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Four Stages of Spiritual Development, Part I

M. Scott Peck, a Harvard and Case Western Reserve-trained psychologist, wrote what is essentially the first self-help book, The Road Less Travelled, in 1978.[1](To date, it has sold over ten million copies.) In 1980, Peck became a Christian, embracing again the faith of his youth. In later life, he participated in exorcisms with Malachi Martin, the chief exorcist of the Catholic Church.[2]Talk about a life. 

In his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace(1987), Peck outlines the process of spiritual development in four stages.[3]I have found it to be one of the most simple and helpful schemas for understanding not only how individuals but also systems—familial, organizational, and cultural—function. 

Peck describes the 4 stages as:

1. Anti-social/Chaotic (what I will simply call “Chaos”)

2. Formal/Institutional (what I will call “Bounded” or “the Boundaries Stage”)

3.  Doubt/Skepticism (what I will call “Deconstruction”)

4.  Mystical/Communion (what I will call “Union”)

To briefly summarize the progression: 

Stage 1: The Anti-Social/Chaotic Stage

“Anti-social”does not mean avoiding parties or ignoring people, but rather being self-focused with little capacity to see beyond the needs and wants of one’s own self. A young child is in Stage 1, being acutely aware of and concerned with their own needs before they develop awareness of the needs of anyone else. This is obviously true of a baby, and if two-year-olds suddenly became the size of dinosaurs, none of us would survive. But adults can live in Stage 1, also. A drug addict who steals from his family to feed his addiction or someone who floats through meaningless sexual liaisons with little care or concern for his partners remains in the chaos of Stage 1. People in this stage are largely focused on gratifying their own needs even if it hurts others. Stage 1 is, therefore, a turbulent and emotionally charged stage not only for the person in it but also for those close to them. 

A scriptural example of Stage 1 is the younger brother in The Parable of the Two Sons (Luke 15:11-32). He demands his inheritance early and leaves home, dishonoring his father. He wastes his money on alcohol and prostitutes. And he is forced to tend to pigs, lusting after their slop to sate his hunger. He is an embodiment, in turn, of both anti-social behavior and of chaos.

Stage 2: The Formal/Institutional Stage

The formal or institutional phase of spiritual development is one of religious awakening and consciousness. It involves a clear sense of right and wrong and, usually, of being part of a religious tribe or community. As antidotes to chaos, there are clear boundaries of both belief and behavior in Stage 2, centered around an authority—the pope, the Church, the Scripture, the tradition. These boundaries provide a rich matrix of meaning—the universe has purpose, God is real, what we do matters, and so forth.

Peck called Stage 2 the “formal” stage because in it people get attached to the form of how things are done. Church-goers in Stage 2, for example, may get upset if you change the order of worship songs. I remember someone coming to me as a pastor deeply disturbed that I had added liturgical words (“This is the Word of the Lord”/”Thanks be to God”) to our weekly Scripture readings; it reminded him of his Catholic upbringing, and not fondly. Our conversation was had in a good spirit, thank God—these sorts of conversations about “the way things should be done” are not always so pleasant. After all, people’s emotional safety gets attached to the form of how things are done and they are often willing to fight to protect their sense of safety. 

In Stage 2, people tend to act within a tight set of boundaries. They might not drink or see R-rated movies. The motivations for these convictions lie on a spectrum: they may be felt as a personal conviction, on the level of conscience (e.g., “Scripture says the best path is, at the very least, moderation, so I’ll just avoid drinking altogether”). Or they may be engaged simply to be part of a tribe with accepted norms (“We don’t dothose things”). Or they may be based in fear ("doing X may bring judgment upon me so I won’t do it”) rather than any pro-active ethic (“Y is the right and good thing to do, so I won’t do X”).

A scriptural example of Stage 2 is the nation of Israel coming under the Law at Sinai (Exodus 19-24). The nation moves from the chaos of slavery and desert wandering into a highly structured Law code which ensures tribal membership (including circumcision of the penis, in case anyone doubted they were serious). They return to Stage 1, worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32), just as they turn, later, to the chaos of worshipping foreign gods (e.g., Ezekiel 14:6); nevertheless, the identity of Israel will ultimately be defined as a tribe and nation under a Law, the Torah, which they see as instituted by God Himself. They will live, increasingly, within clearly delineated boundaries and under ritualized institutional practices. The nation’s story over a millennia, up to and beyond the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, is the struggle to faithfully keep the Law and live within the prescribed boundaries. 

Most stories of Jesus interacting with the Pharisees—the religious leaders in his day—reveal, not surprisingly, a people determined to stay within the rules. In fact, part of rabbinic tradition was “building a fence around the law” so that you could never get close enough to break the actual law. If the law was “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19), the fence might be “never eat meat and cheese together.” The goal of putting up fences was to make sure you could never get close enough to breaking the law to actually violate it. In Stage 2, keeping these sorts of boundaries is of the highest importance. Jesus was crucified, in part, because he was so committed to questioning the boundaries.[4]

Another scriptural example of Stage 2 is the older brother in the Parable of the Two Sons (Luke 15:11-32). While his brother is out hiring prostitutes, he remains at home, on his father’s estate, where he is insistent that he has done right and has kept the rules. In fact, he is keenly aware of what he believes is due him because of it. He has lived within the boundaries and lives in entitlement because of it. And though he has remained on his father’s estate, he doesn’t understand his father. Indeed, his father has to tell him: “everything I have is yours” because he doesn’t understand his father’s generosity and goodness (Luke 15:31). Those in Stage 2 may be religious, but it doesn’t mean they understand or have a deep experience of God. Indeed, writes Peck: 

Another thing characterizing the religious behavior of Stage 2 people is that their vision of God is almost entirely that of an external, transcendent Being. They have very little understudying of the immanent, indwelling God—the God of the Holy Spirit, or what Quakers call the Inner Light… And although they often consider Him loving, they also generally feel He possesses—and will use—punitive power.[5]

In Stage 2 the view of God is mostly “out there.” This transcendent God is awesome, with clear power; He is a holy God whom you can fear and worship but whose goodness you may not deeply experience nor whose being come to truly love. Of course, such notions of love are often ignored or dismissed in Stage 2, anyway; the most important value in Stage 2 is stability and security, not love.

3: The Doubt/Skepticism Stage

Stage 2 gives us an ordered world, but there are deeper drives within us than the drive for stability. We want meaning and we want flourishing; we want to understand the nature of reality. And if we are going to believe, we want to believe sincerely and not just because we were raised to believe or because a tradition was handed down to us. Stage 3 is, thus, a period of deconstruction and reconstruction. It is dominated by an analysis of reality a quest for truth. People in Stage 3 tend to become agnostics or atheists, or they embrace or return to their faith with a more mature and authentic posture. In either event, they are looking to re-build their reality. 

To understand Stage 3 you have to understand the transition from Stage 2 to 3: Stage 2 tends to break down as people internalize their values and discover that they differ from the values of their religious culture or institution. This leads to asking, “Who needs this (institutional/religious) way of thinking, anyway?” In other words, we are often forced into Stage 3 because Stage 2 simply stops making sense to us. The movement into Stage 3, for example, can be catalyzed by painful experiences which our thinking in Stage 2 can’t account for. In classical Christian thought, the beginning of Stage 3, therefore, often aligns with what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” when what-has-worked-up-until-now or how-God-was-experienced-up-until-now no longer works—no longer provides a sense of vibrant and viable orientation to the world. We may realize that “bad things happen to good people” and be thrown into doubt and confusion. We may suffer personal loss and wonder where God is. Indeed, our image of God may seem completely inadequate in light of our suffering and human suffering in general. The world becomes less black and white and more grays are admitted. Then doubts about the nature of God, the universe, and one’s own beliefs appear like cracks in a wall. People may slowly come to realize that their faith is formulaic and not authentic; that they are committed to it because it provides stability but not because they think, feel, believe, or experience it at a core level. The onset of this doubt phase is a period of unsettling destabilization, as previous held beliefs are deconstructed, and the movement into Stage 3 is, thus, generally a slow process, a dam bursting in stages after a long period of cracking. 

If the movement from Stage 1 to Stage 2 is a conversion to belief, from chaos to formal religion, the movement from Stage 2 to 3 is a different type of conversion, to skepticism. At the same time, it does not require letting go of one’s faith. Or it may seem to demand that, entirely. In either case, Stage 3 demands an authentic wrestling with the nature of reality, not simply reality as it was received growing up as taught by one’s default authorities (parents, teachers, religious leaders). At the same time, they may return to the teachings of prior authorities. As Peck says, Stage 3 truth-seekers often discover the mosaic of truth, though bigger than they can comprehend, “strangely resembles those ‘primitive myths and superstitions’ their Stage 2 parents or grandparents believe in.”[6]In other words, they may land back where they began, though, no doubt, they will hold their beliefs differently. Stage 3, then, if it leads to faith, will lead to an inwardly-directly rather than outwardly-directed faith. That is, it will not simply be a faith dictated by the external structures—family,  church, synagogue, mosque; rather, faith will be centered on the structure of deeply felt, internal conscience. 

A scriptural example of Stage 3 is The Book of Job, which was written to deal with the crisis of faith that occurs between Stages 2 and 3. Namely, Job has done things right (lived within the boundaries, as it were) and yet painful things are happening to him. The Book of Deuteronomy seems to promise that if you do right, good things will happen, but that isn’t Job’s experience.[7]What does that mean, and how does Job respond? And where on earth is God in the midst of it? The Book of Job addresses these questions without resolving them.[8]The brilliance of Scripture is that it addresses rather than shies away from these questions. 

St. Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9ff) provides another example. Paul is a zealous Pharisee who, once again, has “done it right.” Or so he thinks. He is a real-life older brother, centered in Stage 2. But he is thrown into radical doubt and deconstruction when he encounters Jesus. In Paul’s case, the movement from Stage 2 to 3 is not from religious certainty to agnosticism or atheism but rather from religious certainty to religious doubt and uncertainty, which may be true for many people making the movement from 2 to 3.[9]

Stage 4: The Mystical/Communal Stage

It is important to note that while the progression from Stage 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 is a linear progression, it’s not a progression in the goodness of human beings nor a statement on their commitment (or lack of commitment) to transformation. People who enter Stage 3 may doubt and become skeptics about God, becoming agnostics or atheistic, all while continuing to develop as human beings. Ironically, they may be “nonbelievers” but, as Peck says, be “generally more spiritually developed than many content to remain in Stage 2.”[10]Or they may return to their faith with a more informed and matured posture. Indeed, the possibility of faith in Stage 3 is that it is transformed from formula (“I was born a Christian so I believe it”) to sincere and authentic internalization (“I have experienced this, therefore I own it”). This postures makes it possible to deeply internalize the experience of God. And, indeed, it makes it possible to head into an increasing experience of God and of spiritual wisdom.

In Stage 4, the Mystical/Communal stage:

1. You realize all things are connected. 

2. You appreciate mystery rather than resist it as people in Stage 2 tend to do. (People in Stage 4 enter religion to encounter mystery, people in Stage 2 enter religion in order to escape it.) 

3. You embrace emptiness, emptied of prejudices; you do not think in terms of factions but instead see underlying connectedness.[11]

What does this look like in simple terms? People in Stage 4 have moved beyond bitterness and embraced forgiveness. They take themselves less seriously. They know that they are connected to other human beings and, indeed, to all creation. They become kind (which does not always mean nice; they know that love can and does sting). They seek to care for others—for neighbors, just as Jesus taught. Above all, they understand that the heart of God is zealous, generous, love. Thus, we tend to gravitate to people in Stage 4. They exude a wisdom that is captivating, a kindness that is an invitation.

A scriptural example of Stage 4 (not unsurprisingly) is Jesus. Listen to his words in ‘The Great Priestly High Prayer’ in John chapter 17:

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” (John 17:20-23, NLT)

Jesus focuses on how things are connected, or how he longs for them to be, anyway. This is why I call Stage 4 the “Union” stage. Union means seeing, as the New Testament says, all things hold together in God and that God, as Jesus says above, wants us to be one with him.[12]

The conversion from conversions from Stage 1 (Anti-Social/Chaotic) to Stage 2 (Formal/Institutional) is generally sudden. One “sees the light,” as it were. And the conversion from Stage 2 to 3 (Doubt/Skepticism) is generally gradual. The conversation from Stage 3 to Stage 4 (Mystical/Communal) is most certainly so. Coming to know, experience, encounter, and rely on the goodness of God, despite the suffering of life, is a lifelong journey. It requires a growing awareness that God is not only “out there” but “right here,” not only transcendent but immanent. And that He is not only the All-Powerful one but also the All-Vulnerable, All-Suffering One. The understanding of God as immanent, “right here,” helps you understand that all things are touched by God and exist in God. Indeed, mysticism, as Peck means it, simply means seeing this ground-level connectedness. He calls it “communal” because in Stage 4 the individual sees they are part of a whole and not simply an autonomous individual. This has vast ramifications for how you treat other human beings, how you care for the world around you and, indeed, what you believe God is up to in the world. 

Understanding the 4 Stages

Why is it important to understand the four stages? 

In the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, one of the first thing Adam does is name the animals. In other words, he labels reality. Awareness of the nature of reality of anything is pre-requisite for flourishing. (As a Chinese Proverb says, “The right naming of things is the beginning of wisdom.”) So understanding the four stages help us on a personal level. It will change for the better how we interact with the world. Right understanding always does. 

But furthermore (and without hyperbole), there has been no point in history in which understanding the dynamics of these four stages is as important as it is now. We live in an era where the ability to converse across stages is vanishing. People are locking down in rigidity—about religion, politics, political correctness—losing the ability to think and, therefore, dialogue or thoughtfully converse. People have always gotten stuck in Stage 2, but our “always on” technology amplifies our stuckness. After all, our technological process is a double-edged sword, affecting us for good and ill. The 24-hour news cycle is transforming our attention spans, and the algorithms of Facebook and Instagram ensure we are presented with articles and videos which simply re-enforce the worldview we already hold. Alarmingly, facts no longer seem to matter, though we’ve never had more access to information and data. On a societal level, we are being shepherded into rigid Stage 2 thinking, into a reactive posture in which we defend our boundaries without thinking or analysis. This is a perilous development. It requires clear thinkers with mature hearts and minds to lead us out of it.

In the upcoming essays, I will focus on how people get stuck in Stage 2 and never progress beyond it. This means exploring religious rigidity, which prevents movement from Stage 2 to Stage 3 and 4. But before we do, I will turn in the next essay to look at the Four Stages as a whole at a deeper level.



[1]Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology Of Love, Traditional Values And Spiritual Growth. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. 1985.

[2]An experience he writes about inGlimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession. Free Press. 2005.

[3]Peck, M. Scott. A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. Touchstone Press1987.

[4]For an illustration of Jesus questioning man-made boundaries, see Matthew 12:1-8.

[5]A Different Drum,190.

[6]A Different Drum, 192.

[7]See Deuteronomy 28 and its promise that “If you fully obey,” God will bless you.

[8]See Job 38-41. God basically replies, “I’m God and you’re not.”

[9]The contemporary trend of millennials leaving the evangelical church represents a classic pattern of people moving from Stage 2 into Stage 3, in this case from some sort of faith to “no faith” or to some reconstructed version of faith. If or how these millennials return to church or re-construct the church will be a fascinating social study. See “Will Young Evangelicals Come Back to Church?” by Myriam Renaud.[July 2, 2019]

[10]A Different Drum, 191.

[11]A Different Drum, 193.

[12]See Colossians 1:17.