Some great work has been done across the decades on stages of “moral development,” demonstrating the areas where people can become “stuck” and never reach the full maturity or consciousness that enables them to function in a healthy manner or tap into their greatest potential. I was reflecting on this today during an early morning walk in the 20-something-degree weather, and quickly caught a vision of three distinct stages, or “levels,” of spiritual development that have recently become pronounced in my life and detected through my studies.
Like the stages of moral development, I believe that a person's potential and fulfillment become limited if they remain immersed in one of the first two levels. This is not a judgment or condemnation of anyone who happens to occupy the first or second spiritual development level at the moment, but more of an observation of my own spiritual journey supplemented by the insights of a diverse field of writers. And while not judging you, I will challenge you at the end of this entry to ask some tough questions.
The three levels, I believe, are best expressed as Indifference, Identification, and Integration. Please allow me to unpack them.
This is the phase where an informed spirituality has not taken root in our lives. We might have a degree of spiritual awareness, hunger or education, but religious principles have not become significant enough to overtly alter our worldview or provide guidance to our behavior. We have not yet “converted” or intellectually assented to a specific belief system. The “indifference” is not typically hostile, but more characterized by the distractions and disunity of life's many competing demands, ideas and temptations—to the point where a specific spiritual framework for making choices remains embryonic. Some in this space might also identify themselves as agnostic or atheistic, and among this number a portion will have already traveled to the next level and then moved back into the level one space.
A person has reached this level when they have earnestly embraced a particular faith community and set of theological principles, metaphors and stories. This is the dynamic defining a huge portion of the world's population in the present moment, the conventional paradigm within which the heartbeat of our largest faith groups and countless splinter faith communities are positioned. Life at this level often is characterized by a passionate certainty in the doctrine and practices unique to one's faith group, and flowing from this passion come innumerable good works, healings and positive influences. These are quite worthy of preserving and expanding.
Unfortunately, a great deal of divisiveness can hinder the spread of compassion and unity at this level as well. The degree of identification can become so acute that it becomes nearly impossible to contemplate the potential veracity of another faith group’s point of view. This dogmatism is peculiar to the past few hundred years, riding the continuous demand for certainty and evidence unleashed by the Age of Reason (otherwise known as modernism).
The rarest level is ascended to by a person who has transitioned beyond his identification with a particular faith group; not by rejecting it but rather through seeing it as a vehicle through which a greater connection with the transcendent becomes joyfully possible. Common threads that unite all of the great world religions become more readily discerned; and the more one studies these other faith perspectives and has dialogue with their practitioners, the tighter and ubiquitous the threads become. Compassion truly replaces judgment, and creative brainstorms of collaborative opportunities toward solving complex human needs more easily take place.
This is not a popular or respected level in the eyes of many who are at the Identification stage. The person who is integrating his or her spirituality is necessarily failing to earnestly promote any one specific world view, denomination or brand as “superior” to all others—and therefore poses economic and status threats. He also troubles the hearts and minds of well-intentioned Identification members, because he or she is viewed as having either rejected their faith or been misled or turned to “evil.” Ultimately, some pronounced or unspoken fear of loss makes the level three person a threat to those entrenched at level two. Level one’s response to level three is more casual, usually dismissing those who have found Integration as quirky or weird and sometimes embracing them as cool or interesting.
It can be lonely at this level, wondering why others will not expand their vision and see the greater possibilities for spiritual peace and impact without having to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Denominations could be transformed, re-energized and grow more sustainable in a win-win dynamic that benefits all communities of faith, the person at Integration observes. We would need fewer government programs because the Integrated spiritual communities would be far more pro-active in addressing human needs of crime, poverty, ignorance, abuse, and so forth. But just as the peak of Maslow's Hierarchy is less populated than its valley of the basic needs, the most fulfilling spiritual level often is chosen by the fewest number of sojourners.
For those, however, who truly want to continue to grow in their spirituality in a manner that fully manifests the presence of God across the earth, an openness to ascending toward this third level already is at work inside. Level one's indifference will always leave a sense of dissatisfaction and veiled purpose in the hearts of those who remain stuck, and this restlessness is worth exploring. Level two's spiritual ghettos impact the world in a series of vacuums that often fail to synergize with one another, limiting their potential for transformative works of compassion; and its most ardent practitioners generate conflict sometimes as much as they promote peace in striving to imitate role models such as Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.
I challenge the reader, then, to take an honest assessment of what spiritual level best characterizes you right now—and ask the tough questions that explore the reasons for staying put at one of the first two levels.
Nothing is lost and so much is gained by daring to segue into the third level. During the past few years, as my reading, reflection and practice have taken me to this once-forbidden place, I have become more in awe of God than ever before. This is the pinnacle of a life with God, the full manifestation of the Christ within, the deeper surrender to the Buddha nature. This level knows no ceiling, for the divine ultimately is beyond boundaries, language and definition.