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Transcending Rigidity: Guideposts for Flourishing in an Unthinking World

Transcending Rigidity: Four Phases of Spiritual Development, Part IV: The Quest for A New Morality

Brandon Cook

A Marvelous World Devoid of Meaning

The Enlightenment, as posited in the previous essay, was a flowering of science which, it was hoped, would bring about a new world order not based in faith or religion but in reason. It germinated a confident optimism that through scientific inquiry, humankind would find answers for our deepest questions, as science became the guiding authority in a new Stage 2.[1] This optimism was not rooted in the authority of the pope or the Bible but on empirical observation of the universe and on reason. The French revolutionaries even renamed Notre Dame Cathedral and many other churches “Temples of Reason.” 

And while the Enlightenment was much to our material good (penicillin, after all), it  marks the beginning of ongoing skepticism across developed societies in the West. Its underlying concern of securing human happiness through the pursuit of reason has failed. That is, it has failed according to the Enlightenment standard of securing a world free of superstition and violence. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history and proof, perhaps, that science would not save us from ourselves. And science itself, once the herald of a new age, has now largely been supplanted by technology (more on that below). Meanwhile, scientific discovery post-Enlightenment has demonstrated that the physical universe—and our place in it—is far more complicated than supposed. The general perception of the world until the Enlightenment was of a purposeful universe designed for human flourishing whose very orderliness was a moral guide for human behavior, inviting us into moderation and harmonious living. But the Enlightenment has done away with the ancient and Medieval worldview in which the cosmos was rationally designed for the flourishing of humankind.[2] Darwinian evolution undermined the Church’s teaching about creation, and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity  and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle reveal that we live in a chaotic universe which does not function according to uniform physical laws once taken as given.[3] Thus, the world, post-scientific revolution, is conceptualized as confusing and barbaric, though not without its beauty. 

Further, we now know that humans are more complicated than Enlightenment philosophers assumed. They believed that men and women act rationally with little variance, but we know that facts and reason don’t always change our minds let alone our behavior.[4] And we have moved far beyond the optimism of the Enlightenment into deep doubt and generalized pessimism that there is anything which we can truly know nor any authority which we can truly trust. A world in which everything has become interpretation.[5] This is a movement into the doubt and skepticism of Stage 3. Indeed, this emergence of a world solidly situated in an ongoing Stage 3—a world in which we have no clear guiding authorities—is something new, historically speaking.[6] In the West, the ancient Greeks and Romans lived by a clear moral code: virtue was rooted in strength and honor. In The Illiad, for example, the moral man behaves courageously on the field of battle, and it’s the hero in arms that achieves immortality.[7] In the Roman world, the word “virtue” is rooted in the root word “virility.” In the Christian/Medieval world, chastity and fidelity became the highest moral goods. Chivalric knighthood was meant to capture all that was virtuous about these values. To the Enlightenment philosophe, the man guided by reason was the man of morality. And this, perhaps, still comes closest to our contemporary ideal. But we 21st century-ites largely have no clear moral story nor narrative of meaning from which we live. We do have cardinal moral values, such as alleviating human suffering or protecting the marginalized, but we have little consensus on how to go about them.

Nor do we envision a golden age ahead in which we will follow science and reason into utopia. Such a future, in which humankind has put its greatest faults and errors behind—prejudice, racism, and violence—was popularly envisioned as recently as the original Star Trek series in the 1960s (its future vision a close corollary to the critiques and hopes of the Port Huron Statement, described in the last essay). But we no longer have such faith in science. Indeed, science, which was meant to guide us to new, golden shores has largely been replaced with technology.[8] Science, according to the Enlightenment vision, was to liberate humankind. It was going to set us all free, empowering us to solve our biggest problems. But technology has taken over, and its aim is simply to create and consume more. Creating new and better products has become an end in itself, rather than a path towards enlightenment or a new world. As French philosopher Luc Ferry writes: 

…contrary to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which aimed at emancipation and human happiness, technology is well and truly a process without purpose and devoid of any objectives: ultimately, nobody knows any longer the direction in which the world is moving, because it is automatically governed by competition and in no sense directed by the conscious will of men collectively united behind a project, at the heart of a society…[9]

Consumption itself, then, has become the default guiding value in our world. We now buy new smartphones simply because we are expected to buy new smartphones and we consume because that is what we do. And thus, we have come to live in what Neil Postman called a “technopoly,” in which “the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.”[10] Our technopoly is marked by an endless stream of information and stimulation and little moral cipher by which to decode it. 

In the battle between the Orwellian vision of an all-powerful authoritarian state controlling a large population and Aldous Huxley’s vision of a population so doped up that the need for a totalitarian state is obviated, Huxley has won out.[11] Orwell envisioned, in 1984, a world entirely controlled by Big Brother in which, for example, to control the population, reading is forbidden. Huxley envisioned a world in which there would be no need for the controlling apparatus of a central state because the populace would be so numbed out and over-stimulated. In such a society there is no need to outlaw books because no one wants to read or think. Thus, Postman’s prescient book title—Amusing Ourselves to Death—as he described the society we are becoming. Our current technopoly provides pleasure and comfort but very little sense of meaning, and the end result is despair. We are surrounded by so much stimulus and information (via Facebook, cable news, the internet, et al) that we have little time to make sense of it let alone find meaning in the midst of it. 

Thus, even as our technology continues to improve and progress, we are racked with doubt and skepticism about meaning and our epistemology—our confidence about what we can know at all—has radically shifted, to the point where we hardly believe there are any objective facts at all nor any coherent narrative behind them. And we have no grand societal project around which to organize. No Enlightenment project, as it were. In such a world, whoever masters ratings, rather than reason, can be king, as the 2016 US presidential results perhaps reveal. The propaganda arm of President Donald Trump’s administration, which often consists simply of Tweets from the president himself, is a dark omen of the world before us, so full of misinformation or outright deception. Optics and legerdemain carry the day, not facts. In fact, we have never had so many facts at our disposal, and yet confusion reigns about what they all mean and which ones we can trust. 

How then can we have high level conversation about what morality or virtue—and therefore, spiritual maturity—is? Indeed, philosopher and author Alasdair MacIntyre describes our contemporary situation as having not even the common language to have a conversation about morality, let alone to define what it is.[12] This, he says, is a catastrophe which we do not recognize. We are now lost in all the information available to us, with no moorings for how to interpret it. Studies reveal that if you take a group with any particular political leaning and show them facts that contradict their beliefs, they will not believe the facts.[13] This penchant for confirmation bias has always been a part of human thinking, but the proliferation of our technology means it can happen more quickly, as there’s always a confirming bias on hand. 

The Brave New Morality Which No One Understands

In a deconstructed world like ours, what becomes of morality? In our Stage 3 world, even without any clear guiding authority, nevertheless, values have emerged about which there is general consensus. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, sums up this brave, new morality simply:

              1. Be fair.

              2. Do no harm.[14]

 These values—being fair and doing no harm—form the basis of our new ethic, such as it stands. Or at least, they form the basis for contemporary debate, as we seek to draw boundaries and establish a new stage 2. Philosopher and author Charles Taylor agrees with Haidt but uses slightly different language to describe the shape of our morality. Our moral horizons, says Taylor, are now anchored by the moral good of “respect” for others.[15] This entails, for example, alleviating human suffering. 

All of this may seem obvious, but in fact such moral goods have not always been givens. In ancient Greece, for example, the warrior/honor ethic put a far greater emphasis on an individual’s own dignity than it did on caring for others. Succeeding on the battlefield was far more virtuous than, say, caring for the poor. In our world, on the other hand, respecting others has become the leading moral good. Nevertheless, apart from alleviating the most blatant forms of suffering, we don’t always have clarity about what is meant by respecting others. A man holding open a door for a woman was once (and in many places, still is) considered respectful; in some places, it is now considered an offense.

We can sum up the moral injunctions listed above (be fair, do no harm, respect others) under the banner “play nice.” These are not bad values, as such. Being fair and doing no harm are solid moral goods and not far removed from the central plank of Jesus’ morality: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). Yet, on their own, devoid of broader context, they are threadbare goods for providing a framework of meaning. 

First of all, they are subjective. After all, what do you mean by “fair” and what do I mean by it? What is harm and do we agree on it? Sometimes what is for someone’s best—for their spiritual development—feels painful. It can certainly feel like harm even if it’s for their (or your, or my) good.[16] So what is included in “harm” and what is excluded? And do we have the language to speak of it? As a pastor I’ve been around numerous debates in which Christians have said that excluding queer Christians from fellowship is an act of love, for their own good, whereas many queer Christians I know interpret this as a great act of harm. 

Furthermore, “playing nice” is a grand ideal, but it does not necessarily move us into the maturity of Stage 4. Doing no harm, for example, is not the same as doing good.[17] We need more than a “no” to move away from; we need a “yes” to move towards.[18] (No wonder people are so frustrated and despairing in our world.) And the new morality does not necessarily lead to internalized selflessness and generosity. Rather than internalizing goodness, the goal too easily becomes to be perceived as nice or to convince ourselves that we are nice without having to do any of the hard work of becoming virtuous. Social media facilitates this: simply post that Republicans/Democrats are idiotic/evil and you will feel you have accomplished something, with very little risk to your person. Post that we should be welcoming to immigrants and someone will likely post that first we must take of our veterans (as if it’s an either-or). The result is people yelling louder and louder while no one listens or hears, yet by this means we are able to relieve our anxiety. By comparing ourselves to others without having to take any virtuous action in the world, we feel the relief of righteous indignation. No wonder virtue signaling—the act of declaring your opinions in order to demonstrate your moral rightness to others—is rife all around us. And no wonder, as this game escalates, we live in an increasingly sanctimonious world in which people are continually afraid of what they can and can’t say.[19] A world in which people either seek to control others by regulating behavior on the left or by pushing back against political correctness on the right. 

Second, since we have no consensus on what fairness and harm are, these values leave us firmly in the realm of individual morality with little sense of our communal connections. As Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, puts it “We [have moved] from a world of “We” to one of “I”, the private pursuit of personal desire.”[20] Stage 4 maturity is rooted in seeing how all things are connected; it is the realm of “we,” not of “I.” On hand, the values “be fair” and “do no harm” make us think of others and then push us towards Stage 4. But at the same time, we can become so concerned with what is fair to us and obsessed and offended with what feels like harm that we end up getting stuck in a narrow and individualistic interpretation of the world which pushes us very little towards seeing others or the maturity of Stage 4.

In the next essay, we will explore just how this individualism can keep us stuck and can keep us from maturing towards Stage 4.




[1] Remembering that Stage 2 always needs an authority to anchor it. See

[2] The Stoics, whose thought anchored the ancient and greatly influenced the Medieval worldview, believed that nature revealed a harmony with which an individual, through right behavior, could align in order to find flourishing and happiness.

[3] Newton’s Laws of motion, for example, only go so far and break down near the speed of light. Time itself, Einstein proved, is relative. 

[4] See “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. February 27, 2017. [9/30/19]

[5] Derrida’s statement “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”, meaning either “there is nothing outside the text” or “there is no outside-text” is popularly taken to mean that everything is interpretation. See Jordan B. Peterson’s commentary in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Random House. 2018. Page 311. 

[6] To be clear, I am saying that we are looking to establish a new Stage 2, which is the pattern of history, but we have never been less clear on how to do this. Nietzsche, for whatever we may agree or disagree with him in particulars, was perhaps correct in predicting an ongoing battle between competing ideologies before a new moral order would emerge.

[7] Meanwhile, the Greek (and then Roman) philosophers emphasized moderation and balance in the virtuous individual. Aristotle correlated this “golden mean” to behavior on the battlefield: the virtuous man is neither cowardly or brash; rather his courage, as with all virtues, lies in between these extremes.

[8] Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Harper Perennial. 2011. Page 212-213.

[9] Ferry. 213-214.

[10] See Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage. 1993. Page 71.

[11] An argument developed by Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books. 2005.

[12] See After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. University of Notre Dame Press. 2007. “Chapter Two: The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism.”

[13] See Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions” in Political Behavior 32. 2010

[14] See the Morality in the 21st Century Podcast. “Episode 8: Jonathan Haidt.” 9/3/18.

15  Taylor, Charles. Sources of the SelfThe Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge University Press. 2003. Pages 14-15.

[16] I always remind myself that Jesus was kind but he was not always nice.

[17] In Jesus’ formulation “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus goes further than his contemporary Rabbi Hillel. Hillel said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it." Jesus extends this idea into more positivistic moral statement. [9/30/19]

[18] Thanks to my friend Mike Goldsworthy for articulating this so clearly, in personal conversations.

[19] Some of this fear is good and right. The #metoo movement, for example, made afraid and rightfully so those who abused positional power exploitatively. 

[20] In an interview with Jonathan Haidt. Morality in the 21st Century Podcast. “Episode 8: Jonathan Haidt.” 9/3/18.

Transcending Rigidity: The Four Phases of Spiritual Development, Part III: The Patterns of History

Brandon Cook

In essays I and II, we explored the basic dynamics of spiritual development, following the Four Stages outlined by M. Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum.[1]

 So far, we have looked at how the Four Stages of Spiritual Development functions on an individual level (before proceeding, I suggest reading essays I and II). In this essay, we will expand our focus to see how the Four Stages also functions on a collective level, in society and culture. 

As cultures seek to establish meaningful values to guide human life—as we all, together, try to make sense of the world and our place in it—we are in an endless quest to avoid chaos (Stage 1), establish authoritative values and boundaries for right behavior (Stage 2), even while constantly questioning established authorities (Stage 3), as we try (or not, perhaps) to become spiritually maturity (Stage 4). These dynamics can help us understand the societies in which we live and, ultimately, how to find meaning in a confused world. 

Societal Shifts

 In 1793, the streets of Paris ran with blood. During the Reign of Terror, the blood-letting and chaos into which the French Revolution descended, anyone too closely associated with the Ancien Régime­ (the old political order) was carried into the streets and executed. Though the revolutionaries of 1789 had envisioned a new societal order based on science, reason, and logic—the virtues of the Enlightenment—Paris in 1793 was anything but enlightened. 

What caused this sudden explosion? Societal change is most often a gradual process. And indeed, The Reign of Terror only seems at first glance to be a sudden outburst when, in fact, it had a long preamble: decades of discontent with the monarchy, growing doubts about the Church, and famines which drove countless Parisians to starvation and despair. Yet beneath the violence was the same longing that drives all revolutions: the quest for a new world. This hope for a bright tomorrow, for us or for those who come after us, drives us all. It is the stubborn hope and quest for meaning in a world which often seems meaningless. 

Societies seek continuity and stability so that its culture can define what is meaningful, such that it can be pursued.[2] And this cultural pursuit of meaning mirrors the individual’s pursuit: just as individuals develop towards spiritual maturity (or get stuck in a stage of development, or regress to a previous stage), so do cultures writ large. The word “spiritual” here, again, is used in its broadest sense and is not necessarily referential of religion. “Spiritual” includes the array of an individual’s (or culture’s) psychological and emotive processes involving humankind’s deepest and most sacred—and in this sense spiritual—longings and aspirations. Our search for love, beauty, and meaningfulness all fall under this definition of “spiritual”, whether someone believes in God or not. By this definition, all individuals and all societies are spiritual, whatever their creed, dogma, or lack thereof. And all societies are shifting continually, moving through the Four Stage of Spiritual Development as the society seeks spiritual fulfillment. Indeed, movements between the stages happen in the world around us all the time. If we zoom out from the individual to the societal level, we see movements through the stages in every era of human history; they are movements of the zeitgeist, the defining spirit of a cultural milieu. And the paradigm of The Four Stages helps us understand them.

The radicalized revolutionaries of Paris attempted, through violence, to deconstruct their Stage 2 world, defined as it was by the boundaries delineated by supreme institutions—the monarchy, aristocracy, and Church. From one perspective, the French Revolution was a movement from Stage 2 to Stage 3; the revolutionaries doubted and radically deconstructed the Stage 2 dogma of church and state which stood in the way of a new world order. From another perspective, they were simply moving towards a newStage 2, in which the authority of science and reason would replace the authority of the Bible, the Pope, and the monarchy. This is how history works: Stage 2 breaks down and moves into Stage 3 and ultimately the values of Stage 3 form the boundaries of a new Stage 2. This is the most common pattern in history.[3] But that’s not what we witness in 1793—not immediately, anyway. Then, the nation reverted to the chaos of Stage 1. Obviously people don’t like to stay in chaos—we love stability, certainty, and predictability too much. But regressions into chaos do happen. Sometimes deconstruction takes a wrecking ball, so it seems.

The same movement—from Stage 2 to 1—can happen in reverse. In the 1970s, Iranian zealots revolted against what they viewed (accurately enough) as a licentious, corrupt sovereign. They were reacting against the perceived chaos of Stage 1 and moved their society into the highly rigid and legalistic strictures of an Islamic society. In other words, they moved their nation into Stage 2, to a formal, institutionally- centered theocracy. 

And again, the most common pattern is a movement from Stage 2 to Stage 3. Consider an example from recent history: In the United States in 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society issued thePort Huron Statement, in which a younger generation decries the world being inherited from their forebears.[4] One sees in it the concerns of a people discontented withthe security of Stage 2 (in this case, the security and prosperity of white bread, post-World War II American society) and beginning to name and denounce the cracks in the dam of American life. The critique within thePort Huron Statementrepresents a movement of deconstruction, calling into question established values and boundaries. Indeed, in the first three, short paragraphs, the authorities of Stage 2—American might and fervor for what we might call “the American way” and “the American dream” and the values of “the Greatest Generation”—are essentially declared bankrupt.[5] There is racism in the South, nuclear antagonism across the hemispheres, general dread about the growth of the industrial-military complex, and deep conviction that the status quo being handed down is not good enough. The statement, then, represents a classic example of doubt, rejection of values, and thus a movement from Stage 2 to Stage 3. 

The Port Huron Statement is the front edge of cultural change—indeed, of what is now called “cultural revolution” (there’s that word again)—that shock-waved across American society in the 1960s. The “hippies,” with dreams of an “Age of Aquarius”, helped uproot the conservative sexual norms of the 1950s and introduced a new, liberalized sexual ethic which, again, represents a movement from Stage 2 to 3. The cultural revolution of the 60s is another example of deconstruction, not unlike the French Revolution, in an attempt to find meaning. Thus does history move forward.

Of course, the social upheavals in Vietnam-era America were perceived by many not as forward movement but as a regression from Stage 2 into chaos. What we see, as always, depends on our own perspective and whatever stage we are in.[6] Nevertheless, the pattern of doubting and deconstructing what came before in order to build a new edifice—or perhaps a new foundation—is always the pattern. Each generation looks back in critique at the generation that came before. This societal pattern is mirrored at the individual level by what happens in nuclear families. As children become adolescents, they begin to question the Stage 2 boundaries outlined by parents, caregivers, and authorities. In some sense, we are all meant to challenge authority and to deconstruct Stage 2; it’s simply part of our development. But then we are left with the task of creating new boundaries, or embracing—in a new way, no doubt—the ones which came before. The film The Big Chill captures this tension well, as former 60s radicals are portrayed fifteen years later far removed from the radicalism of their youth and, in some instances, having become the new, conservative boundary-makers just a few years down the line.[7] Indeed, many 60s radicals became power-brokers in a 1980s America defined by the pursuit of wealth. Authorities come, authorities are dismantled, and then new authorities are put in place, and we march back and forth between Stage 2 and Stage 3. This is the pattern and patter of history, with occasional regressions into the chaos of Stage 1 (a la the French Revolution).

And of course, there are occasional glimpses into the spiritual maturity which marks Stage 4. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 (a year after thePort Huron statement), marks one of these glimpses. Perhaps we are at times even attaining ground towards Stage 4, as Dr. King envisioned. Yet looking at the current political gridlock and mode of discourse in the US, it’s easy to conclude we are regressing, as a culture, into the tribalism of Stage 2. All the while, whatever the stage of our culture, rest assured it isgrappling for a narrative in which we can find purpose and meaning. Nevertheless, despite a continual proliferation in our technology, our narratives about what is meaningful are up in the air. In fact, our technology serves in part to mask our inability to find meaningful narratives from which to live and covering the underlying despair now growing across American society.[8] We are wealthier than ever, yet wealth by itself cannot provide narratives of meaning.

In the next essay, we’ll explore how our society and culture is now stuck between Stage 2 and Stage 3, as we try to find new narratives of meaning in which we can anchor ourselves.

[1] Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology Of Love, Traditional Values And Spiritual Growth. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. 1985. Pages 187-199. Note: the language “Chaos/Boundaries/Deconstruction/ Union” overlaps with but varies from Peck’s language. I find this language, though altered, is helpful as shorthand.

[2]Society being the ordering of systems and power structures to support a large group of people and culture being that society’s pursuit of truth and beauty through the exploration of art and science.  Consider an example: Athens went to war in the fifth century BCE to maintain societal security—that is, to protect the population and its culture through strength of arms. The army as a power structure of society made space for the poets, philosophers, and high culture of Athens. The society ensures the culture’s survival such that it, safe and secure, its culture can address the great philosophical questions—“Why are we here?”, “What is beauty?”, “How do we live meaningfully?” and so forth. On one hand, this is obvious; yet the principle functions with increasing subtlety. The conflict between security and privacy in our contemporary world—a la Facebook and Google—maps to the same struggle between a power structure and the preservation of beauty (even if power is now represented by the reach of a corporation and beauty is simply the maintenance of privacy as a common good.) Indeed, societies are always in this tension: how does one maintain order while creating enough space for beauty and art? The question becomes pointed the more authoritarian or totalitarian a society becomes. Individuals are in this same tension, between the need for security and the desire for thriving. As are individual relationships. Psychologist Esther Perel, for example, describes all marriage relationships as a tension between the desire for stability and the drive towards romance. (See Esther Perel in “Why is Modern Love So Damn Hard?” at [September 19, 2019]). 

[3]Such patterns—generally movements from Stage 2 to 3—are usually long in emerging. It took centuries for Christian thought to overtake and supplant Stoicism, the dominant Greco-Roman philosophy, just as Judeo-Christian culture held sway for centuries before succumbing to the new science of the Enlightenment and the advent of a materialistic, Darwinian era. And we can still look back on The Enlightenment, over two centuries ago, as the clearest, dividing line between us and the Medievals.

[4]1 We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

2 When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people—these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

3 As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract "others" we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

Accessed at[September 23, 2019]

[5]“Greatest Generation” being a phrase coined by Tom Brokaw in his book of the same name.  Random House. 2001.

[6]While remembering that these stages are merely descriptive and no one is simply “in” one stage across the board.

[7]The Big Chill. Dir. by Lawrence Kasdan. Columbia Pictures. 1983.

[8]Suicide rates, especially among younger white men, who have traditionally been the most privileged), have skyrocketed. See, for example,[September 24, 2019]

Transcending Rigidity: Four Stages of Spiritual Development, Part II

Brandon Cook

The ultimate purpose of these essays is to explore rigidity, which happens when people get stuck in their psycho-spiritual development. But to understand rigidity, it’s helpful to understand some of the fundamental dynamics at play between the four stages. (Note: if you have not read the first essay, ‘Four Phases of Spiritual Development, Part I,’ you may want to stop and read that first.)

Relating to Other Stages

M. Scott Peck’s Four Stages of Spiritual Development looks like this:

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”)

The goal of spiritual development is to mature into Stage 4, but entering Stage 4 is a dynamic process. The path is not a straight line, and to walk it, it helps to understand the dynamics at play between the stages. Indeed,Peck makes a number of observations about how people in each stage relate to the other stages. For example, people tend to look down on people who are in the stage they have just passed through.[1] The newly devoted believer in Stage 2 tends to judge a person in the chaos of Stage 1. (You can imagine someone shaking their head disapprovingly at “those sinners.”) By the same token, a person who has just deconstructed their faith and dwells in the doubt and skepticism of Stage 3 tends to view as naive the devoted believer of Stage 2. 

But even as we judge those in the stage behind us, we “retain vestiges of the previous stages through which we have just come.”[2] Under stress, we are all tempted to lie, coerce, or manipulate to get our way, thus returning to Stage 1. Someone in Stage 2 might have an old drinking buddy come in town who, after some cajoling, pulls his buddy into the chaos of Stage 1. Someone who lives in the logic and skepticism of Stage 3 may also be oddly and irrationally superstitious about certain matters. Even in Stage 3 or 4, under pressure you might—like all of us—wish for some oracle or authority to cut through life’s ambiguities with clear answers, such as you experienced in Stage 2. And even in Stage 4, you might succumb to the fear of “what people may think” and pretend to deny your faith in order to appear coolly logical and collected as you once were within the skepticism of Stage 3. 

Not only do we tend to look down on those just behind us, but we are mostly threatened by those in the stages above us. “If people are one step ahead of us, we usually admire them. If they are two steps ahead of us, we usually think they are evil.”[3] After all and for example, people in Stage 2 are told to “love sinners.” If they move past their initial judgmentalism, people in Stage 2 can become quite loving of those in Stage 1. Yet they will generally remain threatened by those in the stages above them. Consider Jesus: to some, he was a prophet who revealed the true heart of God; to others he was a lunatic, a rabble-rouser, a devil sent to tear down everything the nation held dear.[4] As Abraham Heschel writes, “The prophet…employs notes one octave too high for our ears.”[5] In a simplistic sense, Jesus was too far ahead, spiritually speaking, of those who crucified him. His notes were too high for their ears, and all they couldhear was how he challenged them (and to their minds, threatened them) with his radical way of relating to the Law and to God. As Jesus himself said, “To him who has ears to hear, let him hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9). All this despite Jesus saying that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus knew he was the fulfillmentof the sacred, not its contradiction.[6] Nevertheless, what you see depends on your perspective, which depends on your own spiritual development. To the rigid mind stuck in Stage 2 (and remember, not all who are in Stage 2 are rigid or legalistic), Jesus was a threat. And because people tend to use the stability of Stage 2 to cover their own inner sense of chaos—of guilt and shame—they will protect their Stage 2 thinking without realizing they are actually protecting themselves. Jesus knew that teaching that God demands inner transformation and not external performance would get him in trouble. And he knew that teaching that God is a universal Love which embraces all people would fall upon deaf ears and, furthermore, would be a threat to respectable people trying to perform their way into standing with God. Jesus was no dummy; he knew he was going to be killed by people stuck in Stage 2.

The Difficulty of Moving Towards Stage 4

It is important to note that though these stages describe spiritual development, we are not strictly speaking about (nor should we limit the stages to) religiousdevelopment. In other words, while we can use the word “spiritual” in its most personal, intimate sense—of an individual’s belief in a higher power, we can also use the word “spiritual” in its broadest definition. “Spiritual” in this sense means the array of psychological and emotive processes which are not strictly religious and may not even involve a belief in God per se, but which involve humankind’s deepest and most sacred—and in this sense spiritual—aspirations. 

It also bears saying, again, that the progression from Stage 1 to 2 is not a progression from bad to good. There are wonderful, sincere, and authentic people in Stage 2, and there are jerks in Stage 3. There are wonderful people who would never hurt a fly who get stuck in the chaos and addiction of Stage 1, and so on. Nevertheless, there is a real danger of getting stuck in a stage and never becoming mature. A progression to internalized maturity—to internal goodness—means a movement through the stages. You cannot be truly good, for example, if your motivation for doing good is fear that God will punish you if you don’t (as it often the case in Stage 2). That may be your first catalyst, but it must not be your last. You must progress to doing good for its own sake and for the sake of others. 

Still, though human beings want to become mature and good, it’s very difficult to progress into Stage 4.[7] The great spiritual teachers, after all, have always taught that it takes loss to become fully human, which is to say fully spiritual. Suffering is the only thing that forces most of us into change. As David Brooks writes, “If you ask anybody, ‘What’s the activity that you had that made you who you are?’ no one says, ‘You know I had a really great vacation in Hawaii.’ …They say, ‘I had a period of struggle. I lost a loved one. I was in the Army. And that period of struggle…made me who I am.’”[8] Indeed, the very reason we don’t progress through the stages is that it involves struggle and suffering. It involves changing our understanding of the world, and we prefer instead “vacations in Hawaii” in the form of stability, certainty, and predictability. Furthermore, we live in a culture that encourages us to avoid discomfort and pain, often to the detriment of our souls (though of course, pain still finds us). So as humans, we tend to live in Stage 2 or 3. We want to avoid the chaos and shame of Stage 1, but we are also wary of the suffering and loss required to enter Stage 4. We all intuit what Jesus said: in becoming mature, we will “lose our life” (Matthew 10:39).That is, we will lose our ability to find ultimate meaning in our certainty, in our ability to hold things together, or in how fine and respectable we look (all of which may be of ultimate concern in Stage 2). Or we will lose our capacity to look calm, cool, collected, and detached in our skepticism (Stage 3). Stage 4, on the other hand, requires vulnerability, letting go of certainty, and giving your time, energy, care, and love away. This requires becoming humble and joyful even in the midst of not having all the answers. In Stage 4, you are more concerned with giving than receiving, though you understand that you only can give because you receive. Stage 4 also requires—according to Jesus, anyway—holding tension, turning the other cheek, and forgiving those who crucify you. No wonder Stage 2 and 3 remain, in some sense, more appealing than Stage 4.

Temptations and Dangers 

The general progression to Stage 4 is difficult because we only get there through engaging suffering and loss. In fact, any change in our psychology is a type of death, because you have to let go of what you knew (or thought you knew) to learn something new. In that sense, you lose who you were in order to become someone new. And “it hurts to become real.”[9] Becoming always involves loss. But in addition to this general difficulty, each stage has specific, unique temptations and dangers which can sidetrack the progression to Stage 4. We will look at each Stage in turn. 

Stage 1

An alcoholic stuck in Stage 1 does not drink without reason. There is a genealogy to any addiction. She drinks because life is painful, and she relates to alcohol as a reliable friend simply because it helps her deal with the pain of being. As obvious as it sounds: life is painful because human beings can feel pain. We feel physical and emotional pain, like dogs and dolphins, but unlike animals, we also feel psychological and existential pain. The unique aspect of our humanity is this self-awareness, the pain of existence and of being. It is the pain of human longing. Because of it, we feel psychological pain: worry, fear, and insecurity. Indeed, each stage is meant to help us deal with this felt anxiety of being. And in each stage, maturity is difficult because it would require letting go of something that has kept us safe. In the case of an alcoholic, a bottle represents power over pain, at least temporarily. Putting down the bottle would mean not only accounting for who they’ve hurt through their addiction but also confronting the pain and unmet longing that feeds the addiction in the first place. 

The temptation in Stage 1, then, is concluding that the only way you will be safe or feel relief is by clinging to what numbs you out. This keeps you stuck in a vicious cycle of guilt and shame.[10] Whereas guilt can motivate behavior change, shame is difficult to escape and can drive us back into the very anti-social and chaotic behavior that generated it. After all, if you have no hope for something better, at least you can have the comfort of a bottle or a sexual tryst. Relief for a moment seems better than despair, even if the despair comes due with compounded interest after the act. 

The film The Wrestler captures this dynamic poignantly, as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson returns to the wrestling ring—the only place where he has any sense of self or transcendence—even though it means his death because of a bad heart.[11] This is the power of shame: it keeps us returning to places of comfort that ultimately kill us. So the key temptation in Stage 1 is to let shame drive you into despair and hopelessness. 

Stage 2

The temptation in Stage 1 is straight-forward compared with the subtleties of temptation that occur in Stage 2, where the rocks and sandbars are often hidden beneath the waterline. In Stage 2, because life seems to work quite well compared to the chaos of Stage 1, it’s easy to deny that there is any danger to be aware of at all. Someone caught in chaos will have a hard time denying that their life is in shambles, whereas a respectable person in Stage 2 can plausibly deny that there is anything at all to deny. A good suit covers a multitude of sins. People in Stage 2 can take pride in being good, thoughtful, and respectable folks, which can masquerade as spiritual maturity even if there’s nothing mature in it and even if they simply substitute rigidity for maturity. 

In Stage 2, the chief temptations are an over-attachment to stability and security.[12] Stage 2 is about having answers and knowing how things should be or should be done. To be clear, we should not hold anything against security or stability; in and of themselves, they are good things, necessary for our development, and certainly better than chaos. But they can become ultimate things. That is, they can become idols we worship rather than gifts for which we give thanks.[13] Rather than being addicted to pleasure (Stage 1), someone in Stage 2 may be addicted to their sense of stability and control. This stability expresses itself as “having answers,” “knowing how things should be,” and fixating on “the right way to do things.” Remember, Peck called Stage 2 the formal stage because people get attached to the form of how things should be done.[14]

In Stage 2, we often see a fusing together of religious and political conservatism, because both provide a sense of safety and security. I recently saw a bumper sticker which read, “Heaven has closed borders; hell has open borders…think about that.” An inane sentiment and a lousy way to lobby for border control, yet a perfect example of how easily notions of religious and political security entwine. Each shares the goal of security, albeit in different forms. Another bumper sticker I’ve recently seen reads, “I stand for the flag, I kneel for the cross.” It is an amazing and impossible thought to imagine early Christians merging the imagery of the cross with any political symbol, and certainly not the emblems of Rome, but in our country Christianity has been greatly reduced to a Gospel Americana in which the chief goal is “going to heaven when you die” (that is, achieving “eternal security”) rather than actually making any progression to spiritual maturity. Once this bastardization of Christianity is in place and the ultimate goal of security has been enshrined as the ultimate good, it’s a short leap to justifying any political philosophy which seems to provide security. No wonder the cross is so often draped in a flag across the churches of America. And no wonder so many people are disenchanted with the Church and Christianity, since we were made for far more than security. Many Christians have been taught only to love their own salvation but develop no genuine love for the world around them. Yet the height of spiritual maturity in Stage 4 is caring for others, which often involves a loss of security.[15] You cannot love another and remain perfectly secure, stable, and in control. Love means loss.[16] We can be confident Jesus would not have gone to the cross if his chief goal was security and stability. 

When we look at this love of stability from a different point of view, we see that the rigid person in Stage 2 is often simply protecting themselves from their own insecurities or an inner sense of guilt and shame. (As with Stage 1, guilt and shame are underlying realities in Stage 2 and every other stage, for that matter). But the sophistication of rigidity in Stage 2 is its built-in blindness, which does not exist in any of the other stages. The certainty inherent in Stage 2 (“we have the answers”) blinds us to—that is, allows us not to see—what’s actually happening within us. What’s reallyhappening in Stage 2 rigidity is an emotional need is being met; the emotional desire for control and safety is being satisfied. But blindness allows us to believe we are simply defending “the Truth,” which is always, in our minds, God’s truth. Thus, the temptation in Stage 2 is the temptation towards certainty—of thinking you have the answers and have God and the universe basically figured out.If you can look good or knowledgeable or competent, and if you can be certain about your answers, you can have stability to stave off any inner sense of vulnerability, all while believing you are simply “defending the truth.” This also prepares you to interpret any resistance or pushback not as a potentially helpful challenge to you but as an attack on “the Truth,” which you must defeat.

This sort of blindness is the very thing Jesus warned his disciples about. He discerned that the zeal of the Pharisees—the leading religious leaders of his day—was not in actuality for the Law but for the control and power and prestige the Law gave them. Jesus makes this explicitly clear: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces…Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.”[17] In other words, how they look and how they appear to others is the driver, all masked in the veneer of devotion to God while remaining inwardly corrupt.

The respectability of the Pharisees is powerful. Seeming to have answers and holding your answers with certainty can simulate emotional maturity. But Jesus goes to great lengths to show that those with “the answers” may nevertheless remain spiritually immature. In Jesus’ “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” three men pass a man beaten and stricken on the side of the road, and only one stops to help him. Jesus then asks, “Which man was a good neighbor?”[18] That is, who was spiritually mature? It was not the respectable one dressed in religious finery. Of course, in the teaching of our churches and religious institutions, we easily dismiss these religious hypocrites as “anyone but us” when in fact they may be a stunningly accurate representation of us. Yet the blindness outlined above would prevent us seeing the correlation.

In fact, in Jesus’ teaching, though Jesus warns about chaos (Stage 1) the greatest danger is not chaos but of getting stuck in religious rigidity (Stage 2).[19] In fact, Jesus never gets his dander up against people who are sinners or stuck in chaos. The story of a woman caught in adultery is most famous for Jesus’ words to the religious accuser: “He is without sin among you, cast the first stone” (John 8:7). And to the “sinful” woman at the well, Jesus says he would give “living water” (John 4:10). Jesus focuses not on the dangers of chaos but on getting stuck in Stage 2, from which it is much more difficult to extract one’s self.[20] Stage 2 is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves into thinking we are good without any true goodness

The irony of Jesus’ teaching is that you only come to God not when you are secure, stable, and certain but when you are very aware you don’t have all the answer nor have it figured out. In some sense, you can’t really believe until you aren’tcertain. You come to God—and to spiritual maturity—when you confess you don’t have all the resources nor all the answers necessary to navigate life.[21]

In terms of the difficulty of progressing from Stage 2 to Stage 4, two other points must be made: Of course, some people stay in Stage 2 simply because they fear that they’ll “go to hell” if they don’t. That is, they think of faith as having the answers and never doubting what they’ve been taught, which will secure them eternal life.[22] Again, Jesus warns against this sort of merely intellectualized faith without corresponding emotional connection or tangible action in the world around us.[23] But to the rigid mind, anything short of ironclad certainty is seen as a loss of faith which can threaten hellfire, so they are very motivated to stay in Stage 2. There is a lesson for all of us in this, whether we are Christians or not: Jesus showed us, in stark terms, that it’s simply easier to be tribalistic and to cling to our own sense of certainty as one clings to an idol. It’s easiest of all to stay in Stage 2.

And finally, I have noticed a dynamic that can make it very difficult for people who have experienced high levels of chaos or trauma to move beyond Stage 2. For them, the ambiguity of Stage 3—the same ambiguity which can make faith sincere and authentic—seems to resemble the chaos of Stage 1. For this reason, people who have experienced high levels of trauma and chaos may be very committed to staying in the stability of Stage 2. Losing that would feellike a return to chaos, even if it’s actually a movement towards maturity. 

In this essay, I have spent most of my time on Stage 2 simply because this is where most people get stuck. Nevertheless, temptation abounds in Stage 3, as well. 

Stage 3

We come to Stage 3 because the answers in Stage 2 stop working. We hit a wall that forces us to transcend what we’ve known or believed up until now. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers were poor because suffering and poverty reveals the ambiguities of life and ushers us toward Stage 3. And in Stage 3, we come closer to an authentic experience of God.

At the same time, the temptation in Stage 3 is connected to the suffering of the world, which can make us believe there are no answers at all. Indeed, the temptation in Stage 3 is simply to not believe anything. The danger is cynicism, which—though it’s bad for your brain—carries a certain allure.[24] It allows us to tamp down the pain of hope and human longing. 

The cynicism of Stage 3 can manifest as arrogance. People in Stage 3 are less susceptible to rigidity by simple virtue of their skepticism, which admits no certainties about which to be rigid. But they can, nevertheless, become rigid in their arrogance. They may look down and despise “those idiots” in Stage 2. And indeed, they may revert to the anti-socialism—the “living for yourself” ethos–of Stage 1. That is, they may have the cool confidence that comes from skepticism and yet not be progressing towards loving or caring for others. Stage 2 pushes the impulse to love others (after all, it’s the right thing to do), but this can be lost in Stage 3, even under a banner of progressivism. The “have it all” ethos of greed rampant in American culture is alive and well even among those who think they’ve dismantled such constructs.

The Cost of Technology

There are many temptations that make it difficult for us to mature towards Stage 4, and the difficulty can be exacerbated at everystage by the explosion in technology. Technology, of course, can be a boon: it allows us to hear and consider new thoughts and considerations faster than ever before. And yet technology has become a means in its own end.[25] Now we simply consume because we consume, always wanting more—new gadgets and media and experiences. And all this consumption serves to shorten our attention span, such that we have little time to thoughtfully consider any new thought, even as we are bombarded by more and more of them. Indeed, technology, more than anything else, can lock us into unthinking rigidity. For example, the algorithms of Facebook ensure that we see stories we agree with and therefore will click on, so that its advertisers can make money and will keep feeding the machine. It is confirmation bias, par excellence: we see stories that appeal to our political sensibilities, so we get stories that re-enforce our worldview. This increases our siloes and makes thoughtful dialogue more difficult. Social media is already a terrible place to dialogue (for proof, go read the comments on any recent political debate), and angry, argumentative debate of this sort—which is part and parcel of the discourse promulgated by social media—doesn’t change minds. In fact, the defensiveness they engender only re-enforces our rigidity. Technology when used in this way simply numbs us out, diverting us from confronting reality—and our need to mature—as we endlessly entertain ourselves. Or as Neil Postman put it, as we amuse ourselves to death.[26]

Aspiring to Stage 4: Counting the Cost

So, movements between the stages are not uncommon, but there are forces working against maturing to Stage 4. Jesus’ words “take up your cross, and follow me” are significant.[27] Moving into Stage 4 will exact a cost. Maturity means leaving behind that which has kept you safe, up until now, so that you can become who you might be.

At the same time, our movement to maturity does not happen in a vacuum. Indeed, the culture around us is always in a state of flux and change. To mature, we have to be aware of that, as well. In the next essay, we will explore how movements between the stages occurs not just on an individual level but in society as a whole.


To read more essays on transcending rigidity, click here.

[1]Peck, M. Scott. A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. Touchstone PressNew York, NY.  Page 195.


[3]Peck, 195.

[4]See John 11:50. 

[5]Heschel, A.J. The Prophets.Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 2001. Page 12.

[6]Matthew 5:17, paraphrased.

[7]I am reminded of Jesus’ words: the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult” (Matthew 7:14).

[8]David Brooks, qtd. in “What’s The Key To A Meaningful Life? You Might Not Like The Answer.” [February 4, 2019].

[9]The honest admission of the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. (HarperPerennial Classics, New York, NY. 2013.)

[10]Brené Brown makes it clear that guilthas to do with remorse for what we’ve done, but shame is connected to our sense of identity. In other words, guilt says, “what I’ve done is bad” while shame says, “I am bad.” See “Shame v Guilt” at[August 5, 2019]

[11]The Wrestler. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Dir. by Darren Aronofsky. 2008.

[12]In future essays I will explore how the value of stability and security forms the basis of the conservative archetype.

[13]Tim Keller points out that idolatry is always taking a good thing—like money or sex—and making it into an “ultimate thing,” which it was never meant to be.  See Counterfeit Gods:The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Mattersby Timothy Keller. Viking Press, New York, NY. 2009.

[14]It should be noted, of course, that often beneath the mask of respectability found in Stage 2 is very often found a hidden chaos. The Southern States, which are also the most professedly Christian/religious states, also report the highest incidence of pornography access.See “America’s Bible Belt states indulge in more online porn than other less religious states” in Christianity Today.[8/1/19]

[15]After all, “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’[and] … ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

[16]“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” C.S. Lewis in The Four loves. HarperOne. 2017. Page 155.

[17]Mark 12:38, 40.

[18]Luke 10:25-37, paraphrased.

[19]For a warning against chaos, see John 8:11. 

[20]See Matthew 23.

[21]See, for example, Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes. 

[22]Ironically, though Jesus held the Scripture up as an authority as much as other first century Jews, he related to it differently and rejected the oral Law which had been constructed around it.

[23]See Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46.

[24]Studies have shown that prolonged cynicism affects brain function. See, for example, “Cynical? You may be hurting your brain health” in ScienceDaily.[August 1, 2019]

[25]As Luc Ferry writes, science has been overtaken by technology. Science was once held as hope for a new world whereas technology is simply about creation for consumption’s sake. See “From Science to Technology: The Disappearance of Ends and the Triumph of Means” in A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Harper Perennial. 2011. Page 211.

[26]Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books. New York, NY. 2005.

[27]See Matthew 16:24. NIV.

Transcending Rigidity: Four Stages of Spiritual Development, Part I

Brandon Cook

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.