The Stages of Faith: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water

One of the best things we have ever tried is the Way of Jesus site where we collect resources for people developing faith from their first steps to their maturity.

The Way of Jesus follows a faith development model which reflects the wonderful contributions of Piaget, Erickson and Kohlberg to our understanding of how humans naturally develop.  There is a spiritual development process that moves along with our biological and psychological growth. We are all on a wonder-filled journey at our own pace. This reality has only become more interesting as I have aged and I have been eager to find the right metaphors in order to teach it. A few years ago we decided that the the ancient symbols of  Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water encapsulate, in an organic way, the stages of spiritual development.

A lot is made of the stages of human, biological/psychological development, but less is made of the spiritual development that accompanies those stages. James Fowler did some great work in the 1980’s to apply Piaget’s, Erickson’s and others’ work to spiritual development. These days, the hard edges of these geniuses’ definitions are being softened. Feminist thinkers and non-western thinkers add the sense that life is more like a spiral than a straight line. I can go with them. Janet Hagberg’s works (especially one of my favorites: Real Power) make these stages applicable to people leading in everyday life.  I have gone with her, ever since I first saw her present her (then new) ideas for the first time.

As a result of learning how to soften and broaden the stages of spiritual development, I am fond of relating to people according to  all their stages of development at the same time. We still have the baby, the toddler, the elementary kid, and especially the adolescent and early twentysomething in us. That’s why we might yell, “Stop being such a baby!” even as we all have the first senses of being fully comfortable in the ocean of grace in which we’re swimming. That latter fact is why we might say, “That baby’s  just a little old man!” We need to keep growing, but it does not serve us to despise where we are, despise the past, or fear the future. All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose in Jesus Christ.

A brief look at the stages

The stages of faith have  become common thinking among us, as a church. A version of this chart below is part of our Children’s Plan.

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Stage 0/1: The rise of imagination

Earth — infants, toddlers, preschool

Young children have a changing, growing and dynamic faith. It’s marked by the rise of imagination. A young child does not have the kind of logic and language that makes possible or necessary the questioning of their perceptions or fantasies. Their minds are “religiously pregnant,” you might say. It is striking how many times experiences and images from before a child is six have powerful and long-lasting effects on their life of faith, both positive and negative.

How we love God and others will be colored by how we attached to our parents or other significant caregivers. I know that one of my images for God is my Grandmother coming clear from another town with broth for me when I was imprisoned in my room in the dark, sick with measles. She spooned the broth into my mouth and I can still remember the tenderness and wonder. It still seems quite supernatural.

Stage Two: Making meaning

Earth — school age

Elementary school children usually like stories and tend to be preoccupied with rules (especially those they violating). They are developing ways to make sense of the world and deal with it. They can criticize and evaluate their previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. They take symbols and myths pretty much at face value, though they may be touched or moved by them at a deeper level.  The faith of a few people remains at this level all their lives.

I have often told the story of my personal miracle at this stage that basically sold me on faith in God. For others, this is the Sunday School era where they learn the ways of God and their church. How a church tells their stories: as rules and principles or as loving relationship may color a child’s understanding the rest of her life. Jesus has often been reduced to a story or a set of rules and you can see arrested development in the ways of many churches.

People stuck in stage one or two, the “earth” stage, are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. They are the “You’ll go to hell Christians.” If they do end up maturing to the next stage in adulthood, it often occurs in a very dramatic way. Our “Way of Jesus” metaphor acknowledges that a person’s natural faith development may be like a child’s until they meet Jesus in their twenties or fifties. Not only do we reach stages of life which begin with baby steps, some of us take first steps of faith when we are older.

Stage Three: Forming identity

Wind — adolescence

This stage typically begins around age 12 or 13. It’s marked by what Piaget calls formal “operational thinking” which means we now can think and feel about our own thoughts and feelings or “mentalize.”

Now is the time when a person forms a sense of identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. They pull together their  valued images and convictions and think of themselves as themselves, albeit insecurely.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is how teenagers often compose images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship in which I’m known deeply and valued.

I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I’m struggling to find who I can be. That’s why my youth director was so valuable. My parents were not so sure about my identity as a Christian; they were much more interested in raising a capitalist. But my youth director affirmed the stirrings of the Spirit in me and encouraged my differentiation.

People can get stuck in this stage, too. They probably rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and their leaders and get extremely upset when these are called into question once they are set. A good example is how upset Catholics have been since the abuse scandals surfaced a decade ago. In 2007 they were 24% of the population, in 2016 they we 18% — that’s 20 million people!

At any of the stages from two on you can find adults whose faith is best described by one of them. Stage Three, thus, the Wind stage when we take first steps in the Spirit, can be a final adult destination. Many people, in churches and out, can be best described by faith that essentially took form when they were teenagers. So you can see how Circle of Hope is a new narrative for many people. For some, it literally hurts to be with us were seem so out of order. We tell them to leave their precious memories of church, but that teen faith is still strong. Some people are too afraid, or stubborn like a teenager, and can’t betray it.

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Stage Four: Reflective Faith

Fire — early adulthood

Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which a person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships and principles that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world view that defined them. For many of us: You move to Philadelphia and see what happens.

We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish. The person in Stage Three is like the fish sustained by the water. To enter Stage Four means to spring out of the fish tank and begin to reflect upon the water. Perhaps it feels like out of the frying pan and into the fire. In therapy this stage often means looking at your “script” and acting outside of it, making a choice. In marriage, it may mean getting out of the power struggle, uniting to beat our relational habits, and writing the new, loving narrative we choose. I often admire my clients’ rebellion against the narrative or structure that has throttled their development. Jesus was super mad at the Pharisees for doing the throttling – he wanted to kindle a fire.

This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside “the box” and realizing there are other “boxes.” They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people sometimes think the Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when, in reality, they have  moved forward. The stage four people may think they have lost their faith, when they have just grown up.  Those who break out of the previous stage usually do so when they start seriously questioning things on their own. A lot of the time, this stage ends up being very non-religious and some people stay that way permanently. Some throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of their changes.

I think my holy dissatisfaction turned to holy differentiation. But it wasn’t without some strange days. At this stage I kind of blasted out of a very safe cocoon in my mid thirties. Ultimately, the process led me to Philadelphia and the fun I have been having ever since.

Many people don’t complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. They come up against “the wall” and don’t get farther. We may be forced over the wall when we lose a job or a marriage or our childhood faith. Sometimes people stay on an endless loop of the questions that inhibit their next steps. There is often a lot of concern about “Where do I stop and you begin? Where does the group I can belong to with conviction and authenticity end and other groups begin?” We want to fit authentically where we are, according to who we’ve become. It is not easy to find such a place. We realize we’ll have to build it.

Stage Five: Connective Faith

Fire — middle adulthood

Sometime around 35 or 40 or beyond, some people undergo a change to a more conjunctive faith, which is “adult” faith. What Stage Four worked so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and affiliation, Stage Five makes more permeable and porous. As we move into this stage, we begin to recognize that our unconscious is relative and deep, likewise the universe is huge. We become comfortable with the fact that much of our behavior is shaped by dimensions of self and God into which we are just dipping our toes. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God’s mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity. We are more likely than before to love God for who God is rather than for who we are.

Stage Five is also a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious — into those myths, taboos and standards we took in with our mother’s milk which have powerfully shaped our behavior and reactions. We’re ready and able to re-examine those, which means we’re ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in a blessed tension. You can see that, paradoxically, ones needs a lot of water to sustain this fire.

Stage Six: Embraced and Embracing Faith

Water — adulthood

We all have this faith planted in us like a mustard seed. Whether we get to some idealized maturity, we have all known what the water stage is all about since we were babies. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which we radically live as though the Kingdom of God were already a fact, since it is. We experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now our center becomes our participation in God, our ultimate reality. We’re at home in the creation, in that great commonwealth of being in Christ.

One the one hand, we experience people at this stage as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely liberating, sometimes even subversive in their freedom. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last years of his life, or Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. James Fowler loved Dag Hammerskjold and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last years of his imprisonment. We collect these great examples of people who demonstrate how to swim freely in grace in our Celebrating our Transhistorical Body blog.

These are Jesus followers who, in a sense, have loosened the hold their self has on them for the sake of affirming God. And yet in affirming God they become vibrant and powerful selves. They have a quality of relevant irrelevance. They have lost their lives and found them. Their “subversiveness” makes our compromises show up as what they are.

God be with you in your development!

If you got through all of this, I hope it affirmed where you are right now and inspired you to hope in your future. We are all growing. In a couple of months, I will be sixty-five, when our society provides an arbitrary line over which I can cross and become “old.” On the one hand, I already feel increasing, blue-ish freedom. On the other hand, I feel like a baby toddling into the unknown, wondering if my mother is looking at me as I run toward the street.  It is the transitions that get us. We can feel them as exciting baby steps or struggle with them as the end of something beautiful. Development can be scary or it can be the beautiful way we deepen our faith.

I hope this very brief rendition of a subject so many have explained so well helps you see where you are and where you want to go — there is a path, even if you can’t really see it right now. You are not alone or odd. There is hope for all of us.

I also gave this to you to lift up the idea that you are carrying all your selves from the past. They complete, inform, and undergird who you are becoming. They are not bad; they are part of you. Their pains and possibilities are still yours; I think you need to care for those many selves and love them and take them with you into your bright future.

A few resources:

  • Wikipeidia: James W. Fowler
  • Faith Development at Twenty Years: pdf (scholarly)
  • Spiritual Development link (makes Fowler’s theory more inclusive)
  • Janet Hagberg’s website.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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