has to do more with the way we are parented than it does with us.
Spiritual development begins from the moment we are born, or some would say that we begin to develop as spiritual beings even before we are born. Scientists say that new parents, with dilated eyes from the intensity of the childbirth experience, “gleam” into their baby’s faces, connecting brain to brain and stimulating brain development.
Celtic theologian John Phillip Newell tells of talking to OBGYNs about the first moments of a newborn’s life and hearing the consensus that looking into a newborn’s face was akin to looking directly at the Divine.
So, what is stage one of our spiritual development? It’s building trust. If a parent is consistent with us at the early ages of one and two, if our home is predictable and our needs are met, we learn to trust. Trust provides safety for a child to trust God as well.
If we are raised in a neglectful or abusive environment, this lack of trust is hard to overcome. Similarly, if we are raised with the idea of a scary and vengeful God, it will be hard to move past the guilt and fear which comes with that.
We know from studying children with attachment disorder that neglected children have a hard time developing any connected relationship. Interrupted stage one faithing can lead to difficulty trusting that God is good, safe, and available. It can also harm our relationships with others.
Stage Two: Generally, this stage is from ages 3 to 8 years, but we can get stuck in our spiritual development at any stage and have trouble moving forward, as we have seen in stage one.
Stage two is about black and white thinking. It is a necessary time to understand good and evil, heroes, and villains. This is why, in the Christian tradition, we tell children about all the wonderful Bible Stories like David and Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea, or Noah and the Ark. Children need those heroes and this kind of concrete understanding that God as good, loving and will protect us from evil.
But you can see what happens when religion gets stuck at stage two thinking. It leads to legalistic fundamentalism in which there is only black and white with no room for gray.
You may have seen a bumper sticker that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” This is a classic example of Stage Two thinking. There is no room for discussion, no room for gray.
For our next blog, we will look at Stage Three, a very happy spiritual development stage full of belonging and spiritual growth. But it can have its drawbacks too, if we get stuck there.
So, why is learning about faithing over the lifespan a spiritual practice?
First, it gives us words for our experience. I LOVE to have words for my experience.
Second, it helps to understand when you meet folks in a different stage than yours. Since we all share similar paths of spiritual develpment, we can appreciate that one stage is not better than another. They are all essential building blocks to grow on. We don’t forget what we learned in a previous stage; we incorporate it and build on it as we move to the next stage. Also, we cannot force a person from one stage to another. God is in charge of helping us grow.
Third, we might realize where we got stuck along the way and be able to untangle and move forward in our development.
And fourth, when we get to stage four, which is a time of spiritual disorientation, we are going to need all the help we can get to understand what is happening to us! Hang in there, folks. Help is coming.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your faithing journey. Can you see your own stage one or stage two history? Does any of it make sense?