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Can We Measure Our Growth by Stages?

February 14, 2013
"The mother"

“The mother” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you have kids or remember when you were one? Kids are obsessed with measuring their growth (maybe because parents are?).  They are eager to move up in the world, literally.  Does that end once physical growth stops?

Sadly, some people do stop thinking in terms of their growth except as it relates to occupational skills or promotions perhaps.  But I think most people are quite aware of their need for ongoing growth throughout life.  Are there, then, some meaningful markers to see how we are doing? Can such markers be used by scholars or “people helpers” who want to size up anyone from individuals to entire societies in terms of development? 

I’ll give a resounding “Yes” and “Yes”! There are some markers and these can be used by others to assess and guide us individually or communally.  Anyone who has studied child or adult development is aware of at least one or two of the “stage theories” which contain such markers and descriptions of what various stages are like.

This past Saturday I gave a seminar based on a few concepts from my book, “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey” (available via the link above).  The focus was stages and issues in spiritual growth.  Besides comparing spirituality with religion, we mostly discussed how most of us have moved from one stage to another, from one place of affiliation to another, and sometimes “back” (but not in the same way of thinking and being).

I had created a relatively simple chart showing some stages of development in different but related lines of our individual and societal lives.   I hadn’t even thought about sharing it here but did after one participant suggested I put the flip-board chart onto “paper” (electronically).  I have found great interest in developmental stages from both a personal and academic point of view.  I realize not everyone values them similarly, but since I am on a mission of stimulating growth in others, for their betterment and society’s, I should indeed share my chart and some explanation of it.  

Before I do, I will note that the explanations I’ll include below the chart itself were written for the participants but mostly are not dependent on what we discussed there.  I do not give much explanation of the meanings of each stage individually.  For that, one can consult either a summary source such as an encyclopedia article, child/adolescent development book or works by the theorists themselves (some references are in my comments below).  My own book gives summaries of the spiritual (or faith) stages by James Fowler.

I will break those explanatory comments into two parts for posting here, to keep to reasonable length for each.  There is one further thing important to highlight: that stage “theories” are more than theory in certain senses.  The existence of certain neurological or learning “structures”, as they’ve been called, has been corroborated by the scholars cited and by many others, going back at least to the early days of psychology in the late 1800s.  That is, although exact descriptions and boundaries between stages seem fluid or escape the precision of a “hard” science, they are well enough established that it is beyond “theory” — there is something to them.  In some cases and to a fair degree  they are tied to brain maturation (especially up to adulthood), but I would suggest they also relate to “mind” or “spirit” maturation in ways that transcend the physical brain.

Not only is there something valid to stages, our familiarity with them is helpful in several ways.  They can be an encouragement and general “roadmap” for growth, an aid in making sense of our past (in which we may have done things we never would now, at a higher developmental level), etc.  For those in leadership positions I believe it is vital that we interact with some of the stage concepts and how to spot the issues they contain in people we serve.  If Ken Wilber is right, and I am convinced he is, then religious leaders have a special obligation and opportunity!

They can help raise their respective societies to  at least those levels which have outgrown the use of violence to try to preserve or enforce a particular view of God and moral life.  If you have a role in spiritual leadership, whether with family and friends or beyond, do you agree and have a sense that you make a difference in terms of this? 

Now, my chart with apologies to the original stage theorists for its partial nature and any inaccuracies in the approximate (only!) parallels it suggests:

Stages of Human Development

Societal / Personal          (Ken Wilber) Cognitive(Jean Piaget) Psycho-Social  (Erik Erikson) Spiritual(James Fowler)
Integral (Reflection on Abstraction) 16+ Generativity vs. Stagnation  25-65 Universalizing       Mature years
Postmodern Formal/Abstract Thinking   11-15 Identity vs.Role Confusion   12-20 Individuative – Reflective
Modern Concrete Thinking               7-11 Industry vs. Inferiority   6-11 Synthetic – Conventional
Pre-modern Pre/Early Concrete Thinking    Birth – 7 Initiative vs. Guilt                 3-6 Mythic – Literal Generally childhood

Special Notes and References:

The chart is merely a general comparison of some key stage descriptions of inter-related lines of our development, including the idea of societal or cultural development in the far-left column.  Each of the stage theories here has additional levels below, above or between ones listed.  Childhood is included mainly because its general parallels in psycho-social and spiritual areas are often where young or even older adults get and sometimes remain stuck.  (E.g., many religious believers stay in the lower two levels on the right, which involve limited abstract thinking, at least in consistent ways.)

Societal / Personal

 The name Ken Wilber is above the column mainly for his use of the term “Integral” for the higher stages above “postmodern”, both for societies and individuals.  The other “modern-oriented” terms are widely used.  “Modern” corresponds perhaps most closely with the rational-thinking focus of the Enlightenment and after, from about mid-1700s to mid 1900s.  Around the 1960s, “postmodern” became a label for the style of most academic and popular thinking which is even more critical of authority (of all types), suspicious of truth claims (especially “absolutes”).  It is at least theoretically “tolerant” or respecting of differing views.  Related to spirituality and developmental stages focused on our spiritual natures (but not from any particular religion’s viewpoint), Wilber’s key work is Integral Spirituality (2007).  Wilber is also the main current thinker who has analyzed and shown the correspondences and inter-relationships of the above stage theories and several more (he gives more categories both horizontally and vertically).  I consider this particularly helpful for both personal use and in understanding/helping others.  “Pre-modern” includes tribalism, magic, etc. but the shamanism of most indigenous cultures which were or are basically at this level also contains highly developed knowledge and skills often very effective and sometimes genuinely in touch with “high” spirituality, if not as widely “integral” as we now can be.


Swiss psychiatrist, Jean Piaget, is the “grandfather” of cognitive stage theory work.  My top category here is in ( ) because his highest named category is Formal (or abstract) Operations.  Here, as throughout the chart, ages are only approximations and vary individually.  Basically, abstract thinking ability emerges with brain maturation in early to mid teen years, and hopefully improves thereafter, by “exercise” and challenge, much like physical skills.  Wilber makes repeated emphasis that while cognitive advancement — more knowledge and analytic ability, etc., does not guarantee spiritual or other growth, it is generally necessary for reaching higher levels of moral reasoning, spirituality, etc.  If we cannot meaningfully interpret and put our experiences into some mental framework, they are likely to remain isolated and not integrated into our whole being, thus limiting us. (This doesn’t mean everyone must be a bookworm, but purposeful, either self-directed or mentored learning is important).  “Cognitive psychology” is broad, analyzes and emphasizes use of rational thinking in various ways, well beyond Piaget’s stage theory.

Psycho-social and Spiritual category comments and concluding comments to come tomorrow.  

But please comment now with any thoughts or questions that come to mind, or in reply to my question for spiritual leaders (of all levels) above.  Love to have your thoughts!   

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