It’s a lot like hunting Sasquatch, this intense business of parsing distressing near-death experiences. We’ve been covering a lot of ground, yet continually seeing the quarry lumbering off into denser woods just ahead. For a while in the previous post, ‘The Descent Experience,’ I was seeing flickers of comprehension and hints of correspondences (thank you, Sheila Joshi and Barbara Croner!); but then I lost the trail and have only now stumbled onto it again.
On my umpteenth reading of their essay, certain words jumped out from what they were saying about a fundamental pattern in our psychology:
“We are continually confronted with internal conflicts… Jung believed that these conflicts reflected not only influences from our childhoods, but also a teleological [purposeful] pull toward our wholeness.
“When faced with irreconcilable conflict between two needs, the human psyche is designed to create a transcendent third option that never existed before. This creative dynamic, repeated throughout life, leads to ever greater individuation and wholeness.”
In other words, it is the conflicts that pull us toward our wholeness. And those recurring conflicts happen over time. It is not all at once. The “pull toward our wholeness” is developmental.
It is the conflicts that pull us toward our wholeness
For some time now I have been wanting to talk about developmental stages because of their impact on our interpretation of NDEs. (Actually, our interpretation of life itself, but this is a blog, not a book.)
“Development” in this sense means the changes, typically age-related, that mark a human lifetime. We begin as infants and continue until our death to move through periods marked by recognizable, generally age-related behavior patterns and capacities. We are all familiar with the idea of physical development, but abundant research has revealed stages of cognitive, emotional, social, moral, and faith development also, that can be tracked throughout life.
The stages appear sequentially, always building on what went before. Their direction is toward expansion of boundaries, moving toward greater inclusiveness, not in straight lines but spiraling toward new levels that take in wider perspectives. And as with any hatching, the transition from one stage to the next is anticipated and accompanied by discomfort and the conflict mentioned by Jung.
Of all the developmental stage theorists, James Fowler may be the most pertinent for studies of near-death experience. A developmental psychologist, he wrote the iconic book Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Search for Meaning.
Stages of Faith
In Fowler’s terms, “Faith…is not necessarily religious, nor is it to be equated with belief. Rather, faith is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life. More verb that noun, faith is the dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life. It is thus universal: everyone who chooses to go on living operates by some basic faith.”
Over a lifetime of research, much of it at Emory University, Fowler identified six stages of faith, based on the sophistication of one’s understanding of symbolism and perception of authority. All six stages refer to the cognitive processing of symbols and myths, not to the content or specific beliefs of a faith, whether religious or secular.
Stage 0 Undifferentiated faith. Arrival platform. Infancy – age 2. Soaking in the environment: what is it like in this place?
Stage I Intuitive-Projective faith. Preparation. Age 3 – 7. Language development, awareness of self as separate; egocentric. Family’s cultural stories, images, customs, and taboos form a background for future consciousness and faith. Strongly imaginative, mixing fantasy and reality; play-acting; logic is rudimentary. Morality based on obedience, fear of punishment.
Trigger of transition to next stage: emergence of concrete operational thinking
Stage 2 Mythic-Literal faith. Accepting the box. Elementary-middle school, although some adults remain here throughout life. Acceptance of whatever authority says; understand the stories told them by their community in very literal ways. Cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. Inability to step back from stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings; only literal level exists. Black or white, you’re in or you’re out. Morality based on reciprocity (eye for an eye): “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” “I do what God wants, so God will be good to me.”
Triggers for transition to Stage 3 include conflicts and contradictions in authoritative stories, leading to reflection on meanings (realness of Tooth Fairy, Genesis creation versus evolution); breakdown of literalism; disillusionment with teachers and teachings.
Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith. Blind faith; inside the box. Begins late middle school and adolescence, but is the most common adult stage. Interpersonal and conformist. Authority is external, residing in traditional authority roles (if perceived as personally worthy) or in the group. A stage 3 individual lives inside an ideological box of deeply felt values and beliefs, but is unaware that there is a box. Group’s perspective is taken for granted. Differences of outlook with others are experienced as differences in “kind” of person. Symbols are tied to meanings: jewelry with an astrological sign carries the power of evil supernatural forces; casual treatment of a revered symbol is blasphemy toward what the symbol represents: e.g., the flag.
Triggers to transition may include: serious clashes with authority sources and interpretations; questioning policies or practices previously considered unbreachable; leaving home, or otherwise encountering differing perspectives that lead to reflection on how beliefs and values are relative to a particular group or background.
Stage 4 Individuative-Reflective faith. Questioning the box, demythologizing. Commonly young adulthood, but many adults never move to this stage. Assuming responsibility and authority for oneself rather than through the group. Beginning recognition of living in a box, and that there are other boxes outside it. Law and order orientation, emphasis on rules and duties, logic, rationality. The questioning and demythologizing stage; sees contradictions, challenges previous interpretations of beliefs, translates symbols into conceptual meanings (flattening connotations into denotations). Viewed from stages 2 or 3, Stage 4 people seem to be backsliding, losing faith, when they are actually moving ahead.
Triggers to transition to next level: What may feel like anarchic inner voices or heresies disrupting the ‘law and order’ of Stage 4 conceptions; disillusionment with logical compromises; recognition that life is more complex than can be comprehended by clear distinctions and abstract concepts.
Stage 5 Conjunctive faith. Out of the box. Unusual before midlife. Complex, non-literal understanding of truths conveyed by stories, myths, and symbols; openness to wisdom from diverse traditions. Sees reliance on logic and ideological consistency as limiting. Return to myths and sacred stories, but without being stuck in a theological box. Symbols now understood for their underlying power rather than surface literalism: “the second naïveté.” Tolerant of ambiguity, paradox, recognition of truth as partial. Social contract orientation, looking to the good of all. Often mystical, living with a constant awareness of the transcendent. Stage 5 “lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties” (Fowler).
Stage 6 Universalizing faith is exceedingly rare. Beyond the box. The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us: Jesus, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. The element that stage 6 persons have in common is that they are driven by a vision of justice for all humanity so compelling that it supersedes normal boundaries.
“Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance, and frequently die at the hands of those whom they try to change. They are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives. The essential difference between stage 6 and stage 5 is that the commitment to one’s vision becomes complete.”
Next time: How this all relates to NDEs, especially the distressing ones. In the interim, you might like to take a look at two really useful charts summarizing two strands of developmental stage theory.