The Stages of Spiritual Development

Barbara Hebert – USA

Theosophy BH 2

In order to help us understand ourselves as human beings, a number of theories regarding growth and development have been formulated. Many of these are called stage theories because they discuss the development of individuals as they pass through various stages. Some of the better-known stage theories include Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development; Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development; and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. These theorists imply that the stages are linear – passed through once and left behind forever – but this is not necessarily accurate. Individuals may vacillate between stages, given different circumstances in life. Some may skip a stage altogether.

In 1981, James Fowler published Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. Fowler’s work, often considered to be groundbreaking, describes six stages of faith. Basing his model on the theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, Fowler describes the stages through which individuals pass as their faith matures.

In his 1987 book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, M. Scott Peck discusses four stages of spiritual development. He bases his stages on the work of Fowler. As travelers on the spiritual path, we may find it helpful to use the stages described by both Fowler and Peck to reflect on ourselves and our relationship to the Ancient Wisdom as represented by the Theosophical Society.

Fowler differentiates between religion and faith, indicating that faith is part of humanity’s effort to find meaning and purpose in life. Unlike religion, which is essentially part of a social structure[r1] , faith, according to Fowler, is universal. The preliminary stage (pre-stage) of Fowler’s theory focuses on the earliest portion of life, including the time spent in utero and infancy (from before birth approximately through age two). He describes it as a time of faith development based on trust in the environment and in the initial steps of separation from primary caregivers. If the infant’s needs are met by its caregivers, and it experiences trust and security, especially in regard to differentiation and separation, then it successfully negotiates this stage, providing a stable base from which faith will continue to develop.

The first of Fowler’s stages of faith development focuses on the beliefs of pre-school-age children (approximately from ages two to six or seven). He calls this the Intuitive-Projective stage, and it is based on the child’s ordering of his or her experiences through both emotion and perceptions. Children at this age are very egocentric, creating meaning from their experiences based on their own perceptions, regardless of the reality of the situation. For example, a child may get scratched by her cat and become angry with it. If the cat dies shortly afterward, the child may believe that she caused its death through her own anger.

At this stage children gain their perspectives on God, the afterlife, and similar matters from their caregivers and the world around them. Many children at this age tend to perceive God as somewhat ambiguous and hazily “magical.” (We are not taking into account here the children who remain in touch with the unseen world and have a more accurate understanding of Reality.)

School-age and preteen children typically move into the second of Fowler’s stages: the Mythic-Literal. During these years, children begin to understand causality, to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and to become wonderful storytellers. Furthermore, according to Piaget, at these ages children perceive the world in a very concrete and literal manner. From a moral point of view, according to Kohlberg, they focus on a strict sense of fairness, of right versus wrong. Egocentricity continues to characterize children at this age. Because of these parameters, children in the Mythic-Literal Stage are predisposed to believing the stories told to them by their faith communities in a very literal manner. They tend to see God as an anthropomorphic deity: strict, strong, and just. According to Fowler, some individuals remain in this stage throughout their lives.

As children develop into adolescents, they move into the Synthetic-Conventional stage. Egocentricity continues, but it is now coupled with the ability to think abstractly as well as concretely and to evaluate various concepts that are presented to them. At the same time interest focuses on others. The adolescent adopts a social stance, realizing that others have their own perspectives – feelings, thoughts, desires, motivations, and intentions. Teenagers begin to develop their individuality, especially in relation to values, relationships, and commitments. They develop a faith based on beliefs and values, but they have not actively reflected on the meaning of this faith. An individual may even proclaim a faith based on her beliefs and values as opposed to those of the family (even if her faith is essentially the same as that of the family), but has not really analyzed those beliefs.

One important aspect of this stage, according to Fowler, is the need for a religious authority figure. For younger adolescents, that authority may be a parent or some other important adult, while for older adolescents and adults, this figure may be a friend or someone from the religious community. In any event, this figure exists outside of the individual, and the individual looks to that figure for guidance. Again, Fowler contends that many adults never move out of this stage of faith development.

The next stage is that of the Individuative-Reflective stage. As young adults begin to undergo a variety of experiences, they may begin to reflect on their faith, seriously examining their beliefs, including their dependence on authority figures for guidance. This reflection typically happens when dissonance occurs within the person. His faith is no longer able to provide meaning for his life experience, and thus he begins to question and analyze. Although this reflection generally happens in young adulthood (the twenties), it can happen at any point in life.

The fifth stage, as identified by Fowler, is that of Conjunctive Faith stage. During this stage (which usually occurs in middle age), individuals are capable of analyzing other belief systems and using that analysis to either amend or support their own beliefs. Individuals are now able to merge seemingly disparate concepts, as well as to recognize and accept that paradoxes exist, without feeling that their own belief systems are in jeopardy. They also recognize that there are a number of different pathways to truth. Indeed they may realize that learning about the belief systems of others may deepen their own.

Fowler contends that few people reach the final stage of faith development, Universalizing Faith. At this point, individuals focus on serving others with little doubt or concern for self. Individuals at this stage “sacrifice the self to risk the partial justice of the present order for the sake of a more inclusive justice and the realization of love” (Fowler, 1981, 200). Fowler identifies individuals such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as persons who have reached this final stage.

Thus Fowler identifies one pre-stage and six stages of faith development ranging from pre-birth through middle age. He suggests that at each stage, faith development is based both on cognitive abilities (as theorized by Piaget) and moral development (as theorized by Kohlberg).

Fowler’s work provides the basis upon which M. Scott Peck set forth his perspectives on spiritual development in The Different Drum. Peck identifies four stages of spiritual development as opposed to Fowler’s six (see table).

Peck calls the first of his stages the Chaotic-Antisocial. Individuals in this stage are typically egocentric. While they may espouse loving and caring for others, they are primarily concerned about themselves – their own wants and needs – and can be manipulative and self-serving in acquiring what they want. They essentially have no principles strong enough to override their own selfish desires and thus have no integrity.

In an effort to move away from the chaos of the first stage, Peck speculates that some individuals move on to a second, Formal-Institutional stage. Here they become affiliated with some type of institution that provides security and stability. This stage is marked by a focus on rules, which also provide security and stability; thus individuals at this level may be perceived as dogmatic and legalistic in their beliefs. Because security and stability within the institution are of paramount importance, any change in the form of or any challenge to the beliefs can cause tremendous upset and feelings of threat. According to Peck, the majority of churchgoers and believers can be found in this stage. They are likely to perceive God as an external, transcendent being who is both loving and punitive. Peck points out that stage two individuals can be found in every ideology.

Stages of faith of faith development




 Pre-stage (before birth up to age 2)


 Intuitive-Protective (ages 2 through 7)


 Egocentric and Concrete

 Mythic-Literal (ages 6 or 7 to puberty)


 Egocentric and Concrete

 Synthetic-Conventional (adolescence)


 Hang On to My Security

 Individuative-Reflective (young adulthood)



Conjunctive (middle age)



 Universalizing (late adulthood)



Individuals in Peck’s third stage, the Skeptic-Individual, tend to be perceived or identify as nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, or as scientifically minded individuals who want researched and logical explanations for the meaning of life. These individuals do not need the structure of an institution and thus feel free to question their beliefs. Many people in this stage are actively seeking answers to the meaning of life. They also focus on social justice and work for social reform.

Those who continue to seek may find themselves in the final stage of Peck’s theory, the Mystical-Communal. Here individuals focus on community rather than individualism. They remain aware of the value inherent in the previous two stages and are nonjudgmental in their perspective about those stages. They focus on unity rather than on separateness. They accept the lack of definitive answers and look to the mystery of the universe as part of the spiritual process, willing to live in the unknown, searching for the unknowable.

Peck’s stages of spiritual development thus move from a chaotic and egocentric stage through conformity, questioning, and into a focus on community and unity within the beauty of the universe.

Using the theories of both Peck and Fowler, we can reflect upon our own spiritual development in light of the Ancient Wisdom as embodied by the Theosophical Society. Some of us may quickly review these stages and determine that we are definitely in the final stage of both theories. After all, we serve others (Fowler’s sixth stage) and we believe in community and unity (Peck’s fourth stage). But as seekers on the Path, it is essential that we critically examine our beliefs without attachment or bias. Self-awareness through continuous self-reflection (questioning ourselves, our beliefs, our thoughts, our actions) is essential if we are to continue this journey.

In reviewing Fowler’s first and second stages, equivalent to Peck’s first stage, we may call this the Egocentric and Concrete period of spiritual development. To determine if we remain in or briefly return to this period, we can ask ourselves: Is my belief system literal? Am I primarily focused on my own needs and wants? Do I pretend to care about others but only to get what I want? We can also ask more specifically about the body of beliefs that exist within the Theosophical Society. We may wish to reflect on the following beliefs: If someone hits me in this lifetime, then in the next lifetime he or she will get hit. Without a doubt, the Mahatmas live in the Himalaya mountains. If I’m good enough, maybe one day the Mahatma will visit me or send me a message.

Whether or not these thoughts accurately reflect reality, how immersed are we in believing them to be the absolute truth? While there may be times when many of us might answer “yes” to some of these questions, it is probable that overall we are not primarily centered in this stage.

Fowler’s stage three and Peck’s stage two may be called the “Hang On to My Security” period. This level provides us with more information for analysis and self-reflection. At this point, individuals attach themselves more to institutional thinking, finding safety and security not only in the institution, but also in the beliefs it holds. This stage makes one think of the statement, “I’m not attached to anything in the physical world, but don’t interfere with my beliefs!” Are we attached to our beliefs? Are we attached to the form of the Theosophical Society? If so, we may find ourselves in the “Hang On to My Security” period.

The following questions may help determine whether we reside primarily in this stage: How do I respond when someone questions my beliefs: With defensiveness? With understanding? With annoyance? How do I feel when I think about the structure of the Theosophical Society and any changes that might be made? What is my gut response when I have the thought that one day the Theosophical Society might not exist? Does that response change if I think it may happen within my current lifetime? How do I feel when someone says something negative about one of the Society’s leaders, for example by dismissing the writings of Leadbeater or Besant or focusing on the more human aspects of Blavatsky’s personality?

It quickly becomes clear that the more attached we are, the more we hang on, to the security of Theosophical beliefs and the Theosophical Society, the more likely we are to find ourselves in this stage.

The fourth and fifth stages as delineated by Fowler, and the third stage as described by Peck, may be termed the “Questioning” period. In order to grow, we must question. We must question our beliefs, looking at them analytically and reflectively. We must determine what is true for us at this particular point in our lives. If our belief systems remain the same now as they were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, then perhaps we have not reexamined those beliefs. But as Theosophists, we are encouraged in the Second Object of the Theosophical Society to study and in the Third Object to explore. If our beliefs have not expanded, grown, matured, then perhaps it is time to study and explore.

Some self-reflective questions here might include: How have my beliefs changed since I first came into contact with the Theosophical Society? What caused that change? If nothing has changed, am I holding on to my beliefs because I need the security?

The last of Fowler’s and Peck’s stages might be called the Unity period. As we allow ourselves to grow spiritually and to deepen our faith through questioning in the previous stage, we may move into a recognition of the unity of all beings and find ourselves comfortable with the paradox of separation of individuals within the unity of the All. We find ourselves actively working to achieve the First Object of the Theosophical Society: the oneness of all life. We work for social reform and social justice in the physical world, recognizing that what happens to one individual happens to all.

The knowledge incorporated into Fowler’s and Peck’s stages provide a groundwork from which we, as seekers on the path of Divine Wisdom, can assess ourselves. Using this information, we can actively reflect on our beliefs, our attachment to our beliefs, and our willingness to question them and the structure through which they emanate. Most importantly, we can use this information to move forward on the Path so that we may truly recognize the unity of all life and work for the good of humanity as a whole.


McDevitt, T.M., and J.E. Ormrod. Child Development: Educating and Working with Children and Adolescents. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall, 2004.

Fowler, J.W. Faith Development and Pastoral Care. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.

Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: Harper Collins, 1981.

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

[This article was previously published in Quest magazine, fall 2016]

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