Human beings are patterning creatures. It’s what we do. Put a group of homo sapiens in a new environment, and pretty soon we’re seeing shapes and groupings and inventing explanations for them.
In essence, that is what developmental stage theories are: descriptions of patterns. That is true of almost any psychological or sociological descriptor, like, say, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, which offers sixteen characteristic groupings of personality traits. But put a group of 21st century post-modern homo sapiens in a room with developmental stage theories and the MBTI, and some number of individuals will protest, “Labels! They’re merely labels! They objectify me! I hate being objectified!” It never fails.
And here I come, talking about stages and levels. Therefore, let me say in haste: I didn’t do it. I did not create patterns of human behavior—though I do believe they are a dandy invention—and I do not even begin to suggest that these patterns constitute labels or that they force people into immobility in concrete boxes with no individuality or creativity or personal expression. Should you choose to use them that way, it’s on you. The fact is, patterns do exist, and as long as we give them flexibility and room to breathe, they create a wonderfully efficient way of making sense of the world and understanding ourselves and the people we live with.
In the previous post (“Hunting Sasquatch”), I observed that it is typically life’s conflicts that pull us toward wholeness. And, because that does not happen all at once, “the pull toward our wholeness” is developmental. The remainder of the post described six developmental stages common to a Western individual’s life span of faith, whether religious or secular (think Marxism, capitalism, scientism, socialism). The stages are:
- Stages 0-1: infancy, soaking in family and cultural customs, taboos, stories
- Stage 2: strongly literal; external authority; black or white/in or out; anthropomorphic; unquestioned sources; self-interested
- Stage 3: external authority; group perspective, conformist; generally unexamined beliefs; only one theological/ideological box; different outlook=different ‘kind’ of person; most common adult stage
- Stage 4: beginning of self-authority; questioning, demythologizing, translating symbols into their denotative meanings; prizes rationality; sees value in other beliefs; seen from stages 2-3, looks like falling from faith, abandoning the ideology; many adults never reach this stage
- Stage 5: sees through the stories and symbols to underlying truths, “the second naïveté”; metaphoric; out of the theological/ideological box; looks for the good of all rather than individual benefit; aware of paradox, transcendence
- Stage 6: universalizing; driven by a vision of justice, Kingdom of God/ideal society; often seen by the institutional power structure as subversive; the territory of saints and martyrs
And so it is that when I read, “ Do near-death experiences fall under the category of man trusting in himself instead of God? Yes! Why? Because near-death experiences contradict Scripture,” I can be certain that the writer, still at the literal level, is functioning at one of the least nuanced stages of understanding faith. In responding, because I recognize that pattern of thinking, it will be possible for me to acknowledge that this person needs the rigid but secure structure of an external and approved authority, and that only a voice from Scripture will be considered valid. It is inevitable that a discussion based on our personal views will not satisfy either of us. If I am able to reply with something scriptural, we may have something to say to each other.
From a militantly atheistic faith stance but the same level of inflexibility, there is this: “Why would we care about a perspective that is based on false assumptions? I do feel justified on placing judgments on people who believe things which are unsupported by evidence… I actually expect them to recognize that their beliefs are unsupported by the evidence and that they should recognize them as silly.” Blind faith here.
A person from either of those backgrounds will have a painful time coming to terms with a powerful near-death experience. If the NDE is positive and highly detailed, it will blow the person’s worldview apart, as near-death experiences are universalizing, not doctrinal, whether religious or secular. If the NDE is distressing, the religious person’s literal worldview may survive, but there will be years of agonizing about the prospect of hell; the atheist, who has no context or vocabulary for such an event, will either scramble to piece together a new (often extreme) worldview or is likely to believe the experience was a psychotic episode.
Few people have anyone to point them to developmental stages as an instrument for understanding how these kinds of changes work. As a result, whether the individual is an average agnostic or “none,” or an ordinary Methodist or Muslim tormented by a shift from doctrinal faith into the questionings of stage 4, or a bewildered near-death experiencer trying to understand why he believes he has suddenly and unwillingly become an atheist, people are left on their own to figure things out.
A few years ago, 25 near-death experiencers participated in a retreat sponsored by the International Association for Near-Death Studies, the first such event exclusively for experiencers. All but two had had a highly positive NDE. For three days the group discussed the challenges they had faced since their NDE, resulting in an article on their conclusions in the Journal of Near-Death Studies*. The report indicated decisively that on almost every line of development, the NDE had catapulted them precipitously from a conventional position and set of values into an abrupt and often uncomfortable new stage.
Every one of the retreat respondents reported feeling changed by the NDE: “I was in tremendous pain over the reality of restructuring my life.” “I had to put the pieces of my life back together in a new way.”
Keep in mind that the most common adult stage level is 3, with stage 2 next in frequency. The universal message of the positive near-death experiences centered on the importance of unconditional love and how we treat each other—values belonging to stages 5 and 6. For the retreat experiencers, the result of the new outlooks was friction in almost all important areas of their lives: relationships, careers, money, religion. Views towards social issues underwent major upheaval: attitudes towards violence, prejudice, disease, poverty, or justice. Changes in political or social views could bring additional tensions to relationships with friends and family.
Seventeen retreat participants had divorced since the NDE, thirteen of them saying their divorce was due in part to incompatibility over their changed values. “I wouldn’t react the same; money no longer mattered,” “My unconditional love for others was misinterpreted,” “My attitudes and values all changed,” “A position of power no longer meant anything to me,” “I saw how my job was irrelevant,” “I could no longer tolerate the avarice and greed.”
Some participants came from places of worship in which they felt affirmed and were more spiritually nourished than ever before. Of those from more restrictive religious settings (stages 2-4), 78 percent had changed their views and no longer held to conventional teachings of heaven, hell, God, evil, or sin. Such a radical change in spiritual and religious views often left them alienated from family, friends, and their traditional religious community.
Most had changed careers. Of all the retreat respondents, 70 percent were active in some type of healing work, with nine of these working fulltime as physicians, ministers, therapists, self-help writers, counselors, or related professionals. Five were involved in building or working in mind/body/spirit centers. Here, too, these service-oriented occupations reflect the post-conventional interests of stages 5 and 6.
It was not only distressing NDEs but even the most glorious which left experiencers “retreated into isolation and depression, feeling as if they no longer fit in, like strangers in an alien world where few people understood or believed them.” Clearly, in the absence of a more gradual developmental gradient, the explosive nature of an NDE can produce cataclysmic social and personal trauma.
For those who would romanticize movement into the more highly nuanced stages of the post-conventional level, this may serve as a cautionary tale. Be warned: As the stage development literature says, the often isolated individual at level 5 “lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties.” And at stage 6, it is often these radically actualized people, the “subversives,” who are done away with in the name of conformity and, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have Mondays named after them.
* Stout, Y., Jaquin, L., Atwater, P.M.H. (2006). Six major challenges faced by near-death experiencers,. Journal of Near-Death Studies 25:1, Fall 2006, 49-62.